Beautiful commodities

Current pop offers freedom of choice for a new generation

It’s a beautiful day, sings Bono on U2’s latest song of hope and redemption. But imagine him looking into the camera at the close of the video exclaiming, “but not for me!” Overhead an ascending jet’s engine catches fire, sending it crashing to the ground in a heap. You’d likely feel a smack of acerbic irony similar to the one Devo shot out at the dawn of the ’80s with their own “Beautiful World.” The tune (and accompanying video) bopped along with much the same verve and enthusiasm as U2’s hit. That is, until the finale, when images of people dancing and laughing (“It’s a beautiful world, for you”) turned to scenes of starvation and nuclear destruction (“not me”).

The sarcastic impact was novel and undeniable. Which made it all the more shocking when the song (minus the crucial ending lyric) recently popped up as foot-tapping fodder for images of a whitebread housewife strolling through the conglomerate department store Target. Devo, it seemed, had forsaken one of their most potent tunes for a paycheck. Strangely, the woman in the commercial could pass for one of the blissful simpletons in the song’s original video. But the double irony was immediately obscured by the uneasy feeling of cheapening value.

But why? Shouldn’t we be used to this by now? Jimi Hendrix prods us toward the purchase of automobiles from beyond the grave. Iggy Pop, the icon of nihilistic rock ‘n’ roll, beckons us from the space between sitcoms and game shows. It’s all quite commonplace, yet if this music has really meant something to you, the prosaic air of it all doesn’t ease the blow. The difference between music videos and commercials, songs and jingles, and artists and pitchmen continues to go further out of focus as the hits of the recent and remote past keep appearing as lynch pins for corporate ad campaigns.

So the questions remain: Can meaningful music used in TV commercials withstand the gouge of diminished value? Do artists hit a ceiling of transformative power (an inherent quality of good music) when selling their goods and services to ad agencies?

Most importantly, does anyone give a damn? For Devo’s Jerry Casale, who helped pen “Beautiful World,” Target’s use of the song represents a kind of last laugh for the band. “Most humans are despicable and what they think is a beautiful world horrifies us,” he explains. “So if they think selling certain types of themed, color-coordinated merchandise makes the world beautiful, then [the use of the song in the ad] is perfect.” To Casale, the use of “Beautiful World” meant not only some monetary returns after getting “ripped off all our lives by onerous record deals and unscrupulous publishers,” but a sort of underhanded achievement many years after the fact. Target, it seems, is oblivious to the true nature of the tune they’re using to promote their stores. “Every Devo fan out there knows what the puchline is,” Casale says. “Everyone that loves the song knows it’s dark. It’s one man’s opinion that the world stinks.”

The same could be said of Kiss and their recent odorous shill for Pepsi. With it they’ve managed to pull off one of the most embarrassing and crass product endorsement sell-outs in memory. In the ad, the band recreates its legendary stageshow — make-up, costumes, explosives and all — but with a few differences. The massive screen behind them flashes gleaming cans of cold cola, and the words to one of their classic rock cuts are mangled to reflect a dedication not to the high art of partying, but the joys of carbonation. Finally, the band crowds around Pepsi’s ever-so-cute pitch girl, shape-shifting scamp Hallie Kate Eisenberg, her impish face painted like that of a band member, and we discover that the nirvana of rock ‘n’ roll is synonymous with a heady mixture of sugar, caffeine and caramel color. One wonders how even the most militant Kiss fan can hold their head aloft after such a travesty.

Britney Spear’s blood-oath to the same mega-corporation cannot, however, be viewed in the same light. With no artistic merit or storied history to tarnish, her soda-pop booty shake comes off identical to her general m.o. Did anyone expect her not to, like any popular sports figure, sign with the highest bidder? But as Pepsi slides its tentacles — via ad revenue — into the schools that teach her fanbase, Spears’ cutie-porn image becomes increasingly sinister.

To her generation, though, the mundanity of it all is increasingly a non-issue. “We were the epitome of anti-establishment,” Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry recently said, comparing the then-and-now of commercial use of popular music in an interview for Gear magazine. “It doesn’t bother the kids now as much as it would have bothered us.” Earlier this year Aerosmith shared one of the world’s largest commercial stages with Spears and boy bubblegummers ‘N Sync during the halftime show of the Superbowl. If younger listeners know it’s all just business, and music, as usual these days, they’ve had fine teachers in acts like Aerosmith.

There’s little doubt that good songs can survive the beating of even the most distasteful ad campaign. If, that is, the campaign is fleeting. Information overload and the shortcomings of human memory help ensure that. But what kind of damage is done to mediocre tunes over the long haul? Bob Seager’s “Like a Rock” and Buster Poindexter’s “Hot Hot Hot” have both been taken to the coals by auto companies. Though these guys are likely grinning all the way to the bank, the carcasses of their creations have been flogged hollow in the process. Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business” and Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle,” used for office supplies and mail delivery respectively, are not far behind.

But this is the chance taken by musicians looking to cash in. For some, the alternatives are worse. Casale felt that if Devo didn’t work out a deal using “Beautiful World,” some awful sound-alike tune, “changed enough so they wouldn’t have to pay us anything,” would take its place. Electronica guru Moby hit a similar wall. Trying to draw the line between selling out and not selling out he ran headlong into the very idea that punk zine Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll has been pushing for years: that all musicians are sellouts by merely working within the music industry. Exhausted, he took Rage Against the Machine’s “working within the system to fight the system” road and promised to direct his ad revenue toward charitable causes. His conscience, we assume, is much relieved.

In his book, The Accidental Evolution of Rock ‘N’ Roll, Chuck Eddy calls selling out a “hallowed pop tradition.” Sting, it is likely, would agree. He’s seen his career take a major upswing after a strategic ride in a Jaguar helped land his latest single on the charts. Yet on VH1’s year-end wrap-up of 2000, his agent makes it clear that the His Royal Stingness fervently rejected the use of “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” for a deodorant advert. So the man gets points for class and taste and comes away clean. One guesses Altoids couldn’t reel him in for “Every Breath You Take” either.

So cashing in and selling out is by no means a cut-and-dry matter. Clearly the effects on the artists involved vary from case to case. But what is perhaps more interesting are the effects on the listening, watching and buying public, whose guard has been eroded by conglomerates interested in herding quality consumers. When tattoed SoCal punkers blink-182 come to the Masquerade this week on their “Civic Tour” — with a custom blink-182 Honda Civic parked out in front of the venue as part of a giveaway promotion — will anyone see it as something other than just a chance to win a car?

Sting and Jaguar play Philips Arena Wed., May 9. Blink-182 and Honda play the Masquerade Thurs., May 10.??