Joined: 18 Feb 2004
Location: Brooklyn, NY
|Posted: Sat Aug 15, 2015 10:19 am Post subject: Are you a brand?
|Thought this was very much on target. From a musician's perspective, it never made any sense to me when rock musicians started getting all cozy with the corporate world, allowing or even pursuing the use of their music in ads. That's when rock died, IMO.
By CARINA CHOCANO in NY Times Magazine
Once, a long time ago, a rock star was a free-spirited, convention-flouting artist/rebel/hero/Dionysian fertility god who fronted a world-famous band, sold millions of records and headlined stadium concerts where people were trampled in frenzies of cultlike fervor. Someone who smashed guitars, trashed hotel rooms, developed Byzantine drug problems and tried to mask evidence of his infidelity with the strategically applied scent of breakfast burritos. Despite what his ‘‘Behind the Music’’ episode would invariably reveal, a ‘‘rock star’’ — or the Platonic ideal of a rock star — was not just a powder keg of charisma and unresolved childhood issues, but a revolutionary driven by a need to assert the primacy of the self in an increasingly alienating commercial world.
Now, 60 years, give or take, since the phrase came into existence, ‘‘rock star’’ has made a complete about-face. In its new incarnation, it is more likely to refer to a programmer, salesperson, social-media strategist, business-to-business telemarketer, recruiter, management consultant or celebrity pastry chef than to a person in a band. The term has become shorthand for a virtuosity so exalted it borders on genius — only for some repetitive, detail-oriented task. It flatters the person being spoken about by shrouding him in mystique while also conferring a Svengali-like power on the person speaking. Posting a listing for a job for which only ‘‘rock stars’’ need apply casts an H.R. manager as a kind of corporate Malcolm McLaren; that nobody is looking for a front-end developer who is addicted to heroin or who bites the heads off doves in conference rooms goes without saying. Pretty much anyone can be a ‘‘rock star’’ these days — except actual rock stars, who are encouraged to think of themselves as brands.
This bizarre transposition goes back to the turn of the millennium, when the idea of a ‘‘creative class’’ was popularized in books like Paul H. Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson’s ‘‘The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World’’ and Richard Florida’s ‘‘The Rise of the Creative Class,’’ which argued that innovation would drive growth in the 21st century. The creative class, according to these thinkers, valued the cool things in life. More than money and status, they cared about authenticity, activism, ecology and the interconnectedness of all things. They were more egalitarian, more into personal growth. Whereas the popular business literature of the 1980s urged managers to imagine themselves as fierce, merciless warriors (Sun Tzu’s ancient treatise ‘‘The Art of War’’ was required reading for many American executives and business students), by the end of the century, consultants at McKinsey had declared a ‘‘war for talent.’’ Business writers in the new millennium reconceptualized men in suits (or hoodies) as social revolutionaries.
According to a 2013 study in The Human Resource Management Review, ‘‘talent,’’ in its new usage, could refer to qualities, like natural ability and technical mastery, or it could refer to talented people, as in a subset of elite, superskilled workers, or it could mean all people, no matter how untalented. On the HBO show ‘‘Silicon Valley’’ (in which, in a recent episode, a pretty event manager introduced the benightedly dorky programmers Dinesh and Gilfoyle as ‘‘rock stars’’ to her sexy, unimpressed stunt man boyfriend), Nelson Bighetti, known as Big Head, is a prime example of this last category. Big Head is an inept app developer whose swift rise through the ranks of his company, Hooli, makes no sense to his colleagues — which of course it shouldn’t, because it’s all just part of a cynical legal strategy. But Hooli, a very loose spoof of Google, is a faith-driven ‘‘culture’’ led by a ‘‘visionary,’’ Gavin Belson. To doubt his talent for spotting ‘‘talent’’ would border on apostasy. Belson is a ‘‘rock star,’’ and Big Head becomes a rock star by association. ‘‘Silicon Valley’’ nails this particular lexical puffery: the way that language can create power in the most ridiculous, illogical ways. Rock star ad absurdum.
Rock stars themselves bear some responsibility for the creation of brand ‘‘rock stardom.’’ In her book ‘‘No Logo,’’ a study of the effects of advertising on culture, Naomi Klein traces the inversion of artists and corporate wage earners to the 1980s, when seemingly every ’70s rock star who survived youthful hard living into hale middle age entered into a synergistic alliance with other, bigger brands. Comeback concert sponsorships, commercial licensing agreements, lucrative advertising contracts and co-branded merchandising opportunities offered the aging rock star, drifting into irrelevance, advantages only a die-hard romantic and well-funded idealist would turn down: a final, global victory lap; an extra couple of hundred million in the bank; and a shot to trade enshrinement in a specific era for an eternal, ahistoric, ever-fungible brand ‘‘relevance.’’
Who could blame him? A person can sanely assume a countercultural stance only when there is a culture to counter — and by the 1980s, there wasn’t one anymore. Advertising permeated popular culture so thoroughly that it essentially replaced it. This oddity is illustrated by the successful co-opting of the Beatles’ song ‘‘Revolution’’ as the soundtrack to a 1987 Nike commercial. The Beatles sued the sneaker company, the company that created the ad and EMI-Capitol Records for $15 million, claiming that they did not ‘‘endorse or peddle sneakers or pantyhose.’’ This sounds comically innocent now. Now we’re at the point where it seems perfectly normal to see the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards as the face of Louis Vuitton luggage; last year, Bono announced, while performing at the launch of the Apple Watch, that U2’s album ‘‘Songs of Innocence’’ would be automatically released for free to the accounts of as many as 500 million iTunes users — a great many of whom were evidently not U2 fans. Complaints about the rock star’s attempt to glom onto the launch and about the sullying of the pure Apple brand experience ensued.
A funny thing happens when a brand becomes associated with a rock star in the public imagination. The rock star is gradually subsumed into the permeable and capacious brand like a vanishing twin. And the spirit of rock music is devoured too. The brand itself becomes the star. Which is where we find ourselves now, in the post-rock-star era, reading books like ‘‘The New Rockstar Philosophy’’ that are aimed at helping artists think, and possibly talk, like businesses. (One blurb praises its ‘‘actionable insights.’’) Musicians today know that you have to be a pro to succeed: compliant, controlled, image-focused and customer-service-oriented. Tossing vending machines off balconies is not cost-effective and just sends the wrong message.
Years ago, in the early ’90s, I took a copywriting class at a large Chicago ad agency, and the teacher told us a story about how, a few years earlier, he tried to persuade the indie band Timbuk3 to allow his client — I think it was Procter & Gamble — to use its song ‘‘Hairstyles and Attitudes’’ in a commercial, but the musicians refused. I was struck by his contempt for their decision, and how fresh his anger seemed. He kept sputtering the reason they gave for turning down his agency’s offer — ‘‘They didn’t want to sell out!’’ — as if it constituted not just an unthinkable betrayal but also a reprehensible moral lapse. He seemed to expect us to mirror his indignation, but we just sat there, feeling uncomfortable.
Today, not only would the band that wrote the song about hairstyles accept the shampoo company’s offer without hesitating, it would also gratefully participate in any and all cross-promotional efforts, cheerfully splicing its DNA with that of its benevolent sponsors on social media and on TV. It would go on late-night shows and gamely participate in any attendant self-mockery. The copywriter would use it as an example of leveraging brand synergies through 360-degree cross-platform campaigns, and the kids in his class would think he was a rock star.