Live Through This

Selling Out

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

Nowadays, of course, no one seems to care if they hear a song by their favorite band in a McDonald’s commercial. We’re even happy for Feist when Apple uses one of her songs in an ad. And why shouldn’t we be? We want our favorite artists to be successful, so they can sustain a life where they can make more of the art we love. This seems sane to me. But back when I was hanging out at the Fireside and being judged harshly for my Offspring shirt, sellout still had the negative connotations that my dad had explained to me when we saw that car commercial, and they were multiplied a millionfold by the intense political correctness of the ’90s.

To me, sellout meant trendy meant the music wasn’t mine anymore; now I had to share it with the kinds of people who made me feel like shit in high school. One of my favorite bands to see at the Fireside was Slapstick, who had a song called “Alternative Radio” that denounced “fuckin’ MTV” with this killer couplet: “Don’t care about punk rock shows / Great spot about the Counting Crows!” I laughed, and then found myself nodding and agreeing: MTV didn’t care about our music, our values, or our scene—they were just chasing another lucrative trend.

I abruptly and dutifully stopped watching MTV, and started ranting about the way they hyped bands that looked “edgy” and/or sang about “edgy” things like getting drunk, but that had no real substance—“Bush is just another Pearl Jam knockoff,” I would say. “What are they bringing to the world?” I sold off a big chunk of my CD collection, parting ways with many of the punk and alternative bands that had shaped my early musical taste, because they’d signed with major labels. I wrote off my early love for anything “corporate”—MTV, Spin, any band that had gotten massively famous—as a childish affection. I hadn’t known any better, I’d tell people who got a whiff of my these early influences. I did now.

But there was a part of me that questioned what I was doing. If I cherished “authenticity” so much, wasn’t I selling myself out by so easily abandoning the bands that had once meant so much to me just to fit in with the status quo? If I really was as punk rock as I pretended to be, I wouldn’t care about getting disapproving looks at the Fireside. I knew deep down that my punk purity was actually pretty murky.

***

I started writing as a little kid, just for fun, just for me. I kept notebooks of stories about cows who went to space and Beverly Hills, 90210 and Star Trek: The Next Generation fan fiction. In junior high, I took to poetry—angsty verses that expressed the true pain of being a teenager. At the time I was struggling with self-injury and addiction. I knew a bunch of other teenagers were, too, and I thought the world should be paying attention to those issues as well as to rape, abuse, homelessness, racism, sexism, and homophobia. I started writing essays in addition to poems, and my work wasn’t just for me anymore. I wanted my thoughts on these topics to be heard—and possibly to help.

I had a hard time making that happen, though. My stuff never got accepted by my high school’s literary magazine or recognized in any of the school contests. This, I convinced myself, was because the lit mag editors were too cliquey and I was an “outsider” who wrote things that were too “edgy,” too “offensive.” So my friends and I started an alternative magazine and a feminist zine, which we passed out for free at school. We got our zine listed in Riot Grrrl and feminist distribution catalogs so that people around the country could read them. Our audience started with 15 or so of our closest friends and classmates, and by my senior year it was close to a hundred. Occasionally one of those readers would send us a letter cheering us on, and I tried to tell myself that that kind of recognition was far superior to my writing being deemed good enough for the literary magazine. The truth is that as much as I publicly railed against “the establishment,” I secretly longed for recognition from the biggest establishment I knew, my school.

My punk-rock “no sellouts” ethos was a handy shield against rejection, though, and it helped me keep writing throughout high school and college and beyond, and eventually I produced two novels, both of them for young adults. One was about a girl who forms a punk band that starts out playing at a place much like the Fireside Bowl, though she dreams of going farther. The other was about a girl in the suburbs struggling with the things my friends and I had struggled with as teenagers. These were stories about things I knew about intimately, things I had lived through and had wanted, since high school, to tell people about. Even though I dreamed of seeing my name on the spine of a book that you could buy in a store, I thought my audience would probably be limited to open mics and my LiveJournal readers. And then, miraculously, someone read my books wanted to publish them. Ironically, the interested party was MTV Books.

The name MTV still brought up all the negative connotations I’d associated with it back in my Fireside days, even though the book division published meaningful, slightly risky stories like The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I still saw them as an Evil Corporation, and the idea of signing with them made me feel a little sick. I imagined my 16-year-old self’s reaction to the offer: She probably would have argued that I was still handing over a large measure of control over my creative work to a greedy, soulless corporate entity who cared only about how much money my books made, not about the integrity of the actual stories.

But adult me had other issues to consider. I believed that my stories deserved to be heard. I wanted to speak to girls who were going through what I went through as a teenager. In order to reach as many of them as possible, I would need a publisher with deep pockets, who could get the book into lots of stores. I wanted a girl who wandered into a suburban Barnes & Noble to be able to accidentally discover my book the way I discovered punk in Spin when I was 12, and learned about Riot Grrrl from Seventeen magazine a year later. (That Seventeen article caused some controversy in the Riot Grrrl communities: some riot grrrls welcomed the exposure, while others didn’t think their movement should be watered down for mainstream consumption—in other words, they didn’t want to sell out.) And finally, I wanted to earn a living as an artist. I wanted to spend my days writing, not dressing up in business attire and working as an administrative assistant, which is what I was doing for money at the time.

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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.