Who gets to sell out?

Condemning selling out comes from a place of privilege.

August 21, 2017

Back in 2002, the boys I went to school with accused Green Day and Blink-182 of committing an unforgivable crime: selling out. Which, at the time—and in 11th grade context—meant mainstream success. In June of 2001, Blink had just released Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, which shortly went to number one on the Billboard charts and proved that the success of 1999’s Enema of the State wasn’t a one-off phenomenon. (By February 2001, the record had gone quintuple platinum.) Long before that, Green Day’s Dookie introduced the band to audiences outside their cult following, and arguably helped create the climate that helped usher in Blink’s own brand of pop-punk commentary.

And you’d think fans would’ve been pleased; that while arena tours and international fame made their favourite bands a little less accessible, the fame was deserved and the success was valid. But not so much: to sell out—or, to grow out of one’s scene and into a bigger one—was egregious. Especially because the definition of “selling out” seemed relatively subjective: how could bands like Blink-182 and Green Day be guilty when they didn’t change their sounds? And who’s to say Fall Out Boy didn’t want to start writing bob bangers as the 2000s progressed? Also, at what point did we begin to accept that endorsements and commercialization was the only way to ensure income in an industry in flux? And when do we realize that to condemn selling out comes from a place of privilege?

Because, to put it plainly, selling out ensures a living.

And when do we realize that to condemn selling out comes from a place of privilege?

Vince Staples recently came under fire from fans (“fans”) for his endorsement of Sprite, despite his claims that the deal hasn’t resulted in him earning millions of dollars. But even if it had, who cares? Lending one’s likeness or music to a brand in exchange f or money is a tale as old as time, and has morphed into its own sect of business via the rise of influencers. To pair one’s self, one’s image, or one’s songs with a company doesn’t change a skill set or their music, it simply ups their profile. Which is where the source of the saltiness truly arises: fans who cry “sell out” tend to not want to share.

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Especially since there’s no overt set of sell out-centric rules in place. Taylor Swift, Beyonce, and the Spice Girls all lent themselves to Pepsi and Diet Coke to no real outrage, while Lady Gaga fronted for Polaroid and Justin Bieber modelled for Calvin Klein (along with FKA Twigs and A$AP Rocky) with no pushback, either. But contrast the acceptance of these to acts like Death Cab For Cutie who allegedly helped “gentrify” indie rock after their appearance on The O.C., or to Fall Out Boy whose fans turned when they delivered the title track for the Ghostbusters reboot. Which seems almost nonsensical (because hi: why do we care about some artists hitting the bigtime, while we panic in the wake of others doing the same?), until you think about the idea of ownership. Artists who start small in communities that pride themselves on authenticity over inclusivity are subjected to a false sense of ownership. Artists bred in the top 40 pool always seemed to belong to “everyone.”

Which is why the notion of “mainstream” has become almost as loaded as the term as “sell out.” To refer to something as “mainstream” connotes a lack of indie credibility; it’s top 40 radio, arena tours, and record-breaking album sales—it’s widespread success. Despite the reality of being a pop star (the endless touring, the 24/7 availability, the gruelling recording schedules, the fact that the cycle never ends without the declaration of official hiatus), there’s the presumption that it doesn’t take as much work as starting a band. Which is incorrect: both sects of artistry take a phenomenal amount of hustle — the latter just allows for easier entry at the ground level via gigs should fans be paying attention.

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