There Are No Sell Outs Anymore

For decades, labeling someone a sell out was the primary shaming tool for counter culture artists that were too capitalist, too greedy or did not meet some imagined standard of authenticity. This mattered because authenticity and rebellion against power were essential to the ethos of rock & roll, or punk, or indie. There were norms in the counter culture: don’t do commercials for multinational conglomerates, don’t aspire for pop stardom, don’t change your music to be too pretty. Artists that broke these norms were stigmatized.

There were, clearly, problems with this model. In our aim to keep people honest, we simply kept them from making a living. We rushed to judgment and automatically disqualified good art simply because it was popular. What was intended as a way to keep a counter culture pure became a bludgeon for gate keepers.

Then Napster happened. Then KaZaa, then LimeWire, then on and on until Spotify. While we were stealing music, the concept of yelling at artists for selling out started to feel absurd. Sometime during the indie wave, fans revised their standards and sympathized with artists. It was almost as if we said, “It’s hard out there. I’m probably making it worse by downloading all your music. Sorry. It’s okay if you have to do a credit card commercial.”

Which was great news for hip brands like Volkswagen and Apple who could soundtrack their colorful commercials with indie music, while tapping into their cool, authentic street cred. Even ardent anti-corporatists were suddenly were taking calls from ad agency creatives in square glasses. Who could blame them? It was only getting harder out there and no one has health insurance.

Over the last 10 years or so, the new dynamic has opened up all sorts of opportunities. Artists perform at ad agencies to curry favor with decision makers. Major blockbusters, no matter how uncool, can book the coolest artists for their soundtrack. You can even make songs explicitly for branded content!

That last paragraph may sound derisive, but I want to be clear that it’s all fair game in 2019. We’ve blown up the music industry, especially in terms of what money goes directly to artists. But it seems that in our zeal to get rid of the problematic “sell out” stigma, we never replaced it with anything better.

Sometime in the last 10 years, the new freedom to get your money has morphed into the total non-existence of negatives to cashing in. Sometimes that comes in the form of cringe-inducing dissonance between a piece of art and the corporate way it’s deployed, like using Nirvana, the most identifiable totem of modern counter culture, to boost the latest monolithic Disney superhero film. But it also encompasses things that are absolutely vapid, like concerts at banks framed as insight and authenticity, or things that are truly bad, like performing for murderous regimes under the guise of empowerment.

This has to matter, at least more than it does now. The marginalization of an anti-corporate counter culture has a ripple effect into other aspects of American life. It is true that the mainstream draws from the underground, sanitizes it and white washes it for friendlier mass consumption, and that this will always happen. But at least when it happens to something like punk music, the mainstream has to at least mimic their values and, incidentally, proliferate them. No one thinks listening to Blink 182 led people to radical politics; but maybe learning about Ian MacKaye from a Blink 182 interview did.

In this new dynamic, Pop Music is healthier than ever. The desire to grab infinite dollars is one that is compatible with pop music, and I have to say this bluntly: I don’t like the values of pop music. I don’t like what it potentially can do to culture if not enough people are skeptical of it from jump. Pop music values are things like total devotion to the totemic worship of the star, who can do nothing wrong; such that any critique of them conjurs up an army of angry stans, which they are happy to deploy. It’s the validation of any ugly thing you can do interpersonally, so long as you occasionally perform something positive every now and then.

That’s not to say that pop music or pop culture can’t be good or valuable or proliferate virtues as well as anything else. I’ve worked for corporations. I enjoy the Disney monolith’s superhero movies too. We’ve seen that artists like Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar are at least thinking about more than infinite accumulation (although there is an argument to be made that this is more about the values of hip hop, and is not necessarily pardoning of pop). But when we, as a culture, a press, and just as fans, decide that the pop music values are now the values of all music, we’re setting the conditions for a cultural dystopia.

A world is coming where people don’t even understand what selling out means. Young people unironically aspire to become brands — even faking sponsored content to seem cool. I’m not saying that these kids would’ve turned out to be Marxists if it weren’t for Ed Sheeran, but where will any of them ever run into the counter point? Will future generations even have the chance to be exposed to something that says, “fuck them, there’s another way”?

This isn’t just a matter of something uncool now becoming cool; this shifting of values is making a more comfortable world for money and power. I can think of no simpler example than the recent tumult surrounding Wavves — a band I like — posting his real estate investment & rental opportunities and not seeing what the big deal is. It should be intuitive that these rents are super high, in an area that has been rapidly gentrified and pushed out its low income residents. We don’t expect him to open up a free housing complex (although it would be rad) and we don’t expect him to single-handedly dismantle capitalism. But we do expect him to at least see and understand the power structure at play and have the judgment to not go out of his way to participate in and reap benefits from it.

Instead, because we did such a bad job with articulating the difference between selling out and making a living, no one trusts any criticism of the way people accumulate money. All cashing in — really, all self-interest — is good and any blowback is the squawking of haters. “Get your money” and “gotta pay rent” become slogans of empowerment, so much so that it can be deployed unironically to defend Hillary Clinton taking Wall Street speech money.

It’s completely possible that I’m pulling in all kinds of disparate, inevitable events and attributing it to the changing indie music landscape and the power of pop stars in this moment. After all, we live in a capitalist society and love of money and markets has always been inescapable, even within ourselves. But it seems to me that it’s getting harder and harder to find resistance to it, to find art built purely around a distaste for it. We live in darker times where the greed engines of capitalism are encroaching on people to what feels like a tipping point; it’s broken our healthcare system, ravaged our social safety, and has made us all live in the condition of oppressive scarcity. It would be really great to have healthy, artistic institutions to give us some respite.