THIS IS MY DAMN COLUMN
[This article originally ran in the 10.26.06 issue of Metroland Magazine]
The use of popular music in commercials may have hit a new low last weekend during the World Series. John Mellancamp’s performance before Game 2 of his new song “Our Country” was mind-numbing corporate bombardment at its worst.
Famous musicians have been shilling for corporations for as long as both existed together. I’ve got mid-60’s pitches by The Who, Cream, The Moody Blues, The Jefferson Airplane, and Marvin Gaye. This sort of thing all but disappeared, though, during the Vietnam-era polarization. Whether Madison Avenue didn’t want rock or visa- versa, anything that smelled even mildly of rebellion or danger wasn’t used to sell much of anything through the 1970’s.
In the 1980’s, the use of rock songs in commercials became a flash-point issue. Rock songs again began popping up in commercials as Madison Avenue realized that baby-boomers, raised on rock music, were the money demo. The ads were met by calls of “sell-out,” perhaps a vestige of hippie-dom, a cry against consorting with The Man. Neil Young, bless him, released “This Song’s For You,” complete with an over-the-top video, eviscerating the literal commercialization of rock songs and those artists that allowed it.
How things have changed since then. Today, the use of popular songs, rock, hip-hop, whatever, is standard protocol; for many musicians it’s the golden ring, the big score. With record deals rarely paying much, and touring an iffy proposition at best, the cash on the barrelhead that ads represent for musicians often pays the mortgage. Ad money can go easily into six-figures for a national campaign, is split 50-50 between the musician and the record company, and an equal amount is typically split between the publisher and the songwriter. Iggy Pop’s made a fortune off of “Lust for Life.” And anything that makes the Ig-ster rich is fine with me.
And now, with ever-tightening radio disappearing as relevant to promoting most music, ads are actually becoming a force in breaking new music. Sting’s 2000 album “Brand New Day” was dead in the water until his manager offered Jaguar a song for free for a television ad campaign, on the condition that Sting appear in the ads. The ads ran, and “Brand New Day” went multi-platinum. U2 launched “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” with TV ads for Ipods. Dylan just did the same thing with “Modern Times.”
But Mellencamp’s thing is different. The song has become ubiquitous as a jingle for General Motors television commercials, pitching the new Silverado, Chevy’s big-ass gas-guzzling pick-up, the sort of truck bought by tiny-weenus-compensating white guys who never haul anything that would scratch their bedliner, but think a big truck will make them appear virile and can’t afford a Hummer. These are guys who would never even consider buying a truck with a foreign label, even though the better-made Toyota / Nissan / Honda trucks are actually made in the US by better-cared-for American workers.
And so we have GM using John Mellencamp’s “Our Country,” from an album that won’t be released until next year (ITunes is selling several versions of the song, and it has, of course, been released to radio). The ads feature a sickeningly banal pastiche of faux-patriotism, alluding to small-town America, the 60’s, Chevy trucks, 9-11, Katrina, interstate highway signs, Nixon, Chevy trucks, amber waves of grain, Rosa Parks, John Mellencamp, a sad little boy in a cowboy hat, and Chevy trucks. It winds up with one of those ad-agency manly voices saying “This is our country. This is our truck,” as a shot of a shiny Silverado, shot at an angle to make it look as big and imposing as possible, hits the screen. The ad has been running all month, primarily during football and baseball games. It’s been running a lot.
If that’s not bad enough, Mellencamp shows up Sunday night at Comerica Stadium in Detroit, which features a Silverado propped up at a rakish angle over an outfield fence and has General Motors branding all over the place. I’d already seen the ad at least ten times while watching football Sunday afternoon. Mellencamp and a bunch of Nashville cats perform the song as part of the “pre-game festivities.” While he’s playing, video was inserted of a tractor in a field, the American flag, the Washington Monument, etc. Just like the commercial, except no Silverados, but that would have been crass, right?
The ad then ran throughout the game. Several times during the game, the camera would rest lovingly on the Silverado in the outfield. I pray, before the series is over, that Albert Pujois puts one through the windshield.