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Wherever I looked among the recent Best of '96 compilations, it seemed that Nissan's "Dream Garage" and Levi's "Pool Boy" were somewhere near the top of the heap. But for all the virtuosity in these spots, what we hear is no less striking than what we see.

That's because, in the face of a retro trend as seemingly stubborn as the bull market, here are two commercials that rely not on the pop music of the past but on the pop music of the moment. And not a moment too soon.

To the public, at least, "Dream Garage" (from TBWA Chiat/Day) has been somewhat overshadowed by "Toys," the Will Vinton tour de force choreographed to the Kinks' "You Really Got Me," an archetypal song of the '60s performed by Van Halen, an archetypal band of the '80s. But despite its Hall of Fame-bound successor in Nissan's "Enjoy the Ride" campaign, it is "Dream Garage" composer Danny Elfman (with sound design by Stephen Dewey at Machine Head)-not Ray Davies of the Kinks or Eddie Van Halen-who presents the more intriguing musical implications for the future.

Elfman's whimsical synthesis of a wild array of predecessors, from Tchaikovsky to Zappa to Phil Spector, has made him one of the most distinctive composers in Hollywood-and surely one of the most widely emulated in advertising. Indeed, at this point, Elfman is as much a genre as an individual. For "Dream Garage" and its sequels, copywriter Rob Siltanen and AD Joe Hemp went for the individual. And I, for one, have been enjoying the ride ever since.

Just as "Dream Garage" demonstrates that the best Elfman is composed by Elfman himself, so Levi's "Pool Boy" suggests that hip-hop is most effective as a commercial track when produced in its most authentic form by its most authentic practitioners. Like Soul II Soul.

FCB's paradoxical use of the oh-so-street S2S and their song "Zion" only enhances the opulence and, yes, whiteness of "Pool Boy" and its lifestyles-of-the-rich setting. But the song's powerful role in the spot is much more interesting than paradox alone. In fact, the themes of "Pool Boy" are identical to those of hip-hop itself: passion, money, jealousy, fear and escape. With Soul II Soul's ominous hip-hop foundations under surfer guitars and violin lines that owe as much to The Avengers or I Spy as anything else, the track leaves its audience with an inevitable question in the age of O.J.: are the heat and fury of the 'hood and the lust and suspicion of the Bel-Air rich so antithetical, after all? Watching "Pool Boy," I wonder. And so, presumably, do art director Steven Fong and writer Brian Bacino at FCB, who created the spot over so improbable a track. "Pool Boy" may look like a direct descendent of 007, but it sure doesn't sound like Goldfinger.

On the surface, hip-hop and Elfman wouldn't appear to have much in common-but they actually have a lot. More than anything, they're rare examples of music in the '90s that would qualify as truly new. And in the year of Alanis Morissette, both are decidedly, well, ironic, as are the two commercials that feature them.

For example, in "Dream Garage," a spot that uses old cars to market a hot new one, an aging Japanese "professor" becomes an unlikely symbol of cool, while composer Elfman, whose delicate orchestrations for Nissan are a far cry from Eddie Van Halen's power chords, remains firmly on the cusp himself.

Likewise, black rhythms against white mansions and lovers helped make a hit out of "Pool Boy"-a story, incidentally, about a rich and jealous white husband with murder on his mind.

Other recent spots from Levi's and Nissan feature hit songs from the '80s, '70s and '60s (respectively, "Tainted Love," "I Think I Love You," and, of course, "You Really Got Me"). But "Dream Garage" and "Pool Boy" stand apart and above by using music that's both popular and contemporary in the truest sense. They smash the notion that we rely so much on the music of the past because there just isn't enough to draw from in the present.

Sure, some folks will argue that there's no real difference between using a Soul II Soul or an Elfman

in a spot and using, say, Aretha or the Stones. Or that Elfman's track was composed specifically for "Dream Garage," while "Zion" appeared on a CD before it reappeared in "Pool Boy."

But in the end, distinctions like these don't really matter much. What does matter is that in a musical universe of too many facsimiles and far too few originals, a pair of creative teams chose to look to the future by underscoring their work with music that is as absolutely new and original as the spots themselves.

Rick Lyon is CD at New York's Rick Lyon Music. He invites your comments at

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