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Do Musicians Have Any Business Starring in Ads?

Bob Dylan shoots pool for Chrysler -- does that make him a sellout?
Bob Dylan shoots pool for Chrysler -- does that make him a sellout?

It's a real testament to our consumerist culture that one of the biggest events of the year for many people is seeing a series of high-budget adverts in the midst of a sports game. A significant amount of people tune in to the Super Bowl every year not because they care about football or even the halftime show, but to see the clever ways businesses came up with to sell something to them.

That in itself is about the least counterculture, anti-establishment thing in the world, so it's no surprise that people are upset that a counterculture, anti-establishment icon like Bob Dylan starred in this year's Chrysler commercial. It's not the first time controversy like this has erupted either. Remember when John Lydon started shilling Country Life butter? So much for punk, right?

But let's take a serious look at this for a moment. This isn't about Bob Dylan, this is a larger issue. Is it really so wrong for musicians, regardless of their reputation, to appear in ads? Is it so wrong for them to use their image to sell us products?

It's a tough issue, especially if your perspective is rooted in the sort of DIY, underground, counterculture ethical philosophy that surrounds so many movements in music, whether the '60s protest folk scene from which Dylan exploded or the early punk and hip-hop movements. On the one hand, yes, this kind of marketing is totally averse to what these genres purport to stand for.

True, Dylan has personally scorned fans who would try to put him in a box and deprive him of doing whatever the fuck he feels like doing, be it going electric, releasing a Christian rock record or Christmas album, or even appearing a Chrysler commercial. But many others have staked their claim on artistic integrity, so that they would "sell out" is toxic to their ethos and their fans' adoration.

Tom Waits is one of those. He's stood his ground against companies trying to use his music for years, preferring not to be associated with the sale of a product. He's even fought it out in court over soundalikes and covers. That's all fine and dandy, and that's his prerogative. I'm sure his fans appreciate it.

But then you have a guy like John Lydon, who used to stand up for all things "punk" in his earliest days, then went and made a butter commercial. To his fans, it was a betrayal of everything they believed about him. The same could be said for Iggy Pop allowing his songs to be used to advertise cruises, even though the irony of a song as dark as "Lust for Life" promoting vacations is hilarious.

Who are we to criticize these guys for making money however they wish though? When Henry Rollins, a notable icon of the punk scene and one guy whose principles you probably cannot question, had his own show on IFC, he spoke on this issue.

What the former Black Flag singer says on the issue really rings true. So many who are now being used in commercials have struggled for years and years to support themselves based solely on the merits of their music. Does anyone believe that Mark E. Smith from the Fall is living in a mansion?

Fuck it. He deserves the paycheck of a commercial for all the years he's made uncompromising music, as well as decisions that have no doubt left him deeper in a financial hole than anything else.

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What about Bob Dylan then, who most likely has more money than God? Well, in its own way, what's more counterculture, more punk, than doing whatever you want to? Maybe the man just likes Chryslers. More importantly, when you've spent as many years as he has flouting the world's expectations of you, you essentially have carte blanche to run wild. Who's going to seriously question Dylan's credentials in 2014?

Hip-hop as a genre also raises an interesting point here. Rap music is one form of expression that perhaps has its deepest roots in realness and truth; there's a reason Rick Ross is criticized for making up stories in his songs. Everyone does that in other genres, but in hip hop you are expected to be real, be yourself, and stand for only truth.

Yet more than any other genre of music, hip-hop has embraced commercialism and capitalism wholeheartedly. No other genre glorifies a paycheck as much as hip hop. No music other than rap music is so intrinsically tied to things like endorsement deals and wealth.

No one bats an eye when Jay Z makes a deal to release an album exclusively with Samsung, or when Lil Wayne gallivants on stage drinking shilling Mountain Dew, or when Ghostface Killah signs a deal with Adidas. That's part of the game. That being said, if anyone ever found out Jay Z made up all those stories about selling crack on the streets, the entire world of hip hop would want his head on a pike.

You see the dichotomy, right? Somehow in the confines of rap music it's become acceptable, even encouraged, to "sell out." It's something fans of other genres could perhaps take a cue from. Music is a business, and musicians have to get paid to keep producing quality work for their fans. No fans have understood that as much as hip-hop fans.

It sounds nice to embrace a punk ethos of rejecting capitalism and financial gain, but it's completely unrealistic unless you're selling ten million copies of every record you release. Since no one is doing that in 2014, musicians need their music in ads -- and the paycheck that comes with that -- more than ever.

That doesn't make them sellouts, it makes them human beings who unfortunately need money to continue to live and practice their craft. Maybe the world would be a better place if artists' financial needs were met by wealthy benefactors, but the world no longer works that way.

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While Dylan's commercial may be weird to see, and let's not even get into the whole "American engineering" concept behind it when Fiat just purchased the last bit of Chrysler they didn't already own, it's simply a product of our times. The idealism of counterculture punks and hipsters has to die for the music they love to live on. It's a nice fantasy, but no one can actually survive in that world.


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