A new back-to-school ad campaign for Kohl’s department stores, “Inspired by the Artists, Worn by You,” features Lenny Kravitz, Avril Lavigne, Vanessa Carlton, “Heroes” star/aspiring pop star Hayden Panettiere and Plain White T’s in its commercials, singing Kravitz’ “It’s Time For a Love Revolution.” Meanwhile, a current Converse ad is even bolder: the company commissioned N.E.R.D.’s Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, Santogold’s Santi White and Julian Casablancas of The Strokes to create a new full-length song and video, “My Drive Thru,” to promote the company’s centennial.
Yes, real money exchanged hands. Yes, the alchemy of the artists on “My Drive Thru” is approximately as cool as it looks on paper. And yes, it’s a shoe commercial.
It’s been at least a decade since I last fulminated over the evils of “selling out,” mainly because music, like Aristotle’s theory on nature, “abhors a vacuum.” It needs to be heard, and there are too many forces at play in 2008 that will silence music at the broadest level: tight playlists at radio, the ever-increasing cost of fueling up a touring van, and MTV’s constant devolution as an actual music source — how long will it be before even MTVu, the network’s college music source, gets inundated with episodes of “My Super Sweet 16” and “Rob and Big”? Honestly, the musicians involved in these Converse and Kohl’s campaigns — even Lavigne — have a much better shot at being on an MTV network through the ads than by hoping their latest videos get accepted for overnight/early morning rotation.
I also see no just reason to ask my favorite musicians to take a poverty oath simply to achieve some arbitrary standard of purity. And it truly is arbitrary — no one knows who handed down the commandment that says musicians should not take money to sell sneakers. So much great renaissance art was created through patronage — rich people commissioning works of great creative ferment. Pharrell is doing nothing different here.
But about 40 years ago, when the lines were being drawn between the establishment and the counterculture, it became verboten to use your image and likeness for commercial cash-grabbing. And for a long time, before radio playlists became tight and practically codified, it was possible for artists to avoid singing about soda, and the only musicians who showed up in ads were those whose limelight had receded — Rosemary Clooney crooning about paper towels, for instance.
A good number of fans and critics simply thought that musicians could not possibly cool if they sidled up to Mr. Moneybags and used their God-given talent to hawk his wares. The music was sacrosanct. What they didn’t understand, and this line of reasoning is probably a result of watching too much “Mad Men,” was that corporate America was going to harvest their cool whether they wanted money for it or not.
For example, Columbia Records under the leadership of Mitch Miller resisted rock culture until the late-‘60s, when it could no longer afford to do so. By April 1969, the label was using the phrase “The Man Can’t Bust Our Music” to identify with young listeners. It was laughable and transparent, but the label was successfully taking youth culture without giving anything back, and as the legendary New Jersey radio station WFMU points out on its Web site, they used that for the first time on a Chicago album, of all things.
So don’t wring your hands over these ads. When the great indie band Of Montreal sold one of its songs to become the current jingle for Outback Steakhouse, leader Kevin Barnes poured that money into his stage show. An already strong group was able to put on concerts that, from a technical standpoint, were worthy of their talent. To me, that feels like an even trade.