This Saturday night, Neil Young plays the first of four shows at the Dolby Theatre. Over a half-century into his career, Young still packs 'em in. But while his contemporaries have mellowed with age, Young's never lost his grit. He even had a video banned by MTV at the height of the channel's popularity.
It's been 25 years since Young's This Note's For You album reintroduced him to an entire generation. While the album's known for its bluesy horns section, it's Young's potent shot at corporate-sponsored pop music that landed him in MTV's crosshairs.
Opening with a send-up of Eric Clapton's then-current Michelob commercial, the song begins by blatantly name-dropping “Ain't singing for Pepsi / Ain't singing for Coke,” while the Julien Temple-directed clip mocks spokemusicians Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston as well as Budweiser and Calvin Klein Obsession commercials. It holds up as a funny satire, except back at MTV, nobody was laughing.
According to a Los Angeles Times article from when the ban first happened, MTV had two major objections with the clip. First, the video's “use of likenesses of Michael Jackson and Spuds MacKenzie could leave [MTV] open to trademark infringement charges”; second, “the channel refuses to air clips that depict – or contain lyrics – that refer to specific commercial products.” This is why mid-'90s rap videos blurred Fubu and Karl Kani logos just as much as they blurred sex and violence.
On one hand, while there may be something commendable in MTV not wanting to pervert the art of the music video with product placement, “This Note's For You” is anything but an endorsement. That's why Young and his manager Elliot Roberts believed the network's choice to ban the clip had more to do with not wanting to risk hurting their sponsor's feelings. Young, as only he could, penned an open letter to the network:
[6th July, 1988
MTV, you spineless twerps.
You refuse to play “This Note's For You” because you're afraid to offend your sponsors.
What does the “M” in MTV stand for: music or money?
Long live rock and roll.
Watching the video today, while the references may be dated, it does beg the question: Is accepting corporate sponsorship still seen as selling out?
The music industry was a lot different in 1988. (For one thing, it still existed.) There was much more money to be made from record sales and touring, so much so that having one's music or likeness appear in commercials seemed greedy. Today, with shrinking opportunities for music to generate profit, commercial placements seem like a downright necessity.
If an artist is given a platform to perform with 100% creative control at an event like SXSW in front of music fans, but a corporation pays for it, is it selling out? Is Lady Gaga getting vomited on and getting Doritos to foot the bill comparable to Michael Jackson accidentally being lit on fire for Pepsi? Today, even Bob Dylan is appearing in commercials – but does his well-shot Super Bowl spot get a pass because it qualifies as “art”?
Neil Young wound up having the last laugh, as “This Note's For You” won Video of the Year at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards. Prior to that, MTV attempted to squash the beef by airing a half-hour special with Young that reintroduced the video into rotation, but not before Young told Kurt Loder to his face that the channel “should be called television music, not music television.”