It is a regrettable fact of life that no matter how strenuously snobs such as I strive to shelter ourselves from popular culture some drip always gets through and, with distressing frequency, advertising is to blame.
As one who is proud to confess that he has not watched so much as a second of Eastenders, not a moment of Ricky Gervais and who runs screaming from the room whenever Claudia Winkleman, Julia Bradbury, Adrian Chiles and a dozen more darken the screen, I was recently caught unawares by something still more alarming. Downright hideous, in fact.
It arrived unbidden, as do most televised horrors, during a commercial break. One moment all was relatively normal, the next I was witness to the writhing and grimacing of a semi-naked creature who looked as though he (for male it was) had been dredged from the depths of a primeval swamp. Mere words cannot describe his grotesque aspect, but I’ll have a go. His sparse, greasy and lank hair was shoulder-length; his face deeply lined, ravaged by time and possibly drugs; his eyes were glassy and expressionless, his mouth twisted; his torso emaciated and his movements spasmodic; he was, in short, not the kind of thing one would wish to meet in a well-lit alley, let alone a dark one.
If he reminded me of anyone, it was of Ben Gunn, the insane marooned pirate of Treasure Island who in his isolation became a semi-savage and craved cheese. This was a creature foreign to civilisation.
Several days passed, and I had almost expunged the vision from my mind when up it popped again, this time on the BBC’s news website. (Popular culture is ineluctable and insinuates itself into every fissure of life.) I learned that Ben Gunn was in fact Iggy Pop, a name that Robert Louis Stevenson might have preferred had he thought of it first, though to me it sounds more like the words an infant might use to describe the phenomenon of simultaneous vomiting ad diarrhoea.
Further research showed that this Iggy Pop was born James Newell Osterberg Jr in 1947 in Michigan. According to Wikipedia, he is considered an innovator of punk rock, garage rock and other related styles and is sometimes referred to as the Godfather of Punk and the Rock Iguana. He is, moreover, widely acknowledged as one of the most dynamic stage performers of all time. He began calling himself Iggy after his first band, the Iguanas.
All of which might interest some, though not an admirer of Cole Porter such as myself. The question remained, however: how did the Godfather of Punk, now looking as though he had been exhumed for the occasion, insinuate himself into my drawing room? The answer was on the BBC’s website – he was advertising car insurance. This was news to me, but it did not surprise me. Indeed, I seldom make the connection between the form of TV commercials and the items that they are seeking to promote. What was interesting, however, was to read that Iggy Pop’s endorsement of a car insurer had outraged his admirers (for such exist) who accused him of “selling out”. Such was their disgust and dismay at his betrayal that they had vented their spleen on music messageboards and blogs and defaced posters featuring the ads.
What does this protest tell us? I know nothing of rock music, but it would seem that its followers believe that in some curious metaphysical sense it is removed from and above the world of commerce. That its practitioners express a genuine form of rebellion against something – anything? – and embody some kind of idealistic alternative to all that is unsatisfactory. That theirs is truly art for art’s sake.
Wishing to probe a little deeper, I went to Iggy’s website. There I learned that “slammin’ backbeats to the midsection, punishing and relentless guitar riffs that fry the eardrums to a crisp, and lyrics that call for revolution of mind and soul even as they forever extol rock’s eternal truths – summertime, cars, women, pain – are collective evidence of Iggy Pop’s roadmap”.
So the truth is revealed. Cars are one of rock’s eternal truths. Surely Iggy’s disgruntled fans do not suggest that it is a good thing to be at the wheel of an eternal truth uninsured? And who better to promote insurance than a man who looks as though he has just stepped out of a motorway pile-up? People who accuse rock stars and other celebrities of selling out are either insanely idealistic or, more likely, delusional. Rock music is inescapably commercial even as it calls for a revolution of mind and soul. If its followers are serious about rejecting modern life, it is Benn Gunn they should be extolling, not his modern counterpart.