The life of a paid-for content blogger must be quite lonely, I think. A job in which your sole purpose is to be flown around, eat in nice restaurants with strangers and grinning PRs who are contractually obliged to like you, then go home and fulfil your end of the bargain. Promote, sell, do what they want you to do, say what they want you to say. All the while you're shitting out caviar and staring through a plane window, sometimes thinking 'this is the life' but only in between thinking, 'I wish someone I knew was here to enjoy this with me.'
I thought this while sat in the Heathrow airport Pret a Manger. I wasn't getting paid to write about it but I was going to Madrid, Spain, to watch will.i.am recreate a song of his using some cars. Quite how he was going to do this wasn't made clear – was he going to slam the doors in time with the drums? Periodically honk a horn to simulate a synth? It was a bemusing prospect, something that made less and less sense every time I thought about it. But shit, Madrid, right?
Will.i.am is one of the strangest characters going. He has somehow forged a career where he is one third of pop-rap group the Black Eyed Peas, a judge on British P&O ferry singer showcase The Voice , the first guy to ever send a song to Mars and self-proclaimed philanthropic technology tsar. His outfits are made up of clothes that no one else would ever wear together at the same time. He is like a problem in a Further Maths exam, a jumble of underscores and numbers and letters, all jostling around in an effort to be the most confusing thing on the page. Here, you can see him attempting to describe an iPhone case that looks like a camera. In short, he is a peculiar man and I had no idea how he was going to emulate the Justin Bieber-featuring "#thatPOWER" with the help of some Lexuses.
I like how dusty Spain is. I like how the ground looks like the sunlight is just sapping everything from it, like a kind of evil reverse photosynthesis. Even the fucking clouds looked dusty, like big puffy, crystalline sky eggs. I was being driven to a hotel called the ME, a trendy place that puts feathers and vibrators in your room for all the freaky, liberated millennial-executive sex you'll no doubt be having in them. But there was no time for sex, not yet: I was told to go up to the roof of the hotel, where I'd be treated to lovely views of the city and a "champagne reception". I sat on a sofa in the blazing heat atop a five-star hotel, surrounded by well-dressed media types from TV stations all across Europe. I felt out of place.
After a short-lived sunbathe I was convoyed to a restaurant for dinner with some Germans who didn't speak to me.
The restaurant wasn't actually a restaurant at all. It was a deli in an upper-class market, like a Whole Foods but without the pretence of healthiness, just fatty meats and fine wines. In there, I ate some of the finest foods to have ever touched my peasant tongue: cured meats, chorizo, white truffle brie, kobe beef patties, slices of steak that were inexplicably alabaster in colour, a lovely Rioja. I felt like Rick Stein exploring the delicious underbelly of the Spanish capital, my dog in tow, doing pieces to camera about how sumptuous the iberico ham is. I drank a lot of red wine and champagne as they were topped up constantly without me even noticing.
We were treated to a snippet of film as a teaser to the big event. It was about ten seconds long and provided absolutely no answers as to what would happen later. What on earth was will.i.am and his army of luxury motor vehicles going to do? Why had I been flown out to Madrid to stand in a posh deli, eat meats and be told to get excited?
The convoy was once again setting sail, this time to the final destination: an abandoned airfield. The drive, we were told, was going to take an hour, which, when you're half cut and filled to burst, losing interest in anything that isn't more booze and fags by the millisecond, seems like an extraordinarily long time.
Sat in the back of yet another brand new Lexus, we were treated to a DVD of The Bourne Identity that the driver, Carlos, had in his glove compartment for some reason. I felt like a spoiled child, watching a film in the back seat of a car, cranky with tiredness and satiation. It was hard to stay awake driving through the dry ghost towns of rural Spain, but Matt Damon pumping shells into the skulls of some spies did an adequate job.
And then suddenly, there on the horizon, was a light; a distant, humming white glow. It was time to see what The Voice judge was going to do with these damned cars. Was there going to be a stunt? Perhaps a car driving off a ramp and into a skip full of guitars, the crunch of which was to be used as a sample in the song?
The convoy parked up and we were led into a pen with seats. Three of the cars we were here to promote sat on a strip of runway. A row of green lasers skimmed across the floor, and above was a lighting rig that stretched over 200 metres. The lasers on the ground acted as a musical stave, and the lights above, suspended by a load of cranes and powered by three 120KW generators, acted as musical notes, that the cars were to drive through, just like the game Guitar Hero. And will.i.am's place in all this? He was in the passenger seat of a car with an iPad, controlling the music.
It was absolutely fucking ridiculous:
When I say it was ridiculous, I don't mean, "Ha, insane! Lexus have done this ridiculous thing and #ItIsEverything!" I mean that it is bizarre that such a thing could ever exist. A combination of lighting, lasers, manpower, generators, vehicles, flights, fees for will.i.am, rental of the airspace, accommodation for everyone including us, the food, the refreshments, the champagne, the cured meats, it all must have cost an astronomical amount of money. And to what end?
As you can see from the above video, the end result is quite impressive. The lasers look cool, the lights look great and I can imagine a sense of pride and achievement washed over those who participated in its creation. I suppose my confusion doesn't stem really from its existence as a piece of grandiose branded content, rather why someone saw fit for me to witness it in its infancy.
These kind of things exist in their own microcosm, and, in a way, I'm kind of glad they do. For all the posturing of the marketing men and the lighting guys telling me "nothing like this has ever been done before", for all the man hours and effort it takes to pull something like this off and for all the pointless attendance of writers and journalists, having something so barmy, so ferociously preposterous in the name of a bit of branded content, seemed oddly noble. Lexus could have done this, this musical laser light-show non-extravaganza, or just pulped a swimming pool full of €100 notes and it would most likely have a similar effect, but why the fuck not have will.i.am dressed in a tight little stunt driver suit on an iPad being flung down a runway several times over the course of about six hours?
I had the chance to speak to will.i.am about it the next day. He is an extremely skittish man, unable to hold a gaze or a thought for more than a few seconds, constantly darting his eyes from the floor to yours and then back down again. He commended the work of the "wizards that made it, because to pull that off takes serious computer science skills". He spoke at length about the complexities of the operation, the effort it took, etc. I asked him, in my short ten minutes with him, what he has planned next. He told me he's working on Fergie's new album. Then we both stood in front of another large Lexus branded banner for our obligatory photo together, and that was it. My journey into the heart of branded content was over, in just 24 outlandishly opulent hours.
When you're working with that sort of money, the money itself becomes such a small object that it almost ceases to exist. Aside from the cab fare to and from the airport, and a pack of cigs, I spent no money, yet I was surrounded by it at every turn. I witnessed a marketing machine at its most Dadaist, a truly magnificent splurge of time and money that somehow made it quite endearing. Buy Lexus cars. Buy will.i.am records. It's the least you could do. They've gone to a lot of effort, here.