IT'S STILL ROCK N' ROLL TO ME
Unless its a soundtrack for Old Navy and Doritos (2007)

You may recall a music video from few years back, with Sting crooning his “Desert Rose” from the back seat of a Jaguar. The director proposed a number of cars to be used in the video and the singer-songwriter chose the Jaguar S-TYPE. “It's a beautiful car and it evokes the feeling and style of success we were trying to achieve,” said Sting. Surprise, surprise: the choice of make and model turned out to be a perfect fit with Jaguar’s global branding strategy. With his appearance in video/ads for the British automaker, the aging rocker’s street cred went into a deepfreeze worthy of Vanilla Ice.

There’s nothing new about advertisers spot-welding popular tunes to brands. But from my thoroughly unscientific research, conducted from the couch, it appears that we are in the midst of a full-frontal music copyright blitz. No song is safe from the hum-merchants.
Just the other day I heard a Wendy’s commercial backed by a mid-eighties’ Violent Femmes’ track, “Blister in the Sun.” A tune about sexual anxiety to shill burgers? Huh? An ad for GM followed, accompanied by Iggy Pop’s song “Success.“ The song is a rant against received notions of success, but it’s been spun into its opposite through the magic of editing.

I’ve since learned that the Stooges-era “Lust For Life” is being used by Royal Carribbean Cruise Lines. Iggy’s snotty hymn to drug abuse is now associated with champagne brunch, poolside jazzercise and Muchkin-sized staterooms.

How far will marketers go? And how far will the artists or their estates let them? U2’s “Elevation” has been used to pitch Viagra, and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” is heard in Preparation H ads. The Violent Femmes’ “Dance Motherf***er Dance” has been enlisted for both Arthur Murray Studios and The Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan.

Actually, I made up those last three examples. But they’re all conceivable, which underlines my point that marketers have an uncanny ability to co-opt any form of dissent, musical or otherwise. Given time, any air-punching anthem against the man can be hollowed out into a fifteen-second shopping shanty. Thank you, Satan’s little helpers.

Marketers aren’t picky; they’ll take anything remotely recognizable, from “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns and Roses (Grand Theft Auto), to “All Around the World” by Oasis (ATT), “Melt with You” by Modern English (Burger King), “Rubberband Man” by The Spinners (Staples), and that “Woo Hoo“ song by the 5.6.7.8’s (Vonage).

For the most part, I don’t care. VW was free to use the eternally lame “Mr. Roboto,” just as I reserve the right to refuse the Teutonic Beetle-builders my business. What bugs me is when the songs I love are turned into earwigs through repeated commercial play. It’s painful to hear The Rolling Stone’s “I’m Free” used in credit card ads. The same goes for ads using The Chemical Brothers’ “Galvanize“ (Budweiser), Bill Withers’ “Use Me” (GMC), the O’Jay’s “Love Train” (Coor’s Light), and The The's "This is the Day" (Dockers).

It’s one thing for royalties to go to elderly artists who were messed over the first time around by their record companies. It’s quite another for radio-friendly rockers to squeeze another million bucks from a tune via mouthwash or motor oil. I couldn’t believe it when I heard The Flaming Lips’ luminous “Do You Realize?” in a Canadian car ad. Do you, frontman Wayne Coyne, realize how galling this is?

One moment you’re an idealistic young artist with a clutch of monster hits and a riff-dispensing muse. Next moment you’re a Malibu-based hack in expandable pants, pimping your back catalogue to Doritos and Old Navy. You have a chemical dependency, a receding hairline, and comedian Carrot Top is your neighbour. At that point, there’s only one career move left for the responsible rocker: to follow Jimi, Janis and John Bonham into the light. If only to get away from Carrot Top.

I’m not saying I’d encourage any of our copyright-whoring musical geniuses to go off themselves. But I’m also not saying I’d turn down an opportunity to see Wayne Coyne throw himself off the Golden Gate Bridge in a flaming bunny suit.

Geoff Olson