Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Live! Tonight! Sell Out!

Going back to the topic I touched on two days ago, let's talk about the other side of the experimentation coin: the all-too-frequent accusation by fans that a band has sold out because they changed their sound.

An example: I was in high school when Metallica released Load. As anyone who follows the band knows, Load marked the culmination of a direction hinted by Metallica, but rendered far more shocking to the metal community by new hair cuts, riffs that were far more hard rock than thrash and Kirk Hammett's incredible collection of facial piercings. The most metal dude I knew at the time (the only metal dude I knew at the time) was a guy named Josh Woodard, a true fan of metal who had hair that hung down his back, a spiked bracelet, wicked shredding ability and an "Up the Irons!" sticker on his guitar. He introduced me to Emperor by playing the opening to Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk over the PA speakers in my school's auditorium, instantly sealing a love for all things black and Norwegian in my heart. After Load came out, such was his outrage that he never referred to Metallica as anything but "Alternica" for the rest of the time I knew him. At the time, I was a callow, inexperienced youth and didn't know enough about either metal or Metallica to recognize a departure when I saw one; later on I became a callow, experienced youth and took up the banner of "they were better before..." and "sell out!" with all of the anger of a disappointed adolescent. Hell hath no self-righteous fury like an idealistic, pig-headed, disappointed teen.

What is selling out? Thus rages the debate. I think Greil Marcus said in Lipstick Traces that selling out as a defamation really took flight with punk rock and the punk movement certainly pushed the concept much further into the consciousness of pop culture, justifying the hanging of anti-heroes with sell out rope with generations of youth rage and idealism. Of course, for all that, there's no official punk rock definition; some might say it's making money off your art, others would draw the line at some level of money making that separates punk bands from rock gods who live in excess, spoiling the purity of the music.

Purity seems to be a strong element, as if the ancient Judeo-Christian customs that glorify the clean and the virgin lurked somewhere in the back of pop culture, affecting even those who scorn them. Purity also means avoiding the dirty taint of the suits who run the music business. Ian MacKaye never sold out in popular opinion because he's embraced DIY and used it to keep the purity of his music, even though he runs a record label. Selling out, therefore, is the destruction of the purity of art through the contamination of money and polluted touch of the profit-oriented hive mind, the classic battle of David (the fans) versus Goliath (big corporate interests). With ideological grounds like these, is it any wonder people get so worked up when they smell sell out?

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