[NOTE: Recently in comments on Grace’s YouTube music videos, a couple of posters have used the term “sellout”, without elaboration. What follows is an exploration of the term and its context, as well as a view as to what puts Grace the Artist beyond such concerns.]
“Yes, we sell out. Every single seat, every time we play, anywhere we play.” – Metallica’s Jason Newsted, VH1’s Behind the Music (1998)
Newsted’s quote, near the end of the one-hour doc, was in response to growing fan unrest and rampant accusations of “selling out”. By the early 2000’s, the discussions in chat rooms and on the pages of fanzines wasn’t whether Metallica had sold out, but when exactly the definitive moment was and what constituted the proof. Some argued that the Load and Reload albums were the evidence, railing against others who countered that the Black Album had first crossed the line, while a few still held out that they never should have signed a recording contract in the first place. Line-up changes, concept videos, haircuts, clothing, music styles and touring partners had all been used as examples of the band’s loss of direction and failure to “stay true” to themselves and their fans. On top of all was that they actually had the absolute gall to sue Napster in 2000 for the right to collect revenue for the music they wrote and recorded.
The criteria for a music artist selling out are so varied and subjective that the history of the usage was profiled in a piece by Slate in 2017. The article tracks the rise and (partial) fall of the term over the last 75+ years, leveled at musicians for trading in their principles for fame, riches, or other purpose.
The most literal use of the term “sellout”, the trading of artistic integrity for pure profit, was seen to be letting your music be turned into a sales jingle. While relatively common now, the use of recent music, especially by the original artist, in ads sometimes created a backlash. Elton John’s appearance in Sasson jeans ads in 1984, performing an altered version of “Sad Songs Say So Much” only months after the song was released, created a stir by those who felt the line was being blurred to an insulting level. In 2007, the Washington Post even hosted a calculator which, using a complex formula, let fans determine the relative egregiousness (labeled the “Moby Quotient”) of a given song used to sell a given product.
Occasionally there has been blow-back when a musician branches out into other forms of entertainment, fearing they are either giving in to ego or overestimating their talents. These grumblers ignore a long and storied history of music artists transitioning successfully to movies and television. Stars such as Elvis, the Beatles, Cher, David Bowie, Madonna, LL Cool J, Will Smith and most recently Lady Gaga have held their own, and sometimes more, in the acting world.
One of the most widespread uses of the term is as a synonym for “poseur”. Artists or bands changing their hair, clothes, appearance, and so on, simply as a matter of personal preference or to stay current with changing fads, can and have been met with ridicule or worse. Metallica, going clean-cut by the late 90s, echoed a similar move made by the Beatles some 35 years earlier just before coming to America, just at a different point in their career. Even as the Beatles rode a wave of non-conformist style and dress later in the 60’s, part of their business dealings included a short-lived attempt to market fashion at the Apple Boutique in London. Other stars, Madonna being a prime example, not only have reinvented their look and style with ease over decades, but are acclaimed for leading the charge that others follow. While fans and critics can argue the merits of their altering the style they had when they became famous, for their most critical followers the S-word isn’t far off.
Even simply getting popular opens music acts to potential abuse for selling out. Long-suffering bands toiling in relative obscurity – typically in the hardcore, metal, or punk scenes – were met with disdain from a segment of their fans simply for signing a recording contract. The Ramones are held up as an example of the “wrong sort of behavior”, usually by people who wanted to keep them as their own little hidden gem.
At the heart of the matter is the concern, real or imagined, that changes to the musician’s “signature sound” are the result of preplanned strategy for bottom-line results. Abrupt changes in subject, composition, instrumentation, genre, and collaboration have all been viewed with a jaundiced eye by fans and critics alike. Buddy Holly’s orchestrations in 1958, Bob Dylan “going electric” at Newport Folk in 1965, the influence of disco on bands such as ELO and Queen in the late 1970’s, and more recently Miley Cyrus’ hip-hop turn and the death of the “old” Taylor Swift have all been met with significant irate response. Unless the artist specifically declares they’re “in it for the money”, as KISS for example has done since their inception, music acts have had to struggle to hold the course of their artistic integrity in a world careening back and forth between “they’ve changed too much” and “all their songs sound the same”.
So what can be made of Grace’s short career path to date? Any fan base that she might have had prior to the airing of her AGT audition would have consisted of friends and family, and those stumbling across her by accident (her YouTube subscriber count that day was 64, per Socialblade). If any among them felt that they were losing a secret treasure, they are quite few and should be truly ashamed of themselves.
As to her AGT appearance itself being a sellout opportunity, Grace’s own words should clarify any motive. In many interviews on the matter, her intent for using the audition (which she herself didn’t instigate) was for practice and as a fun learning opportunity. Even her comment during the stage interview with Simon Cowell about her friends’ lack of awareness of the event is a telling point about her non-existent self-promotional instinct at that stage.
Grace’s music has so far been used in several television ads, in ways that have been described by viewers and industry wags as inspiring, uplifting and emotional. In the case of her first commercial, the use of her appearance singing “Light the Sky” for Google, her rights to the competition performance and its use may have been out of her control completely based on the contract she signed with AGT. Continued occasional and tasteful licensing of her music shouldn’t risk resentment in any significant way.
The news of Grace signing to star in the Disney+ original movie “Stargirl” was met with a small but vocal smattering of negative response among the otherwise happy and excited fan base. Comments either decried her selling her soul to a mouse-shaped corporate monolith, or voiced concern (or even predicted imminent doom) while citing the career paths of former child stars in the studio’s history. The subject matter and pedigree of the author, director, producers and co-stars have signified that this is no stereotypical exploitation move on anyone’s part, and should put at ease any rational concern on the matter. Grace’s own recently-expressed feelings about further acting in the near term may make the point moot in any case.
Grace, becoming famous at such a young age, should likely be immune to criticism for changes in hairstyle and clothing, especially in today’s relatively relaxed and informal era. Her choices on stage and on the red carpet have run the gamut of styles, from androgynous pinstripe suits to fluffy confections, performing full concerts in jeans and sweatshirt as easily as in layered black dress and floral crown. Her turn as a model and her appearances at fashion events and wearing designer couture put her in the trendsetter category, rather than the trend-chaser one.
Nowhere has Grace shown the ownership of the moral high ground more than in her attitude toward her music. Her desire and then insistence on using originals on AGT spoke to how important she took the experience, and how much she felt her own words and music were the best reflection of who she was as an artist and a person. Her response to critics who heard the studio renditions of some of those same songs, most notably the last section of “Beautiful Thing”, was that these recordings represented how the music sounded in her head as she wrote them.
While the making of “Just the Beginning” ushered in a period of collaborative writing, Grace’s relative control was expressed in the praise given to her by both producers and co-writers. In both the subject matter and stylistic choices, the album and tour reflected a course untethered from the more popular musical trends of the moment. That being said, recent comments about the writing experience in her explanation of the meaning of the song “Stray”, point out Grace’s continued insistence on expressing her own inner voice apart from even the most helpful and supportive co-creators.
Grace jettisoned an unknown number of potential songs written in the summer of 2018 for principled reasons, choosing her musical integrity over the potential benefit in popularity. Her mantra of “Not for Everybody” works both ways, in understanding that she will not appeal to all, and that she needn’t work to try. If she were to add to her wide variety of musical styles and subjects a rap or hip-hop song, or a sappy love ballad, you can be assured it was the expression of who she was and what she felt in the moment.
This article was first posted in the VanderVault Discussion Forum: https://vandervault.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=83