Battery Acid Blues: The Many Pitfalls of Stardom

Keir DuBois is not a sell-out. (Originally published in the Artsweek section of the UCSB Daily Nexus on 5/22/97).

We as a band have been ready for the many pitfalls of stardom, and we’ve avoided several hassles that have brought down or severely wounded the abilities of other bands to exert their creative juices and love of performance, but the Clap was caught substantially off guard when an interviewer from a publication that is to remain nameless asked us what our opinion was on some fans’ allegations that we’d sold out.

Sold out? The Clap? Hey, we haven’t even had a record deal since our first frontman kicked the bucket! This we had to know about. Evidently some disgruntled supposed roadie of ours got a little irked at us for allegedly cutting him out of some share of tour profit. This was a little peculiar, since we’ve never had roadies (or even groupies) and we’d never been on a major (or minor) tour. When the guy figured out he couldn’t get money out of us, he apparently decided to kill us the behind-the-back way and accused us of committing that heinous sin of selling out.

I’ve got several problems with this kind of name-calling. First, as I understand it, “selling out” means compromising one’s artistic integrity for the sake of making more money. Now, if someone has bills to pay, I understand such actions are immediately necessary. I’m sure it’s great to be a cult hero, but if you’re a cult hero that dies in penniless starvation just because you adhered to some ridiculous code of hip ethics, then there would never be a more idiotic martyr.

However, going the other way to the extreme is just as bad. For example, for about two years now it’s been very easy to throttle a band like Hootie and the Blowfish because their output has been consistently bland. Granted, that in itself is a matter of opinion, and in those two years criticizing Hootie has taken on bandwagon-like proportions; as if dissing them gives you an instant ticket to hipness.

For me, being the opinionated guy that I am, I’ve always thought that any band who willingly advertises that they play pop music of the beer-and-tears variety or of the chaste prom date variety deserves to get dragged through the mud a few times. Still, I am myself a hypocrite in this matter; even though I’m as judgmental as I am, I’m also a sucker for a good pop song, and even though there have been very few of those lately, that smacks of hypocrisy. Well, so what?

What I mean is, why do pop music fans absolutely have to be hip or square? Why not both? The great majority of good pop music is both, and I think that the best music comes out of the tension that results from the mixing of the artistic and the commercial. The best pop artists out there have realized this, and every single one of them, from Bob Dylan to U2 to the Beatles to Public Enemy has taken not a small amount of hell from those who think they know better.

What’s so annoying is that the critics really don’t know any better, but for some reason they think they do. The thought process behind cries of “sellout” is very grandiose but inherently hollow; just because someone translates their art to a more commercial medium doesnt’ always mean they sold out. What if they just want to reach a wider audience? Who wouldn’t?

Also, if the artist is still in creative control of their work, then there’s no reason to call them a sellout; no matter how much the work sells, it’s still from the original source and therefore uncorrupted. If it still isn’t “good” work, well, that’s the fault of the artist losing their love of creating good work, not the fault of the artist creating lousy work just for the money. Sometimes the critics or the public genuinely don’t get it, and when great things get under-appreciated because someone says their creator is a sellout, that can really hurt.

However, sometimes the problem isn’t with the public misunderstanding the artist- it’s the other way around. Sometimes it seems to me that there is an unwillingness of the artistic few to surrender their great creations to the masses simply because the artists assume their work won’t get the appreciation it deserves. Well, tough. Nobody’s going to appreciate it the same way the artist does, but that’s no reason not to present the art to the public and have no chance of praise at all.

Granted, the masses haven’t always made it easy for this kind of thing to happen, but that’s only because the public is a very fickle entity; they know what they like and they’re not so sure that they’ll like something new unless the novelty can hold their attention. This process often involves the public becoming impatient with the eccentricities of the art and immediately ditching it in favor of something new. This, in turn, almost always makes the art’s creator bitter and cynical, and that can be justified or not depending on specific cases, but the end result is the artist whining about the public being inherently moronic and how there’s no way in hell that the artist will dumb down their work to a third-grade level just so that the average doofus on the street can understand it.

In other words some artists are just too damn anal. It’s one thing to try and challenge the collective intellect of the public, but it’s quite another to become so pretentious so as to think that one has to create second-rate art just so that people won’t have to think too hard to understand it. Artists aren’t always as brilliant as they think they are, and the public isn’t as stupid as the artists think. The people know that they can make or break a career by using their wallets as a weapon, and if it turns out that someone’s work doesn’t sell until after their death, well, sometimes those are the breaks. The public can’t appreciate everything all at once, but that doesn’t make them inherent cretins.

Whoa, I’ll stop that right there. I didn’t want to turn this into a high art versus low art debate, because I don’t know much about that and and I’d really be stretching my already-strained bounds of credibility. The point is that reaching a larger audience shouldn’t always be called selling out; for those of you who are too cool, and you know who you are, don’t shortchange the intelligence of the music-buying public. They’ll come around sometime; they just need a little shove in a new direction now and then.