Living in Los Angeles, there are many opportunities to witness the love-hate relationship that exists between celebrities and the public. It’s scary to me how quickly an adoring crowd of fans can turn into an unruly mob. Kendall and I were walking down a street in Beverly Hills last night and had to pass by a gauntlet of paparazzi and fans waiting in front of a restaurant called Mr. Chow. They obviously had a tip that someone “really big” was in there. From the tension among the jostling photographers, it had to be a celebrity that would bring in the big bucks at the gossip rags, maybe Brad and Angelina or the recently arrested Lindsay Lohan? When we walked back from our dinner almost two hours later, the paparazzi had multiplied like cockroaches and it was hard to get past them on the sidewalk. I wondered what it would be like to be the object of such attention and be chased down the street by these folks with their flashing digital appendages. There’s little chance a group like that is going to be respectful of anyone’s privacy or personal space, and I can easily see how ugly scenes can erupt quickly, from smashed cameras and lawsuits to Princess Diana slamming into a concrete median.
My brushes with fame have only been on the far-end of the periphery, thank God, I don’t think I’d have the stomach for the real thing. As I’ve mentioned (too often?), my brother-in-law is Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco. I’ve been following the “controversy” that has been brewing over the past few days on Via Chicago, a message board for Wilco fans, regarding a new series of Volkswagen commercials that is using several Wilco songs. The first commercial is already on the air and features one of Jeff’s more recent songs called “The Thanks I Get.” I’ve never seen any topic on Via Chicago generate that many responses. At last count the thread was 49 pages long and contained 971 posts. It begins with a very critical comment by someone who says that he has lost all respect for the band as a result of the VW spots.
I would understand if the band all drove VWs and really, just like, really loved their cars—but I doubt that is the case. This was a crass, marketing decision.
I’m sure the band researched the company carefully to ensure that all their parts and labor are purchased from outside contractors who have their workers best interests in mind and pay them accordingly, right down to the cigarette lighter—but probably not.
They should at least have the balls to add VW to their list of links on their website—maybe right up there on the front page—so we can see where the band really stands.
I’m know, I’m ranting, but go and read of some of Jeff’s recent interviews, and then come back and tell me it doesn’t start to sound like so much bullshit in light their move to advertising.
I shouldn’t care about the holier-than-thou ravings of this person but I admit that his accusations infuriate me since they are so undeserved. Plenty of people in the discussion that followed disagreed with the idea that Jeff and Wilco are “selling out” by allowing their music to be heard on these commercials but many others joined in the pile-up and blathered on about the sanctity of art versus the evils of the corporate empire. What a load of hooey.
Granted, I can’t claim total objectivity here, but I have never met anyone who is less cynical about his art or less of a sellout than Jeff Tweedy. While I can imagine myself selling out in a heartbeat (I’d change the name of my blog to “McJew Eat Yet?” and put Golden Arches on my banner if it meant I could actually earn money from this damn thing), Jeff is completely committed to his music and will not bend to the whims of his corporate sponsors. Anyone who saw the excellent Sam Jones documentary about Wilco, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” knows how far Jeff is willing to go to protect his vision. They were dropped by their label because of Jeff’s refusal to write something “more commercial.” Of course, it worked out great in the end with a subsidiary of the same corporation entering into a bidding war months later for the same CD that the parent company had dropped.
But despite his refusal to compromise his art, why wouldn’t Jeff want his music to reach the widest possible audience? He has appeared many times on Conan, Letterman, and Leno, has allowed his songs to be heard on some very interesting movie soundtracks, and now has permitted Volkswagen to use a few existing songs. They were not written for the commercials and the lyrics were not adulterated in any way. In the current one, a portion of “The Thanks I Get” is simply playing on the radio of the car that appears in the commercial. It's obviously meant to evoke a certain tone. There’s no mention of Jeff or Wilco but what’s wrong if a new audience hears that song, likes it, and tries to find out where they can hear more?
This is not the first rock song to be heard in a national advertising campaign, God knows, although some examples are more memorable than others. As a kid I was introduced to Carly Simon’s “Anticipation” through the famous Heinz Ketchup commercial and subsequently bought many of her albums. That usage was far more crass than the current VW campaign and yet I thought it worked perfectly and did not demean Carly Simon in any way. I remember hearing Peter, Paul, and Mary sing their hit “Lemon Tree” at a concert once and wondering why they got the words wrong. What was this “Lemon tree, very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet?” Didn’t they know the real lyrics were “Lemon Pledge, as you’re dusting, brings new luster to the wood?” We all cringed when Nike used the Beatles song “Revolution” in a commercial, but that’s because it was against the wishes of the Beatles themselves (who had lost their rights to the song). A lawsuit eventually resulted in the 1988 removal of the commercial from the airwaves but since that time Yoko Ono gave permission to Nike to use John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” in a commercial. There are many, many other examples of artists allowing their songs to be used in ad campaigns and I guess it’s up to us to decide whether such usages are well executed and fun or in poor taste. I certainly think that the new VW ads are examples of the former.
I was waiting to see how long it would take the increasingly hysterical fans on the Wilco site to mention Volkswagen’s checkered past. It happened on page 11 of the thread and then flared up big time. Yes, Volkswagen was a large German company that obviously had ties to the Third Reich during World War II. It’s not a history that they hide nor is it one that they stress (to do so would be marketing suicide). Of course there is no connection today between the Volkswagen Company of America (the sponsors of the current spots) and National Socialism but I’ll leave it at that—I have no interest in becoming an apologist for the past moral failings of Volkswagen or any other company. On the other hand, if I was meting out judgment, I might hurl even more at the American companies that got into bed with the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s such as the Ford Motor Company which was headed by the vile anti-Semite Henry Ford. I’d also ponder the cowardice of the Jewish movie moguls in Hollywood who were so worried about offending the lucrative German market after Hitler first took power that they would make it a point to always show Germans in a good light and to avoid making films with Jewish themes. And how about the questionable wartime activities of the Coca-Cola company as it exploited its successful German market even during the war?
Another poster on the message board ruminated that Wilco has always eschewed the usual music business bullshit but “that’s all changed now.” He goes on to make the following claim about Jeff’s so-called sell-out:
I hope Jeff at least had the decency to stop short of selling songs he explicitly stated were for Sue – “no baby, well, yeah, I did really mean what I sang, but, well, the house is getting a little cramped and the cars odometer is not exactly going backwards – you know I love you the most.”
I laughed the hardest at that one. As if my sister would ever want Jeff to avoid giving certain songs additional exposure because they somehow belonged to her? Other fans go on to compare Wilco’s allowing their songs to be used in VW ads with a career in prostitution or pornography. Still others vigorously defended the band.
This is absolutely ridiculous. How dare any of you even consider calling them sellouts. Think of every single thing Wilco has done for their fans. This isn't a band that puts out a piece of plastic every other year just so they can have money to eat with. Wilco breaks their backs just to give the fans what they want. Have you forgotten Wilco practically gives their CDs away via their website? Do you know any other band that let you listen to their last three albums months before they hit the record store? Do you know any other band that streamed a DVD the night before it hit shelves?
I know I sound defensive, and I should state again that people have every right to air their opinions on this issue. I was the first to cry “foul” when the Gap digitally manipulated a movie sequence featuring Audrey Hepburn in a recent ad campaign. Inserting dead celebrities into modern-day ads makes me very nervous. In that post I wondered where it would all end?
And now, screen legend Greta Garbo explains why she’s going “muy loca” for Taco Bell’s new triple-decker burrito…
But with the myriad ways that Jeff continually demonstrates his devotion to his craft and his deep respect for Wilco's fans, it’s hard not to be a little upset when I see how quickly some of them turn on him because of their beliefs on what constitutes art, how much money they think Jeff should earn, and how successful he should be. I do believe there is a certain subset of fans who would prefer to go back to the early days of Jeff’s career when he was in Uncle Tupelo, living hand-to-mouth, and only known by a tiny group of devoted followers who were horrified at the thought of the group becoming more “mainstream.”
It saddens me that these people seem to believe that the VW campaign will somehow affect Wilco's future activities or Jeff's commitment to his songwriting. From the outcries I’ve seen on several sites, you’d think Wilco had licensed “She’s a Jar” to sell Kraft mayonnaise, “Nothing’s Ever Gonna Stand In My Way” to hawk Viagra, or “I’m the Man Who Loves You” to promote the North American Man-Boy Love Association. Oy.
And now, for the rest of Jeff’s fans, I’m going to share the new promotional photo he had taken following the debut of the Volkswagen campaign. No one has seen this yet so it's very exciting.
Here it is. But wait. What the…? Oh. My. God. Jeff Tweedy IS a Nazi!! Oh crap, now I see that the people condemning him were absolutely right, he has sold us all out! I bet marrying my Jewish sister was just a ruse to further his white supremacist agenda. All that liberal twaddle he spouts at his concerts is just a front to hide his nefarious activities and his devotion to Satanic causes. Dammit, that’s the last time that turncoat comes to our Yom Kippur services! Everyone who cares about America, PLEASE join with me in a national burning of all your Wilco CDs—our freedom depends on it!
(Have I ruined my chance to get a free Volkswagen?)