Selling Out is So Over (Part 1)
When musical historians look back on the 1990s and what it meant for the world of art and culture, it is entirely possible that they will define it as one or both of the following: 1) the moment when capital-p Punk tried to resuscitate itself, and/or 2) the moment when Punk gasped its last for good due to forces far outside its ability to meaningfully influence or control. But in the days when it was a grassroots idea welling up from the darkness underneath the shiny veneer of disco, one of the things punk did actually manage to teach many of us was that selling out is bad. Imagine Jello Biafra as the Dwight Eisenhower of his generation, only instead of warning the American mainstream of the impending danger of what he saw as a devil's bargain between the nation's military and corporate leaders, he was warning about the ennui of complacency and the callow influence of brand names on our pleasures, our values, and our very existence as sentient creatures.
But "selling out" is a difficult thing to objectively define. What does it mean, really? Does any band that succeeds in the marketplace have to sell out in order to do so? Is there a way to be true to oneself and one's own ideals and yet still make a living in music that involves a non-vestigial savings account and a realistic plan for the future for anyone not named Ian MacKaye? And what of us as an audience? Where is the line at which our earnest desire to see our favorite bands do well becomes a rabid screed against those who, in our estimations, do too well or do well for the wrong reasons? Are we partially to blame for our favorite artists having to do things to make ends meet that they wouldn't normally do because we don't buy all the merch we can and we occasionally take advantage of listening to music without explicitly paying for the privilege?
All of these are worthwhile questions, and they all deserve ample time and thought, but none of them is the focus here. This is to be a description of the time in American pop cultural history when selling out may have been diluted as a concept to the point of near-laughability. Whether or not this has been a good thing in a larger sense is for others to pontificate about (or me at some later date in another article, perhaps), but the paradigm shift reflects broadly both the economic stasis in the American middle class since the 1970s and our continually evolving ideas of the intersection of art and commerce.
A 2002 fluff piece in The Seattle Times by Tom Scanlon entitled "The Shins get a bite from McDonald's" tells one all they need to know about what selling out meant for people who came through the 80s and 90s. These were people who had seen at least the after-effects of proto-punk activism play out culturally, and they had lived through a time when New Order helped to spawn a quirky but often lifeless New Wave of music. They had similarly seen a grunge movement that was supposed to be the "new" punk rock get swallowed up whole by the major label system and corrupted until it was a shell of itself. They saw it get rebranded as part of "alternative music" and spit out Matchbox 20's and Our Lady Peace's like it was going out of style - a reality that would have hit extra hard in Seattle, the city where grunge first came into national prominence.
The article begins by lamenting other instances of noted semi-underground artists who gave their music over to big business, including Bay-area freakout artists Dandy Warhols and the UK indie-folk darling Badly Drawn Boy in a list of artists who had disappointed fans by…being paid for their music. The crux of the article is that the Shins were approached by McDonald's to use what would eventually become their breakout hit "New Slang" in a commercial, and (gasp!) they chose to take the offer. We are treated to an account of how label heads at SubPop, the Shins' label, were "freaked out" over the idea that one of the largest companies in the world even knew who the Shins were. SubPop, lest we forget, was the label that had made Nirvana a household name - their bona fides had been proven dozens of times over. And the entire situation is covered in a sticky authorial icing of implicit condemnation by Scanlon, especially in the description of how the offer "wasn't a hard sell" for the band.
The mindset here was that of the rock-n-roll purist, one who would never state it out loud but privately believes that artists should live a hermetically monastic life that involves only the things that they need in order to keep pumping out that sweet sweet product for the masses. The lack of regard for the humanity of the artist shown in this line of thought borders on a culturally acceptable form of narcissism in that the holders of similar beliefs feel that the good of society (i.e. the audience) is better served when the creator's art is distilled through pain/loneliness - this belief says that our needs as the appreciators are greater than the needs of the creator. "Of course we want artists to make money," these people may say through faux-indignant grins as they throw their hands up in the universal sign language for "duh!". What they won't say is that they only believe it is acceptable to make money in ways that are befitting to the artist's station and ideals. But there is a rub there, too: the ideals they find acceptable are often not the artist's own, but the ones imprinted on them by each individual listener.
Scanlon goes on in the article to discuss the band's feelings about taking the offer, as their debut Oh, Inverted World was not exactly setting the world on fire at that point. In many ways their dissection of the situation is encompassing of an attitude that has largely taken hold ever since. The write-up quotes SubPop's creative director of film and TV as saying that the band wasn't conflicted at all, and he describes them telling the label "well we don't really think this is compromising, someone wants to pay us to do what we do." Again, if we squint and hold it up to the light a bit, we can see Scanlon's incredulity almost dripping off the page at this. Buried between the lines is a seething glare that asks "how dare they?" and the piece ends with a couple of nonchalantly backhanded sentences about how the Shins' music has also been used on television shows and that another SubPop act, Looper, is featured in Xerox advertisements.
But the band's stance expressed the crystallization of an attitude that was beginning to become the new normal. This moment was arguably the beginning of the end for the idea of selling out.
(Stay tuned for Part 2’s mostly predictable conclusion!)