The Rise and Decline of the “Sellout”
A history of the epithet, from its rise among leftists and jazz critics and folkies to its recent fall from favor.
By Franz Nicolay
Sellouts through the years: Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, and Kurt Cobain.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Publicity photo of Duke Ellingto, Stringer/AFP/Getty Images, P.B. Rage from USA.
It’s been so long since musicians have been criticized for corporate sponsorship or licensing that it’s conspicuous when it happens. “When I hear Grizzly Bear in a Volkswagen commercial, it kind of bums me out,” said Trent Reznor—a representative of, arguably, the last generation that worried about such things—in an interview with Vulture this week. “[S]omewhere along the line it became okay to get in bed with a sponsor. More specifically it became okay for rock bands to talk about. When I started to hear musicians talking about their sponsorship deals as something to be almost proud of, it bothered me.”
The once-explosive accusation of calling someone a sellout, aimed at artists who make accommodations with commercial industry, has come to seem obsolete and a little naïve, but it once had career-threatening power. Anxiety over the interplay of art and commerce is evergreen—Shakespeare’s Sonnet 110 laments, “Alas! ’tis true, I have gone here and there/ And made myself a motley to the view/ Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear”—and the condemnation of monetary compensation for abandoning one’s values goes back as far as the Bible and Judas’ 30 pieces of silver. Musicians had depended on patronage for centuries, though, and until the rise of the mass culture industries, the relationship between artist and patron was considered pragmatic and natural.
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Sellout—as applied to musicians—was a slur that had a birth. It rose to prominence in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when two communities in which the term was common came together at the intersection of politics and music.
The use of the verb to sell to mean “to betray” is as old as the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary cites examples stretching as far back as the 10th century. In Henry V, the Duke of Exeter expresses disbelief that one of the king’s friends would “for a foreign purse, so sell/ His sovereign’s life to death and treachery!” Similarly, sell has been used as a noun to refer to a con since at least Charles Dickens’ 1838 novel Oliver Twist, in which the fence Mr. Lively exclaims to the con artist Fagin, “What a time this would be for a sell!” The phrase to sell out and the noun sell-out, meanwhile, were until the late 19th century reserved for such business as stock transactions, which these terms described without any implicit judgment—for example, one sold out one’s interest in a company for cash.
The pejorative usage, as a prostitution of ideals or a betrayal of principle, seems to be specifically American, as befits a country young enough to retain a faith in its own ideals. The OED’s first citation is a private, colloquial use in a Civil War–era diary, in which the Southerner Mary Chesnut lamented “Another sellout to the devil.” The usage soon popped up in “Sam Bass,” a cowboy song written in the wake of an 1877 train robbery, which contains the stanza:
He sold out Sam and Barnes and left their friends to mourn
Oh, what a scorching Jim will get when Gabriel blows his horn
Perhaps he’s gone to heaven, there’s none of us can say
But if I’m right in my surmise, he’s gone the other way.
But sell-out appears to have entered the political vocabulary, appropriately, in the Gilded Age. “The Tariff Act … was an ungodly and unblushing sell-out to the Sugar Trust … [and to] greedy manufacturing interests generally,” raged one magazine in 1906. The populist, leftist tone of the term was established, as progressives fought against the growing influence of money and industry in government. But in the 1930s, after the stock market crash of 1929, the term spread along with an explosion of economic resentment: “He sold out Pat fer thirty-six hunderd a year” (1939); “He sold out franchises, privileges, properties, protection, and licenses to business contributors and bribers” (1931); “He Sold Out the Workers: An Open Letter from Andre Marty, French Communist Deputy to Leon Blum, Socialist Leader” (1939).
This anti-corporate usage became concentrated in the emerging labor union movement, paranoid about loyalty. “You, as a Communist party-liner, probably think I am a softie, a sellout to the capitalist world, a Trotskyite, a rat, et cetera,” wrote critic John Chamberlain in a book review in Scribner’s magazine in 1938. “I say it’s a sellout. These sons of bitching union leaders, they ain’t no better than the bosses,” says an anonymous “man on the tire machine” in Ruth McKenney’s 1939 novel Industrial Valley. “Bill’s still down there smoking the Boss’ cigars. It looks like a ‘sellout,’ ” says “one of the boys on the floor” in the International Stereotypers’ and Electrotypers’ Union Journal in 1939.
In the 1960s, with the foregrounding of radical left politics and its language, the use of sellout became promiscuous. The pejorative use overtook the all-tickets-sold meaning for the first time in the 1970s, even for the most anodyne topics. (The Princeton Alumni Journal reported on the “Return of Short Hair” in 1972, quoting a newly-shorn student to the effect that “I guess it was pretty much a sellout—but it’s sure a relief not to have to use two towels to dry my hair in the morning.”) Both sides of the political spectrum hurled it at each other: Conservatives could call a withdrawal from Vietnam a “sellout” of the American-backed regime in Saigon or warn of a “sellout” of “old friends in Taiwan” if the U.S. recognized the People’s Republic of China. Leftists applied it to causes around the globe: Sadat, for example, was “sell[ing] out” the Palestinian cause by making peace with Israel. Even the narrator in Judy Blume’s 1971 Then Again, Maybe I Won’t imagines berating her brother: “You’re a sellout. You’ve gone soft—just like Mom—just like Pop—just like Angie!”
In one edition of Musician magazine, one could find both Tone Loc and the Replacements defending themselves against the charge.
In the context of the music industry, the term was used exclusively to trumpet success in ticket sales until the 1950s. It was already familiar in discourse around civil rights: NAACP house organ the Crisis called a “Republican role in [a] Senate rules maneuver a ‘sellout’ ” in 1949. And it appears to have been first applied to musicians by black audiences and fellow musicians criticizing black gospel and jazz performers who were perceived as having tailored their acts to appeal to white audiences. Reflecting later on the commercial successes of saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, jazz critic Doug Ramsey wrote, “Cannonball was subjected to the standard abuse of jazz artists who win public acceptance; he was called a sellout. Show me a solvent jazz band and I’ll show you a band accused of selling out.”
Politics were part of this conversation, too. Jazz writer Eric Porter points out that “[m]any of the young men writing about jazz either had direct connections to the left or were more generally invested in left-liberal politics.” As a result, they had a tendency not only to analyze the music through the lens of whether it fulfilled an image of “the pluralistic and democratic America they idealized” but also to import invective terminology from the political front lines. Duke Ellington was attacked, wrote musician Randall Sandke, by roots-music producer and civil rights activist John Hammond for “losing the distinctive flavor [his music] once had, both because of the fact that he has added slick, un-negroid musicians to his band and because he himself is aping Tin Pan Alley composers for commercial reasons.” Ellington, in an unusually heated response, said that Hammond was acting in “his role an ‘ardent propagandist’ with connections to the Communist Party.”
It was in the folk-revival circuit, where older black artists met white purists with ties to the old left and (perhaps exaggerated) ideas about authenticity, that the tinder really caught. No one was attacked as personally or virulently as Bob Dylan in the wake of what critic Nat Hentoff called “the newest commercial boom, ‘folk-rock’ … an outgrowth, in large part, of Dylan’s recent decision—decried as a ‘sellout’ by folknik purists—to perform with a rock ’n’ roll combo.” When he was asked in one 1965 interview about the hate mail he received after going electric, Dylan described being called a “Sellout, fink, Fascist, Red, everything in the book.”
Musicians for the next few decades found themselves in the paradoxical role of having to self-consciously manage perceptions of their authenticity. (The Who’s 1967 The Who Sell Out, with its ironic faux-endorsements and jingles, may be the first example of a backlash from the performers themselves.) It was a perfect confluence of the mainstreaming of both incendiary leftist political language and the mass production of countercultural musical merchandise. Class identification remained a crucial undercurrent: In 1968, the jazz musician David Amram said, defensively, “My erudition didn’t make me a sellout.”
By the 1980s, sellout was in common use not just in informal conversation but in print, as the 1960s generation took over the levers of the publishing and commentary industries. Musicians as varied as Pavarotti, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, the Clash, Leopold Stokowski, Miles Davis, and Quincy Jones were either attacked or defended or both. The term was even used retroactively, to label musicians as varied as Tchaikovsky and Gene Autry. Artists were defensive: In one 1989 edition of Musician magazine, one could find both Tone Loc and the Replacements defending themselves against the charge. “People get panicky when you’re not their little pocket group anymore—their favorite little group that only they know about,” said the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg, “People panic whenever things change,” added guitarist Slim Dunlap. “If you try and stay pigeonholed and please the old fans, that’s the kiss of death. You can’t please everybody. But we didn’t sell out, I know that … What is a sellout, anyway?”
Already, exhaustion with the term had begun to set in. In 1984, Harper’s called it “an old Stalinist term, redolent of class struggle.” By 1989, one letter-writer to the fundamentalist punk zine Maximum Rocknroll had grown sick of it, even as the editors and contributors circled their wagons: “One of the most obnoxious terms around has to be ‘selling out.’ This along with ‘trendy’ needs to be retired. If a band that is considered ‘underground’ gets played on a big city San Francisco radio station then they’ve ‘sold out.’ That’s really weak.”
In the 1990s, the idealists of the rock underground went mainstream, and sellout got a second wind. With the parallel rise of a hip-hop world sensitive about authenticity, the culture swelled with discussions of “selling out”—who did, who didn’t, who never would. “L7 remains too rowdy to ever be a sell out” wrote one critic in CMJ New Music Monthly in 1999. “A sell-out is someone who does shit that they can’t fuckin’ stand doing just to make money … I’d be a sell-out if all I did was hardcore hip-hop” said P.M. Dawn’s Prince Be in Option magazine in 1995. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, meanwhile, sympathized with critics. “I don’t blame the average seventeen-year-old punk-rock kid for calling me a sellout. I understand that,” he told Rolling Stone, before adding, “And maybe when they grow up a little bit, they’ll realize there’s more things to life than living out your rock & roll identity so righteously.” Boff Whalley, of the band Chumbawamba (its members themselves poster children for punk backlash against alleged sellouts) later called Cobain’s suicide note “a damning verdict [on] the power of credibility.”
After its ’90s peak, the stigma of “selling out” went into remission. The commercial licensing of all 18 tracks on Moby’s 1999 album Play is often cited as the tipping point, as the collapse of the music industry sent artists looking for new licensing revenue and corporate touring partnerships. (Critic Steven Hyden has noted that the year of Play’s ascendancy coincided with the launch of Napster.) The idealist indie rockers of the 1980s and ’90s hit middle age and confronted long-delayed “ ‘financial realities’ that go along with adulthood—such as supporting children, paying for housing or saving for future security,” wrote Joanna Ruth Davis in a 2006 sociology dissertation entitled The Scene is Dead, Long Live the Scene: Music, Identity, and the Transition to Adulthood, adding, “Most older punks maintain that one must have some sort of career to meet those needs.” “Today,” wrote James Wolcott in Vanity Fair in 2007, “ ‘selling out’ is so commonplace it doesn’t even seem like a syndrome.”
Post-Napster, the music world’s self-righteousness dried up along with its giant pools of money, and the patronage model was revived in the forms of commercial licensing and Kickstarter. Stravinsky, for one, would have approved: “Let me say, once and for all,” he wrote in 1966, “that I have never regarded poverty as attractive; that I do not wish to be buried in the rain, unattended, as Mozart was; that the very image of Bartok’s poverty-stricken demise, to mention only one of my less fortunate colleagues, was enough to fire my ambition to earn every penny that my art would enable me to extract from the society that had failed in its duty toward Bartok as it had earlier failed with Mozart.” On that, both artists and labor organizers could surely agree.
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