Miscellaneous - The Snobbery Behind 'Selling Out'
by Mark Rowland
published: 27 / 10 / 2011
In the second instalment in his 'Rock 101' series, Mark Rowland reflects upon why so many music fans object to and take issue with bands and acts that have become popular
Hindsight is a wonderful thing – you don’t truly get a flavour of how a decade will be remembered until you put a good 15 years between yourself and it. More often than not, the music that comes to define an era tends to be stuff that’s pretty damn popular. The Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, the Who, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Radiohead, Nirvana – all have pretty big, broad fan bases. So why do a large number of music fans have a problem with popular? It’s something that’s puzzled me for many, many years. Pop music is called pop for a reason: it’s popular. And if a song is great, does it matter if it is enjoyed by 300 people or three million? I’ve had several music-loving friends of mine tell me that they don’t like the Beatles. Now, call me wrongheaded, but I find it hard to believe anyone who says they don’t like the Beatles. Musically, I just can’t see what’s not to like. I know there must be some people out there who genuinely dislike them, but I don’t think I’ve ever met one. Because of this, and my journalist’s inquisitive nature, I’ve always pushed these friends to explain why they don’t like the Beatles – not argumentatively, just out of curiosity. Every time, the argument seems to boil down to: “Well, I guess they’re just too popular for me.” One of these friends was a huge fan of bands like the Flaming Lips, who owe a huge debt to the Beatles. When I pointed this out to her, she just shrugged and said, “I suppose I’m getting enough Beatles from them then,” thus rendering me speechless. It’s not just these friends: the phrase ‘selling out’ has been bandied about throughout the history of popular music. Although the term was originally used for politicians and other public figures who go against their ethical principles, more often than not it’s used for musicians who manage to sell enough copies of their new album to live off the proceeds. At the end of the day, isn’t this what all professional musicians set out to do? Make money? It allows them to dedicate themselves to their art, after all. Green Day were accused by many in the punk scene after their album 'Dookie' became a platinum seller. Bass player Mike Dirnt shrugged off this argument in 2001: “If there's a formula to selling out, I think every band in the world would be doing it. The fact that you write good songs and you sell too many of them, if everybody in the world knew how to do that they'd do it. It's not something we chose to do." "The fact was we got to a point that we were so big that tons of people were showing up at punk-rock clubs, and some clubs were even getting shut down because too many were showing up. We had to make a decision: either break up or remove ourselves from that element. And I'll be damned if I was going to flip fucking burgers. I do what I do best. Selling out is compromising your musical intention and I don't even know how to do that." The accusations of ‘selling out’ almost always come from an artist’s fans themselves, and it almost always refers to a band’s newfound popularity. To be popular, it seems, is to be uncool. The internet is full of sniping about bands, movie stars, celebrities, about how cool they were before they got famous and sold out. My theory is that this is a somewhat knee-jerk reaction to the hurt these fans feel at seemingly losing what matters to them. Music is so much a part of social and cultural identity that being a part of a band’s fanbase can give you an enormous sense of belonging. Let’s face it, people who are obsessed with anything, be it the more socially acceptable music and films, or train spotting, 'Star Trek' and 'Dungeons & Dragons', tend to be slightly left of centre when it comes to their place in society. ‘Normal’ people are too busy having lives to covet a limited edition numbered 12” single with a gatefold sleeve. There is a sense of the outsider about the average music fanatic, which is perhaps why they feel that sense of community around a band more acutely than the casual listener. When you lose that band that you adore so much to those ‘casuals’ it can feel like a betrayal. That band that you love so much has been seeing other people behind your back – people who are nothing like you. That’s what hurts so much. You’re hurt and a little bit jealous, so you say some things that you didn’t really mean. Sound familiar? I know I’ve been guilty of it in the past, although luckily I grew out of it as I left my teenage years. The other side is the inherent snobbery that comes with being part of something that’s perceived as exclusive – painting oneself as a trendsetter rather than a trend follower. In my humble opinion, this often stems from a deep-seeded feeling of insecurity; the snobbery is almost a defense mechanism. If you’re an outsider, it’s easier to cope with if it’s because you’re special, rather than because you’re a little socially inept. This isn’t supposed to sound in any way derogatory; this is merely a coping mechanism, part of human nature, and more people use it than you might realize. But it does often cause people to become insufferably arrogant and elitist. The blog' TV Tropes and Idioms' summed this up nicely in their blog post: ‘It’s Popular, Now it Sucks!’ (link: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ItsPopularNowItSucks?from=Main.ptitle6cd1cskka05i) Although the article is more focused on TV, it’s true for any aspect of popular culture: “When the artist was a small name or a cult favorite, being one of their fans felt like being in an exclusive little club, but now membership has been opened up to the 'sheep', the original fans may feel a lot less special. Alternatively, some critics seem to enjoy the attention that comes from criticizing something popular, or feeling more intelligent and superior about being the only ones capable of possessing the high standards not to 'follow the herd'." “Some also seem to believe that artists should work and create art solely for the sake of art, without consideration of anything so uncouth as critical, popular or especially financial reward -- forgetting (or perhaps not even realizing) artists still need to put food on the table and pay rent. In these cases, it might be more accurate to say that when these fans say the creator should create art 'for the sake of art', what they actually mean is that the creator should create art 'for the sake of my ego'.” Of course, it goes without saying that sometimes a band does get rubbish when they get popular. Some let the fame go to their heads, and don’t work hard enough. Some are consumed by their egos, others by their drug habits. Others just get tired of it all. But then again, there are some that just got better after their initial flushes of fame. Some have lost their mojo and got it back again – sometimes many years later. It’s also true that the vast majority of popular music is utter tosh, but that has always been the case. It’s only with hindsight that the endless slurry of novelty songs and one hit wonders get erased from memory, the classic albums behind. And though many obscure records have found their audiences in subsequent years, the albums that top the lists year after year are invariably popular. Because let’s face it; being popular and good is no mean feat.
|501 Posted By: Andy Cassidy, Near Glasgow, UK on 17 Nov 2011|
Thanks for this article - I really enjoyed it. It's especially timely as the debate over whether or not The Smiths should have allowed John Lewis to use Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want in a UK Christmas ad.
I can understand some of the prejudice against popular bands - I was a Flaming Lips fan before The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi, and I confess that I was slightly disappointed when they became such a big name. I felt that something that I was a part of had been taken away from me.
I think, too, that you're spot on with your Beatles comments. I have a friend who claims to hate Queen. Now,I don't expect everyone to be a Queen fan, but I find it impossible to believe that anyone hearing all of Queen's work couldn't find SOMETHING they liked.
Having said all that, I'm a bit of a snob myself. I prefer vinyl, I covet those 12" gatefolds you mention. I ADORE putting on a record that no-one else knows.
Great article, Mark.
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