What’s So Funny About Selling Out?
When I was a rock ’n’ roll teen, “selling out” was one of the worst things a band could do. We definitely knew it was bad, though what selling out meant exactly wasn’t always clear, and could include a whole list of supposed transgressions—signing to a slightly larger record label, writing a hit, licensing a song for a car commercial, suing Napster—that indicated an artist had lost sight of his roots, or sacrificed her integrity for the lure of filthy lucre. Directly endorsing a product, of course, was the grossest kind of violation, the seventh level of selling out.
But these days, young people have no respect for my generation’s purity tests. “Selling out is the punkest thing you can do in 2018,” Billy Jeans, one-third of the Ramones-inspired Portland pop-punk band the Mean Jeans, explains by email. Hoping to speed up their own journey to brand-driven debasement, the Mean Jeans have started recording unsolicited advertisements for their favorite foods and beverages, like Coors beer and Totino’s Pizza Rolls. Since forming in 2006, the band’s aggressively fun fare has earned it a loyal fan base, which not only hasn’t crucified the Mean Jeans for blatantly attempting jingles, but has actively lobbied the companies behind these products to adopt the band’s semi-ironic tribute songs.
One day at the studio, Billy and his bandmates, Jeans Wilder and Junior Jeans, came across an old case of Dew that had served as a video prop years ago. “Even after all that time collecting dust, the Dew was still remarkably refreshing,” says Billy. Inspired by the soda’s resilience, the band wrote “Mountain Dew (I Need It),” urging followers to hit up the brand on social media in an effort to “get our jingle in the ears of the bigwigs,” as Billy puts it. “Before we knew it, a marketing manager set us up with more Mountain Dew than you can fit in any of our apartments, and some nice Dew gear.”
Awash in free soda and merchandise, the Mean Jeans knew they had to act again quickly to keep up the momentum of this corporate largesse. To pick the next endorsement, the band polled fans on Twitter, eventually recording “You're The Light of My Life (Coors Light).” The choice made sense; the Mean Jeans had frequently written about beer in the past, even name-dropping the company in songs like “4 Coors Meal.” But Coors Light wasn’t hip to the band’s freewheeling ways, and according to The Oregonian, a brand spokesperson told the Jeans that while the enthusiasm was appreciated, “some of the lyrical content of the song, coupled with your previous advocacy of irresponsible drinking habits ... does not adhere to our core values. Because of this, we are unable to endorse your music.” But the Mean Jeans weren’t going to let one setback halt their quest to become product pitchmen. “Writing more of the same material is boring, pop punk is boring, and we happen to be passionate about Coors Light,” says Billy.
Obviously, the Mean Jeans aren’t the first band to take a goofy or absurdist approach to the idea of selling out. Back in 1967, The Who Sell Out was a full-album product-inspired farce featuring a faux Heinz ad with Roger Daltrey sitting in a tub of baked beans. But for The Who and other bands that joked along these lines, it was taken for granted that the bands in question were contemptuous of the whole idea, and were not, in fact, endorsing products. Rocking Mountain Dew apparel and trumpeting their genuine love for their favorite beverages, either the Mean Jeans’ irony tolerance is a level higher than their predecessors, or they’re laughing at something substantially different. “Our endorsements of Coors Light and Mountain Dew, for example, aren't unauthentic,” says Billy. Still, he says, “Realistically, if any company embraced the Mean Jeans, the joke's on them.”
The real joke in selling out
These days, social media has given rise to a whole new set of endorsement absurdities. For one thing, the rise of the #influencer has turned anyone with an Instagram following and a book of inspirational quotes into spokesperson material. On the consumer side, young adults say they don’t trust big brands, but they also want to party with the brands they do patronize, making awkward corporate attempts to hang almost forgivable. Hell, when marketing people have (sort of) learned to weaponize memes, irony, and nostalgia, is humorously subverting the idea of selling out even distinguishable from the next wanna-be viral publicity campaign?
The flip side to brands trying to get with the people in exciting new ways is the palpable desperation when it comes to understanding what consumers want from them. Maybe taking advantage of brand bewilderment over millennial tastes and convincing major food companies to adopt a band with song titles like “Stoned 2 The Bone” and “I Think U Stink” is, to some degree, kind of, sort of, punk. And in 2018, if everyone you know is broke, or cobbling together a living from six part-time jobs, or one ear infection away from having their Camry repossessed, maybe the real absurdity is that fans ever sanctimoniously chided working artists for trying to make a buck.
Last year the Mean Jeans moved to a bigger record label, releasing their album Tight New Dimension on Fat Wreck Chords, and touring with punk veterans NOFX. I ask Billy if behind the band’s carefree, party-hard image, there’s any real anxiety about authenticity or success driving their ad project. “I suppose it's possible that this jingle obsession we're amidst is a reaction to facing bigger audiences,” he tells me. “You'd have to ask my therapist as soon as I make enough money to afford a therapist.”
Jingling all the way
But for Billy at least, the interest in jingles goes back a lot farther; he says some of his first favorite songs were also some of the late 20th century’s most infectious advertising ear worms. “Where do I begin? Creepy Crawlers. Crossfire. Juicy Fruit. Skip It. Bagel Bites. I could go on.” When your band is already writing short, sweet, super-catchy tunes, is it such a leap to see the art in these consumerist classics? And as he points out, the Mean Jeans are following in the footsteps of some of punk rock’s most revered standard bearers: Billy claims that when, like him, you’re a serious Ramones fan, it eventually “becomes crystal clear that their 1995 Steel Reserve jingles (yes there are several, look it up) are their greatest songs they ever wrote.”
The Mean Jeans’ own most recent unsolicited jingle is a paean to Totino’s Pizza. Billy thinks the band has what it takes to represent the frozen pizza brand. “We've got the goods!” he says, urging me to tag the company in this article. (Attention, @totinos.)
For all the selling out they’ve been doing, the Mean Jeans still haven’t even made any money from it. But given the way social media has dissolved traditional buffers between brands and consumers, it seems likely that more bands will directly petition companies in the quest for fame, fortune, and fun.
For the Mean Jeans, the next step is diversification. “It may be time to move on from food jingles,” says Billy. “We've been writing a few more, which I have to keep under wraps right now, but they're all from products that we think are completely sick. We're talking snacks, tobacco products, even windshield wiper blades.”