Pete Townsend is Wrong, or Let’s All Sell Out

Pete Townsend is wrong! He’s sold Who songs for use in commercials. For someone who, as a member of The Who, satirized the idea on the album “The Who Sell Out” the satire has become sad reality. Townsend has justified the selling of the songs with the roar “It’s my song. I do what the fuck I like with it.” The problem is what if the original owners object?

Who are the original owners of songs written by Townsend, The Beatles, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Clash, The Moody Blues (the list could go on for pages)? We are. We’re the ones that originally bought these songs. We paid for these works of art, buying them in albums, CDs and in live concert settings. We’ve given rock artists a lifestyle that is the envy of their fans, a rock and roll lifestyle has even become a cliché for a lavish, if not decadent lifestyle. The artist, our proxy, is living out our rock and roll dreams and fantasies.

Art, once it’s released, has the nasty habit of becoming more than the artist intended. Rock and roll has became the soundtrack to the living movie of our lives. The audience imbues the songs with meaning beyond the music or the lyrics. Perhaps the words and music helped us experience the world in a different or a new way, striking a chord within us that we related to on a purely emotional level. Perhaps it had a more visceral effect. We listened to the music while we were high and it helped expand our perspectives, or maybe we were listening to the song when we kissed our first girlfriend or had sex for the first time. Maybe when some were on foreign battlefields and it’s the music that reminded them of home, or made the fight for survival tolerable. What is Townsend’s reaction to this? He is totally dismissive of his fans that have supported him for over fifty years with the quip, “I don’t give a fuck about the first time you kissed Susie.” When we bought your albums, CDs and tickets we invested in you, and what you said it stood for, art.

The reason for the artist wanting to sell his songs to corporations, whether it’s to replenish their retirement plan, exposure, loss of control of their catalog, or even simple greed are less important than the reasons the corporations want these songs. You have to ask yourself why would corporations want songs that include themes of rebellion against authority, personal freedom, alienation, violence, sex, or any of the myriad other themes that have been incorporated into rock music over the past 50 years?

Corporations want these songs because they come with a built in audience. Not only do they bring an audience, but the music carries a resonance with the audience that elicits an emotional response to it that is far beyond what any jingle or pre-fabricated music could elicit, and corporations are eager to exploit the audience, artist and message.

Art, rock and roll in particular, as used in commercials waters down and trivializes the original message and artistic intent. If corporations can assimilate a rock song into their corporate fold they can control the message and make that message cease to be dangerous. The Clash song “Should I Stay or Should I Go” which is about catching your girlfriend with another man and the repercussions of choosing to stay and confront the situation or leaving. Now, as used in a commercial, that choice of staying or going is reduced down to going to your high school reunion. The original intent, meaning and connotation is trivialized in the listener’s mind and the far less dangerous message of consumption is instilled, and the only thing that has left is The Clash’s punk credentials.

The Jet Factor
One of the arguments for bands, especially newer bands to sell their music to commercials is for exposure. The theory being a national audience hears your music on a commercial and like it so much they’re inspired to buy it and become fans of the band. But does that actually happen? The best example of this is the band Jet and their song “Are You Gonna’ Be My Girl?” After it was released in 2003 it was used in 2-3 commercials and on the soundtracks of several movies. If by the logic of doing it for the exposure, Jet should be one of the biggest bands around today. As well all know, they aren’t. After the initial flash of exposure Jet is no longer a force on the musical scene, at least in a high profile manner, and are more an answer in a trivia game than a viable band. Others that got a first flash of success such as Sara Barellis and Dirty Vegas very quickly met the same fate as Jet. So like waiting for American Idol to deliver it’s first actual American idol, we’re still waiting for a commercial advertisement to launch its first star. Why hasn’t commercial advertising broken a star yet? Commercials have put the name of the artist on the commercials but very quickly discontinued the practice? Why? Because commercials aren’t about the art or the music, they’re about selling a product which has nothing to do with the music.

Want to be Branded?
The trend of the last few years is the urging of “experts” telling us if you want to be successful develop your brand, establish your brand, as if this were a good thing. Let’s not forget what a brand is, the sign of the owner burned into the flesh of their property. For corporations who wish to use rock and roll songs in their commercials, this is exactly what the corporations want to do, establish the music as the property of the corporations and to control the music of rebellion and freedom. The message of the song becomes the message the corporation chooses, and however they choose to use it. The artist becomes a de facto spokesman for the corporation, endorsing the product or philosophy the corporation wishes to impart. How then will an artist reclaim their integrity and message?

The commercialization of art isn’t limited to popular music, contemporary literature has also come into the sights of the corporations. In the recent past ideas have been floated about corporations subsidizing high profile writers by paying for product placement, much as in the movies, or having actual ads in the front or backs of books. If that were to happen what is to stop a corporation from approving ‘the message’ of book or ‘asking’ a writer to change the message, or tone down any aspect of a book they didn’t like? Would a book like “1984” ever be published again?

Corporations have also tried to assimilate writers words and images into their message. Jack Kerouac, a beat writer whose works espouse personal freedom and rightly indicts consumerism as a factor in the loss of those freedoms, has had his image used in ads for Khaki pants. More recently Chrysler has used a poetic passage from Kerouac’s “On The Road” which at the end equates the passage with great gas mileage! A more banal misuse or twisting of Kerouac’s words cannot be imagined. But the corporations would prefer you to listen to their MPG message than Kerouac’s rhapsodizing of the freedom of the road and of finding adventure and personal experience in life, which to Kerouac are priceless and give meaning to life.

One of the accusations against Western society, especially American culture in particular, is that it has no history, no culture. In the last hundred years America has come of age. America has developed its artists in every discipline, painting, music, literature, architecture. The last century started a period of American exploration into art, if allowed to continue who knows what heights it may attain? If we’re bold, perhaps a new period of American creativity may rival that of the Renaissance. Artistically America is starting to accrue a nice body of work, but if we let it become a culture for sale, a consumer product with corporations controlling the message we have accomplished nothing except to consume ourselves. If we let corporations have their way, maybe someday in the future we’ll all be going to see Pepsi’s Mona Lisa.

Sources: “The Doors Unhinged: Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial” by John Densmore, pages 115-116. “Pete Townsend Gets His Wish”