Sooner or later, it happens to everyone. You're watching television, and suddenly a song you love pops up in a commercial. Perhaps it's "She Sells>"/>
Sooner or later, it happens to everyone. You're watching television, and suddenly a song you love pops up in a commercial. Perhaps it's "She Sells Sanctuary" being used to hawk SUVs to the same jocks who beat you up in high school for liking the Cult, or the Gap co-opting Badly Drawn Boy to push ugly scarves. Episodes like this used to bum me out, but nowadays I'm more or less immune. A couple months ago, when I saw an ad featuring a bunch of twentysomethings frolicking in the woods to the sound of Basement Jaxx's demented underground house track "Red Alert" and realized it was a Coca-Cola plug, I shrugged and went on with life.
But a few weeks later, when I mentioned to a buddy back East that I was getting ready to interview the U.K. duo about their upcoming album Rooty (due in June), he pressed me to ask the Jaxx about the Coke spot because it had sent one of his dearest friends—a raver in her early 20s—into deep despair. She was saying she might never listen to Basement Jaxx again.
"[She] wasn't annoyed with the Jaxx—who she would never deny the right to sell their music, although now the mere mention of them makes her sad—so much as with Coke and the corporate empires in general for their jackal-like tendency to co-opt and pimp authentic cultures," my friend explained via e-mail. "To many members of the West Virginia massive, techno belongs in a forest or field around a bonfire more than in a club (precious few worthwhile clubs in the Dayton-Pittsburgh-W.Va. corridor, but lots of outdoor events of all sizes), so I guess the Coke ad hit the nail too closely on the head."
Not wishing to be a confrontational jackass, I hesitated to broach the topic when I got on the phone with Basement Jaxx's Simon Ratcliffe. But then he presented an opportunity too good to pass up. "I don't find dance music revolutionary any more," he revealed. "Ten years ago, when I got into it, [dance music] was totally anti-authority. The police were busting raves, and it was this underground movement. Now it's used for shampoo adverts. It doesn't inspire rebellion; it's become part of the mainstream."
So he and partner Felix Buxton feel no remorse about selling their song into beverage-peddling slavery? Quite the contrary, insisted Ratcliffe: "We did, absolutely." But they had a very specific reason for electing to let "Red Alert" be used in the commercial. "You need any kind of help you can get to break through in America, because it's such a big place. If a big company like that is going to show your advert constantly on TV, it's a pretty good way to start the ball rolling."
"We want to do well, and we want people to hear our music." Even so, Ratcliffe admitted the duo were still wrestling with the decision. "I don't know . . . [about] the morality of these things," he confessed. "Coca-Cola is a big company, and we haven't quite figured it out."
To Dawn Sutter, music supervisor at Agoraphone, a New York company that places underground tunes in TV commercials, Basement Jaxx's decision makes sense. "Why should ads fall the way of radio?" she observes. "It's great that advertising agencies are open to such diverse music. It offers an outlet for music other than radio. And why shouldn't they be creative? Why should we have lower standards for [commercials]? They should be well designed both visually and musically."
But are ever there nights she lies awake plagued by remorse for pitching, say, a Melvins track for Kraft Macaroni & Cheese? "Not really," she says. "I like to think that if I put someone like the Monks on a Powerade ad, I'm helping an obscure band make some money. I approach it from the idea that not only am I trying to find interesting music for an ad, but I'm also trying to help some talented musicians make some money. So maybe I am 'selling out' someone's favorite band (or my own favorite band) that once existed only in obscurity, but I'm also trying to keep more money from falling into Moby's pockets."
To me, "I Melt With You" summons up memories of listening to Modern English's After the Snow on my Walkman as a sullen teen; to most consumers, it's a Burger King jingle. The mainstream always appropriates ideas from the underground. If you can't abide by that inevitability, my forlorn young raver friend, boycott Coke. But don't deny yourself the new Basement Jaxx album, because it's even better than their debut. Refusing to buy it won't hurt Coca-Cola, just Simon and Felix. And until the Coke spot goes off the air, just do what I do during most commercial breaks: Hit the mute button.