July 4th, 2005


Devendra shakes the money tree

Devendra Banhart (or his publisher) has licensed several of his songs to some commercials for Fat Tire Beer. You can watch the commercials here. The spots feature a bearded man cycling around a rural landscape. "Follow your folly," run the slogans, "ours is beer".

Now, "moronic cynicism" would dictate that we condemn Banhart at this point for "selling out" (and according to this messageboard thread he's also licensed a track to M&Ms, so the money tree is well and truly being shaken). Purists might point out that figures like Beck and Tom Waits have objected vociferously to their music being used or pastiched in commercials, and the recent controversy over Nike's appropriation of Minor Threat artwork (the standoff ended when Nike apologised and withdrew the plagiarised cover from their campaign) shows that people still consider artistic credibility severely dented by commercial use. The same logic informs the New York Times' approving comment at the end of my art show review last week: "Nothing is planned, nothing is for sale nor is anything being documented in this work of endurance and sound art. Everything will be happening just once, and much of it could be worth experiencing."

Of course, it is very cool when things aren't for sale. You can claim to be doing things for their own sake, and suddenly everything's like a spontaneous 1960s-style "happening", an "intervention", an "action". But here's where things get more complex. First of all, the kudos you generate by appearing to avoid the commercial can itself be a form of capital. It helps you accumulate "cultural capital" which, if all goes well, can be translated back to actual capital at some point. Secondly, it may be that you aren't selling anything because you haven't figured out how. I can tell you that we looked into a number of ways of getting paid before we mounted our art show: selling videos, seeking funding from private art sponsorship bodies, looking into fashion tie-ins, and so on. In the end Zach Feuer was cool enough to let us do the show without putting anything on sale, and I think it works well this way, but it wasn't for lack of trying to find a way to make it pay. We're not rich. This show is costing us money to mount. We're having to subsidize it ourselves.

In the end we opted for originality and spontaneity over commerce, but there's no reason why the two couldn't have been integrated. Mai and I don't really take any philosophical stand against getting paid in general. Or, let's say, we're ambivalent. I like to imagine a "post-money society" from time to time, and I think our show is a gesture towards that. Both Mai and I have taken anti-copyright stands in public before. Mai's involved reproducing Yoko Ono's "Cut Piece" in Amsterdam. Her naked body was scrawled with anti-copyright slogans. Mine was more staid: I was a panellist at Jenny Toomey's Future of Music conference in DC a few years back. One thing I remember saying there was that I'd be fine with musicians making music for no money, but that we shouldn't be the only ones doing that. We need the butcher, the baker and the candlestick-maker to all give their services free or put their wares up on P2P networks before we can truly enter the post-money world. Nevertheless, I agree with artist Miltos Manetas when he says:

"The copyright/intellectual property issue is the most important political issue of our days. We have finally accepted a world build on ideas, and if ideas become property, then there is no place for a free spirit." I also agree with Maurizio Lazzarato when he says "The resistance to the capitalist appropriation of common goods (an appropriation which today constitutes the essence of the neo-liberal strategy) will have effectiveness only if it assumes the primacy of the cooperation-between-minds over the capital-labour relationship." So perhaps we need to start with making ideas free and work our way along to bread being free.

"Moronic cynicism" would probably also dictate that when we read about the philanthropy of a company like the New Belgium Brewery, parent of Fat Tire beer, we search for inconsistencies and hypocrisies, as one student newspaper did when confronted with American Apparel's apparently generous wage structure and anti-sweatshop policies. (I found it useful to balance the NYU News article with this piece on Jewlicious.) In the end, though, I think it's sensible to welcome products and policies which seem to make employees' lives better, or advertising that seems to have a constructive message. Seeing a man abandon his car, refurbish a bicycle, and ride around listening to some nice Devendra Banhart songs seems fairly wholesome to me.

Pop shouldn't get on too high a moral horse. Kudos can be capital, and pop music is an entirely commercial form anyway. It's born with its roots deep in money, it's never far from money's fertilizing, growing force. That can be a force for good or evil, as Larry McCaffery says: "One of the good things about capitalism is that it's blind to what it sells. The system isn't really the enemy. It's blind, all it wants is to replicate and do more things."

What's more, a lot of pop songs are advertising even before they're advertising. They advertise the artist as a force in the consumer's life, or the narrator as a lover, or both. Devendra sings, in the "Tinkerer" beer spot:

Cook me in your breakfast
And put me in your plate
Because you know I taste great
...Put me in your way if you haven't yet

Imperatives, hyperbole and self-recommendation are the language of commercials as well as the language of this song. There's no reason to believe that in a post-money society they would suddenly stop. After all, what's a flower, a piece of fruit or a folk song if not advertising for the DNA of the lifeform pushing it forth into the world?