By the late 1980s, there were very few rock stars unwilling to appear in a television commercial for the right price. David Bowie re-cut “Modern Love” with Tina Turner for Pepsi; Michael Jackson was horribly burned while filming his own soft drink commercial; Whitney Houston sang a jingle for Diet Coke; Madonna let Pepsi use “Like a Prayer;” and Genesis revived “Tonight Tonight Tonight” for Michelob.
Neil Young was having none of this, and on his 1988 song “This Note’s for You” (a takeoff of the Budweiser slogan “This Bud’s for You”) he skewered the whole practice. “Ain’t singin’ for Pepsi,” he wrote. “Ain’t singin’ for Coke/I don’t sing for nobody/Makes me look like a joke/This note’s for you.” He took it a step further with the music video where he parodied Eric Clapton’s Michelob ad, Calvin Klein’s Obsession commercial, Bud Light’s Spuds MacKenzie’s spots, the infamous Michael Jackson Pepsi commercial where his hair caught on fire and many others.
MTV refused to air it. “I must admit I feel awkward defending our decision because I happen to think it’s a fantastic video,” MTV/VH1 General Manager Lee Masters told The Los Angeles Times. “Everyone in Programming loved it – it’s spectacular and it’s very funny. But we had two corporate problems: First, our attorneys advised us against playing it because its use of likenesses of Michael Jackson and Spuds MacKenzie could leave us open to trademark infringement charges. Since then, Warner Records’ legal department has offered to indemnify us against any claims, but our attorneys still felt that might not be enough protection.”
At the exact same time, MTV and VHI were airing Weird Al’s “Fat” in heavy rotation even though it spoofed Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” Clearly, the network’s main fear wasn’t lawsuits, but upsetting their sponsors. “All this clip does is poke fun,” said Young’s manger, Elliott Roberts. “But it’s not funny anymore if MTV is so afraid of sponsors’ power that they won’t air an ingenious satire.” Young’s response was a little less polite. “MTV, you spineless twerps,” he wrote in an open letter. “You refuse to play ‘This Note’s for You’ because you’re afraid to offend your sponsors. What does the ‘M’ in MTV stand for: music or money? Long live rock and roll.”
The network ultimately backed down in the face of unrelenting pressure, and Young had the last laugh the following year when “This Note’s For You” won Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards. He was on tour at the time, but he accepted live via satellite. Strangely enough, the audio dropped out midway through his acceptance speech. The network swore it was a technical snafu, but it was hard to not be just at tiny bit suspicious of that claim.
It was the most attention any Neil Young song had received since Rust Never Sleeps came out nearly a decade earlier, and it kickstarted a major comeback that continued in 1989 with “Rockin’ in the Free World.” He hasn’t played “This Note’s for You” since the Bridge School Benefit in October of 1997, but he has stuck to his policy of refusing to license his music out for commercials, let alone appear in them himself.
Unlike nearly all of his peers, he’s mostly refused to play private shows. Earlier this year, however, he did fly to Paris with Promise of the Real to play a private concert for French investment banker Édouard Carmignac, even letting the billionaire onstage to sing a bit of “Fuckin’ Up.” (To be fair, we have no idea what motivated him to do this show, and he may have given every cent to charity.) It remains the only time in his career he sang the After the Goldrush deep cut “Till the Morning Comes” live. Apparently those notes for were for Carmignac and his buddies, not for you.