There's nothing sadder than when artists become "sellouts," losing all of their edge to make some kind of family-friendly garbage. Or at least that's the way we usually hear it.
The truth is, though, that some of the greatest works of music, film and art have happened only because the artist agreed to compromise in the name of success. Just ask...
Back in the 50s and early 60s, The Beatles were a group of rough hooligans who smoked and swore onstage while chomping on chicken between songs. They wore leather jackets, played sleazy German titty bars and, perhaps most shockingly, their hairdos did not match.
So how did they go from that to being the biggest, most influential pop band in the world? By selling out.
The group had a steady gig playing strip clubs in Hamburg, but they weren't making a whole lot of money there. After returning to Liverpool in 1961, The Beatles were discovered by Brian Epstein. He liked what he heard and offered to be their manager, on one small condition: that they change everything about themselves.
"No, really. You pretty much suck."
Everything from the jeans (replaced by proper trousers) to the hair (matching hairdos for everyone) to the smoking/swearing/eating onstage stuff (respectively: no, no and fuck no) had to go. And definitely no more nailing condoms to walls and setting them on fire, a crucial part of their act until that point.
Epstein also came up with the idea that they had to take a synchronized bow at the end of each set.
"It's important that you remember you are my bitches."
The Beatles were not fans of these suggestions. John Lennon found the whole thing stupid and used to whip his arms around while doing the bow, a scathing form of protest that admittedly wasn't quite as shocking as throwing a burning condom at the audience. However, the band also realized that having their way would get them nothing but more shit gigs at the same shit clubs. As Lennon himself put it, "It was a choice of making it or still eating chicken onstage."
If they'd had modern fried chicken, the Beatles never would have sold an album.
Of course, cutting out the "holy shit are we edgy!" gimmicks stifled their creativity so badly that of Rolling Stone magazine's 10 best albums of all time, a mere four of them are from The Beatles.
So to recap, first came the haircuts, then came a level of popularity that bought them an unprecedented amount of creative freedom, and then came the albums that changed music forever. A feat that, sadly, no one has ever managed to achieve while working at a titty bar.
Kurt Cobain and Co. are credited with revolutionizing rock in the early 90s: They took us away from the overproduced, bombastic, overly hairsprayed butt-rock that was Poison, Warrant and others of that ilk and brought us back to simpler music that emanated from a couple of buddies and a garage to jam in. It's slightly ironic, then, that the most popular "garage band" in the world wouldn't have gone anywhere if they had actually stayed a garage band.
Wanna know what a real garage band sounds like? Listen to Nirvana's raw first album, Bleach.
Cobain himself hated the album, calling it "one-dimensional," "hollow" and "akin to the sound of someone bludgeoning a chimpanzee to death with a guitar" (OK, that was us).
So what was the difference between Bleach and the landmark Nevermind? A producer who smoothed out the sound.
If he were around today, Cobain could have handled all that crap on his own. Using his cell phone.
For their next album, the band brought in producer Butch Vig, who (over Cobain's protests) took their alternative/punk tracks and mixed them like pop songs. The producer double and triple-tracked vocals, overdubbed guitars and generally treated Cobain's shrieking like something intended to be played on MTV (this was before MTV made the transition from playing music to showcasing orange people).
Remember the 1980s? No one working at MTV does.
This approach rubbed the band the wrong way, Cobain in particular. Cobain later said he despised how the album was handled with the mainstream in mind, viciously dismissing it as "a Motley Crue record" (Cobain reportedly hated Nevermind to the point where he wanted to name the album Sheep, as he was convinced that those who bought it were just that) even though according to Vig and studio engineer Andy Wallace, the band was perfectly happy with the way it sounded when they heard the final mix.
They should have been: The result of the tampering was a unique mix of screeching angst and catchy pop hooks that utterly wiped 80s hair metal off the scene forever.
The secret is baby penis.
The 26 million copies it sold also proved that alternative music was bankable, fueling a cultural phenomenon we're still living though. You can't understate the importance of the album in the history of music, and it wouldn't have been possible had Nirvana stayed underground. As much as Cobain would hate to admit it, 26 million sheep probably weren't wrong.
Plus, all that wool made for some very comfortable sweaters.