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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Dan Brooks

In the 90s, we worried about Nirvana ‘selling out’. I wish that concept still made sense

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana in New York, 1990.
Kurt Cobain of Nirvana in New York, 1990. Photograph: Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage

I was 14 when Kurt Cobain of Nirvana appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a T-shirt that said “CORPORATE MAGAZINES STILL SUCK”. Even at that tender age, I found his message worrisome: if Rolling Stone sucked, why was he on the cover? Maybe the shirt was ironic. Maybe his participation in the profile was ironic. Or maybe, alarmingly, he saw no contradiction between his shirt and his appearance in this corporate magazine, because we were all supposed to understand that any assertion of meaningful values in popular music was inherently bunk, even though many of the songs on Nevermind were clearly about me.

Cobain’s interview did not do much to resolve these ambiguities. After limply defending Rolling Stone as having some good articles, he added: “I don’t blame the average 17-year-old punk-rock kid for calling me a sellout.”

There’s a word you don’t hear much any more. Like very large trousers, the concept of selling out was so central to the 1990s that it seems quaint today. Also like big trousers, though, it feels relevant again. As vexed as the idea of selling out was, its disappearance from our collective values has had profound consequences in the 21st century.

Let us agree first that it was totally vexed. Nirvana – the band that, along with Pearl Jam, was most responsible for turning the “grunge” subgenre into the “alternative” marketing strategy – was the most sold-out band of its era by the most quantifiable metric: selling albums. The vast number of units Nevermind shifted made Nirvana, as Rolling Stone put it, “the world’s first triple-platinum punk-rock band”. Yet, by the intuitive values of the time, I did not consider them sellouts.

Certainly they had sold out more than, say, Fugazi, the post-hardcore band that didn’t sell merchandise and aggressively negotiated with venues for the lowest possible ticket price, but compared to the convoy of sellouts that would travel the road Nirvana paved – the seemingly joyless Stone Temple Pilots, the telegenic Bush, the canary in the mine that was Smash Mouth – they were aesthetes. This difference was clear to me and all my friends who complained about what was on the radio, even if we found it impossible to articulate in concrete terms.

What it came down to was that we liked Nirvana more than we liked Bush. This preference was obviously personal and therefore hard to defend, so we resorted to moral reasoning: Bush was a sellout band, and sellout bands pursued marketing strategies at the expense of artistic vision, giving them economic advantages that had a homogenising effect on music as a whole.

Those of us who survived 90s culture will remember that it was intensely conscious of the value of being different. That “be different” was primarily a marketing pitch – literally, in the case of Apple computers – was somehow not evident to us until years later, or evident at the time but explained away by the idea that consumer culture was “co-opting” authentic youth values rather than manufacturing them.

For much of my teens, I genuinely believed that some of the most popular bands in the world were “alternative”, while others were sellouts that were only marketed as alternative. The irony that my sense of a band’s alternativity was often directly proportional to its popularity was pretty much lost on me.

All this is to say that the concept of “selling out”, while central to my adolescent value system, was pretty much entirely bogus. Yet it was bogus at the level of epistemology, bogus in its lack of coherence and precision; at the level of ethics, or whatever can be called ethics in art, it pointed to an important value. It is that value that the abandonment of “selling out” as a concept threatens to lose sight of, possibly for ever.

Obviously, you want your entertainment to entertain you. Paradoxically, though, it is less entertaining to watch a musician – or, for that matter, a writer or film-maker or comedian – do only what they think you want. We prefer the work of artists who to some degree do what they want. That’s probably because such work is more likely to surprise us, and the element of surprise is necessary to feel like culture is moving forward.

The music industry of the 1990s became notorious for exploiting its understanding of what audiences wanted, progressing from the “discovery” of unlikely successes such as Nirvana to a slough of bands that recreated those elements most profitable to imitate. But even in that cynically effective era, record labels had to guess a little at what people liked, and this process of approximation left room for artists and their marketeers to do what pleased them, sometimes in ways that brutally sucked (Blues Traveler) but also in ways that introduced weird bands deeply beloved by niche audiences (Tool). Selling music was a less exact science, so there were more surprises.

Digital distribution changed that. By generating massive amounts of more precise and almost totally accurate data, online sales and then streaming gave artists, labels and platforms a much clearer perspective on what sells and what doesn’t. And because this perspective is (a) provable and (b) quantitative in ways that ideas such as “selling out” or “authentic” or “good” are not, the people who decide what music to promote are pretty much obliged to decide according to one metric: what audiences like, defined as what they have liked before. To a greater or lesser degree, this phenomenon has for the past two decades shaped every field of popular culture: not just music but also television, movies and online publishing.

And there is something wrong with popular culture in the 21st century, isn’t there? You don’t have to be a middle-aged punk to think that it feels less surprising and alive than it once did. The entertainment industry in general and music industry in particular have become exceptionally good at selling the maximum number of units, but selling units is not what music is for. As flawed as the idea of “selling out” was, it captured one incontrovertible truth: only a fool would write a song to make money. You write a song to surprise yourself, to give other people what they never knew they wanted. Perhaps what is missing from popular culture in the 21st century is sufficient contempt for those who give us what we asked for already.

  • Dan Brooks is a writer based in Montana

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