The Times They are A-Ruinin' My Breakfast

I put a kettle on the stove this morning and went to the cd shelves to find something to put on the stereo. I was getting ready to work on more layout ideas for my album cover, and as is usual for morning music choices, I was looking for something mellow and unobtrusive. I was in the mood for something sparse, slow and austere. I glanced over the usual suspects; Dave Alvin, Kris Kristofferson, Patty Griffin, Mississippi John Hurt, Nick Drake….hm… Ah, Bob Dylan! Early, early, Bob Dylan. The Times They are A-Changin’, his third album (1964) and the last of his original purist folky period, just before his music started to show the tell-tale signs of reefer madness (and then got a lot more interesting, in my opinion). Now that’s a bare-bones & stark collection of songs if ever there was one. I haven’t listened to that one in a long time. I put it on and heard the first few seconds of that acoustic guitar strum and felt something…wrong, suspect…then came his voice, “Come gather ‘round people, wherever you roam” and instantly I saw a grandfatherly old man jogging down a suburban street…and then the logo: Kaiser Permanente. Dammit. This is how they kill us. Ever so slowly sucking the soul out of our culture. I know, it’s very 80s and quaint to be bothered by the phenomenon of great artists selling out their cultural capital to TV commercials. This argument is pretty much considered over and Madison Avenue is clearly victorious (vik-ˈtōr-ē-əs Secret no less!) It’s not just the words and the melody of the songs that make the commercials sink deep into your brain and form a lasting image. it’s the sonic texture, the feel of that particular original recording as it’s been known for decades. If some knock-off band just sang the same song it wouldn’t do so much damage. If a lesser-known or struggling artist licenses a song to a corporation it’s totally understandable. Some good friends of mine have done it and, whadya know, they don’t have to have day jobs anymore. What’s more difficult to understand is why a legendary career artist who’s already set for life and worth millions would do it. The pressure to sell, and the cash sums, must be incredible for that kind of cultural credibility. But isn’t it ironic, doncha think, that the moment the artist uses his credibility for a commercial is the very moment that credibility is shot. Hats off to Neil Young and to Tom Waits, to name only two, for resisting the pressure and thereby probably making their publishing and/or record labels hate them for passing up millions of dollars for doing nothing. As far as I know, their catalogs remain “pure” and I can safely play their music at home without seeing corporate logos dancing in my head.

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