Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Watch us sell it

About a month ago a new Dell notebook commercial hit the airwaves, and I'm not the only one who sat up and took notice of its soundtrack. Very familiar - electroclash but in an old school way - but I couldn't place it. By the time I made it to the blogosphere, others had done the work and the answer was easy to find: it is a new Devo song, entitled 'Watch us work it'. Though Devo have toured recently, they haven't released much in the way of new material in over a decade.

Artistic integrity is a tricky thing in pop music, and trickier when it comes to licensing, particularly for the artists who have enjoyed commercial success and don't seem to be hurting for cash. Remember the smug comments when Sting got cozy with the Jaguar folks around the time of his Brand New Day album? A Jag prominent in his video for 'Desert rose' and the song prominent in a Jag ad campaign... The album had languished before the partnership, but the commercial boosted its sales significantly.

How about Moby, who famously licensed every song from his album Play at least once? That seems to have worked out well, too; the exposure demonstrably boosted the album's sales, and Moby was fond of mentioning that he used much of the licensing revenue to contribute to pet causes, some of which protest the activities of the very industries that had bought his music.

One of the great licensing scandals was the Pepsi/Madonna 'Like a prayer' brouhaha, in which the soda company paid her $5 million to debut the song in their commercial. They axed the ad shortly after it began airing because of the controversy surrounding Madonna's own video for the song, burning crosses and all. Madonna laughed all the way to the bank, and I don't blame her for a second.

Did Sting compromise artistic integrity? Looks like it. Did Moby? I'd say so, even if he put a noble spin on it. Did Madonna? Kind of a ridiculous question, in the greater context...

This new example with the Devo song is interesting for different reasons, though, particularly because Devo don't seem to have a product of their own in the pipeline. They have said their own video for the song is in the works, but I haven't seen mention of an album, and the song is only available as a download; so it's difficult to accuse them of trying to leverage sales. They don't seem to have written the song specifically for the Dell commercial; the lyrics, while typically quirky, seem to be about reviving a relationship, not about building a better laptop. It stands on its own quite well (made easier by the fact that the Dell commercial, while stylish and slick, fades from memory rather quickly.)

If it were a bad song, it would be easy to put it down as soundtrack work for quick cash, and maintain an impression of Devo as a nostalgia act. But now that I've gotten my hands on the full length song, I can say it's a great track, and an exciting harbinger of the return of a great post-punk band. Artistic integrity doesn't seem to be the big issue here. Rather, it seems like a case study for the novel and provocative forms of productivity artists are finding in the new era of mingled media. We'll have to see if it pays off, or if that's even Devo's intent; after all, they took some rather anti-commercial stances in their early days. To Devo, I say 'Go forward / Move ahead / Try to detect it / It's not too late'.

Devo official website