From Robert Johnson meeting the devil at the crossroads to Al Pacino chewing the scenery in Danny Collins, it's all too easy to buy into stereotypes of musicians selling their souls in pursuit of success. Indeed, given the choice between staying true to the purity of your vision, or sacrificing it upon the altar of commerce, who among us would be selfish enough to choose the latter?
Well, me, for one. The idea of the starving artist loses its romance when it involves actual starving — which was not a problem for, say, Neil Young when he railed against less high-minded artists for accepting Budweiser endorsements.
It may also have been distressing for Nick Drake fans to hear the late singer-songwriter's stunningly beautiful "Pink Moon" used in a Volkswagen commercial celebrating the joys of driving at night with the top down. On the other hand, the track's licensing greatly benefited Drake's estate, and it arguably brought his music to the attention of a much broader audience. Sometimes it's just nice to share.
From my personal point of view, if an artist has created music that you've found moving and meaningful, why begrudge him or her the opportunity to profit from it?
Lou Reed wrote "Perfect Day" and "Satellite of Love," so let him make a Honda commercial. OutKast transitioned from "Rosa Parks" to "Hey Ya!" The Roots became a talk show house band. Bob Dylan did those really creepy Victoria's Secret commercials. In none of these cases did the world end.
Seriously, unless their music does harm to children, animals or the elderly, artists should be able to compose, record and perform anything they want.
Take Todd Rundgren, for instance. His "Bang the Drum All Day" is used in Carnival Cruise Lines commercials and Shrek videos, and anytime the Packers score touchdowns. "Can We Still Be Friends" was featured in a TV show about breast augmentation. It may only be a matter of time before "Hello, It's Me" finds its way into a Verizon commercial.
Yet, based on last week's show at the Pikes Peak Center, there was no way to call him a sellout. For one thing, the venue was less than half-full. But more importantly, this was anything but the greatest-hits show you might expect from an artist whose work has become a staple of rock and pop radio.
Instead, Rundgren delivered a performance that was just, well, weird.
Weird as in: Not one word to the audience, an arsenal of pre-recorded tracks, one keyboardist, and two female backing vocalists joining him in oddly choreographed dance steps that verged on pantomime.
Weird as in: Nearly two hours of music largely culled from his latest two albums — many of them diatribes against global warming and other bad things — that only hardcore fans would likely recognize.
Weird as in: This guy played Denver less than six months ago with a traditional rock lineup, and now he's barely touched his guitar.
For all its unconventionality, the show almost worked. Rundgren was in good voice throughout, apart from a few upper-range mishaps, and the new material was often quite good. Much of it was heavily electronic — not in an I'm-trying-to-do-EDM kind of way, but more like the synth-heavy arrangements of his Todd album.
Nor was he just phoning it in: Rundgren is obviously passionate about whatever he's doing up there, and the audience responded in kind.
So much so that I didn't see one person leave, even as it became obvious that the hit-making approach Rundgren turned his back on in the '80s would, at best, be a footnote to the evening.
That eventually happened, thanks to a perfunctory three-song medley — "Hello, It's Me," "I Saw the Light," "Can We Still Be Friends" — that Rundgren delivered with the enthusiasm of someone being forced to recite the same grocery list, day after day, decade after decade. Strangely, no one in the audience seemed to mind. If anything, they got even more excited when he returned to his new material.
It won't always be like this. In the months ahead, the Pikes Peak Center and World Arena will bring in acts like Chicago, and Whitesnake, and Rod Stewart, and god-knows-what-else. All of them will do just what everyone wants and expects them to do.
For better or worse, that's never been how an artist like Rundgren operates. Time and again, he's created stunningly original works of true beauty and genius. And to operate on that level, artists need the freedom to fail just as spectacularly as they succeed, in whatever way they choose.
It's their world, we just live in it.