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January 13, 2011  | by: Kerri O'Malley

Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, Stephen Colbert, and Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys Prepare for Battle

Tuesday night’s episode of The Colbert Report was punctuated by the unexpected appearance of three alt-rock demigods: Ezra Koenig, the well-groomed lead singer and guitarist of Vampire Weekend, and Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, the sole members of The Black Keys.  What brought them into the lair of Colbert?  The battle for Stephen’s Grammy vote for the Best Alternative Music Album of 2010, of course!  But what they stayed for was an epic foray into the commercialization of “alternative” music.

After showing off the Grammy award he received last year, an award that earned him the right to vote for this year’s Grammy winners, Colbert turned his attention to his favorite Grammy category: Best Alternative Music Album.  As Colbert explains: “Alternative refers to the under-the-radar, independent music that edgy, anti-establishment types can buy at Starbucks.”  Ouch.  But true.

Colbert quickly depleted the list of nominees (which originally included Arcade Fire, Band of Horses, and Broken Bells) until only Vampire Weekend and The Black Keys were left.  Then he called the actual members of the bands onto stage for a (highly scripted) comic sequence that Koenig described as a “sell-out off.”  Stephen had decided that “the only way to determine which alternative band has the most edgy, non-commercial appeal is which one got their songs in more commercials.”  What followed was truly fascinating to watch.

The Black Keys

The Black Keys and Vampire Weekend battled back and forth, cuing clips of commercials featuring their songs.  The Black Keys’ “Girl Is On My Mind,” released in 2004 on their Rubber Factory album, appeared in a Zales commerical, a Victoria’s Secret commercial, and a Sony Ericsson ad this year.  Guess that’s some kind of versatility.  Vampire Weekend’s “Holiday” appeared in both a Honda commercial and a Hilifiger ad.  Another Vampire Weekend song, “A-Punk,” provides the soundtrack to a Hewlett Packard commercial.  Cause nothing says “rock and roll” like a brand new printer.

Eventually, Stephen gave up the sell-out off, citing that it would be impossible to choose based on these standards.  “Clearly, you have both equally whored out your music,” the comedy TV host proclaimed.

Although the Colbert segment was all in good fun (as usual), Stephen has a point (as usual).  Gone are the days when rock and roll bands would tell commercial products and films to stick it where the sun don’t shine.  Remember Led Zeppelin’s famously stingy attitude toward lending their songs to commercial projects, perhaps best illustrated by Jack Black openly begging Zep for the use of “Immigrant Song” on School of Rock‘s soundtrack?  Or The Doors’ Jim Morrison vehemently refusing to license their song “Light My Fire” for use in a car commercial, saying “no” to $75,000 even though his band-mates thought the commercial was a pretty neat idea?

Vampire Weekend Lovingly Offer Their Music to the Commercial World

Now, bands are not only less afraid to lend their sound to commercials and films, it’s almost become a genre.  “Alternative” as outsider sound may be a dead concept.  New bands, like Vampire Weekend and The Black Keys, are the acts most likely to lend their music to commercial projects, mostly because they are the acts most strapped for dough.  Just as the concept of “independent films” has translated into pseudo-independent films like Juno, a film made by a major company but made to look and sound “indie,” the lines between truly independent, underground music and commercial projects have blurred.

But maybe modern alt-rock bands’ tendency to embrace their songs as soundtracks for ads has a greater driving force than the usual omnivorous process of commercialization and consumerism.  As bands embrace new technologies in their recordings and write hits about watching TV, why would they resist the opportunity to make a buck by selling a product on that very same, oh-so-inspirational TV?  Some commercials are even designed to sell both the product and the soundtrack.  Think Daft Punk’s “Technologic” iPod ad from a few years back (posted below).  The ad definitely sells both the iPod and the song, and the song itself is all about the always forward-moving process of technology.  It was almost written for a gadget commercial (especially for a company like Apple that wouldn’t shy away from a touch of trend-happy irony).  Is it really selling out if it’s made to sell?

With a market focused on singles and downloads, and the doors to pop radio closed to alt-rock bands, perhaps a commercial is a great way to release a quasi-single.  You know everyone will hear it, and soon those same printer-loving consumers will find your track with a simple Google search and download it on iTunes.  Technologic, indeed.

As a seasoned Black Keys fan, I’m glad to see the Keys stepping even further into the spotlight, hopefully getting that infamous Colbert Bump.  I hope they take away the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album this year, in spite of their contradictory commercial success.  To find out who wins the real battle, watch the Grammy Awards on February 13, 2011.

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