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Bedding the "Sellout"

By Conrad Amenta | 1 August 2006

Despite what the Dixie Chicks, Cat Power, and LL Cool J might suggest, polemics aren’t useless. The People vs. the Man, the Underground vs. the Mainstream, and Art vs. Commerce: each of these dichotomies has developed into its own splintered offshoot from the ubiquitous umbrella notion of “indie music” (an awkward pole in itself). Each also contributes to a kind of inter-sub-cultural agreement that polemics can be used to exclude “others” simply for the benefit of enhancing one’s own feelings of exclusivity or elitism. This isn’t new, or necessarily terribly wrong; high school students have been picking on the fattest kid in the class since the dawn of jerks. It’s also generally accepted that all (wink) polemics, under any sustained inspection, are revealed to be conveniently exaggerated at best, and downright falsified at worst. But it’s the “sellout” debate’s relation to polemics and how polemics work/don’t that makes the issue itself such a singular and interesting dinosaur. Though there have been books written on the subject of the sellout, and even entire artistic movements dedicated to complicating/understanding the sometimes-oxymoron “commercial art,” the sellout debate remains a cockroach that refuses to die in the indie rock bunker.

“If a band sells their music for use in a television commercial, their artistic vision is compromised in the name of profit.” Really? In a recent television interview Chris Martin pointed out that he and his band Coldplay have turned down approximately five million pounds in endorsement contracts since their debut album was released in 2000. Never mind that that money would be better off in a charity’s hands than a corporation’s, he explained that it was necessary to reject the offers in order to avoid the imposition of superficial interpretations, which ad agencies (who must then believe that their audiences have the cognitive capabilities of dogs), have come to expect as a result of their hard spent coin (“Clocks” = Rav4). Martin actually expressed a fear that his songs – the songs that mean so much to Coldplay’s fans – might be derailed outright, that any application of a “commercial” connotation to a Coldplay song (Chris, mate, look behind you) would sacrifice and whittle away the very singular, personal meanings that each and every Coldplay fan has come to imbue the songs with (like how “Clocks” commemorates the time the dog bit Mum and she punched it). In saying this, Martin is conveying a steadfast, almost religious, rock n’ roll belief: that either by reduction or redirection in the service of running shoes and orange juice, the purity of music is compromised.

Martin has every right to be proud of his band’s refusal to sell out and/or lease his band’s art to help pawn “dead objects,” as Thom Yorke predictably puts it. The assumption characterizes indie’s trademarked-n’-patented counter-cultural leanings and polemic assumptions. My position, however, is that it’s this same no-sellout posture, espoused in variations for over four decades now, that might very well strangle the art form to death, miring it in a wrongheaded and uncreative routine. It’s easier to understand why the Doors didn’t want “Light My Fire” in a car commercial when the police were ushering a drunken Morrison off the stage and the band’s options came down to “99% of the profit to your label or nothing” than it is to understand why an experimental/mainstream/culturally relevant band like Radiohead wouldn’t want to participate in an ad for an experimental/mainstream/culturally relevant company like Apple Computers.

Indie musicians and self-styled historians may feel that their no-sellout bumperstickers portray a broader understanding of the nature of corporate meddling, the omnipresence of “executives with gold-plated cell phones” as Rolling Stone editor David Fricke conjures in Wilco’s documentary, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (or, even more anachronistically, asserting that Wilco’s record is better understood by “the people working in the trenches,” while twice referencing cell phones as an annoyance over the span of two minutes). What’s interesting is how conservative and protectionist this position has become, stereotyping corporate figures into black-hatted wolves rather than the 30-something internet wunderkinds that announce their wealth from the cover of Time Magazine. Maybe Warhol better understood when he painted a Campbell’s soup can, or Kurt Vonnegut when he named his novel Breakfast of Champions after the Wheaties slogan, or even Roy Lichtenstein, like, “in general,” with his series of poignant comic strip and pop art pieces. Post-modernist media and Pop-Art haven’t ignored the dilemma of reductive commercialism, but acknowledge and more fully understand the complexity and contradictions of creating art in a commercial framework. In this way, art and commercialism have always been one and the same, and therefore mutually dependent. Art without commercialism can go unappreciated. Commercialism without art lacks substance. They’re interdependent.

So why does one of Independent Music Culture’s most predominant features remain its lack of enthusiasm to sell out? Maybe indie music fans are not as angry about an artist’s work appearing in a commercial as we/they think we are. What we’re angry about is the flood of fucking bad commercials that make up commercial art norms: “Commercials suck, why would you want to be in a commercial?” The severe anti-commercial archetypes of rock tradition prevent us from establishing a new language with which to articulate our alienation from bad commercials, so every attempt to do so comes out as simply “anti-“ and polemical, further perpetuating said anti-commercial archetypes such as Art vs. Commerce. That a television commercial seeks capital, as an artist seeks cultural or ‘cool’ capital, is not as disgusting as the vapid standards in place of television commercials. The marketing divisions of major corporations own more of our eyespace than any other media species in existence, therefore I can think of no other industry group in need of artists more than the marketing divisions of major corporations. Even Coldplay.

Artists can either choose to adapt and work to fight vapid commercial art standards, thereby simultaneously acknowledging, criticizing, and beautifying the culture in which they live and work (Warhol, Vonnegut, Lichtenstein), or they can obey the new “Man” (rock culture) and go hide. Bands who choose the latter don’t seem to understand that, to many, they are the can of soup, and not the silk-screener. What artists promote through a refusal to participate in the commercial exercise is not a (counterproductive) consciousness of the imaginary divide between art and commerce, but a paradigm of disengagement (a particular, dangerous breed of cerebral laziness) that is, at its root, not at all artistic.

Musicians who are lucky enough to be approached by ad execs with money bags in each hand can reconcile whatever conflicts exist by becoming directly involved in the conceptualization, writing, shooting, and editing of the commercial. Note: I’m not proposing or defending the tasteless hocking of Speedstick by Redman and Methodman. And, while Moby authorizing the commercial use of any or all of the tracks from Play raises many interesting questions about radio airtime’s continued dominance of mainstream music promotion, simply embracing the current model to an unheard of degree is not ideal either. The real ideal, I think, would be to see an informed, motivated, and guilt-free artist interaction with commercial (as in TV commercial) culture.

The benefits are multiple: if it’s hard to determine which corporations are unethical, then let the presence of indie musicians, having purportedly done gallons of research on the ethics of major corporations (think the semi-informed record sleeve of a certain Godspeed album + half of a Naomi Klein book), announce to their fans the fair practices of ethically-operating companies. Most commercials already enjoy budgets greater than that of your average music video (and several times that of an album). I refuse to believe that there is nothing artistic or interesting to be said about consumer products – they’re a part of our culture, and therefore warrant commentary. Visit the contemporary art wing of your local art gallery and count the consumer products used in pieces (again, I point to Warhol). Original and beautiful commercial art exists and can always be improved upon; the more artists challenging the conventions of the form, the better.

In fact, I’ll argue that commercial art has progressed so far and has been so scientifically and artfully scrutinized that, in some instances, it surpasses some/most/lots of contemporary music in terms of experimentation and creativity. The history of the brand has been charted with as much interest, though certainly with less mythologizing, as the history of rock music. However, rock music is often reduced in-practice to the revisitation and even blatant mimicry of trends past and present, be they the New York punk scene or San Francisco heavy metal scene, or that golden heyday of the sixties rock canon. Other than a few experimental artists doomed to remain on the fringes and in relative poverty, indie music needs to differentiate itself, not from the cultural nadir of the bad TV commercial, but from the rusting rock archetype that refuses to let go of its self-congratulating pretensions.

Art should not be an exclusive club cordoned off behind a velvet rope, but an approach, or tool, that helps us understand and express the culture we live in. TV commercials are a part of this, stupid as they generally are. Surely if art can help us to understand massacres, religion, love, and the human mind, it’s also capable of communicating (overqualified, perhaps) something about a new pair of jeans.


Three “Indie” Songs Featured in Commercials that are Better Than Music Videos Anyway

José González: “Heartbeats” for Sony Bravia Television

An exercise in creativity both conceptual and technical, tens of thousands of rubber Super Balls were launched down the steep incline of San Francisco streets and filmed in luxurious slow motion to González’s gently picked acoustic ballad. By turns beautiful and wholly absurd, it just may represent a kind of TV commercial apex untouched by the thousands of “Bands Playing in Front of a Camera and Their Instruments Aren’t Even Plugged In, What Do They Think, We’re Stupid?” music videos.

M83: “Don’t Save Us from the Flames” for Pontiac

Pure adrenaline, this commercial positively leapt off my fucking screen and caused me to tell my friend to, “Hold on, shut up a second.” Disembodied skyscraper lights surge and grow like living things across a space-black landscape as the gigantic snare rolls of the M83 title track arrest your attention. I’ve not seen this kind of explosive momentum used so effectively, or images and music married so beautifully, in a long time. The two are neon bedmates, and their relationship rejuvenated my interest in both the album and television commercial art in general.

Mogwai: “Summer” for Levi’s

With this, Mogwai had the kind of video budget they’ve yet to enjoy, and all they had to pay for it was a two-second shot of the Levi’s logo at the end. Two young people attractive enough to appear in a Broken Social Scene video meet in a deserted, midnight street. Unexpectedly, a herd of computer-animated Buffalo (Bison?), the rendering of which far outpacing the animals in Mogwai’s “Hunted by a Freak” video, swirl in a miasma of hair and sweat around and finally past the couple, who stand calm and unperturbed. Mogwai’s subtle buildup is matched by the suddenly chaotic scene, and fades with the pack into a stunning calm.