“I love selling myself,” Charli XCX said when speaking to NPR about Accident, released in March, a project that sees her leaning into mainstream pop, ironically playing the role of an industry sell-out. She leans into the artifice and fun of mainstream pop, embracing its whimsy. However, many do not see “selling” as positively; it is often an accusation leveled against artists who change their style to something more mainstream, and is often associated with inauthenticity, superficiality, and a lack of new ideas or integrity. But why is it such a bad thing to want to find commercial success, and are the accusations of “sellout” ever justified?
At the simplest level, the so-called “sellouts” are artists who lack artistic integrity, who follow popular trends and styles to cultivate mass appeal. The Black Eyed Peas arguably fit that description best, the band ditching the conscious hip hop found in their first two albums for mass marketable club bangers with EDM production, big hooks and lyrics such as ‘You love my lady lumps/My hump, my bump, my bump’. But I don’t know if they are a good example of an artist selling out. I’m not sure anyone feels let down by the Black Eyed Peas – they come across as unapologetic commercials, and no one really cared about their previous work anyway.
To me, accusations of “selling out” usually suggest some sense of betrayal; I think just wanting to make music more commercially successful isn’t enough to be a real “sell”. Take FKA Twigs for example – his brilliant 2022 mixtape CAPRISONS was marketed as more commercial and fun than her previous work, and it was well received by critics and audiences. I would argue that accusations of “selling out” are triggered by other factors: a shift towards musical choices considered less “authentic” and a perceived “betrayal” of an original audience, coupled with a decrease in quality and originality.
So what musical choices are considered less “authentic”? A common example that provokes accusations of “selling” is ditching your guitar in favor of synths. Taylor Swift took this route in 2014 when she left behind her country roots with 1989, a pop album filled with synths and catchy choruses. She achieved huge commercial success, but some complained that she had become resourceful. Plus, this move isn’t always commercially driven – The Strokes have recently incorporated more synths in an artistically interesting way. For example, The new abnormal (2020) includes heavy use of synths and was well received by critics, but failed to reach the commercial heights of their rockier previous records.
Moreover, these ideas about what seems more “authentic” are very fluid and linked to many assumptions. For example, why is dance music often considered to have less artistic value than music that is supposed to “transcend” the body? And why is live instrumentation more authentic than electronics? These assumptions about authenticity and value can also be co-opted by artists wishing to gain some artistic credibility. This may have influenced Lady Gaga’s decision to leave behind her punchy synths and basses and take her guitar for her supposedly more “serious” album. Joan (2016). Similar motivations could explain why Taylor Swift has a southern accent on her previous country albums that had disappeared by 1989; some accuse him of “faking” his accent to gain credibility and sound more authentic to a country audience. It seems that accusations of “selling” based on mere styling changes are usually based on assumptions of authenticity rather than something more concrete.
Alternatively, accusations of “selling out” could stem from a sense of betrayal by an artist’s original fanbase. Often this fan base is marginalized and feels left out in favor of a more lucrative mainstream audience. For example, David Bowie’s music of the early 1970s, in all its outrageous camp theatrics, appealed to queer people and others who felt they didn’t fit in. So when he signed a big recording deal with EMI in 1983, he started making blander pop music with mass appeal, and spent the 1980s trying to convince the world that he was “just a normal guy”, perhaps it was a sense of betrayal felt by his original fans that led to accusations of “selling out”. Maybe it’s the same with The Weeknd; fans identified with the moody, hedonistic, and alienated personality of his previous mixtapes, and felt that his bright, danceable pop on records such as starboy (2016), after hours (2020), and Dawn FM (2022) undermine what he had stood for.
Much of this sense of betrayal likely stems from pop music’s power to forge collective identity by constructing ‘us’ and ‘them’; the public is shocked when an artist reveals that he is no longer “one of us”. This problem has been compounded by the age of social media where audiences expect so much from artists in terms of authenticity and accessibility, and often form personal connections with their favorite artists. However, an artist should not be beholden to the expectations and tastes of their original audience, and their audience will inevitably grow to include people from new groups as they develop.
Some artists survive accusations of “selling out” because of their newer music that still appeals to their original fan base. by Paramore After the laugh (2017) is a good example of this, which moved away from its previous pop punk style to a style more influenced by new wave and indie rock. However, it mostly survived the “sell out” allegations because the band retained their lyrical style and the music still appealed to their original audience. Some artists survive accusations of “sellout” because of the undeniable quality of their work; Bob Dylan survived accusations of “selling himself out” after “betraying” his folk audience because he reached even greater artistic heights after going electric. As with Bob Dylan, if your music retains its quality, your credibility can survive changes in audience and style, even if the changes are to a more commercial style and more mainstream audience.
All in all, it seems that if your music is good enough, no one will really care whether you sold or not. Complaints of “sold” artists seem more an expression of personal taste than anything else. Anyway, we cannot know what motivates artists in their creative process so these accusations will always be speculative. Music fans’ frustration with a perceived lack of originality and artistry in the mainstream music landscape is misdirected; it should be for companies deciding what music can achieve massive commercial success, not for artists deciding to change their style. As mass media became controlled by fewer and fewer corporations beginning in the 1990s, it became increasingly difficult to break into the mainstream without corporate sponsorship. Companies are inclined not to take risks and therefore are more likely to invest in proven musical styles, making the mainstream landscape less varied and less interesting.
But music has always relied on sponsorship, whether from corporations or royal courts, and that doesn’t take away from its value – all artists have to sell to someone. Music shouldn’t have to transcend industry, body or anything else to have value, and that’s a good thing because it can’t. Many complex factors and motivations influence the creation of a work of art, and this needs to be recognized in a nuanced way rather than being reduced to simplistic ideas of “selling”. Plus, wringing our hands over which artists “sell out” could rob us of the chance to enjoy the incredible pop music of Charli XCX, The Weeknd, Bowie, and even the Black Eyed Peas. The question to ask when listening to the popular new album from your favorite artists is not “are they out of print?”, but simply “do I think it’s any good?”.
Image credits: geralt / Pixabay License via Pixabay, TheDigitalArtist / Pixabay License via Pixabay