Somewhere betwixt the early 20th century and the late 20th century, it became very vogue for “discerning artistic consumers” (read: pretentious A-holes) to ridicule successful artists for “selling out”. The idea being that any artist able to turn a profit in their medium (music, acting, writing, painting, etc.), had clearly abandoned their ideals and convictions in order to do so. After they sold out, they became puppets of The Man, and as such, were incapable of producing anything genuine and spectacular anymore, which made them less cool in the eyes of the “in the know” consumers — and by association served as a way for these same D-bags to judge the people who still supported said artist. These hip, trendy consumers have clearly never had to pay rent before — because how else could they possibly justify hating on people who have spent years struggling to eke out a living in the arts unless they’d never had any bills or financial responsibilities of their own; and as a result, were totally oblivious to the fact that artists have to support themselves and their families on something other than dreams and smiles.
However, as with most stereotypes (if not all), there tends to be a nugget of truth buried within; and for every legitimately phenomenal artist that finds massive commercial success (Muse, Queen, The Beatles…and occasionally non-British acts, too) there is a relatively talentless hack — or group of hacks — that become successful on the sole basis of gimmicky marketing or corporate backing. Do The Jonas Brothers know they’re mediocre musicians who are only popular because Roy E. Disney (or whichever one is in charge these days) said they should be? Do they care? I wouldn’t. Nick, Mary and Ulysses Jonas (those are their names, right?) didn’t wake up one day and say to each other “Hey guys, let’s create wonderful and original music that will get people excited about their lives, and maybe give them a reason to pontificate and reflect on the greater purpose of those same lives.” One of them doesn’t even play an instrument for crying out loud. No, the more likely scenario is that their dad sat them down one day when they were very young and said “Boys, you’re going to blindly do exactly what I tell you to for the next decade, and I’m going to retire to the Bahamas at age 40. Also, we only have two guitars, so decide which of you wants to be the douche who doesn’t play anything.”
But this blurb isn’t about how the Jo-Bros sold out (I preferred their original band name, G.I. Jonas: Extra Virgin), it’s about how I sold out (the first time. Of many).
I spent all four years of my study at Otterbein College (a small, private school in central Ohio) working a part-time job as a tour guide. Yelling loudly overtop groups of chatting people, making up random information and passing it off as fact, and forcing myself into the center of attention — these are some of my favorite pastimes, in addition to being the basic requirements for being a tour guide at Otterbein. Now as you can probably imagine, getting kids from anywhere else in America to come to college in Ohio is no easy sell (“Ohio: come for the terrible year-round weather, stay for the soy products”). Likewise, getting kids from within Ohio’s borders to consider going to an expensive, private college instead of Ohio State (cheap tuition, massive party school), Ohio University (cheap tuition, massive party school), Miami of Ohio (cheap tuition, massive party school), University of Cincinnati (cheap tuition, massive party school), or University of Toledo (full ride to any student whose BAC is higher than their GPA) was an equally daunting task. Guides were instructed to tell prospective students that Otterbein was an alcohol-free campus (not at all accurate), the food was edible (a tremendous exaggeration), housing was top-notch (maybe compared to Darfur) and tuition was affordable (a total fabrication). So I had the choice of peddling misinformation in exchange for beer money (ironically enough since, as I mentioned, it was supposedly a dry campus), or maintaining my moral high ground and sacrificing an extra $50 per month (that’s like a six-figure income to a college freshman). Well I probably don’t need to tell you which side won out: by my senior year I’d earned several pay raises, knew which special tour guide events paid time and a half, and been on the receiving end of countless positive reviews from students and their guardians (I’m nothing if not likable for the first 45 minutes you know me). Wow, I sure did use a lot of parenthetical supplementary commentary in this paragraph (because they don’t teach you better writing skills than that at overpriced liberal arts colleges).
So this is the part where I tell you that I’ve matured greatly since my days as a con artist of a tour guide, I’ve seen the error of my ways and now greatly regret the decisions I made during the folly of my youth — all the while encouraging you to learn from my mistakes and not make the same poor choices that I did. PSYCH! Are you kidding me?! I enjoyed getting paid to spew untruths so much that I moved to Los Angeles just so I could make a career out of it. I’d be selling out more than ever if I could find a group or organization that’d pay me to. There’s no moral to this story, there’s no lesson to be learned here; the simple fact of the matter is that — for some people — becoming a sellout is the loftiest ambition they can aspire to. Let’s say those same Jonas Brothers from earlier turned down their offer to become the next cookie-cutter Disney brand, took the moral high road and worked their way up from nothing, building their fan base the same way almost everyone else does by playing one crappy gig at a time for ten years or more. You know where they’d be? Nowhere. Their songs are terrible (what little of them they actually write themselves), their musicianship is subpar at best, and their look simply wouldn’t appeal to many people out of their preteen demographic. If Larry, Moe and Curly Jonas hadn’t sold out as young as possible, they’d be nothing but an average trio of geeky white boys — the only difference being they’d be practicing abstinence by default instead of by choice. I don’t care for them or their music (as you may have guessed by now), but I certainly won’t begrudge them making gobs of money doing something that must be loads of fun, and that I presume they enjoy. Would I prefer to live in a world where talented artists were given all the commercial success that’s thrust upon the undeserved? Absolutely. But it doesn’t work like that. By and large, the demographic that’s being targeted with “actors” like Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, isn’t the same group of people who’re going to choose to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman and Glen Close, even if they were fed that option. I wish every talented artist got their due, but it’s not like just because Ashton Kutcher gets paid to be an actor, that Ian McKellan can’t be.
And in all honesty, maybe some artists NEED to sellout before they can become talented. Take Tom Hanks for example. Academy award winner, spectacular performer, unquestionably talented artist. When you think of Tom Hanks’ career, you think of his world-changing performances from Forrest Gump, Castaway, The Terminal, Philadelphia, and a dozen others. But what you should also remember is that Tom Hanks The Actor got his start as Tom Hanks, the actor — the man whose breakout role was in a 70’s (or was it 80’s?) sitcom called Bosom Buddies, where he played a college student who had to cross-dress as a woman full time for some wacky reason that I can’t recall at the moment. Seriously, I’m not making this up. Google it. From transgendered slapstick coed to Oscar recipient for Best Actor. But surely he’s a fluke, there can’t be other stories like his, right? Before Jim Carrey made you completely rethink love and life with his performances in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Majestic, The Truman Show and the like, he was the cartoonishly wacky lead in a movie that was almost too ridiculous to be made. Am I talking about Ace Ventura: Pet Detective? The Mask? Dumb and Dumber? Nope. I’m referring of course to Once Bitten, a B-movie where Mr. James Carrey plays an average dope who has a madcap relationship with a female vampire complete with plastic-looking fangs and several coffin scenes. And bear in mind this was almost two decades before Stephanie Mormon (er, I mean Meyer) decided that vampires were cooler than humans, and for some reason we all believed her. And that’s just off the top of my head. If you ever have seven months of unemployment to kill, go to imdb.com and look up a young John Travolta’s terrible performances as a goofball D-student in the old school sitcom Welcome Back Kotter, or as a rough and tough gang member…who spent his free time singing and dancing in leather pants in Grease. Long before his Best Actor nomination, Will Smith was rapping his own sitcom theme song and delivering cheesy one-liners as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (the title alone should tell you how cheesy that show was if you haven’t seen it). Leonardo DiCaprio was a late season addition to the laugh-tracked Growing Pains after it was past its prime; George Clooney delivered clunker performances on shows such as The Facts of Life, The Golden Girls, and Roseanne before he learned to be legit; Brad Pitt (another Growing Pains alum) was doing made-for-tv movies before he was good enough to play characters like Benjamin Button, among others. Not everyone needs to sell out first (Johnny Depp, Daniel Day-Lewis, et al), but where would Leo, George and Brad be if they hadn’t taken those seemingly-sellout roles and then parlayed them into talent-based careers?
I guess what I’m trying to say is this: not everyone can or will have the chance to be a true sellout, and that’s ok — it’s really not the sort of system that’s built for everyone. But if you ever have to choose between selling out doing what you love, or forsaking success in order to preserve your own feeling of self-righteousness, I hope you’ll use selling out as a means to achieve an even greater good than you would’ve otherwise been able to. Only you can decide if you’ll be a sellout like Bono — who uses his means and influence to spread awareness and hope for a myriad of worthy causes; or if you’ll be a sellout like Rob Schneider — who used his means and influence to make Deuce Bigelow 2: European Gigolo.
And who knows, if you sellout early enough, maybe you’ll even develop some talent, too. Stranger things have happened.
Peace, love, and rock.
*Special note to any student who may have taken one of my tours and is now considering suing me for giving you false information: I never actually lied to you, based on the following technicalities…
Alcohol-free campus — I never once paid for a single beer at a campus party, ever.
The food is edible — once a month at breakfast on “Make Your Own Waffle Day”
Housing is top-notch — if you live in the College President’s House, which is technically campus housing.
Tuition is affordable — if you’re the heir of an oil sheik from the Middle East.
Go Cardinals! Otterbein for life!