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Friday, February 20, 2009

ABF Friday:  Selling Out Edition!

Aha! Steven Dowling’s essay on Iggy Pop and selling out is now up at the BBC News Magazine.  Cool.  I should start selling BlogAds again!  Maybe some of you out there need car insurance.  But first, a few stories about selling out, just as I promised.

At some point in college I encountered the following exchange—whether by participating in it, listening to it, or reading it, I really don’t remember.  But it went like this.  George Benson appeared on TV singing “This Masquerade,” and someone in the room responded by saying, “feh, George Benson, sellout.  Hope he’s hired someone to count all that cash.” Whereupon someone else replied, “oh, really?  WTF do you know about George Benson?  Are you going to tell me you were avidly following his career from the moment he left Pittsburgh?  Do you have a copy of his version of Abbey Road?  Or was Breezin’ the first you ever heard of George Benson, so that now that you know his name, you can accuse him of selling out?  Because maybe, just maybe, the guy likes playing for large appreciative crowds and appearing on TV instead of being consigned to eighty-three point seven FM?  In which case, who are you to begrudge him?”

I’ve always liked that response, and wish only that I could remember whether it was actually directed at me.

A few years later, I was playing drums in Baby Opaque, a band that was a kind of distant offshoot of the DC hardcore scene (“distant” because we were two hours south of DC and didn’t play hardcore). Apparently some people still remember us, but at the time we played to such tiny crowds that eventually we put up a poster reading, “come join the three or four people who will join us. . . .” I narrated the band’s brief history at the end of this post from 2006.  In that crowd, as I’ve mentioned many a time, Hüsker Dü was routinely accused of selling out for signing with SST.  No, not for signing with Warner—for signing with SST.  SST’s revenues, I believe, were approximately one-billionth of a percent of, say, Columbia Records’, but the success of Zen Arcade in 1984 meant that suddenly, more than five thousand people were listening to Hüsker Dü, which in turn meant that there would soon be new Hüsker Dü fans some of whom were measurably Not As Cool As We Were.  The horror!

Of course, further down that indie-rock road lies Nirvana, and Kurt Cobain’s deeply conflicted relation to commercial success.  As for me, I got tired of hauling ass and flailing away on drums for audiences of three or four every few weeks, and decided to devote myself full-time to graduate school, where the money was better.  That’s a joke, son.

But it’s not just about the money.  There are two more substantial reasons why I’m not fond of the discourse of “selling out,” and they both have to do with the idea of the counterculture.

One is that the “mainstream” is not, in fact, a static thing.  There is no Man out there looking for cool and interesting subcultures to co-opt, deracinate, and drag into the corporate matrix.  (Well, OK, there is in Undercover Brother, which you can think of as a breezin’ version of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo.  But otherwise, no, there’s no Man.) Rather, the relation between “mainstream” culture and subcultures is, to coin a phrase, dialectic.  And that’s why “popular” culture is so much blacker and queerer than it was fifty years ago.

The other is elaborated nicely in Joseph Heath’s and Andrew Potter’s Nation of Rebels.  (Also known in Othercountriestan as The Rebel Sell.) In my discussion of Heath and Potter in the forthcoming and eagerly-awaited-by-three-or-four-people The Left At War, I note that Heath and Potter argue

that countercultural thinking itself starts from a fatally incoherent premise.  In postwar countercultural critiques of mass society, the enemy is inevitably conformity– embodied by the organization man, the man in the grey flannel suit, the people in the ticky-tacky houses that all look just the same, the well-respected man about town doing the best things so conservatively.  Rebellion against conformity, then, is construed as a challenge to the entire structure of corporate capitalism, which allegedly would prefer to mass-produce us all just as it mass-produces cheeseburgers, Levis, and Top 40 songs.  Strangely, however, it always turns out that rebellion against conformity, whenever it becomes attractive enough to a critical mass of people, fails to challenge the logic of the market, instead producing new niche markets for everything from organic food to extreme sports.  And it turns out this way because capitalism has no necessary investment in conformity; market diversity, from the seller’s point of view, is just as good if not better.  By the same token, a counterculture that urges its members to break away from social mores and march to a different drummer is a counterculture that winds up subscribing to one of mainstream America’s most cherished topoi: that individuals need to rebel against “society” in order to discover and express themselves.  Although Thomas Frank was right to note the rise of “hip consumerism,” therefore, it was something of a mistake to characterize it as corporate America’s “conquest of cool.” “Cool” was always already marketable, and the assumptions of the counterculture were always as American as McDonald’s apple pie.

Speaking of McDonald’s: I am totally in favor of the late Paul Newman selling out by having his salad dressing sold at your local Mickey D’s.  See, McDonald’s is eventually going to try to sell salads, right?  And those salads will have dressings as well, right?  And if it’s a question of whether that dressing will be Gloppy Goo made by Kraft or Newman’s Own where the profits go to various lefty-approved causes, give me some of that Newman’s Own.  And to Jonathan Franzen, I would say never mind about that Oprah; if I ran the world, writers who are (cough, cough) solidly in the high-art literary tradition would have their books included in Happy Meals.

That said, the Iggy ads are still icky.  Though as I note in Steven Dowling’s piece, it’s nice to know that if my car collides with Mr. Pop’s anytime soon, he is indeed covered.

Posted by Michael on 02/20 at 11:58 AM
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