We all strive for success. Well, most of us do. Some of us have a fear of success, which I don't understand. I suppose it's that people get comfortable with the status quo even when the status quo sucks. Unfortunately, not everybody can be successful. Whatever your personal image of 'success' is, you may find that its always escapes your grasp. I can understand that this can lead to a bitterness that may fester for years, and I also understand that it's only human to take solace in, or even take delight in, the failure of others. In our celebrity-obsessed culture it seems that one thing society enjoys more than building somebody up is tearing them down. Whatever. The masses are fickle to the point of stupidity. I'm afraid that can't be helped. However, there is a phrase that bothers me not because it's often muttered bitterly by the dull-witted robotic masses, but because it is often used as people that pride themselves on being (or at least appearing) smarter than the average sheep. The phrase is "selling out", and I'm sick of it.
I can be considered a Z-List celebrity. Not a whole lot of people know who I am, but I do have an IMDb credit, and I have been recognized in public by strangers, most often as Creepy Steve. So yes, that makes me the minorest of minor celebrities. I make films, webshows, and music because I enjoy it. I don't have any over-the-top ambitions like becoming a box office titan or winning an oscar and then acting like a douche in front of millions of people. Sure, if that happens someday that would be cool, but I'm perfectly happy as long as I've got a digital video camera and a great group of artistic friends to work with. It's because of my artistic pursuits that it irks me when an actor, writer, director, musician, etc. etc. gets pegged as a "sell-out" because they accept a larger paycheck and more exposure to keep doing what they love to do. I like my humble warehouse job, my humble small town, and my humble Chevy Malibu, but if I was offered lots of money to act in or write something, I'd do it in a heartbeat. That's not selling out.
A big part of this phenomenon is the "They're just like us!" factor. Let's use a rock 'n' roll band as an example. The group, we'll call them Johnny Mathematician & The Prime Numbers, starts out as a local band. They get quite popular on the local scene, sign with a teeny independent record label, and start to make just barely enough money to go on tour. All the while they build up a small but loyal fanbase which eagerly attends each of JM & The PNs shows and equally as eagerly buys all of the band's output, including the single they released on 45 even though many of the fans don't own a record player. It looks cool hanging on the wall, man. This is how it goes for a few years. The fans love the band, not only because the music is great, but because Johnny and his group are common (poor) folk, "just like us!" Then one day the unthinkable happens. A fat-cat in a tacky suit (and probably smoking a cigar) offers Johnny Mathematician & The Prime Numbers a lucrative contract with Big Time Records, Inc. The band accepts. Cries of "They sold out!" ring throughout the band's former stomping grounds. While some of the 'original' fans are glad the band has found greater success, a large portion of the fanbase is alienated and put off by it.
But think about it. While Johnny and the other non-divisible-by-any-whole-numbers-besides-themselves-and-one band members were playing small clubs and impressing the pants off of local groupies, they still had to work their 'real' jobs. Johnny painted houses. The drummer worked at Best Buy. The lead guitarist (Johnny plays rhythm) worked in a not-rock-n-roll-at-all office. And the bass player... eh, who gives a shit about the bass player? He's awkward. Anyway, if the band is given the opportunity to just make music for a living, why shouldn't they take it? Sure, they could try to go on touring in their crappy van forever to save face and not be accused of selling out. But that can only last so long before the wheels fall off. Literally, the wheels might fall of the van, stranding the band in Stump, Delaware or some other place nobody but a bumpkin wants to be. I fully support Johnny Mathematician & The Prime Numbers' decision to sign with Big Time Records, Inc. Even if they're new album sounds a little overproduced. Rock on, Johnny. Rock on, Prime Numbers.
While Johnny and the boys are cruising around in their new gold-plated van, let's switch focus to the world of filmmaking. There's a writer/director, we'll name him F. Stuart Slightly, and he's kind of made a name for himself by putting out some arty independent films. Much to the horror of the emo glasses and ironic t-shirt wearing girls who love his films (but won't admit that they don't quite understand them), F. Stuart has been pegged as the director of a huge summer popcorn movie such as Epic Space Adventure 2 or maybe Super-Powered Man. "Sell-Out!" they all shout from behind their iPads at the chic local coffee shop. How could the angel who brought us such indie favorites as Last Train to Nowhere and The Soul in the Woods do this to us? Now he's in league with those demons who made Sci-Fi Action Thriller Team and it's sequel, Sci-Fi Action Thriller Team 2: Dark Side of Tomorrow.
Nobody except Joanna, that devil's advocate whose t-shirts are not at all ironic, has taken the time to think about the possible reasons Mr. Slightly would sign on to direct such a movie. Perhaps he loved Epic Space Adventure and leapt at the chance to direct the second one. Maybe he collected the Super-Powered Man comics as a kid and loves the idea of getting to bring the hero and his arch-nemesis, Dr. Hatefist, to the big screen. Or it could just be that Mr. Slightly is broke after self-financing a handful of independent films, and directing just one popcorn flick will supply him with the funds to make a dozen more indie movies and buy health insurance for his wife and kid. These are valid reasons. F. Stuart Slightly has not sold out. F. Stuart Slightly is a filmmaker and he's getting paid to make a film. Whatever his reasoning, it was his choice to make. You're not F. Stuart, you're not his wife, and you're not his agent, so you don't get a say in what he does with his career. Get over that. You don't have to go see Super-Powered Man. You can wait for his return to form with the release of his pet project, Strands of Forgotten Time, in four years. (Yeah, I'm having way too much fun making up names and titles.)
Before you go around accusing your former-favorite artist of being a sell-out, put yourself in his or her shoes for a moment. Imagine that you work in a small 'mom 'n' pop' junk shop. You've worked there for years, and you love it, but things haven't been going so well for Mom since Pop died last winter. She has to cut your hours because she's not making enough money selling used knick-knacks and dusty novelty records anymore. You try to stick it out, but you're falling behind on your bills, and you haven't been to the dentist since you lived with your parents. Next month a bigger, sleeker junk shop is opening up in another part of town. Based on your experience, they offer you a full-time position with better pay and a health care plan. You'd be a fool not to take the job, even though you'll miss Mom and her cute little store. Obviously, you're going to take the position with the bigger store, if for nothing else than to find out why your one molar is turning black. Mom won't hate you; she'll understand. And even if every patron of the old junk shop follows you around calling you a sell-out (which they won't), it doesn't matter, because you made the best choice for yourself and your future. So why should it be any different for a person whose life happens to be under more public scrutiny than yours?
Okay, there's plenty of spoiled celebrities out there. Many of them appear to be famous just for being famous (I'm not quite sure how/why that happens), many of them are merely coasting on past success, and way too many of them mysteriously hit it big without possessing any actual talent. But for the most part the world of audio and visual arts is populated by people who are doing what they do because they love to do it. If they choose to take more money to keep doing what they love, that only makes sense. Maybe they'll end up regretting the decision, maybe they won't. It boils down to this: They have chosen a profession, and like any other profession it doesn't make sense to say "No" to more money and a secure future. You wouldn't turn down a raise at work just so you could still fit in with your lower-payed colleagues. That doesn't make you a 'sell-out'. And just the same, a person who makes a living (or tries to) in an artistic field isn't a sell-out because they accept a fatter paycheck to do the same job they're already doing. Sure, they might get lazy and comfortable and start putting out crappier work. It's fine to judge and reject them based on a lousy output.
Rather than hating your once-favorite artists because they make wheelbarrows full of cash these days, check out their work and then decide. Just because there's a Mrs. Mathematician now (and she's a model) doesn't automatically mean that Johnny's songs are going to suck. And maybe you'll watch Super-Powered Man because you want to tear it apart, only to find that F. Stuart Slightly crafted an entertaining superhero movie while infusing it with his own off-beat sensibilities and maintaining his integrity. To me, selling out means giving up on what you believe in to advance your position and/or make more money, or stepping on your friends to achieve success and then forgetting about them. Being recognized for your abilities and given more money to use them is not selling out. Think about that next time you want to apply the 'sell-out' label to an artist. Judge their output, not their personal life decisions. And for Pete's sake, go get that black molar looked at!