Saturday, November 17, 2007

"I am a sell-out" proclaim of Montreal

Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes has written an interesting think-piece for Stereogum which, effectively, attempts to contextualise the band's signing-up to do ads for T-Mobile.

To an extent, his justifications make a certain amount of sense:

The only way to avoid selling out is to live like a savage all alone in the wilderness. The moment you attempt to live within the confines of a social order, you become a sell out. Once you attempt to coexist you sell out. If that's true, then selling out is a good thing. It is an important thing. If we didn't do it, we'd be fucked, quite literally, by everyone bigger than us physically who found us fuckable.

And then becomes something of a hymn to capitalism:
The thing is, I like capitalism. I think it's an interesting challenge. It's a system that rewards the imaginative and ambitious adults and punishes the lazy adults.

Now, clearly there's a degree to which Barnes is setting up a cartoon version of the alternative, presumably a welfare state/socialism that he doesn't understand. But even so, it's surprising to hear Barnes offering such a far-right viewpoint. The implication that anyone left out of the capitalist free-for-all must be lazy could have come from a Tory party conference platform in the 1980s.

Even if you're comfortable with a political-economic system in which punsihment - by which Barnes means homelessness, starvation and poor health, remember, rather than a gentle chiding and being given a detention - is at the heart of the model, you might baulk a little at the suggestion that those who don't thrive under the model are "lazy".

What about those who've been born without the skills to do well in the red-toothed capitalist world? What about those who fall sick, or who have the misfortune to be born in an area where the schools are poorly run? Those whose parents are unable to support their study, who leave school early, who just happen to be born into poor families in bad neighbourhoods? Capitalism might reward the "imaginative and ambitious" (although softcore porn sells better than novels of ideas, so the first half of that contention seems unlikely), but it rewards better those born with means to buy and sell. If your political system commodifies everything, those who thrive will be those with access to money, not necessarily those who can earn it.
I like producing and purchasing things. I'd much rather go to IKEA than to stand in some bread line. That's because I don't have to stand in a bread line.

Had we the time, we'd work up an essay suggesting that queuing to purchase a Zavkilli chair in Ikea on a Saturday afternoon is little different from queuing to get bread in some broken Stalinist state. Instead, we'll just raise a curious eyebrow that Barnes seems to be suggesting that not selling your music to T-Mobile is somehow akin to being caught in Ceausescu's Romania.
Obviously, I've struggled with the concept. I've struggled because of the backlash following my songs placement in TV commercials. That is, until I realized that the negative energy that was being directed towards me really began to inspire my creativity. It has given me a sense of, "well, I'll show them who is a sellout, I'm going to make the freakiest, most interesting, record ever!!!" ... "I'm going to prove to them that my shit is wild and unpolluted by the reach of some absurd connection to mainstream corporate America."

It's an interesting suggestion - that flogging his music to a mobile phone company has driven him to make more extreme music. But if Barnes' suggestion - that not selling his music to companies would leave him starving and, literally, on the breadlines - then why would he do this? Isn't that a bit of an odd thing to do?

Barnes concludes that we should view advertising a good thing:
Next time you see a commercial with one of your favorite bands songs in it, just tell yourself, "cool, a band I really like made some money and now I can probably look forward to a few more records from them." It's as simple as that. We all have to do certain things, from time to time, that we might not be completely psyched about, in order to pay the bills. To me, the TV is the world's asshole boss and if anyone can earn some extra bucks from it and they're not Bill O'Reilly, it's a good thing.

And, of course, that's true. All art needs a patron; even musicians got to eat.

What's missing, though, is any indication from him that besides providing a soundtrack, he's also providing an endorsement. There's nothing that suggests he's considered if T-Mobile is a brand that he wants to get behind, that he's comfortable with flogging mobile phones. Which is where his argument falls apart. Sure, he's making money, but if he's just allowing anyone to take his music and slap it on their advert, then he's really reduced his art to the most brutal of transactions. He's not participating in a noble capitalist transaction, he's just prostituting himself.