Thursday, July 7, 2011

Success vs Sellout - hanging on to idealism and integrity

A cup of coffee and a shower got the brain moving into this train of thought...if an artist reaches the point of “success” will it always result in “sellout”.  Can idealism and true creativity survive a record deal, business venture or publishing contract.

In the circles I run in, probably the best known cry of “sellout” gets thrown at Green Day.  These Bay Area punk rockers started with their altruistic mission to share the angst of the young to the point where the kids would sing along.  Billy Joe and his cohorts created musical art that broke the rules.  They felt the simple design atheistic of three or four chords, a solid bass line and a drum track that was the heartbeat of a patient suffering from a severe panic attack and worked it into really good songs.  In the beginning success was getting a gig in a small club and having ten people turn out.  Success was those ten people sharing the emotional experience of Green Day’s musical art.  The boys went home, after calming their adrenalin high with the beer they got paid in, and relived the moment over and over, allowing it to feed the muses.  

Everything seemed to genuine and organic through album after album.  The artistic integrity prevailed until...American Idiot.  Now it wasn’t that Green Day didn’t have any radio hits to that point.  Gods only know how many high school graduations had to suffer through “Good Riddance” (Time Of Your Life)? was still music for the sake of recreating emotions and sharing them with an audience.  American Idiot, initially, was a grander creation.  I’m not saying that it was the band's vision for it to become a massive pop-rock record that would produce multiple singles, massive videos, arena tours and a shit-ton of merch.  I want to believe it was created from the heart.  And maybe Billy did have thoughts in the back of his head about the eventual Broadway musical and that it would be art for art’s sake with nothing to do with the major bank it would all bring in.  But it is obvious that somewhere along they way, American Idiot became a cash cow and the follow up album was just a rehash/sequel.  

With new artists of all genres showing up on the radar screens lately, especially in the current pop culture environment of “cheap art”, what does it mean for them?  First and foremost, it’s easy to separate sheep and goats when it comes to people with talent who just want to make a buck.  They are picked out easily by managers, promoters, and agents.  You hear them on the radio, see them on movie posters (as graphics artists and actors), watch them stealing shows on television or choosing their sculpture from a display at Pier 1.  Could any of them be a real artist?  Yes.  Do they want to be?  Well they think they are but it really is about the dollar signs.

Then there are the people that truly do have the artist mentality and heart.  They start out with the greatest of intentions to change the world through their creations.  Today they take their royalty checks feeling the tug on their guilty conscious, telling themselves that they need to eat and as soon as the car, house, boat, etc. is paid off they will go back to creating art with substance.  They won’t but they tell themselves they will.  Does some genuine art come from this group?  Yes.  Definitely more than the previously mentioned one.

Then there are the true idealists.  They really do love the ‘payment’ they receive in the reactions of their audiences.  They smile watching us walk down the street in their clothes knowing that not only is their name on the label but they actually designed it.  Their hearts melt a little when they hear us humming one of their compositions.  Watching us ooh and ahhh as they hang upside down in the midst of an aerial ballet makes them fly higher and spin faster.  

I want to believe, as more of them enter the mainstream and share their art with larger audiences, that that idealism remains.  Coming from tribes where it has been nurtured and cultivated with added measures of concern for humanity and the planet, there is a strong ethic within them.  But it will take audiences challenging themselves to open up to this level of art rather than demanding it be brought down to a discount store level for it survive on a broader plain and for the artists to make enough money to live without selling out.  To help promote this effort, visit your local gallery, small music venue or summer stock theater.  Don’t break down and turn on Top 40 radio, patronize some big arena tour or buy a framed print at Home Goods.  Help grow a new integrity in the arts and their audiences.

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