10 Music Publicity Stunts Gone Wrong
"If you want to get known as a singer," Sammy Davis Jr. once said, "you hire five sexy chicks and let them fight over you onstage and for the cameras. That's publicity, man." Pop culture's hunger for the publicity stunt hasn't changed much since Davis's day. Case in point: the revelation this week that the indie-dance band Yacht – fronted by romantic couple Jona Bechtolt and Claire L. Evans – faked the imminent leak of an alleged sex tape as part of a PR hoax.
The group's publicist denied having anything to do with it, and the band issued a defense of the hoax on the grounds that it was part of one of their "multi-faceted projects," a "slowly unveiling conspiracy, inspired in equal part by The X-Files, Nathan for You, and the KLF." Regardless of possible artistic intent, a backlash quickly ensued, with detractors claiming that Bechtolt and Evans were making light of the real-life problem of sex-tape leaks as revenge porn. Granted, Yacht are far from the first musical act to launch an ill-conceived publicity stunt and suffer the consequences. Here are a few of the most notorious examples.
Elvis Joins the Army (1958)
The upstanding adults of America couldn't have been happier when Elvis Presley enlisted in the Army in 1958. The singer was the height of his early stardom, but his lip-curling, hip-swiveling insinuations had angered moral watchdogs from sea to shining sea – so, prompted by his manager Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis shipped himself overseas. His two-year stint as a soldier in Germany may have rehabilitated Elvis in the eyes of moms and dads everywhere, but when he returned, rock & roll was already passing him by. He began his slow turn toward softer music, drug abuse and Vegas-incubated eccentricity in the Sixties, no longer the outlaw rebel he was when he first exploded on the stage, changing culture forever.
John and Yoko Stage a Bed-In (1969)
"Like angels" is how John Lennon described himself and Yoko Ono during the couple's infamous 1969 honeymoon Bed-Ins. Held in Amsterdam and Montreal, the events were Lennon and Ono's next-level take on the popular sit-in protests of the decade – with the noble goal of promoting world peace, and with the added benefit of helping to promote the pair's new collaborative effort – which was set to song later that year in the Beatles' "The Ballad of John and Yoko." Many Beatles fans decried the happening, setting the stage for the misguided Yoko backlash to follow.
Elvis Costello Busks for CBS (1977)
Elvis Costello was making waves in his native U.K. in 1977 following the release of his debut album, My Aim Is True. Not so much Stateside. In an attempt to snag the attention of American record executives, Costello busked loudly outside a CBS Records convention in London, with fellow artists from the indie label Stiff Records holding up pro-Elvis placards. "I'm just off with Elvis to scare the hell out of CBS," Stiff head Jake Riveria told Melody Maker just prior to the stunt. It worked in getting CBS to notice Costello – but it also earned Costello a trip to the slammer courtesy of London's finest.
Sex Pistols Crash the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (1977)
Unlike their impromptu utterance of the f-bomb on the BBC in 1976, the Sex Pistols were very much aware of what they were doing when they sailed up the Thames in the summer of 1976 during Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee celebration. Arranged by the band's spitfire Svengali Malcolm McLaren, the stunt – complete with a blaring, blasphemous performance of the group's then-current single, "God Save the Queen" – incited the wrath of London's constabulary, who raided the Pistols' chartered boat and arrested McLaren and numerous others onboard. As music journalist Allan Jones, a guest of the Pistols on that fateful voyage, remembered: "When they played ‘God Save the Queen,' that boat could have imploded." What truly imploded was the Pistols' waning ability to book gigs in England due to a ban on the band that contributed to their onstage meltdown in San Francisco in 1978.
Madonna Publishes ‘Sex,’ Immortalizes Vanilla Ice (1992)
A book titled Sex with Madonna's name on the front: How could it possibly go wrong? Yet when the coffee-table volume of photographs came out in 1992, its bestselling status was offset by a backlash from fans and critics who saw little more than stunt-publishing at best in the racy project. As it turned out, the sex-centric concept album that followed later that year, Erotica, became the singer's least successful full-length up to that point – and Sex became notorious for, of all things, the unfortunate casting of Vanilla Ice as one her photographic paramours.
The KLF Burn a Million Pounds (1994)
What kind of superstar band could afford to burn a million pounds just for the hell of it? Apparently the KLF, although the subversive electronic duo of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty had only recently tasted massive success in England when, in 1994, they burned exactly that amount of cash as an act of performance art. While the act may have succeeded in that aspect, it caused major head-scratching and criticism of the group, which had already announced its retirement (via an open letter attached to a dead sheep, no less). Years later Drummond himself expressed regret for the stunt; the money had originally been intended as a charitable fund to help struggling artists, until Drummond declared "that struggling artists are meant to struggle, that's the whole point."
Garth Brooks Becomes Chris Gaines (1999)
Country music isn't known for its postmodern hijinks, which might be part of the reason why Garth Brooks ran into some difficulty when he unveiled his alter ego, Chris Gaines. A supposedly Australian pop singer with a soul patch and a brooding pout, Gaines was intended to be the protagonist of a film called The Lamb, but the movie never happened; meanwhile Brooks took his method acting to an extreme, appearing in a Behind the Music mockumentary and releasing an album, Garth Brooks in … the Life of Chris Gaines. Fans were baffled, but more than that, the project painted Brooks as self-indulgent and out of touch, traits far removed from the guy-next-door charm that had catapulted him to fame in the first place.
50 Cent Pledges, Fails to Outsell Kanye West (2007)
Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson had everything to lose, and little to gain, by pitting himself against up-and-comer Kanye West in a fabricated feud in 2007. The showdown hinged on which artist would sell more copies of their latest album: Curtis or Graduation. It inspired a Rolling Stone cover story that year, with 50 even pledging to cease his solo career should he lose. He did lose, and big: Graduation beat out Curtis to the tune of more than a quarter of a million units. Curtis still performed well overall, due partly to the stunt, but the loss was a resounding blow to 50's eminence. It also dramatically illustrated that Yeezy was on the ascendant. From there on out, 50 slowed down and settled into the role of elder statesman rather than that of the fresh, young hotshot.
Buckcherry Leak Their Own Music, Act Outraged (2008)
"Honestly, we hate it when this shit happens, because we want our FANS to have any new songs first." So declared Buckcherry, in the kind of righteous indignation only Buckcherry can muster, in a press release in 2008. The band was raging against the machine of piracy, complaining that some unscrupulous culprit had leaked their upcoming single "Too Drunk…" on BitTorrent in advance of its release. As it turned out, the group's manager apparently leaked the song himself as a publicity stunt. Better luck next time, Buckcherry.
Lady Gaga Wears a Meat Dress (2010)
Lady Gaga tested the gag reflex of the world when she showed up to the 2010 VMAs in a dress made of meat. PETA was just one of many vocal protestors in the wake of her flagrant display of succulence, and when grilled by vegan Ellen DeGeneres soon after, Gaga explained the dress was a protest against the U.S. military's don't-ask-don't-tell policy in regard to gay service members. The connection between raw meat and gay liberation wasn't exactly clear, and Gaga didn't make things much clearer when she explained to DeGeneres, "If we don't fight for our rights, pretty soon we're going to have as much rights as the meat on our bones."