Walt Whitman, Jeans and the Ethos of Gen-Y

Every once in a while someone conceives of a commercial campaign that hits with the realness, poignancy and vision reminiscent of the Great American Novel (adapted of course for a commercially saturated generation with a 30 second attention span); a commercial which captures the frustrations and aspirations of its time and holds them to the light of the nation’s most cherished ideals.

In its summer campaign titled “Go Forth”, Levi’s achieved this in a poetically compelling and commercially brilliant way. The two commercials produced by Wieden+Kennedy (of Old Spice fame) are set to grainy 1890s recordings of Walt Whitman reciting two of his masterful odes to the intrepid American spirit, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” and “America”.

The first commercial opens with a young man standing in the wilderness at dusk, flaming torch in hand. As thunder rolls in the background, Whitman’s words, “Pioneers! O Pioneers! Come, my tan-faced children, Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,” sound like the rallying call of a generation and in every corner of the nation young people look up as if suddenly alert to the possibility and adventure in the world. Whitman’s recitation continues over images of young people gathering, suiting up in jeans, and preparing to emerge from concrete cities into nature, danger and the unknown.

The second commercial opens to a night scene, dimly lit by a flickering neon sign that reads “America”. The sign is crooked and half-submerged in water and the debris in the background suggest a city in decay. As flares explode over the sign, alluding to a certain poignant verse in the national anthem, Whitman begins, “America. Center of equal daughters, equal sons. All, all alike endear’d”. The images that follow – derelict apartment buildings, violent protest – tell of troubled times while others – young, vibrant, muscled people flexing, climbing, jumping, kissing – allude to an enduring strength and beauty in the American character.

The commercials tap deep into the consciousness of today’s youth – teens and twenty-somethings increasingly disillusioned with the world they are inheriting; they tell a story about corruption and decay, crisis and stagnation but also about great American ideals, how they endure and how they can be recaptured. “What happened to that pioneering American spirit?” the commercials seem to beg of the viewer. “What happened to that brazenness that looked west across America at danger and the unknown and saw opportunity?”

As much as I hate to see great American literature coopted to sell clothes, I have to hand it to Levi’s and W+K for feeling the pulse of a generation. What’s more, I really hope Gen Y can recapture some of these ideals, and more than just aesthetically. For the web piece of the Levi’s campaign, W+K invented the fictional character Grayson Ozias. At the risk of elevating a commercial gimmick to art, maybe there is something valuable we can take from him:

“I left my home and all I knew because I feared the complacency that was growing in me. I feared that I would be content to never experience anything of America beyond the city in which I was born. But after hearing Whitman, this complacency became unthinkable, and my comfort became my greatest burden.”

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  • http://twohourblog.com/ Paul MacPherson

    I find it an interesting that they use this poem written about the pioneers of the 1850tys to entice the Gen-Y of today to buy blue jeans

    “O you youths, Western youths,
    So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
    Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the foremost,
    Pioneers! O pioneers!”

    The poem is about a “life and times” that had the average life expectancy of 39 and middle age was 20 or 21. I don’t really know what I am trying to say here, just throwing out an observation to noodle on.

  • http://www.tariqwest.com/ Tariq West

    Haha, that is pretty ironic. The idea of the pioneer is definitely romanticized – I should probably put a caveat somewhere indicating that I'm talking about the lofty cultural ideal rather than the brutal reality. A random tangent: this reminds me of my pet peeve about the idealized representation of European aristocracy (in paintings and the like) up through the 18th century. They look so clean and pretty but they were definitely diseased and nasty. Thanks for commenting!

  • http://www.tariqwest.com/ Tariq West

    Updates by way of my good buddy Alex H.:

    Correction: the recording of Pioneers! O Pioneers” is not Whitman but rather a voice actor by the name of Will Greer. The full recording can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hWeTaL4ovI

    Extra: Great Slate article “Walt Whitman Thinks You Need New Jeans”
    http://www.slate.com/id/2233597/

  • Tanya

    I overcame my 30 sec attn span and read the whole thing. And watched the videos. I even clicked the links. Great post my dear.

    “this complacency became unthinkable, and my comfort became my greatest burden” — I feel that.

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