JOHNNY N’ IGGY-PUNK SELLS OUT!!!!
BBC News Magazine
Iggy Pop’s endorsement of car insurance has prompted accusations of selling out. But does anyone really care any more?
As the flailing, wild-eyed frontman of US garage-rock band The Stooges, Iggy Pop helped pioneer punk long before the Sex Pistols.
His solo career is approaching its fifth decade. Live, he’s earned a reputation as one of rock’s most exciting performers, with a frame that’s not so much athletic as freakish.
So why is one of rock’s most iconic rebels now selling car insurance on TV? Will we ever be able to listen to his music in the same way again? Or are we now inured to the fact that at some point our cultural heroes are going to turn round and exhort us to buy, buy, buy?
As the new face of insurers Swiftcover, Pop writhes and gyrates like a toddler after too much red cordial, declaring that what he’s really selling isn’t car insurance but "time", a confusion that will no doubt be cleared up when he cashes the cheque.
Some of Pop’s more faithful fans have not taken well to this. An army of possibly now ex-supporters have vented their spleen on music message boards and blogs. Posters featuring his ads have been defaced with the words "sell-out", the ultimate insult.
"Selling out" is a phrase that has come to haunt many a politician, public figure or entertainer. It’s the perfect description to tar those seen to compromise their integrity in favour of money, power or mainstream acceptance.
John Lydon, the occasional frontman of punk pioneers The Sex Pistols, caused many an old punk to splutter at the television when he appeared plugging Country Life butter last year. Comedian Denis Leary – who had become a cult star in the US with a rant-driven stream of black comedy – annoyed some of his fans with his endorsement of Holsten Pils lager. And Sting has still not recovered from agreeing to front a smug promo for Jaguar.
But is this just a generational thing? Would fans of Pete Doherty take such exception seeing him selling cough medicine or train tickets? If Amy Winehouse was unveiled as the new face of a coffee brand, would the sales of her next album plummet?
Bill Hicks: "If you do an advert then you are off the artistic register forever"
Acerbic American comedian Bill Hicks summed up a hardcore view that chimed with an anti-consumerist niche in the 80s: "If you do an advert then you are off the artistic register forever."
Hicks died of cancer, aged 32, before even having the chance to tarnish this zero-tolerance stance by endorsing financial services, but that philosophy hasn’t died with him.
In the entertainment world, "sell-out" has also crystallised around an independent, anti-major label stance of bands born out of the punk and new wave scene of the late 1970s.
In the 1980s, amid the culture of conspicuous consumption, indie musicians regarded any overt attempts to be successful as compromising rigid ideals about artistic integrity. These included avoiding being signed to a mainstream label and refusing to take part in activities seen as crass and overly commercial, like making expensive videos.
What makes us accuse our heroes of selling out? Why do we feel they have abused our support?
For writer Zoe Williams, the Iggy Pop ads are not a concern because, crucially, she is not a fan – his insurance endorsement isn’t interfering with any memories she has of buying Raw Power or going to see him in concert. This is part of the mix – we have to some kind of relationship with the artist in question in order to be disappointed or betrayed.
But, she says: "If Morrissey was on an ad, that would appal me. It’s not that he’s as pure as the driven snow, but there’s a kind of integrity. He’s a commercial refusenik." And, crucially, she’s a fan.
John Lydon Country Life (pictured)
Denis Leary Holsten Pils
Lou Reed Honda scooters
Black-Eyed Peas Pepsi
Mitchell & Webb Apple Mac
Journalist and author Andrew Mueller says we bring our own personal feelings to the art we love, and react badly to it being treated lightly.
"I think consumers object to their favourite songs being used in ads less out of any sense that the artistic integrity of the work is being tarnished, more out of a sense of ownership.
"We love songs because they remind us of someone/something, and it’s annoying when we find ourselves having no choice but to associate them with bathroom freshener."
Those accused of "selling out" are sometimes also called "whores". Williams says: "Calling someone a prostitute is incredibly offensive because we feel sex is sacred. I think art is similar."
Williams was unhappy at the Mac and PC ads in 2007 starring Peep Show comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb – arguing that comedians earn our trust with their routines and humour. "Comedy is intimate; it turns on qualities we share, not those we can only admire," she wrote then.
To Williams, Webb and Mitchell have sold out because she identifies almost too readily with them. "It’s a bunch of middle-class people with exactly my education and opportunities. And they probably didn’t get paid that much for it."
This is art that has always been mixed with commerce
American academic Michael Berube tackled the subject in an essay called Cultural Criticism and the Politics of Selling Out.
He came to the subject with something more than just an academic interest – in the 80s he was a fan of hardcore US bands such as Husker Du, who were accused of selling out when they signed to a mid-size record label. Many of their fans refused to listen to subsequent records.
With music, he says, "this is art that has always been mixed with commerce". But like many counter-cultures, the music scene that created artists like Pop began with an uncommercial edge that only gradually filtered into the mainstream. "They had no idea this was ever going to be incredibly successful."
Mr Berube may live in Pennsylvania but thanks to the internet he has seen the ads, and says they cause a serious "ick reaction".
Would you buy car insurance from this man?
The ads, Mr Berube says, feature cognitive dissonance – where something attempts to balance contradictory ideas. "Here’s Iggy Pop, shirtless, haggard, and he’s concerned about putting his papers down too."
He adds: "The line about ‘selling time’ – it’s a guilty conscience. And at the end he yells ‘Get a life’ with the anarchist symbol. Anyone who knows that symbol sees how jarring that is."
He laughs. "If I ran into Iggy Pop at an intersection, I would hope he had car insurance, though."
Modern audiences may immune to the shock though. "I wonder if people now don’t just expect it to be business as usual," Mr Berube suggests.
Marketing analyst Craig Smith agrees. "There are so many more commercial aspects to what any given celebrity does these days. They’re promoted and marketed and advertised to an inch of their lives. I don’t think people now are surprised to see their heroes appear in an ad."
Artists develop, mature, their edges get softened, and they wake up one day fretting that they haven’t saved enough for their retirement. All the while, their fans often hang on to an idealistic memory.
But if an ad agency suddenly wants to attach their one-time rebel yell to car insurance, or holidays to Australia, should we judge them?
As the recession bites and sales of music plummet, Pop’s decision may not look so out of place. And the term sell out may lose some of its sting.