Start Me Up Or Shut Me Down: Is Music Compromised And Cheapened By Its Use In Commercials?
June 23, 2002 8:52 PM   Subscribe

Start Me Up Or Shut Me Down: Is Music Compromised And Cheapened By Its Use In Commercials? The Doors' John Densmore, writing in The Nation about why he refuses to accept Apple's and other companies' generous offers to use his band's songs, certainly thinks so. Is this an admirable example of integrity; precious vanity or just downright jejune?[More inside]
posted by MiguelCardoso (47 comments total)
This raises a lot of questions. Can great songs be diminished by being used as marketing vehicles? Are they that vulnerable? Or so important that they need to be protected from not-that-evil computer companies? My own opinion is that great songs are and remain great songs whatever happens to them; whoever covers them and whether or not they're used in advertisements, films or whatever. But something in me goes "yuck!"

Finally and adjacentyly, am I alone in thinking there's something anachronistic and fraudulent about Apple's use of figures such as Picasso, Einstein and Wittgenstein? And, yes, old Doors songs too...
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:54 PM on June 23, 2002

Excellent rant regarding this subject here. I don't think I can add a word to it.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:58 PM on June 23, 2002

Usually, I have no problem with songs being used in commercials. Continuation of commerce and all that. But I must admit to personally cringing when Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up" - a song about "fighting for your rights", especially resonant with African Americans and Jamaicans, was used in a commercial to sell a car (Volkswagen I think). It just diminished the intent of the original work.

But I must admit, as someone who has no personal context of the '60s, the Nike "Revolution" commercial has always been one of my favorites.
posted by owillis at 9:06 PM on June 23, 2002

I cringe at the thought of songs I consider 'classics' being nothing more than jingles to some of the younger generation. Sure, it doesn't change my impression of the music, but, like Miguel said, "yuck!"
posted by Miss Beth at 9:08 PM on June 23, 2002

My head about fell right off when I heard Paul Westerberg's "Waiting for Somebody" on a commercial for Amazon. The way I see it, it's his song to do with as he pleases. If he wants to make a few bucks hawking stuff for Amazon, all the power to him.
posted by jodic at 9:09 PM on June 23, 2002

For some less well off bands it's a great way to make some money to fund videos, new recording etc.

Kiwi bands Slim and the Datsuns both have songs in NZ TV commercials at the moment and it hasn't hurt their reputation or damaged their credibility one iota.

It's fair enough for an artist to not want their songs used in a particular context, but I don't think that the "cheapening the music" argument applies in all cases.
posted by Foaf at 9:17 PM on June 23, 2002

Oh, and I'm still confused about the whole Godsmack/US Navy ad campaign.

My question is, did Godsmack sell out, do they support the Navy (not very Wiccan...) or is the Navy above such things as copyright laws?
posted by Miss Beth at 9:26 PM on June 23, 2002

I have trouble with the concept of "selling out". For example, what doesBritney Spears have to do to sell out, given that she's always done commercials?

Does selling out ever matter any more?
posted by Foaf at 9:41 PM on June 23, 2002

I couldnt help but laugh at Densmore's digs at Manzarek. He wants to be the driver on his cultural buggy and I salute him. But songs will lose all context when all the old people die out. Whats left then besides arcane trivia?

I associate 'With a little help from my friends' not with the Beatles but with Joe Cocker. These are just crasser covers.
posted by vacapinta at 9:44 PM on June 23, 2002

Creators of artworks have the moral right to do with it what they want -- whether that's selling it for a commercial, or refusing to do so.
posted by kindall at 10:04 PM on June 23, 2002

Can great songs be diminished by being used as marketing vehicles?

Last year, I was listening to The Shin's album Oh Inverted World a lot. It was one of my favorite's of the year. I told everyone who would listen to go out and get it. Although I loved the entire album, I felt that way largely due to one song, "The New Slang." Although I listened to the song all year, it became particularly poignant for me last fall.

On September 10 last year, I flew from San Francisco, where I live, back to Alabama, where I grew up. My grandmother was dying of cancer and was staying in my Mom's house. I flew back to see my Granny one last time and to try to help my Mom. The 10th turned out to be the last day she was really lucid. The 11th, of course, was a horrible day for all of us. My grandmother passed away that week, as well. I couldn't help but think of how differently her passing had been from those in NYC.

I had happened to bring OIW with me on the trip, and the words to "The New Slang" really got to me: hope it's right when you die, old and bony.

Then, this year, I'm watching TeeVee and I hear that enchanting almost-yodel from The New Slang, "dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee." And it's coming from a McDonald's commercial. Which I saw several dozen more times. So now, when I hear that song, I think of Big Macs. And I don't even eat red meat. So did that diminish the meaning of the song for me? Yeah. I'd say so.

A "great song" is just one that we collectively agree has great meaning, or that means a great deal to us individually. When that same dissociative "McDonalds" experience is broadcast and happens again and again, to many different people, I think the general answer is also yes.

And as Densmore quotes Robby Kreiger saying towards the end of the article: "If we're only one of two or three groups who don't do commercials, that will help the value of our songs in the long run. "

PS: What Bill Hicks said.

posted by emptyage at 10:19 PM on June 23, 2002

The TV commrecial is the ultimate and perfect destiny for any worthwhile pop song. It's how the most memorable or quintessential hooks/grooves/progressions/etc. are rewarded. If the artist(s) are alright with it , I see no justification for getting all holier-than-thou about it.

Don't like artist x pimpin' himself/herself for large corporation? Learn to separate your enjoyment of the art from your adoration of the artist, or stop buying the music. If, like Mr. Densmore here, the artist can't see tainting his art with commercial designs (I kept imagining him looking plaintively at that famous Cosmopolitan picture of Morrison, across the bottom of which he has written WWJD?), that's his business. Sure isn't going to make me like his band's flavor overwrought self-importance any more. 30 seconds of the Doors might be just about enough.
posted by sj at 10:34 PM on June 23, 2002

I've thought about this article and you know what? He's right about dilution and perversion of meaning. The Who, the Stones and the Beatles are truly just a commodity to me, no different from Britney Spears or any other music-as-a-business band. But the Doors' songs still retain their original, historical, contextual meaning for me. I can still relate to what they're saying on a human level without thinking of iPods or cars or whatever. When Light my Fire plays, there is an undeniable and true connection to events and people and a real human band that played great music in the 1970's. I honestly can't hear any song by the Stones without thinking of Windows 95.
posted by muppetboy at 10:42 PM on June 23, 2002

From an interview with Tom Waits:

O: It used to be that, like you, a lot of musicians took a hard-line stance against having their music used in advertising. That seems to have shifted. Why do you think that is?

TW: I don't know. They're all high on crack. Let's just say it's a sore subject with me. I went to court over it, you know... You know, you see a bathroom-tissue commercial, and you start hearing "Let The Good Times Roll," and the paper thing's rolling down the stairs. Why would anybody want to mortify and humiliate themselves? Well, it's just business, you know? The memory that you have and the association you have with that song can be co-opted. And a lot of people are really in it for the money. Period. A lot of people don't have any control over it. I don't own the copyrights to my early tunes. So it is unfortunate, but there are a lot of people that consciously want their songs exploited in that way, which I think is demeaning. I hate it when I hear songs that I already have a connection with, used in a way that's humiliating. I mean, in the old days, if somebody was doing a commercial, you used to say, "Oh, gee, too bad, he probably needs the money." But now, it's like hocking cigarettes and underwear with rock 'n' roll. I guess that's our big export. It's like how a good butcher uses every part of the cow. I don't like hearing those Beatles songs in the commercials. It almost renders them useless. Maybe not for everyone else, but when I hear it I just think, "Oh, God, another one bites the dust."

O: I still can't hear "Good Vibrations" without thinking of Sunkist.

TW: Oh, wow, yeah. That's exactly what they want. They want to plug your head into that and change the circuitry. While you're dreaming about your connection with that song, why don't you think about soda or candy or something? It's too bad, but it's the way of the world. They love to get their meat-hooks in you.

posted by homunculus at 11:09 PM on June 23, 2002

i could be wrong, but i believe the beatles' catalog was sold to michael jackson who then leased - or whatever the hell it is they do - the songs out for commercials.
posted by centrs at 11:10 PM on June 23, 2002

I'm probably getting old and cranky, but hearing a song I used to love on a commercial basically takes the soul out of the song. A lot of people have a very personal connection with a particular tune, as harmless as teenage love, as important as the death of a loved one, all sorts of events somewhere in the middle. We will take it personally when we hear something out of our life being used to sell widgets.

Just one more thing taking the life out of our lives.
posted by Bearman at 11:26 PM on June 23, 2002

I agree with Bill Hicks-- if, as a musician, you're an artist trying to make a statement, then selling your work for use in a commercial taints it. It no longer has integrity. Because now, if you want to say something, any artistic motives you have are clouded by the commercial prospects of your work and your own greedy aspirations.

Of course, if you were in it just to make money to begin with, sell away. Your work was never art and never had integrity in the first place.

(Of course, Bill Hicks made two exceptions-- one for young actors with no prospects and no money who were really struggling, and for types like Willie Nelson-- when you owe $30+ million in back taxes, sometimes you have to get that money any way you can.)
posted by nath at 11:56 PM on June 23, 2002

A year or so ago I saw an interview with Beyonce Knowles of Destiny's Child, and they asked her, where do you see Destiny's Child heading in the next five years?, and she answered, without batting an eye, I'd like for us to be able to do more endorsements.
posted by Rebis at 11:59 PM on June 23, 2002

John Densmore can't write very well.

I dunno. I figure an artist should be able to make money off his art however he or she so chooses, they don't owe you anything for liking their music.

Of course, post-mortem it gets a bit more complex...
posted by delmoi at 12:23 AM on June 24, 2002

this might be an answer to the michael jackson thing. recently i heard sean lennon on howard stern talk about jackson's rights. he said that neither his mother nor the surviving beatles at the time bid very hard. i don't know how true that is, but according to the link, the price, $43 million for about 200 songs, seem pretty cheap.

that mitsubishi ad sure helped dirty vegas along. sometimes the fame comes after endorsements as opposed to before. (i don't like the series of mitsubishi ads, btw.)
posted by elle at 12:29 AM on June 24, 2002

Also see the discussion on this topic from about a year ago, here.

(Not a doublepost callout, just FYI)
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:55 AM on June 24, 2002


Speaking of the mitsubishi ad, have you seen the video for that song? One of the best music videos I think I've ever seen, IMO, they also include the car, which I thought was kinda funny.
posted by delmoi at 1:37 AM on June 24, 2002

A quick question: if a band "sold out" for a million bucks and gave the money to charity (or even half the money), would that really ruin the song? I guess in one sense the song would be "prostituted" and "raped", but I don't think I'd feel any worse about it because it had been used to do some good. And even if it did bug me, I wouldn't get all self-righteous about it.

So I guess that keeping the song pure may be a nice thing to do for the fans, but I can't see how it's the right thing to do.
posted by Gaz at 3:08 AM on June 24, 2002

My stance against advertising music has softened. Here in the UK there is a big trend towards using great songs by unknown (and sometimes independent) artists on adverts. For example: Martin Grech on a Lexus ad and Aqualung (unsigned) on a VW ad. This is at a time when it's very difficult to even get radio playing new or unsigned acts. People are being introduced to new music thanks to advertisers... unsigned acts are being introduced to labels... and the advertisers are paying the artists for it. And honestly, would Moby have been a big success in the past couple of years without his tracks being plastered all over TV advertising?
posted by skylar at 3:24 AM on June 24, 2002

Now I'm really confused; i.e. wiser. I initially thought nothing could damage a great song, but Tom Waits's remark about ad agencies messing around with our internal circuitry, emptyage's sad and persuasive recollection of his grandmother's death and muppetboy's remark about "Start Me Up" making him think automatically of Windows 95, have all convinced me it's, er, not that simple.

The only thought not yet expressed which I think worth adding concerns the endlessly covered "standards" written by the great popular composers such as Berlin, Gershwin et al. Those songs seem to shake free of their many appropriations. So perhaps massification and constant repetition over time, in ever-different contexts - rather than one simple association(Nick Drake/Volkswagen, Stones/Windows) - have the perverse effect of "re-liberating" a song.

[I'm thinking of Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye" - most probably because I once recorded two whole C-60 cassettes with covers of that indestructible song!]
posted by MiguelCardoso at 3:29 AM on June 24, 2002

The most ridiculous one i can think of is the use of Hendrix's "Freedom" to hawk Chevy trucks.

You got my pride hanging out of my bed
You're messing with my life, so I brought my lead
Even messing with my children
And you screamin' at my wife
Get off of my back
If you wanna get out of here alive

posted by boltman at 5:16 AM on June 24, 2002

I change the channel everytime a Cadillac commercial comes on with Led Zeppelin going in the background. It makes me cry.
Kudos to John for holding out.
posted by a3matrix at 5:27 AM on June 24, 2002

elle/delmoi - Dirty Vegas video.
posted by Voyageman at 5:40 AM on June 24, 2002

> I initially thought nothing could damage a great song...

The homogenization of rock and roll is just a trivial example of how TV trivializes. Don't watch. Don't listen. If you can't stop yourself, at least turn down the sound when the ads start. They can't rewire your memories if you're not listening.
posted by pracowity at 5:49 AM on June 24, 2002

When I read Tom Waits' "changing the circuitry" metaphor, what I flashed on was an AmEx spot where they showed Concorde while Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" played. Yeah, that song hasn't quite been ruined for me, but it's surely been affected.
posted by alumshubby at 5:52 AM on June 24, 2002

Come to think of it, at the end of the Doors' song "Touch Me," doesn't the band proclaim, in unison, "Stronger Than Dirt!"?
posted by alumshubby at 5:54 AM on June 24, 2002

It very hard for me to listen to The Who's "Tommy" since the new Claratin commercial came out. It uses the Tommy overture and is just bastardizing that song. What's next, Stairway to Heaven for Lipitor?
posted by mkelley at 5:59 AM on June 24, 2002

If I were Pete Townsend, and I'd played some of these songs over and over for decades, I'd be like, "OK, that's enough, lets move on and listen to something new, this song doesn't mean anything to me anymore, why not get a few bucks out of it."

It seems to me that the essense of Rock and Roll is already leeched out by the whole Classic Rock and Nostalgia stuff. Some of these songs might still be fun to listen to, but the idea of them still being meaningful after all this time seems counter to the spirit in which they were written.

Not to say I don't cringe when I hear an old favorite in a commercial, but I think maybe when I do, I'm missing the point, and it's time for me to go find something new to listen to.
posted by straight at 7:08 AM on June 24, 2002

I think that the worst one is the use of CCR's "Fortunate Son" in a Tommy Hilfinger ad. Especially the way they edit down the lyrics to derive the exact opposite of its original meaning.
posted by donkeymon at 7:09 AM on June 24, 2002

Another option would be to do what Chumbawamba did. They haven't sold the rights to 'Tubthumping', even though Nike offered them $1M, but they did sell 'Pass it Along' for $70,000 to GE then gave the money to antiglobalization groups CorpWatch and IndyMedia. At least they haven't sold my favorite, 'Someone's Always Telling You How to Behave', yet.
posted by yonderboy at 7:16 AM on June 24, 2002

Control your inputs. Direct your processing.
posted by rushmc at 8:24 AM on June 24, 2002

Stop and think about what songs they're using and who the demographic market is for the product.

With a jingle you have to break that barrier with the consumer to get him/her to not only embrace the song (positively or negatively), but also to tie it to the product. Using known, and often beloved music, you're halfway home. These songs are already entrenched in the consumers mind and carry with them memories and feelings that the advertiser could never otherwise hope to latch onto.

Who's going to be able to afford or possibly even want that Cadillac for example? Most likely the aging hipster who grew up on Zeppelin. The advertiser already has him by capitalizing on how that song makes him feel. Even a certain nostalgia for his youth. So they've already got the song, and it's just a matter, as some have said, of hacking in and making that new connection. It's almost a no-brainer.

They're certainly not about to use Korn, or N'Sync, or Britney Spears for their commercials, it's the wrong demographic. The songs are picked to key in on who they're selling to. Love it or hate it, they've made their point by getting us to make that connection of song and product.

As for selling out and prostituing themselves, that's a tough one. Artists have had to sell out and prostitute themselves from day one in one sense or another. Some have had to sell out to the record companies and compromise themselves to get a hit. Some have prostituted themselves to us from the beginning. The whole idea is to sell themselves to us to make money. We get sold on the idea of artistic integrity. A good artist knows how to walk that fine line so that his skirt isn't hiked up so high that he looks like a cheap whore and loses our respect. It's only when they sell to an advertiser that it looks like they lifted their skirts just to get paid. I got news for you, we pay them to lift their skirts every day. So what is it jealousy?
posted by mikhail at 8:27 AM on June 24, 2002

Miguel: You never had the misfortune, I take it, of hearing the ending of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" being used as an airline jingle. I still can't hear that anymore without thinking of American Airlines. I wonder what that says about the supposed greatness of the work, but at the same time I wonder if any classic piece of music could stand that sort of repetition in a commercial context. And I'm still miffed at American for being so freakin' crass.
posted by raysmj at 8:35 AM on June 24, 2002

Many musicians today are performers more than artists -- they do it for the money (and fame, etc.). I would think it would be impossible to "diminish" their work by selling it a second or third time.

Those artists who envision a context and meaning for their work, however, do actually create (some) pieces that have artistic integrity. Is that integrity diminished or lost when the art is commercialized? I suppose that's a serious aesthetic question. (Me, I would say it depends on the listener more than anything, but that's not exactly trivial.)
posted by mattpfeff at 8:56 AM on June 24, 2002

Speaking of the right demographic, I remember hearing How Soon Is Now? in some car ad and it really freaked me out. Mostly because I had heard another song (which escapes me now) from my heyday in another ad and thought maybe it was just an aberration. How Soon Is Now? removed all doubt. And they didn't do a good enough job on the ad, because I don't remember which car.

FWIW, I think that hearing the Pet Shop Boys in that ford focus ad was pretty awesome, just because I really really like them.

More important to me is this: Why do they need that Led Zeppelin song to sell me an SUV? Can't they find a better way? Where are the Bugle Boy Jeans ads of today? The Where's The Beef lady? They can't make a good ad so they think they will reformat my memories of songs near and dear to my heart?

BTW, on Moby: He said himself on his site (and of course now I can't find it) that he doesn't necessarily get all the say so in those endorsements or he would have said no to an awful lot of people who made off with his songs in 30-second increments.
posted by verso at 9:04 AM on June 24, 2002

raysmj: I still can't hear [Rhapsody in Blue] anymore without thinking of American Airlines.

It's United Airlines. I wish I could purge that little tidbit and free up some brain cells. Though I'm glad to see that in at least some cases, United's branding effort failed!

(I have to admit, though, I've chased down songs by Moby, Stereolab, Gorillaz, Mr. Scruff and more based on "what was the song in that commercial?")
posted by kurumi at 9:15 AM on June 24, 2002

skylar - 'My stance against advertising music has softened. Here in the UK there is a big trend towards using great songs by unknown (and sometimes independent) artists on adverts.'

sounds good in theory, but now i am hearing tunes that 'i discovered' all over max bally factor adverts. it's almost like these advertising companies employ young scenesters to source their music! oh, the humanity.
posted by asok at 9:49 AM on June 24, 2002

i guess this could work in reverse as well. look at the huge nick drake revival after the volkswagen ad. i had never heard of him before that. suddenly everyone started blogging about listening to nick drake.
posted by centrs at 11:12 AM on June 24, 2002

Every time people say "They cheapened and ruined my favorite song by using it in commercial X" I find it really annoying and pathetic. Either you guys watch WAY too much TV or listen to WAY too much commercial radio or you're just ruining and cheapening the song for yourself by allowing them to mess with the meaning of the song for you. Even having a CD for people to purchase or being on the radio is a horrible commercial act, so get over yourselves with thinking there's some sort of purity.

What I think when I hear a song I like in a commercial: "Hooray! It's that song I like!" and sometimes "Damn, they only played 30 seconds of it." and sometimes "Good for the band. I hope they got seriously paid and can now afford to go back to being musicians."
posted by frenetic at 11:21 AM on June 24, 2002

I remember going to listen to David Crosby speak when I was at university in the mid-80s and he was ranting about artists from his generation selling out to commercials. When it came time for the Q&A I asked him — thinking I was being a smartass — if in light of what he said what his thoughts were on Eckridge Farms using "Our House" in their television adverts. He replied immediately "That's one of Graham's songs." I had the opportunity to meet Graham a few years ago, but I couldn't bring myself to ask him the same question. Now I wish I had.

One of the ironies that hasn't been pointed out yet (even in the Townsend rant that mr_crash_davis linked) is that the Who had an album titled The Who Sell Out.
posted by terrapin at 11:24 AM on June 24, 2002

kurumi: Heh, thanks. I actually checked Google to see if I was correct about American, and lots of other people, it appears, made the same mistake. I know I had an image of a plane taking off over a sunset, and people being served by smiling stewardesses, etc. That's not how I'd thought of "Rhapsody . . ." before. (Of course, this can be the problem with videos of songs too, but there's something about ads - even if you don't care for them, or watch few of them at home yourself, you can't miss them elsewhere. Watching sports with friends, seeing them when with family, etc. And then they're really short, and play on every station except the movie channels and PPV.)
posted by raysmj at 11:37 AM on June 24, 2002

And some people still wonder why Bob Seger hasn't made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! I'm agreeing with Mikhail that it's all about the demographics, the song is the hook in a connect the dots sort of way: You were cool then and this asspuppet or whatever will make you cool again. And folks, it's the consumers who have sold out as much or more than the bands, because 99% 'sell out': it's called growing up, I've heard. I'm reminded of a one-hit band that had one (and only one) hit and it was one of the biggest of all time and is used in ads quite often: I've known these guys since the fourth grade, and whenever I hear it I think: I hope those poor bastards didn't sell the rights to that way back when because I know they need the money. Good post, Miguel.
posted by Mack Twain at 12:18 PM on June 24, 2002

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