Neil Young isn’t a controversial character and seems one of the unlikeliest candidates in music to get their video banned by MTV. However, that is what exactly happened back in 1988 when the network decided to blacklist the visuals for Young’s track ‘This Note’s For You’.
The song sees Young take aim at the corporate commodification of music in the late 1980s. This method was an incredibly new concept at the time and, on ‘This Note’s For You’, Young was firing back at art becoming the product of multi-national businesses. In 2020, most people accept that artists simply can’t afford to turn down offers of using their music for advertisements due to the advent of streaming and albums now longer being commercially viable — when Young released this song, the idea was “selling out”.
In the song, Young sings the line, “I got the real thing, baby,” which directly references the Coca-Cola slogan, “It’s the Real Thing,” which the company introduced in 1969. In another part of the song, Young swoons, “Ain’t singin’ for Spuds” and sees him take fire at the loveable spokesdog for Bud Light, Spuds MacKenzie.
The beer-drinking bull terrier first appeared in the alcohol giants’ campaigns in 1987, before being removed from screens in 1989. The drinks company labelled Spuds as “the original party animal,” and he was initially a huge hit with the American beer-guzzling masses. The title of Young’s track itself is a dig at Budweiser’s ‘This Bud’s For You’ campaign.
If the lyrics weren’t subtle enough, then the video directed by Julien Temple and written by Charlie Coffey emphasised Young’s political message to such a degree that MTV would refuse to play it. The visuals included a lookalike of MTV darling Michael Jackson whose hair catches fire.
The clip also parodies a series of Michelob advertisements that featured rock artists including Eric Clapton, Genesis and Steve Winwood. The video also featured comical takes on adverts that Jackson and Whitney Houston had taken part in and a Spuds McKenzie lookalike.
MTV claimed that they banned Young’s creation because of the legal threats they received from Michael Jackson’s attorneys. However, Young then sent an angry letter in retaliation to the ban in which he left nothing to the imagination: “MTV, you spineless twerps. 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.”
Sending a letter with such ferocity could have landed Young a lifetime band from the station but, in a surprise turn, the result was quite the dramatic opposite. Not only did MTV begin to play ‘This Note’s For You’ in heavy rotation, but the video for the track would also land itself a nomination for ‘Video Of The Year’ at the 1989 MTV Awards and ended up beating the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna to the award.
Young discussed his reasons for accepting the award with Village Voice Rock and Roll Quarterly: “I dunno – must be the Perry Como in me. I could do the hard-line Marlon Brando thing, not accept the award, give it to the Indians. But that’s almost the predictable thing to do. You can’t get money to make videos if MTV won’t play them. In accepting the award I thought I’d be able to make more videos and get ’em played.”
Check out the hilariously brilliant video for ‘This Note’s For You’, below.