Selling Out, Keeping it Real

I picked up a distinct running theme in this month’s issue of Fast Company. See if you pick it up too:

• Somalian hip-hop artist K’naan blows up as a global star as his “Wavin’ Flag” song, a jingle for and about Coca-Cola, hits the World Cup

• The creators of Phineas and Ferb, an edgy animated show in the mold of Spongebob Squarepants, aspire to the same marker of universal acclaim – mega-licensing opportunities

• Joe Penna will take $50 to $60 G’s a pop to come up with a series of YouTube shorts for advertisers, but he won’t just pitch for anyone, since his productions have to be authentic

Fast Company celebrates these stories for epitomizing entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity in this new, wired, socially networked world. But people from a generation or two ago would have had another label for them: “sell out.” And they would use that label with disdain.

How is it that in the span of just a few decades, what was once reviled is now celebrated? Five or so years ago, when my friend and I first saw Dr. Dre shilling for Coors Light, we laughed at him and made note that there was now no more shame when it came to musicians and commercialization. Now, no one seems to blink an eye. The very profile of people – musicians, animators, YouTube mavens – you’d think would care the most about not sullying their street cred with commercial crossovers are now the very ones trying the hardest how to figure out how to get embedded in Guitar Hero, sell ring tones, and hawk wares with their image on them at Walmart and Costco.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I don’t say this from a high perch, heaping scorn on any who would “sell out” in this way. If anything, monetizing your talents and uniqueness are something I’ve always admired rather than looked down on. You’ll not often find me among the apologists for the countercultural, anti-commercialism crowd.

Rather, the reason for this post is to ask: why is it so much easier, so much more pervasive, so much more accepted now, than before? Is it that the returns to commercialization are so great that not going that route is so much more costly now? Is it that because everyone else is doing it, there’s no shame factor? Is it because we really have “sold out,” hollowing out in our souls after a generation of reality TV, materialistic excess, and me-firstism?

What’s particularly curious to me is that not only is there no stigma to going commercial; it seems it is now the cool thing, rather than the opposite. “Selling out,” it seems, is the same as, and not the opposite of, “keeping it real.” At least that was the vibe I got from reading my Fast Company. What has wrought this incredible turnabout?

And, one more question, this one directed to my fellow people of faith. What is the word we are to say to such a generation?

This one baffles me, so I hope others have some insights they would be willing to share. In closing, I’ll only add this: while you’re driving in your Ford Escape, make sure to buy a Starbucks coffee and a Big Mac on your way home, and then tune into this week’s episodes of Mad Men and Biggest Loser. (Or else you can catch them on your iPhone or on Hulu later in the week.)

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