I live less than a mile from where I-80 and I-94 expressways split in Illinois, south of Chicago. It is one of the most heavily traveled corridors in all of the United States. When it is not a super-hyper-kinetic sight of flying murderous metal, it is a steaming, hissing, parking lot. It is always environmental degradation writ large, a homi- and suicidal game of vehicular chicken. And it is an example of the American ethos of capitalism and success, a perfectly legitimate, socially-acceptable insane asylum packed to the rafters. There are not enough cars on the road, not enough lust for the profits of selling more cars, not enough smog and noise pollution, not enough fatalities and injuries, not enough neglect of public transportation, leave alone the increasingly massive traffic jams and the concomitant waste of time sitting in an idling car on the expressway, that an artist the caliber of Peter Gabriel has to sell with his song, the very thing his song satirically rips? Or do I misinterpret the song? Or is Gabriel pulling one over on Ford toward a greater good?
Is nothing free of the corporate domination of our society? Recently we have been treated to the sight of the Visa credit card logo featured glaringly on the identifying numbers of world-class gymnasts’ uniforms, as if the athletics were a secondary concern. Likewise The Rascals song, “Good Lovin’,” sells Summer’s Eve douche, if memory serves. That David Bowie’s song “Changes” has recently been recruited to sell a large financial brokerage, almost exactly opposite the song’s original meaning, is not too irreverent a surprise, given the news some five or so years ago that Bowie had sold his entire oeuvre for the staggering sum of $50 million. Which only goes to show that rock is dead even if the likes of Bowie are living large. I always thought rock music was precisely a rebellion against the comfort and contentment that would witness James Taylor and Michael McDonald live in concert, selling MCI’s Neighborhood phone plan. Am I wrong to believe poverty preferable?
The highway interchange I spoke of is being “improved” and widened as I write. As fast as it opens, it’ll be as jammed and crowded as it is now, and the vicious cycle will recur: sell more cars, build more roads, roads get too crowded, sell more cars, build more roads. How much is enough? When will it stop? Is there no other way? Isn’t it true there HAS to be another way? When will this country invest its capital, heart, and conscience in mass transit?
The commodification of everything is another example of the mindset that any and every thing must needs be done for money, profit, and gain. Absent these there is, by definition, no value. It doesn’t matter the cost, nor whom or what gets hurt. As if profit and gain are the only or even the highest values. It is in the very nature of commercialism that it sullies and degrades everything it comes in contact with. The rhythm and momentum of the best movie or TV show are ruined by commercial interruption. Ubiquitous billboards on highways make already distasteful sights unbearable. Stamp a brand or logo on a T-shirt or a pair of shoes, and the sweatshop ethic triumphs. Behind the facade of the fashion and the image is the reality of tens of thousands of poverty-stricken women working in sweatshops behind barbed wire fences for pennies a day, while the likes of Nike CEO Phil Knight, advertising phantoms like Michael Jordan, and stockholders make tens and hundreds of millions without lifting a finger.
By now, Queen’s “We are the Champions” selling Viagra should be no big surprise, except that Freddie Mercury must be turning in his grave. That a band the caliber of Queen and a guitarist the stature of Brian May, whose sublime guitar work is featured prominently in the ad, are made to stoop to selling a life-style pharmaceutical while people everywhere suffer and die of real diseases for lack of medicine is a disenchantment I never could have foreseen in my carefree, vanished youth. You may have seen the commercial in which a lunatic waves his hands frantically above his head in the rain in front of his house, and the viewer is left to believe briefly that he must have been made a gift of a new car, car commercials being the sine qua non of television. But no, twenty seconds in, the Gods of Madison Avenue enlighten us as to the source of the ecstasy as well as the meaning of the Queen song, as the Viagra logo is superimposed on the screen.
What’s next? Yes’s “Yours Is No Disgrace” serving in a PR campaign for McDonnell-Douglas? The Grateful Dead’s “Scarlett Begonias” as the lynchpin in an FTD wired floral bouquet commercial? Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” selling Exxon gasoline? John Mellencamp's "Little Pink Houses" serving as the backdrop for Century 21 commercials? The possibilities to co-opt rock music under the hegemony of the corporate leviathan are endless.
Tracy McLellan is a writer and activist living in the south suburbs of Chicago. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.