Dirty Vegas, the band that Mitsubishi made.

How popular culture gets popular.
Sept. 19 2002 11:29 AM

Dirty Vegas

The band that Mitsubishi made.

TV commercials have famously introduced a slew of obscure music artists to the mainstream public in the past couple of years. Volkswagen gave us Nick Drake, to take one often-mentioned example. Mitsubishi, though, has practically turned into an A&R scout. It brought early exposure to Groove Armada, and then turned an obscure, 2-year-old song called "Start the Commotion" into a minor radio hit. But Mitsubishi's most recent triumph pushes things to a new level: There's simply no way that Dirty Vegas would be an electronica success story if "Days Go By" hadn't found its way into Mitsubishi's rotation.

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And Dirty Vegas is definitely a success story: Its self-titled debut CD has already gone gold and is in its 13th week at No. 1 on the Billboard electronic albums chart, where it has consistently placed higher than the most recent and wildly hyped offering from Moby. A sticker slapped onto my copy of the CD reads, "Includes Days Go By … as featured in the Mitsubishi Eclipse Remix Commercial." (It's the ad, by the way, in which a young woman in goofy hat does a dance in the passenger seat as she and her companions tool through the city at night. You can see it, along with the Dirty Vegas song, at Ads.com.)

Dirty Vegas consists of three English guysPaul Harris, Steve Smith, and Ben Harriswho were basically house music fans and had been working on the periphery of the music business when they decided to record together. Paul Harris was a moderately successful DJ; Smith had a bit of experience playing in a band; Ben Harris (not related to Paul) was doing reasonably well as a producer. The first song they recorded was, in fact, "Days Go By," a mellow, hypnotic, and almost haunting piece of dance music with a minimal and electronically fiddled-with vocal track. An influential British radio DJ flogged the tune, which rose to No. 27 on the U.K. singles chart in 2001, and the band was quickly signed.

Of course, lots of stuff breaks big in Britain without making a dent here, and it's likely that, without the commercial, Dirty Vegas would have had a hard time finding its way onto American playlists. Radio here is famously cookie-cutter, and none of the most dominant formats that are repeated endlessly in every city in the country (adult contemporary, Top 40, modern rock, etc.) are a natural fit for "Days Go By" or almost anything else on the Billboard electronic chart. (Other artists in the Top 10 slots on this relatively new chart include DJ Sammy, the Happy Boys, and Amber.) This is too bad for the radio business, and too bad for us: Some of the most creative music being made today falls into a category that most programmers don't seem to be aware of.

Plenty of people complain about hipster music breaking in TV commercials, but what they ought to complain about is what an indictment this is of radioif that business were more adventurous, Dirty Vegas wouldn't have needed Mitsubishi, and record buyers wouldn't need commercials to find new music. But it isn't, so they did. Not that Dirty Vegas is complaining: Lately the band has played on Letterman and opened a series of live dates for Moby.

As for the group's future prospects, they're hard to gauge. Most of the rest of Dirty Vegas is far less distinct than "Days Go By." An energetic instrumental number called "Throwing Shapes" would probably sound good in a club but also verges on being generic. The most recent single, "Ghosts," is marked by traditional vocals, as is most of the album. Oddly enough, many of the cuts on the disk actually sound a little too radio-ready, a kind of lite version of electronic music that might actually fit right in on many adult contemporary stations. A "bonus track" version of "Days Go By" with untreated vocals ends up sounding like Crowded House. (You can hear clips from all these songs at MSN Music.)

In other words, even though Dirty Vegas' path to chart success was unusual, the band could still end up a one-hit wonder. Which might just go to show that there's a limit to how much the music-in-advertising trend will really affect the traditional process of breaking new artists. You can almost imagine a record company listening to some band's material and musing, "Well, the overall sound is OK, but I don't hear anything strong enough to make it in a commercial."

Rob Walker is a columnist for Yahoo Tech, a contributor to Design Observer and the New York Times, and the author of Buying In.

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