‘You Are the Quarry’ had been called Morrissey‘s comeback album in May 2004 after the much-maligned ‘Maladjusted’ released in 1997. Things were looking good for the Mozzer; the album was his highest charting album ever in America. Fast forward a couple months and I’m flipping through cable channels to find something interesting to watch and I hear a couple bars of something familiar. I look more closely at the television. It’s the new MTV teen reality show Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, and during what I’m guessing was supposed to be a tender moment, what do I hear in the background but ‘First of the Gang to Die’.
Sadly, I don’t have a YouTube video to go along with this; the video above is taken from the film for Who Put the M in Manchester?, filmed live at the MEN in 2004 (I’ve played my DVD of this so many times, my DVD skips, I think I broke it). But in my research for this piece, I also learned it was used in an episode of Date My Mom, such that a boy and the coed his mother chose as his date can disappear into the sunset. By limo. We have no way of knowing if Steven Patrick Morrissey himself approved the usage of this song, but it’s hard to believe he would allow the song, about a kid in a Latino gang who becomes a martyr by being the first in his group of friends to die, to be used in either context. While it is a pop song, it’s not really a song about sunny days and going out on dates.
It seems not surprising that the E4 reality drama Made in Chelsea, essentially the UK’s answer to Laguna Beach with well-heeled rich kids from a posh area of London, also uses current ‘hot’ songs in their shows. I won’t list every artist, but a quick glance at the tracklisting for the first episode of the first series for Made in Chelsea lists tunes form some pretty impressive stars that we’ve written about before: Adele, Dragonette, Morning Parade, Muse, the Script, Tinie Tempah (erroneously credited as ‘Tinie T’) and Two Door Cinema Club (twice!). Either the producers have been reading up on the music blogosphere or consulting with people in the know on ‘what’s hot’ (more likely the latter).
That said, what role – or what rights – do artists have in permitting (or not permitting) the use of their songs on television. The use of Noz’s ‘First of the Gang to Die’ and the Made in Chelsea soundtracks came into my mind when I read that Australian singer/songwriter Gotye, recent Saturday Night Live performer and pretty much world pop sensation, was complaining that his mega hit ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ was no longer his. Specifically, this had to do with its usage in the American pop tv sensation Glee. You know, that show where famous songs are redone by teen actors and generally speaking, the original versions of the song gain quite a lot of publicity, while the young people of the world get confused about music history. Goyte’s quandary? “I wasn’t sure whether something so mainstream was right for my music and whether it reflected on my music in my bad way. But I think I realised that the song’s so popular, it’s kind of out of my hands, so when something like Glee comes along, why would I say no?”
The man subsequently whinged on the success of the song, saying, “sometimes I feel like I’m a bit sick of it. My inbox, on any given day, has at least five covers or parodies or remixes of it and there’s only so many times you can listen to the one song.” I don’t know about you, but I can’t even begin to count on both hands how many bands I’ve met over the last 3 years that would love to be a similar position of ‘discomfort’. I guess success – and the happiness you get from success – is a fickle thing; maybe when you have it and realise it’s not so great, you want to bash it and everything that comes with it. Careful though: Goyte had to give his permission to the producers of Glee to use ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ in one of their episodes. He could have easily put the kibosh on the matter entirely by blocking its use on the popular American tv show; there are probably others, but most notably Kings of Leon and Foo Fighters have refused the Fox tv programme permission. Dave Grohl’s response to the invitation: “It’s every band’s right, you shouldn’t have to do fucking Glee. And then the guy who created Glee is so offended that we’re not, like, begging to be on his f**king show… f**k that guy for thinking anybody and everybody should want to do Glee.”
While I agree with Grohl on this – I personally can’t stand the show and how it repurposes already great music, only to redo them in charmless, overblown, unworthy imitations – there seems to be no right or wrong answer for an artist or band considering allowing commercial use of their songs. Some bands still and will always feel that allowing such permission debases the artistic value of their hard work and inspiration. However, maybe the gold standard yet groan worthy rule of PR applies here: “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” As much as Goyte might complain that the song he wrote no longer belongs to him, ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ is still #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the third week running. Suffering for one’s art? Maybe not so much.