Let’s face it – Bill Hicks was a genius. Taking a cue from the all-time great George Carlin, Hicks infused his rebellious comedy routine with a heavy dose of philosophy. His views on society, government, religion, and drugs are still thought-provoking and profound 20-years later. Recently while watching his 1992 special Relentless I had a moment of confusion. While talking about the music industry’s penchant for performing fellatio on the Devil, Hick’s quipped, “Let me tell you something right now, you can print this in stone and don’t you ever forget it: any performer who ever sells a product on television is for now and all eternity removed from the artistic world.”
Considering the music acts of the time, I would whole-heartedly agree. In those innocent days, M.C. Hammer was hamming it up for Kentucky Fried Chicken, New Kids On the Block were dancing it up for Coke, and Michael Jackson was burning up for Pepsi. All big name, money-making-machines, all capitalizing on their success in the name of the almighty dollar.
Obviously context means a lot to Hick’s statement, but I couldn’t help but wonder what he’d think about all the artists who lend their faces and music to commercials today. There are still big name “artists” profiting off their popularity, and within that narrow scope, Hick’s prophecy has become even worse than he could have imagined. Not only are the big money singers attaching their name to a product, they have become advertising whores, peddling for whoever will throw money in their direction. Justin Timberlake does ads for Bud Light, Target, and Sony; Taylor Swift shills for CoverGirl, Diet Coke, and NASCAR Auto Care; and Katie Perry shakes her boobs for Pepsi, Adidas, and of all things, Sims 3. There’s no longer any shame in the game of sponsoring a product.
However, unlike the days of Bill Hicks, you can now see lesser known artists partnering up with corporate entities. What would he think of Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and his project in association with Bushmills? Vernon’s intentions seem to be all for the good of the people from the area where he grew up, whether it be custom guitar maker Gordy Bischoff or the charity The Confluence Community Arts Centre. While I’m sure Vernon received some form of monetary gain, should he be removed from Bill Hick’s artistic world?
Or what about Carrie Brownstein and her recent commercial for American Express? In the ad Brownstein can be seen depicting a plethora of wacky characters, all taking advantage of the wondrous world of credit cards. But is this a musician selling out to corporate America or is it a sketch comedy actress helping to promote her TV show Portlandia?
Sadly, I’d say most Americans know her more for the TV show than for her revolutionary punk band Sleater Kinney that broke up seven years ago (one of the saddest sentences I’ve ever typed). I doubt that American Express thought, “Remember that all girl punk band from Olympia, Washington that broke up seven years ago? They are so hot right now! We should totally get one of them for our next commercial!” More likely, the conversation was along the lines of, “We need a funny woman in our next commercial.” I question whether Hick’s beliefs on music and advertising apply to this ad campaign (although I can’t deny that the first time I saw Carrie Brownstein in a credit card commercial, I got really, really pissed).
Okay, okay, I’ve tried to put up a good fight for artists I like and pointed out some unique situations that probably don’t apply to the Hick’s rule, but when it comes to the Flaming Lips, I have a little more difficulty. This past year the Flaming Lips were prominently seen in, of all things, a Super Bowl commercial for Hyundai. This isn’t an ad where they make a quick appearance; it’s an ad entirely based on the idea of the Flaming Lips living in your house. The band can be seen throughout, performing at the breakfast table, on the roof of the house, and on a boat, all while their cheery song “Sun Blow Up Today” serenades the family as they go on wild adventures. The band has been known to sell their songs for advertisements over the past decade, but this was above and beyond anything they’d done before. The shot of their tour bus near the end of the video was the moment I had to admit it – The Flaming Lips had sold out.
But would Hicks be right saying they should no longer be considered artists? It’s hard to deny that the Hyundai commercial was an attempt at getting some heat leading up to the release of their latest album. Then again, one listen to The Terror and it’s clear that they aren’t going for a Super Bowl audience. In fact, The Terror is probably their most abstract, artistic effort to date and probably the most profound and masterfully crafted album of the year (I named it my number one album of the year “So Far” back in June). Could Hicks, a well-documented fan of psychedelics, listen to The Terror and stick with his notion that they aren’t artists?
The Lips are a strange case however you look at it. A few months ago I saw them play a free show on a large stage located in a park in Austin, Texas. The crowd was filled with married couples pushing around strollers, looking forward to seeing Wayne Coyne roll across the crowd in a giant ball. But just like their album contradicted the images scene in the Hyundai commercial, they came out onto the stage and played their apocalyptic album The Terror from start to finish. The combination of happy families and that menacing music made for what resembled a scene from a Stephen King book. In a strange twist of expectations, they seem to enjoy the fame while remaining true to their art. In the case of The Flaming Lips, I would disagree with Hicks. Then again, a Taylor Swift fan would probably do the same.
Let’s face it: I’ve given in to Hick’s worst nightmare. Time to go buy a Hyundai.