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Music Picks

Are You Lovin' It?

More indie artists are turning songs into ad jingles. Survival or sell-out?

By Elaine Corden 9 May 2008 |

Elaine Corden writes about music regularly for The Tyee.

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Jim Noir: how to turn art into cash.

A long time ago, after dinosaurs roamed the Earth but before Britney split with her baby daddy, MuchMusic, the nation's music station, used to run actual music programming. I bring this up not because it's so much fun to poke at the bloated carcass of Much with a stick (it is!), but because it was in that era that I picked up a bit of wisdom from a crazy New York musician called Andrew W.K. He appeared on The New Music, Much's then-excellent pop-culture show, on an episode dedicated to the intersection between commercials and music, and what constituted "selling out."

A music fan whose mind was yet uninfluenced by the proclaimed (yet arguably malleable) integrity of bands like Nirvana and Sonic Youth, I watched this MuchMusic episode with great interest, believing that a band selling its song as a jingle was tantamount to artistic suicide. How am I supposed to relate to a song that's also being used to sell beer or heavy-flow Tampax? How does my heart, so susceptible to music, separate tune from product?

Various artists, from rockers to hip hop acts, spoke but none swayed me until Andrew W.K., who had sold one of his raucous and rambunctious anthems to a Budweiser commercial, made a simple point. To paraphrase (Much's archives offer little more than ads for pre-paid credit cards, so there's no link available), the artist, responding to the question of whether or not his commercial endeavors betrayed his fans, said simply, "It gives me money so I can make more music. And if you're a fan of my music, I don't know why you wouldn't want that."

I'm not lovin' it

Fair enough. Since then, my own attitude towards artists selling their music to commercials has been mixed, but forgiving. Was it annoying when, in 2003, Justin Timberlake released the single "I'm Lovin' It" to an unsuspecting audience just days before revealing it as the new jingle for McDonald's? To be sure (as an interesting, tragic, and perhaps entirely unrelated footnote: the composer of the song, an American singer called Paul Tilley, killed himself earlier this year).

Fans of indie darlings The Shins will also know the feeling of disappointment when a favourite artist flips a song to an advertiser. Early in their career, the Albequerque, New Mexico group sold the Paul Simon-esque gem, "New Slang," to McDonald's, and also wrote the score for a Gap commercial.

The line keeps getting blurrier and blurrier. Fans of so-called indie rock will have noticed lately that when it comes to music for commercials, previously banal and generic sounds have been replaced with tolerable, even enjoyable music. From Telus (arguably the pioneer of synchronizing indie music with its products) to countless car and mobile phone companies, it seems there's no longer any stigma associated with soundtracking products. Legitimate artists are no longer afraid of losing cred, so everyone's getting a piece of the pie (Spoon, The Walkmen, Peter Bjorn and John, the ghost of Nick Drake and even '90s icons The Fall are just a few bands who have soundtracked pornographic shots of sleek interior styling and anti-lock brakes).

Friends with money

Observing this phenomenon some months ago, I remarked to a friend that perhaps commercial music was getting better because the people now running the ad firms grew up with indie rock. My friend, eminently more pragmatic than I, replied "Or maybe it's just because now we're the ones with the money."

Without descending into Michel Foucault's exploration of art, commerce and product (though Lord knows, I'd like my liberal arts education to be useful just once), allow me to say that although it took me a while to come to terms with it, I do finally accept the commercial as a legitimate place for me to meet new bands. It started, some months ago, with me Googling the musicians behind this catchy little tune, used in a Virgin commercial. The band, Teddybears Stockholm, turned out to be a bit of a one-trick pony, as was Ben's Brother, a UK-based band that soundtracked this Dentyne commercial. (If you want to hear a young Rod Stewart front Coldplay, however, this band might be right up your alley)

My newfound tolerance for music in commercials has finally paid off in the form of Jim Noir, whose song "My Patch" was rewritten for a Target holiday commercial. I heard the song and found myself enjoying its fusion of '60s pop with '90s indie rock, and so did some further investigation. This month, when he released his self-titled album, I was pleasantly surprised to download it and find it chock full of music just up my street -- sunny, tropical psychedelia with a modern, electronic twist, that recalls personal favourites such as the Kinks, the Beach Boys, the Lilies, French electro duo Air, and, most encouragingly, Super Furry Animals, who, regular readers will know, have a big place in my heart (and here is as good a place as any to note that the Super Furries once turned down $1,000,000 for Coca-Cola to use their song "Hello Sunshine").

The dark side?

Noir's album is a treat from start to finish. I suggest you start with "All Right," a lovely fusion of French electronica and Southern California '60s pop. Then work your way to "My Patch," the song Noir re-wrote with holiday lyrics for Target. You'll likely recognize it next time you hear the ad, and feel a little uneasy that Noir bent his creation so easily for commercial purposes, but as you listen to the individualist lyrics, you might find yourself loosening up. "If you ever step on my patch, I'll bring you down," sings Noir merrily (surely a direct nod to the Stones' "Get Off Of My Cloud").

The songs are so well constructed and full of a love of music, that you can hardly blame Noir for trying to feed himself with a little side-job for Target. Just as one wouldn't go into an actual Target and start pointing at employees, yelling "sell-out," it seems absurd to begrudge Noir his bread money. His utopian ideals reside inside his songs, rather than in his day-to-day dealings in the real world.

As for me, as I sit here, chewing on my Dentyne gum (the only product indie rock bands are helping to sell that I could actually afford), I can't help but feel ambivalent about the whole affair. Surely art and commerce must dance together eventually, but does the music they do it to have to be so catchy?

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