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RockNotes: Wilco and the Sell-Outs

I saw one of those damn Volkswagen commercials using Wilco's music again today and I'm still not resigned to it. It still upsets me, probably because I really thought Jeff Tweedy and friends had that special something that elevates their rock 'n' roll art beyond crass commerce - an apparently naive belief. They've had a pair of Top 10 albums, after all (including their latest, Sky Blue Sky), and while I'm certainly not going to say the guys in the band should be forced to busk on the streets, wasn't there enough money coming in?

VW.jpgWas the VW payday really worth sacrificing their integrity? Because that's what they did. They removed themselves from that best of all worlds: Bands that are commercially successful on their own artistically whole terms. Those bands are important because they give everyone else who's making sacrifices for their integrity hope that there just may be a light at the end of the tunnel.

They try to justify it by saying they've licensed "hundreds" of songs to TV shows and movies. Okay, two things: TV shows and movies aren't commercials. They're artistic endeavors using the music of other artists to hopefully create something with merit. There's a huge difference. Also: If Wilco has been licensing "hundreds" of songs, that means they're probably not worrying about where next month's rent is coming from.

They also say that thanks to the tiny playlists of the corporate titans that have a stranglehold on radio, licensing music to commercials is one of the few viable ways to get your music heard nowadays. But I just don't buy the premise that that's where you have to go to get heard. Geez, I haven't noticed a lack of radio airplay stopping bands like Radiohead from gaining great amounts of buzz. Are they doing commercials? If Wilco wants to recruit new fans, why not give away downloads of their next album like Radiohead just did, thus bypassing the evil (but convenient-to-blame) radio industry altogether?

Wilco would be a perfect candidate to go that route - an established band at the edges of the mainstream that you don't hear on the radio, but with enough of a cult following to generate a lot of free publicity by making a stand against the corporate gatekeepers, instead of joining them in a comfy VW ride. Those fans who liked it would contribute what they thought it was worth - but since Wilco is now making the big advertising bucks, probably not many listeners would be motivated to pay much of anything.

But now that our local heroes have indeed become the backdrop to a bunch of stupid car commercials, it's time to officially add them to the list of famous rock 'n' roll sell-outs - here thoughtfully provided by the Canadian newspaper the Windsor Star. The list begins in 1971, the year rock's original artistic integrity showed the first signs of corporate creep and ends in a Bug, which at one time was considered the vehicle of the uncompromised.

1971: The New Seekers turn a jingle into a single when they re-record the Coca-Cola song "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing." Comment: The New Seekers. Cripes. It figures the first knife in the back would come from a passel of nobodies. They're the slippery slope incarnate.

1981: The Rolling Stones sign the first corporate sponsorship contract for a rock tour with Jovan perfume. They have since been sponsored by Budweiser, Sprint and Tommy Hilfiger. Comment: Have the Stones really done anything worth a damn ever since? Don't bother to answer.

the_king.jpg1985: Burger King uses Aretha Franklin's "Freeway of Love" in a campaign, believed to be the first licensing of the master recording of a hit. Comment: Nineteen-eighty-five, the year soul sold its soul.

1987: Nike pays Capitol Records and Michael Jackson $250,000 to use the Beatles' "Revolution." It is the first and last significant instance of concerted fan protest against not just the marketing use of a beloved song, but the vitiation of the song's message. Comment: The year it all broke. It must be noted that Yoko Ono supported Jacko's cynical ploy, once and for all confirming our suspicions that she always thought rock 'n' roll was just a silly past-time, and as such, it was okay to milk it some.

1989: Madonna's "Like a Prayer" is the first song by a pop superstar to debut as a commercial before it is released as a single. The song airs in a Pepsi ad the night before it is unveiled on MTV. Comment: Madonna establishes herself as the antithesis of all that is good and holy about music. Her stage name is an un-ironic slap in the face to people who worship great music.

2003: Led Zeppelin finally agrees to license one of its songs, "Rock and Roll," to Cadillac for an ad campaign. The amount of money involved is said to be "ridiculous," although by whom is not known. Comment: Although it is indeed a sell-out, the fact that Zep held out until 2003 is nothing short of a miracle. Page and Plant seem to be making up for lost time, though: They've also licensed themselves for an amusement park ride.

2004: U2 and Apple announce a "co-branding" deal involving the sale of a custom U2 iPod. Apple has the rights to sell U2 songs from the How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb album on its iTunes service. Comment: Should be called, How To Dismantle 20 Years of Artistic Integrity and Become a Cartoon Version of Yourself in One Fell Swoop.

2007: Art-rock band Wilco strikes a deal for their music to be heard in a series of six Volkswagen commercials. Comment: Roger, Wilco and out.

*

For a good time, send your comments to Don. And then check out the RockNotes collection.



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Posted on December 3, 2007


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