Last night, Jeep used Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” (performed by Marc Scibilia) in a new commercial during the Super Bowl. The multiracial, multicultural morale underneath the ad is pretty clear: “This land” could be a very diverse one, not necessarily confined to the U.S., says the company trying to sell a 4×4, 180hp monster SUV in a global market.
It’s not the first time that the song has been used to sell garbage. In 1988, in his runs for the Presidency, George H. W. Bush used This Land as a campaign anthem — perhaps an unusual choice for a Republican, considering its socialist origins. In fact, when the song was was penned by Guthrie in 1940, it was nothing but a response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”, which he considered excessively unrealistic and complacent, and was tired of hearing Kate Smith sing it on the radio.
A few sparse thought on the subject:
1) From the Dust Bowl to the Super Bowl: Did Guthrie estate agree to sell the rights of anti-property rights song, written by a rabidly, pro-union composer with Communist sympathies, to an automobile and military manufacturer? In case you were wondering, Jeep didn’t need to ask for any permission:
Who knows? Maybe the folk musician who had the slogan This Machine Kills Fascists displayed on his guitar might have rethought his copyright stance if he knew Jeep, a company who built trucks for the US Army, would one day use his work to sell shit. And truth is, we’re all deeply against eternal copyright until something like this happens.
— Ashley Pratte (@AshPratte) February 2, 2015
2) Funnily enough, folks hating on Super Bowl ad are mostly conservatives who think This Land is a patriotic song that should be associated with American landscapes and American colors (namely White). In contrasts, radical circles have long debated whether the song is part of a colonial/suprematist tradition or not (“This land” was actually someone else’s before White Men like Guthrie started occupying and distributing it, they say).
In other words, art is not a stand-alone, perennial flame: when taken out of its original political and context, art can be manipulated by anybody. What was once a voice for the exploited of the working-class, be they factory workers of field hands, can easily be transformed into an all-encompassing hymn to tolerance delivered by a multinational giant to a dormant public of 9-5 office workers and frat boys.
When the Capital in the 21st century faces an atomized society, it costs nothing to take a protest song and turn it upside down, paint it with the colors that best fit its scheme, trim it, eat it, digest it and shit it and poop it on people’s head. When Mexico’s most famous mural painter, Diego Rivera, a communist, was honored posthumously on his 125th birthday with a Google doodle, it’s hard to discern boundaries between tribute and misappropriation. Unlike many liberal enthusiasts, I tend not to see these kind of homages like a legacy absorbed, but rather as a conflict defused.
– So once again: does an artwork really matters when expropriated of a proper political background? Imagine was a beautiful song but it didn’t stop the Vietnam war on its own. Sit-ins, persuaded politicians, brave journalists and, above all, the Vietcong did. As a matter of fact, upholding political art as a fetish, without understanding the reasons art is today so easily fostered by the corporate world, is nothing but garnishing chains.