Friday, September 14, 2007

Commercial Compromises

by Michael Strenski

I sat here this morning watching the new Volvo commercial featuring a reworked version of "The Wheels on the Bus" written and performed by Mr Stephin Merritt, a huge hero of mine. At first blush I was absolutely appalled. How could a man of such genius sink so low? But soon I found myself thinking "you know this isn't half bad. The production sounds good, there is that trademark Merritt ukulele, I have good childhood memories of the song and the revamped lyrics, though about a sports-utility vehicle, are witty and playful. It's also way less offensive than the dog food commercial that used 'I Need A New Heart' in it..." I watched the video twice and then went about my day. But as time wore on, a little voice in my head starting nagging me. Was I really into the song or was I just making excuses because I think almost everything Stephin Merritt touches is gold?

A short ponder later and I realized that the voice in my head was my 16-year-old self fighting back. Ten years ago, if a hero of mine (let's say Odelay-era Beck or Sonic Youth) had done the same I would have been infinitely crushed and would probably never have been able to engage with their work the same way again. I always prided myself on my stubborn, bullheaded, punk rock morals when it came to selling out, and for most intents and purposes I believe I still adhere to those ideas today. I still hold people like Ian MacKaye in the highest regard when it comes to ethics. But then I started to think about all of the commercials many of my favorite artists have been involved in in recent years and all of the ways that I had explained it away in my head.

The band I most clearly associate with commercials is DEVO. One of my biggest influences in terms of intelligence, aesthetics and twisted visions, DEVO has been selling out since the '80's.

But of course I'd say to myself, that was the whole point of DEVO. The band always talked of being a subversive entity while bowing down to corporate coffers (Mark Mothersbaugh famously stated that when he was commissioned to write a jingle for Pepsi, he hid secret messages like "Sugar is bad for you" in them). DEVO always reveled in their selling out, just pointing to it as a sign of further De-evolution. They never pretended to have any sort of moral code. From Honda to laserdiscs to Dell adverts, DEVO always got a free pass in my book.

On the absolute other end of the spectrum was a man who stood for integrity from the outset of his career. But even Bob Dylan ended up using his face and song for product, famously appearing in a Victoria's Secret ad a few years ago.

Now this was different. This wasn't a post-punk art school band slyly winking to us through the gloss of corporate control. This was Dylan. And yet, I found myself excusing this too because I figured that Bob's given us so much by this point and hell, of all the ways to sell out he's in a panties ad! That's awesome! An interview was soon uncovered from the '60's when Bob was still being touted as the spokesman for his generation, where he flat-out said that if he were to use his likeness in a commercial venture it would be an underwear ad. He hadn't changed his tune at all! Okay, I said, no problem Bob.

And yet, I still make snide comments when an artist I don't like sells out. And what of the bands and artists who had no control of their work being used for nefarious purposes? What if John Lennon was alive and had still approved of Nike using "Revolution"? Would I blindly let that one pass? What if Jello Biafra still owned the rights to the Dead Kennedys songs he so justly deserves but still allowed their use in khaki ads? Would I just shrug and think about how he just needs to get paid like everybody else? In a day and age where Martin Scorsese and Larry David pose for credit cards and I actually read the accompanying survey for insight into their creative minds, should I just give in and kill the me of sixteen? Should I declare battle lines and be unforgiving towards my tarnished heroes? Should I continue to turn a blind eye when I deem it acceptable?

The biggest conundrum is when I not only excuse the work but actually enjoy it. A lot. Hell, I loved the Wu-Tang Clan's St. Ides jingle so much that I even downloaded it from Napster back in the day.

The White Stripes are the only big band around nowadays that I give one whit about. They have since day one posed as a model of integrity whilst releasing albums on major labels and appearing at ridiculous video award ceremonies, all of which don't mean a thing as long as the band ROCKS. And they do in spades. And I honestly believe that they are in this for the right reasons. But then Jack White did a Coke commercial. He explained himself very passionately by breaking down the differences between allowing an previously released song to a commercial and being commissioned to write one (the latter of which he did), plus, their absolute corporate evilness aside, Coca-Cola is the best tasting drink ever. I cringed and waited with baited breath. The song fucking rules. I can't help it, I love it. I want to own it.

The sixteen-year-old me is dead.


  1. You should check out Pennebaker's Dont Look Back if you haven't before. It includes the one thing that kinda sorta excuses the Bob Dylan Victoria's Secret interview. When asked back in 1965 whether or not he would ever do a commercial endorsement, he said only for women's undergarments.

  2. By "interview", I mean "advertisement." Arggh.

  3. "Don't Look Back" is amazing. I haven't seen it in years though and forgot that the aforementioned interview culls from that.

    I also wanted to mention that I name-dropped Sonic Youth and Beck as artists whose work would have been utterly tarnished for me had they made commercials a decade ago. Well, it's 02007 and Sonic Youth is putting out a greatest-hits album through Starbucks and Beck just totally sucks.

    So it goes.

  4. Great post. The question of selling out presents a lot to chew over. I do think there's a sliding scale, and some of your examples illustrate that idea. I can also give an artist more of a pass as a song gets older. Two or three decades after a song's release ("Lust For Life," for example... I should be able to get over that.

  5. Wow, not only is the song cool, the advert (the accompanying visuals, perhaps deemed "music video"?) is unreal good.

  6. I know! Jack White is the man. Too bad the rest of the White Stripes tour got canceled a fortnight before it hit Seattle.

    Apparently one of Jack's stipulations was that the video only play once and then I think it only aired in Australia or something like that.

    Coke made a very, very wise decision here.