In 2011 Debbie Sterling started Goldieblox. The premise was simple. Structural toys like Lego and Meccano were continuously marketed to boys. Meanwhile, girls' toys were predominantly marketed not to the development of cognitive ability, but instead to developing future purchasers and consumers. You can argue this if you'd like but I defer to Peggy Orenstein'sCinderella Ate My Daughter. So, Sterling, a Mechanical Engineering / Product Design grad who was now a High School Math teacher started Goldieblox with the goal to "get girls building". It is a noble effort that with which we surely can agree.
Goldieblox has recently gained more notoriety for their latest commercial which has been a viral sensation. The sensation has gathered around Goldieblox use of the Beastie Boys' Girls. Goldieblox did not get permission to use the classic song but instead is reworked into a bit of a feminist statement of empowerment for young girls sick of merely playing with Barbie. Goldieblox's defense of the choice of song was that they were parodying it to mock the original intent of the song (which is should be noted is often read itself as a parody of mainstream pop music).
The Beastie Boys wrote the following in response to Goldieblox:
Like many of the millions of people who have seen your toy commercial “GoldieBlox, Rube Goldberg & the Beastie Boys,” we were very impressed by the creativity and the message behind your ad.
Just prior to The Beasties' response conversation about the issue began to bubble up in Twitter. Perhaps the most interesting response I read came from Toronto band The Darcys who pondered the following: How do we decide who is prosecuted for stealing and who is celebrated for re-appropriation?
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That question is a powerful one, and one that is incredibly difficult to answer.
I have always bought music and always seen the importance of purchasing music as imperative in a culture that supports its artistic community. However, I have also embraced our ability to take that culture and parody it. Without such re-appropriation a society are limited in how they question societal power structures. Over the last few years I have also begun to embrace certain elements of what might be called the "free-culture movement". My position on the fence at times seems uncomfortable, but as a supporter of art, I feel it is the only place with which I can sit.
So, to return to The Darcys' question, how do we decide? Radiohead, who came to the defense of The Beastie Boys, have in past circumnavigated Warner-Chappell (their publisher) and allowed artists to use their music. In doing so the artist made the exception and thus bestowed upon another artist their blessing. But, as our culture becomes further commodified do we not risk allowing "art" to be sold for merely commercial interest? With that said, The Beastie Boys state that their reasoning for not allowing a company to use their songs was a "conscious decision" and seems to be genuinely based on a solid belief structure.
However, their own history is problematic. The song in question comes from their 1986 debut Licensed to Ill which "illegally" sampled everyone from Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin to Slick Rick and Run D.M.C. They, may feel that as hip hop artists that they were "allowed" to sample, but ultimately, the record, released by Columbia, was a commodity. And (at the time) it was the fastest-selling debut record in Columbia's history. As much as their music was original it was also re-appropriated from other artists and used to make money. What then is the difference between The Beastie Boys and Goldieblox?
When Adam Yauch died in 2012, his will stated that “Notwithstanding anything to the contrary, in no event may my image or name or any music or any artistic property created by me be used for advertising purposes.”. Now it appears the courts will have to decide. but, one cannot help but notice the hypocrisy of the messenger in this case. The Beastie Boys were artists who were trying to break new ground and change the shape of music: mission accomplished. But, in doing so they bent the rules (for better or worse) and led us to a world built on re-appropriation. If The Beastie Boys are allowed to pass judgement on re-appropriation what in the world would the remaining members' future creative output sound like?
This argument appears to come down to two key points. Firstly, it is a semantic one. To re-appropriate is defined as to take without permission, to seize or to appropriate. Is this definition any different from the verb "to steal"? Secondly, if we allow artists like The Beastie Boys to re-appropriate, do we not have to allow others to re-appropriate? Should the Beasties be able to pillage while chastising those who pillage from them?
Goldieblox have a strong argument forfair use. And, in trying to change the way in which we market toys to girls, are they - like the Beasties - not breaking new ground and changing the shape of advertsing? The truth is that The Beastie Boys and Goldieblox are perhaps more similar than The Beasties would have us believe. After the release of their second album Paul's Boutique the Beasties came under attack from those they sampled. The most alarming suit came from The Beatles. Mike D responded by saying "What's cooler than getting sued by the Beatles?". Now it seems we can revisit this and wonder if Debbie Sterling might say "What's cooler than suing The Beastie Boys?"
I'm still not sure where I stand on free-culture. I still love supporting music, film and art, but I can see the artistic argument for building culture based on destroying the past. But, If you really believe in free culture, then you must accept that free culture is for everyone. And, that is where things get sticky, awkward and even painful. Because God only knows I don't want to hear Imagine in an ad for the Keystone Pipeline.
The world of music and media offers us a view of the world like few other arts.