DJ Shadow’s “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt” in a Chevy ad is our generation’s Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac. http://t.co/w5QgZ1dqiC
— David Wertheimer (@werty) November 20, 2014
I casually tweeted that late one night in November, having caught the commercial on TV. The thought keeps coming back to me. Not only is it a parallel moment, it’s also a reflection of how the music industry has evolved in the three decades since “Boys of Summer” dominated charts and airwaves during the rise of classic rock.
Back then, music was more entrenched in defining societal moments. Henley, the former frontman of the Eagles, a band regularly dismissed as lightweight despite selling a hundred million albums, had begun forging a more thoughtful identity as a solo artist. From his first album, Henley reached #3 on Billboard’s singles chart with the song “Dirty Laundry,” a political commentary on negative advertising that still rings true today (and which remains catchy, if dated).
Henley’s social commentary began to mesh with introspection by 1984, when “Boys of Summer” was released. Coupled with a moody, award-winning music video, the song aimed to capture the nostalgia felt by the Baby Boomer generation as it first confronted aging. Henley, 36 years old when the song was written, had seen America grow from the postwar 1950s to the Reagan era.
“Boys of Summer,” besides being a pretty big hit—a top-five single in the U.S., anchoring an album that sold three million copies domestically, and a track still spun on classic rock radio stations—is memorable for its wistful lyrics, particularly this one:
Out on the road today, I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac
A little voice inside my head said,
‘Don’t look back. You can never look back.’
Henley, of course, is referring to the juxtaposition of cultures represented in this act: the counterculture and independent spirit of rock ‘n roll, a respected but decidedly fringe band and musical genre, a subculture defined by carefree living, illicit drugs and beat-up Volkswagen vans, unceremoniously showcased on the back of the preeminent American luxury vehicle. He thought his generation had sold out. The concept abhorred him; to this day, Henley doesn’t license his music, and actively combats its commercial use.
Fast forward to now. Josh Davis is 42, five years older than Henley was when “The Boys of Summer” was released. As a 24-year-old, Davis, recording under the moniker DJ Shadow, recorded “Endtroducing…,” a striking pastiche of sampled music that is widely regarded as one of the most innovative albums of the recorded music era.
Nearly 20 years on, “Endtroducing…” has sold fewer than 300,000 copies, making it a prototypically seminal work: revered, respected, imitated, yet still somewhat fringe. Not unlike the Grateful Dead in 1984, who, after 15 years of touring, were still something of a sideline in the rock pantheon, selling albums without mainstream exposure (that came a few years later, in 1987, when “Touch of Grey” became an unlikely pop hit).
Except life has changed a lot in thirty years. In 1984, the music industry had one of its boldface names singing on a hit song about the peculiar sight of an independent act getting co-opted by mainstream tastes. By contrast, in 2014, it’s the independent act that’s being co-opted—but willfully, for a payout, to sell perhaps the most mass-market automobile on the road, the Chevrolet Malibu.
The ad is still running, and every time it airs, it reinforces our comprehension of the era we’re in, while reminding us of the parallels to music history of the generation before.
Tempted to make a playlist of awesome TV ad rock tracks. The folks in agency music departments are the new rock radio program directors.
— David Wertheimer (@werty) January 13, 2015
I don’t begrudge DJ Shadow his income, and certainly, music consumption has reached a point where people are discovering songs and artists via TV commercials. (Also, “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt” is a fantastic song, so it’s a nice 30 seconds.) But it couldn’t be further away from the ideals and disappointments Henley so powerfully noted a generation ago.