What Does It Mean to "Sell Out" (And Did Fall Out Boy)?

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by Erin Christie

I recently came across a tweet that put a lot of things into perspective. It read, “It’s the 6-year anniversary of [Fall Out Boy] coming off hiatus and I remember exactly where I was… Little did I know 6 years later, I’d be begging for them to stop making music.” Currently, I’m a sophomore in college and I’m facing a similar conundrum to this Twitter user. Recently, I’ve been wondering when and why my once favorite band cemented itself as a fond memory of a past life, something that I’ve been drifting away from. Is it because they aren’t the same band I had been so obsessed with as a Catholic schoolgirl uniform-clad adolescent?

In recent years, discussions regarding artists “selling out”—oftentimes with hopes of achieving higher commercial success—have grown more and more frequent. “Selling out,” in a musical sense, refers to a stigmatized trend where an artist or musical act opts to compromise their own integrity, morality, authenticity, or principles in exchange for fame, money, or popularity. People tend to tack this descriptor onto any minute change that they catch an artist delving into, which leads to a premature notion of distaste. Sure, It’s often disappointing to see the artists that we’ve grown up loving turn a new leaf and shift away from the sound and style that served as our introduction to their work. The question is, though, even if this change inherently feels like a bad thing, is it really? Why are we so unable to give artists a chance when they stray from what we’re used to?

As a band grows and evolves, it’s customary that they change and adapt to the climate around them. That doesn’t have to be seen as a negative thing, even if we might prefer their style from before. Change might simply be sparked due to an artist’s desire to do just that. Is it really up to the mass market or even the fans to decide what an artist is and isn’t allowed to create, even if the end result isn’t what they want?

In my eyes at least, a lot of that inherent dislike comes from our craving and nostalgia for the past. When I first began hearing Fall Out Boy’s newer tracks—which are much more synth-based and heavy in terms of production as opposed to the gritty, sometimes theatrical releases that I had grown up with—I was disheartened. Why couldn’t I accept the fact that Patrick Stump and Pete Wentz were no longer twenty-somethings with the same creative priorities they had when recording albums like Take This to Your Grave (2003): they have wives, kids, mortgages, and it isn’t appropriate to write lyrics like, “Let’s play this game called ‘when you catch fire, I wouldn’t piss to put you out.’” Maybe “selling out,” in that sense, really means “growing up.”

A huge part of the argument against “selling out” is that this change seems to be prompted solely by commercial gain, not genuine artistic interest and exploration. Capitalism is a deadly machine, and many artists fall victim to it: with capital in mind, these artists become Barbie dolls which industry officials can dress, pose, and display at their whim, either against said artists’ will or not. One can argue that even on their sixth album, American Beauty/ American Psycho (2015), they were already taking strives in the direction of the cash cow, opting to re-record single, “Irresistible” with pop powerhouse, Demi Lovato, for example.

Herein lies what The Conversation calls the “artist’s dilemma:” “how does one cooperate with a large entity while ensuring moral ground?” Large entities, in this quote, take shape in label executives, demanding primary control so as to ensure commercial success and fame over an artist’s personal desires, intentions, and in a sense, morals. With the corporate pressure placed on artists to follow the demands of higher-ups with the power to make or break their career, it might seem impossible for them to remain in control of their craft. What are they to do?

As long as the artist is clear about their overarching goal, as in, what they hope to achieve with the art that they share with the world, “selling out” shouldn’t be a threat. Artists must ask themselves, “Is what they are creating true to their desired image of themselves as an artist?” In terms of Fall Out Boy, I can’t necessarily speak for them, but I’m sure that their evolution in sound is not motivated solely by the musical market: they probably earned enough royalties from “Sugar We’re Goin Down” to make as many passion projects as they’d like.

In their case specifically, their most recent project and seventh studio album, MANIA (2018), certainly reads differently than a lot of their past work, armed with heavily produced machinery and synths galore. Though it might be assumed that this choice was an effort to “stay relevant,” bassist Pete Wentz had different intentions (as he described in an interview with Rolling Stone): “It feels like every once in a while, you’ve gotta do a hard restart that clears the cache and erases the hard drive,” noting that MANIA became a space where they could create something completely brand new. In spite of the fact that this record isn’t what Fall Out Boy fans are used to, it was an attempt to break from the norm and be able to blur the lines between the expected and unexpected.

“No one wants to be who they were two years ago or 10 years ago… it’s great to have that snapshot, but it’s time to hand up your hat when you think your glory days are behind you,” Wentz continued. MANIA, in that sense, presents itself as less of a rebrand, but more of a vehicle by which the band can express the same ideals that they’ve always had since they were playing basement shows in Evanston, IL. To Wentz, the idea is to create something that’s bigger than Fall Out Boy itself; “to outlive the brand and exist on [their] own.”

As I finished up writing this article, coincidentally, “Calm Before the Storm” began seeping through my headphones and I couldn’t help but tap my toes along to the beat. Regardless of whether they’ve “sold out” in your mind or not, Fall Out Boy will still be one of the most important bands to me and their legacy is palpable.  Fall Out Boy isn’t the only band that’s followed down this same garden of forked paths—to meet consumer demand vs. to go where the “money flows” vs. to pursue what they truly feel proud making. Witnessing artists take new directions shouldn’t inherently be a bad thing, but rather, it should be an opportunity to broaden your horizons musically/stylistically, and a chance to become reintroduced to a new version of a band that you’ve always loved.

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