The End of Selling Out

Popular music has always thrived on the tensions between artistry and commerce. There’s just a lot less tension these days.

Pearl Jam’s Vedder in concert, September 2009

Pearl Jam’s Vedder in concert, September 2009

In 1994 Eddie Vedder, the furrow-browed, vibrato-voiced lead singer of Pearl Jam, decided to don David’s mantle and take down Ticketmaster. Critics called it a watershed moment for Gen X; fans applauded the band’s “artistic integrity.” To protest the company’s inflated fees, Vedder & Co. filed a nervy lawsuit, testified before a congressional subcommittee, and canceled their summer tour, opting instead to haul their own fences and electricity to a string of shows at the few fairgrounds, parks, and colleges still untouched by Goliath’s greasy mitts. Sure, the whole jury-rigged, anti-Ticketmaster vision quest collapsed under the weight of its own principles halfway through. But that was OK. As Vedder sang on “Not for You,” “If you hate something, don’t you do it too.” And in those days, nothing—not even flannel—was more rock and roll than taking the high road.

Fast-forward to the fall of 2009. Vedder and the gang have decided to sell their latest album, Backspacer, exclusively at Target. To publicize the partnership, they’ve agreed to appear in a television commercial for the massive suburban discount chain, while a similar deal with Verizon has transformed snippets of new songs into promotional prerelease ringtones. Given Pearl Jam’s principled past, you’d think that fans would be sort of upset, or shocked, or something. And yet the most anyone can muster is a yawn. “I don’t mind getting paid and making economic decisions that benefit me,” wrote one commenter, a self-described “diehard” who probably would’ve burned Vedder in effigy had he shilled for a phone company 15 years ago. “And I don’t begrudge them that opportunity either.”

If you’ve been paying any attention at all to the evolving relationship between artists and their audiences over the past decade, the End of Selling Out—or, more precisely, the End of Obsessing Over Who Has Sold Out and Who Hasn’t—won’t come as a surprise. Still, seen in retrospect, it’s a sizable and relatively sudden shift. As recently as 1998 or so, rock fans—whether of the indie-, punk-, hard-, or classic-rock varieties—seemed to adhere to a simple code of ethics: “F--k the man.” That’s not to say that deals with the devil didn’t exist before Y2K; the Rolling Stones, for example, have been cycling through corporate sponsors since the Age of Aquarius. It’s just that hard-core fans used to react as if signing to a major label or licensing a song for commercial use was blasphemous. But now more bands than ever are climbing into bed with corporations, and no one’s batting an eye. The question as 2010 approaches is not only why artists have recently been so willing to align themselves with big business, but why we’ve been so willing to let them—and what this willingness says about the deeper ways our culture has changed since the turn of the century.

Popular music has always thrived on the tension between artistry and commerce. Purists criticized Louis Armstrong and Nat (King) Cole for abandoning nuanced jazz instrumentals in favor of smooth vocal ballads; a few years later Sam Cooke caught the same sort of flak when he ditched gospel and dulled his R&B edge on a series of slick pop singles. As these examples suggest, “selling out” probably had its roots in the racial crosscurrents of postwar pop. But the underlying idea—that artists who represent a marginalized audience are somehow betraying that audience by taking commerce into consideration—quickly transcended race. When Bob Dylan “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, thousands of goateed folkies booed and plugged their ears; one (Pete Seeger) reportedly took an ax to the power lines. Soon every cultural coterie enamored of its own outsiderness—punks, metalheads, etc.—was celebrating whichever acts dutifully reflected the values of the group and excommunicating anyone who flirted with commercialism. The trend reached its apotheosis with Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, who twisted himself into angsty knots over his mainstream success even though he and his constituents—white, middle-class males—were thoroughly mainstream themselves. Cobain’s genius was making ordinary adolescent alienation look and sound exalted, like the stuff of art. When grunge ruled the charts, any moderately disaffected teenager could suddenly fancy himself a member of the coolest clique in town—and dismiss as a “sellout” any heathen who seemed too interested in selling CDs. Just ask Green Day. Or Metallica. Or R.E.M.

The sanctimony steadily dissipated after 2000, as songs by indie acts like Badly Drawn Boy, Stephen Malkmus, Modest Mouse, and Blonde Redhead—artists with roots in the same 1980s alternative-rock scene that spawned Nirvana—began to materialize in television ads. The turning point probably came when the Shins, a little-known combo from New Mexico, licensed a plaintive ballad called “New Slang” for use in a McDonald’s commercial in 2002. The uneasy pairing of mammoth global conglomerate and sensitive independent-rock act initially created some cognitive dissonance among critics, prompting the Shins’ local alternative weekly, the Albuquerque Alibi, to publish a pro-con debate on the band’s decision. “Nice going, McShins,” wrote Tim McGivern. “Now, a song that I used to love ... will forever conjure the scent of ... greasy french fries.” But as the group began to take off, earning a starring role in the popular movie Garden State, a commission from the Gap to score an ad directed by Roman Coppola, and slots near the top of almost every year-end best-of list, fans increasingly aligned with McGivern’s more forgiving counterpart, Michael Henningsen, who wrote that “bands like the Shins, who toil away thanklessly for years and manage to taste a little success at some point deserve—no, owe it to themselves—to make the most of that success.” From then on, the corporate door was wide open, and nowadays acts like Grizzly Bear and Ryan Adams churn out original tracks for teeny-bopper Twilight movies and appear in John Varvatos ads with little blowback from the (previously purist) peanut gallery. Every Brooklyn, N.Y., band would kill for its own Apple commercial.

The current indifference to “selling out” seems to be the result of three interrelated trends. First, millennials have replaced Generation Xers as the primary consumers of popular music. The latter was known for its strong anti-authoritarian streak and innate suspicion of all things corporate or inauthentic; the former tends to be noncombative, consensus-seeking, and unusually trustful of authority. Pragmatic, careerist Organization Kids see nothing particularly sinful about working within the system to achieve success, which is essentially what Nirvana’s descendents are trying to do.

Second, hip-hop has been the dominant form of pop music since at least 2000, and its prevailing, up-from-the-streets ethos—that material wealth is something to be proud of and flaunt—has probably increased the general listener’s tolerance for consumerist behavior and content. At a time when rappers like Young Jeezy and T-Pain are constantly celebrating their bling, songwriter James Mercer of the Shins would probably sound a little ridiculous whining about his deal with McDonald’s, à la Cobain.

Finally and most importantly, the Internet, with its speed, ubiquity, and infinite array of choices, has effectively shattered what used to be known as the mainstream. For new artists, the chances of going multiplatinum and quitting the day job are much smaller than they were in 1994; for companies in search of customers, microtargeted advertising has replaced mass marketing as the weapon of choice. It’s a match made in heaven (or at least on the long tail): big businesses target niche audiences with niche music, and niche artists take whatever they can get to survive. And because the vast majority of younger listeners have themselves contributed to the collapse of the traditional music industry by downloading free music online, they’re less inclined than their ’90s-era predecessors to condemn a new band for selling its songs or signing with a corporate sponsor. When you’ve stolen from someone, it’s sort of inconsiderate to scold him for seeking money elsewhere.

Nostalgists inevitably cite the End of Selling Out as further evidence of our era’s superficiality; commerce, they say, can only cramp artistic expression. But that’s too facile. Our obsession with selling out is a cyclical thing, after all, and in 1990s the pendulum swung too far in the direction of reflexive self-righteousness, with rock fans automatically rejecting anything “tainted” by commercialism. Nowadays, our attitude is healthier: for better or worse, it’s the quality of the music that matters, not the label it’s on or the ad it has or hasn’t appeared in. And while fans should still be wary of weak-kneed artists who compromise their sound in search of chart success, overall, more quality music is being made now than at any time since the 1960s. Perhaps the resentment will return as Internet-savvy bands figure out how to thrive outside the industry supply chain and the current need to “sell out” subsides. But popular music will always be at its best when it’s forced to respond to the marketplace and find artful, innovative ways of not only expressing its creator’s vision, but connecting with an actual audience. That’s why it’s popular music.

Oh, and by the way: Pearl Jam’s latest single, “The Fixer,” is the best song the band has released since 1994. Target, here we come.

Romano is a senior writer for NEWSWEEK.