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Hey, Look at me!

May 25, 2006

Here’s a column I wrote for Playback:Stl last month. It’s nothing new, but here you go anyway:

Selling out. Working for the man. Being a Corporate Shill. Every true “artist” fears being accused of doing these things. Acording to Wikipedia—as reliable a source as I’ve ever seen—“selling out” is “the compromising of one’s integrity, morality, and principles in exchange for money, success, or other personal gain. It is commonly associated with attempts to increase mass appeal or acceptability to mainstream society. A person who does this is labeled a sellout.” Up until even five years ago, any suggestion of doing so would be taken by artists of a certain color as an affront to the very nature of their art and an attack on their credibility and the authenticity of their work (Moby, I’m looking in your direction). These days, however, the line defining the realm of selling out has blurred. This can be seen in everything from commercials to The O.C. to the Garden State soundtrack. How did this happen and what does it mean? Does it matter? Should we care about this? Do people (aka noncritics/bloggers/otherwise musically obsessed–types) even care? Is just an academic exercise?

I don’t think it’s merely academic, and I think it does matter, although I don’t think the average citizen cares about what selling out means. But that goes to the very nature of selling out—only a minority cares about it because it is the access and visibility to the teeming masses that defines selling out and it is that minority the creates the art, distributes the art, and shapes the uncritical masses tastes, whether they know it or not and whether you like it or not.

Like many people who were into punk rock, independent music, or otherwise rebellious music, I used to have a strong aversion to anything resembling selling out. But now I embrace it, and I do so because I realize that quite often, it is not “selling out.” In the mid-’90s, when I was in college, I remember watching MTV (when they still showed a few videos and The Real World was still somewhat interesting) and noticing that while 97.38% of all the videos they showed were absolute feces, the songs that were featured as background music for shows such as The Real Word, Road Rules, and other non-music programming featured the music of my musically formative years in Dallas—the Deathray Davies, the Old 97’s, Tripping Daisy, the Toadies—basically, bands that would only ever get their videos played during 120 Minutes (and later, Subterranean). I remember thinking that it was ridiculous that MTV played such crap videos when someone in the organization clearly had decent taste in music.

Those people were the interns that had been tasked with finding appropriate—and appropriately cheap—music as background music for these shows. Those interns now have real jobs. Real jobs at advertising agencies and PR firms. So, initially, it was a case of tastemakers becoming decision makers. When this proved successful for companies such as the Gap (the Dandy Warhols, Elvis Costello, Badly Drawn Boy, Red House Painters), Volkswagen (Nick Drake, Son Volt, Stereolab), and Saturn (the Walkmen and Cameo—which is sweet, by the way), the suits took notice. It seems that there has been a subtle shift: Now decision makers become tastemakers, regardless of whether they actually have good taste in music—kind of like the way the music industry has always operated. So, when I first heard Modest Mouse’s “Gravity Rides Everything” in a Miller Genuine Draft commercial, it made me happy because I realized my peers were in a position to put these songs in commercials and I was happy the band was going to make a little extra money.

We became trained to think in this way for a few years, especially because the music being played in the commercials wasn’t identified, so there was still a certain amount of exclusivity and elitism involved in having known the song in the commercial for years. But when you see Bob Dylan hawking bras and panties for Victoria’s Secret, or Iggy Pop selling “Lust for Life” to Royal Carribean, you in no way think that some young college graduate has found a way to subvert the advertising world to include one of his favorite underground bands in a commercial. Dylan selling lingerie is about as blatant as a tricked-out Garth Algar sporting Reebok from head to toe. NASCAR drivers are more subtle in their sponsorships.

Additionally, with “indie” rock being used to describe a ridiculously wide swath of music, including that of bands on major labels (and becoming more of stylistic descriptor, a lá “alternative”—something that certainly bodes well for the genre), it’s hard to tell who’s selling out and who’s compromising their songwriting, style, or ideals to get included on The O.C. or in a commercial.

So where does this leave us? I have no idea. I do know, though, that I am over my immediate suspicion of bands featured in commercials and on TV. As long as they aren’t pandering (but, what is that, really? Every band panders to someone—the drummer’s mom, the singer’s voices in his head, the band’s four fans, etc.), then I am happy that they are getting some exposure and hopefully a little scratch. Or it means I’m getting old and the vast majority of the music I like is somehow appropriate for selling minivans. That’s the scariest part of it all.

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