The Coug--or John Mellencamp, as he's known to his mom--has been soundtracking the glories of the American workin' man for three decades. So when those Chevy ads flickered across American TV screens every 2.3 seconds for months in 2006, it made perfect sense--even if they featured his shittiest song ('Our Country').
But when Of Montreal sold its song 'Wraith Pinned to the Mist (And Other Games)' to Outback Steakhouse last year, the cosmos winced a bit. A flamboyant singer with Tammy Fay Bakker mascara, fronting a cultish space-pop band with songs about chemical dependence and oppressive isolation, just isn't a logical Bloomin' Onion pitchman. It violated a few natural laws of art, which Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes has since himself admitted.
Shilling for soul-crushing, art-ignorant, world-befouling multinationals is totally antithetical to underground music's DIY code. Or at least that's what Fugazi, Dead Kennedys and even major-label grunge grandpa Neil Young have told us throughout their brilliant careers. But Of Montreal and many more of today's best indie bands are willing to think outside the box (or outside the bun, or any fucking way you want them to think) if you've got a suitcase full of cash.
The Shins sold 'New Slang' to McDonald's. Considering the lyrics ('New slang when you notice the stripes, the dirt in your fries/Hope it's right when you die, old and bony')--the song doesn't exactly whet the appetite for a Big Mac combo meal. Versions of 'Such Great Heights' by Postal Service and Iron & Wine were used by UPS and M&Ms, respectively. The White Stripes wrote a jingle for Coke, The New Pornographers helped pitch Phoenix University, Peter Bjorn & John are dialing internationally for AT&T/Cingular, Wilco is helping drive VW's sales--the list goes on and on.
And these are just the marquee names. A score of bands even twice as obscure as Of Montreal have plugged everything from computers to Cadillacs to Caribbean cruises.
But the bizarre twist is that we fans don't care very much anymore. Sure, we grumble and type up pissy blogs, but few of us are about to boycott our favorite bands, no matter how much they appear to sellout. Both Of Montreal and The Shins endured small-but-caustic backlashes on fan sites and message boards but are now bigger than ever.
The artists doing the selling argue their way out of culpability by saying that commercial radio is deaf to their music.
They say MTV is no longer willing or able to get new music to the masses.
They say they are just trying to find new ways to get their music to new audiences.
Very few people are going to hear a snippet 'Wraith Pinned to the Mist'--complete with new, Outback-oriented lyrics--and immediately go Googling. Very few pause to say, 'Whoa, dude, sweet song! I think I'll go through all the trouble of figuring out who this steakhouse band is and buy their CD!' Although many corporations run small 'as heard in our commercial!' features on their websites that extol the virtues of the band, it's nowhere near a boon to the fan base.
Promoting your so-called 'indie' band by having a few bars of your music accompany an image of a guy ordering some greasy meal deal is ludicrous.
If you want to justify selling your art for five or even six figures to finance an otherwise-unaffordable European tour or a home studio (two things the Spinto Band and The Shins used their money for), that's fine. In fact, those two reasons could easily justify selling lame shit that has nothing to do with your band.
But let's stop pretending that you just want to get your music heard now that the media monopoly has turned its back on underground music. That excuse didn't work for John Mellencamp, and it ain't going to work for Sub Pop's newest signee.