“People aren’t buying records,” explains New Young Pony Club guitarist Andy Spence. So just imagine – it’s easy if you try – how hard it must be to keep a gold-plated roof over your nearest and dearest’s heads when you’ve been dead for 30 years.
“You get the biggest prize when you die, a really big one for dying in public" – John Lennon.
October 9 was John Lennon’s 70th birthday. If he had survived Mark David Chapman, 2010 would have finished him off for sure.
This year, with Courtney Love cheering her on, Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono sold Lennon to Montblanc, Gibson and Citroën, released a hardback book of his artwork and rereleased remastered versions of the late Beatles’ solo material. For Lennon fans, the Citroën ad was one slur too many.
But John and Yoko’s only son Sean defended his mother’s decision to sell his father to Citroën. “Look, TV ad was not for money. It’s just hard to find new ways to keep dad in the new world. Not many things as effective as TV,” he wrote on Twitter.
Still, fans weren’t convinced. Online, they called for a boycott of the car, complaining that Sean Lennon suggesting his father needs a Citroën ad to stay relevant is the biggest insult to his memory yet.
Especially when you consider Beatles: Rock Band, Ben & Jerry’s John Lennon Imagine flavoured ice-cream, John Lennon Converse sneakers, the Apple "Think Different" ad and all the mugs, calendars, coasters, clothes, bags, clocks and other Lennon-branded goodies out there.
And don’t forget, in 2009, Ono put together an exhibit in New York featuring the blood-stained glasses and shirt Lennon was wearing when he was killed.
But these days, things are less black and white, right? Less wrong and right. In the old days, if you sold your songs to advertisers, you were a sellout. Now the music industry’s changed. And artists have been forced to seek new avenues for exposure and income.
So when you see a new band like New Young Pony Club selling Nissans or Intel computers, or hear them on a new video game soundtrack, there’s less of a moral dilemma attached to it. It’s the modern way.
But even New Young Pony Club had a choice – a luxury Lennon was not afforded. “When we did the Nissan advert I checked out the car first. We don’t want to be involved with some gas-guzzler. We’ve turned down a lot of unethical stuff. But it’s a modern world. Gone are the days when you could say, ‘Oh I won’t sell out.’ Unless you’re Radiohead. If you’re Radiohead, then you’re alright,” explains Andy Spence.
What makes the Lennon case so soulless is the context. Can you picture a living John Lennon agreeing to an Imagine Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavour? How about a $27 000 Montblanc John Lennon pen? John Lennon was more than just a musical employee, he was (and still is) a meaningful contributor to the history of this planet.
And what makes the Citroën DS3 campaign (also featuring Marilyn Monroe) particularly painful is:
It’s not even Lennon and Monroe’s real voices. Citroën bought the footage and dubbed in their own voice actors.
The campaign’s called Anti-Retro, but Lennon and Monroe are both retro icons.
The Lennon ad boasts, “Once a thing’s been done, it’s been done… Looking backwards for inspiration, copying the past, how’s that rock n' roll?” But the Nissan DS was first launched in 1955. And Lennon himself was completely influenced by what came before him. In 1975, he even released Rock n’ Roll, an album of inspirational rock ‘n roll covers from the '50s and '60s.
Also, in the original, pre-dubbed clip, Lennon’s talking about writing his 1965 novel A Spaniard in the Works. About looking backwards and being inspired by Sherlock Holmes.
In other words, the campaign is complete advertising spin – heartless, exploitative and manipulative. Basically, a big fat lie.
Still, just when you think you’re alone in the world, the only one that still sees something foul in the contradictions of life’s rebels playing ball with the suits, the only one that thinks Sex Pistols perfume is a sin against nature, you can always count on Tom Waits:
“If Michael Jackson wants to work for Pepsi, why doesn’t he just get himself a suit and an office in their headquarters and be done with it?”
"Commercials are an unnatural use of my work. It's like having a cow's udder sewn to the side of my face. Painful and humiliating."
In 2005, Tom Waits sued Opel. After failing to sign him for a batch of Scandinavian commercials, Opel hired a Waits sound-alike. In 2007, the suit was settled and Waits gave the money to charity.
"If I stole an Opel, Lancia, or Audi, put my name on it and resold it, I'd go to jail. But over there they ask, you say no, and they hire impersonators. They profit from the association and I lose time, money and credibility. What's that about?" Waits explained.
It’s a tricky situation to call. There are double standards. If Citroën had chosen Kanye West and Lady Gaga, no one would have even kicked up a fuss, because they’re both modern stars with modern values. No one’s going to unveil peace monuments in their honour (or even remember them) in 30 years. And besides, they’re both still alive. Springsteen turned down Chrysler, but what’s to stop one of his children selling “Born In the USA” to them when The Boss is dead?