Notes on Selling Out Part One

I don’t believe
that people should make the good the enemy of the perfect. At the same time, that is the kind of bullshit that keeps Joe Lieberman in the Democratic caucus. So it needs to be evaluated.

That is one half of what you need to consider when one’s conversation turns - as it tends to do in certain circles – to who is a sellout. The other half is the question of identity in this puzzle from my Philosophy 101 course:

“Theseus goes on a long voyage, and in the course of it bits of his ship need replacing. In fact, by the end, he has tossed overboard used sails, spars, rigging, planks, and replaced them all. Does he come back in the same ship? We would probably say so. But suppose some entrepreneur goes round behind him, picking up the discarded bits, and reassembles them. Can’t the entrepreneur claim to have the original ship?”

                                                                                - Think by Simon Blackburn

Which is Theseus’ ship? For the DIY purists, the politically motivated among us, the entrepreneur’s version would probably be the real, “authentic” ship. The one that grows, changes, and embraces an upward mobility of sorts becomes something else altogether – even if it looks the same. For the apologists in our midst that come to the defense of bands like Matt & Kim, Screaming Females and Against Me, the ship that has updated every component, replaced every part, would still be the original ship.

Neither is certifiably correct and it is unclear that this puzzle has an answer. This is because culture – any product inside culture, including the people making it – is constantly found in a web of negotiation conducted by its audience. The meaning of who and what an individual artist is can only be made in comparison to other artists in the same web, the past that preceded them and the present choices they are making.

This is not to say that your favorite band must remake its first album on each succeeding release to remain your favorite band. However, it does say that to remain coherent your favorite band must remain true to its initial inner logic; replacing a wooden stern with another, more ornate wooden stern is different from replacing it with a diamond encrusted, cast-gold stern with pearl inlay.

There are paths to larger audiences, bigger venues, artistic experimentation and monetary compensation that do not require your band (or art project, magazine, etc) to deviate from its founding constitution. Those that take paths that seem out-of-character are rightly criticized – they have forced their audience to reevaluate their taste. More criminally, they also force their audience to try and do the impossible; disassociate the band’s present shitty choices from the past good ones that they were enamored with. Essentially, they have corrupted their audience’s memories.

Take one example: David Cross.

There are valid political criticisms we could make of David Cross’s career that I will touch on later but for now we focus on one decision: acting in Alvin and the Chipmunks. Alvin and the Chipmunks is the kind of intellectual property rehash for nostalgia dollars that Hollywood pumps out weekly. Everything about it* is calculated, family friendly, and commerce driven. On the other hand, David Cross's previous career consisted of avant/alternative comedy in Mr. Show and Arrested Development as well as consistently far-left comic routines during the Bush years.

That is who ‘David Cross’ is. When you think of David Cross as a concept you situate him inside formally innovative comedy shows and leftist tirades. His appearances on the Colbert Report make sense. His ongoing beef with Larry the Cable Guy makes sense. His appearance in a shitty, mainstream children's film put out by Twentieth Century Fox does not.

When any cultural concept, which ‘David Cross’ is, takes a step that complicates their previous choices in an unseemly, out-of-character way it causes cognitive dissonance in their fans and in the larger cultural web in general. David Cross sold out the concept of David Cross.

That is selling out #1.

Let’s go back to that thought about Joe Lieberman. Lieberman, after losing a Democratic senate primary to anti-war Democrat Ned Lamont, created his own party: Connecticut for Lieberman. He then ran in the senate race against the representative of the Democratic party. Pushing further, he then endorsed John McCain – the Republican candidate – for President. This from a man who ran in 2000 as part of the Democratic presidential slate (Interestingly, McCain also ran in 2000 – if he had secured the nomination would Lieberman have dropped off the ticket?).

The point being, after Barack Obama became president the question of what to do about Lieberman reached a din among the chattering class. Obama decided to allow Lieberman to keep his chairmanship position on the Homeland Security committee and to keep caucusing with the Democrats. Obama did so following the logic of the “big tent” – we disagree on some things, but agree on more, so it will be advantadgeous to keep you around. This is the strategy that allows for the Democrats to simultaneously have a super majority AND the inability to do anything with it.

And now, the Democrats are pushing their biggest bill in generations, health reform, and it is something that cuts to the bone of what being a Democrat is supposed to mean.**

Q: Where is Joe Lieberman?
A: Announcing he will filibuster the health care bill.

There is something to be said for purity. Something to be said for an articulated ideology that can either be accepted or denied. Not much to say for one which is so amorphous as to include those who work to dismantle it.

This is an endemic problem with DIY shows in basements and alternative spaces. These shows, which occur at places that have arisen out of a historical need and desire for non-profit, community driven music venues, often play stepping stone and image-enhancer for bands on the cusp of “breaking” into the system these venues were erected in opposition of.

It’s fairly obvious which bands are looking beyond DIY to that point where VICE/PITCHFORK/URBAN OUTFITTERS swirl together to make a homogenous, easily commodified representation of what the counterculture is. One can also tell which bands have even better sight and can see the Best New Artist awards in their future.

Why tolerate these Joe Liebermans in our midst? It is unclear to me, though I have participated in booking many of these easily and willingly marketed bands. There are certain things we agree on, certain things we do not. The gradations of grays differ to each venue, though some remain firmly black and white. I will say this – whatever DIY venues gain in new audiences, momentary excitement - they lose much more when the perception builds that DIY is a farm league, that you play there until.

Joe Lieberman sold out his community.

That is selling out #2.

* It as an idea.

**We will take care of poor people, I guess, if they are really poor. Maybe.


1 comment:

RYAN j. said...

ah yes. mmm. a fresh take and why i wanna say
fuck selling out.