The Black Eyed Peas have a splashy new ad for Target. Is "selling out" a thing of the past?
The Spot:Musical group the Black Eyed Peas perform their single "I Got a Feeling," prancing about while Target logos of various sizes pop up on-screen. "Pick up our new album," the Peas implore us. "The deluxe version is only at Target."
At this year's Clio Awards, there was a conference session on how best to integrate licensed music into ad campaigns. The panelists noted that younger, unknown bands are eager to have their songs used in TV ads, as it's a great way to gain national exposure quickly. "But aren't any of these bands concerned that people will think they're sellouts?" asked someone in the audience.
"I think selling out is pretty much a dead concept," said the panel's moderator, Rob Levine, the executive editor of Billboard.
Maybe he's right. Music fans these days don't seem to care whether a hit song first breaks on the radio and in clubs or if it's launched as the backing track for a television commercial. And far be it from me to begrudge struggling new bands the publicity and paychecks that ad agencies can offer.
Besides, it's not like old-time rock-'n'-rollers lived in a hermetically sealed chamber of artistic purity. As one of the Clio panelists noted, the Rolling Stones did a Rice Krispies jingle in the early 1960s. A bitchin' jingle at that.
Perhaps the horse left the barn for good in 2004, when Bob Dylan appeared in a Victoria's Secret commercial. It's hard to imagine a more galling juxtaposition: the countercultural rock bard endorsing the mall-friendly underwear chain store. But Dylan's cameo, in retrospect, feels more like an impish lark than a watershed moment. I don't think the enigmatic Dylan craved either cash or exposure. He just thought it might be a gas to show up in an ad for lacy panties. When he popped up again in a 2007 spot for the Cadillac Escalade, I was less ready to forgive him. But again, he seemed to be after neither money nor fame. He was promoting a labor of love: his quirky XM radio show.
I'm perfectly willing to evaluate this stuff on a case-by-case basis. We can surely consider context, motive, degree, and intent before pointing any fingers. No doubt there are valid reasons out there for an artist to license his music—and even his image—in the interests of commerce.
But to retire the very concept of "selling out"? To dismiss the notion that an artist's reputation could ever be sullied by wanton greed? Nuh-uh. I can't allow it.
First, I still hate when a piece of music I love—something that stirs profound emotions—gets directly associated with a brand or product. I want to believe that the art means just as much to the artist as it does to me. When a deeply moving song gets sold for an ad, it's like finding out that the cute girl you've been having long, philosophical conversations with at the coffeehouse spends her weekends turning tricks. Call me sentimental. Call me naive. It's just how I feel, and that will never change.
Second, and more important: We as a culture must reserve our right to shower disdain on the Black Eyed Peas.
This is not some unknown, up-and-coming band that's swallowing its pride and licensing a song in the desperate hope that it might be the start of something big. The Black Eyed Peas' previous two albums went double platinum and quadruple platinum.
The Peas have no trouble getting their new tracks played on the radio and in clubs, where they're likely to be heard by potential fans. (This is what drove Sting to make a cheesy Jaguar ad in 2000—putting his new song in a TV commercial was his best bet for getting it airplay in a venue where his aging fanbase might actually hear it.) The Peas aren't doing the ad because they consider it an ironic goof. Or because they badly need the exposure. Or because they're promoting some offbeat project that might not otherwise get any attention. Note that they've actually licensed "I Gotta Feeling" twice—the other instance being a series of promos for the CBS fall schedule—even though the song is at the top of the iTunes charts. These insatiable revenue-bots are just raking in more coin.
Fine. We all understand that. But people, look at this commercial. Observe how eagerly—how incredibly naturally—the Peas embrace the role of discount store shill. Stop for a moment and ponder the fact that will.i.am has a giant Target logo on his hat.
A line must be drawn. I draw it here. I realize I'm not breaking news. I realize when the music's this bad it's sort of beyond the point. And I realize the "artists" in question couldn't care less. But I need to say it just the same: Black Eyed Peas, you're a bunch of sellouts.
Grade: F. Let's get some dignity up in here. Take it away, Neil Young: "Ain't singing for Pepsi, ain't singing for Coke. I don't sing for nobody. Makes me feel like a joke."
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.