A little over 40 years ago, The Who cracked us up with their tongue-in-cheek concept album: "The Who Sell Out." Guess what? We caught up.
Most of us once thought ahead to the dystopian future hurtled where a common trope was complete saturation of commercialization. The future was branded, right? It wasn't just our stuff--it was going to be US. Maybe the future was not ourselves as a NASCAR driver with Nabisco and Marlboro patches covering every inch but the forehead, but we were still going to be bought and sold just the same. Everything monetized. Everything capitalized. Our ideas and souls were going to be sold! Name the price!
It turns out those nightmares are here. . . but none of us has dropped a single bit of sweat.
You won’t bat an eyelash when people "sell out” today because in 2010 the mere idea of selling out is marrying American Dream to American Laziness. Why do more for less when you can get more for less?
That says we care less about artistic integrity and other former barriers to crass moneymaking. It happened subtly. There was no moment when things began to change so suddenly that you stopped to look at your handheld and scream wait a minute!
It's not like selling out is different or new. Go watch any old episode of "Dick Van Dyke" on Hulu. Do you know what Mr. Van Dyke does before it airs? He shills for Cheer Detergent. Now I presume Cheer was a sponsor. But there was a fair bit of selling out to be done in 1962. The black & white world was pretty green—and not the Al Gore shade. The difference may have been that there was supposedly a distinction between the Dicks or Texaco Star Theaters of the world and true culture.
Well, that’s what's changed. There used to be two basic levels of culture: the mainstream/commercial and alternative/pure, which have merged. And so I ask you, clear-headed blog participant: Do we even pretend to care anymore?
There are weird nuances. For instance, we don't like our LTL (larger-than-life) movie stars to do TV spots. It cheapens them. While Sarah Jessica Parker can sell shampoo without a hint of backlash--we're waiting for her to go away after the sequels get dull--oh George Clooney and Brad Pitt have to rush abroad to do hardcore shilling. Or maybe those foreign spots are a better indication of a newer sellout trend. It's not they're afraid of looking cheapen on our shoreline. It's the studios who crank out their movies demand stars to have as much visibility as they can in overseas (read big bucks) markets.
In sports, selling out is an athlete who takes more money to sign with a newer, worse team. In theory, this goes against so-called civic loyalty of the earlier era. Actually, it's mostly because rules pertaining to athletes for decades were akin to indentured servitude, and TV hadn't yet inflated the pockets of ownership. It’s a ludicrous thought that Joe DiMaggio would have been above taking $150 million to defect from the Yankees to Boston had he been granted the chance in 1941!
Don't forget Ole Joe eventually sold out for a coffeemaker once his bat slowed and he needed to make some real money post-Marilyn.
What is it that we're "selling" when we sell out? We sell name, we sell our blinking popularity, in my case, I’m selling skills and inhibitions. Maybe our decency is what’s for sale! But aren't these the things we sell whenever we can.. Hasn’t that always been the case? In the end we always chase success because our world points us toward achieving success. Just as natural is our inclination to take a subtle approach to our limits. But who has the fortitude or resources to be absolutist when it comes to purity?
We are playing the same game with varying degrees of flexibility surrounding our personal codes. We attach (once pretended to attach) great importance to doing things right. It is rather conveniently and invitingly ambiguous since, ahem, selling out is the process of taking whatever our human capital may be and converting it with little or no compunction into assets. It's the most fundamental transaction, and it reflects our authentic selves even as it seems to connote that selling out drains us of authenticity.
Reminds me of the famous story of Winston Churchill and the socialite:
"Madam, would you sleep with me for five million pounds?"
"My goodness, Mr. Churchill, I don't know, we'd have to discuss terms."
"What about for five?"
"Mr. Churchill, what kind of woman do you think I am?"
"Madam, we've already established that. Now we are haggling over the price."
We are all whores.
Do you remember the hullabaloo when Nike appropriated the Beatles for an ad campaign 20 years ago via its owner, Michael Jackson? Now McCartney is owned by Starbucks. And yep, we still need him at 64-plus. (Incidentally, his tour last year was #3 on list of top 10 of moneymakers.)
Finally, there's Moby, the mugly chief of the electronica world. I have read a ton of e-zine posts from the Golden Days of 1999 when Moby's controversial licensing the hell out of his "Play" CD proved, not surprisingly, something of a devil's bargain. After years of hard work on the club scene and as a cult crossover star, a series of selloffs was payoff and payday wrapped in a single bite-sized chunk!
The downside was sudden ubiquity and effortlessness with which "Play" proliferated downgraded the brand of Mobification. The guy accomplished tons creatively before he became a commercial force; making it look easy made a lot of detractors think it was. Moby now looks like a genius!
(And for those in the know, let’s give a special You Sell Out Fine award to Luke Wilson of those boring AT&T ads that won’t stop playing. Poor former movie star Luke—laughing all the way to the user/password combo on his bank site.)
If you have any doubt we're in a sellout-before-I-do world, let's go to the tape of Ben and Jerry from Ben & Jerry’s. When those iconic pinko lefty dairy dudes sold their cows to Unilever in 2000 I don’t think anybody’s cheeks flushed with outrage (or even remembered it) a month after the check cleared. When it's August hot out there, and you have a few dollars burning a hole in your cutoffs, any low regard for sprawling multinational conglomerates isn't going to stop you from gorging on Chunky Monkey.
If none of us are going to give two scoops about a big sell-out from two hippies who railed against commercialism for decades, then who isn’t going to "milk” all he can from this dawdling economy? So my advice: Enter the decade getting with the program—before you’re just the one who had a chance.
Laermer is waiting for you to buy—at RLMpr.com.