I've tried to make it a point to not be one of those people who gets all "Sellout! Sellout!" when a favorite artist dares dirty his or her hands by engaging the marketplace. I remember reading this essay/response by Dave Eggers about the idea of selling out and thinking, "Okay, that makes sense," and making a conscious decision not to worry about artists "keeping shit real." Since I read that (it must have been college), the entire culture seems to have decided not to worry, either. Songs from bands like Subpop's The Shins and Iron & Wine turn up relatively frequently in commercials or as background music on MTV, Dylan did a Victoria's Secret commercial (you can watch him leering here), and Devo has engaged the corporate world head on (click here, warning: audio starts playing immediately). And frankly, this didn't really bother me: Subpop's current lineup seems to have quite a few bands looking for mainstream success, Bob Dylan's Victoria Secret commercial seems kind of like another joke from an inscrutable artist, and Devo has always been made of 99.8% pure irony.
But I saw something on TV last night that got to me. It was a commercial for Cesar dog food featuring the bouncy opening of "I Think I Need a New Heart" by The Magnetic Fields. The Magnetic Fields are a product of Stephin Merritt, who seems to say whatever comes to mind, and have little care for what happens (here's a recent article on Merritt, and how some things he's said have lead to charges of racism). By most reports, Merritt is a nightmare to interview, as he'll ignore questions he thinks are stupid. He's smart as hell, his music is quirky (in the sense that it's made with its creator's quirks on full display), and he makes music that is pretty far outside the mainstream. And said music is now being used to hawk dog food.
I think I finally understand why people get annoyed at artists "selling out." It's not that I'll be unable to enjoy the dog food song anymore (seeing it in the commercial has made me listen to it two or three times, and it's still a very good song), it's that it makes it clear that an artist I admire is human. I like to think that Merritt lives in a bare, white-walled studio apartment, sleeps on top of a pile of 78s he bought at garage sales, and subsists on a daily crust of bread. His only income is from fans who press bills into his hands when he walks down the street. He's being evicted, because the neighbors can't get through the camp of journalists outside his building, waiting to capture him saying something "controversial." But that, clearly, isn't true. It's not that I want him to be poor, it's that I want to believe he's an artist purely for the sake of his art. I want to believe that he's not engaging the marketplace in any way, when in reality, every time he releases a record (even if it's on an indie label), he's doing just that. And the dog food commercial made it clear: Stephin Merritt sells music for a living. I shouldn't be mad at him for it when I'm lucky enough to be a consumer, too.