or the rest of 2005, Stylus will be presenting a series of two to three essays each month in the Pop Playground section centered around an idea or theme related to music. These questions will be open-ended, allowing each writer to make of the subject what they will and to explore it more fully than they might do in a normal review or feature. This month: Selling Out.
When I signed up for this piece, I wasn’t under the illusion that I’d produce some definitive word or flush out the musty corners of the topic in question. Yet, when I first let my hands drift over this keyboard, it struck me that there may not be much to this debate. Is there even a debate? The wheel’s come ‘round (at least for the next couple years); breaching the charts isn’t leaving Here for There, it’s taking Here to There. It would seem that the only ones leveling charges of “sellout” these days are on the Green Day message boards. And they’re wrong…
It’s half past four AM. A commercial for the Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp just passed by. For you, the tax-cut-shielded mortgage man who curses your ebbed youth, Dickie Betts, Neal Schon, Roger Daltrey, and Mickey Hart will cushion your fall with some rockin’ onstage capers, provided you’re in the Los Angeles area next February. I’m back to where I started.
I’ma try to define this one. One dictionary says “to betray one’s cause or colleagues,” and that’s good enough. If an artist is a sellout, we may infer that there is some larger cause involved, some uncommon system that stands opposed to the old seductive easy ideals, often material gain or overreaching approval. R.E.M. sold out by signing to Warner Brothers, and see! Now they’re irrelevant. Will Oldham re-cut some of his tunes with some Nashville session musicians to smooth out his raggedness, and this is the criterion upon which we should judge the record.
Over a pizza buffet last week, my brother reminded me that the term has its value. Its use reminds us that there is some sort of relationship between art and viewer (hearer, consumer, etc., you choose the word), and that any artistic move has, as a result, all kinds of effects on the artist’s reputation and audience. However much someone cares about his artistic reputation may be related to how much stock he puts in his audience. Maybe not. In any case, the term “selling out,” I would venture, says more about the prosecutor than the defendant. Southall gave the outline version in his piece: for thousands of years, the surplus capital simply didn’t exist for artists to share their art without some form of compensation. If you waxed Caedmonic, your fallen tree would not make a sound. By bisecting an artist’s career into pre- and post-sellout, instead of punk and dance-punk, or Native Tongues and party rap, and so forth, you imply that the two periods in the musician’s life are when the money mattered little, and when it mattered much. Well, what caused the switch?
To say someone has sold out is, oftentimes, to ignore that there are the fingerprints of a living, aching, surviving human being in the run-on groove. Making an honest, comfortable living as a musician is not an easy proposition, especially if you toss in family, student debt, a drinking problem. When for Stars Forever Momus offered patrons indie immortality via $1000 song-portraits, returning us briefly to the classical model, I thought it was a cool idea. Only after I had bought the record did I find that Momus’ legal bills were the impetus for the whole project. Did he betray his audience with such a naked appeal to his bank account? What if the record sucked?
Sometimes that 2-track glitch-folk artist wants to release a little bit more beauty into the world. Sometimes, though, he just really likes 2-track glitch-folk and thinks he can make a little somethin’ somethin’ off it. It’s a common mistake, one to which I fall prey; confusing the artist with the art. David Ruffin was a jerk, but the Temptations got soul. Liz Phair was the rock-chick for rock-crit, but she loves audience acclaim, and now she’s got a son to take care of. Hall and Oates never had an “in” to sell out from, but one of Daryl Hall’s career highlights is his 1980 album Sacred Songs, a collaboration with Robert Fripp. Every style of music under the sun has its hangers-on, its unimaginative latecomers, but because the majority of these acts aren’t pop/rock (especially hip-hop, where blowing up is practically synonymous with talent, and thanks to Jay, going pop is an explicit goal), they duck under the “sellout” tag, except from their respective sub-genres.
Too-fierce denunciations of selling out leaves you open to inspection. Unless you’ve decided to make a pointless exercise out of your leisure habits, there is probably not a one reading this who doesn’t own an album touched in some way by the hands of The Majors. Also, hardly anyone who loves such a record will qualify his or her love with the words “sold out”. And that’s interesting to note: you’re not a sellout until you make bad songs. By all accounts, Modest Mouse made the transition to Epic smoothly, so even though they took the fatter advance, even though Dennis Herring rather than Calvin Johnson fiddles with the levels, nothing is really betrayed. Right?
The concept of the sellout, then, is not scientific. It’s applied on a case-by-case basis, out of a sense of personal betrayal. They owe me is the unspoken sentiment. Do they? An easy litmus test for cause-betrayal would be the artist’s interviews. If Sigúr Rós once promised to stay on Fat Cat forever and ever amen, their own words judge them. If Fugazi breaks the blueprint upon which they drafted their career, then it’s sort of a shame. But I’m no worse off if it ever happens.
Again, I’d argue that carelessly tossing about the term “sellout” reveals a shortsighted view of the artist. He, she, or they are reduced to fiduciary decisions or clamors for attention. If you play that game, then further down the road, will someone sell out because they’ve graduated from standing-room for 300 to a 2,000-seat arena? How much radio play does it take before the soul is leached for good? I said it earlier… I don’t know if music lovers these days really care about selling out. Ms. Phair may be the exception, since a lot of today’s critical crop grew up wanting to cash in on her promise of guilt-free adult relations. Fat Tire uses Devendra Banhart’s music to sell beer, and it’s not even incidental. Being pop, sounding pop, remembering pop—this is vogue, and turning over the moneychangers’ tables makes you look a bit old-fashioned. It may sound callous, but if you think an artist’s pandering, switch your allegiance. You’re bound to find someone who’s tilling the ground your former love left fallow. Often the “relationship” between creator and consumer is mediated solely by purchases. You know everything about a band; they know nothing about you. Momus didn’t realize how many Japanese fans he had until the patronage came rolling in.
I agree that remaining free from the fingers of corporate money can be a virtue—though any time art is for sale, the artist’s motives may be suspect—but selling out is not a crime of correspondent value. Release on a major label is a fact. The artistic merit of said release is an opinion. Which one is easier to complain about? What’s good and what’s successful don’t always coincide, but they don’t always diverge, either. Nobody owes anything. Or, we owe artists a fair listen, and they owe us honesty. Not musical purity or clarity of vision (which are so easily faked or clouded or transformed), but honesty about one’s motives and aspirations. Saves us the distraction. There’s a time to champion those who gladly toil out of the spotlight, but if we get enough fans to sing their praises, we’re gonna look silly once the crowd catches on.
In the meantime, if you want to front Cheap Trick for a day, I’ve got a ticket for you.