7 Rock Songs Exploited for Commerce and Conservatism

Since the U.S. government doesn’t support artists like most first-world countries, musicians are increasingly filling their duckets with cross-promo deals from companies. While outside-the-mainstream artists and the towers of commerce have historically had a tenuous relationship, in the choked-income era of the mp3–where it’s increasingly difficult for even prominent groups to make a living off recorded music–more and more musicians have been letting marketers use their tunes for a check. It’s such a frequent occurrence it barely registers as cognitive dissonance these days... the song’s political message is wildly at odds with the capitalist idea being sold. (See: Rolling Stones' latest.) Or, worse, left-wing songs are hijacked by right-wing politicians without permission. In both instances, sometimes the disconnect is so vast, it ends up in the courts. At the very least, it leaves a sour taste in your mouth.

1. The Beatles and Nike

In one of the earlier and more memorable instances of a song’s perpendicularity to its placement, Nike bought the Beatles’ classic peace advocacy jam “Revolution” for the purpose of hawking running shoes. To be fair, the 1987 clip wasn’t anti-peace, featuring shots of normal humans doing sporty things and being generally healthy... but let’s just say Nike’s co-opting of political sentiment in order to establish cool cred set a precedent. Apple Records, the Beatles’ music group, sued the company for $15 million–Nike had purchased the rights to the song from Capitol Records, which owned the North American rights to the song. Two years later, a settlement was reached out of court, but the concept had done its damage. In an interesting postscript to the story, a 2005 Nike poster mimicked the cover of the first Minor Threat album without permission. (Minor Threat being one of the most political, anti-corporate, do-it-yourself punk bands of the ‘80s.) Dischord Records, the band’s label run to this day by lead singer Ian MacKaye, released a statement:

To longtime fans and supporters of Minor Threat and Dischord, this must seem like just another familiar example of mainstream corporations attempting to assimilate underground culture to turn a buck. However, it is more disheartening to us to think that Nike may be successful in using this imagery to fool kids, just beginning to become familiar with skate culture, underground music and D.I.Y. ideals, into thinking that the general ethos of this label, and Minor Threat in particular, can somehow be linked to Nike's mission.

The poster was removed and the parties settled out of court.

2. Rolling Stones and Call of Duty

The Stones are completely game for corporations to use their tunes–they started young when they wrote a special song for a 1963 Rice Krispies advert, and a short laundry list of subsequent brands they’ve supported includes Sony, Coca-Cola and Victoria’s Secret. Truthfully, Mick Jagger’s lascivious lyrics can be funny when they’re hawking, say, Microsoft Windows... but it got super weird recently when “Gimme Shelter” showed up in a disturbingly hyperviolent ad for the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops, which features celebrities like Kobe Bryant and Jimmy Kimmel wielding machine guns and shooting up everything in their sights. Um, Rolling Stones, you know you wrote that song based on the despair of Vietnam, right? But if the song was sullied by the egregious war imagery, the band’s bottom line remained intact. This week, the commercial prompted a sales spurt for the Stones based on the Black Ops spot.

3. The XX vs. The Conservative Party

Shoe-shufflers the XX have been the toast of Britain this year––starting out as four 20-year-olds in a basement, their soft-take sensuality and near-whisper vocals were universally angsty enough to garner them a Mercury Prize. And apparently the Conservative Party took to the trio’s restraint; in October, the Tories played songs from their album at a party gathering, which the band’s label, Young Turks, immediately condemned in a statement: "The XX/Young Turks weren't invited to any party, didn't approve the use of their music at the party and certainly don't approve of said party."

4. M.I.A. and Honda

Maya Arulpragasam, better known as M.I.A., has built her career on outspoken political fortitude as much as impeccable diasporic pop. And while she’s sometimes confused her message–generally delivered in rants about Sri Lankan genocide and government-controlled Internet–it’s undeniable that she means well. So seeing her first-ever hit, “Galang” juxtaposed with a Honda commercial was slightly discomfiting, particularly considering the song’s a brittle, wry tale of a drug-related murder. A moment of levity, then, when you realize that she actually mentions rival car company BMW in the original lyrics.

5. The Killers and Nike

The Killers’ anti-war track “All These Things That I’ve Done” isn’t going to win a prize for complex literacy anytime soon, but it is important to note that the catchiest hook in an already catchy song is the gospel-tinged anthem, “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier.” Nike, once again, decided it would apply a pro-peace line to competitive sportsmanship, for its minute-long “Courage” slot, aired during the 2008 Olympics, which spliced sweaty, determined-looking athletes with shots of wild game. Interestingly enough, David Cameron of Conservative British Party/the XX fame also used this track in a campaign ad... his taste is better than his politics, it seems.

As a bonus, here’s a clip of the best and most literal use of this song–Justin Timberlake’s surrealist death scene in the film Southland Tales.

6. Bruce Springsteen v. Ronald Reagan

It was 1984 and “Born in the USA” was a biting, bitter paean to working-class Vietnam vets... but it was 1984, so why wouldn’t Republicans interpret it as a shining, uncritical, vociferous act of patriotism? They were taking everything else around them, too, so no reason to think Bruce Springsteen would object to Reagan using his song for the campaign. But, whoops, someone forgot to do their research, and that person was George Will, who recommended the track to Ronald’s higher-ups. Springsteen, as we now know, is a true-blue lefty, but back then it wasn’t so clear, though his staff politely declined when the campaign asked to use his track. Later, he also refused an offer of several million dollars from Lee Iaccoca to put the song in a Chrysler commercial. Whattaguy.

7. Gang of Four and Kinect Sports

Gang of Four was a self-professed Marxist punk band whose songs were mostly about the vapid nature of commercialism and feeling disenfranchised from 1970s Britain. “Natural’s Not In It” is one of their best-loved songs, its robotic jaggedness and staccato lyrics reflecting the automaton nature of consumer society:

The problem of leisure/What to do for pleasure/The body is good business/Sell out, maintain the interest.

Which is all well and good until the song popped up in an ad for Kinect, Microsoft’s new video game platform–though only the intro guitar part was included, cutting off before the lyrics could undermine the sell. Guess these guys’ ideals changed over 35 years.

Bonus British punk beat: check out former Sex Pistols leader Johnny Rotten stumping for... butter.

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