The Who was just ahead of its time. Twenty years ago, the band released "The Who Sell Out," which featured a host of mock deodorant commercials, fake baked-bean ads and comical radio jingles.
But today rock 'n' roll goes for the gusto--for real.
It's no secret by now that Madison Avenue has figured out that pop oldies are a great way to make yuppie consumers feel good about shelling out big bucks for everything from Honda scooters ("Walk on the Wild Side") to Kellogg's Nutri-Grain ("Dedicated to the One I Love") to California raisins ("I Heard It Through the Grapevine"). These pop-fueled commercials have provoked everything from amusement to outrage, especially now that Nike has launched a $7-million campaign to sell $75 sneakers with the help of the original recording of the Beatles' "Revolution."
Is it OK to use pop songs as sales tools, since most were written to make money in the first place? Or is there something sacrilegious about using a '60s anthem like "Revolution" to promote shoe sales? As Tom Petty put it recently: "I hate to see these Beatle songs selling sneakers and stuff. Because the music always meant more to me. I don't wanna think of 'Good Vibrations' as a Sunkist soft drink commercial. I think it cheapens that value of the song. . . . How is someone supposed to take your next work seriously when your last one was a beer commercial?"
Many of these questions surfaced in an intriguing two-page essay in the May 11 issue of the New Republic by Jon Weiner, a Lennon biographer and professor of history at UC Irvine. Weiner's piece explores the genesis of "Revolution," the initial sour reaction to the song by the '60s underground press and the enormous value identifiable pop classics have to large corporations today. (The Beatles catalogue is now administered by SBK Entertainment World, which has the worldwide rights to the Michael Jackson-owned ATV music publishing firm.)
Asked what she thought of the Nike deal, Yoko Ono told Weiner: "John's songs should not be part of a cult of glorified martyrdom. They should be enjoyed by kids today." She added that Nike isn't such an objectionable product anyway, noting (with typical Ono-ian logic) that "sports shoes are part of fitness consciousness that is actually better for your body than some of the things we were doing in the '60s."
However, what peeves Weiner is that SBK refused to grant the New Republic permission to reprint the entire lyrics to "Revolution" on the grounds that his article would "offend" Nike.
"They said that before they'd grant us permission, they wanted to read the piece, because they didn't want the piece to be critical of Nike," Weiner said. "So we sent it to them and they concluded it would be offensive to Nike, so they wouldn't grant permission. So now you can't quote John Lennon anymore if it offends Nike or Michael Jackson, which is pretty horrifying."
Not so, countered Pat Lucas, director of West Coast operations for SBK. "That's totally ridiculous," she said. "Those lyrics are available everywhere--it's not secret information. I don't why anyone would have a problem with reprinting them. And there's certainly nothing there to offend Nike."
Lucas termed the Nike commercials "wonderful and artistic," adding that she "personally" spoke with Michael Jackson to make sure he didn't "have any problems" with the Beatles' lyrics use in the TV spots.
"Basically, Michael doesn't love doing advertising. But advertising is an art form these days. And it's a great way to expose wonderful old music to a new generation. My 15-year-old son hears music in TV commercials that he's never been exposed to before.
"In fact, that's the whole point. It's the responsibility of the publisher to make sure these songs don't die on the shelf. Anyway, I lived through that era, I still have all my memories, and seeing 'Revolution' on TV doesn't destroy the meaning of the song to me."