Monday, November 19, 2007

The Indie-Rock Gordon Gekko?

A few days ago, the indie-rock leaning website Stereogum published an essay by Kevin Barnes, lead singer of the band Of Montreal entitled “Selling Out Isn’t Possible” which appears to be his answer to some fans leveling that charge against him for doing the music for an Outback Steakhouse commercial. (“Let’s go Outback tonight/Don’t think about tomorrow” – I thought it was The Boy Least Likely To as they have a similar sound, but it was Of Montreal.)

It makes for an interesting read, especially from the view point of an artist who has made that step and has no apologies. I like Of Montreal, became aware of them back in the 90s as part of the “Elephant Six” scene in Athens, GA which sprouted a slew of great Beatlesque indie bands. The band has always been a bit twee, but their past few albums have incorporated more dance-oriented/techno influences to a very positive effect – they’ve clearly grown artistically in the past few years.

The problem with his issues regarding “selling out” is that he positions them in extremes (which I gather are defined by his critics) rather than defining them for himself. Selling out is very possible, in many ways, not just in one emphatic “in” or “out” proposition. Here’s his best take on the issue regarding his band:

“I realized then that, for me, selling out is not possible. Selling out, in an artistic sense, is to change one's creative output to fit in with the commercial world. To create phony and insincere art in the hopes of becoming commercially successful. I've never done this and I can't imagine I ever will. I spent seven years not even existing at all in the mainstream world. Now I am being supported and endorsed by it. I know this won't last forever. No one's going to want to use one of my songs in a commercial five years from now, so I've got to take the money while I can.”

I’d feel a lot better if he could acknowledge that drafting a ditty for a commercial when that is not explicitly your job (they’re a rock band, not commercial jingle writers) is changing one’s creative output to fit in with the mainstream world. It’s the only exposure to his music that millions of people seeing the commercial on TV will ever have. That is phony and insincere, and he should openly admit it … unless he really did go to an Outback Steakhouse, come home and write a song from the bottom of his heart regarding this inspirational experience. (But I’d argue that writing about boy-girl relationships can be just as exploitative as writing about steakhouses.) He should also openly admit that by doing so, he gives the band exposure they could never get through an indie label marketing budget, or any number of critics singing his praises. It’s the “if only one person heard that commercial and wanted to know more about Of Montreal …” route, but I’m willing to bet thousands of people heard the song on the commercial, liked it, and followed up with a quick web search.

I can easily envision the type of bullshit artists who are denigrating him for his choice, as I know the scene well, where people who have no “cred” of any sort deign to judge who does or doesn’t exude this elusive quality. It’s the downside of any indie scene, be it movies, music, literature, etc. Reminds me of the Dylan line, “To live outside the law you must be honest.” Bullshit. That’s the kind of thing that appeals to people who live inside the law and romanticize those who don’t (ergo, Dylan’s fans as opposed to Dylan himself). I strongly suspect lying your ass off on a regular basis is a necessary prerequisite to living outside the law. But that doesn’t make for a cool-sounding line in a song!

Selling out is very easy to do in music. The clearest example of this to me came in the 70s, when all those aging 60s rock acts, in the wake of the disco era, chose or were forced to put a disco song on at least one of their albums. To this day, it still rubs many fans the wrong way, probably because they recognized the act for what it was: artists known for creating rock music shamelessly trying to cash in and “stay young” in some sense with an audience they feared they were losing in passing time. “Miss You” by The Stones is a great pop song, no matter how you cut it. I’m not so nuts about “Superman” by The Kinks or “Goodnight Tonight” by McCartney or “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” by Rod Stewart – although the Stewart song now sounds like fucking Mozart compared to the “American standards” dreck he’s been selling millions of albums with lately. There would be a very cool compilation to be made of all those rock acts called The Disco Single featuring that particular song for each band circa 1976-78. Most bands were forced to do their disco single and found nowhere near the popularity level of the above-mentioned acts. The actual songs themselves weren’t horrible; it was the concept of joining obvious opportunists such as baseball player Pete Rose, Ethel Merman and Rick “Disco Duck” Dees in the same act of cutting horrendous disco songs to cash in on a trend that laid bare their intentions.

But as Kevin Barnes would probably note, they’re just people, not gods, or archetypes of virtue and all that is right in the world (which is exactly how a lot of teenage fans viewed their favorite rock bands and singers). Live and learn. As Barnes also notes in his essay, if you can go on creating art the same way you have, with the same level of commitment, reality is you can sell out on one hand and still do your thing on the other. If fans are offended, they can stop listening (although very few do check out that way). That was certainly true of all those disco single/rock artists in the 70s. The Kinks early 80s albums, in my mind, are on the same higher level of what they were doing in the 60s. Some Girls was the last great Stones album. Rod Stewart is another story, but what screwed him up was moving to L.A. from England a few years earlier.

I agree with a vast majority of what Barnes had to write, but he goes way off the rails occasionally:

“It isn't possible to be in chorus with capitalism and anarchy. You must pick one or the other. Very few people are willing to do it, though. The worst kind of person is the one who sucks the dick of the man during the daytime and then draws pictures of themselves slitting his throat at night. Jesus Christ, make up your mind! The thing is, there is a lack of balance. When capitalism is working on a healthy level, everyone gets their dick sucked from time to time and no one gets their throat slit. It's impossible to be a sell out in a capitalist society. You're only a winner or a loser. Either you've found a way to crack the code or you are struggling to do so. To sell out in capitalism is basically to be too accommodating, to not get what you think you deserve. In capitalism, you don't get what you think you deserve though. You get what someone else thinks you deserve. So the trick is to make them think you are worth what you feel you deserve.”

This is Barnes’ “Greed Is Good” speech a la Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, although a bit more muddled. “Capitalism” and “anarchy” are not polar opposites: one’s a financial term, the other a political term. I don’t think either word has a polar opposite, which I wouldn’t make such a big deal over save that Barnes seems to see the world as being a choice between one or the other.

I’m not sure where he’s going with all the dick-sucking and throat-slitting … which seems like the exact sort of overly dramatic, childish “opposites” his critics view the world in. I’ve never done either and don’t have any immediate plans to do so. Don’t know about you, but I’m not looking to “crack any code” or find myself “struggling” to do so. (It’s clear to me what I'd need to do to make a lot of money … and I’m not willing to do it, for the most part. Has as much to do with personal morality and lifestyle comfort as it does with however you want to define ambition.)

I’ve spent two decades in corporate environments that, on occasion, would make musicians like Barnes blanch over the questionable morality of every-day work scenarios. Like some of the golden parachutes I’ve seen designed for executives in failing companies, that gave them full mortgage payoffs, retirement plans guaranteeing millionaire status for life, full reimbursement for college tuition for their children, etc. … while the rank-and-file got laid off with two-weeks pay and a $15.00 gift certificate for a frozen turkey at the local supermarket. Or two companies merging (to the enormous financial benefit of a few key players), and management consultants with zero knowledge of either workplace coming in to decide which 60% of the staff gets laid off and which remains. (Rent Office Space again if you need a clear reminder of how that clusterfuck works.)

I don’t think Barnes has any idea on what he’s talking about when he gets into the merits of capitalism. He strikes me as naïve in a fairly typical musicianly way, but I’m also factoring in the enormous amount of horseshit being heaped on him, most likely by people who don’t support themselves in any real way. These days, I’m never going to give working musicians any hassle in terms of how they choose to make a living, up to and including selling to and/or creating songs for the advertising world. Why? Because they’re lucky to be making a living at all with the way things are going in the music industry. (What you’re not seeing with a lot of musicians is their spouses working hard at day jobs so they can be musicians.)

About the only other road bump in the Barnes essay:

“The thing is, I like capitalism. I think it's an interesting challenge. It's a system that rewards the imaginative and ambitious adults and punishes the lazy adults. Our generation is insanely lazy. We're just as smart as our parents but we are overwhelmed by contradicting ideas that confuse us into paralysis.”

Barnes is just naïve if that’s how he sees the world. Most likely, he’s never seen the type of corporate carnage some of us have or just doesn’t know many people who have been laid off at various points in their work life for no good reason. I’d wager his generation is no more or less lazy than the ones before it. I shudder to think what would happen if a 150-lb. soaking-wet Indie rock star confronted a few dozen textile plant workers whose jobs had been sold out from under them to Mexico by the plant owners, got a bullhorn, sadly shook his head and addressed them with: “Capitalism is a system that rewards the imaginative and ambitious adults and punishes the lazy adults.”

I think if he was smart, when Stereogum approached him to expound on this topic, he should have just said no. Not that he comes off looking all that bad in his essay – for the most part, I’m in total agreement with him. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, there’s nothing, and I mean nothing, to be gained by trying to explain yourself to people who disagree with you regarding clear choices you’ve made. Sure, there is plenty to be gained by a healthy debate over issues you have an opinion on. But you’ve made an important choice in your life, you like the choice, you see and understand the downside, but see how it ultimately benefits you … and there will be people who hate you for making that choice. You’re not going to change their minds. And that’s all right. I get the impression Barnes feels under attack and sees this gray hipster cloud as his nemesis, when I have to believe most of those people don’t really care what he does, and, much like I'm doing now, are just blowing wind. If they’re ex-fans, he can probably count them on two hands. I can’t imagine not buying the next Of Montreal album because they did a jingle. (I can imagine not buying it because it sucks … but I suspect it won’t, judging by their last few albums.)

Shit, man. Let’s go Outback tonight. And not think about tomorrow, shall we? Wondering how many of those hipsters shit-canning him now are vegans and that’s the real problem here …

1 comment:

Andy S. said...

"You must pick one or the other."

"Though neither of them are to be what they claim."

Sorry, another good Dylan line that seemed apropo. And isn't Dylan a perfect example of someone who's managed to do that balancing act - exploiting his assets pretty thoroughly in a capitalistic sense while remaining true to his muse artistically.