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October 18, 2010
Moby Died for Our Sins: The Fabulousness of Selling Out

Forty something years ago, The Who cracked us up with their tongue-in-cheek concept album, "The Who Sell Out."

We've caught up.

We used to think ahead to the dystopian futures toward which we hurtled, where a common trope was complete saturation of commercialization. The future was branded. It wasn't just our stuff -- it was going to be us. Maybe the future me might not have looked like NASCAR drivers with Nabisco and Marlboro patches covering every inch but our foreheads, but I was going to be bought and sold just the same. Everything monetized. Everything capitalized. Our ideas and souls were going to be for sale. Name the price, dude.

It turns out those dystopian nightmares came true, but none of us has dropped a single bit of sweat.

No one bothers to bat an eyelash when people "sell out," because the mere idea of selling out is marrying the 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. Was there a moment when things began to change or so subtle that you're looking at your monitor or handheld, thinking, wait a minute?

It's not as though selling out is different or new. Go watch an old episode of "Dick Van Dyke" on Hulu. Do you know what Van Dyke does before his classic airs? He shills for Cheer Detergent. Now, I presume Cheer was one of his show's sponsors. But there was a fair bit of selling out to be done in 1962, all the same. The black-and-white world was pretty green, and not Al Gore's shade either. The difference, though, may have been that there was supposed to be 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 gradually merged. And so I ask you, clear-headed blog participant: Do we even pretend to care anymore?

There are weird little nuances. For instance, we don't like our big, giant movie stars to do TV advertisements. It cheapens them. While Sarah Jessica Parker can sell shampoo without backlash -- we're kind of waiting for her to go away anyway -- oh gosh, no, George Clooney and Brad Pitt had better rush abroad to do the shilling. Or maybe those foreign spots are a better indicative of a newer sell-out trend. It's not that they're afraid of looking cheapened on our shoreline. It's the studios who crank out their movies demand the stars to have as much visibility as they can in those overseas markets, which make more money for them.

In sports, selling out is an athlete who takes more money to sign with a new team. In theory, this goes against so-called civic loyalty of an earlier time. Actually, it's mostly because labor rules pertaining to athletes for decades was akin to indentured servitude, and TV hadn't yet inflated the pockets of ownership. The notion that Joe DiMaggio would have been above taking $150 million to defect from the Yankees to Boston had he had a chance in 1941 is ludicrous.

Don't forget that ol' Joe sold out for a coffeemaker once his bat slowed and he needed to make some money post Marilyn.

What is it that we're "selling" when we sell out? We sell our name or popularity if we're famous or, in my case, skills and inhibitions. Maybe it's our decency! But aren't these the things we sell whenever we can no matter what? In the end, we always chase success because everything in our culture points toward achieving, that's right, success. Just as natural is our inclination to take a nuanced approach to our limits. Few have the fortitude or resources to be absolutist when it comes to purity.

We are playing the same game with varying degrees of flexibility around our personal codes. We attach (used to pretend to attach) great importance to doing things the right way. It is rather conveniently and invitingly ambiguous since 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 of transactions, and in many cases, it reflects our authentic selves, even though the connotation is 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're all whores. It’s the 2010s, bubbelah.

Remember when Nike appropriated The Beatles for a campaign 20 years ago via new owner Michael Jackson? Now, Paul McCartney is owned by conglomerates, and we still need him at 64-and-then-some. What about Led Zeppelin and the car ads? Do you realize the only old fogie who hasn’t passed off his songs for a TV spot is Neil Young? One in a million.

Finally, there's Moby, the mugly chief of the electronica world. I read a ton of e-zine posts from Golden Days of 1999 when Moby's controversial strategy of 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, this series of sell-offs was the payoff and payday wrapped in one.

The downside was his sudden ubiquity, and the seeming effortlessness with which "Play" proliferated, downgraded the brand. The guy accomplished quite a bit creatively before he became a commercial force but making it look easy made a lot of detractors think it actually was. Today Moby looks like a genius. Damn him!

If you have any doubt we're in a sell-out-who-cares world, let's go to the tape of Ben & Jerry's. When those iconic pinko/lefty dairy hippies sold their cows to Unilever in 2000, did anyone's cheeks flush with outrage (or even discuss it) like a month after the check cleared? I don't think so. When it's August and you have a few extra dollars burning a hole in your cutoffs, low regard for sprawling multinational conglomerates isn't going to stop you from gorging on Chunky Monkey.

So right now, if we don't care about two guys who railed against typical commercialism for decades selling out, who isn't going to "milk" (har har) from this economy all he or she can? Better get with the program before you're thought of as just as someone who had his or her chance.

Twitter @laermer for the debate. And see you at the check-out.

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Richard Laermer is CEO of New York's RLM pr, representing, among others, e-Miles, Epic Advertising, Yodlee, Revolution Money, Group Commerce, Smith & Nephew, and HotChalk. He was host of TLC's cult program Taking Care of Business and speaks on trends and marketing for corporate groups. You can read Laermer on The Huffington Post and on the mischievous but all-too-necessary Bad Pitch Blog. For more like this, follow him on @laermer.

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