Doctors are prohibited from hawking products in television commercials. It’s a question of ethics. So, since the real ones can’t do it, stand-ins are asked to fill the prescription. Marcus Welby was never jumpy—and probably wouldn’t have been even if he had accidentally reversed the electric paddles used to jump-start a heart—so Robert Young became a very appropriate shill for Sanka. Then there are those characters from General Hospital, good-featured robots one and all, who push analgesics while wearing white lab coats, and admitting, “I’m not a doctor,” a confession that undoubtedly results in heads shaken in disbelief in trailer parks across the land. There is a sense that doctors belong to a higher order, some belief they are apart from mere mortals that, perhaps, justifies our baring all to them.
Just as people might feel let down if real doctors were able to endorse cough syrup, there is an entire generation that feels a certain amount of dismay—not quite throwing them down to the cellar of their souls, but at least to the lower level of a tri-level house in the suburbs—every time they turn on a TV set and hear and/or see (a) one of the songs they grew up with being used to push fabric softener or toothpaste; (b) a maker of that music crooning on behalf of a brewer. It’s like turning on the set and seeing a priest pushing the services of a post-Freudian psychologist. Formative experiences are suddenly put on par with dandruff shampoo.
Steve Winwood, the man who is certainly becoming the Crazy Eddie of upscale advertising, recently told Rolling Stone that he thinks there is no problem with his musical trafficking in Michelob. He said that he is an “entertainer,” and as such, it’s his role simply to get his music to as large an audience as possible. No, Stevie, no! Engelbert Humperdinck is an entertainer. You’re more than that . . . aren’t you? The answer to that question is yes: he’s a pragmatist and a person who is honest—to a far greater degree than most people are in public—about the music business of today. I suspect that if Barry Manilow, who was relentlessly pilloried for having been a jingle writer, were to start his career today, his record sales would be exceeded only by the volume of admiration that the likes of Winwood would have for him. It would have been Manilow as the Master, not the Schlockmeister. He must feel pangs when he hears Aretha Franklin crooning for Chevy and Target Department Store; he must have experienced deja vu like a jackhammer during the Super Bowl when the song George Michael wrote and performed for Diet Coke was played.
The dismay that people feel upon hearing their favorite tunes being used to sell comes about not only because they may have had a profound (e.g., backseat-of-a-Pontiac-Catalina) experience while the music was playing, but because there was, and is, a belief that the songwriter/performer (always imagined to be one in the same) was an artist, a poet. This notion was based, in part, on the personas of the musicians themselves, at least in the 1960’s. These people presented themselves as being far more enlightened than the ordinary mortal on the other side of the transistor radio. This stance is not only evident in the Lennon comment about the Beatles’ popularity exceeding that of Christ, which inferentially put the Fab Four above the Trinity, but in Jim Morrison’s posturing as a shaman. It was the 19th-century Romantic concept of the artist as an enlightened one—a visionary like Blake—revisited.
As the 60’s gave way to the 70’s, this characterization of rock “artist” was given further legitimacy by the inclusion of lyrics by Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, and others in secondary literature texts. Isn’t “I Am a Rock” simply John Donne brought up to date?
Although the operative term in the 80’s has been “star,” at least until the rise of performers like Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, and Michelle Shocked, all of whom barken back to the Simon/ Dylan tradition, the official appellation for someone who puts music on a tape and stage for a company is “recording artist,” as in an announcement for a group, “Band X, WEA recording artists, will appear . . . ” The term artist is used not so much to signify creativity as commodity.
Recently, while walking through a nonpublic area at the North American International Show in Detroit, I saw a sign outside a room that read “Chrysler Talent.” The sign didn’t refer to Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, nor to its president Gerald Greenwald, but to the men and mainly women who performed in and around the automobiles on the Chrysler displays. The meaning of the word talent on the sign didn’t refer to the individuals’ abilities and aptitudes; rather, the term had a generic connotation, more akin to something like beef. And that’s, essentially, how the term artist is used when modified by the word recording.
While many people would like to imagine that rock singers are slitting open veins and revealing their souls through their music, most are actually turning out packaged items that are not wholly unlike those served up by McDonald’s—at least if they are lucky.
The original rebels of rock, people like Mick Jagger and Pete Townshend, have certainly become homogenized, if not fully curdled, as was evident at this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Jagger commented, “It’s ironic you’re seeing us on our good behavior when we’re being honored for 25 years of bad behavior.” The graying Peter Pan was being some twenty years generous with the Stones’ alleged notoriety. It’s difficult to skewer the bourgeoisie when you need a SWAT team of accountants to calculate and protect your annual income.
Meanwhile, Townshend, whose increasing forehead glistened with beads of righteous perspiration, talked about the possibility of The Who getting back together for a tour. “Everything is perfectly in place. It’s our 25th anniversary.” Does Townshend actually believe that a generation that now wields briefcases and Filofaxes will stand on chairs in auditoriums and sing with one bold voice, “We won’t get fooled again”? Probably not. A Who reunion would simply make good business sense, just as Jagger and Keith Richards, who had been sniping at one another for months before the ceremony, made a financially prudent decision to play Bob Hope and Bing Crosby on the stage of the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom.
Music journalism, at least that which seriously treats pop and rock, rarely discusses who’s influencing whom anymore. Instead, it’s becoming more like the pieces in Barron’s, Forbes, and Fortune. Is it relevant to know that the divorce settlement between Bruce Springsteen and Julianne Phillips supposedly includes $16 million for the ex-Mrs. Boss if she won’t write a book about the two who really weren’t born to run? That depends on one’s interest. And the interest in rock is measured today in the same manner as T-Bills.
Adam Smith, writing in the February issue of Esquire about trying to earn a living as a writer, observes, “Looking at the field from the Eighties point of view—optimum financial return—you would have to advise the graduating seniors to try investment banking or to take a real long shot in rock music.” The 80’s: “optimum financial return.”
Speaking of returns, let’s look into a magazine that’s read by a gang who will probably never bother with the put-on gentility of Esquire—Thrasher magazine, the book of skateboarders who spend most of their hours, waking and nodding, ripping. Here’s the lead item in the February “Notes” department: “Rumor of the Month: The Sex Pistols are getting back together. John ‘Rotten’ Lydon has allegedly been approached with a six million dollar offer to lead the original Pistols (minus one) on a six-date U.S. tour.” Note how the six million isn’t meant to raise an eyebrow; only the oblique reference to the missing Mr. Sid Vicious is calculated to get a rise. Six dates, six mil: that’s optimum.
An illuminating examination of the big money aspect of today’s pop/rock music scene is Facing the Music (edited by Simon Frith; Pantheon Books), which sheds light on the area that few fans would like to see, despite the fact that it’s the predominant feature of what gets on the airwaves.
Ken Barnes, writing in “Top 40 Radio: A Fragment of the Imagination,” one of the five essays in the collection, makes several revealing observations about what gets played, heard, and, ideally, bought. He explains that commercial radio stations, which number about 10,000, compete for about $7.7 billion in ad revenues, which is a fraction of the $110 billion spent for all advertising media. The story is a simple one: “Really, it all boils down to economics.” Station owners want to sell enough time to make money or to make their stations takeover targets. Most of the businesses buying time to sell their wares are interested in the twenty-five-to-forty-nine-year-old age group, so the music to their collective ears is what program directors must schedule. According to Barnes, “years of meticulous research reveals that people like familiar music. In fact, research tells radio today that most people like familiar older music better than familiar-sounding new music.” Ever wonder why you can never seem to escape Led Zepplin, especially “Stairway to Heaven,” no matter where in the US you tune in? There’s your answer.
Simon Frith buttresses this in his scrutiny of who makes it to the top in the pop/rock world. It tends to be that group or individual who can be packaged most effectively for broad use, not whoever manages to scratch his way to the top from the lousy bar scene, through cheap labels (often getting nicked by a manager or two), the hit, the road, and then easy street. Frith observes, “It has been calculated that a major campaign in the United States surrounding a single track, which may be used to sell an album or to establish a star, is half-a-million dollars.” Consider what’s at issue here: return on investment. Sure things are where the money goes. Frith says, “In material terms, the traditional rock consumer—the ‘rebellious’ teenager—is no longer the central market figure; the most obvious teen musics, like heavy metal and hard core punk, are thus now marginal to mainstream pop culture.” Everyone into the water: meet you in the mainstream.
Mary Harron, in “McRock: Pop as a Commodity,” maintains, “The lust for glory, the scheming for quick money and quick fame are all part of pop music’s vitality and have been ever since Elvis Presley went after his first gold suit.” Which is true, though the difference today is that a gold suit is banal: the real trick is to have the millions of a Springsteen and to wear a pair of worn Levis and a T-shirt while pretending they are legit.
The stock market crashes and picks itself up and learns to run; the music industry faltered at the start of the 80’s, then broke into a spirited moonwalk. The ones who suffer from this state of affairs are both musicians and listeners. Good, bad, or indifferent music doesn’t tend to get a hearing, despite the large number of outlets for music. For example, as Barnes points out about country music, “There is almost no way for young listeners to become attracted to country unless they stumble onto a country station and stick around long enough to hear something they like; they can’t hear the music anywhere else.” Unless a big label wants to pick up a k.d. lang or a Randy Travis. And the same holds true for speed metal, fusion jazz, and any number of different forms. Instead, we become wrapped in cotton batting, musical memories, and blandness measured to sell.
And there, on VH-1, during the “Rod Stewart Weekend” (remember when he was “Rod the Mod”? Remember what “mod” meant?), a Sears commercial for its Kenmore appliances appears, and a cover version of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Our House” drones in the background.