“Who fans will often think, ‘This is my song, it belongs to me, it reminds me of the first time that I kissed Susie, and you can’t sell it.’ And the fact is that I can and I will and I have. I don’t give a fuck about the first time you kissed Susie. . . . It’s my song. I do what the fuck I like with it.”
That was Pete Townshend of the Who in 2002, in a Rolling Stone interview. He was responding to the interviewer’s question about the song “Bargain,” which first appeared on the album Who’s Next in 1971. The interviewer had noted that the song was actually about being “prepared to give yourself up for enlightenment or spiritual satisfaction.” Townshend had replied, “That’s right. Yeah.” When the interviewer went on to express some perplexity—perhaps even dismay—that the song was now being used in Nissan commercials, Townshend responded that he didn’t “give a fuck about the first time you kissed Susie.”
I wonder how Rodger Hodgson might respond to a similar inquiry. Roger Hodgson, formerly of the band Supertramp, is the guy who wrote “Give a Little Bit.” That song absolutely rocked my soul at age 18—so vulnerable and beautiful were the lyrics and melody, so bravely and unabashedly did it proclaim (and even celebrate) the human need for tolerance, transparency, and tenderness. “Give a Little Bit” is now featured in Coca-Cola commercials.
Age 18 was a long time ago for me, and the song’s importance in my life receded decades ago. Nonetheless, now that it’s used to sell Coke, even my sentimental fondness for it has been stripped away. Listening to it now, I feel absolutely no emotion whatsoever.
Roger Hodgson wrote a number of songs with a “spiritual,” heart-opening sort of theme. A few years ago I youtubed him and saw he was still giving solo shows, reprising his greatest hits, and that he generally wore all white, like some kind of rock and roll elder-saint. Well, what’s an old rock star to do with himself? Anyway, he probably has a kid or two he needs to put through college. Maybe that Coke commercial pays the tuition (and then some, I’m sure).
Nonetheless, it is unquestionably a cynical thing to do—to sell a song of spiritual aspiration to a car company, or a clarion call for compassion to Coca Cola.
Because, make no mistake: It sends an unambiguous signal that the songs were never anything more than a commodity and the sentiments they expressed never anything more than a sales pitch that some of us bought when were young and impressionable. Now that we are older and more sophisticated, we should be wise enough to seal off the soft places in our hearts where we once invested such songs with luminous meaning. It was a put-on from the get-go, and we were hoodwinked if we ever believed differently.
Or were we? Were the songs (and their lyrics) tinged with cynicism from the start, or was the artistic impulse that birthed them as pure and passionate as they were received by millions of young listeners? The sale of “Give A Little Bit” to Coca Cola is—to my 18-year-old self, who still lives in me—equivalent to Walt Whitman loaning a few verses of Leaves of Grass to a Monsanto ad. Quite frankly, I have to believe that 16-year-old Roger Hodgson (he was only 16 when he wrote the song) would have felt exactly the same way.
It is sad that Hodgson, Townshend, and other songwriters arrived at such a place of disillusionment that they sold away, with their songs, their own youthful ideals and their integrity (such as it was) with their fans.
Then again, “There but for the grace . . .” Personally, I can slip into cynicism multiple times a day. Sometimes it takes a miracle, or fantastic luck, or un-ignorable pain, to bring me back to my heart. Not ever having endured the corrupting, corrosive influences of rock stardom (which are quite unimaginable to me), how can I blame these guys?