The Home Row Keyed – March 22, 2012Posted by Chul Gugich
“The Death (and Mourning) of The Sell Out”
The premise of this week’s column is not my original thought.
Last week I saw Hua Hsu (Professor of English at Vassar College and contributor to Grantland and The Atlantic) give a short lecture about the intersection of pop celebrity and multiculturalism in the 1990s. In the evolved internet age, as he argues, the act of “selling out” is a virtual impossibility given a “pop marketplace” that possesses an at best dubious idea of what constitutes artistic integrity. For further context, here’s the article by Hsu that spurred the additional live discourse.
Kurt Cobain and his post-punk, grunge ilk were beset by an era that patently rejected the act of selling out — or at least the perception of selling out. They considered it a proverbial slap to their own faces and, secondarily, their fans’ faces. Musicians today have the luxury of not having to worry about such things. The ethical dilemma of compromising one’s art for the sake of greater exposure (and the tangible goods that follow) simply doesn’t exist in a world where the consumption of “mainstream” and “underground” art — both already fairly nebulous creatures — exists in the same jungle. I’m speaking of course about the internet.
As a mass consumer of hip-hop and R&B music in the 90s my perceived “sell out quotient” of a given artist was generally a function of how far I had to travel physically in order to obtain a piece of his or her music. In other words, if I merely had to walk down the street to the nearest Sam Goody to buy the latest CD by Rapper X, that would mean said rapper had a fairly high quotient. If Rapper X’s CDs were heavily stocked and featured in the “Top Sellers” rack, the quotient was even higher. Today there is no amount of physical distance anyone has to travel to obtain music. All of it is there online regardless of how much creative capital an artist has banked within the public conscious. It’s hanging on the same virtual shelf, in the same store, name and off brands all waiting to be unzipped in exactly the same manner.
The marriage of public discourse over the artistic merit of musicians is also now consummated online between music outlets of all consumer cultures. Some of them extrapolate validation from balance sheets (like MTV), and others are “tastemaker” sites that at least still try to apply the critical sniff test to music circulating through otherwise corporatized doors (like Pitchfork). Observing the cross-pollination between online entities is immensely entertaining, but the sad fact is that a huge part of the romance of discovery has disappeared.
I was reminded of this a few months ago when I first “discovered” Azealia Banks on a small independent Seattle blog, and not 30 seconds later “found” her again on a national mainstream one. I hardly knew her as an unknown before I knew her as the blue check-marked Twitter entity readers of Rolling Stone know her as now. Obviously some of my lament lies in the fact that I suddenly had no claim to her as my own personal espial (a notion that is a mirage, anyway) and that’s something I’m just going to have to learn to live with. But the more resounding dilemma (or rather lack of dilemma) lies with the artist herself: Where is the artistic incentive in holding out against a corporate sponsorship of say, a brand name soft drink, if my embedded YouTube videos already reside on blogs next to advertisements for Sprite?
The “viral ground zero” (also not my term, but it’s pretty great, isn’t it?) of 2012 is not the same of 1992. Or even 2002. Not when Karmin can earn a slot as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live off the (ahem) strength of a Chris Brown cover video uploaded to YouTube. When Drake proclaims himself an “underground king” on Take Care, it frankly sounds ridiculous to 15 year-old me who literally did have to go digging for a cassette copy of Too Hard To Swallow, the 1992 southern hip-hop classic by the real Underground Kings.
My lamentations over the death of selling out, and the missed nostalgia over the inevitable debates it exhorted from spurned fans, were turned into perfect allegory the other day at the grocery store. My girlfriend and I were mulling over the options at the bulk olive bar and I provided my case for the black pitted ones. She objected, saying, “Sometimes I hate it when things are made so easy for us. Is it so wrong to have to work for the olive? I’m buying the ones with pits.”
For all the glorious convenience afforded to music lovers in the first decade plus of the 21st century, the sacrifice has been in the physical labor required to obtain what we might ultimately come to value as formative. There was discovery in the work of digging, and there was forced effort in spitting out the pits. There was also authentication and soul-searching for artists who grappled with the idea of selling out. Of course the flip-side to this is a universe of supposed musical justice in which Bon Iver wins a Grammy for Best New Artist. I still can’t shake the feeling, however, that all the heavy lifting that used to be required of me, is now being done by someone else.