Monday, August 27, 2007

Come on and wash these shores away

Selling out is a topic I've touched on here so many times before, but like other topics, the reason why I bring it up again is when I gain a new perspective on it. So, allow me to tread some new ground in familiar territory.

As someone who has followed a specific genre that often discusses selling out (punk rock and its various off-shoots), I've seen full cycles with bands from indies to major labels. I believe it started for me firsthand in 1996 when the Offspring moved from Epitaph to Columbia. The band's popularity had become so big that moving to a major label was a must. Did I really care about this move or how popular the band was? No. Did I think their next record would be an abomination because it was on a major label? No. The only thing I thought about were the vocal minority who feared the worst was on its way. What was "the worst"? Well, it depends on who you ask.

As proven over and over and over again, punk rock bands making the jump to a major label rarely means they abandon their hardcore fans and/or the community they came from. Yet it's that vocal minority that doesn't want their favorite/treasured band be known (or worse, liked) by people they don't see eye-to-eye with. I'm talking those annoying jocks, ditsy cheerleaders and stressed-out soccer moms and so on. But should a band take a beating on online message boards and middle fingers at shows for becoming popular? I say no, but I can understand why people feel alienated by bands becoming popular.

In the case of the Offspring, I felt their major label bow, Ixnay on the Hombre, was a perfectly fine follow-up to Smash. Sure they showed some different styles on the record (ie, the somber "Gone Away"), but it didn't feel like they became Seven Mary Three or Silverchair. What mattered most to me (and still matters to me) is whether the songs were good or not. The same applies to Against Me!'s recent Sire debut, New Wave.

Some background: Against Me! gained notoriety in the hardcore/punk underground with their distinct blend of pop-punk, folk and hardcore. Starting out as an acoustic project by frontman Tom Gabel, they played laundromats, bonfires and apartments at first. Assembling a full electric band and releasing the highly-lauded Reinventing Axl Rose on No Idea Records, the band's popularity grew much in part to non-stop touring. When word got out they were putting out their next record on Fat Wreck Chords, an annoyed fan poked a knife in one of the tires in the band's van. They had just played a basement show and as they were driving off, they heard the tire wobbling. This would be just some of the backlash the band would endure for the next few years.

With subsequent releases on Fat Wreck Chords, the band's popularity kept growing. 2005's Searching for a Former Clarity saw the band getting video airplay on various video channels, an appearance on Late Night With Conan O'Brien and an opening slot for Green Day on their American Idiot tour. So it wasn't shocking when the band announced they signed with Sire, a longtime imprint under Warner Bros, in late 2005. Fearing the worst was upon them, the vocal minority of fans cried out. And this was a full two years before their Sire debut came out.

My feelings on New Wave is, while a solid effort that sounds great, it's not as strong as Searching for a Former Clarity. I don't blame anybody involved with the record company or the production of the record for this; it just doesn't grab me like their other efforts do. That said, I see no reason to downplay my admiration for the band as a whole. I still like those older records and I still think highly of the band members as people.

What I'm now seeing with the topic of selling out is this: it's a concern by a minority that appears to be a concern for a majority of fans. Let's face it, the way articles are written, selling out is an easy topic to touch on. For me, I could give a rat's ass because it really has nothing to do with the music itself. It means more to me to run into Against Me!'s drummer at South By Southwest and have a polite discussion with him about the band. If he was a stuck-up, pompous asshole with a handler turning me away from him, that might be another story. But even if he was, my decision about New Wave would be based on the music, not the minutiae.

Yet the general idea of punk rock is that it's for outsiders made by outsiders. Well, as out of step I might feel with the world -- even at 28 -- I understand I'm not some out-on-the-fringes outsider. I realize what so many people want out of life is not exclusive to loners. Of course, I doubt my brain would have understood that as a teenager. And I doubt most would ever understand this when they're teenagers. Hence why the concern of selling out remains and may always remain.

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