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 useâ€”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 directlyÂ 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) …Â 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?