The year was 1996. The Atlanta Olympics were on the horizon, and the braintrust at Coca-Cola were searching for that special sound that would say to Americans: "I'm so glad the Olympics are back and I sure could go for a Coke." Is it any wonder they turned to Yo La Tengo?
They asked to license one of our songs. Don't bother writing to ask which one; we won't answer, and if we do answer we will lie. As we have in so many other instances, we looked to the career of Barry Manillow for guidance. Did Barry get to the top by licensing "Mandy"? He did not. Instead, he composed "Just like a good neighbor, State Farm is there." No, Mr. Coca-Cola, we replied. We will not license one of our songs for your commercial, but instead we will write you your very own jingle. Much to our surprise, they said yes.
And with that we took our place in rock history next to Lulu and Tom Jones, beside Gary Lewis and the Playboys and the Left Banke, shoulder to shoulder with the Supremes and Los Bravos (whose Coke commercial is arguably even better than "Black Is Black").
We spent an afternoon in New York's RPM studio, James. Georgia, me and some suits. There was some concern voiced when the beginning of our composition was deemed "too sad." I made matters worse by pointing out that that section was in 3/4 time. That's the problem! was the response. You must change it out of 3/4 time. But we stood our ground. How, I no longer recall. Did someone suggest that the American team, however talented, was unlikely to win every single gold medal at the Olympics, and perhaps our jingle might remind people that, though sad not to take home first place in the Women's Kayak Slalom Singles, one might still reach for a Coca-Cola as if to say, "Good try, Dana Chladek." As I said, I don't remember.
(But the victory did not come without consequences. It would be six years before we yet again endeavored to switch from 3/4 time to 4/4 in the same song.)
Our commercial ran a few times. It was no Wassup. There was another ad in the same campaign with music remarkably similar to ours. The telltale indicator was the other commercial had this mega drum fill that led into the big finish. An odd way to salute the USA's victory over South Korea in Team Archery, if you ask me, but in the end not our decision to make.
Photo by David Doernberg, Scott Zwiezen, and Damon Chessé