Well, as I watch Elvis Costello hawk Lexuses (Lexi?) on TV, I wave goodbye to one of the last holdouts from the pre-80’s era. Its now assumed that if you were a rock star with any integrity from this era, you now have no problem using your song about “social revolution” to sell jeans, trucks and Carnival cruises. The Who, Dylan, The Clash, Iggy Pop, Mellancamp, Sting…the list is long and depressing. The only holdouts remain Neil Young and Bruuuce, who turned down $12 million to use Born in the USA for Chevy.
And then there’s the wave of new bands that are ready and willing to have their art help in the sale of widgets. The Shins shill for McDonald’s, Modest Mouse for minivans, White Stripes for Coke, Iron & Wine for M&M’s, Postal Service for UPS, The Go! Team for Honda, Of Montreal for Outback Fucking Steakhouse, and Moby for….well, everything.
What’s odd is that the great bands of the mid-80’s to mid-90’s avoided such tactics like the plague, and they continue to today. In the 80’s, bands like Fugazi, Sonic Youth, the Pixies and R.E.M. set a clear precedent that such behavior was taboo and cheapened the value of your music. R.E.M. continued this into the 90’s, turning down millions to use ‘Its the End of the World as We Know It’ for Windows 95, saying “our music is not for sale”.
The aforementioned bands served as mentors/role models for those that followed them into the 90’s, such as Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Pavement, Pearl Jam and Radiohead. You never saw your favorite song from these guys pop up selling Big Macs, and you (hopefully) never will. (The notable exception being Nirvana, whose ‘Breed’ was used in a video game commercial this year, thanks to Courtney, I’d imagine). Its fair to say that Eddie Vedder or Thom Yorke would rather slit their own throat than give their songs to Burger King.
So why are these bands unique when it comes to avoiding “selling out”? As far as the old folks go I’d say its mostly due to feeling marginalized and lacking importance anymore. Unable to make the music they once could, they’re relegated to whoring themselves out to companies in order to stay in the limelight.
For the new bands, I’m not entirely sure. I don’t accept the argument that its tougher for bands to get exposure, so they have to resort to commercials these days. Sure, corporate radio sucks, but its sucked for the last 30 years, thats nothing new. And with the Internet, MySpace and YouTube, there’s a whole new way to get your music out there.
And the #1 way to get your band off the ground remains the same: work your ass off and tour the country relentlessly. R.E.M. didn’t hit it big by selling ‘Radio Free Europe’ to BMW, they did it by touring in a rickety old van all over the country, playing in every dive imaginable, until they built a loyal fan base and grew as a band to the point where they were badass.
And there are new bands that still do this, of course. But its a shame that really talented bands like the Shins are known as “that band from the McDonald’s commercial”. And at least Elvis didn’t let them use ‘Radio, Radio’.
[Update by SL: I offer a somewhat different view here.)