Art and commerce have long made for uncomfortable bedfellows. But with album sales declining, corporations have increasingly stepped in to fill the income void for many musicians, sponsoring tours, running songs in advertisements and employing pop stars as brand ambassadors.
Lady Gaga touched on the issue during her keynote address at this year’s South by Southwest music conference, saying, “The truth is, without these sponsorships, without these companies coming together to help us, we won’t have any more artists in Austin [the site of SXSW]. We won’t have any more festivals because record labels don’t have any more fucking money.”
But it’s not just global icons struggling to reconcile artistic ambition with these harsher economic realities. Even relative newcomers, like fast-rising Washington D.C.-based punk quartet Priests, have to strike a balance between making a statement and dealing with thick piles of credit card statements.
“We're all battling the opposing desires to have an all-expense-paid life by corporate blah, blah, blah because, hey, free shoes, and simultaneously feeling the fleeting desire to just torch everything because everything is contaminated with blood money and bad ideas, bad values [and] stuff you don't want,” wrote singer Katie Greer, who joins bandmates G.L. Jaguar, Taylor Mulitz and Daniele Daniele for a concert at Ace of Cups on Thursday, April 10, in an early April email exchange. “Existing within the whole thing and just trying to figure it out is probably what's most rewarding and most challenging.”
This dichotomy has surfaced in everything from the band’s songs (“Diet Coke,” a 90-second punk blast decrying the proliferation of corporate product placement) to its onstage appearances. Last fall the group played a gig sponsored by a shoe company, and throughout the concert Greer alternately thanked an unrelated fast-food franchise and launched burritos into the audience.
“I don’t think anyone was mad about it … [and] the shoe company who sponsored the show offered to give us MORE free shoes afterwards, a gesture that left us all a bit bewildered,” she said. “But I guess everyone loves a rebel or something, especially when the rebel is wearing your brand of clothing.”
At first blush, Greer would appear to be miscast in her current role as sneering, punk-rock rabble-rouser. She grew up in the suburbs of Michigan, and her earliest exposure to onstage performance came via roles in high school musicals, where she appeared as the titular character in “Annie,” and later as Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls.” As a teenager, she played some guitar and experimented with home recording, but it wasn’t until she stumbled upon an interview blog kept by feminist punk singer and author Alice Bag that she started to realize the raw power contained in the form.
“I didn’t grow up involved in a punk scene at all … so early, first-wave punk was probably most accessible to me because it’s been more heavily documented,” Greer said. “Stuff from that era doesn’t have a singular sound or style; it’s just very playful and colorful and feels full of possibility.”
The same could be said of Priests’ music, which leaps from twitchy, post-punk inspired rumblers like “Say No” to murkier cuts like “USA (Incantations),” a politically charged, spoken-word screed that savages the concept of American idealism and jabs at the “rich, white men” who signed the U.S. Constitution.
Living and working in D.C., it was almost inevitable politics would bleed into the band’s music — “There are intense power dynamics playing out in front of us all the time,” Greer said — and the songs tend to project a restlessness that could easily be interpreted as a call to action.
“Music is really inspiring, let's face it,” the singer continued. “[It] can be a tool for anything. It is a great tool for seducing people and masturbating, [and it’s] great for selling stuff, too. Why [can’t it be used for] political change?”
That’s not to say all of the band’s songs could double as posts on the Daily Kos. There are also more introspective turns, as well as lyrical flights of fancy that read like surrealist poetry. One in-progress song, for example, builds around the absurdist line “plastic baby saves my life,” a sentence Greer typed into her phone after recalling a particularly vivid dream.
Priests’ music is similarly fluid, and according to Greer its latest EP, Bodies and Control and Money and Power, which is due out on Don Giovanni Records in June, has evolved in a few unexpected — and potentially more commercially viable — ways.
“[Recently] I've been most interested in stuff that people probably wouldn't even necessarily call art, just the everyday trash of life like TV shows and commercials and shopping malls,” she said. “I’ve been really re-exploring a lot of Top 40 pop music. I’m forever impressed by the earworm, [the] kind of song that wanders into your head and you can’t get it to leave.”
Amy Breesman photo