May 05, 2009
Posted by: Hitsville

Sellout Watch: Todd and “Hello It’s Me”?!?

The spot isn’t online right now, but Todd Rundgren has sold his classic hit “Hello It’s Me” to an antacid tablet commercial.

The song is one of the ineffable glories of its era, a mournful throwaway rag-picked from an early Nazz release and reimagined (for Something/Anything, Rundgren’s best album) as a jazz-pop classic, the glorious offspring of Carole King and Steely Dan.

It’s also about the little things, from the arresting bass triplet that starts the song to the insistent, keyboard-driven beat; from Rundgren’s gentle, unaffected vocals to a sax solo (which as I recall was done by one of the Brecker Bros.) as groovy as anything from the era.

Todd, you might say, is in the details.

Anyway, it’s now a commercial for Tums, and it’s going to be hard to hear it from now on without figuring it’s your acid reflux saying “Hello It’s Me.”

You gotta admit it makes a certain amount of sense, and I suppose Rundgren can make more money off the song by selling it to other treatments for digestive ailments (“When your diarrhea says ‘Hello it’s me,’ try Pepto Bismol!”).

Not to mention cold sores, acne or even herpes outbreaks.

I’ve been thinking about sellouts lately; a few weeks ago, a friend of mine, exasperated by my to-his-lights-doltish insistence on mocking such deals, wrote:

When a recording artist “sells out,” what has he sold? Can what he sold be resold? Is the sale permanent? Is it a bad metaphor? If the cliche didn’t exist, what would we call a recording artist who signed some sort of exclusive/promotional deal? Did Les Paul sell out to Gibson? etc. Is giving a label exclusive rights to sell your recordings “selling out”? Is endorsing a line of musical instruments or amps “selling out”?

To me, “selling out” is as good a metaphor as any, but it doesn’t have to be seen in that way. The issue comes up when artists embrace rock’s attitudinal posturings early in their career, and then turn around and sell the songs they made their reputation with to some TV ad.

Now, some stipulations: There’s a lot of crappy rock songs out there. And there’s rock that is as dishonest and cheesy as any commercial. But those posturings are real, and they put rock’s philosophical center of gravity some distance away from doing jingles to assist the branding objectives of a particular product of a large corporation.

(I don’t have a problem with a rock song about nausea, or diarrhea, or one that advises taking medication to take care of any problem; the issue is shilling for a product you don’t necessarily use—and that just as well might be bad for you or others.)

I’m not saying it’s fair: Rock and roll is a cruel mistress, and sometimes great artists end up financially out of luck. (The Moby Quotient, you will note, takes this into account.)

But: You don’t have to play the game if you don’t want to. So if you do, you deserve to get called on it when you sell your songs for an ad.

(There’s a tangential media issue, incidentally; there seems often to be a tacit agreement between journalists and sellouts not to ask about the commercials.)
So that’s the main point: If you buy into rock’s authenticity construct, you have to live by it.

What I don’t understand is what all of a suden we’re not allowed to even talk about this. Idolator, for example, mocked Hitsville when the Moby Quotient made its majestic first appearance in the pages of the Washington Post.

I attributed the phenomenon then, and still do, to the myrmidons of popism, who get fretful anytime you say anything that might make rock stars or their publicists unhappy.

But you could also put it this way: The extent you care about this in directly  related to whether, as a matter of first principles, you believe that rock and roll holds a special place in the pop-cultural firmament or that it doesn’t.

If you don’t, in a way you’ve excluded yourself in the discussion, because you don’t have anything at stake in it.

That said, you might consider whether there’s any line you will draw. Should Saul Bellow have done commercials? Should he have stuck in some paid product placement in his novels? (“Saul: Manischewitz wants in; can you have someone making matzoh?”)

Should David Foster Wallace have done Absolute ads, maybe, or done commercials for a hip new web site? (“When I’m looking up obscure information to pack into one of my signature orotund footnotes, I surf over to About.com!”)

Symphony orchestras are facing financial cutbacks; should Daniel Barenboim stop a Chicago Symphony concert (as I once saw Gary U.S. Bonds stop one of his shows) …  ask the audience what time it is … answer “Miller Time!,” pop open a bottle and take a swig … before continuing with the show?

In other words, you either believe in art as an activity separate from the crassly commercial or you don’t.

Again, there is no clear line: Rock isn’t a sound; it’s a state of mind, a big tent, a continuum. (“Rock is what you vote for,” Robert Christgau used to write on Pazz & Jop ballots.)

There was always pop music; rock came around about half-way through the last century and after a decade or so of experimentation coalesced around some core values.

One of those values was an understanding (I didn’t say rejection) of the idea of a line between art and commerce. Early on, in fact, the Rolling Stones did a Rice Krispies commercial; the Jefferson Airplane did a Levi’s ad. But there weren’t too many others.

There are many reasons most didn’t, but the main one was that rock traffics to some extent on authenticity; that the emotion and art conveyed through the music is genuine. Again, there’s a continuum: From Phil Ochs to David Bowie, from Patti Smith to Beck, artists have ranged between jut-jawed sincerity and disguised (even mocked) emotions.

Still, they haven’t shilled for crappy products. If the stigma to selling out didn’t exist, why has it been followed so closely by the vast majority of artists?

Jun 15, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

Sellout watch: My Morning Jacket demurs, sort of

From the big NYT profile of My Morning Jacket in Sunday’s paper:

[…W]hile many acts have turned to Madison Avenue for ancillary income, My Morning Jacket has remained ambivalent about using its music for advertising. Four years ago its song “Mahgeetah” was used in a beer commercial, but the group says that it gave away some of its earnings to charity and hasn’t done a commercial deal since. Its manager, Mike Martinovich, said the band has not ruled out these opportunities but that they conflict with a wish to hold onto a sense of mystery in its music.

“When you license a song to a commercial,” Mr. Martinovich said, “you run the risk of limiting the meanings the song can have to your audience. If an artist wants to preserve a listener’s ability to have a personal interpretation of a lyric, he may have to forgo the financial gain associated with a commercial license.”

Jun 10, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

Sellout watch: The rockism vs. popism debate continues

A commenter named Scraps writes:

Where I’m coming from, the Popist thing started because of the perception of a lot of people — I am one — that the music we always loved was dismissed by rock-and-roll snobs — particularly in the criticism of the 1970s — as inherently not worth doing, mostly for no more reason than the way it sounded. Not the content, not the craft, not the passion (though critics often maintained it was about passion), but a simple, nasty, condescending rationalization for a personal preference. And it still looks that way. Contempt for (say) the Fifth Dimension had a lot more to do with Coolness than merit, while eminently criticizable musicians like the Jefferson Airplane were not called to account for their many inadequacies and stupidities; or rather, the Jefferson Airplane would be forgiven their flaws because they were doing the right sort of thing, while the Fifth Dimension’s flaws were proof of the inherent inadequacy of their entire approach, period.

Popism was about recognizing there were a lot of us who felt this way, and that we didn’t have to accept from the cool crowd that our taste was worse — in most cases not because we didn’t like rock, but because we could like pop as well — and talk seriously about the value of what we loved. And the response of a lot of the old-guard rockist crowd has been to impute our motives and reassert the same old standard line of what’s worth doing and what isn’t. I enjoy your analysis and your writing and your cultural observations very much. But it does annoy me that when you talk about the Popist revisionism and the Rockist reactions to it, you repeatedly frame it in terms that implicitly motive-bash. Popism questions the set of assumptions that the rockist critical consensus was built on. The Rockist reaction to this, by and large, is to say that Popism is about apologizing for crass commercialism and shit. It’d be nice, at this late date, to have the big discussions of taste and style without the (even at this articulate level) dismissals and reassertions of inherent authenticity and inherent garbage.

I think if you go way back—waaay back—you can find a few interesting examples of the phenomenon you’re talking about. It’s true, for example, that Rolling Stone writers twitted the first few Led Zeppelin albums. And it sounds, from your Fifth Dimension/Jefferson Airplane recollections, that there are probably some others. But in fairness, those were the early days of the form (of the form of rock criticism, I mean), and I don’t know how long it lasted.

By the 1980s, certainly, if you look at the Village Voice Pazz & Jop Poll, a pop artist like Michael Jackson would win handily, and evanescence by people like Lisa Lisa or Paul Young would dot the singles lists. And speaking as someone who was a critic close to full-time from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, doing the panels at SXSW blah blah blah, I don’t remember this being a part of the debate. Who didn’t think “Karma Chameleon” was a great single? (And who doesn’t think “Wedding Bell Blues” is one, too?)

And as time went on, it was implicit in the second wave of punk rock in the early 1990s that pop was cool, though I grant there was a species of reverse hipsterism at work as well. There were a few anti-pop fanzine writers, I guess, but even in the underground world there was an implicit approval of a great pop song. (Cf. Ciccone Youth, “Into the Groovey.”) So again, while your Airplane/Fifth Dimension juxstaposition sounds real, in my experience the idea that there was a “set of assumptions,” that there were rockist critics out there dissin’ pop, is a straw man.

And let’s not forget that the rockist term was coined by the popists, dismissively.

Take a step back and the idea that there is a cadre of big bad (probably boy) critics insisting on pondering high art and dissing pop culture is even more far-fetched. Serious criticism has been under attack across the board in much of the mainstream press for some time. I’m not talking about the existence of it—the internet has given many people a platform. But before the internet really started screwing things up for papers, space given to the fine arts was shrinking; resources instead were being focussed toward highly mainstream genres like TV and the most popular films; and critics who dared to say that popular artists sucked came under a lot of negative pressure.

So in daily newspapering and the general interest magazines the tension between the things that get good play (blockbuster movies, for example) and those that get good reviews (what the critics like) has been around for a long time. I’m sure that if you went back and talked to the folks who did the hype-laden Time and Newsweek cover stories on crappy big-budget action movies you wouldn’t get a lot of blather about popism. They knew what their job was.

Jun 06, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

The Sellout Debate: More from Marathonpacks!

Eric Harvey, of Marathonpacks, has a comment that’s worth reading.

His response to my original post is here. My response to that is here.

Up to speed? Here is the next round:

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have thrown the “rockist” thing out there. That’s been did, but it certainly allowed you a neat retort, which draws that unnecessary genre-definition between “rock” and “pop”. How long has rock been pop music now? How many debates have been squashed in which someone attempts to define “pop” as, gulp, a genre?

But! Are you seriously implying that those who write about pop are nothing but PR shills? If I read your response correctly, that’s what it seems you’re implying. I mean, you use “popists” as a bit of a crutch there, right?

It’s a neat way to basically re-affirm your critical position, but as a set of parameters for interpreting some of the best, most insightful and well-written criticism being published (ever read Simon Frith?), it just seems inadequate at best, and stubbornly ignorant at worst.

You seem like an informed person who can grasp that writing about pop music doesn’t mean you’re in bed with PR, just as much as you know that hacks exist at all levels of criticism. If you’d like, I could send you some examples!

Thanks for taking the time to write. I think the rockist-v-popist debate isn’t about writing about or liking or defining rock vs. pop per se. I have nothing invested in any of that. It’s just a critical philosophy issue that has been debated for some time. That’s what I thought you were referring to. But I guess it’s true that, to paraphrase Steve Albini, I was happily adopting the term as shorthand for the position you were arguing against.

Thanks for taking the time to write. I think the rockist-vs.-popist debate isn’t about writing about or liking or defining rock vs. pop per se. I have nothing invested in any of that. It’s just a critical philosophy issue that has been debated for some time. That’s what I thought you were referring to. But I guess it’s true that, to paraphrase Steve Albini, I was happily adopting the term as shorthand for the position you were arguing against.

That allusion makes me very happy, as did the opportunity to link to this essay on Kurt Cobain, because I’ve been interested in the pleasures of pop and the complications of any sort of purity in the rock world for a long time. (All of that was very much influenced by the work of not just Simon Frith but his sometime collaborator Andrew Goodwin, an old friend of mine, whose work can be accessed at the Professor of Pop blog.)

So it’s funny to be on the other side of the issue right now. But I still think it’s wrong to work as a shill for corporations, particularly car companies, purveyors of crappy, overpriced shoes and any number of other operations. I’ve laid the reasons out in previous posts.

Your argument is basically that times have changed and that I’m pining for the past. But this has always been a problem, and I’ve always ridiculed it whenever possible. What I think has changed—and this might be something you disagree with—is that those who speak out about such stuff are now way uncool. My evidence is I guess anecdotal: I can think of colleagues being uninterested in or hostile to the issue when it came to coming up with story ideas. I was just on a radio show the other day and the booker said it was really hard to come up with people like me to speak out against it. And like I said, the very idea of the Moby Quotient was attacked when it came out.

This is probably another one of those imaginary authenticity parameters, or just a downer, or whatever, but I think it’s all kinda decadent. The idea that Santi White isn’t, from the very beginnings of her career, going to be seeing things from Target’s point of view (or that now U2 will not see things from Clear Channel’s Live Nation’s) seems to me wishful thinking; and the idea that this is now or soon will be the norm is as barfy as an R. Kelly sex tape. So I think it’s true that we are long overdue for a corrective.

And speaking of which, when I was talking about PR shills, I was talking about the utilitarian origins, you might say, of the popist philosophy. But the R. Kelly scandal is an interesting case study in how this all plays out in the real world. Here’s a guy leaving a palpable path of human destruction in his wake for years and much of the establishment press took it all as a joke.