The times, they have changed

Very rarely do I find myself disagreeing with Paul Krugman. But I do take exception to this post. In it, Krugman writes that he was disturbed by the use of The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” in one of the Super Bowl ads. After all, didn’t The Stones denounce advertisements and consumer culture in the lyrics of their most famous song, “Satisfaction”?

Paul, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that shipped sailed a long, long, long time ago.

As far back as 1963, which would be two years before the release of “Satisfaction,” The Stones made a commercial for Rice Krispies (I’ve embedded the YouTube below). The jingle in it was was co-written by Brian Jones and one of the guys from J. Walter Thompson, and the ad aired on British TV in 1964. Fans of Mad Men (of which I am definitely one!) may recall that it was alluded to last season, in an episode where Don Draper tried, but failed to get the Stones to do an ad for one of his clients.

I don’t know the in-depth history of the use of rock music in commercials, but I do know the Stones weren’t the only ones. The Who recorded some jingles early in their career, and they parodied ads in their 1967 concept album, The Who Sell Out. Also, as Tom Frank documented in his first book, The Conquest of Cool, during the 60s, Madison Avenue was becoming increasingly interested in young people and the counterculture, and rock music was a part of that.

However, as was the case with the Stones commercial, the rock music in ads tended to be specially written jingles. It’s my impression that the use of rock and pop songs in TV commercials didn’t really take off until the 1980s. But once those gates were open, there was no turning back.

Forget “Sympathy for the Devil” — there is pretty much no song that has been held so sacrosanct that it’s been protected from the hucksters trying to manipulate you into buying something. Bob Dylan’s “The Time’s They Are A-Changin’,” the idealistic anthem that stirred a generation? It’s been used to sell insurance. Sly and the Family Stone’s paean to an anti-racist utopia, “Everyday People?” They used it to sell cars.

See, this is one reason why I love punk rock. Don’t get me wrong — I love a catchy pop tune as much as anybody. In my opinion, the likes of Katy Perry and Taylor Swift get a bad rap in some snooty quarters. But punk has many irresistible charms for me, and one of them is that some of the best punk is virtually uncommodifiable, still.

True, rather to my astonishment, I have heard songs by The Clash, The Buzzcocks, and The Ramones in TV commercials. But on the other hand . . . do you think they’re ever going to use Black Flag’s “Depression” to advertise anti-depressant medication? Or Teenage Jesus and the Jerk’s “Orphans” as an adoption PSA? The Sex Pistols’ “Bodies” in an ad for a pro-life candidate? The Dead Kennedys’ “Holiday in Cambodia” to sell you . . . well, a holiday in Cambodia?

No, I didn’t think so.

There is something that sounds bracing, radical, un-bought out about much of that music . . . still. In a world where we’re inured to so much, and where almost everything is virtually co-opted, that is saying a great deal.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee