There was a time when leveling the word "sellout" at a band was the equivalent of pinning a scarlet letter to a musician's leather jacket. For some of those bands who made it big in the '90s, fame was ostensibly a lamentable state of being, the equivalent of living with an incurable STD--wretched, but inescapable.
How many stories attribute Kurt Cobain's suicide to his antagonism with stardom? After winning an MTV Video award for the single "Jeremy," Pearl Jam, disgusted by the commercialism of videos, stopped making them for several years. Remember when Ticket Master's compulsory $3 to $6 service charge enraged Eddy Vedder & Co. so much that the band cut ties with the promotions juggernaut, used a complicated phone service to sell concert tickets and took their complaints about monopolies to Congress? Bear in mind that a lot of these bands grew up idolizing punk acts such as the Dead Kennedys who mocked terminal preppies, jock culture and the mindless ingestion of beer.
Oh, how times have changed. Boy and girl bands soon emerged in conjunction with a swell in the popularity of reality television. Soon everybody was clamoring for that 15-minute spotlight. Cue ominous music, enter Ryan Seacrest, then witness musical conviction and artistic integrity swirl down the toilet. You see where I'm going with this. Now we have a generation of indie bands so far removed from the fundamentally rebellious aspects of rock culture, that even though many have created cutting-edge sounds, they cheapen their product by selling products. Here's a short list of otherwise good artists who have been led astray by the shimmering promise of big cash payouts in exchange for a little harmless shilling:
1. The Dodos
With images of Miller Chill bottles swirling and clanking against the frenetic tribal soundtrack of the San Francisco indie-outfit's song "Fools" off 2008's Visiter, hip music takes itself down a few pegs.
2. M. Ward
Not to be outdone, in 2009, folk-rock troubadour and songwriter extraordinaire M. Ward offered a tune off his third album,Hold Time
entitled "Never Had Nobody Like You" for a Budweiser commercial. Seriously? What hipster worth his salt drinks Budweiser? The song featured Ward's ingenue, Zooey Deschanel. Check out the bro-grabs.
3. Zooey Deschanel
Speaking of whom, did anybody catch her commercial promoting the Cotton industry? In it, she whimsically thumbs through the vinyl bins at the local thrift shop and writes songs on an old upright piano while she sings laconically about the fabric of our lives. Did we mention she's married to Ben Gibbard? Didn't see that one coming.
4. Rilo Kiley
Jenny, say it ain't so! After years of making thoughtful and well-crafted folk-rock songs, you decided to appeal to the lowest common denominator and made an entire album about sex. It worked, everybody loved 2007's Under the Blacklight. The people at Carl's Jr. loved it too and felt your song "Moneymaker" would be a great for soundtrack to feature with some meat slinging. The spot starred no less of a "symbol" than The Hills' Audrina Patridge.
5. The Flaming Lips
This is a heartbreaker. Yoshimi and the Pink Robots tops my list of favorite albums, yet this band with such incredibly poignant and heartfelt lyrics leased one of its best songs, 2002's "Do You Realize?" to a Land Rover commercial. In this age of geographical and political instability fed by oil and gas addiction, can you imagine anything more globally offensive than a Land Rover? Does this band stand for anything? I guess the lyric "Do you realize/ that everyone you know/ someday will die?" is an expression of the band's fatalistic philosophy and perhaps nothing they do matters anyway.
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I know what you're thinking. This is America. In America, it is our right, nay, our duty to accrue as much financial wealth as possible and anybody that would begrudge another for exercising this right is a no-good communist. After all, who is going to provide for us when we're old and infirm? The government? Our children? Ha! Maybe you have a point. And I'll even take you one further.
Maybe all those musicians in the '90s were just pretending to be outraged by commercialism in a twisted attempt to maintain credibility with the Gen-Xers buying albums who had become disillusioned by their own parents' failed societal aspirations. Pearl Jam has certainly changed its tune in the past year. Reference their recent collaboration with retail giant Target. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.
So here's the question: Does a well-crafted song about love, loss, excess or redemption retain its significance when it is used to sell a product that for many leads either to addiction and death, or, less seriously, serves to needlessly separate schmucks from their money? In the process, do artists run the risk of becoming products in and of themselves? Does it matter? I need a beer--it's Miller time!