Live Through This

Selling Out

Sixteen-year-old me would be disgusted with current me.

Illustration by Hattie

Illustration by Hattie

The summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school I found paradise, in the form of a long red-and-white building with a giant red bowling pin stuck to the front, above a marquee that announced the name of the place: Fireside Bowl. Despite all this bowling-themed signage, and the fact that there were actual bowling lanes and bowling balls inside, the venue was rarely used for bowling. It was mainly a music venue, specializing in indie punk bands.

I spent every weekend and as many weekday nights as I could get away with at the Fireside. The shows rarely cost more than five dollars, so I went even when I didn’t recognize the name on the handwritten half-sheet flier I’d plucked off the table by the door. It was worth it just to be with all the other pierced, dyed, and tattooed kids who lined Fullerton Avenue each night smoking cigarettes and drinking forties, waiting for the club to open. Once inside we’d mosh together in front of the stage or balance carefully atop one of the ball returns in a nearby bowling lane to get a better view of Sleater-Kinney, Oblivion, the Blue Meanies, Slapstick, or whoever else was onstage. Those kids became my community, a club that welcomed me as a member. The Fireside was our clubhouse, and we would defend it against the neighbors who complained about the noise, and the City of Chicago, which was constantly threatening to tear the old building down.

I discovered punk rock the summer between sixth and seventh grade, when I’d stay up late watching an MTV show called 120 Minutes that aired the latest indie and alternative music videos. That show, along with Alternative Nation, which I rushed home to watch every day after school, introduced me to bands that had been around for a while, like Sonic Youth and Social Distortion; up-and-comers such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Green Day, and Babes in Toyland; and seminal punk bands like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. I latched on to these bands because they were different from the mainstream rock and pop acts on the rest of MTV and almost all of the radio, and I related with that because I felt different from everyone else at my school (and was bullied for that reason). Part of me was proud to be an individual, but another part was depressed and angry about the baggage that came with it. The angry, bratty energy of punk helped me exorcise those darker feelings. I read about punk and alternative-rock communities in Spin (this was a couple years before I had internet access) and daydreamed about exactly what I eventually found at the Fireside: a place where kids hawked their zines and silk-screened T-shirts, where incredible bands played their first gigs, where it stank of cigarettes and beer and old bowling shoes.

By the time I found the Fireside, the bands I had loved so much as an adolescent, whose videos you had to stay up past your bedtime to catch, were in regular rotation on MTV and on mainstream rock radio stations. I went to an Offspring concert at the Aragon Ballroom, the biggest venue a band could play in Chicago aside from a sports arena, and was surprised to see that most of the audience looked like the kids who’d bullied me in school—wearing baseball caps and cargo shorts, they swilled beer while singing along to the songs that had helped me deal with the cruelty of people who, in my me-against-most-of-the-world mindset, I thought were just like them. I chose to focus instead on the band onstage, and I found I still really enjoyed their music. I even bought a T-shirt on my way out.

A few nights later I wore my new Offspring T-shirt to the Fireside Bowl—and instantly regretted it. I was getting a lot of disapproving looks from members of my adopted “family,” which stung. If my own tribe could turn on me so quickly, were they really my tribe after all? All night I kept hearing one word being muttered under people’s breaths as they took in my outfit: sellouts.

I think the first time I heard that word was when I was in junior high; it was in a commercial for some luxury car being sold to ex-hippies who’d gone on to work on Wall Street and make shit-tons of money and become yuppies, but who still wanted to feel like they had integrity. The ad reassured them of this with a line that went something like “You didn’t sell out…you just bought in.” My former-hippie dad, who was still trying to do good for the world as a nurse, made horrible gagging noises every time this commercial came on. Our subsequent conversations about it shaped my earliest understanding of what a “sellout” was. If my dad, who’d picketed for workers’ rights in his youth, had joined a big corporation so he could afford a fancy car, that would be selling out.

You don’t hear the word quite as much today as you did when I was in high school, in the late ’90s. Back then “selling out” was a concept so universally reviled that I and my cohort spent long hours dissecting it, trying to boil it down to a set definition, a certain set of rules, the better to ensure we’d never be accused of so unforgivable a sin. Basically, selling out meant abandoning your artistic integrity in exchange for money and mainstream acceptance, and in effect abandoning the fans who were inspired buoyed by your hard-won principles—there was no greater betrayal in our minds.

When Bob Dylan played the electric guitar at a folk festival in Rhode Island in 1965, the audience reportedly went mad, booing loudly and plugging their ears. By trying something new, something that might find a broader audience than the groovy acoustic strains that crowd was used to hearing from him, he earned the label “sellout.” When, more than 25 years after that incident, Nirvana signed to a major record label and their next album, Nevermind, went multiplatinum, it wasn’t just their diehard fans who saw them as sellouts—Kurt Cobain himself was so conflicted about the band’s newfound success that in the photo for their first Rolling Stone cover he insisted on wearing a T-shirt onto which he’d scrawled in marker, punk-rock DIY style, the message “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” (a play on the old SST shirt about corporate rock). The word sellout was thrown at so many bands that I had loved in my youth: Green Day, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, the Offspring—basically anyone who seemed interested in selling CDs or otherwise making money. We reserved our deepest disdain, however, for any band who would dare allow a company to use one of their songs in a commercial. This was sacrificing your art to an evil corporation, and thereby ruining said art for your fans. This was selling your very soul.

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25 Comments

  • elliecp May 16th, 2013 2:26 AM

    This is so true. People can’t do anything these days without being accused of being accused of being fake or being a sellout, and it’s like the worst crime. It seems to selfish…don’t they want the band they love to be successful?
    Awesome post <3

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

  • FlaG May 16th, 2013 4:05 AM

    Really enjoyed reading this. I’ve always felt conflicted about being a purist and disowning bands that had ‘sold out’, because why don’t they deserve recognition for their hard work and talent by being paid (more, if at all) and supported by a big label?

    I remember many years ago catching wind of Emilie Autumn, and downloading her Enchant album for free through her website. I fell in love with her style, and became a fan. She then recorded Opheliac and had to start selling CDs and books in order to make a living for herself because, as she had said in a round about way, ‘this starving artist thing is bullshit’. And why the hell not, right? And even people who complained (and seem to be still complaining) about Metallica selling out (which was about 20 years ago now), it’s completely illogical and totally selfish.

    Just grow up and learn to share your toys (for lack of a better term)!

    • FlaG May 16th, 2013 4:09 AM

      Arg, missed out a chunk of what I was trying to say:

      *…she had said in a round about way, ‘this starving artist thing is bullshit’. Some of her oldest fans, who had been supporting her from her violin-playing days, called her a sell out. Actually, they called her a sell out even earlier when she stopped wearing ‘modest’ clothing and revealed her navel. And then she upset even more people when she went down her burlesque route, remarking that she didn’t have to show her t*ts to be recognised for her talents.

      *continue with what I wrote about Metallica etc and we’re all good!

  • Charlotte CallaGirl May 16th, 2013 6:10 AM

    This was really long, but in the end, it was worth the reading. What made it amazing in my opinion was how true this all was… Thank you so much for posting this, I look forward to seeing future posts!

    http://thecallagirl.wordpress.com

  • Chloe22 May 16th, 2013 9:34 AM

    My tastes are with all sorts of music. If their popular, AWESOME. If their not, AWESOME. I like something if I like it, not if they ”sell out” and have a big manager or manage themselves. It just doesn’t matter to me. I like One Direction and Bratmobile, equally. Is that so bad?
    http://rhinestonemoon.blogspot.com/

  • Stephanie May 16th, 2013 10:57 AM

    Thank you all for reading my long post and for your insightful comments. What happened to Emilie Autumn is a great (and sad) example, FlaG and Chloe, I totally agree, I opening love both pop artists and punk bands now and I feel like my life is more joyful because it :)

  • lbnass May 16th, 2013 12:23 PM

    i felt compelled enough to register just to say how much i enjoyed reading this piece as it very much echoes my life growing up in the western chicago suburbs. viva the fireside and slapstick still rules.

  • I.ila May 16th, 2013 12:46 PM

    I hate when people say that bands are “too mainstream” for them, or when I get criticized for enjoying the music of Lana Del Rey, The Clash, and Chopin. Great Article!

  • HaverchuckForPresident May 16th, 2013 2:11 PM

    I’ve always wondered how musicians feel about the people who listen to their music. Do bands like Radiohead and artists like Macklemore begrudge the masses of people who don’t really understand their music but obsess over a couple of songs for a while, which makes them seem like ‘sell outs’?

  • psychedelia_delia May 16th, 2013 2:21 PM

    Thanks so much for writing this essay – it spoke to me and my experiences in so many ways. I think all of us deal with guilt of wanting “mainstream” experiences in life and being afraid of what others will think and say. Whether it’s buying mall clothes, listening to famous bands, hanging out in certain places in town, or even wanting success and recognition for my band beyond DIY communities. I know Rookie got some shit for being sponsored by Urban Outfitters for their summer tour last year. Everyone should have been supportive and happy for y’all!
    I also aspire to write teen novels someday, with my experiences in playing music at a young age and going to shows when no one else in my high school was. Your descriptions of the bowling alley venue were dreamy and nostalgic – I’m inspired. This essay, along with pretty much everything in Rookie, always seems to be an encouraging pat on the back for my writing, music, whatever – to keep going with stuff that I care about, even when I am sometimes afraid of failure/receiving nasty looks.

    Thanks for the female empowerment, y’all.

    Much love!
    -Delia
    https://www.facebook.com/dubbnubb

  • Jeanne May 16th, 2013 3:21 PM

    I have to admit that I like discovering stuff that isn’t mainstream, because I feel that I have a certain value in that cyber “world”, that I totaly don’t have at school. I have a blog that people seem to like, which makes me feel really happy. The problem is that for a long time I hated everything and everyone around me, because it wasn’t like on the blogs. Nobody was good or cool enough to be with me, I thought. There wasn’t a Rookie in my neigborhood! This closed me to a lot of things and I felt isolated and even depressed. But now I’m learning to know so much cool people at my school (mainstream people!) and I’m having such a good time.
    Maybe they don’t think the same way as I do, or maybe they just don’t think at all, but the more we start knowing eachother, the more we feel like we can learn ourselves tons of things!
    Being a radical (teen) is cool and can be interesting and unique, but it closes so many doors!

    • rhymeswithorange May 16th, 2013 5:50 PM

      Amen! I have been rewatching Freaks and Geeks (<3) and I feel like that is a big part of the show- it doesn't matter whether you're a perceived burnout, geek, popular cheerleader- we're all just people, man.* And there should be no barriers as to who you get to know or hang out with.
      *I sound like Mr. Rosso

      • Jeanne May 17th, 2013 1:58 AM

        Don’t worry, Mr. Rosso’s always right!

  • taste test May 16th, 2013 3:48 PM

    argh, I love this article. one of the only things I dislike 12-15 year old me for is the sellout mentality. it just pisses me off now. why should we hold it against an artist if they actually want to make a living doing what they love?

    it’s usually more than that, though. when you phrase it like that, most people can’t say anything bad about it. they’re more afraid of their favorite music getting popular. they want it to stay theirs. you talked about that, I think, and I know it was the case for me. I was really clinging to weird music then as What Made Me Special and What Really Got Me. so the thought of the songs I loved being out there for everyone to hear- everyone, from boring grownups to the girls my age who wore identical prep outfits and kicked me in the hallways- made me sick. it felt like taking something away from me.

    I honestly don’t know how I got out of that mindset, but I’m glad I did, and it’s the kind of thing you can’t go back to. one of my favorite things now is watching bands get big- tracing the time from when I first heard Pumped Up Kicks to when it started getting radio airplay to when my class’s popular girls sang it at lunch. it’s fascinating and it’s awesome to see good bands get recognized. but I’ve yet to meet anyone else who thinks that- especially with punk. there’s this idea that you can’t be punk unless you make it join the witch hunt to run out the posers and the sellouts and it’s awful, it really drives a lot of people away.

    • taste test May 16th, 2013 3:49 PM

      p.s. sorry for writing a novel

  • abby111039 May 16th, 2013 5:05 PM

    This article is perfect on so many levels. Seriously, I still get so much shit from people when they find out I’m a huge Green Day fan. I never get why there’s such an aversion to them. >.>
    I’ve never understood why some people discriminate against bands that are “too mainstream”, or bands they consider “sellouts”. Why is it a bad thing if good music is made more accessible to a larger amount of people? Isn’t it a good thing if a majority of people who only listen to what’s “mainstream” are now listening to quality music because that’s what’s being brought in to the spotlight? I especially find this with punk, as the article says, because for some reason, it’s a bad thing for good punk bands to get recognition that they deserve. I feel like this also comes from the idea that you have to look, dress, or act a certain way to be a true fan of a certain kind of music. People get pissy when they see a girl wearing a Hollister tee-shirt and listening to punk music because she doesn’t look like she would listen to that. Stuff like that is just ridiculous to me. Why can’t we all just share the music and not be so judgey about it?

    (Sorry for the little novel, I just had to rant about this. :P)

  • NotReallyChristian May 16th, 2013 5:48 PM

    This reminds me of one of my boyfriend’s friends, who is now a moderately famous singer/songwriter (I’d have said not that famous but his recent album was actually really successful, so I guess a bit famous).

    Anyway, when he and my boyfriend were close friends they used to tour their hardcore punk bands round the UK in a van, and write these songs about corruption and politics and changing the world for the better – and although my bf isn’t a musician anymore he’s always stayed true to those values while his friend is now openly right-wing, pushing a kind of aggressive libertarianism while trying to deny his super-privileged origins. And on the one hand I feel like of course someone’s allowed to change their mind … but at the same time, would he have become this person if he hadn’t been successful?

    I think sometimes when people have success they forget what it was like to struggle, and they think that everyone else could be as rich/fulfilled as they are if they just put their minds to it, so they lose their sympathy with people who haven’t had it so easy. And that really sucks.

    • saramarit May 17th, 2013 12:50 PM

      Agree with this so much.

      Luck can play a part in success as well as the confidence that comes with having a safety net if things don’t work out.

      It is truly fascinating to see someone disapear up their own butt though.

  • Kaetlebugg May 16th, 2013 7:05 PM

    this is such a great essay!!! I totally support artists getting money for their work though I COMPLETELY understand all the anti-corporate sentiment. It can be hard for me to balance those two ideas sometimes.

    embarrassingurl.blogspot.com

  • pobody May 16th, 2013 7:26 PM

    I actually discovered Against Me! in high school, just by chance watching MTV late at night. I’m glad they signed with the label that got them into my bedroom! Still one of my favourite bands to this day

  • Jen L. May 17th, 2013 2:25 PM

    This was EXACTLY how I felt when I heard “Breezeblocks” by Alt-J on the radio for the first time yesterday. Panic: the music is no longer mine! But you’re so right about letting this feeling go. Sharing is caring, no? :)

  • boyfights May 19th, 2013 3:39 AM

    This was perfect, one of my favourite things I’ve ever read on Rookie.

    http://hannahandelise.blogspot.com

  • neenbean May 27th, 2013 2:19 PM

    I really really liked this article. The obsession with selling out was never one I understood really, probably because I was never really part of any overarching clique in high school (besides the girls who were quiet and did well at school I guess, haha). I listened to what I listened to and went to indie shows but I didn’t care if they were backed by major labels. I know a lot of people who still share the sentiments you had at 16 however and they are in their mid to late 20s… I just think we should support artists who need to make a living by doing their art any means they can, and if they have to sign to bigger labels/be published by MTV like you were for example, this just gives them more time to focus on their art rather than work jobs they don’t care about.

    http://greybluedreams.blogspot.com

  • lep1593 August 3rd, 2013 3:10 AM

    Kurt Cobain’s shirt did not say, “corporate rock still sucks.” It said, “corporate magazines still suck.”

    • Anaheed August 3rd, 2013 4:29 AM

      Duh, of course! Thanks for the note.