Chris Cornell: Selling Out & the Slippery Slope

by Rick Rockwell

What defines selling out today, in a culture where advertising is ubiquitous, and if your name isn’t atop the pop charts supposedly you aren’t a musical success?

Chris Cornell’s new album Scream catalyzed this question.

How does one of the founding fathers of grunge explain his interest in having rap producer Timbaland (real name: Timothy Mosley) massaging the mix, stripping out the guitars for dance floor synthesizers? How does the former lead singer of Audioslave (a group with political sensibilities even during the Bush years) explain his interest in wanting to sing a duet with boy band refugee Justin Timberlake (“Take Me Alive”). Wouldn’t this be like the late great Joey Ramone going disco?

Or the Ramones singing for a car commercial?

Oh, you say you’ve seen that Nissan commercial. And there’s the rub.
Bands from the 1960s that defined the aesthetic of fighting authority were some of the first to cash in when the really big money hit for selling the rights to their songs. For example, the Rolling Stones during the mid-90s secured $10 million from Microsoft to use “Start Me Up.” In 2003, Ford paid the Stones to use the song again in a major advertising campaign. And as noted, the punks filed in right behind the Stones and other 60s icons to become corporate shills. The Clash sold music rights for a Jaguar commercial (Jaguar!) and Elvis Costello has faced criticism for his commercials for Lexus and his corporate deals with Visa. So much for the shared ethos of hippies and punks that supporting the corporate establishment was traitorous to the philosophical cause.

Given those examples, what’s a little artistic experimentation in search of new audiences and a higher spot on the pop charts? That line has been crossed so many times, no one can keep track. Cornell is not the first to face such criticism. Metal fans decried Metallica’s more intricate and melodic approach in the 1990s and many wondered if they could still be considered a heavy metal band as they became one of the top rock acts in the world. Hell, even Bob Dylan faced the criticism of selling out the folk movement when he went electric in the 1960s.

And Cornell is no Dylan. Despite his credibility as a grunge stalwart, Cornell is not even as important to rock as Metallica. So is this infraction a misdemeanor on the cultural scale, or something worse?

This is certainly more than just a debate among fans and critics. Artists and musicians think about what behavior crosses this line too. Take for example this satiric jab (“Pork and Beans”) from the band Weezer, a minor FM hit from last summer, months before Cornell’s new album:

Timbaland knows the way/
To reach the top of the charts/
Maybe if I work with him/
I can perfect the art.

The real transgression Cornell has committed with his rap/disco/dance (whatever you want to call the mixed up result) album Scream is to his long-time fans. And to whatever musical legacy he was building.

In the 1990s, Cornell was a grunge god, singing nihilistic anthems, songs like “Black Hole Sun;” he was a voice for the post-modern, post-Cold War era. When he went on to form the supergroup Audioslave with members of Rage Against the Machine he gained further credibility as a musical outsider wanting to reform society and the system. During the Bush administration, Audioslave was the band that had the guts to play Havana, the first major rock act to do so in more than 25 years. (During the Carter administration, Billy Joel headlined a concert festival in Cuba with a variety of acts from the U.S.)

Cornell with Audioslave had about as much revolutionary street credibility and musical mojo as you could muster in the early part of this decade. And then he kissed it good-bye for his condo in Paris and his solo career, which has now gone over the commercial cliff.

A fan of indie rock and Rage Against the Machine warned this author as Audioslave was breaking apart in 2007 that this would happen. Indie rock supporters felt Cornell’s interest in a more commercial direction for Audioslave was what split the band apart. In that discussion about Cornell and Audioslave was actually a lesson for this author, a kernel of truth that despite the over-riding corporate climate, the ethos of indie rock — its independence from what the corporate culture celebrates — within that philosophy resides the long-time belief about truth to the art form over profit.

In the end, it’s just sad and disappointing to see another rock singer of note, like Cornell, head down that slippery commercial slope.

(The promotional photo of Chris Cornell in concert in Argentina in 2007 on a solo tour is from the Universal Music Group. To see Audioslave performing in Cuba and covering Soundgarden's "Outshined," please check below.)

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Jeff Siegel said...

The question I've never been able to answer in regards to this sort of thing is How Much: How much fame is enough? How much money is enough? How much success is enough?

In our culture, I've even been told it's not even a legitimate question to ask. Which explains a lot of what has happened over the past eight years, doesn't it?

Bible Study said...

I don't think he has sold out, but he should stick with audioslave, they rocked.

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