Personal is powerful

Is Tom Waits’ Jersey Girl a Christmas song? It should be easy to tell.

Does it mention Christmas? No.
Does it talk about snow, reindeer etc? No.
Anything about the Nativity, wise men, stables and so on? No.
Scumbags? Maggots? No.
Anything at all even vaguely to do with holiday season? Er, no.

So I must be wrong. Except, I’m not.

I bought Heartattack and Vine, the album the song is from, at Tower Records in Piccadilly in December 1999. Back then I was young, broke – but newly-employed on a hysterically low salary at a technical journal with an office on Carlton House Terrace – and living with my brother in a peculiar house at the Ravenscourt Park end of Goldhawk Road that had, until recently, been the very small office of some anti-vivisection charity.

I can’t remember much about the place except for the location, erstwhile purpose, and the mice (perhaps former committee members finding it hard to move on), but I know we were there for six months, across the winter, and if I think back it was always dark, wet, cold… And Christmas.

Every time I hear Jersey Girl, those are the memories that come flooding back. For me, the song is as much Christmas as the wonky, motley decorations that lasted unchanged through my childhood; the cartoon of I Saw Three Ships watched alone while everyone else slept, one unplaceably distant Christmas morning; or, indeed, The Pogues.

I’m sure this association, this merging of experiences and feelings from a particular time or place, is a simple science. Say I bring some work home (it happens), and end up writing it in front of a BBC4 documentary about a garibaldi biscuit factory, for evermore that work – the client, brand, item itself – will spontaneously conjure images of a bakery production line. I’ve somehow made it personal.

And there is power in the personal.

Take this block by LeBron James. Apparently an important moment in James’ career, it came accompanied by a piece of commentary (it’s at 23s) about him arriving ‘out of nowhere’. That description gave it a pithy significance, whether as judgement on the ground James makes up, surprise that he’s there at all (I don’t know, but this sort of defensive shizzle maybe isn’t strictly the remit of someone playing his position), or because James is known to be lazy (although I doubt that).

But it was still just commentary.

Now look at this Nike ad. Here, the same line becomes a command to ‘come out of nowhere’, to overcome the apparent barriers to your success, just as James did. That line could have just sat there, as commentary mostly does, but someone chose to claim it, recast it through a personal story (whether it’s true or not), and use it to fuel a classic piece of bombastic sportswear tubthumpery.

It’s connected directly to a key moment in the Nike man’s season, a moment their customers have seen and judged for themselves, and it’s powerful – because now it’s personal.


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