The term ‘selling out’ has basically become meaningless. It’s a vague idea with no set rules where the goalposts are constantly moved by others, but everyone thinks they know a sell-out when they see one. Maybe it’s the stridently indie musician who decides to take a more consciously mainstream direction for their sophomore album, or perhaps it’s the Sundance favourite who goes from directing personal dramas to helming a $200m Marvel movie. The idea encompasses a lot of naive assumptions about how the entertainment business works and how much money artists actually make, as well as that insidious assertion that people who make art for a living should embrace the starving artist fantasy as if it’s a good thing.
There’s a far greater sense of liminality between the indifferent boundaries that separate the indie from the mainstream these days. There has to be. Nobody buys albums anymore, studio monopolies mean we’ll get less movies every year, piracy runs rampant, and holding onto audiences’ attentions is tougher than ever. Carrie Brownstein argued on NPR that things like hearing songs played in advertisements is simply the new radio rather than ‘selling out’ and there’s some credence to that argument. For an indie actor who works with auteurs for scale, doing T.V. ads or that shiny new blockbuster can be seen as a dismissal of one’s own artistic integrity but why bother being so snide when we all know people have bills to pay? Michelle Williams was remarkably candid about how her recent career choices have been influenced by concerns over her and her daughter’s financial future, and who can blame her?
Williams also noted something that was on her mind when she signed onto the Sony superhero movie Venom: A boost to her own profile and her bankability in the eyes of producers and studios certainly wouldn’t hurt the next time she wants to make a movie with someone like the unshakably independent film-maker Kelly Reichardt. If she won’t make a comic book movie then Williams will. Truthfully, every actor will probably end up doing a project like this at least once in the future, and more of them will be happy to admit that they did so for more than a love of the material. Frankly, it would probably be a lot healthier for the industry at large to be more candid about the business behind the art.
I think younger generations may be less resentful of the notion of selling out than those before us. Now more than ever, we’re aware of the machinations of the entertainment industry and how tight those profit margins really are. Every celebrity has an Instagram they can use to make a few quid with sponsored content, a practice that isn’t just for reality stars anymore.
The art made from ‘selling out’ doesn’t have to be bad either. Sometimes, going in a more mainstream artistic direction offers something new and exciting. It can get previously cynical audiences hyped for something unexpected (hello there, David Fincher directing World War Z 2). Besides, the ways some artists are accused of ‘selling out’ just shows how dismissive the culture at large remains of many genres and areas of art. So, with that in mind, here are a couple of my favourite instances of art that was described as selling out. Make sure you share your own favourites in the comments.
Head First by Goldfrapp
The electronic pop sounds of Goldfrapp have never been especially anti-mainstream. The duo have won plenty of awards, had a few songs chart well, and everyone has heard Ooh La La on at least one T.V. advert. Their influences range from Kate Bush to Iggy Pop to Serge Gainsbourg to Donna Summer. So, to call anything they do ‘selling out’ is already an issue. And it wasn’t as if reviews for Head First were necessarily bad. I think it may be impossible to entirely write off anything Goldfrapp do. Yet there was still a sense that the band were giving into trends with their 1980s throwback that was part Van Halen, part Olivia Newton John. It’s a more consciously fluffy album and I think that was confused for mindless frivolity. As if fun is a bad thing. For many, Head First was a big step back for a band that’s always moving forward and a giant plea to the Top 40 radio. The band themselves would later express displeasure with the finished product but I love it and its retro joyousness. It’s an album that knows exactly what it is, and who could say no to a music video with vampire aerobics instructors?
Play That Funky Music by Wild Cherry
Let’s get one thing straight: Black Cherry’s one hit wonder is a stone cold classic. It’s an unimpeachable disco gem and I won’t hear a bad word against it. It may be one of the greatest pieces of autobiographical music ever written. That’s right. Wild Cherry were indeed a rock and roll band who, while feeling so low with their lack of success, decided to disco down. Alas, the band didn’t become the next big disco stars - in part because other white people got unreasonably angry at disco music by the end of the decade - but Play That Funky Music endures. It’s also perhaps the greatest celebration ever written on how selling out can be amazing and bring joy to the masses. How could one fight against such an enthusiastic plea?
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