The sell-outs who always sell out

In Praise of Sacred Cows

This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10

As a rock band, The Police came in for a lot of stick. Their first four singles, which included “Roxanne” and “So Lonely”, were flops when first released in 1977 and 1978. The trio were sneered at by the cool kids of the music press, dismissed as “white reggae”, a term used pejoratively to suggest inauthenticity. Rolling Stone’s review of the band’s first album, Outlandos d’Amour, called it an “infuriating and condescending parlor trick”. How dare they presume to ride in on punk’s coattails?

There has always been a feeling in popular music that being popular is somehow infra dig

Andy Summers had studied classical guitar for four years at university. Drummer Stewart Copeland’s father had been a CIA station chief. The CIA! Could they possibly be any less rock’n’roll? Rock is meant to be about, as Jack Black’s character puts it in School of Rock, “sticking it to The Man”. The Police virtually were The Man. However, Summers, talking about the band’s 2007 reunion tour, told a newspaper: “I got about $1m a night, and we did 150 nights. Someone’s got to do the job.”

Perhaps Mr Summers cries himself to sleep every night in one of his three large houses at the thought that he was once viewed as irrelevant by the NME. Or maybe a million dollars a night for playing a few, admittedly fancy, arpeggiated chords goes some way to ameliorating the agony of being thought uncool. As Frank Sinatra supposedly observed: “The best revenge is massive success.”

There has always been a feeling in popular music that being popular is somehow infra dig. If you sell out Wembley Stadium, you are a “sell-out” and being a sell-out is a bad thing. It means you’ve “gone commercial”; you have compromised the artistic integrity which can only be maintained by not being a very accomplished musician or by subjecting your audience to 20 minutes of howling feedback or by embracing repetitive, atonal, two-chord dirges; the sort of stuff that, for years, John Peel would gleefully inflict on listeners to his late-night Radio 1 show.

This school of thought maintains that music should be “edgy” and “dangerous” and “challenging”. It should be everything that AOR — “adult-orientated rock” — and MOR — “middle of the road” — music is not. The ideologically-pure commissars of the music press deployed these expressions as terms of abuse. 

To be deigned MOR by these Gauleiters of taste is to be beyond the artistic pale. That Rolling Stone review of Outlandos d’Amour scorned The Police as “today’s AOR darlings”. To sell records by the million was vulgar.

Refinement was reviled. Rawness was the thing. And “authenticity”. Noise merchants, angry shouters, avant-garde anarchist collectives, agitprop garage-band thrashers, free-verse poetaster shoe-gazers, lo-fi droners — these were what we should be listening to. The Fall, Sonic Youth, Pavement et al = good. The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac et al = bad.

But if it is wrong to simplistically equate commercial success with artistic excellence it is surely just as wrong to equate commercial failure with artistic excellence. Fleetwood Mac’s 1978 album Rumours is a pristine pop-rock classic. Recorded after the British band had recruited the perky American couple Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham and changed musical direction, it is the eighth best-selling album ever and the very definition of “all killer, no filler”. 

It has resonated with every generation since its release and is currently enjoying even more attention than usual thanks to the worldwide success of the TV adaptation of Daisy Jones & The Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel loosely inspired by the Mac story.

And yet you can still find any number of music snobs who insist that all Fleetwood Mac’s best work was in the pre-Nicks-Buckingham era, when they were still a rough-hewn British blues outfit rather than a slick AOR hit machine. They sold out, you see, when the Americans arrived. They went commercial. One website brushes off the post-Nicks Mac as producing “chickified pop”.

Ol’ Blue Eyes was right

 And the scribbling classes really, really hate the Eagles, another band deeply tainted by success. After the 2016 death of co-founder Glenn Frey, one US title ran a piece headlined “Glenn Frey’s death is sad, but the Eagles were a horrific band”. The paper suggested that “hating the Eagles defines whether a music fan is a fan of music or just a bandwagon-jumper”. The influential rock critic Robert Christgau once wrote that “Listening to the Eagles has left me feeling alienated from things I used to love.” Really, Rob? 

In the cult Coen Brothers film, The Big Lebowski, the Dude (Jeff Bridges) asks the driver of a cab to change the radio channel which is playing “Peaceful Easy Feeling” because “I hate the fucking Eagles, man.” To his credit, the outraged taxi driver screeches to a halt and physically hauls the Dude out of his car. 

But hating the Eagles has become a performative, virtue-signalling ritual, although their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) is currently at number five on the all-time bestseller list.

The closest contemporary equivalent is Taylor Swift. In some quarters it is de rigueur to deride the staggeringly successful singer-songwriter. Maybe it’s because of her long-running feud with Kanye West, which began in 2009 when the rapper interrupted her acceptance speech for an award to say that Beyoncé should have won. 

Maybe it’s because she’s somehow perceived to be both a goody-two-shoes and an insatiable man-eater. She’s “fake” and a “snake”. The hashtag #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty regularly trends on Twitter. Does all this hurt? In the documentary Miss Americana, Swift admits to registering people’s comments on her appearance and having struggled with an eating disorder. “There’s always some standard of beauty that you’re not meeting,” she says.

But she also has perspective. “Do you really care if the internet doesn’t like you today if your mom’s sick from her chemo?” she says, her mother having twice been diagnosed with breast cancer.

And — newsflash! — no matter how many times it trends, Taylor Swift is not over. In fact, it’s distinctly possible Taylor Swift has barely begun. 

She’s currently on a stadium tour of the US. More than 2.4 million tickets were sold in a single day, setting a new record for the most concert tickets sold by an artist in 24 hours. She has released three albums of new material in the last three years and they have swept all before them, critical and commercial smash hits. After releasing the most recent, Midnights, in October, Swift became the first artist in history to claim the top ten spots on the Billboard Hot 100 song list.

As if that wasn’t enough, the Shakespearean scholar, Sir Jonathan Bate, declared her a poet in a recent Sunday Times piece headlined “Why Taylor Swift Is A Literary Giant”. On Radio 3’s Private Passions, along with Sheppard’s “Libera nos, salva nos” and Strauss’s “Drei Lieder der Ophelia”, Bate chose “Love Story”, a relatively early Swift work that he described as the “perfect pop song”.

So as one of her hits has it, haters are, undoubtedly, “gonna hate hate hate” but, as she sings triumphantly in another, “I’m shining like fireworks over your sad, empty town”. 

Ol’ Blue Eyes was right.

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