Selling Out, the Fragonard Years

For the fall premiere of Saturday Night Live, Weekend Update offered its own solemn tribute to the late Norm Macdonald after a substantial outpouring from the standup universe, with Pete Davidson even donning the former Weekend Update anchor’s face on a kitschy T-shirt. The nerve that Macdonald’s death struck among white men in comedy was an unexpected example of what Joe Biden likes to call an “inflection point.” I think this is because Macdonald—a member of the last generation to make the refusal to “sell out” any kind of value—was an exemplar of this now archaic concept.

What the faces of Colin Jost and Michael Che show is the understanding that they could never do what Macdonald did in anchoring Weekend Update—relentlessly go after a celebrity accused of murder to the point where you got fired. I also think they were chagrined by the irony that in just seven days, the show’s host would be Kim Kardashian, whose family celebrity was launched with her father’s defense of O.J. Simpson.

The first week of October was bookended with these two contradictory points on the spectrum of making one’s entire life a salable commodity. Most of us realize that the Norm McDonald extreme of going your own way had already faded into obscurity before his death. When Kim Kardashian mocks her own obsequiousness to her brand as a way of pivoting to a new one, you know that the cultural veneration of “selling out” has progressed to a baroque iteration—think of it as the Fragonard years.

“Selling out” encompasses everything from artistic creation to self-expression and authenticity to ethics and integrity. It’s a charge too freely applied to anything that musters contempt, but it is rooted foremost within the punk sincerity of Gen X. I recently heard a seasoned DJ on WFUV, the Fordham University radio station, mention that some commercial had made clever use of The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” Clearly, a musician’s sale of usage rights—regardless of the song’s degree of “alt”—has become such a given that the discussion point had at some point shifted to the corporate product itself.

One of the reasons I rarely watch MSNBC is the commercials. There always seems to be a new low—like hearing New Order’s “Blue Monday” in a Volvo ad. Here was a band that wouldn’t even print its lyrics in the liner notes. You had to be one of the initiated; this was an elite club. And now New Order is enticing the very few people who can afford a 2022 Volvo into another kind of elite club.

For millennials and everyone younger, the sale price on music began going south with Napster in 1999. This new expectation of having what you want for free was a major devaluation of an art form that, in my time at least, was the first thing to make you part with money you considered “my own.” The brilliant con of Sean Parker was feeding young minds with the notion that it was the evil record industry they were in their rights to pilfer from. This was the start of supplanting one “legacy” exploitative corporate behemoth with the exploitative corporate behemoth of Big Tech, only to hurt the newly named class of “creatives” even more.

Napster launched a year after Macdonald was fired from SNL, and it seems no coincidence that those last two years of the millennium and the ballooning dot-com bubble were the death knell for any stigma against shilling for corporate. As the recent documentary Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage suggests, the desires of the individual at this disastrous event threatened the welfare of the collective, which is oddly parallel to how Napster threatened the welfare of musicians by encouraging individual music consumers to think of themselves first and only.

This initial devaluation of value was a brilliant turn. We now know that to get people to click the checkbox next to “Use every bit of data about my online life any way you like,” you first implant the idea that art and entertainment should be free—no barriers or guardrails. This concept was actually in place long before digital. Contemporary antitrust law was written so that the only goal of competition policy is “consumer welfare,” defined as low prices. It’s fairly ironic that William McKinley—a president whose name has been taken off more schools than any other—wisely said, “Cheap merchandise means cheap men and cheap men mean a cheap country.”

It’s sad now to reflect on the hiccup of hope that came with Occupy Wall Street—those one or two thrift shop years when young women wore Goodwill wedding dresses. But that all died with the next brilliant turn from Silicon Valley—hooking a generation of young people who’d grown weary of “stuff” on cheap services from capital-hemorrhaging startups.

People are increasingly anxious about the singularity of technology, but the singularity of artistic endeavor and corporate ownership is moving even faster. Money is our only agreed-on standard for measuring value, and that means that art that is an end in itself (music that doesn’t want to sell other people’s products) has no value. We see this not just in the absurd transformation of every potential home buyer into a real estate speculator but in the creation of speculative arenas for cryptocurrency high flyers with NFTs. There is no longer any value that can be “sold out” because there is no artist and no art, only tokens with a value dependent on how many people put up the money.

To me, the saddest manifestation of our embrace of corporate everything is self-help superstars like Brené Brown, whom I only just learned about from a New Yorker profile. Many thousands of fans profess to have been helped by her ideas about shame and vulnerability in her bestselling books, podcasts, and lectures. But where she’s really raking in the bucks is her training seminars to “C-suite” leaders to help make their companies better functioning and thus more profitable.

This is what many business school types do, but the writer of this piece, Sarah Larson, did not see the need to address the gray area of corporate motive. Were corporations paying for and applying Brown’s ideas because they care about their employees’ emotional health, or because they want these individuals to be more productive on the clock? You could answer Both! and see this seamlessness as hunky-dory. But it is chilling to observe this line disappear to the point where it doesn’t merit comment. Sadly, the singularity is nearer than we thought. §