Where There Were No Doors

Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before - Joseph Campbell

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Celebrities and adverts

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

So begins the most famous chapter of Dante Alighieri's most famous poem. I've always felt it instructive that it's soon after losing "the straightforward pathway", that Dante finds himself in hell. That opening triplet could be straight out of the teachings of Gautama Buddha. ('Though it should, of course, be pointed out that Dante is rarely that insightful again throughout the rest of the poem; concentrating - as he does - on imagery rather than insight). And of course Dante was far luckier than most. Led by his guide Virgil, he was merely on a tour of the place, from which he was able to bring us back an accurate map.

I have to admit, my own involvement with The Divine Comedy (and in particular The Inferno) doesn't spring from any particular fascination with pre-Renaissance Italian literature. Indeed it's quite rare for anything written prior to 1600 to spark my interest; so it took William Blake's illustrations to draw me into Dante's madcap medieval world. Recently though, it has become clear to me that The Inferno has been rendered out of date. An unfortunate state of affairs, as Blake's glorious series of images is now, sadly incomplete.

Deeper even than the foul-smelling hole inhabited by the falsifiers, Beelzebub has ordered the construction of a brand new level of hell. Originally built for an obscure 19th century French writer, it was renamed recently in honour of Dennis Hopper. Just after that car advert in fact. And they've had an extra ocean of boiling filth installed in anticipation of his arrival.

For as you've no doubt already guessed, this new level of hell is reserved for those who have deliberately and callously shat upon their own great works despite knowing just how genuinely important those works are to others. People who publicly betray the ideals with which they once inspired many.

Now, every human life is littered with compromise. We all know this, but we also accept that there are compromises that you just don't make. When a wealthy person becomes a spokesman for the automobile industry they are making a compromise too far. They're selling unrestrained environmental destruction and the worst form of consumer capitalism imaginable. It is - in every sense - a dishonourable activity to be involved with, unless you've been pushed into it by fear of starvation or incarceration (the Willie Nelson 'get-out' clause).

All the same, car advertisements aren't enough - on their own - to get you into this new deeper land within the Nether Hell. Not even Mr. Sting, for example, will be falling quite so far into the pit. It was using footage from Easy Rider which got Dennis Hopper his express ticket to the deepest depths. There are those of us who still view art as important, y'see? Those of us who still see it as an expression of the human soul. So when an artist takes something that has inspired people for many years and defiles it on television... six times a night, every night for two months. Well, it's worse than any video-nasty. It is the pornography of despair (to borrow a phrase).

There are people (it was before my time) whose late teens were heavily influenced by Easy Rider and its portrayal of freedom. It did for these people what Kerouac's On The Road had done for their older brothers and sisters. Which is not to say it made them go out and take off around America on a Harley (not all of them anyways), but it broadened horizons, opened new vistas, and generally made them realise life held more promise than they'd previously thought. There was a sacredness to those memories. A sacredness that could be revisited whenever the film was shown.

But Hopper transformed it into a sales pitch for car culture. And now those memories are tainted. Once you've seen those adverts it is impossible to watch Easy Rider without seeing a rich, smug Hopper overtaking his young outlaw self and dismissing him with contempt.

I remember reading in the mid-90s about U2 turning down a 35 million dollar deal for the use of a single song in a single car advert. I remember reading Bono saying how difficult it had been to turn it down. Not because he'd like a quarter share of the 35 million. But because of what that money could do. Who can possibly argue that the world would not be a better place if a car company had 35 million dollars less, and an AIDS charity had 35 million dollars more? And could Bono justify being so precious about his music to deny that occurring?

I guess the recent U2 endorsement of a consumer electronics device means he's changed his mind about the answer to that question. Many of the folks I know have a tendency to dislike U2, and Bono's attitude in particular. I, on the other hand, dig their music and I've always found it difficult to question the motives of someone who can turn down 35 million dollars because he didn't want to tarnish one of his songs. I also appreciate the fact that U2 have pointedly only allowed the use of one particular new song for the commercial. There's been no time for that song to build up any emotional resonance with people.

David Bowie, as with U2, seems destined to escape damnation for his crimes of corporate co-option. Whenever "Heroes" begins trying to sell me a pension plan I simply mute the TV, avert my eyes and silently vow never to use that particular company. David Bowie is extremely rich so he doesn't get to use the Willie Nelson get-out clause. One also suspects that most of the money from the adverts is going to Bowie and his shareholders, rather than - say - famine relief in Darfur... so he doesn't get to use the Bono "whole ethical grey area" thing. And he has control over his own publishing rights, so he can't play the Paul McCartney "Michael Jackson is a total bastid!" card.

No, with Bowie it's a rather unique situation. He's just too damn cool, y'see? And his music is way too entwined with my memories of youth to ever manage to untangle it. Plus, well... the fact is, he's the one person in the whole world who I'd be genuinely star-struck in the presence of. So it's just not possible to visualise myself haranguing David Bowie for selling "Heroes" to a marketing campaign... potentially compromising not only the song, but also the wonderful 'shopping mall' scene in Christiane F.

In reality, any encounter with Bowie would involve me just standing there gibbering until my knees went from under me, and from a prone position in the mud, I might just be able to splutter the words "You're David Bowie!" before he made his exit.

Robert Smith and The Cure, on the other hand, should be investing in asbestos pants. People fell in love to that music, Robert! Don't you get it? It's not just yours any more! That's the price you pay for being an artist. If you're just a fucking jingle-writer then you don't have the right to trick us into loving your music and making it important in our lives before revealing just how little value you place on it. Is it a sick joke? "You know that song I wrote that brings tears to your eyes? Well, I've sold it to a corporation who plan to manipulate that emotion in order to sell you more products."

Thanks Bob. 'Cos that's what the world needed right? Another way for corporations to manipulate our emotions.

Of course, it's not only disgraced artists who find themselves destined for this new land off Dante's map. Germaine Greer's recent plummet from respected author, cultural commentator and academic to... well, to Big Brother contestant shocked even me. The woman who - for millions of people - defined the popular feminist movement is now endorsing one of the most disempowering elements of our society; the cult of celebrity. Her achievements have qualified her to join an exclusive club. And she must be so very proud that in the eyes of the nation, writing The Female Eunuch is considered on the same level as being Channel-4s eccentric horse-racing commentator.

Celebrity has become an end in itself for Germaine Greer. Her quip about anal sex before entering the house was the final straw... as unimaginative a way to garner empty controversy as is possible. Anything and everything that Greer now says is stripped of meaning for so many of us who had before held her in such high regard. And how long before the rot spreads? Before her entire life's work is re-evaluated from the perspective of "TV's pet anarchist"?

Look people! Watch the feminist perform! See our latest dancing fool. See her turn tricks on cue. Listen to her try to shock us! Bored now? Hey watch the eccentic horse-racing man perform! See our latest dancing fool. See him turn tricks on cue. Listen to him try to shock us! Bored now?

Update (11/01/05 18:09)

Germaine Greer has just walked out of the Big Brother house. Her reasons for quitting are as incomprehensible to me as her reasons for agreeing to do it in the first place. She was dismayed by the publicity-seeking agenda of her fellow celebrities (says the beeb). Pardon? Let's get one thing clear before it gets lost amidst the excuses and justifications... there is only one point to Big Brother. The programme does exactly one thing; it puts the lives of the participants into the public arena for discussion. That is all.

It's function, therefore, is precisely to give publicity to those taking part. So the only rational and justifiable reason for taking part in a reality television show is to further a publicity-seeking agenda.

Let me conclude by highlighting this paragraph from the BBC piece. It demonstrates, far better than any earnest lecture from the likes of me, exactly why Germaine Greer's short stint on Celebrity Big Brother was such a fucking travesty...

Other celebrities to walk out of a reality show TV include Sex Pistol John Lydon, former EastEnders actress Danniella Westbrook and ex-E17 singer Brian Harvey who all left I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I question this assertion: "Though it should, of course, be pointed out that Dante is rarely that insightful again throughout the rest of the poem; concentrating - as he does - on imagery rather than insight"

Insight can be conveyed through imagery just as much, if not better, than it can through spelling it out. It's just more subtle and up to us to interpret it, without the assurance we are right. But give me insight conveyed through imagery any day, than chalked-up key notes for us to remember.


11/1/05 14:37  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

> Insight can be conveyed through imagery just as much,
> if not better, than it can through spelling it out.
> It's just more subtle and up to us to interpret it,
> without the assurance we are right.
I don't disagree with any of that Joel. But it's foolish to claim that just because imagery can convey insight, that all imagery does so. And it seems obvious to me that there are many poets who concentrate on one to the detriment of the other. Blake, in my opinion, tended to get the balance right. Dante by and large did not.

Of course, with Dante you can be stymied by the startling differences between the English translations, but I suspect you could not come up with another triplet within, say, the first 6 cantos of The Inferno which contains a fraction of the insight of that opener.

Also, in the context of my piece - where I was comparing those lines of Dante to the teachings of Gautama Buddha - I think it's fair to say that the 13th century Italian travelling mystic and political shit-stirrer wasn't quite the spiritual powerhouse of, say, a Buddha.

11/1/05 14:52  
Blogger merrick said...

On the U2 thing, i think there's another factor to be considered. They are using it to sell a music player. It is, of course, a piece of consumer tat and produced by one corporation whose association with U2 will surely benefit other areas of their production. And I'm not saying it necessarily makes it any better, but it does make it a bit more understandable.

It's like when Dire Straits took the Philips shilling for a tour. It promoted CD players - then a new format and very much something Dire Straits were involved in already. They took that even though they could've made more money from taking sponsorship from products that had no direct relevance.

It is, of course a very slippery slope - The Clash defended seliing their arses to Levi's on the grounds that Levi's were, ya know, cool, and specifically said they probably wouldn't have sold it to margarine.

McCartney, much as I find myself defending him on an alarming number of occasions, has no such excuse for having tour sponsorship from a credit card company.

Real credit in this area goes to those artists who, unlike U2, aren't millionaires yet turned down vast dosh. Julian Cope turned down TDK (Beautiful Love, apparently serious money offered for a worldwide campaign) and Levi's (East Easy Rider), even though there was (and is) no guarantee that he'll be able to make a lifetime living from his music.

Also, Carter USM turned down Smithkline Beecham. They must've guessed they weren't going to make a long term go of it and are probably stacking shelves in a South London supermarket these days. Serious respect.

11/1/05 17:22  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One might also point out that U2 were not paid for the use of their music in the iPod ad.

11/1/05 22:33  

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