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Monday, February 23, 2004
I was thinking a bit at lunch about "selling out." Now, I hope we've gotten to the point where we don't just accept this unquestioningly as a bad thing--we at least look at the context, and if you're like me, you get real suspicious of the person leveling the charge.

But while I think that notion has become a bit ridiculous, when you abstract it slightly, it starts to look a lot more reasonable. After all, "selling out" is really scenester shorthand for "betraying your ideals for material gain," and I'm not sure how many of us would really be comfortable arguing against this particular concept.

On the other hand, why not? It doesn't make a whole lot of sense for ostensibly liberal-humanist people to embrace such a quasi-religious concept as this. After all, it would seem to come down to the idea that if you reaaaaaally believe something, you should continue to let that belief guide your actions no matter what. But what does reaaaaaaally believing consist of? Presumably, believing despite all inducement not to, and what is this besides faith? And since when do we put a lot of stock in blind faith?

Now, like all good little post-structuralists, I know that pretty much everything we do, and 100% of what we say and write, is guided by principles that sorta-kinda have no more basis in objective fact than the Branch Davidians' light-hearted child-marryin' creed. Morality, language, justice, science, law: all of these things are ephemeral human constructs. But we abide by them anyway--and, indeed, it's perfectly acceptable to do so anyway--because they make our lives generally easier and happier. We believe in these things for practical reasons.

Which brings us back to selling out. The moral formulation behind selling out is that you should stick to your principles even when it becomes inconvenient to do so. But this simply doesn't make any sense. If your principles are only there for your own convenience (in the case of indie folks, for example, it helps them to continue do what they're doing without it feeling sort of silly and inferior and worthless compared to commercially successful musicians), then why shouldn't you sell 'em out?

Now, don't get me wrong: I recognize that the whole morality of sticking to your guns is socially practical, too, and I'm not advocating simply looking out for #1 all the time; this can easily come back to bite you in the ass. But let's at least recognize it for what it is.

But moreover, why the hell would we believe that something is right or true simply because it's what we feel in our hearts? Since when has that been the case? And, even more importantly, if that thing we feel can be proven wrong or silly, isn't it more intellectually proper to change what we feel, no matter how hard that can be, than to simply continue on?

Let me illustrate here with an example about music, which may simply serve to marginalize and delegitimize the issue I'm discussing, but hey, that's why we're here.

A few months back, I was talking in the real world with some folks about Liz Phair. I made the familiar argument that she clearly wanted to make a pop album, and besides the fact that we're supposed to respect an artist's choices, it's just great that she made a pop album, because it turned out really well and more good indie songwriters and singers should be willing to do that, since it produces good songs.

To which someone responded: yeah, but not everyone likes pop. Not everyone wants to make pop songs. Actually, very few indie people like pop or want to make pop albums.

Now, I don't know if I had forgotten this or just never knew, but suffice to say it came as something of a surprise. (I think I'd either just gotten lost up my butt in the course of the debate, or honestly assumed that most indie musicians secretly like pop, but the arguer was probably right.) But as I've said ad infinitum, this seems so weird to me. Pop is so pleasurable: why wouldn't you like it? Wouldn't there be something there you could like, and if there's something, why would you say you wouldn't like it? And so on.

The fact is that most people seem to make this objection less on the basis of uncontrollable personal taste than on some sort of ideological notion of Pop Is Bad. It's an allergy. But unlike just not being able to like something, this is a conscious choice not to like something based not on what it is, but what it is like. And that seems just really weird to me.

But supposedly this, like a lot of other ostensibly liberal attitudes, is justified because you Really Feel It, Man. But so what? Who gives a crap? And who says your idiot attitudes are Just As Valid as someone else's? Fuck that shit! If you honestly believe in critical authority, then you have to believe that you could be wrong.[1]

I dunno. Maybe I'm getting too concerned with the whole thing, but it really does confuse the hell out of me. Do you not have enough time to listen to pop and indie and experimental? Pop-I and II and III? If not, why not? Be honest about your choices; be up-front about why you're thinking what you're thinking. And I feel like we'd all be better off.

[1] I sure do.