As I was walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway,
I saw below me that golden valley, I said:
This land was made for you and me
Isn’t that beautiful? Doesn’t that make you want to buy a Jeep?
Fiat, owner of Jeep, certainly hopes so. Its marketing department seems to know so, actually, seeing as they spent over four million dollars to beam a cover of that old Woody Guthrie song into over 200 million American ears last Sunday in the middle of the Super Bowl, all while showing images of the company’s cars driving all over the world. North Face had the exact same explore-the-world advertisement six months ago, set to the same Guthrie song (albeit a different cover version). I hope it worked. I really do. Because if you’re going to desecrate a sacred set of lyrics in an attempt to improve a brand, I really hope at least somebody is a little bit richer (and presumably happier) because of it — that a small bit of good perhaps came out of this act of vandalism.
But let me say this first: Anyone who in 2015 still loudly complains about bands “selling out” to corporate interests is simply very stubborn or very naïve. If I had no fear and knew where to look on the Internet, I could download all of Matt and Kim’s music for free, and I can even legally stream all their songs on Spotify, a company that seems to pay artists pennies even for thousands of streams. There’s no way Matt and Kim, an indie duo in the middle tier of popularity, are raking in cash from traditional music sales, so I understand if they want to add significantly to their income by licensing a song to Buick, even if it’s then used for an annoyingly ubiquitous advertising campaign. It’s relatively easy money for people who work very hard at their jobs. Artists can choose to do whatever they want with their art, and any fan who tries to claim ownership of a song, even if he or she absolutely loves it, is missing the point.
Artists do have to be cognizant of how their work will come to be heard in the public consciousness, however. Los Campesinos! is one of my favorite bands, and “You! Me! Dancing!” is one of their best songs, but I hate that I have to think of Budweiser every time I hear the first 30 seconds. Same with “Walk on the Wild Side” and HP computers. Even Bob Dylan does advertising now, from bizarre Victoria’s Secret ads to “Fuck yeah, Detroit!” Chrysler monologues to licensing “I Want You” to a Chobani spot. Victoria’s Secret perhaps notwithstanding, I don’t think Dylan’s legacy has suffered at all from advertising. To be honest, it’s maybe even increased his visibility for a new generation.
Where I start to get uneasy is when the original artists are long gone and aren’t getting any payment for their songs. I don’t have anything against Jeep — it had a cool waterfall at the Detroit Auto Show that I really enjoyed when I was a little kid — or against North Face — its gloves kept me from losing fingers to frostbite during last weekend’s blizzard — but neither of these companies had Woody Guthrie’s permission to use “This Land is Your Land.” The iconic folk singer died in 1967, and “This Land is Your Land” is in the public domain. While the idea of public domain is entirely necessary, and sometimes ads featuring long dead songs can reinvigorate a legacy, no company should have a license to misappropriate artistic genius.
When Bruce Springsteen played “This Land is Your Land” live, he called it “an angry song.” Originally written as a response to Irving Berlin’s sleepy, overly sentimental “God Bless America,” Guthrie’s lyrics reveal his communist leanings: “There was a high wall there that tried to stop me / A sign was painted said: Private Property, / But on the back side it didn’t say nothing / This land was made for you and me.” The result, as Springsteen continues, is “one of the most beautiful songs ever written.”
It seems clear that both Fiat and North Face weren’t ignorant of this part of the song, but rather knew of these lyrics and chose to ignore them. The Jeep commercial cuts that verse out, but the North Face one edits the verses, changing “Private Property” to “No Trespassing” to make the words more commercially rebellious and less straight-up socialist. And while it may sometimes feel like “This Land Is Your Land” is one of those songs like, say, “Yankee Doodle” — an iconic American song that doesn’t really have a true author — “This Land Is Your Land” was, in fact, written by an identifiable person, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. To misquote an artist and change his words without his permission, as these companies have done in their advertisements, is vicious and unethical.
But hey, I wouldn’t be paying attention to these ads if they weren’t unethical. So maybe they worked.
Theisen is still perplexed by Bob Dylan’s Victoria’s Secret ad. To sort him out, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.