Selling pop

Nowa­days, an artist pro­mot­ing a prod­uct is rou­tine

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY CHRIS RICHARDS

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.


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