I did not watch the World Series on television last year, so, until I read an article in the current issue of Sojourners by Danny Duncan Collum, I did not know that both John Mellencamp and Steven Earle, two men who usually stand as progressive social critics of the status quo, had allowed their songs to be used in car commercials during the televised games.
The Mellencamp song featured in a Chevy Silverado was "Our Country", an obvious homage to Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land". As Collum points out,
But to paraphrase the late, great Waylon Jennings, “I don’t think Woody done it this a’way.” For one thing, Woody sang for the United Auto Workers, not for their bosses.Steve Earle, according to Collum, "identifies himself as anti-capitalist and his political identity is central to his work," and thus "it was...a shock when he crossed that line."
So what is the "line" that both Mellencamp and Earle crossed? Quite simply,
When a John Mellencamp or Steve Earle rents a song out to General Motors, he is no longer an artist speaking to and for the people who make and buy Chevy trucks. He is instead, at least for a while, a cog in GM’s corporate strategy that for the last three decades has consisted of maximizing profits by laying off workers, demanding givebacks from those who remain, offshoring every possible function, resisting attempts to replace the fossil fuel economy, and then appealing to patriotism to con Americans into buying their products anyway.The lure of big money makes it easy for even the most progressive and anti-capitalist protest singers to succumb to the temptation to sell out their music to advance corporate goals. In a CBS news online article about the subject of rock singers selling their music to advertising, Bill Flanagan points out that not every musician is willing to sell out:
As Steve Earle himself once sang, “Come back, Woody Guthrie.” Please.
Two of the surviving Doors sued the third, drummer John Densmore, for blocking their attempts to sell Doors songs to commercials. Densmore said it was counter to everything the band had stood for, and added that if Jim Morrison were really dead he'd turn over in his grave. Well, actually I made up that last part but you get the idea. Densmore believes the Doors stood for something bigger than making the most bucks off the old songs, and they should preserve their dignity.The irony here is that, unlike Mellencamp and Earle, the Doors didn't record protest songs and were not identified with political activism.
A few years ago, I got interested in the idea of doing voice over work, so I took some evening classes from a voice over casting director. There are many kinds of voice over work, but the majority of it involves acting in radio commercials, and it was easy for me as a student to get swept along with the tide and make that my own emphasis. At some point, though, I realized that I didn't want to be a prostitute for corporate interests. I stopped taking the classes, leaving open the possibility of studying voice over again at a later time, but with a different area of emphasis.
In our society, the corporate value system is so overwhelming accepted that even protest singers often give no thought to selling themselves out to it. I can't really blame Mellencamp and Earle, since, as my own experience with voice over classes showed, I too have been a sinner. Capitalism makes sinners of us all.
But still. It is a sad sign of the present state of our society that there is no counter-ethic out there for people to turn to. There are no Woody Guthries out there. The corporate sensibility is so ingrained in all of us that it just becomes accepted without thinking that we should just go along and participate in the system of whoring ourselves to corporate advertisers.
Marcus Borg, in his book Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, wrote:
Jesus pronounced blessings on the poor and woes upon the wealthy. Why? Because the poor were especially virtuous, and the wealthy lacked personal virtue? If the wealthy followed the Ten Commandments, would that have been enough? But the issue does not seem to be personal goodness. Rather, the kingdom of God, God's dream for the world, will bring blessing for those burdened by the domination system and woe for the perpetrators and beneficiaries. The kingdom of God is about a great reversal of the way things are.And the question for us today is therefore this: do we live our lives as participants in the way things are, or as the way they should be?