What happens when creativity and consumerism conflict?
Image: Rickie Lee Jones
More than 20 years ago, over lunch in around 1990, Tim Delaney told me an interesting story about a - to this day - stunning-looking commercial he and Steve Dunn had created for Revlon Flex shampoo. They had approached Laurie Anderson to write the soundtrack for the spot, or use one of her compositions.
Anderson declined. She didn’t want her music to appear in a commercial setting no matter how much she was paid for it (the sum mentioned was pretty impressive). Tim Delaney said that he couldn’t understand this. "She could have donated the money to some charity of her choice," he said.
Anderson’s husband, Lou Reed’s 1967 song "Venus in Furs" was famously used as the soundtrack to one of the most highly awarded commercials of its time - the 1993 Tony Kaye directed Dunlop "Tested for the Unexpected" from AMV BBDO. He was apparently less worried about the ad world’s use and re-contextualisation of his work. The Revlon job eventually went to Ann Dudley of British synthpop band Art of Noise.
I had to think about this when I recently read an interview that the great American singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones gave upon the release of her latest CD, "The Devil You Know," a striking collection of covers produced sparsely by Ben Harper. "Sympathy for the Devil" by the Rolling Stones is among them as well as Donovan’s "Trying to Catch the Wind".
With her idiosyncratic voice and phrasing she manages to create something uniquely and amazingly her own –an extraordinary achievement considering how firmly ensconced the originals of these songs are in the collective (Western) musical consciousness.
In this interview, she also addresses the issue of "selling out" to the ad world: "Does it hurt if a great artist does a commercial? It does because their art is part of people’s imagination — what they lean on in hard times and go to in happy days. And if that knowledge is used to sell a product then nothing is safe.
"People tell themselves their work doesn’t matter and take the money. I get that. But it matters. It would be better if the people who love the work make sure the artist is OK… a kind of patron association. Then people cannot sell the rights to "Chuck E’s In Love" or "Saturday Afternoons" or "Ohio" or "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" so you don’t have to think of a truck every time you hear the song. Would I sell my song for a million? What do you think?"
Jones had to pay a price for her artistic single-mindedness - or stubbornness as some might call it - which since her very first huge success, the 1979 hit single "Chuck E’s in Love," has yielded remarkable and highly influential work over the past 30 years but was often ahead of its time (for instance, 1996’s "Ghostyhead" her amazing venture into trip hop) and clearly not guided by overly commercial considerations.
Ironically, her unmistakable, albeit speaking, voice does appear in a 1989 launch spot for the New Beetle by Arnold, Boston, which had been sampled without her consent by English electronic group The Orb for their single "Fluffy Little Clouds," excerpts of which make up the spot’s soundtrack.
She didn’t finally object to the use of her voice by The Orb although her record company decided to sue. When Jones herself heard it, she is reported as saying to them: "What the hell you doin'? This is good!"
Tom Waits, Jones’ boyfriend in the mid 70s to early 80s, has shown fiercer opposition to his work being used in commercials. The song "Heart Attack and Vine" from his 1980 album of the same name was covered by Screamin' Jay Hawkins and provided the very prominent soundtrack to BBH’s 1993 Levi's commercial "Procession" directed by Michael Haussman. Waits sued in European court over this use of his music and won. And Levi’s had a full page apology printed in Billboard Magazine that said, in part:
"Tom Waits is opposed to his music, voice, name or picture being used in commercials. We at Levi Strauss & Co. have long admired Mr. Waits' work and respect his artistic integrity including his heartfelt views on the use of his music in commercials (…) We obtained the rights in good faith and were unaware of Mr. Waits' objections to such usage of his composition. We meant no offence to Mr. Waits and regret that "Heartattack and Vine" was used against his wishes and that the commercial caused him embarrassment."
Video: Levi's 501 "Procession" by BBH
Video: 2011 ad for Audi A6 Avant. Shortly after Eminem appeared in Chrysler’s Super Bowl spot "Imported From Detroit" including his track "Lose Yourself", Audi rolled out its own European spot that had an uncanny resemblance. Eminem’s Eight Mile Style LLC sued, ending in a settlement that included corporate donations to Detroit charities.