Live Through This

Selling Out

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

I ended up signing the contract and disappointing 16-year-old Stephanie, who may have even written that one-star review of my first book on Amazon calling me a “poseur” and a “sell-out.” But the truth is that MTV was a great publisher. They never tried to tone down any of the content of my books, and they never made me feel like I was compromising my values. The books were published in 2008 and 2009, and I still get emails from girls who actually did stumble upon them at Barnes & Noble, attracted by the pretty covers that MTV shelled out to have designed. One girl from Nebraska told me that she’d found my second novel, which deals with heroin addiction and self-injury, after her best friend died of an overdose, and it gave her the strength to go to rehab. A girl from Pennsylvania sought help for self-injury after reading about my character’s experience, which she said mirrored her own. These were more than the supportive fan letters that I’d gotten from my old zine—they were the fulfillment of a goal that I’d held dear for so many years, to use my writing to let girls like 16-year-old Stephanie know that they weren’t alone. Those letters canceled out the accusations—on the internet and in my own head—of selling out my punk-rock roots by joining forces with MTV.

***

Years before my books were published, while I was still in college, my friend Amber took me to an all-ages venue in Pomona, California, where I was taking some classes, to see a punk band whose singer she knew from middle school. They had the raw sound I’d loved since my Fireside Bowl days, and their lyrics were bitingly political and exciting. Kids were jumping on stage with the band and shouting into the singer’s mic just like they would sometimes do at Fireside.

The next night Amber called to invite me to a party in Beverly Hills at the home of a Warner Brothers Records exec. There would be Dom Perignon, she said, and I should come drink it. The party was already over by the time I got there, around midnight. There was no more Dom Perignon. A few stragglers were milling around holding empty beer bottles; I immediately noted that among them, standing together in their black clothes and tattoos, was the band from last night, laughing loudly over something one of them had said. It turned out the party was for them; the host was courting them for his label. No way, I thought. The band had already turned down several major-label offers at that point, so this exec was obviously wasting his time, and the band was enjoying his free booze and having the last laugh.

Imagine my shock when they signed with Warner Brothers a couple of weeks later. But curiously, I didn’t cry “sellout” or denounce them for betraying their ideals like I saw so many of their fans doing on punk message boards. I was not angry or disappointed; I wasn’t going to delete their music from my iPod the way I sold off my old CDs when their creators proved themselves to be “sellouts.” I’m not sure what brought about this change in my attitude. It may have been that I’d seen the pride on Amber’s face when she talked about how her old friend Tom, the band’s singer, had been devoted to making music his whole life, and now he was getting a chance to be heard, and wouldn’t be forced to choose between making a living and doing what he loved. I was starting to understand that when we make our art public, we don’t get to restrict who gets to experience it to a group we deem righteous enough to really “get it”—instead we get to discover that all kinds of people might have an emotional connection to something that we never could have predicted, and that that is one of the greatest rewards of doing creative work.

So I didn’t resent that band—oh, by the way, it was Against Me!—when I went to see them at a much larger venue and the crowd included people who looked like my high school bullies. Maybe they loved the line in the band’s most popular song about wanting to dance and drink all night, whereas I connected with the feeling of spinning out of control and doing “what we do to get by.” But who am I to say? Maybe they heard the same thing I did. Maybe they understood something deeper and more complicated. Or maybe not, but does that matter? At the very least, the band is giving them something to think about.

Five years later, Against Me! parted ways with Warner Brothers, and in an interview with Spin, the singer, who had transitioned from a man named Tom to a woman called Laura Jane Grace, said that they’d taken the opportunity to see what came of it and “hopefully, I’m walking away from it with an education.” I felt the same way after my experience with MTV Books. When I sent them a proposal for a third book, they declined to publish it. I’d lying to say that this wasn’t devastating, but as neither of my books had been huge sellers, it wasn’t a big surprise. And in the end, I saw my books in print, and those books seem to have made a difference in a few lives. I couldn’t possibly put a price tag on any of that, and I can’t see it as “selling out.”

The author photo that appeared on the back of both of my novels was taken in front of the Fireside Bowl. I don’t look like the punk rock girl who attended shows there—my hair is a plain brown instead of bleached blond and streaked with crazy colors because I still had the office job that I’d hoped my book contract would help me escape. That photo shoot marked the successful completion of a transition I’d been working on since I started writing poems in junior high: from fan to working artist (and still a fan). As a working artist, I worry less about “selling out” and more about weighing my opportunities.

In recent years I’ve repurchased most of the music I got rid of in my Fireside Bowl days. I also went to see Green Day in a huge sports arena for my 30th birthday. I did think about what 16 year-old Stephanie might say—that I was old and going soft—but I had fun, and I could tell the band did too. ♦

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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.