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Staying Tuned



Published October 19, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

In the mid-'80s Michael Jackson committed a morally reprehensible act that violated time-honored values and resulted in a substantial payoff: He licensed a song from The Beatles' catalogue for use in a television commercial.

I still remember the shiver of revulsion that ripped through me the first time I heard the late John Lennon's voice being used to sell a product. Modern media lore holds that "Revolution" was the first of the group's songs sold for use in a TV spot. Jackson evidently considered it the perfect accompaniment to Nike's 1987 campaign unveiling the Air Max sneaker.

In truth, though, this was the second time the singer had sold the rights to a Beatles classic. On March 23, 1985, Lincoln-Mercury Cars debuted a spot the company hoped would boost its sagging sales: "Help!" The public outcry was such that the spots were retired ahead of schedule.

As Bob Dylan noted in a recent song, "Things have changed." Not to be confused with the mumbly bard's earlier composition, "The Times They Are A-Changin.'" That one's currently the soundtrack for a TV ad singing the praises of health-care giant Kaiser Permanente. You may recall that both Dylan music and Dylan himself were featured in a Victoria's Secret campaign last year. What's next -- commercials for a skin-care product to the tune of "Forever Young?"

Once upon a time that would have been inconceivable. I know it's only rock 'n' roll, but the genre used to be above this sort of thing. Not anymore. And I'd argue the trend represents one of the most significant cultural shifts in this country since the 1960s. Yep, the times changed then. And now they're a-changin' back -- often with the help of those who had rejected anything-for-a-buck values in the first place.

You can't fault today's younger performers, of course; they don't know any better. Why wouldn't The Faders, Bent Fabric and DJ Kane license their songs to Cingular so the company can use them to move cellphones? Why wouldn't Modest Mouse be glad to help Nissan sell Quest mini-vans? If Target asks Sir Mix-a-Lot for permission to change the lyrics of "Baby Got Back" to "Baby Got Back Packs" for its back-to-school ads, would anyone really expect him to refuse on the basis of artistic principles?

Likewise not shocking: A Land of the Loops tune in an ad for Volkswagen, a Bon Jovi number in an ad for Duracell, a Status Quo song in an ad for Saturn, a Breeders hit in an ad for Nissan. The band Fisher wrote "Beautiful Life" for Toyota and only later released it on a CD. Let's face it, in the age of Britney, there's no meaningful distinction between an MTV video and a TV spot for Pepsi featuring the same song.

If artists never stood for anything anyway, their willing absorption into big business can hardly be considered a betrayal. The same cannot be said for many of the music world's more senior citizens. For example, what the hell are The Rolling Stones doing in a commercial for Ameriquest, a mortgage company whose slogan is "Proud Sponsor of the American Dream"? These are the guys who gave us "Paint It Black" and "Sympathy for the Devil." Suddenly they're poster boys for the American Dream?

To a degree, this whole trend can be traced to Mick Jagger -- he's always prided himself on his business savvy, and masterminded one of the earliest tour-sponsorship deals. But it was with a beer company, and that made some kind of sense. But home loans? Brian Jones must be spinning in his grave.

The Who's music currently can be heard in ads for both Nissan and the allergy medication Clarinex. Jefferson Airplane's is in an ad for Tommy Hilfiger. Iggy Pop's graces spots for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and Guinness. Bowie, FTD; Donovan, the Gap and Volvo. Meanwhile, Sly and the Family Stone are singing "Everyday People" to millions of people every day on behalf of Toyota. And, what, the surviving members of Led Zeppelin were going to miss a meal if they didn't cut a deal with Cadillac? Carmakers must have entire departments devoted to talking rock stars into selling out these days.

Something tells me that Marc Bolan, Canned Heat and Stevie Ray Vaughn wouldn't be endorsing Mitsubishi, Target and Nissan, respectively, if the decision to do so hadn't been left to folks who aren't dead.

The one I cannot get my head around, though, is Paul McCartney. Here's the most successful musician alive, not to mention the guardian of one of the world's great recording legacies. What motivates a chap like that to wake up one day and say, "I can make a bloody valuable artistic statement by becoming the face of Fidelity Investments?" McCartney couldn't spend the money he already has in a dozen lifetimes. What's the point?

The list of major artists who refuse to parlay their credibility and principles into a quick paycheck gets shorter every day. U2 is hand-in-hand with Apple's iPod. REM's music is in the new commercial for Progressive Car Insurance.

Of course, there are still a few holdouts: Bruce Springsteen, Carlos Santana and Neil Young continue to just say no. Tom Waits, who has never been at a loss for a good line, has one on the subject: "Eventually," he predicts, "artists will be going onstage like race-car drivers, covered in hundreds of logos." He recently declined when Buick came calling. The automaker went ahead with its campaign anyway, using a sound-alike. Waits is taking the company to court.

John Densmore, who played drums with The Doors, has his own Buick story. In the late '60s, the company approached the band with an offer of $50,000 for the right to use "Light My Fire" in a commercial. At the time, front man Jim Morrison was in Europe, and the rest of the group agreed to the deal in his absence. On his return, Morrison was furious to learn what had happened and threatened to sledgehammer a Buick onstage every night if the commercial aired. It never did.

Over the past three and a half decades, the corporate offers apparently have become harder to refuse. Apple was willing to write a check for $4 million. In a bid for the rights to "Break On Through (to the Other Side)," Cadillac waved $15 million in front of The Doors' surviving members before the company, rebuffed, took the deal to Led Zeppelin.

"People lost their virginity to this music, got high for the first time to this music," Densmore explains. "I've had people tell me kids died in Vietnam listening to this music. Other people say they know someone who didn't commit suicide because of this music. On stage, when we played these songs, they felt mysterious and magic. That's not for rent."

Hey, I don't know what I'd do if some conglomerate offered me millions of dollars. But I sincerely wish that more musicians, especially those my generation held in such high esteem, would spend more time trying to break on through to the other side and less time trying to join it.