Selling Out, Or, I Do Not Think That Means What You Think it Means

I’ve wanted to address this topic for a long time, but I haven’t really quite known how to formulate my arguments. But for no reason that was apparent to me I’ve finally decided to tackle it, and I think it’s important. It’s an issue that really pisses me off, to be honest, for reasons that I’ll explain further down the line.

I want to talk about the concept of “selling out.”

An actual photograph of me about to address my topic.

I think it’s important to define your terms when you’re going to talk about something. So let’s start by defining “selling out.”  A quick Google search returns the following definition, from Wikipedia:

Selling out is a common idiomatic pejorative expression for the compromising of a person’s integrity, morality, authenticity, or principles in exchange for personal gain, such as money.

That seems pretty clear cut to me. It’s pretty much in the name. To sell out is to, basically, give up something fundamentally important for the sake of money.

So why doesn’t anyone seem to have any idea what it means or how to use it properly, when it’s so obvious? It all comes down to a couple of things: people’s aversion to change, and the egocentric society we live in, in which everyone thinks the world revolves around them and everything should cater to their worldview.

I’ll start with a simple example, and one which I’m sure I’ve mentioned before — music. Among the masses who don’t understand what selling out is, Green Day is considered one of the biggest sell-outs in music history. Why? Because they had a ridiculously massive hit with 2004’s American Idiot. The album was a success not only in the punk niche but across the board. Even now, 11 years later, you can still catch “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” on the radio. Though Green Day had plenty of radio-ready hits before then, which are also still in rotation, like “Good Riddance,” “Basket Case,” and “Waiting,” American Idiot really skyrockted them into the mainstream consciousness in a way that nothing else had. It was a huge commercial and critical success, and despite the four very strong albums they’ve released since, Idiot is often considered their last “good” material, and seen as the final straw that signaled their “selling out.”

As I see it there are a couple of reasons for this. There’s the common mistake of confusing correlation with causation — people see that Idiot was a huge commercial success and think that Green Day must have made the music more “mainstream” to appeal to more people and thus make more money — whereas those of us who don’t jump to conclusions and who understand how art works realize that Green Day actually just happened to grow and change organically, which resulted in a more mainstream sound. By Idiot, the band members weren’t exactly young punks anymore; their worldviews and perceptions were maturing and expanding, and that means their art was growing and changing too. By now they’re at their most mature points yet, which is why their sound is so different than it was way back on their so-called “best” album, Dookie, They don’t sound like a bunch of punk kids in a garage anymore, not because they sold their artistry to make a quick buck, but because they grew up and decided to change their direction. American Idiot and the follow up 21st Century Breakdown are both politically charged rock operas dealing with the issues that were prevalent at the time. Like any other art, music can and often is used to express feelings and make statements. Green Day didn’t sell out; they did the opposite by pouring their beliefs and opinions into their music. That just happened to correlate to high sales. And if you look at the latest albums — the three I reviewed about a year ago now — you might notice a fair bit of introspection and looking back at the past. Songs like “Sweet 16,” “Amy,” and “X-Kid” may be more mainstream rock than punk, but they weren’t made just to make money, they were made to express real feelings — about Armstrong’s wife, about Amy Winehouse’s passing, about a close friend of Armstrong’s who committed suicide. If you think that the ways those ideas are expressed are examples of “selling out,” you might want to reevaluate your definition and also try learning to understand what art is, because you’re completely backwards on both counts.

Even if they had sold out, they’re still making more money than you’ll ever see in your life and probably don’t give a shit about your opinion

As I mentioned, incorrectly terming someone or something as a sell-out also happens because people don’t like change. Again continuing the music example, whenever a band changes their sound, they’re automatically “sell-outs” to people who want them to sound exactly the same as when they first started. And that desire is, in all honesty, pretty selfish, and it reveals a painful lack of understanding as to what art is. You don’t have to like everything or even anything an artist produces. But to dismiss their work as “selling out,” just because it sounds different or happens to gain success, is a gross disservice to the work and the creators. Basically what you’re saying is that the work is worthless because it’s a betrayal of beliefs or ideals, etc., for the sake of money. Which in most cases of so-called “sell-outs” is the complete opposite of the truth. Dismissing the work this way is also dismissing the beliefs and emotions of the artist. Who are you to say something is selling out, unless the creator actually admitted they did it solely for the money? You can’t claim to know whether something is a betrayal of ideals just by how much money it rakes in or how different it happens to be from earlier work. Again, time, age, maturity — all of them come together and cause a person to grow and change, and when that happens their art changes with them. A writer’s style changes and matures the more they work; their last work is unrecognizable in comparison to their first. That’s not selling out, that’s maturing, growing, and improving. You don’t have to like it but you should accept it as a very personal kind of growth on the part of the artist.

Look, there’s a time and a place to use the term “selling out;” I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen. But it’s a very specific occurrence, and most of the time when people use it, it hasn’t actually happened. Here’s another example I’ve heard, again with Green Day, because people just love to throw around the term whenever the band is mentioned. I’ve heard people say they sold out for making American Idiot into a Broadway show. First off, this is absurd, they didn’t write the script or anything, they wrote the music as their own work which was then used as the music for a show created YEARS after the original albums were released. Selling out would be saying “hey I don’t believe in any of the stuff I’m writing for this show, and it’s all against my artistic integrity, but the check is hella fat so I don’t care.” That didn’t happen. That is so far off from what happened that even parallel universes won’t touch it. That’s like saying Charles Dickens sold out when A Christmas Carol was made into a movie. [Whether or not Dickens was a sell-out is not a question I’m equipped to answer; all of his work was done because he needed money, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it wasn’t also work he believed in. But that topic is way besides the point.]

I know, this isn’t really a huge issue; we’re dealing with wars, inequality based on race/gender/sex/sexual orientation/religion/etc.; gun violence is at an all time high, in America at least. Donald Trump is running for president. There’s a lot going on that’s more important. But I’m not someone who should deal with those topics. They should certainly be dealt with, but I’m not equipped to do so.

At any rate, despite how irrelevant it is in the grand scheme of things, it is a topic that I think is important, and it hits close to home. I’ve been writing fiction for years, I play music, I’m in general very involved in the arts. And while I’ll never be accused of selling out because I’ll probably never make any money at all in the arts, I understand the process behind creation and what it means to sell out and to be seen as a sell out. And the ever-increasing misuse of the term is, as I said, a grave insult to artists and their work, and it cheapens the term for those times when it is an accurate description.

Here’s something I’d consider a decent example of selling out. Remember Scrubs, the quirky medical comedy that also, ironically, is lauded as the most medically accurate show ever made? I’m assuming you said yes, because most people know Scrubs. Do you remember the final season, which was only about half the length of a normal season? You remember how after the end of the prior season, which would have been a perfect ending to the series, they made that last season where the entire premise changed, almost the whole main cast changed, and it didn’t really feel like the same show at all so much as an extremely long back-door pilot for an ill-advised spin-off? That, my friends, is selling out. Everything that made the series successful was thrown out for the sake of getting an extra season — which means more money, of course. I’d argue the last year (at least) of How I Met Your Mother is another example. It was pretty obvious that the show ran out of steam by that point, and was only kept alive because people were still watching and it was still making money — which, they were kind of trapped by the very premise of the show, since no matter how bad it got viewers had to keep watching to finally see the titular meeting-of-the-mother. But come on, an entire season took place at a wedding. A whole season. That is selling out. There was no reason to do that except to drag the series on longer and rake in more cash.

Pictured: Not the same show you watched and loved for 8 seasons

So there you have it, the rant I’ve had bottled up inside for quite a long time now. I’m sure I could find more to talk about but for once I’m going to stop myself from saying more than I have to. I don’t have any misguided notions that this post will do anything to help curb the misuse of the term. But I’ve set out my thoughts and pointed out how the term is improperly used, and really there’s not a whole lot more I can do. If you want to support my argument, there’s a comments section below. If you want to call me an asshole and tell me I’m wrong and every artist I’ve ever liked is a sell out, again, there’s a comments section below. You’ll probably be wrong, because I’ve almost never seen a proper use of the term “sell-out,” but hey, take your best shot, maybe you’ll make a decent point.

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