Every time I swear I'll never again be shocked or saddened by a TV
commercial ruining a treasured rock anthem, another proves me wrong.
I thought the nadir had been reached when punk godfather Iggy Pop's
celebratory ode to hedonism, "Lust for Life," appeared in an ad for a cruise
line: It couldn't get any worse. Now along comes a commercial for AARP, the
American Association of Retired Persons, showing people "of a certain age"
frolicking to "Everybody's Happy Nowadays" by English '70s punks the
The debate over rock musicians selling songs to Madison Avenue is an old
one -- it started long before the Jefferson Airplane did a blue jeans
commercial during the Summer of Love -- but the practice is now so
widespread that few advertisers even bother to write their own jingles, as
in the days of indelible ditties such as "Plop, plop, fizz, fizz ..." and "I
wish I was an Oscar Meyer wiener." Why should they, when so many good songs
are available and so many artists are willing to sell them?
NPR's "Morning Edition" recently examined the phenomenon in a two-part
story that quoted a variety of musicians offering the usual justifications.
One can be dubbed "the Moby defense," in honor of the techno-pop guru whose
brilliant 1999 album "Play" was ignored by radio and MTV until the songs got
airplay on TV commercials. Bachman-Turner Overdrive vet Randy Bachman told
NPR he made more money selling "Takin' Care of Business" to an office supply
chain than he did from his '70s recordings -- a dubious claim, since
licensing fees average in the low five figures -- and indie-rockers the
Spinto Band said that the money they made mortgaging "Oh Mandy" to a
department store funded a European tour they otherwise couldn't have
I'm no communist; I believe musicians should be paid for their work, and
well enough to afford luxuries like health insurance. Of course their art is
inextricably tied to commerce, unless the only way they disseminate their
music is by playing for free in the park. But I also believe there's a line
where the commerce conquers and kills the art.
Never again will I hear "Lust for Life" in quite the same way, grinning
at the cheerful perversity of the line "Of course, I've had it in the ear
before"; now, I'll always flash on a smiling family playing
shuffleboard. Granted, my anachronistic art-critic objection that
commercials rob viewers of the power of imagination can be countered by
postmodern theorists who insist that media-saturated, digitally savvy
Generation Y doesn't live by such old-fashioned rules -- that it's perfectly
capable of grooving on Iggy without thinking of cruises. So let's set that
argument aside and look at the other two reasons why commercials corrupt.
Ads kill irony
The message of the AARP ad is that life will be one big, happy birthday
party for retiring Baby Boomers, complete with food fights, balloons and
dancing gorillas. But the theme of the Buzzcocks' song is exactly the
opposite: The key line that sets up the catchy chorus of "Everybody's
Happy Nowadays" is "Life's an illusion, love is the dream." The
tune was a bookend to another 1979 single, "I Believe," that made the
group's cynical worldview even clearer: "There is no love in this world
anymore." In other words, the Buzzcocks are saying "life stinks," and
AARP is saying "everything's peachy." But the Orwellian power of advertising
and TV are such that ever such black and white distinctions can be
Following my negative review of John Mellencamp's new album "Freedom's
Road," his publicist charged that I missed the irony of songs like "The
Americans" and lyrics such as "I try to understand all the cultures of
this world / I'm an American from the Midwest." Like Randy Newman,
Mellencamp is supposedly protesting that our nation isn't more open-minded.
But the Hoosier auteur sacrificed any claim to irony when he compromised his
longstanding pledge and allowed "Our Country" to power a simplistic,
flag-waving, decidedly un-ironic car commercial. You can't have it both
Ads shift control from the artist to the advertiser
There's no denying that commercials can be done well and to a band's
benefit: When the Flaming Lips forged a pact with a computer company, it
made an acclaimed TV spot called "The Green Room" in which actor Abe Vigoda,
model Rachel Hunter, comedians Penn and Teller, an Abe Lincoln look-alike
and Yankees pitcher Randy Johnson joined singer Wayne Coyne in a mysterious
waiting room. A door opened, a producer called "Flaming Lips -- you're up,"
and Coyne answered the call to the sound of "Do You Realize??" It played
like a commercial for the band rather than the computer company, and many
viewers could not even remember what the ad was actually selling.
On the other hand, the Lips sold the same song to an unimaginative car
commercial that only cheapened the meaning of "Do You Realize??" as an
existential anthem inspired by the death of Coyne's father. The band's
manager admitted that commercial was a mistake -- that it had trusted the ad
execs to do a good job, but were sadly disappointed.
And this cuts to the heart of the problem.
No matter what the genre -- pop-punk or hip-hop, classic rock or
dance-pop -- the best bands work long and hard to create a complete
identity, considering every aspect of how their songs are written, recorded,
packaged and sold. When they sell their music to a commercial, they cede
control to an advertising director, and they take their chances.
I've never interviewed a musician who doesn't want people to buy his or
her music, but I've never talked to one who doesn't also have the goal of
moving listeners -- making us dance or laugh, cry or smile, shout in anger
or jump for joy. Advertisers have one ambition: They want you to buy their
product. If a band cares so little about what becomes if its music that it's
willing to sacrifice an emotional response in favor of a commercial one, why
should we consider their music as anything other than one more disposable