Bill Hicks v the Brand Pimps – the Battle for an Authentic Culture

What do you feel when you hear this?: Ricky Gervais has done an advertisement for Audi cars. Does that statement create a ripple in your consciousness? Does it make you uncomfortable in any way? Or do you think, so what?  Perhaps you have my reaction, which is along the lines of…..’what in god’s name are you thinking, you greedy fuck!’

I had the same reaction this morning as I watched Samuel L. Jackson whoring himself in a Sky ad. This is the same campaign that has brought us Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis and Al Pacino – yes, Al Pacino! – in lamentably unfunny little vignettes which are designed to have us all scrabbling to sign up for the company’s broadband but make a significant minority of people want to vomit.

I wonder, as I watch the star of Serpico, (that inspiring story of a man of who refused to compromise his integrity) prance around on top of a piano, what on earth is going on in Al’s head?  Did he think one day, ‘Jesus, I was only paid 25 million dollars for my last movie, the coffers are getting worrying low’, or was it more a case of: ‘Fuck, my fame is waning! No-one knows who I am anymore! I’m the Keith Chegwin of Hollywood – I gotta get myself some exposure!’ Poor Al. He’s penniless and obscure – what choice did he have?

Can someone help me here because I’m struggling to make sense of all this. I have to switch channels when I see this sad spectacle but when I do…. oh no! There’s Julia Roberts selling perfume! She’s swanning around a swanky party when suddenly she’s breaking free from the spangly strings holding her wrists to show us how unconditioned and maverick she is and she leaves the do, tripping over her ball gown in her haste to pick up her pay cheque like some cynical corporate Cinderella, only instead of a glass slipper she leaves behind a steaming turd -good luck finding which arsehole that fits Prince Charming! Click, I switch again: aaagghh! It’s Brad Pitt muttering incomprehensively about Chanel No.5; click: Christ, it’s George Clooney, the most debonair ad-whore of them all, trying to sell us a coffee I can’t even remember the name of so effective is the campaign.

George must have called up Pacino, Pitt et al at some point to warn them of the virus of penury sweeping through Hollywood. How else can we explain the queue of people we all thought were richer than Croesus lining up to prostitute themselves like this? It was either the ad or welfare, surely? But perhaps I’m being too cynical – perhaps George feels so passionately about one particular brand of coffee he’s compelled to endorse it? Brad might think Chanel is as important as adopting orphans, and Willis, Ford and Jackson might believe that Sky Broadband is as crucial to inform us of as fighting famine?

Yes, that’s it! It’s not the money at all, it’s an ethical stand! Bravo to them all! I really admire this kind of conviction. It’s the kind displayed recently by that talented, famous and rich young actress, Scarlett Johansson when she resigned as an ambassador for Oxfam because of her unwavering commitment to advertising SodaStream. As Oxfam’s statement explains:

While Oxfam respects the independence of our ambassadors, Ms. Johansson’s role promoting the company SodaStream is incompatible with her role as an Oxfam Global Ambassador. Oxfam believes that businesses, such as SodaStream, that operate in settlements (in the West Bank) further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support. Oxfam is opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law.

One can’t help but admire Scarlett. When faced with criticism did she crumble? Did she examine her conscience and come out on the side of the vulnerable and dispossessed? No she did not! She honoured her multi-million dollar contract with SodaStream because she feels so strongly about their fizzy coloured water. What a girl! And what an inspiration to young people everywhere.

But it’s not just movie stars who display such brand loyalty, the phenomenon permeates all of celebrity culture, from pop/rock stars to those with no discernable talent whatsoever, like Kate Moss; that generally mute, bandy mannequin who should rightly only appear on posters warning of the return of rickets.  If I see her dead-eyed stare and hear her drab monotone telling me to ‘get the London look’ once more I might just bribe her Photoshop team to reveal her true image: the ‘past forty, drug-addled look’.

Bill Hicks 3Yes, whoring for the brand pimps has become almost universal if you have a profile of any kind. And we have truly entered the Twilight Zone when Snoop Dog is advertising insurance!!  What the fuck??? How very rock ‘n’ roll! He and Iggy Pop, the latter looking like a human Pepperami (oops, free advertising, no boxes of those dog chew-sticks please) have finally handed in their ‘dangerous’ credentials. It’s very sad. But there would be only one possible excuse for this behaviour – if either of them were in real financial trouble. As the late, great stand-up and social philosopher Bill Hicks pointed out in his seminal diatribe on the issue of celebs advertising commercial products, he’ll look the other way if you’re struggling on the way up or if, like his example of Willy Nelson, you have genuine money problems.  But if you don’t need the money or the exposure then, as Bill rightly pronounced – you’re just sucking Satan’s cock.

Hicks singled out Tonight Show host, Jay Leno, for special attention here, no doubt because Bill was so crushingly disappointed at witnessing the man who had so admired him he tried to bring his message to a wider audience fall into the advertising abyss. Did Leno really feel so strongly about Doritos? Bill was somewhat sceptical shall we say.

So influential have Hick’s words proved on the issue of celebrity endorsements that twenty years after his death they still have the power to sting those who are embroiled in the sordid business of brand-pimping and managing celebrity whores.  A laughable attempt to defend his profession from Hicks’ damning verdict by one such shoveller of shit appeared in The Huffington Post recently, the author’s arguments at some points beggaring belief, as when he claims that pop star/brand partnerships become ‘authentic’ if the ad men ask the ‘artist’ in question what their hobbies and interests are so that the product they’re flogging can be something they might actually use/wear etc. Well if that isn’t the very definition of authenticity! Perhaps a better one might be an artist who would never consider sitting down with a brand-pimp in the first place. If he has, then that scaly cock-head is already parting his lips… all the detail does is make him choke on it. But the piece is a fascinating insight into an ad man’s notion of ‘authentic’ all the same.  About as far away from the real thing as spring water is from sewage. Who woulda thunk it? As Bill put it.

In the piece, Brand Man  also spends a deal of time defending struggling artists from Bill’s ‘attack’, something, as I have said (and as anyone even vaguely familiar with his words on this will know) Hicks made clear he had no problem with. It seems strange that an article based on these very words would be ignorant of them doesn’t it? Is it ignorance then, or a disingenuous effort to create the illusion of a layered  argument? Gasp! An ad man creating only the illusion of something of worth? Surely not! But in this piece that’s exactly what we get. In this Twilight Zone world, brand alliances are all part of a wonderful giving enterprise designed to help the less fortunate. It’s all so moving, I’m welling up as I write.  And I’m sure the mega-movie stars hawking perfume and broadband are doing it for that very reason too.

But no-one called Steve Coogan a sell-out, moans Brand Man, when Alan Partridge popped up selling beer because, he reasons, he’s a comedian like Hicks. Well open your ears BM….Coogan, you whore!!

The part of the article which really gave me a chuckle, however, comes towards the end when Brand Man desperately tries to convince us that, because Bill was a ‘comic’ he really didn’t mean any of the stuff he said – he was just trying to get a laugh! Oh dear. Didn’t he have a friend who could have warned him how silly this would sound before he sent it off to the editors at Huff?  I feel a little silly myself even pointing out that Hicks’ profound and righteous anger against The Society of the Spectacle came right from his heart and underpinned all he believed in.  As one of his close friends commented in the documentary about his life, It’s Just a Ride, Bill was a preacher. He was like the Jesus who, furious, turned over the tables of the money-changers in the temple.

Ten years after his death, MP Stephen Pound tabled an early day motion titled “Anniversary of the Death of Bill Hicks” which read:

That this House notes with sadness the 10th anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks, on 26th February 1994, at the age of 33 [sic]; recalls his assertion that his words would be a bullet in the heart of consumerism, capitalism and the American Dream; and mourns the passing of one of the few people who may be mentioned as being worthy of inclusion with Lenny Bruce in any list of unflinching and painfully honest political philosophers.

The very reason why Bill’s work lives on and still has such amazing potency is that, in a world full of ‘banality and mediocrity’,  of sophistry, of casuistry and speciousness, of the kind of fakery and shallowness  Brand Man and his ilk make their stock in trade, his words retain the mark of genuine authenticity. They are like water in a desert to those of us thirsting for something real in a world of fabrication and deception.

A couple of weeks ago I sat just feet from Bill Hicks’ mother, brother and sister at a tribute to him in London.  They spoke of their comfort in the fact that, two decades after his death, he is still remembered and valued by those who were his contemporaries and by those not even born when he died.  It’s heartening that his work seems to become more relevant as time passes, not less, as our culture polarises into the hollow triviality of consumerism, the dogma of which is ‘obey, consume, conform’, and the driving selflessness of the Occupy movement and other grass-roots groups which collectively reject the lies of the brand-pimps and sicken at the sight of celebs selling their souls.  They do not believe a clothes label signifies anything other than a tragic insecurity and wrong-headedness. They know there is a better way and that seeing through The Spectacle is an essential step on the road to a better world.

At that tribute to Bill Hicks his family watched as this video, Corporate Shills, was played: There was never a question that he didn’t believe every word he uttered in it.

In a previous article I wrote: I am both fascinated by, and disgusted with, celebrity culture, believing as I do that it’s a symptom of how our society is, to snatch a quote from Martin Luther King, ‘approaching spiritual death’. Characterised by an obsession with only the surface of things, with outward impression, with status, it is a rejection of everything authentic, genuine and meaningful in life and undermines all truly valuable relationship. Yes, that’s how evil Kim Kardashian actually is! If she’d been sent by an alien race to destroy us from within because it was easier than all-out invasion she and her ilk couldn’t be doing a better job.

Turning just about every potentially profound interaction in your life into a (mostly financial) transaction would be sad enough if it affected only you, but ‘celeb’ culture, like the insidious virus it is, spreads throughout the population draining more and more lives of their beautiful individuality and creative promise leaving behind mere…designer-clad husks. It is these corpses, roaming the earth like extras from a George A. Romero zombie movie, that infect our culture with the life-denying values that can view even living beings as mere appendages. If you’re not worried by that then, guess what? – you’re a zombie too!

‘The world is at a parting of the ways’ a wise man once wrote. Which way are you going? I’m with Bill.

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