Air Jordan fans aside, for those of us on the Hill, the most interesting part of this ad is the music. The slow-motion screams of writhing fans and the languid leaps of players are all set to the voices of the St. Olaf Choir performing the Lacrimosa movement from Mozart's Requiem. The recording was made in the spring of 2004 with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and was conducted not by Anton Armstrong as the St. Olaf website suggests but by German conductor Andreas Delfs.
The ad itself is pure melodrama. Although it uses one of the most tragically beautiful movements ever written by Mozart incidentally the last notes he ever wrote it hardly takes itself seriously. Our first shot is of the home teams jumping cheerleaders. Clad in white, their cheers are directed at the scoreboard, which reads 62-61, home-visitor, with 3.7 seconds to go. The shot pans to the wild fans of the home team as they wave and shake their signs; the home team has possession we see excited players on the bench and a confidant coach. And then everything changes.
An opposing player emerges from the dark of the court. Clad in black, he steals the ball from the home team and, in a triumphant flourish, scores the winning basket. The faces of the home fans collapse in dismay, the coach falls to his knees, the players lay down on the court in disbelief.
The tragicomic action in the basketball gym could have easily been set to some pounding rap song or tortured rock anthem. Something modern, something the people buying Air Jordan's might recognize. And yet Nike chose a recording of Mozart, performed by the choir of a Lutheran liberal arts college.
In the words of Richard Erickson, co-manager of the St. Olaf Choir, whoever chose Lacrimosa to accompany this ad really knew what they were doing. The plaintive notes of the movement create a sense of tragedy in the moments before the fateful steal. As the demise of the home team becomes increasingly apparent, the rising voices of the St. Olaf choir bring a heightened sense of drama. And yet the contrast between this classical masterpiece and the action of a basketball game allows us a bit of humor in the incident. And here is where the true genius in the selection emerges: Lacrimosa is a funeral march. As James May, provost and dean of the college, pointed out, Whoever at Nike figured this out is quite clever, because the team in the commercial is dying when the last shot goes in.
The ad has received quite a bit of attention both in the press and on YouTube, where it has been posted for over a month. As of 3 p.m. on Sunday, it had received 77,910 views, 815 favorites and 256 comments. The comments have ranged from celebrations of its genius perfect music for the commercial, it is so dope to cries of outrage at the use of Mozart's last work for a shoe commercial. Whoever authorized the use of Lacrimosa in this commercial needs to be murdered. I just don't think Mozart should ever be equated with basketball shoes, said one irate viewer.
So, how did this bizarre alliance between Nike and St. Olaf Records even happen? Erickson explained that B.J. Johnson, manager of the St. Olaf Choir, received a call from the British distributor of the record about two weeks before the ad was due to air. The distributor acted as a middleman for negotiations between Nike and St. Olaf Records. After about a week of dialogue, an agreement was reached. As the recording was made with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the majority of the settlement will go to their players, with the remainder to St. Olaf Records.
Erickson describes the ad as a wonderful publicity opportunity for the College. Given the buzz generated on YouTube, as well as a mention in The New Yorker, this certainly seems to be the case.
Yet alumni reactions have been somewhat mixed. An alum who declined to be named questioned St. Olafs association with Nike, a company who has received relatively negative press in the last few years. It doesn't quite seem to go along with the mission of St. Olaf College, the alum said.
Perhaps this ad is one of those moments where we see the many faces of St. Olaf; although we strive to be a college of the church and an institution dedicated to focusing on what is ultimately worthwhile and fosters the development of the whole person in mind, body and spirit, there are moments when St. Olaf College is a business, like any other, and when a slick opportunity like a Nike ad comes along, we take it.