Thursday, August 21, 2008

a tale of two ROCKIN' musicians and their GM commercials: Steve Earle's "Revolution"

(above) LIVE FROM AUSTIN TX, recorded at "Austin City Limits" 9-12-86,
the same summer GUITAR TOWN, Earle's first LP, shook up Nashville
(above) a few years later, circa COPPERHEAD ROAD,
but Earle was headed for a difficult time
(above) older, still basically uncompromising,
but the years, the road, and some time in lockup have taken their toll
(above) the justly celebrated 1986 GUITAR TOWN that, for some,
suggested Earle was "the next Springsteen"
(above) imperfectly assembled, but nevertheless the "Guitar Town" video
(above) the reward--and chore--of a hit album, even for a radical:

autographing an LP on the bus for fans (also from the "Guitar Town" video)

(above) "There's a speed trap up ahead in Selma Town,

But no local yokel gonna shut me down."

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Singer/songwriter/bandleader Steve Earle, just like Brandi Carlile more recently (see previous blog), made a decision to associate his recorded product with that of General Motors, back in 2005. But even just three years ago, GM was not touting its hybrids and its bio-fueled cars of the future: it was pickups and doolies, dude, and what amazed some is that one of the songs chosen was Earle's "The Revolution Starts Now" (which, I guess, by name alone, or also by a shallow reading of the lyrics) actually became a sales tool. But, for many amongst Earle's legion of fans, that decision to "sell out" (if that's what a radical musician does when he finally cashes in) was a slap in their faces.
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But who's to say, right? "Revolution" can mean any number of things . . . possibly including a campaign to sell vehicles. Back then, Chevy was emphatic about promoting on TV and radio the concept "American revolution," as it tied into their products through an appeal to elemental patriotism and the promotion of Americana. . . but using Earle's song was a risk because the suits also left the door open to Earle's own wider, darker (certainly left-leaning) interpretation of the term . . . revolution.
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"I was walkin' down the street
In the town where I was born
I was movin' to a beat
That I'd never felt before

So I opened up my eyes
And I took a look around
I saw it written 'cross the sky
The revolution starts now
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"The revolution starts here
Where you work and where you play
Where you lay your money down
What you do and what you say
The revolution starts now
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"Last night I had a dream
That the world had turned around
And all our hopes had come to be
And the people gathered 'round
They all brought what they could bring
And nobody went without
And I learned a song to sing
The revolution starts now"
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As the revolution Earle was positing was not written, per se, about developments in American automotive product, but rather about the desire for social and political change, one has to ask . . . did the suits mis-read his intentions? Did they assume his songwriting was simply in the same vein as Seger's "Like a Rock," which carried no political baggage?
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Carlile clearly stated on her website she wouldn't have done an ad for pickups, but saw the advantages of helping promote GM's (avowed) new change in direction. For his part, Earle just needed the money, and if the song was in the same anthemic vein (as Chevy's ad agency believed it was), as John Mellencamp's "This Is Our Country" and Bob Seger's "Like a Rock," then what the heck, right?
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Well, yes . . . and no.
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According to Wikipedia, "Since early on, Earle was involved with political causes. [Going back to his first public performances], Earle was unable to play in bars due to his age [he ran away from home at age 16], and took to playing in coffeehouses alongside anti-Vietnam War campaigners. These experiences had a strong effect on him, later on prompting his strong opposition to the war in Iraq."
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For instance, years after GUITAR TOWN brought to the forefront Earle's exceptional songwriting talent, he recorded "John Walker's Blues" on his 2002 album, JERUSALEM. Although Earle said he was just emphathizing with John Walker Lindh, (the American Taliban recruit) and not glorifying terrorism, anyone would have to say Earle was putting forth a controversial message. Two years later, he issued the album THE REVOLUTION STARTS NOW which coincided with the 2004 US presidential election (for which he backed John Kerry), and the title song of the same name was chosen to promote Michael Moore's anti-war documentary film Fahrenheit 9/11.
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My point is, Earle came to the table with heartfelt antiwar bona-fides, and briefly got away with something that neither he or his fans--or Chevy and GM, for that matter--really could justify. It's just not possible to imagine Chevy and GM then having any intention to lean in a particularly unusual direction, although I'm guessing they don't consider the green revolution as politically left--it's beyond Al Gore, it's actually a mainstream sentiment now--making it so that Brandi Carlile's concerns more naturally square with those of the carmaker.
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Earle's manager at the time was quoted as saying, "It was just a business decision we decided to make and we went with it." On the website http://www,nucountry.com.au, it's noted: "In 2005, "The Revolution Starts Now" was inked for a TV ad for Chevy pickups. But as karma collided with the singer, Chevy inexplicably killed the ad days after it began airing. Earle hadn't actually signed his contract, and he only got a fraction of the money he'd been promised. "It just goes to show you," Earle said, "when you finally get ready to sell out, nobody's buying.""
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Another blogger put it very simply, "Don't ever fault a man for making money."
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But let me give you several other sentiments expressed at the time:
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Jim DeRogatis, the distinguished rock critic and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times interviewed Earle at length, and published excerpts from the interview on March 4, 2008. Earle noted, amongst much else, "I've never written a record that had no chick songs, and I've never written a record that had no political songs!"
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One of DeRogatis' readers, Scott Tipping, responded: "But how could you not take the opportunity of doing the interview to ask him about selling "The Revolution Starts Now" to Chevy trucks? Knowing your thoughts on corporate shilling and the destruction of rock & roll through advertising, I thought you'd be the one guy to take him to task and ask, "WHY??" Why would you take a political piece that was intended to inspire people, and reduce it to a car commercial?"
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Austin Mayor, another reader, responded to Tipping's point: "What Scott said. Hearing "Revolution" promote Chevy's fossil-burners really turned me off to that whole album. I don't really believe it's about "selling out"--we've all gotta eat--but putting that particular song in a truck commercial really underminded the legitimacy of its political content. Steve Earle broke my heart selling that song to Chevy."
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DeRogatis, to his credit, responded to both men the following week, by saying: "You guys are right. I dropped the ball on not asking Steve about that commercial. I guess I blocked out the painful memory of it!" (And, apparently Earle did have some further reponse, elicited by DeRogatis, but I was unable to find it while preparing this blog).
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For those interested, there are excellent discussions of this painful topic at:
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http://www.houstonpress.com/2005-07-28/music/breakdown-lane/ -- by John Nova Lomax, in which he concludes, "As for Earle, it must be remembered this is a man with no fewer than six ex-wives and close to an equal number of ex-managers, some of whom he still owes money. In his 2003 biography, Earle told author Lauren St. John that, all told, his overhead was then $35,000 a month. Kinda reminds me of a quote from bluesman R.L. Burnside, a musician with similar family obligations, if on a smaller scale: "Man," he once told a reporter, "I got to put 12 biscuits on the table 'fore I get to eat even one." Chevy ad deals buy a lot of biscuits, people. What's more, Chevy is an American company that provides a lot of increasingly rare, blue-collar living-wage jobs. Sure, selling "Revolution" will rob one of Earle's songs of some of its pure radical power. Get over it--he'll write more--and as it happens, Earle was wrong. Dubya won. The revolution didn't start then, anyway."
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Mark Caro's 2007 blogs in the Chicago Tribune under the title "Pop Machine," including "Finally, some sell-outs we can enjoy!" and "Wilco loves certain German Cars," and "Mellencamp's sell-out backfires," and best of all, his 10-4-06 column (with huge readership response) is this one: http://featuresblogs.chicagotribune.com/entertainment_popmachine/2006/10/because_they_di.html
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including this comment: "Apparently the same commercial that left us scratching our heads angered a bunch of wingnuts on the opposite end of the political spectrum. While we couldn't figure out why Earle had gone corporate, they couldn't figure out why Chevrolet had hired a "radical musician." Sort of mollified our outrage. If Earle pissed off a bunch of wackjobs by "selling out," maybe that makes the whole thing some sort of subversive act. (Or maybe not). In any event, the thought of the commercial angering its target audience is rather amusing."
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and watch the fur fly. Similarly, the exchange at http://portland.metblogs.com/2005/08/22/the-revolution-startshow/
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So, three final thoughts.
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(1) From "Pete" at http://ickmusic.com/category/steve-earle/page/2/, "It IS possible to discover cool music through commercials." Yes, true, because that's how I encountered Brandi Carlile.
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(2) Tom Waits, quoted in the L.A. Times, "By turning a great song into a jingle, advertisers have achieved the ultimate: a meaningless product has now been injected with your meaningful memory of a song. The songs and the artists who have created tthe songs have power and cultural value, that's why advertisers pay out millions for them. But, once you (the musician) have taken the cash, you, your song, and your audience are forever married to the product."
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and (3) the first song on Earle's LIVE FROM AUSTIN TX, which is his "Sweet Little '66." Because, just as we'll forever stand in awe of GUITAR TOWN as a fully realized, impeccably crafted set-piece of great, inter-related songs with great highway settings, we all should remember that Earle comes from the right rock-and-cars place too:
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"Now I'm a pretty big man around this town
I got me the hottest little Chevy around
My sweet little '66
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"She got a yellow front fender and a gray one on the back
But my income tax is comin' and I'm gonna paint her black
Sweet little '66
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"She got the 396, she got the four on the floor
And those stickers in the window ain't just for show
My sweet little '66
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"Now old Bubba and me built her back in '79
Then he went into the army so now she's all mine
Sweet little '66
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"I used to run her down on River Road and make a little dough
But can't afford another ticket so I'm layin' kinda low
Me and my '66
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"Now she ain't too good on gasoline, she burns a little oil
But she was built by union labor on American soil
Sweet little '66
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"So when your Subaru is over and your Honda's history
I'll be blastin' down some back road with my baby next to me
In my sweet little '66."
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Maybe that's the song Steve Earle should have sold to Chevy. All the right sentiments from an ol' leftie. Just sayin'. Peace out.
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