Anatomy of a Sellout
Dumbing Down with Jewel and Liz Phair

So I was watching Project Greenlight on Sunday night, and I nearly fell out of my chair in shock. Let me tell you about it.

For those who’ve never seen it, Project Greenlight is a show on HBO that documents this interesting experiment. Will Hunting and the Sexiest Man Alive (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, respectively) have set up this annual contest to find untapped filmmaking talent, and give them an opportunity to make a real, million-dollar nationally-released film. They take submissions from screenwriters and directors, fly the finalists out to the Sundance Film Festival to pitch their projects (or themselves), and select one script to be made and one director to make it. Then, the whole filming process is documented by HBO and turned into some surprisingly compelling reality television.

I highly enjoyed the first season, which followed neophyte Pete Jones as he made Stolen Summer, a fairly mediocre coming-of-age tale. What was fascinating about it to me was seeing all the incredibly hard work and emotional anguish that goes into the making of even a slight, forgettable film. Some people actually think that their favorite actors make up their own lines, and directors merely point the camera at them and the film comes together on its own. Project Greenlight worked overtime to show how untrue this assumption is. Even with the slanted, chopped-up reality presented on the show, which probably resembled the whole truth only a small fraction of the time, it was a fun and informative window into a world few will experience.

So I made a point to watch the premiere of the second season on Sunday, which culminated with Damon and Affleck announcing the winners at Sundance. And I guess I’m really out of the loop, because the winners were announced in January, and I only found out who they were by watching the show, but whatever. But I plan to watch every week from now on, and catch the movie itself, because it turns out I’ve met the directors.

Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle were local celebrities in Portland, Maine while I lived there. The two hosted a cable access show that gained them notoriety, but their real accomplishments were the feature films and shorts they made, including the creepy Reindeer Games and the rather funny Pennyweight. Plus, the pair used to do movie reviews for Face Magazine, which I edited for years. I always admired Kyle and Efram for their drive and ambition, and their genuine talent – which, like all genuine talent in Portland, was met with a mixture of jealously and derision, for the most part. The two are amazingly sympatico, and getting to watch them make a movie on HBO is going to be fun.

The movie they get to make is called The Battle of Shaker Heights, and was written by fellow contest winner Erica Beeney. This will be the first film these guys have directed that they didn’t write, and it should be interesting to see how much of their creative stamp they get to imprint on it. Anyway, I just wanted to congratulate Kyle and Efram for landing this opportunity – and the premiere episode of the show certainly argues that they did earn their chance – and say how strange it already is to watch these guys, a fixture of a life I left behind, doing their thing on television. Hope it turned out well.

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Pretty much every musical artist who isn’t Fugazi or the Sex Pistols has, at one time or another, been accused by fans of selling out. But what, exactly, does that mean?

Unfortunately, to some closed-minded people, selling out refers to anything a band does that might expand their audience. It’s the our-little-secret syndrome – the truth is that some people only love certain music because most everyone else has never heard of it. They latch on to bands with which they identify, and then regard people who get into them later as less than worthy. “I’ve been into the Screaming Fuckdragons since their first demo tape,” they sniff. “You only got into them when they signed with a label,” they whine. And then they go in for the kill – “You only liked them after they sold out.”

But if an artist is producing good work, isn’t it a good thing that said artist’s audience continues to expand? It’s usually the opposite, honestly – despite decades of solid, terrific work, people like Bruce Cockburn and Mike Roe continue to sell only to the faithful few. There’s a certain indie cachet to only selling a few thousand copies (at most) of one’s work, but such a paucity of income doesn’t guarantee the ability to keep making that work. It’s a vicious cycle, and as long as the work is not affected, audience expansion is an unqualified good.

Ah, but there’s the rub – the work often does suffer in such circumstances, especially when artists sign to major labels. Suddenly, there are more people with jobs on the line who want a hand in crafting the music, and most of them aren’t musicians. Even if that’s not the case, it’s often extremely difficult to maintain the sense of the work under such increased pressure. (Another reason I’m interested to watch Kyle and Efram make their movie…) For instance, few would argue that R.E.M. made a smooth transition to Warner Bros. Records from tiny I.R.S. in the late ’80s. Their last I.R.S. album, Document, was excellent, and their first WB album, Green, was… well, not so excellent. They didn’t really find their footing again until Automatic for the People, three albums into their contract.

It is possible, however, for a band or artist ascending to major label status to retain the qualities that won them fans in the first place. An arguably perfect example is Sonic Youth, who kept the squalling, dissonant wonder of Daydream Nation when they moved to Geffen for Goo. Listen to those records (and the follow-up, Dirty) now and they sound like a logical progression. Still, at the time, fans cried sellout just because the band went to a major. Honestly, if Geffen could help get something like Washing Machine or NYC Ghosts and Flowers made and internationally distributed, then it can’t be all bad.

Selling out, then, should be a term reserved for those artists who deliberately change their sound or the content of their work to appeal to a broader audience. Under that definition, neither R.E.M. nor Sonic Youth would qualify as sellouts. (I don’t care how “poppy” you think Goo is, to the mass public it still sounds like unlistenable waves of noise. Really.) In order to really examine the process of selling out, we need to look at albums specifically designed for radio play, or video rotation, or anything else that sets commercial concerns above artistic ones.

Okay, then. I’ve got a couple.

It pains me that both of this week’s targets are talented women performers, because we don’t have enough of them on major labels. Jewel’s debut album, Pieces of You, seemed to indicate the birthing of a genuine, major talent. It was mostly acoustic and folksy, but it was nearly bursting with emotion and personality. Songs like “Adrian” are difficult to listen to – Jewel put so much real pain into their delivery that they practically shake with honesty and power. Similarly, Liz Phair made a huge splash with her defiantly lo-fi debut, Exile in Guyville, a maelstrom of blunt vulgarity and devastating lyrical acumen. Guyville went on to become a legend, held in such high esteem that any new Phair album gets the same treatment as a new Star Wars film – it could be Citizen Kane and still be disappointing.

I’m not entirely sure how we ended up here, though, because both Jewel and Liz Phair have decided, presumably independently of one another, to become pop stars. Jewel’s new album is called 0304, named after the years she hopes to ride it all the way to the bank, and believe it or not, it’s an excursion into dance-pop land. This is the kind of album which replaces both the words “to” and “too” with the numeral “2” in the song titles, the kind of album that surges forward on glossy production and propulsive, programmed drum beats. It’s the kind of album that prefaces each chorus with the production equivalent of a mighty voice screaming, “Here it comes!!!”

Unsurprisingly, Jewel adapts well to this style, which doesn’t speak to versatility as much as it does to Jewel’s faceless non-identity. Since her debut, she’s effectively subsumed her singular voice in the whims of her producers. She’s made slick Lilith Fair pop (Spirit), bland country-tinged rock (This Way) and a frigging Christmas album (Joy), and she’s completely submerged herself in these genres each time. It’s to the point that Jewel probably can’t remember how to summon the strength of her debut anymore.

0304 is an album that could have been made by any one of the current crop of teen starlets, and it would probably be praised for its minor moments of interest if it had been. “Leave the Lights On,” for example, incorporates some jazzy elements behind Jewel’s processed, husky voice. “Haunted” is supposed to be creepy, and you can hear the barest glimmers of what it could have been beneath the drum machine. “Doin’ Fine” is also an acceptable pop song.

Oddly, though, it’s the lyrics that really do this record in. They’re so bad on some tracks that part of my preparation for writing this column was to look up the noun form of insipid, because I was sure I’d need it. (It’s “insipidity,” by the way, just in case I don’t manage to use it.) Here, for example, is the chorus of “U & Me = Love,” a title I swear I am not making up: “Come on baby won’t u crash into me, I’m like nothing that you’ve ever seen, Dynamite, I’ll blow your mind, Guaranteed 2 mesmerize, You’ll say ‘Ooh la, la, la.'” All “2 kewl” spellings have been preserved.

Still, it’s easier to sell out when you have very little to sell, and Jewel has made such a schizophrenic mess of her career that it’s hard to be surprised at this move. 0304 seems entirely geared towards getting Jewel on TRL, but after three utterly bland and featureless albums, who’s to say she doesn’t belong there? If, however, Liz Phair winds up there, it would be kind of tragic. It’s hard to argue with the downward slide of Phair’s career, though, and the best you can say about her post-Guyville output is that, unlike Jewel, she’s followed a straight line of decaying decline. None of that confusing lateral movement for Phair. It’s been straight down for many, many years.

The strange, unfortunate nadir of Phair’s career to date is her self-titled fourth album, a slick product from the school of Sheryl Crow. Phair is the bigger attention-getter, largely due to interviews in which she’s dissed Guyville and said this album is the one she’s always wanted to make. Oh, and of course there’s the cover photo, in which 36-year-old Phair goes all Maxim on us in a shot reminiscent of Christina Aguilera’s recent Rolling Stone cover.

If she’s telling the truth, and Liz Phair is the album she’s always meant to make, then it only means that she’s not someone we should have been paying any attention to in the first place. She collaborates with the Matrix, the production team behind Avril Lavigne (that’s four, Mike!), on several tracks, including the pseudo-woman-power anthem, “Extraordinary,” also the first single. The Matrix has worked its magic here – their songs sound just like everyone else they produce, and they’ve even turned Phair into a pop singer, sanding off her rough edges. Sadly, the rest of the album is of a piece with the Matrix singles. Even the Michael Penn-produced material is dumb and glossy, and virtually none of the songs exhibit an ounce of individuality. They’re all radio-ready melodic rock, workmanlike and professional.

But if you listen closely, you can hear Phair trying to sell out with a wink. In “Rock Me,” for example, she discovers the joys of younger guys – “I want to play X-Box on your floor, say hi to your roommate who’s next door.” In the next couplet, she slips this in: “Your record collection don’t exist, you don’t even know who Liz Phair is.” In one of the Matrix tunes, “Favorite,” she subverts the glossy production somewhat by making the song as stupid as possible: “You feel like my favorite underwear, and I’m slipping you on again tonight.” That’s the chorus. Honest. You even feel dumber just singing along.

(Oh, and I highly doubt any of the less worldly teen stars with whom Phair has chosen to compete for radio time will be singing the praises of “Hot White Cum” anytime soon…)

So yes, there is a bit of the old Liz Phair on this album, but not nearly enough to make up for the layers of crushing mediocrity covering almost everything. I say almost because, saddest of all, sitting at track seven is “Little Digger,” a simply beautiful song that deserves a better album. Musically it sounds like Michelle Branch, unfortunately, but lyrically, thank Christ, it sounds like Liz Phair. “Little Digger” is about a single mom and her son (obviously autobiographical), and the honest tangle of emotions surrounding bringing another man into the family makeup is heartrending. It’s the one moment on Liz Phair that couldn’t have been much better.

The stink of sellout is all over this record, though, as it is on Jewel’s disc. These are two sterling examples of completely rewriting one’s sound to expand one’s appeal, and neither of these albums are worth much beyond that motivation. Both fall prey to the sad corollary of selling out as well – even if it works, years after the fame and fortune has dried up, both Jewel and Liz Phair will be left with artistically bankrupt albums no one really cares about, sucking black holes in their collections that infect everything around them with their stench. When it comes down to it, the saddest part of selling out, to me, is that an artist had a chance to make a statement, an impact, a masterpiece – and instead chose to make a minor, forgettable blip.

Depressing, really.

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I plan to further explore this ground when Jane’s Addiction returns next month with a new album nobody demanded, so you can think of this column as a preview of that one. Although, I expect that one will be a bit angrier…

Next time, the amazing Bruce Cockburn.

See you in line Tuesday morning.