Nowadays, an artist promoting a product is routine
Things you might see this summer: Taylor Swift sipping from a bottle of Diet Coke. Kendrick Lamar slipping into a pair of Reeboks. Some Drake lyrics slapped onto a can of Sprite.
If any of these gestures make you anxious, you’ve been alive long enough to remember what “selling out” is. Or was. It doesn’t mean what it used to, mainly because it may no longer mean anything at all.
In a recent PBS “Frontline” documentary about youth marketing and social media, writer Douglas Rushkoff asks a slate of teenagers to share their feelings about “selling out.” Some of the kids had never even heard the term. For pre- millennials like me — a generation baptized in grunge and gangsta rap before entering high school — that’s a thunderbolt.
It probably shouldn’t be. Nirvana, N.W.A., Motown, the Beatles and just about every kind of pop music that has significantly bent the contours of American culture was marketed to the public by a profit-hungry record industry.
In recent decades, corporate brands have gotten in the act, attaching themselves to the musicians so aggressively that fans no longer protest, perhaps because they don’t even notice that it’s happening.
“Just rapping is not really that impressive anymore,” Drake says bluntly in a recent promotional spot for Sprite. “There just has to be more. You have to be a multi-layered artist.” He sounds like a venture capitalist, but he speaks the truth. Drake has made it his job to sell more Drake — through rapping, through singing, through Nike, through Sprite.
But just as modern pop stars are expected to serve as captains of the consumable world, listeners need to remain savvy enough to locate music’s humanity in this convoluted entrepreneurial maze. And that becomes trickier as the ethics of selling out grow more complex.
Completely aware that yesterday’s music industry is now a fine rubble, younger listeners no longer feel that the integrity of the experience has been violated when their most beloved artists pitch products or sell their songs for TV commercials. When music can no longer sell itself, it scrambles to help sell other stuff.
Even in high-minded indie rock circles, bands appear more eager than ever to glom onto branding partnerships and licensing deals. “Decades of posturing and sanctimony were rendered moot once artists realized that corporate gigs were the only paying gigs in town,” critic Jessica Hopper wrote for Buzz Feed in 2013. “A (very) necessary evil.”
How evil, really? In April, Lamar put his righteous- rebel image in the service of Reebok by starring in an advertisement that features the Los Angeles rapper leading a team of make- believe revolutionaries into an imaginary public demonstration. At first, this seemed reprehensible — a moralistic rap star was funneling his influ- ence into a sneaker company’s protest fantasy during a time when actual protests were taking place across the country.
But this month, it was announced that Lamar had designed a new shoe for Reebok— a shoe that used swatches of red and blue in hopes of quelling gang strife between the Bloods and Crips. Was he using his endorsement deal to merge bland consumerism with reallife activism? Or was he simply marketing his goods to the widest demographic possible?
Selling out in 2015 isn’t always morally bankrupt, but it is complicated— and it’s not without its own new, messy repercussions.
First, it’s always been fair to think of a musical encounter as an altruistic gesture, even when it’s not. Advertising, though, is never altruistic. Corporations might provide an artist with greater resources, but they are never adding anything to the cultural good. It’s a one- way street. Taylor Swift is making you think about drinking a Diet Coke. Diet Coke is not teaching you how to fall in love with the songs of Taylor Swift.
Also, if advertising becomes a prime venue to discover and experience music, how long before too much music starts sounding too timid and too dull? Will the fear of losing an endorsement or licensing deal make tomorrow’s artists less adventurous? (More so than back in the day when artists were competing for record contracts instead?)
Money makes music more cautious, but we shouldn’t fret for the kids who are going to have to sort that out. These kinds of discussions rarely account for the sophistication of young listeners, an audience that has known how to extricate the magic from the muck since the dawn of patronage. They know when it’s there — and when it’s time to look elsewhere.
Take the case of Lil Wayne, who just released a new album exclusively through Tidal, the new music streaming service that recently got off to a highly publicized and extremely bumpy start. When Tidal’s figurehead, rap icon Jay Z, announced the platform’s launch in March by assembling a cast of music biz one-percenters and asked them to pose as concerned boot-strappers, fans instantly smelled something funny.
Now they’re balking at Wayne, too. When you leverage exclusive content against a subscription fee to a new delivery system, you put the cart in front of the horse. You tell smart listeners — a constituency of highly informed skeptics — not to care.
In many ways, informed skepticism is the most sophisticated form of optimism. A savvy audience’s suspicion is evergreen. And with every generation more media- literate than the one before, we should remember that young listeners constantly find new ways to transmit and absorb humanity through music.
So when your TV asks, “What if life tasted as good as Diet Coke?,” go ahead and feel uneasy about the future of pop music and corporate partnerships. But count on Swift’s fans to know that life will always taste infinitely better.
TOP: Taylor Swift lends her image and music to a Diet Coke commercial that’s probably not going to get you to fall in love with her music. ABOVE: Kendrick Lamar gave Reebok an appearance in a commercial about a fantasy public demonstration while real protests were happening across the country. Years ago, this would be called “selling out,” but it seems as if that concept is lost on today’s youths.