Stylus Sells Out...
fter crossing paths with Jamie Cullum backstage at the Brit Awards, Pharrell Williams has reportedly expressed a desire to work with the lounge-midget, causing at least half-a-dozen die-hard dirty south fans to gasp in disbelief at the prospect. Surely The Neptunes are above this Radio 2 easy-listening housewife-audience shit? Such concerns certainly didn’t stop Outkast working with Norah Jones for The Love Below, but that’s because ‘selling out’ has never really been an issue in hip hop – Ghostface Killah has been on a number one hit single in the UK, Phil Collins is revered in hip hop circles (possibly as much for his ideals on taxation as his drum fills / MOR balladry / Big Band jazz appreciation), Cribs exists – so it’s hardly surprising that Pharrell should want to work with Cullum, despite the latter’s perception amongst hipsters as a cheesy Mom-fave. And to be fair, as I mentioned here last month, Cullum’s not got a bad voice at all. Were Pharrell to have expressed an interest in working with Joss Stone I’d be pissing my pants in anticipation.
‘Selling out’ is a strange idea, and a relatively recent one. Although the terminology dates back to when Robert Johnson struck his deal at the crossroads, the concept of taking the devil’s dollar and thus losing your morality/artistic integrity in exchange for a fat slice of the success pie seems, in its current incarnation, to be a post-post-punk phenomenon, perhaps perpetuated due to the social migration of rock n roll from being a predominantly working-class cultural form to being an art form practiced by all and sundry. Back in the sixties class barriers didn’t affect artists’ commercial aspirations though. Posh London boys The Rolling Stones had no qualms about stealing riffs from Delta bluesmen, and nice clean working class Liverpool kids The Beatles (‘skilled’ rather than ‘unskilled manual’) likewise had no fear of a populist musical hook or lucrative marketing tie-in (“they’re sellin’ hippie wigs in Woolworths, man…”) so why should Pearl Jam or Sonic Youth fear the adman’s cash and the hipster’s scorn?
The myth of the romantic artist once again has a lot to answer for; history has given us a perception of the ‘true’ artist creating from a deep-seated and almost spiritual desire or need to do so (note that the romantic artist is always male – this is because, as far as culture is concerned, women don’t ‘need’ to create ‘art’ because they can ‘create’ babies [this is why rockists are misogynist]); to create from a sense of financial gain is to betray the myth. Likewise to create something which becomes immensely successful is to pander to your audience and be an artisan or entertainer rather than an ‘artist’; the ‘artist’ creates for himself and/or some ‘higher power’, and thus cares little for the tastes of any potential audience. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere before, this romanticist myth can be traced back to Beethoven and further, and debunked all along the way (Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, for instance, not ‘inspired’, likewise Mozart composed to order, Dickens wrote his ‘novels’ in sections for serialisation in popular newspapers and magazines, Shakespeare wrote plays to entertain audiences rather than give English lit. undergrads historical impetus). But the art world has long since left this mythology behind – students at Goldsmiths College in London receive more lectures on how to market and promote their work (which, as often as not, is their ‘persona’ rather than any actual artefact – witness the winner of last year’s Turner Prize; a potter who’s transvestism was more important than his ceramics) than they do on how to be a draughtsman or sculptor – so why is the music world lagging behind again?
‘Art’ has been perceived as a high brow, middle class pursuit since the industrial revolution, and the fact that prominent contemporary artists (Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin) are increasingly seen as conceptualists rather than talented individuals further removes the appreciation of art from the concerns of the average person in the street. Pop and rock music on the other hand, as happy as it is to borrow misunderstood criteria of determining artistic value from the art world, is a populist, working class concern; circus games, in essence. The reason The Beatles released records was so that people would like them, buy them, and get them in the charts; there was no shame in being popular (and, considering the tactical replacement of Pete Best with Ringo Starr, and the influence of Brian Epstein over their formative career [selling their records cheap in his own shop in order to gain greater exposure for them – a trick still used today in altered form by record companies who practically giveaway CD singles to stores to encourage low prices in the first week of release, and thus high chart positions], little initial aversion to the kind of manipulation that leads modern groups to be accused of being manufactured; an approach at odds with the reverence shown to The Beatles’ artistic oeuvre by the countless books, documentaries, and other assorted facets of the canon-building industry). Even years after the Fab Four had gone their separate ways, popularity, success and money weren’t bywords for lack of worth or commercially determined coercion; as if the Filthy Lucre reformation and tour wasn’t enough evidence of their less-than-artistic-motivations, The Sex Pistols essentially began life as a walking, talking, gobbing advert for Vivian Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s Sex shop, clothes-horses for a fledgling fashion which would go on to make many, many people very, very wealthy. The situationist schtick of much punk was more a symbol of a vibrant youth culture playfully finding its identity than a disaffected generation on the verge of some socio-economic uprising; post-68 there could be no youth uprising.
Between The Beatles and The Sex Pistols lie two important commercial ‘failures’ who have found post-tense laudation and cult status; The Velvet Underground and Big Star. I don’t need to delve into the semiotics of cool to explain the posthumous appeal of The Velvets anymore than I would to explain James Dean’s lasting appeal – we all know the value of a tragic hero, even if Lou Reed still hasn’t had the decency to die. The image, the drugs, the flirtations with ‘art’ and the avant-garde are all a part of it, but the main crux, the real deal-maker in terms of cementing fanship, appears to be the perception that, rather than being a great band who never sold any records, The Velvets are a great band because they never sold any records; elitism in nutshell. There is, of course, no evidence in this idea for The Velvets’ quality, it lies entirely in the snobbery of the idea that 'most' people simply don’t ‘get’ The Velvets because they’re not cool/smart enough.
But that’s OK, because Lou and the rest seemed happy not to sell any records or be appreciated outside of hip crowds, they positively lolled in their anti-popular status. Poor Alex Chilton of Big Star found himself lauded as a genius despite a desperate desire to emulate his heroes commercially as well as artistically; an indie folk hero for his uncompromising approach to the recording of 3rd/Sister Lovers in particular, Chilton wasn’t making an artistic statement when he bounced a basketball to form a kick drum track on one song, or drenched “Kangaroo” in caustic space noise, or tore his own tunes apart from the inside – he was doing his best to spite a crumbling record company that had failed to market his music properly, thus condemning him to a life away from the chart success he coveted. He wasn’t kicking against the system or capitalism or lowest-common-denominator culture; he was kicking against undeserved failure. That he’s been painted into a corner as some kind of tragic visionary is as sad a truth as the fact that his records are still not finding the exposure he wanted for them even today.
Courtney Love quite rightly said in an interview with NME a few years ago that the fear of ‘selling out’ was a dangerous concept; more than most she has cause to despise the idea, as fear of fakery and inauthenticity essentially cost her the life of her husband. She posited the idea, as have others before and since, that the concept entered the world of rock and pop via the post-punk era when the middle classes became enamoured with the artistic posturing and possibilities of rock and pop. Marxist cultural theory would then suggest that the bourgeois classes, keen to maintain the socio-economic power balance, poisoned the water so to speak, by filtering into rock/pop’s consciousness the idea of artistic integrity being more valid than popular success. If one can make the working class kids feel guilty about success then one can keep them in their economic place of their own volition. Of course this is just conjecture; it’s probably as much to do with pop kids attempting to validate their passions to their highbrow peers, whatever background they may come from. It isn’t just about the low-level invasion of working class culture, with unhelpful memes (i.e. Selling Out, always easy to espouse when you've got a Trust fund). And of course one can’t forget that the post-punk era, as well as producing a wealth of wonderful music, also opened the minds and possibilities of pop and rock in the way that few other movements managed in a creative sense; for every ideologically unsound poseur there was someone striving to get a message and an idea across to as many people as possible.
But still the indie-world has been blighted with countless examples of artists running away from success and the perceived guilt that must go along with it. After shifting God-only-knows-how-many records, Pearl Jam made a big song and dance about being in it for the spirit of rock by removing the barcodes from their albums (No Code being a rather clumsy ideological statement of this fact, if not actually a bad record in itself). When Blur released their eponymous album in 1997, Noel Gallagher accused them of running away to make “weird art” because they’d lost the commercial battle of the Britpop wars, retreating into artistic statements and pretending it was because they never wanted to be popular in the first place, rather than because Morning Glory had trounced The Great Escape in the minds and homes of the British public. Such posturing seems almost spiteful when bands like Disco Inferno are forced to split up because not enough people are paying attention. Running in the other direction almost, The Manic Street Preachers announced in early interviews that their plan was to make one double-album which would sell a million copies, and then split-up; after Generation Terrorists and Gold Against The Soul both failed in this aim, they made their artistic statement with The Holy Bible and then found the success they’d always claimed to desire with the more anthemic and palatable Everything Must Go. In another interview with NME Courtney Love blasted Radiohead’s retreat from success –
“Okay I'm going to say it and all of Britain will hate my guts, but Radiohead! Fuck 'em for not bailing us out of this bullshit. OK, Thom, yes, yes, we admit it. We wrote off “Creep” as a pretty good song in the wake of Nirvana, yes we did it, we did it, we all did it. We didn't rate you for the genius you are. We are at fault! We didn't recognise your genius until it was too late but do you have to make us feel your pain? Can I show you the shit people say about me every day? Why? Why promise me salvation with The Bends? Why promise me salvation with OK Computer and then leave me? Leave me and my entire generation and, even worse, the generation underneath me with a fucking single-note Moog? Kid A was number one in this country 'cos a bunch of little kids heard their older brothers and sisters saying “Bizkit?'s wack, Radiohead rules” and so they ran out and bought Kid A and now they will never trust us again. How could you take one of the greatest guitarists in the history of rock'n'roll and not let him play? Fine, you satisfied yourself and you left us with Fred. Thanks. Thanks, buddy. I know those nice musty rooms in Oxford have really cool 16th-century books that American trash like me couldn't dream of understanding but could you write a fucking rock song that slays me?”
As much as rock music may not be my thing, I have to agree, which is part of the reason I find so much of the hate and scorn directed at The Darkness baffling and faintly disturbing, even if I’m not blown-away by the actual record.
I could delve into film studies and auteur theory for analogues regarding authenticity, artistic visions and the likes, had I more time and space, and maybe in the future I will. But right now I’ll say that the precious factions of pop and rock could do with learning a few more lessons from hip hop, where the popular isn’t treated with disdain and where the most successful music commercially isn’t the least ambitious creatively. Mind you, hip hop seems to suffer from romanticising its dead in exactly the same way as every other culture and music. That the figures they posthumously canonise don’t carry the same ideological baggage as tragic, mixed-up figures like Kurt Cobain, Bill Hicks and countless other rock/pop folklore characters is neither a blessing nor a curse; hip hop has a whole different school of issues with its ghosts.
But still; making records that people love does not equate with exploiting them – and people love pop music.