Alex Clark argues in Saturday’s Guardian that the use of a cover of the Smiths’ ‘Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want’ in the new John Lewis Christmas TV ad is a betrayal of the song’s original meaning. While it’s impossible to disagree with her on this – whatever Morrissey was writing about back in 1984, it had nothing to do with cosy family festivities, let alone anything as consumerist as flogging material possessions – or her opinion of the interminably sentimental nature of Slow Moving Millie’s interpretation of the tune, this isn’t the worst chapter in the litany of great and terrible rock ‘n’ roll sell-outs.
It’s not ‘Revolution’ being shoehorned into a Nike trainer or Bob Dylan slipping on a pair of skimpy knickers from Victoria’s Secret – an image which will live with you long after you’ve forgotten reading this blog – nor even my personal antichrist from recent telly commercials, ‘The Universal’ in the British Gas adverts. With all of these examples, the artists themselves (or their nearest and dearest) have sanctioned the use of their material, and that’s what really hurts: the idea that the people who wrote the songs that are so dear to us care about them so little that they’re prepared to allow THE MAN to do whatever he wants with them in exchange for an envelope bulging with cash. And while I have no truck in these financially fraught times with up-and-coming bands sanctioning the use of their music in adverts or trailers or radio jingles (even though I can’t deny feeling a faintly wistful sense of sadness when I heard Two Door Cinema Club’s ‘This Is The Life’ in a Debenhams ad) the notion that legendary performers who really don’t need the money are whoring out their precious creations just to add a few more zeros to their bank account is difficult to stomach.
Of course, figures from rock’s beautiful past are also selling all manner of things on our TV screens in person, and have been for years – but this is a different argument. John Lydon flogging butter isn’t the same as ‘Pretty Vacant’ being used to advertise William Hill. The latter is a sell-out of the most miserable kind; the latter is … well, fair enough. Lydon, like Iggy Pop, has earned the right to do the same thing in his riper years that he’s done throughout his career – whatever the fuck he likes. If they need the money, why the hell not? I’d much rather see the Ig prancing around with a prosthetic mini-me than hear the soul being ripped out of the ‘The Passenger’ by yet another TV spot. People get old, get withered and get broke. They need the money. If Damon Albarn needs a couple of quid in ten years time, I’d happily see him recreating the ‘Parklife’ video to sell Walls Ice Cream rather than get enraged and start shouting about the sucking of corporate cock every time I see a British Gas van in the street. After all, people are starting to look at me a bit funny when I do that.
But, ironically enough, British Gas have – like Volkswagen and John Lewis – latterly taken a well-trodden route that circumvents the problems of artistic integrity and the potential vetoing of songs by their creators. Instead of using the original, either find a cut-price cover version or get some session players into the studio and record it yourself. It’s been done for years, it’s a lucrative industry and it’s sometimes incredibly difficult to work out what you’re hearing (the famous ‘Gimme Shelter’ ads for the RAC didn’t use the Stones’ original but an ingenious copy). Slow Moving Millie’s version of ‘Please Please Please’ might not have a hundredth of the emotional intensity or passion of the original, but it’s a damn sight cheaper to slap on a soundtrack – and Morrissey (who at the time of writing, has yet to either kick up a fuss about it or cash a single PRS cheque) can’t really do much about it.
We, the listening, shopping public, on the other hand, can. Whether you think the use of a Smiths song – no matter who is actually singing it – in a TV ad is the greatest affront to popular music since Frankie Cocozza sang ‘Rocks’ on The X-Factor (a heinous sin, perhaps, but at least he’s been doing his best to live up to the sleaze of the song since, and it’s nowhere near as depressing as hearing the original version of ‘Movin’ On Up’ in a cornflakes commercial) or whether you’re simply saddened by the hijacking of a great piece of art for an exploitative purpose, or whether you just believe – like Charlie Brooker – that the John Lewis ad is horrific because the principal character is carrying a dog’s head around in the box at the end, there’s a simple way to register your disappointment/disenchantment/dismay at dismemberment: avoid John Lewis and do your Christmas shopping somewhere else.
What difference does it make? Well, if enough people did it, quite a lot, really. It’s a small matter, considering what other dreadful things are going on in the grim world of 2011, but it’s still a pretty good way of registering your disappointment. If their branches are empty until the January sales, John Lewis might start to panic.
(Oh, and one more thing: for what it’s worth, I quite like the Dream Academy’s version of ‘Please Please Please’.)