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GLENN GAMBOA | Commentary Musicians make the jump from sellout to shameless



Published: Thu, June 16, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The Maxwell House commercial with the firefighters singing a caffeinated remake of Madness' "Our House" -- complete with the new line "Our house is always good to the last drop" -- set off the alarm bells in my head.

Repeat after me: "Sellout!"

So far in the 21st century, most folks have given musicians a lot of leeway on the whole sellout thing. After all, the music industry has been going through a tough time, radio stations have been increasingly resistant to playing new music and more and more advertising agencies have been using original music in creative ways.

If an advertising campaign is the best way for some artists to get their music heard, more power to them. If some artists want to use their old hits to earn some of the cash that they lost out on due to bad record deals, fine.

But there is such a thing as going too far.

Yeah, Young MC, I'm talking to you.

It's one thing to let your song be used in a commercial. It's something else entirely to let it get reworked into a shameless product pitch. When Young MC allowed his clever rap "Bust a Move" to be twisted into "Just Bust a Tunic!" for Old Navy, he crossed the line. So did '80s ska-pop heroes Madness when they abandoned "Our House" to Maxwell House. And someone please tell the estate of Johnny Paycheck that he wouldn't be thrilled with the handing over of his biggest hit to Applebee's so it could be turned into "Take this steak and top it."

Retaining some dignity

There are so many ways for musicians to embarrass themselves for money these days -- from reality shows to band battles to weird endorsements. But even the train-wreck "Hit Me Baby One More Time," in which nearly forgotten acts perform their biggest hits on NBC, and the upcoming "Rock Star: INXS," in which contestants compete to replace deceased frontman Michael Hutchence as the Aussie band's singer on CBS, deserve less shame than The Sellouts.

The "Hit Me Baby" acts are still performing their own hits and seem together enough, more or less, to tackle some new songs. So maybe A Flock of Seagulls shouldn't have tried to turn Ryan Cabrera's "On the Way Down" into a weird, synth-metal stomper, which was still less scary than Loverboy covering Enrique Iglesias' "Hero." (I know it sounds as if I'm making this stuff up, but really, I'm not.) Those acts are still bravely trying to make a go of their music careers.

As odd as it looks for Bob Dylan to be lurking around those Victoria's Secret models or Hootie & amp; The Blowfish's Darius Rucker singing country as a pitchman for Burger King or Toby Keith hawking Ford trucks across Red State America, at least they haven't compromised whatever artistry their songs have.

Betraying songs

The push-back has to start somewhere. If not, Old Navy may decide that launching another slate of commercials in which kids scream "Shorts!" instead of "Fame!" would still be cool, when it so clearly never was. Commercials can showcase the music as well as products, as Volkswagen showed with Nick Drake's "Pink Moon" or Mitsubishi's use of Dirty Vegas' "Days Go By." Sure, it's harder to accomplish, but if Royal Caribbean can turn Iggy Pop's ode to heroin-shooting, "Lust for Life," into a peppy anthem that sells sunny cruises, anything is possible.

The "bust-a-tunic" rewrites are a lazy way for advertisers to take the catchiness and immediacy of a pop song and twist it for their own purposes -- of course they will keep trying to do it as often as they can. What the musicians forget when they allow this, though, is that they are betraying the millions of people who are attached to the original versions of these songs.

Fans may have a hard time competing with the sound of cash registers ringing in these musicians' ears, but "Sellout!" has worked well in the past. It's time to try again.

XGlenn Gamboa writes for Long Island Newsday.




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