The Art of Business Bashing

Downtown Manhattan diva Princess Superstar (a.k.a. Concetta Kirschner) had her taste of being courted by the major music labels--the chauffeured Lincoln Town Cars and the lobster-and-champagne soirees. Problem was, the dealmakers who cooed to her about contracts and fame wanted her to stop rapping, or stop playing the guitar, or stop mixing her Lagerfield with Kangol. Instead, they wanted this mother of flip-flop, a school that spans hip-hop to electronica, to create a value-meal version of herself that they could feed to the masses. ''They take away the creativity that led them to you in the first place,'' scoffs the Princess. ''I was like: 'Screw everybody. I'm just going to do this myself.'''

So she went back to her life of day jobs and soggy, salad-bar lunches, maxed out her credit cards, and created her own label in 1997, satirizing music megamergers in CDs like CEO. The rock opera skewers Corporate America in songs such as Stuck in a 401 K-Hole, Supersize the Downsize, and CEO, in which she raps: ''I'm makin' suckers wish that they never went to Wharton.'' The music has made her something of a cult hero. For sticking it to the big guys, her fans only seem to love her more.

There's a long history of such corporate-machine shunners. But while it has often been the role of artists to challenge corporations, that attitude is now seeping into mainstream media, too. Witness the success of bands such as Rage Against the Machine and movies like A Civil Action, The Insider, and Erin Brockovich, based on real-life struggles against corporate giants. In the latter, a single mom battles an energy company, unmasking a concealed crime and winning millions in damages.

Sure, it's a gripping story. But many in the audience also lap this stuff up as vicarious revenge. After all, they're the ones who are watching executive pay mushroom as the New Economy passes them by. Consumers see corporations muscling in on everything from the Internet to strip malls, wielding more control than regular Joes could possibly combat. And just as some people are growing to resent the Starbucking of their neighborhoods, they are growing to resent the way their art is getting commodified, too. At least the anticorporate artists appear to share their anger.

This is propelling the success of such performers as Ani DiFranco, who began by playing seedy dives and college bars. Nine years later, she has sold more than 3 million copies of her CDs without ever signing with a big label. DiFranco still lives in her native Buffalo and hires locals to run her label, Righteous Babe Records. On her most recent album, To the Teeth, DiFranco sings in the title song, ''Open fire on Hollywood, open fire on MTV, open fire on NBC and CBS and ABC.'' Explains her manager, Scott Fisher, ''by maintaining her independence, she can say and do anything she wants. She has the artistic control.''

CARPING. True, artists have targeted greed and personal gain since Charles Dickens and Frank Capra. But corporations are especially tempting targets for this kind of venom now. After almost a decade of prosperity, there's a feeling that the real thing that's getting fatter is Corporate America's bottom line. For the rest of us? Puny raises, crappy airline service, and cheapskate HMOs, something even Al Gore is targeting.

In fact, carping against corporations is getting trendy. Corporations are fighting back the usual way--by co-opting the backlash. See those ads? That's the once-fiercely independent girl trio Sleater-Kinney doing backup for William Shatner. And those moody Calvin Klein spots are now featuring erstwhile underground artists such as Liz Phair and Moby. By choosing these onetime rebels as their frontpeople, corporations hope the message will be loud and clear: We aren't corporate. We're cool. The question is, will anybody really buy that?

By Michelle Conlin in New York

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