In Defense of Selling Out

[Alyssa Rosenberg]

I think Scott Lemieux is absolutely correct to identify huffiness over artists who"sell out" as a factor that frequently produces bad criticism.  But perhaps that's because I don't really understand why "selling out," or finding a way to steadily monetize your artistic output, is such a terrible thing.  Of course there are multiple levels on which an artist can potentially "sell out," and multiple silly critiques of such actions.  I don't think there's, for example, anything wrong with artists vetting the business practices of companies who want to use their work in advertising if they care about said business practices.  But I do think it's silly to decry artists who participate in advertising, or who sign with major labels, or who perform on silly but popular programs to get some exposure.  If you've decided that you want to make a living through your art, and to have that living be a decent one, you've already made the decision that art is a commodity--and you've accepted that decision if you buy concert tickets, or albums, or merch.

When Chumbawamba, a band I've been revisiting a lot lately ("Scapegoat" is a great bad-mood song, as is all of Tubthumber, and Readymades is this wonderful combination of political anger and intense romanticism) signed to EMI in 1997, they took a ton of flack for leaving an independent to sign with a major label.  Their response, I think, nails why they shouldn't have been pilloried for changing their minds about the possibility of working outside an intensely business-oriented system:  "Our previous record label One Little Indian didn't have the evil symbolic significance of EMI but they were completely motivated by profit."  Nobody records, markets, and distributes anyone's music for nothing.

And the truth is, I tend to think it's okay if folks want recognition and promotion and success, even if they don't absolutely need the money.  I don't know if any of y'all have read "Reverse Transcription," a fantastic Tony Kushner short play about a group of playwrights who have snuck into a cemetery on Martha's Vineyard to bury a friend of theirs who has just died of HIV.  If not, it's in his Death and Taxes collection, and is well worth it.  But there's this fantastic monologue from Ottoline, the most critically acclaimed of the playwrights in the group, an older African-American woman.  She says:

I love this place.  It was worth two hundred and thirty-seven dollars and fifty cents to get here.  Yes Flatty you can pay my way.  Send me a check.  Biff's got a point.  It's the reviews, isn't it.  I've worked tirelessly for decades.  Three at least.  What I have done no one has ever done and no one does it nearly so well.  But what I do is break the vessels because they never fit me right and I despise their elegance and I like the sound the breaking makes, it's a new I get no big money reviews and no box office, and I'm broke, I'm fifty or sixty, or maybe I've turned eighty, I collected the box at the Cafe Cinno yes I am THAT old, and poor but no matter, I have a great talent for poverty.  Oblivion, on the other hand, scares me.  And this may shock you but I ENVY you...your RENOWN.  I DON'T WANT ANOTHER OBIE!  I want a hit!  I want to hit a home run!  I WANT A MARQUEE!  I'm too old to be ashamed of my hunger.

Truth is, I don't think anyone should have to be ashamed of wanting to be successful, recognized, and to live comfortably.  It's true of art of all kinds what Annie Savoy said of the national game in Bull Durham: "Baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but it's also a job."