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.