How to Calculate Musical Sellouts

American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson shills for Ford and . . . so what? It gets a low Moby Quotient number.
American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson shills for Ford and . . . so what? It gets a low Moby Quotient number. (By Frederick M. Brown -- Getty Images)
By Bill Wyman
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 14, 2007

A commercial during "The Colbert Report" recently featured a happy family shopping in Circuit City for back-to-school technology for their comely daughter. She's a big fan of the bubblegum punk group Fall Out Boy, and while the band's fabulous song "Thnks fr th Mmrs" plays, she imagines all the exciting Fall Out Boy-related things she could do with many different amazing Circuit City products.

As the happy family leaves the store, Dad hands her a new cellphone and says, smiling, "You can take a study break with Fall Out Boy!"

The kid is tickled pink.

Right after that came a Nissan commercial, which wanted consumers to understand that, if you owned an SUV, you could drive places. To underline the point, the commercial broke into the Ramones, who sang, "Hey! Ho! Let's go!" That's the famous break from the punk rockers' "Blitzkrieg Bop," a heartfelt ode to pogoing to the beat of a Nazi military assault.

Well, at least it wasn't a Volkswagen ad.

It seems as if every commercial these days has a rock band in it. What was once the mark of utter uncoolness, a veritable byword of selling out, has become the norm. More than a decade ago we became inured to the most unlikely parings. Led Zeppelin in a Cadillac ad. The Clash shilling for Jaguar. Bob Dylan warbling for an accounting firm, or Victoria's Secret. An Iggy Pop song about a heroin-soaked demimonde accompanying scenes of blissful vacationers on a Caribbean cruise ship.

There is no longer even a debate, let alone a stigma. "If you did an advert, you were a sellout," notes Billboard Executive Editor Tamara Conniff. "The Rolling Stones broke that when they allowed the use of 'Start Me Up' for the Windows campaign. Though there was an initial backlash, it suddenly made it okay for bands of integrity to do commercials. Now, it's almost as if as an artist you don't have a corporate partner [or] commercial, you've not really arrived."

Indeed, in the late 1990s, the techno artist Moby, as hip as they come, openly boasted of having sold every track of his breakthrough album "Play" to an advertiser, or to a film or TV soundtrack. The album should perhaps have been called "Pay."

So we submit: The battle has been lost. But that doesn't make it right. There are even some who disagree.

"People say making money is making money, but there's a difference," says Bill Brown, a onetime rock critic who now works in the New York publishing world. He examines the implications of this new age in rock commercialism at great length and no little erudition on his Web site, "If you're in a band, you want to be paid, definitely, but the music is for people to use and enjoy. The problem with branding yourself and selling your songs to commercials is the music is no longer for the listener.

"Instead, the ad is signaling that, 'This company is cool, and we've gotten this band to sell us some of their music.' It's the difference between selling to me, and something else: Pete Townshend sold a song to Hummer!"

Clearly, what we need is an objective formula for determining just how offensive a particular rock-based advertisement is. I am proud to announce that this lack has been righted.

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