Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Rebels and Volkswagens: Charles Mingus and the Commodification of Dissent

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Rebels and Volkswagens: Charles Mingus and the Commodification of Dissent

Article excerpt

For most of its history, the relationship between jazz and commerce has frequently been characterized as fundamentally oppositional. This stance can be seen in Stanley Crouch's acerbic criticisms of Miles Davis for his "pernicious effect on the music scene since he went rapaciously commercial" (quoted in Porter 2002,302); in Amiri Baraka's furious characterization of the mainstream white (and middle-class black) American commercial aesthetic of "social blandness" that threatened to efface jazz's black cultural roots (Baraka 1963,181); and in the assertions of jazz historians such as Grover Sales (1984), Lewis Porter (1997), and Mark Gridley (2006) that jazz does not belong to the category of popular music and, as such, is not beholden to the vicissitudes of the marketplace. While a number of musicologists and sociologists have published compelling work in the last fifteen years debunking this binary, (1) the notion of an opposition between music (jazz particularly) and commerce has proved remarkably durable, both in jazz musicians' own understanding of their relationship to the culture industries and in the way that relationship is represented in the popular media.

In some respects, Charles Mingus, the bassist, composer, bandleader, and sometime author, was the equal of Crouch, Baraka, Sales, Porter, Gridley, and other historians in his adamant views that the encroachment of commercial concerns had an enormously deleterious impact on artistic production. Along with Baraka, Mingus was vociferously critical of the destructive impact that the white-controlled culture industries had on the music of black Americans. Over the course of his career, Mingus became famous for his anticommercial rants--both in person and in print. In 1953, for instance, Mingus publicly railed against white promoters who marketed musicians whom he deemed to be artistically deficient: "impresarios bill these circus artists as jazzmen because 'jazz' has become a commodity to sell, like apples or, more accurately, com" (quoted in Saul 2001,398).

The discursive tension between art and commerce continues to be a defining theme in the popular life of jazz music in our own day. While it is certainly manifest in numerous valences of twentieth- and twenty-first-century jazz discourse--from specialized criticism to the popular press to the public and private discussions of musicians--this tension is seldom articulated more clearly than in television advertising. When corporate marketing departments and advertising agencies enlist the music to help build a brand identity, they inevitably hone in on jazz's long-standing anticommercial status to burnish the commodity with a countercultural veneer. In the late 1990s, for example, Volkswagen was seeking to reconnect with what had become its primary North American demographic: young drivers. In 1997, working with Boston-based advertising agency Arnold Worldwide, the company launched a new campaign based around the slogan "Drivers Wanted." Arnold's chief creative officer Ron Lawner described the character of the brand that the campaign was aiming to develop in an interview with Adweek magazine in 2000. He used humanizing, humorous terms, which recall the Doyle Dane Bembach campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s, as if the Volkswagen brand were an individual Volkswagen driver: "Approachable, honest, with a sense of humor; the kind of people you like to be around.... They are passionate, they have a lust for living and a lust for driving ... but don't take themselves too seriously" (Parpis 2000). Based on the extended version of the slogan, the ideal Volkswagen driver is also clearly someone who takes charge, who is in control, and who refuses to bend to social or institutional pressure: "On the road of life, there are passengers and there are drivers. Drivers wanted."

In 1999, Arnold produced a series of television ads on the "Driver's Wanted" theme that developed this brand personality. In fact, as Adweek writer Eleftheria Parpis explained, the advertisements in the series were not intended to sell cars based on specific technical attributes, per se, but rather to attract consumers by introducing them to the new, distinctive, appealing brand identity. …

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