Nelly on Cheerios is a deconstructionist’s dream: full of sweet contradictory goodness.
Having spent so much time in clubs around the turn of the century (I’ve always wanted to write a sentence like that – so Edwardian), how could I fail to recognize the chorus of the song used in the latest Honey Nut Cheerios ad campaign, which also features the voice and visage of hip-hop star Nelly?
No avid club-goer could forget Nelly’s anthem to wantonness, “Hot in Herre”. Or the mind-numbingly repetitive vowelizations of “E.I.” Or the catchy, raunchy “Ride Wit Me”. Imagine my surprise, then, when I absentmindedly flipped through TV channels one day to see the Honey Nut Cheerios bee, Buzz, singing a version of Nelly’s “Ride Wit Me” with the chorus “must be the money” changed to “must be the honey.”
Really, Cheerios? And really, Nelly?
It’s not that I have any problem with people making money with their art – especially when selling out helps illustrate the very point they’re trying to make. (See Green Day’s American Idiot, Morgan Spurlock’s Greatest Movie Ever Sold, and almost anything ever made by Andy Warhol.) And actually, I guess I don’t have any problems with people making money at all.
But what really astonishes me about this commercial is that it was ever even made. It’s a deconstructionist’s dream: full of sweet, sweet contradictory goodness. The content of Nelly’s original song and the context of his reputation completely undercut the commercial’s intended message.
First, let me get this straight: We’re simply supposed to ignore the fact that Nelly’s original song is all about sex and drugs? Let’s take a look at the lyrics, which include lines like:
If you want go and get high wit me
Smoke a L in the back of the Benz-y
Oh why must I feel this way? (Hey, must be the money!)
In the club on the late night, feelin’ right
Looking tryin’ to spot something real nice
Looking for a little shorty hot and horny so that I can take home.
And of course this:
Hey yo, now that I’m a fly guy, and I fly high
Niggaz wanna know why, why I fly by
But yo it’s all good, Range Rover all wood
Do me like you should – fuck me good, suck me good.
OK, so maybe the lyrics of the song for the commercial are changed in almost every respect, but the melody is the same. Will this erase the original song from our minds, or will it in fact remind us of it? And if it does, does General Mills really want us to associate Honey Nut Cheerios with sex and drugs? Even if only subconsciously? Hmm.
Second, although Nelly seems like a likable and talented enough guy, you might not want his stamp of approval on your product when he has this kind of mark on his record: "Nelly detained in Texas after drugs, loaded gun found on tour bus; Rapper’s staffer arrested" (Daily News, 12 October 2012) Sure, maybe the drugs and gun weren’t really his and maybe he didn’t know about them. But how many times have you been dubious when you heard your teenager use the old excuse “It wasn’t mine; I was just holding it for someone”? Whether Nelly is guilty of carrying a loaded gun or not, a “family-friendly” corporation like General Mills might want to carefully research the reputation of the celebrities endorsing its products.
Third, and perhaps even more troubling, is the fact that the entire ad campaign makes a mockery of hip-hop: from the break dancing, to the blinged-out cereal box, to Buzz’s RUN-DMC-inspired gold necklace that spells out “Heart Healthy”. Check out this other commercial that’s also part of the ad campaign, called “Bee Got Swag”, in which Nelly transforms conspicuously blue-eyed, uncool Buzz into a hip-hop star with street cred:
Can you say cultural commodification? I’m guessing KRS-One, Nas, Professor Griff, Common, Talib Kwali, Mos Def, and even Kanye (who is complex enough to admit that he buys into materialism while also at the same time critiquing it, thereby purposely exposing his own hypocrisy) would never endorse this kind of thing.
And finally, Nelly’s comments about the reasons behind his partnership with General Mills are so inane that they’re laughable. He says, "Who doesn't eat cereal? Are you kidding me? We eat cereal in the studio -- it's not even breakfast anymore, it's just cereal now. You can eat it at any time." ("Nelly Explains His New Honey Nut Cheerios Commercial", River Front Times, 4 September 2013)
This is almost as ridiculous as the answer Tommy Wiseau gives Greg Sestero in the interview portion of the special features included on The Room DVD, when Sestero asks why characters in The Room are inexplicably shown playing football in tuxedos while standing three feet apart. (If you don’t know what I’m referring to here, do yourself a favor and get your hands on a copy. You’ll thank me later.)
Ultimately, however, maybe General Mills is smarter than I’ve made it seem. Isn't the corporation just wisely capitalizing on nostalgia? Banking, literally, on the idea that the parents of children who beg for Honey Nut Cheerios will hear this melody and fondly remember their promiscuous clubbing years – long before children, marriage, and high cholesterol?
In the end, I don’t care about Nelly. And I don’t blame any artist for wanting to make money. But I hate watching artists lose integrity over time. Who am I to define what integrity is anyway? I more or less stole the title of this piece from Chuck Klosterman.
As a matter of fact, if the Guinness Corporation offered me a year’s supply of stout, or even just a keg, to endorse their product, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Then maybe you’d hear me saying things like, “Who doesn't like Guinness? Are you kidding me? I drink Guinness when I’m writing -- it's not even just for pubs anymore; it’s just a drink now. You can have it any time."
Wait a minute. I do say that already. Never mind.
Maybe the joke’s on me because I’m walking around like a fool singing “must be the honey” and craving a cereal I’ve never even wanted before.
Hey, this gives me an idea. I’m a proud Irish-American; maybe I can commodify my own culture to sell cereal. I’m imagining a leprechaun with a gimmicky accent closely guarding his treasure trove of oats rings and colorful marshmallows.
Oh, right. Never mind that, too.