Levi's two recent ads featuring the reading of Walt Whitman poems have held me in rapt attention each time I've experienced them this fall. They're different, they're memorable, and they're beautiful.
The first, Go Forth, struck me when I recognized iconic images from here in post-Katrina New Orleans woven into the raw, almost post-apocalyptic footage. I've seen young black boys racing carriage horses through blighted neighborhoods, just like the ones that gallop in the video with the blue bridge winding off in the background. And the hairs on the back of my neck stood up at not just the riveting fireworks shots, but also the snippets filmed along the gritty water's edge out on Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans...at the ruins of Little Woods, the place I call Tetanus Beach (I think the half-submerged AMERICA sign was filmed there, as were the people walking along the water, and the man standing on the silhouetted cross-bar).
I didn't see the second spot, O Pioneers!, until recently. It features images not nearly as strong as those in the first spot (a little racier, perhaps), but the voice reading Whitman's poem by the same name brings an overpowering, eerie solemnity to the words that at first seem ironic, almost cynical in their distance from today. But as the voice continues in its vacant earnestness, sounding like an old-time steel-rimmed glasses radio voice, I almost feel as if he means it (he channels Whitman well). No matter how commercial and contrived the Levi's ad, it's undeniable that Levi's and blue jeans came from a flintier time, a deeper connection with the American psyche. The voice and words make one feel, in a sort of deep and serious way that harkens back to our actual past as Americans, that it's time to call upon our lifeblood amidst the ruins and recession and start relying on that more primal spirit again no matter what our starting point or present station.
Some may find the use of Whitman in a jeans commercial a crass and tasteless act. In this instance, I think it's fantastic. Whitman would probably savor every moment; he would distill himself into the very indigo and denim, into the creative, calculating, money-grubbing hands. As Seth Stevenson noted at Slate:
But were you forced to choose a clothing line for our favorite barbaric yawper to rep, you might choose this one. Levi's is the rare American brand that was actually around when Whitman was alive. And there's logic to this match between a quintessentially American poet and a quintessentially American product. Whitman's verse allows Levi's to evoke not only its proud history but a forward-looking present—the pioneering, American mindset that Whitman captured and that Levi's hopes to embody.
The ads are works of art. Bravo. I may have to go out and buy a pair of Levi's.