Selling Out and Getting Played

My children are of an age at which they can make credible threats involving tattoos. I don’t have a strong opinion. I do have a theory — let­’s call it the inverse intensity axiom — that the more intense my attachment to anything that might serve as the basis for a tattoo, the more likely I am to later reject that attachment. At one point in my life I vehemently loved Judas Priest. Now, not so much. Thus I think the tattoo most likely to succeed, over the course of a lifetime, is something about which the bearer is thoroughly indifferent — e.g., an Eric Clapton tattoo.

My most effective tattoo strategy with my children is based on this logic. If, I say, I had gotten a tattoo at your age, I would now have a Van Halen logo on my arm. So far, this strategy has proven successful.

“Fools,” a song on Van Halen’s third album (Women and Children First), contains the lyric, “I’m sick and tired of cleaning room/And it’s the final bell for pushing broom.” The band released the album on March 26, 1980, when David Lee Roth was 25 years old. You can see his handwritten lyrics to the song here; words fail to describe how much pleasure I take in DLR’s carefully apostrophed “ta’ school.” I also note that, at 25 and with two platinum albums to his credit, DLR probably had not cleaned a room or pushed a broom in quite some time. He was writing and singing to his audience, which included me, age nine. Unlike DLR, I remained familiar with the agonies of cleaning and sweeping, and I found the song uniquely moving and meaningful.

DLR wasn’t really sick of cleaning room, but he knew that tweener boys by the thousands were and would buy albums that gave voice to their grievances. Was he selling out?

“Selling out” is a complicated topic and obsessive music fans may differ over what, exactly, it means. The Who Sell Out, in which they obviously did not, assumed that selling out was getting paid to promote products.

Neil Young won MTV’s best video award in 1989 for “This Note’s For You,” which lampooned corporate sponsorship of popular music. You may remember this; Michelob made a series of commercials with big-name musicians like Eric Clapton, and Neil Young objected. You may also remember that Michael Jackson, while filming a Pepsi ad in 1984, suffered a “pyrotechnic accident” that set his hair on fire. Neil Young parodied that event as well. Incidentally, “This Note’s for You” was also nominated for a Grammy (best concept video), but lost to Weird Al Yankovic’s “Fat,” a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” Alas poor Michael, getting mocked from all sides.

Meanwhile, the Black Crowes, suddenly and massively popular in 1991, got booted as the opener for ZZ Top on a tour sponsored by Miller Lite: “‘They weren’t allowing us to be the Black Crowes,’ Robinson said during an MTV ‘Rockline’ television broadcast after the Atlanta show. ‘They were trying to censor what I was trying to say. . . . I don’t need a big corporation telling me about the only thing in my life I have control over really, which is my music.’”

These cases involve a particularly obvious heresy from rock orthodoxy: A band has either accepted advertising money, or not. A more bedeviling case is when the alleged sell out is simply a grab for a bigger audience. To return to Van Halen, “Jump” added keyboards to the VH sound. Eddie Van Halen played them. And then vamped for the camera in the video, oblivious to the existential anguish in the hearts of those same tweener boys who had rung the bell on brooms. Worse, far worse, was to come in the form of Sammy Hagar, but it was all quite painful at the time. When The Clash kicked out Mick Jones, he formed Big Audio Dynamite; Joe Strummer loyalists were nonplussed at the dance, rap, and drum machines in B.A.D.’s output.

Selling out might also involve signing with a major record label. R.E.M signed to Warner Brothers in 1988 (Green), Death Cab for Cutie went to Atlantic in 2005 (Plans), Sonic Youth joined Geffen in 1990 (Goo), Modest Mouse signed with Epic in 2000 (The Moon & Antarctica). I’m not sure if it counts, since nobody had heard of them before, but Nirvana broke the big time with its first major label, DGC (Nevermind). In every case, the transition to the major label was accompanied by an overwrought, existing fan base convinced that the bands would sell out by doing, well, something that the corporate suits made them do.

The most vexing instances occupy the contested terrain of authenticity. In researching this note, for reasons far too convoluted to describe here, I found myself deep in the rabbit hole of Norwegian black metal. It turns out that, even there, artists and fans routinely accuse each other of selling out. Such-and-such bands, they say, are not really Satanic, they are just pretending in order to sell records. I imagine the lead singer of a Norwegian black metal band waking up one sunny spring morning and thinking, “You know, Satanism is exhausting. All these leather outfits, goats, skull masks, and guttural yells take a toll. Today I just want to drink herbal tea, wear linen trousers, and listen to some Jack Johnson tunes.” But then he thinks about his Satanic street cred and dutifully suits up to assail the morals of the bourgeoisie.

Lana Del Rey offers a less fanciful example. According to this article, she missed out on her first attempt at fame, reinvented herself, and got it right the second time by assuming the stage persona of a “gangster Nancy Sinatra.” Q.E.D., she is not authentic, or, to return to the topic, she is a sell out. This question lurks at the heart of the entire concept of selling out: Does the artist really mean what she says? Is David Lee Roth really sick and tired of cleaning room?

I think selling out is less important today. The anti-corporate, punk aesthetic of the Sex Pistols and The Clash has run its course. Genre as a meaningful distinction is essentially dead, thanks to music streaming and the millennial mash-up mentality. Perhaps most importantly, musicians and the corporate suits have buried the issue under layers of irony. If everybody is in on the joke, then the idea of selling out itself becomes part of the joke as well. Thus Johnny Rotten sells Country Life butter, Iggy Pop sells Swiftcover car insurance, The Flaming Lips went to work for Hyundai, Snoop is basically everywhere. As long as the musician has an appropriately arched eyebrow, no harm done. All this is funny, of course, but it does raise a question. Is there any form of resistance to the corporate, consumerist culture? There is a whole other note lurking here, but I resist and note only that those who pushed back against indiscriminate consumerism (hippies, punks, goths, even Satanists) seem to end up being co-opted, in the end.

Perhaps all this preoccupation with selling out seems silly or at least overblown. I don’t wholly disagree, but I want to point at something noble in all the shoegazing. At the time in our lives when we care most deeply about music, when we are most confounded with questions of authenticity — that is, as teenagers and young adults — we want more than anything else not to be played. We resent being manipulated as consumers. We want and even expect something more, something purer. The idea that someone in whom we have invested our trust and affection would intentionally deceive us is intolerable.

I find it odd that on the whole, we now seem perfectly happy to be played. Perhaps because of the suffocating irony described above, perhaps because of the culture wars, perhaps because we have decided that being entertained and winning is more important than the truth — whatever — we just take it for granted now that everybody is on the make. Look: it was demonstrably not the largest inauguration crowd in history, and nobody believed that it was. I’ll leave it to more patient people than me to debate the political issues. My only point is that I’m still enough of a teenager at heart that I resent attempts to play me, no matter the purpose.

I am told that, surprisingly enough, millennials value sincerity and authenticity more highly than do their elders. I am hoping so, and that selling out will become a meaningful criticism again, and not just in music. In its broadest sense, selling out means compromising honesty, integrity, or authenticity for money or power. We are surely swimming in a sea of that now. Resist.

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