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This Note’s For You: Behind Neil Young’s Furious Challenge To Big Business
In Depth

This Note’s For You: Behind Neil Young’s Furious Challenge To Big Business

Setting out to take on corporate sponsorship with the song This Note’s For You, Neil Young ended up forcing MTV to make a public reversal.

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Neil Young has never been afraid of speaking his mind, whatever the consequences – and much to the delight of his fans. Back in 1988, Young took aim at what he saw as the growing commercialisation of rock and pop music by releasing the defiant single This Note’s For You, the title track to the album he released on 11 April that year. Going Top 20 on Billboard’s Album Rock Tracks chart, the song became notorious, not least for its promo video, which was initially banned by MTV until the network performed an about-face and named it Video Of The Year at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards.

The inspiration: “I laughed my ass off. For miles and miles”

The sentiment of This Note’s For You had been brewing for some time, with Young increasingly irked by the willingness of some of his contemporaries to accept hefty paychecks from global brands. “The Rolling Stones were sponsored by Jovan perfume, Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood were selling beer, Michael Jackson had been bought by Pepsi for $15 million,” Young told interviewer Mark Rowland, as quoted in Jimmy McDonough’s 2002 biography, Shakey.

Budweiser’s This Bud’s For You ad campaign provided Young with the catalyst he needed for his protest song. “For months I heard this line – ‘I ain’t singin’ for Pepsi, I ain’t singin’ for Coke.’ And I was riding along in the bus, and I was singing it to myself, and thinking, I like that,” Young later explained. “Then when I thought of the line ‘This note’s for you’, I laughed my ass off. For miles and miles.”

The lyrics: “I’m just talkin’ about how I feel”

The strutting, brass-heavy rocker found Young accompanied by his new, ten-piece backing band, The Bluenotes, who created a swaggering, attitude-filled sound that was ideal for Young’s outspoken lyrics. Lines such as “I don’t sing for nobody/Makes me look like a joke” made Young’s position on advertising clear, as did an interview Young gave to BAM magazine in 1988. “I’m just talkin’ about how I feel and how The Bluenotes are,” he said. “And that is, we’re playing for the people. We’re not playing for corporate sponsorship. If we have a huge hit, the next time you see us we’re not going to be selling beer, you know? We’re just playing for the people that want to listen to us, singing about things that are real to us, not for products.”

The video: “It’s spectacular and it’s very funny”

This Note’s For You might have been righteous, but there was also a little mischief at play, with Young fully aware of his standing in the music business. When it was released as a single in August 1988, the accompanying music video – directed by Julien Temple (Absolute Beginners, The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle) – offered more evidence of Young’s impish streak.

The video’s opening aesthetic – all neon signs in dimly lit bars populated by a cast of bouffant-haired actors – parodied a series of ads for Michelob beer featuring Clapton, Winwood and Genesis. The clip then went on to spoof the incident that saw Michael Jackson’s hair catch fire on the set of a Pepsi commercial in 1984, and feature a Whitney Houston lookalike having her wig yanked off.

The controversy: “The whole thing is a disgrace”

Such a controversial video was a bold move in the late 80s, an era in which the influential cable network MTV could make or break a song by adding it to its playlist. The broadcasting giant initially refused to show This Note’s For You – a move that the channel’s general manager Lee Masters justified in an interview with The Los Angeles Times. “I must admit I feel awkward defending our decision because I happen to think it’s a fantastic video. Everyone in Programming loved it – it’s spectacular and it’s very funny,” he said. “But we had two corporate problems: first, our attorneys advised us against playing it because its use of likenesses of Michael Jackson and [Budweiser mascot] 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.”

“I think the whole thing is a disgrace,” Elliot Roberts, Young’s manager, told the same publication. “It tells me that the ‘M’ in MTV stands for ‘money’, not ‘music’. The shame of it all is that Neil had written a song talking about how advertisers are taking control of the music – and now MTV has proven that corporate control of rock has gone further than you could possibly imagine. All this clip does is poke fun, but it’s not funny anymore if MTV is so afraid of sponsors’ power that they won’t air an ingenious satire.”

The aftermath: technical glitch or foul play?

MTV was a young network at the time, and had thrived by positioning itself as an alternative to the mainstream. They soon realised that the controversy whipped up by banning This Note’s For You wasn’t a good look for them, and began to play the video. It became a huge hit for the station and, on 6 September 1989, This Note’s For You won the prestigious Video Of The Year at MTV’s sixth annual Video Music Awards.

Young would no doubt have been delighted that his fellow nominees included two of the video’s targets – Michael Jackson and Steve Winwood (Madonna and Fine Young Criminals were also nominated). And the controversy didn’t stop there. Young’s acceptance speech, relayed by satellite as touring commitments prevented him from attending, was cut short; the station said they’d suffered a technical glitch, but many suspected foul play.

This note’s still for you: “Sponsored by nobody”

The furore around This Note’s For You is one of many such episodes in Young’s career. (Others include his anti-George W Bush protest album, Living With War, or the argument with Spotify over podcast host Joe Rogan’s COVID-19 claims, which led to Young’s catalogue being removed from the streaming giant.) Yet an incident in 2022 suggested the message of This Note’s For You remained close to the singer’s heart. When Beck released a cover of Old Man, a much-loved song from Young’s Harvest album, to promote NBC’s Sunday Night Football coverage, Young responded by posting a photograph on Instagram of himself holding a beer bottle labelled “Sponsored by nobody” – a reference to the This Note’s For You video. Old habits die hard; Young’s fans wouldn’t have him any other way.

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