James Mercer didn't foresee the response his decision would elicit-if he had, he might not have agreed to it. But there it was, a familiar Shins song, unraveling as the soundtrack to a bizarre and unlikely Shins moment:
A McDonald's commercial.
It would seem innocuous enough, especially nowadays, when even the music of Nick Drake is used to hawk wares. But it incensed fans in Albuquerque, N.M., where Mercer and his bandmates-Marty Crandell, Dave Hernandez and Jesse Sandoval-had been based.
It even prompted their local alternative weekly, the Albuquerque Alibi, to run two op-ed pieces-one defending the band's decision, the other incisively criticizing it.
"Nice going, McShins," wrote the Alibi's Tim McGivern. "Now, a song that I used to love... will forever conjure the scent of... greasy french fries, served by a big, red-headed clown so that every overweight, undernourished kid in America can eat them with a smile."
The backlash took the band by surprise.
"Hardly anybody actually saw it," Mercer says of the commercial, which aired back in 2002. "Most had just heard about it. It's not as if people had it in their face for months."
The partnership of artists and advertising has long been a sensitive issue, and it goes beyond the mere factor of a commercial's frequency.
Stephen Malkmus, Modest Mouse and Blonde Redhead are just a handful of musicians who have, in recent years, suffered an onslaught of attacks for posing in ads or licensing music to commercials. It is, as disgruntled bloggers have charged, antithetical to their indie principles.
The Shins weren't spared any such assaults.
"Did you really have to go and pawn your integrity and one of the best songs you've ever written?" McGivern asked in his piece.
Mercer, the band's singer, guitarist and songwriter, refutes the contention that, by associating himself with a corporation like McDonalds, he has compromised the band's integrity.
"I remember being really excited when I first heard The Ramones in a movie," he recalls. "I didn't think of them as selling out. I thought it was exciting that now everyone got to hear how great this band was.
"What does it really mean to sell out? It's very simple. It is a situation where you subscribe to a certain belief system and someone gives you enough money that you throw down those beliefs and cash in."
With that in mind, Mercer says, neither he nor the Shins have sold out.
"I had to ask myself, "What does McDonald's do? What are the evil things they've done?' These good and evil things are all up for grabs, and I think that some people who criticized us were just purely anti-capitalism. Not that I'm a capitalist or that I don't think socialism has any good things to offer, but to me that's a bit naïve."
Perhaps another explanation is that The Shins have reached the level where their large underground following naturally starts to get pissed. It's rock 'n' roll evolution: great band starts small, gathers rabid fans, continues greatness, mainstream takes notice and adopts band, early fans get extremely jealous, feel cheapened by association with the mainstream.
The intensity of that protectiveness is understandable. Since The Shins' inception back in 1997 (their origins actually stretch back to '92 and a band called Flake), they've crafted a remarkable, though small, body of work that has been wholly uncommon, beautifully strange and, well, magical. Their songs are informed not only by the classic pop structures of Brian Wilson, but also by the inventiveness that underlined the work of bands like The Pixies, My Bloody Valentine and the Cure.
Their Sub Pop debut in 2001, Oh Inverted World, was an underdog among its indie brethren, and most-including The Shins-didn't expect it to surface above an inkling of buzz.
But word-of-mouth adrenaline proved to be the band's lifeline, creating such a critical underground mass that it seemed bigger than the band itself.
In the time after Inverted's release, The Shins gradually moved from the local venues of Albuquerque to the stages of the Siren Festival, the artist-curated All Tomorrow's Parties Festival and last year's CMJ Festival in New York, where they were the undisputed darlings.
The buzz even reached some unlikely corporate ears. Folks at The Gap commissioned Mercer to pen a track-a beautifully quiet, acoustic lullaby-to accompany a commercial (the Roman Coppola-directed short featuring Ashton Kutcher, Scarlett Johannssen, Jay Hernandez and Zooey Deschanel riding their bikes down "Khaki Street"), and TV shows lined up to use Shins material, particularly their melancholic anthem, "New Slang."
And then came that McDonald's commercial. In an op-ed piece that ran opposite of McGivern's, Alibi music editor Michael Henningsen wrote that it was a great thing.
"Bands like The Shins, who toil away thanklessly for years and manage to taste a little success at some point deserve-no, owe it to themselves-to make the most of that success," he wrote.
For Mercer, making the most of it included using the money he earned from that commercial (which he says he pushed to be tripled) to move to Portland and build a home studio, where the band was able to polish and record their recently released Chutes Too Narrow. So fans can partially thank McDonald's for the impressive sophomore effort, a continuation of Inverted's epic sound.
Chutes, with ponderings more raucous than paced, does away with the elaborate, quirky sound effects that underlined The Shins' previous efforts. Even Mercer steps forward, his voice no longer lost in excessive harmonies. His lyrics-elliptical vignettes steeped in verbose, dream-like imagery-are especially profound this time around.
Yet to his credit, Mercer is unsatisfied, feeling he could've shot straighter from the hip.
"A lot of really great songs are very straightforward, and I fear sometimes that, while my metaphors are honest, and while they usually make sense to me, they might be a bit too abstract.
"I think because the things that I'm expressing are things that have been expressed before, I don't want to just say it, so I end up hiding behind metaphors. I guess sometimes I'm almost afraid to be too honest." ©
The Shins perform with Magic Magicians and All Night Radio at "Canes, 8 p.m. on Feb. 8. $14. 858-488-1780.