Once an athletic wear giant, Reebok -- no doubt fed up watching Nike snap up every athlete within hoop-throwing distance -- decided to go after a new kind of urban hero: the hip-hop star. It's worked: Jay-Z's signature "S. Carter" sneakers flew off the shelves with an urgency not seen since Michael Jordan last wagged tongue; the line is now in its third season. Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson's G-Unit imprint (also distributed by Reebok) has been an industry phenomenon too, proving that even ex-gangbangers can sell like gangbusters with the right business plan. Of course, both Fitty and Jay-Z have their own clothing lines (G-Unit and Rocafella, respectively), following in the footsteps of crossover king Sean "Diddy" Combs (Sean John) and unabashed capitalists the Wu-Tang Clan (Wu Wear).
The last year or so has seen a plethora of hip-hop and pop artists discover their inner haberdasher, including Outkast's Andre "3000" Benjamin, Cash Money's Baby (AKA Birdman), and Hilary Duff, who's already cementing her Kathie Lee-for-the-wee image with a line of teen-geared personal effects for budget retailer Target. Rapper Mike Jones, not satisfied with repeating his name every verse (Mike Jones!), even went so far as to place a handy phone number inside his hit "Back Then" for folks looking to purchase his wares ("281, 330, eight-zero-zero-4/Hit Mike Jones up on the low/'Cause Mike Jones about to blow").
Very few rock & rollers have gotten into the act. There's makeup rock dinosaurs Kiss, who own an amazing 2,500 licenses and will sell you most anything, including Kiss coffins and Kiss condoms. And there's pre-fab acts from the past like the Monkees (The Beatles, it should be said, were merely "fab," with most of their trinkets being pushed by outside sources). In fact, many rockers -- see Neil Young's "This Note's For You" -- seem to abhor the very idea of attaching their faces or music to any sort of corporate business plan (that position no doubt being easier to take when you've sold the millions ol' Neil has).
But why? Why can't we buy suits custom-tailored by the vodka gimlet-drinking dandies in Interpol? Where is the facsimile-signed Isaac Brock Modest (computer) Mouse? Why no Franz Ferdinand flat iron for our unruly locks?
Recently, lots of mid- and high-level indie rock acts have started licensing their songs for commercials and/or appearing on TV shows, most of which (Modest Mouse, Badly Drawn Boy and Th' Legendary Shack Shakers, to name a few) have seen a nice bump in their sales. Deceased folkie Nick Drake, forever destined to be a period piece cult-favorite for sensitive-boy types looking to score, saw sales of his album Pink Moon number about 5,000 when he died in 1974. Fast-forward to the year 2000, when that album's title track appeared in a popular Volkswagen commercial, spawning sales of 5,000 copies in three weeks.
So it's not the song, then. Rockers -- most of whom once considered selling a song to a corporation the equivalent of street-cred suicide -- now tell themselves there's nothing wrong with getting a little cheese for their work once it's finished. The real sin, they say, is writing a song with the direct intention of making money from it. Which -- and pardon the capital letters -- EVERY ARTIST ON A MAJOR LABEL DOES EVERY TIME THEY PICK UP A PEN.
Sure, there's something to the old "pure artist" phenomenon -- I wouldn't want to see author Toni Morrison or Don DeLillo pushing Pringles. In their case, I think it would flavor my opinion of their works. But we're talking about rock & rollers who appear on MTV and radio and Spin magazine. We're talking about guys and gals whose downtime consists of lazing about the Playboy mansion. We're talking people in the public eye.
Of course, there's another reason you don't see painters and writers and sculptors asked to push product (it's not likely many of them would turn down the easy money which, in theory, might make it easier for them to create even more art, "purity" be damned.) No, the reason you don't see them pushing products is because, quite frankly, nobody would care.