Artistic integrity and rock ‘n’ roll: complementary or mutually exclusive? On the one hand, to name just one obvious example, you have the high priest of RAWK GAWD-dom, Gene Simmons, a man who apparently made it his mission in life to be the living embodiment of every negative stereotype of base, money-grubbing Jews, a man who could teach gangsta rappers a thing or two about zealously proseletyzing for music being nothing more than a convenient vehicle for gettin’ laid and gettin’ paid. Embarrassing and pathetic in his strident insistence that anyone not enslaved to his wallet and genitals is a liar and a fraud, perhaps revealing more than he intends with his incessant efforts to deny that anyone could possibly aspire to do anything for any reason other than the most ignoble, one wishes he would gather whatever scraps of dignity he has remaining and bury them in one of those fucking Kiss Kaskets.
On stage last summer at Madison Square Garden, Eddie Vedder told a story. The Pearl Jam singer had recently been in a coffee shop, when he saw something unfamiliar for sale: a plastic MusicPass card that allowed its owner to download an album in MP3 form. Vedder, a longtime vinyl booster, was appalled. The difference between buying music the old-fashioned way and through these newfangled means, he declared, was “like the difference between making love to a real woman and a plastic one.”
Well, I say that for true audio purity, one must accept no substitutes for a handcrafted Victor phonograph, harrumph harrumph blah blah! I mean, jesus — I can certainly understand preferring one format to another, but the music will impact the listener the same way regardless of whether they hear it on mp3, CD, cassette, 8-track, vinyl LP, or via some traveling minstrel. There’s nothing inherently more real or meaningful about an LP as opposed to an mp3; the music and its message are not necessarily invalidated or proven hollow and false if the listener first hears it in a Coke commercial or while playing Grand Theft Auto. Quit with the fucking snobbery already, or at least find some new variations on the same old tired romantic themes. (Like George Carlin said, everything is “natural”, even plastic. There is nothing from somewhere outside the universe. People are primates who evolved within the world and will eventually be absorbed back into it, along with all the steel, plastic and toxic chemicals that our product-of-evolution brains dreamed up. Perhaps, as Carlin suggested, we even evolved as Mother Nature’s means to produce plastic! And why does Eddie Vedder hate dinosaur bones anyway?)
I remember an interview several years ago with a musician I wasn’t familiar with, and whose name didn’t stick with me. But I do remember that he talked a bit about the difference between the hair-band era vs. the grunge era in rock music, and he differed from the conventional wisdom in saying that Nirvana had unfairly been tagged as the catalyst that destroyed all that Sunset Strip, cock-rockin’, feel-good, brainless party music (leaving aside the fact that it was really due to marketing departments at the major record labels being unable to conceive of people wanting to listen to more than one type of music and promoting bands accordingly). Cobain and co., he said, at least still embodied some of the charismatic, anarchistic debauchery that had always been a part of rock ‘n’ roll, from brawls with security guards to gender-bending to heavy drug use, whereas Pearl Jam were actually the ones who went out of their way to make their music (and image) as staid, boring, and humorless as possible, an uptight exercise in moral and intellectual instruction and improvement rather than having fun, with Vedder acting as the Martin Luther, if you will, of the Protestant Reformation that was the Seattle-based grunge scene, grimly setting about his task of ridding music of all corruption, frilly adornments and ornamentation, and clearing away all intermediaries that would otherwise create distance between the artist and the audience, between the listener and the pure, mystical connection with the music. (Though to be fair, he never took the extra step that so many of his alt-rock contemporaries did, openly sneering at a large percentage of their audience for being insufficiently hip and enlightened to even deserve the privilege of hearing their music.)
Is it meaningful to argue that a band that spent 14 years recording for Sony has, with a Target deal, sold out? Maybe.
No. “Selling out” is a senseless, entirely subjective term rooted in adolescent narcissism, or, to be slightly more generous, a romantic conceit that the original intention of the artist, if sufficiently pure, trumps all else, including the effect it has on the public. GG Allin, perhaps, aside, most musicians do strive to find some sort of balance between expressing themselves the way they want, and trying not to completely alienate their audience as a result. Most people in general, I would imagine, instinctively realize that pure expression is meaningless without anyone caring to listen and respond.
They “sold out” the minute they made the band anything other than a fun thing to do in their free time, which basically makes the term too vague to be worth anything. I admit I greatly preferred the Seattle scene to the L.A. glam scene, both musically and lyrically, but the one thing that always made me roll my eyes was the bizarre spectacle of rich and famous rock stars kvetching about being rich and famous rock stars. As someone who would have dearly loved to make enough money in my twenties off music to live comfortably the rest of my life, let me say this: there is no reason whatsoever to take your music beyond the personal computer, the garage, or the local club scene unless you want the fame, the money, or both. Yes, sure, you might primarily just want a lot of people to hear your music, but, you know, the fame kinda comes with that, and I don’t see the Eddie Vedders of the world choosing to give it all to charity and go back to working the overnight shift at a 24-hour gas station/convenience store. Unless you create a self-sufficient hippie commune where everybody sings their songs around the campfire for free, you can’t avoid some sort of entanglement with the impurities of the commercial world, and you can’t control what other people take away from your music.
Art doesn’t spring forth, ex nihlio, from some noumenal realm beyond space and time, unencumbered by worldy trappings. It’s created by flawed human beings with imperfect motivations, received and appreciated by the same; but if we’re lucky, it still manages to contain something greater than the sum of its parts. Everyone’s a sellout, everyone’s made compromises, everyone’s done things they weren’t thrilled about for results they weren’t happy with. Whores, one and all. Can we just enjoy the music now?