What Makes a Sellout

Two years ago on my Saturday afternoon radio show, Doing Science, I devoted an entire day to the legacy of pop music’s greatest sell outs. Part of the list was relatively uncontroversial. Green Day topped the list, famously transitioning from dingy No-Cal punk clubs to recently producing their own Broadway Musical based on their music. Then came Common, the Chicago native who burst onto the scene in 1994 with his ingenious assault on the “mainstreamification” of hip hop, only to duet with the Jonas brothers in 2009.

For my show, my primary goal was to showcase the radical transition the chosen artists had made, a transition from various musical and stylistic places, but one ended in music that was more accessible, marketable, and profitable. Usually, this transition meant going from an indie label to a major label.

The show was one of my favorites I’d done, mostly because it sparked so much debate among my friends and I, and it made us think hard about what it meant to sell out. I know that I am guilty not only of throwing the term around haphazardly, but also using it as a pejorative term. I am not alone in writing off an artist simply because I, or someone else, has labeled them a sellout.

But is that necessarily the case? Do artists necessarily become worse when they sell out? As I argued on my show, and attempted to demonstrate, they do not. I argue that selling out simply means adapting the style of music in order to make the music more accessible. Although an artists motives for selling out often involve the desire to make more money (which, when obvious, evokes a visceral reaction and aversion among some of us), I don’t think motives play a role in selling out. I like to look at the nature and style of the music.

That being said, I feel like it is possible for the music to get better after an artist has sold out. While I feel that Green Day and Common got worse after they sold out, I played a number of artists whose transition from the underground into the mainstream actually improved the quality of the music. My favorite example is the Goo Goo Dolls. Forming in 1986, the Goo Goo Dolls spent their early years as a Replacement’s cover band, and their music was mostly poorly constructed post-punk drivel. They actually came out with a song called “Sex Maggot,” which many people find hard to believe. Whether you like the Goo Goo Dolls or not, I doubt many people would argue that the quality of the music drastically improved with their 1995 album “A Boy Named Goo.” The album helped create the Adult Contemporary genre and preceded a sting of beautiful pop singles. The triumph of the Goo Goo Dolls was possible only because they abandoned almost all the edginess that defined their early work.

The idea that selling out might make the music better is certainly hard for many to swallow. There’s already enough pop music out there. Why must the fans continue to sacrifice their favorite bands to the corporate slave masters? The reason is that underground purism is often as unlistenable as the most cookie cutter, manufactured bubble gum pop. Many of the best songs fall somewhere in between. And in order for that to happen, bands often have to drop the attitude, lose the distortion, and play one that even mom’s can listen to.