Lexicon of Meaningless Words: “Sellout”

Sellout (n.)  If I’m the man, then youre the man, and He’s the man as well then “sellout” doesn’t seem to mean much at all.

(I saw that band hocking Pepsi during the Super Bowl.  Ever since their first EP their music isn’t worth listening to.  They are sellouts.)

In this series I’ve tried to demonstrate the many ways that a word can lack definite content or more commonly “meaning.”  Weird is meaningless because much of its common usage seems to make appeal to no content whatsoever–the word does mean something, but people use it such that it is little more than a placeholder.  I’ve demonstrated–through Kant’s careful critique–that the beautiful is necessarily derelict of specific concepts and therefore “meaning.”  Moral seems to underdetermine its referent and hypocrite isn’t so much meaningless, but only accidentally meaningfully applied.  I would argue that all these species of meaninglessness are interesting either because there is something intrinsic to the word’s sense that prevents it from “meaning” or those who use the word are mistaken about that sense and don’t realize that it means less than they intend.  The “low hanging fruit” of meaningless words are a subspecies of this second category–words whose senses seem to mean more in common usage than they actually do.  Weird is probably an instance of the general category, but more commonly identified examples include “awesome,” “amazing,” “love/hate,” “ridiculous,” and “nice.”

These are words who have been so overused, so broadly applied, and so liberally misused that they can be applied to nearly anything–which means they don’t distinctly mean anything.  For example one may:

love the old X-men cartoon

love the combination of those glasses frames with your hair color

love the lines of a vintage Volkswagen Karmann Ghia

love it when the cat pukes in your slipper

love the cat even though it puked in your slipper

love your girlfriend–while still seeing other people

love your fiance–while knowing that you are settling

love your child so much that you would die for them

So it goes…  The video, honesty in wedding vows, mentions another example: the (over)use of the word “amazing” such that it means nothing–“this morning you said the driveway looked amazing.  It did!”  I’ve avoided these meaningless words by and large because it doesn’t take much to discover them and I think most people realize that such words–at minimum–are context specific and–more likely–simply deserve to be avoided.  However, I’m going to make a special point about one of these words because–again–I’m not sure that many people realize how overused and meaningless it is–and in honor of Black Friday.

A “sellout,” says the great unwashed media consuming masses,  is a person who has compromised–or is perceived to have compromised–their integrity, morality, or principles in exchange for money or “success”–however that might be defined.  Often “sellouts” or “selling out” is tied to the production of aesthetic or entertainment media.  Thus, an artist–painter, sculptor, vocalist, writer, musician, composer, architect, etc.–that is perceived as having tailored the material they produce to mainstream audiences is in danger of being so labeled.  Most often the movement within such an artist’s oeuvre is from “difficult” or “special interest” works toward “easily accessed” or “general audience” works.

Now, one reason that I tend to be somewhat incredulous of “selling out” is that it assumes that “difficult” work is inherently more valuable or aesthetically “better” than more readily understood or accepted work.  Polka music is inherently more “difficult” whether because of its ethnic heritage or its instrumentation–something there is that doesn’t love an accordionthan film score music, but I think most of us would not argue that “Roll Out the Barrel” is aesthetically more valuable than “The Imperial March.”  However, in contemporary, popular music punk or speed metal–because they require a specialized ear and are less accessible–are valued well above anything in the “adult contemporary” charts.

Another bone that I have to pick with the above definition of “selling out” is that it would seem to be possible that an artist could begin producing work that has broad appeal, but feel pressure to compromise that vision in order to find a different kind of success.  [Note: I’m going to use this example because it does the job and most readers have some familiarity with the artist–NOT because I think this artist produces aesthetically valuable work.]  Thomas Kinkade’s biopic The Christmas Cottage tells the story of the pressure that this creator of well-intentioned kitsch felt to produce difficult art in order to gain success in New York’s “edgier-than-thou-art” art market.  Sadly for all of us, Kinkade resisted the temptation to produce anything less accessible than the artistic equivalent of a Happy Meal, but the fact remains that one can “sell out” by producing less accessible and more specialized work.

In the final analysis, however, the major problem with the term “sellout” is that it is simply over applied.  I recall people arguing that Britney Spears had “sold out” because she signed a $97 million dollar endorsement deal to shill Pepsi, but secretly preferred Coke.  Is the consumption of one brand of carbonated sugar-water over another really the sort of issue that one can have “integrity” in?  Many have argued that Andy Warhol’s later work–specifically his corroboration with Jean-Michel Basquiat–“sold out” and I really can’t even imagine what they mean.  Warhol’s work was defined according to principles of celebrity worship and the repetition of familiar forms so Warhol’s latching onto a young up and coming African-American artist who was already a mega-celebrity as his muse was in no way a shift in his work’s content–only in its mode of production.  Certainly, examples can be compounded, but “sellout” would seem to function merely as a term of disapproval without referring to any necessary qualities beyond the person having some level of success.

In truth, when I counseled at the beginning of this series that the entries in this Lexicon of Meaningless Words should be avoided, stricken from common usage I was being melodramatic–except as it applied to this entry.  The word “sellout” seems to make a myriad of subtle mis-steps and several all-out mistakes with regard to the ends of art, its aesthetic value, and even its nature such that to say that an artist is a “sellout” seems only to mean that the speaker does not approve of their work.  In the immortal words of Maynard James Keenan, there is no “Man” to sell out to.  Happy Black Friday, one and all!

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