Keith Richards is hawking Louis Vuitton, but James Medd thinks it is time to stop demonising advertisers.
Advertisers are not the enemy, they are the new Medicis
For a 64-year-old who has indulged in all the temptations life has to offer and still dabbles in a fair few of them, who wears skull rings, ties feathers in his hair and recently recovered from falling out of a tree, Keith Richards really is looking particularly good. Even though I don't really want to hear the music he's making now and can't quite be bothered to watch Martin Scorsese's new Rolling Stones film, seeing him still gives me that same adolescent thrill it always has: he is the bad guy I always wanted to be. I experienced it only the other day when I was reading a magazine and came across a picture of him sitting on a bed with a guitar, taken by Annie Leibovitz. It was only after a while that I noticed what I was looking at was an advert for Louis Vuitton luggage.
This makes a kind of sense, not least because Keith now looks rather like he's been hand-stitched in ostrich-skin. It's certainly easier to understand than the rash of rock-legend adverts we've had in recent years, such as Paul McCartney and Lexus or Bob Dylan and Victoria's Secret. There's always been something inherently Rover about Sir Paul and, truly, the mind boggles at how the appearance of Bob Dylan - 66 years old, however much make-up you slap on - could inspire anyone to buy lingerie. All the same, a lot of people have got quite worked up about Keith's new line of business, as they always do when a rock musician appears in an advert.
It's all about "selling out" - yes, that old chestnut. In the case of Keith, this is just absurd: it's not like he's ever claimed to stand for anything but having a good time. His very legend is based on selfishness. Attack Sting, who campaigns for rainforests and then advertises Jaguar, all you like, but not Keith. The Rolling Stones' 2005 tour was sponsored by a mortgage company, for crying out loud. Keith couldn't care less, and he's made that very clear.
Rock'n'roll hasn't been an inciter of teenage revolution for 40 years (and hasn't even been a teenage thing for 20), but the idea that rock music (and it is just rock - pop stars like Justin and Britney are positively expected to sell themselves at every opportunity) should somehow operate outside the realms of capitalism still, ludicrously, holds sway now. Before rock split from pop in the late Sixties and went all serious, the corporate shilling was taken without a thought. Jack White of The White Stripes, lambasted in 2006 for writing a tune for a Coca-Cola ad, cited the precedent of earlier Coke-jinglers including Ray Charles and Roy Orbison. "If it was good enough for them…" was his argument, but few are so independent-minded.
Wilco, a country-based act who are big favourites with US liberals, even felt the need to write an essay on their website explaining why they let Volkswagen use a tune of theirs: it was a tough decision but they "feel OK about VWs", apparently. Personally, I'm grateful to the makers of adverts. I've discovered quite a few songs and artists that way, from Levi's raiding the soul classics vault in the 1980s to the present, where mobile phone ads have introduced me to some amazing folk singers from Vashti Bunyan to Joanna Newsom (though why warbly folk music and satellite communication have become quite so inextricably linked is a little beyond me). The artists should be grateful, too - getting a song on a commercial is about as good as publicity gets, and gives them a very nice lump sum. There's going to be a lot more of it in the future, too, with the rise of free downloading driving artists to find their income elsewhere and with US radio so tightly formatted that only very specific artists are now being played. Think of it as the new patronage, with the car and phone corporations in place of the Medicis, and you can keep downloading music for free without feeling guilty.
The sticking point is those fans who, probably egged on by punk rock, seem to believe that bands should be government-sponsored in order to keep them free of the temptations of commerce. The likes of Richards and Dylan are beyond judgement now, but if a new artist is branded an "ad band", that great big corporate payout could be the only one they get. One cautionary tale is that of The Dandy Warhols, an intriguing if deeply mannered quartet of American poseurs who were looking at a career of middle-ranking cult success. Then, in 2001, they were promoted to overplayed-European-chart-topper status by a phone company's heavy use of their song Bohemian Like You, only to find themselves beached the following year when the indie hardliners abandoned them as sell-outs and the casual fans didn't like their next song.
Even for more established artists, taking the ad man's money is a matter of career strategy: no one would doubt that Tom Waits and Nick Cave, for two, have firm moral and aesthetic objections to having their songs in adverts, but it's probably also true that doing so would erode the very faithful and very serious-minded audiences on which they depend. Why Keith Richards is posing for Louis Vuitton is another matter, though. It's obviously not for the money, and publicity is never something he's going to be short of. Perhaps it's vanity - which is, let's face it, another of the reasons anyone gets up on stage in the first place. And did I mention that he's looking good?
James Medd writes for The Guardian, The Independent and Esquire.