02 April 2017

Musings on the Nobel Prize and Selling Out

It was a big news story and something of a shocker. Bob Dylan receives the Nobel Prize for Literature? While at first the Nobel committee was surprised and insulted by Bob Dylan's silence he came around... sort of.

He flew to Sweden to receive the prize but not on their terms. He refused the formal ceremony.
I can understand his anguish. What does a social rebel do when the Establishment wants to recognise and reward his work? To accept the prize is to deny what you were supposed to be all about.
Of course this is confused by several factors. Many rebels are phonies. They're adopting an image and even an ideology because it sells. In the end the rebel image is a ploy, a road to fame, fortune and Establishment connections.
Others sell out over time. They're corrupted by fame and fortune and with some age they change, mellow and adopt different values.
Others might argue they helped to change society and so the society that now recognises them after twenty, thirty or forty years is not the same society that they started with. The society that their art challenged no longer exists. The award is for them a sign of accomplishment and victory.
I've never been a fan of Bob Dylan but I'll grant he's interesting and I was curious to see if he would 'sell out' and take the Nobel Prize.
He did and he didn't. He took the prize and yet did so on his own terms... I suppose.
He took the prize which was a compromise but tried to remain Bob Dylan.
Other artists are like chameleons that change with the cultural wind. One thinks of someone like Madonna who has survived by endlessly re-inventing herself. Is she an artist? Maybe someone will think so.
If there is something to be admired it's her ability to connect with the pop culture and to use controversy as a means to promote herself. In that sense she's brilliant. In terms of talent, she's not really that great and never has been. I say this regardless of whether you like her style or content. I don't, but I'm speaking of her music within its own parameters and her talent as a singer. She's okay in terms of musical talent but she certainly knows how to put together 'the package' that will sell. No one can doubt her supreme talent in that regard.
Other artists have never really cared about the money and fame. They may have 'got it' to a degree but for them it was always the music and perhaps the message. They didn't care about packing stadiums and yet their talent has earned them a respectable audience and even a fortune. For them integrity was more important than the recognition from the Establishment in the form of awards and honours.
Someone like Paul McCartney is to me the classic case of a total sellout. A billionaire, he is happy to wed himself to the British Establishment, even allowing the Queen of England to knight him. A great honour, right?
Well, if fame and fortune is all you were about. But if you were genuinely trying to start a social revolution, then you've failed. I realise The Beatles started as a boy band and only upon their unforeseen and unparalleled success did they begin to explore other avenues. And yet every one of them became Members of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). So much for integrity. So much for rejecting the social paradigm. George Harrison befriended Ravi Shankar and the people of India. He might as well have spat in their faces when he received an honour from the British crown. Of course to many Indians while Shankar is on the one hand beloved, on the other he is also viewed as a sell-out, someone who exploited the 'exotic' element of Indian music and culture and became fabulously rich in the process.
Bob Dylan was once at the forefront of the changing times. He was a voice against the system and its values.
Has this system really changed so much that now you can in good conscience accept its praise? Has he turned dotard and failed to realise his acceptance of the Nobel Prize is a repudiation of his identity?
Some might see it different.
This isn't the farcical peace prize that has discredited itself by awarding figures like Kissinger and Obama. This is the Literature Prize which has recognised figures like Yeats, Shaw, Lewis, O'Neill, Hess, Faulkner, Russell, Hemingway, Pasternak, Steinbeck, Naipaul and Pamuk. This is in one sense the modern canon. On the other hand all these figures challenged the status quo. Maybe the prize is really about those who shake things up and challenge the culture?
Of course it also was awarded to figures like Winston Churchill. You can't get any more Establishment than that.
I guess I tend to respect the figures like Sartre who refused it, grasping that to accept it was to embrace conformity and was thus a repudiation of what he purported to be. It was perhaps his greatest gesture. It was his philosophy applied.
Le Duc Tho also exhibited a great deal of integrity in his refusal to accept it in 1973. While Kissinger basked in the fame and glory of it, Tho knew that the so-called 'peace' in Vietnam was a sham.
This is not to say that Sartre or Tho are people to uphold and yet on this point I laud their integrity.
The same could be said with regard to Marlon Brando. Although he did accept the Oscar for an earlier work he rejected it in 1973 and famously sent an Apache activist to make a political statement with regard to government treatment of Native Americans and also issue a stern rebuke to the movie industry.
Others like George C Scott rejected the Academy Award, but their reasons while perhaps valid were not quite the same. Scott seemed to find the whole notion of an awards ceremony degrading and offensive.
Kurt Cobain while never awarded any prizes (that I'm aware of) acutely felt the dilemma. His nihilist music and message was rooted in rejecting the system. Maybe there was a twinge of Sartrean Existential influence to his thought? Nirvana's lyrics certainly indicate as much. His anti-Establishment posture and denigration of the social order was his means of self-authentication.
His success destroyed him and I'm not just speaking of the corrupting influence of money and drugs. It literally destroyed his being. A downpour of money and adoring crowds meant... you're just part of the consumer/celebrity system.  
In a way he had of course achieved success. He had 'made it' into the big time and yet in his worldview 'the big time' was inauthentic, corrupt and repugnant. He had become what he loathed. The majority of the fans aren't getting the message. They've turned you into yet another pop icon. So what to do? Sadly his solution was to escape.
Cobain's solution was repugnant and yet in the end his action demonstrated that he felt the conflict. Others of course will ascribe his suicide to mental illness and drugs.
I find a lot of people I talk to struggle with understanding what it means to 'sell out'. I suppose you almost have to spend time in a subversive sub-culture to understand it. When Nirvana came onto the scene in 1991 I was still part of such a scene. Nirvana wasn't the kind of music we were into it but I also recall being rather put off with their commercial success, the music videos etc... It was a year of disappointments. Metallica's Black Album came out which was the epitome of 'selling out'. I still remember driving over to a friend's house. He had purchased the album that very morning. A group of us sat in his living room listening to it and were disgusted. It was heavy metal pop.
On one level it's all nonsense of course. The music is rubbish as are the movements. I was a lost person. And yet even after becoming a Christian I have often reflected on being counter-cultural, something I believe is at the heart of Christian antithesis. Lost people, perhaps sensing something is very amiss in our world will sometimes pick up a deformed and misguided sense of antithesis. While I can no longer join them on the journey, I can (in a distant sense) identify with them and please don't misunderstand me... admire them.
And yet to what end? What's the point of their art and social critique? If people hear you, they'll make you rich and distort your message. If you become rich, then you become part of the system.
What do all these 'rebel' actors and music people do with their money? Is it not parked in banks... in the markets? If that isn't being part of the system I don't what is.
Can you have money and be a rebel? That's a fine line to tread.
Others use the rebel image to market themselves and in the end it was indeed all about fame and fortune. For some this is transcendence and immortality.
They're in for a disappointment.
Of course I often find it nothing less than amazing to consider how many artists and thinkers have died never knowing their success. Orwell died not long after writing 1984. How shocked he would be to learn of its cultural impact. Countless authors, artists and thinkers who are still being talked about today had no idea their names would still be bandied about centuries after their deaths.
And yet there are myriads of people who were famous in their day, and yet are not remembered. Others enjoyed a brief season in the spotlight but knew obscurity even before they died.
Fame is a fleeting elusive thing.
I doubt Mr. Cobain will be remembered in fifty years. Even the young-death 'icons' that were a big deal when I was growing up, Joplin, Morrison and Hendrix while still a 'big deal' today are (I think) beginning to fade a little. I could be wrong. Their album sales march on, but is the younger generation 'getting it'? Will anyone care in another generation?


  1. So, you don't entertain the theory that Courtney Love killed Cobain? :)

    Another dark grungish band that faced off with this whole question was Tool. Maynard is an incredibly odd and mutant figure, but I'm in awe of his self-awareness. He put out a song called "Hooker with a Penis", which was basically a fake dialog with a fan over authenticity. The message of the song is clear: of course I sold out, I always planned to, we all do, that's what it's about, and it's not my fault you're so naive to think otherwise.

    Coming from different generations, the way I see it is there's some sort of synthesis going on. It's the yuppie phenomenon writ large. Authenticity is something you do in your corporate office planning your next hobby. The radically socially subversive gay sub/counter culture is now thoroughly bourgeois gay marriage. Activism is accompanied by selfies. There is voluntourism, being a good global citizen by being a consumer of all things. etc. etc. etc.

    I'm sure these figures will remain, whether Cobain or Hendrix or whomever (even my beloved Johnny Cash), though completely misunderstood. The confusion of their own lives will be thoroughly straightened out and be a data point along our march to progress and liberal utopia, until there's a meltdown.


    1. Maynard's attitude is not unique to him and can be found across the musical spectrum of popular artists. The entire music industry is a capitalistic endeavor and success is and must be gauged by profitability, aesthetic considerations aside. In other words, it doesn't matter how talented you are. If you can't sell records, then you're out of a job. Your agent will drop you and move on to someone more lucrative. That's the way it's always been.

      This is something the Christian Right has historically failed to understand. In part it's because they focus overwhelmingly on externalities. I recall the controversy surrounding Marilyn Manson shortly after the Columbine shootings. His explicitly anti-Christian motif along with the racy lyrics contained in many of his songs rankled quite a few feathers within evangelical Christendom and, as was their habit since the 1950s, they appealed to the government to implement censorship laws and effectively ban Manson from performing in public and, as far as they were concerned, functioning as a conduit for demonic activity.

      What they don't realize is that Manson was a businessman through and through. His on-stage persona was designed to sell records and the man himself didn't give a damn about his fans as long as they gave him money. What's ironic is that many of those criticizing him had a vested interest in the same economic system that made him rich. From that standpoint, it's almost hypocritical of them to criticize Manson for making money through "ingenuity" when many of the sleazy televangelists they lauded were doing the same thing. Their hypocrisy is illustrated even further when you consider that a portion of Manson's taxable income funded the military-industrial complex, which has been instrumental (no pun intended) in making the lives of those elsewhere on the globe incomprehensibly miserable.

      Ultimately, Manson's undoing wasn't at the hands of a vigilant church or a zealous government censor. Quite simply, his act got old. He failed to reinvent himself when subsequent generations of adolescents with disposable income came of age and he faded into oblivion. I'm sure he still has a cult following but it's not what it once was. The world, the flesh and the devil have moved on and left him behind, as has evangelical Christendom.

    2. There's also that great story (apocryphal or not, I don't know) that Lady Gaga was told that she had a good voice, but was not pretty enough to be a glam star. So, the only way she'd make it was if she went the weird route. It's sad and pathetic, but the reality. I've also read enough accounts from Christian musicians that were so utterly disgusted with the Christian record complex that they refused to participate and went to "secular" labels. That's probably the worst part about it. The Tim Tebows and Jeremy Lin's of the world flopped, but they revealed a craven and hungry "Christian" media willing to package them up and whore them for dollars and influence.

  2. "Someone like Paul McCartney is to me the classic case of a total sellout."

    And if John Lennon were to be alive today, he would be singing,

    "All we are saying, is, 'Give Trump a chance.'"

    According to some sources Lennon was a big supporter of both Reagan and Thatcher.

    Most people are not aware that both McCartney and Lennon were from fairly affluent middle class families of "respectable" leafy south districts of Liverpool. It was only Ringo who was working class and from the deprived inner city areas of terraced row houses of first, the Welsh-place-named streets in the Princes Park neighborhood (almost always incorrectly referred to as part of Toxteth), and then those of the Dingle district (adjacent to the Mersey).