Once again, Slate.com reminds us of just how bizarrely back-asswards their writers’ arguments can be. This time, Slate writer Jonah (ugh, of course his name is Jonah) Weiner has published a piece in which he (attempts to) systematically lay out the case for Pearl Jam having sold out.
First, the article claims that PJ is “proudly out of step” and has always been for the following reasons:
1.) They stopped making music videos in the ’90s
2.) The boycott of Ticketmaster
3.) Insistence on selling albums on vinyl right alongside CD
4.) The number of bootleg albums that PJ has released
Of those four, only the first and third are anywhere near accurate with respect to Eddie and co. being “out of step.” At least, that might have been the case a few years ago. Last September, I wrote a piece for the Badger Herald arguing that vinyl is back and here to stay. Thus, that point is kinda sorta no longer relevant. I suppose that a lack of music videos would make a mainstream artist seem a tad out of touch, then or now. As for a boycott of Ticketmaster, you know what? I’d love more bands to be “out of step” if that is what it means to exist as such. Bootlegs making a band out of step? Sure, if you ignore Bob Dylan, Neil Young, any jam band, etc, then yes Pearl Jam is out of step. Two outta four isn’t bad, I guess.
But this whole argument misses the point of Pearl Jam. Weiner wonders at the end of the piece whether or not moving from one corporation to another (that is, from Sony to Target) is actually selling out, or simply “represent[s] an attempt—ungainly but not unreasonable—to ensure that one continues to be paid wild sums for one’s wildly popular art?” His inquiry single-handedly undoes the entire column. But Weiner accuses the band of selling out because, as he claims, PJ’s new single “The Fixer” is “brought to you by Target.” He contends that the partnership between PJ and Target is one of possibly selling out due to the fact that the band’s new album, Backspacer, is being sold exclusively at the big-box giant – if you discount the fact it’s also being sold on iTunes, on PJ’s official site and in select independent records stores. (He does mention two of those as alternatives, so give him credit there.) Also, PJ licensed a portion of “The Fixer” to Verizon for pre-release ringtones. And, while it could be reasonably argued that PJ have, in fact, sold out to Target and Verizon, it wouldn’t matter if they had because PJ sold out from the beginning. They signed to a major, made three hit music videos (the last of which won Video of the Year) and the album in question has a diamond RIAA certification. Their second album sold 950,000 copies in its first week. When didn’t Pearl Jam sell out?
If, by “sell out,” you mean sold a lotta records – initially, anyway – while simultaneously doing whatever they wanted their whole career, music chart domination or fanbase be damned. Well, maybe that one time with the whole Ticketmaster thing. Or the whole declining sales thing: They still had number one albums through No Code, but by then only the die-hard fans were still journeying with the band. Indeed, they haven’t had a platinum album since Yield. Essentially, the band (supposedly) sold out from the beginning, actually became less mainstream with each subsequent album only to, according to Mr. Weiner, sell out again. Huh? Doesn’t make a whole lotta sense.
In the same concluding paragraph, Weiner ponders
Is it meaningful to argue that a band that spent 14 years recording for Sony has, with a Target deal, sold out? Maybe. But maybe Pearl Jam’s move from one corporate patron to another helps underscore the striking degree to which musical “integrity”—always something of a free-floating notion, anyway—is being redefined amid the altered economic realities of the flagging album-sales business. [emphasis added]
For the second time (in the same paragraph, even!), he just undid his whole argument. If musical integrity is truly a “free-floating notion anyway” then why in the hell would you bother to bring it up at all by labeling a classic-rock band as “sell outs”? Pearl Jam played classic rock at a time when ripping off Killing Joke and/or the Pixies was the way to success. Classic rock isn’t any more popular today, but that hasn’t stopped the band from honing its ’70s sound into perpetuity. Now, on the verge of the band’s ninth album – the preceding three of which only have gold certifications on the strength of nothing but fans – Jonah Weiner considers Pearl Jam to have sold out because they want to market their new album to a generation that doesn’t buy albums anymore through (admittedly) uncharacteristic means? I can’t imagine such a ridiculous notion from any other publication. Well, maybe NME. If the “new” Pearl Jam is anything, it’s a band following the absurdly successful new model for the 21st century record business of partnering with a big box retailer for exclusivity. All they need now is an appealing gimmick.