“Selling out.” Artists and music fans everywhere bristle instinctively at the mere mention of these two words, which inevitably come loaded with personal perceptions of what constitutes a true sellout. Some consider it commercial success; others define it by giving up any amount of artistic control and rolling over to appease the powers that be; one of our favorite answers came from a struggling musician: “Selling out is when I go to the record store and all my CDs are sold out.”
In this list, we present 20 songs that examine this barbed concept. In the process, it seems there is, appropriately, a large concentration of punk and ska bands that touch on the subject, but artists from genres as far-reaching as folk, rap, metal and even pop have weighed in on it as well.
20. “The Handshake” – MGMT
_“I just shook the handshake, I just sealed the deal
I’ll try not to let them take everything they can steal
People always told me don’t forget your roots”_
Some of the surreal lyrics in “The Handshake” might lead you to believe MGMT wrote this song as an ode to LSD, but it’s actually about the band signing to Columbia Records. More than any of the other songs that discuss selling out, the lyrics to “The Handshake” are highly ambivalent by nature, with the narrator simultaneously excited, disgusted and fearful for all the changes that are about to come with signing to a label (referring to it as a “warped temptress” and conjuring up imagery of bloodstained hands).
19. “Johnny Quest Thinks We’re Sellouts” – Less Than Jake
_“We try to keep the prices low
For our records and our shows
But is that, is that enough
Or is it that we’re not punk enough?”_
Within this supremely goofy ska-punk ditty, Less Than Jake is a kernel of truth: If a band is doing all it can to make money but keep it affordable and accessible to its fans, what’s wrong with that? Overall, the song is aimed at those who dismiss bands who don’t play “pure” punk rock — like Less Than Jake, who were one of the first to combine the genre with the horns and fast grooves of ska.
“18. Love Song” – Sara Bareilles
_“You are not what I thought you were
Hello to high and dry
Convinced me to please you
Made me think that I need this too
I’m trying to let you hear me as I am”_
The story goes that pop-soul singer Sara Bareilles was approached by her record label to release a catchy love song as her first single. Well, she delivered on the former without a doubt, but the lyrics themselves are straightforward enough to show she has no interest in pandering to record execs’ interests. As the song was a smash hit, the chorus is often interpreted as not a commentary on the music industry or female artistic freedom but rather a simple breakup song.
17. “Catch Without Arms” – Dredg
_“Set the bait so they will bite it
If there’s a hook they can’t deny it
Sing about love so they can feel it
Sing about love so they can sing it”_
El Cielo, critically hailed as Dredg’s unquestionable art-rock masterpiece, didn’t move all that many copies, so of course its label wanted them to write poppier material that would boost sales. “Catch Without Arms” is a response to that request, where the band claims its refusal to compromise their art is what “sets it apart.” Strangely, the album of the same name did move in a more accessible direction, making it unclear how seriously Dredg means what they’re saying.
16. “Paparazzi” – Xzibit
_“It’s a shame
Niggas in the rap game
Only for the money and the fame”_
The chorus says it best, although Xzibit drops plenty of other memorable lines in his breakout single from 1996 (e.g. “Either you’re a soldier from the start or an actor with a record deal tryin’ to play the part”). Xzibit professes he doesn’t care about fame and fortune and stays removed from the B.S. world of celebrities. At that time, the rapper spoke from a real place, but his subsequent rise to superstardom as the host of MTV’s Pimp My Ride has somewhat damaged his reputation in hip-hop circles. “Don’t need no lights, no cameras, just action”? Seems like lately he might need all three.
15. “Cherub Rock” – The Smashing Pumpkins
_“Who wants honey
As long as there’s some money?”_
Billy Corgan himself has stated “Cherub Rock” is about the music industry, and the lyrics, though somewhat cryptic, seem to denounce several components of the scene: the sheep-like fans who flock to whatever’s trendy or “in” (“Hipsters unite”), the cold calculation of record companies (the aforementioned lines) and the tabloid media and their habit of perpetuating rumors (“Tell me all your secrets”).
14. “Soup of the Day” – The Vandals
_“Money is good when it comes your way
Take it now, it’s your day
Take it, before it goes away”_
Warning: lyrics definitely NSFW. This less-than-a-minute-long, manic punk tune provides some nasty imagery under which genuine insight swims. “Soup of the Day,” as its title implies, mainly laments the fickle tastes and attention spans of the public and (quickly) examines those attitudes’ effect on musicians. The song acerbically decries musicians who look for an easy way to get rich and grab for pop’s big “brass ring” only to have that short-lived, manufactured success desert them as they become part of a popular music assembly line.
13. “The Entertainer” – Billy Joel
_Ah, you’ve seen me in the papers
I’ve been in the magazines
But if I go cold I won’t get sold
I’ll get put in the back in the discount rack
Like another can of beans”_
Though he’s made plenty of pop tunes himself, everybody’s favorite “piano man” does have talent and longevity on his side, and his classic song “The Entertainer” spins a humorous narrative about a disposable pop star with no real musical ability or creative talent who must rely on their image to “stay on the charts” to survive. It also paints a picture of an egotistical star whose fame and public stature have gotten to his head so he has completely lost sight of what music is all about in favor of keeping the money flowing in.
12. “Art Is Hard” – Cursive
_“Try and fail and try again
The comforts of repetition
Keep churning out those hits
Till it’s all the same old shit”_
Highly sardonic and self-referential, Cursive talks about the dangerous line between art and commerce, having to re-create feelings on stage that one may no longer feel, and the dangers of satisfying fans with the tried-and-true approach at the cost of personal and musical evolution. Hence, “art is hard when we don’t know who we are.”
11. “Handbook for the Sellout” – Five Iron Frenzy
_“Do you remember where we all came from?
Do you remember what it’s all about?
When you made a point to be objective
Before you started writing Handbook for the Sellout?
You sunk your worth in being different
Just to be like your own kind
You traded in objectiveness
For the underground you follow blind”_
Another ska band adding to the list of “sellout songs,” Five Iron Frenzy sticks this song to those who are quick to label a band a sellout just because they get bigger and expand their fanbase, turning the issue on its head and branding those people as the true sellouts. Singer Reese Roper has a point: By restricting what you allow yourself like to bands with fewer than 100 fans, aren’t you just conforming to the underground? One more choice line: “What’s the point in playing what they want if you won’t let them succeed?”