5 Artistic Geniuses Who Only Became Great After Selling Out
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.
What, you thought the modern music industry invented the sellout?
The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is unquestionably one of the most timeless pieces of art in human history. Even if you're not religious, you can't help but be overwhelmed by this monumental display of talent, passion and dedication. Seriously, who could turn up his nose at such beauty?
Other than the guy who created it, we mean. That would be famed Renaissance artist Michelangelo.
It's not that Michelangelo was a godless heathen who hated painting religious stuff -- it's that he hated painting, period. You see, he was sculptor at heart. It's what he went to Renaissance Master School for, it's what he loved and it's what he wanted to be left alone to do. Michelangelo considered painting an inferior art form, far below his beloved sculpting. So for him, taking several years off to paint a chapel was an annoying distraction from "real" work. By which we mean sculpting naked young dudes with tiny dongs.
"I, Michelangelo, am all about this."
But the pope wanted the place painted, and despite Michelangelo's utter hatred of all things involving pigment, he was really, really good at it. Also, the church was about the only organization commissioning work in his area, and Michelangelo knew he couldn't afford to be picky. He put his dreams away, swallowed his pride and took the money.
"Well, at least I'm getting to draw tiny dongs."
The irony, of course, is that the paintings for the ceiling and altar of the chapel became the two most recognizable works by Michelangelo and two of the most influential paintings by any Western artist ever. His sculptures? Well, they're nice and all, but they're like True Romance to the chapel's Pulp Fiction.
Imagine doing a job you hate for several years while having to put up with an abusive boss constantly telling you to hurry the hell up -- hell, if you're a working adult, you probably don't have to imagine that. It's the exact same situation, really, except that no one travels across the world to look at the "FUCK THIS JOB" graffiti you left in the bathroom stall.
Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols
Wait, the Sex Pistols? When the hell did they sell out? They're the goddamned Sex Pistols! True, the Sex Pistols are revered for changing the way music is made by spitting in the face of pretentious rock operas and 20-minute guitar solos, thus proving you don't have to be extremely talented to make it as a rock star. Or talented at all! But band leader Johnny Rotten didn't sell out in the way that you're thinking. He didn't start as a rebellious kid and tone it down so he could cash in. No, Rotten did the exact opposite -- his punk rebelliousness was selling out.
Rotten had little to no musical ability before the band and no interest in being a musician. And he definitely wasn't interested in defining an entire movement. He was just some rude kid named John Lydon who hung around SEX, the local fetish fashion boutique, which was owned by some guy called Malcolm McLaren.
Not a big fan of subliminal advertising.
McLaren was the one who came up with the idea for the Sex Pistols, not Johnny Rotten. He went along with it only because he had nothing better to do than trolling people in sex shops, apparently. McLaren liked Lydon aka Rotten for all the reasons most of us would want to punch him: He was an obnoxious asshole who spat on people, could barely sing and didn't give a shit if everyone knew it. The perfect front man.
Or at least he was perfect for what McLaren wanted, which was pissing people off. McLaren, by his own admission, created the Pistols with the specific purpose of causing controversy. Music was always secondary. He intentionally booked them to play redneck bars and appear on conservative talk shows, knowing they would create a media outrage, incite near-riots and garner massive amounts of attention.
And if he sold a few extra dildos because of it, all the better.
So the whole rebellious act was carefully manufactured, just like a punk Justin Bieber. Rotten thus grew to hate McLaren, whom he called "the most evil person on Earth." He knew his band was a manufactured fraud, and he knew he had sold out by joining it. Two years after they started, Rotten split the band and started doing what he really wanted: long, weird experimental music.
"Fuck Pink Floyd! But here's a nine-minute song."
Lydon still plays with his less-known and less-successful band, periodically returning to punk and reuniting the Pistols whenever he's strapped for cash.
Francis Ford Coppola
As the director of the Godfather trilogy, Coppola redefined not only gangster cinema but the gangster world itself. Part I was an artistic achievement like few others, Part II proved that sometimes sequels can surpass the original and there is a Part III. And it all happened because Francis Ford Coppola needed money, and he needed it bad.
And we all know what happens when movie producers don't pay off their debts.
Basically, it was all George Lucas' fault.
Coppola was the producer of Lucas' first movie, a trippy sci-fi brain fart by the catchy name of THX 1138. Warner Bros. hated the film and forced Coppola to return the $300,000 it had given him to finance it, but the problem was, he had already spent all of it making the movie. That, coupled with the film somehow bombing at the box office, left Coppola severely in debt and running out of options. Desperate, he turned to crime.
Adapting it onscreen, we mean.
That's right: Coppola's masterpiece, and two of the greatest films ever made, were the result of his taking on a project for cash.
Coppola originally wanted nothing to do with The Godfather. When they offered him the movie, he rejected it, saying he didn't want to be associated with a film that glorified sex and gang violence. He even attempted to read the book but couldn't make it past Page 50 without wanting to throw up; he dismissed it as a "pretty cheap" piece of disposable pulp, something beneath him and not worth his time. You see, Coppola wanted to do small, artistic films and felt that a conventional gangster flick like The Godfather would be a step back for his career.
"Where did I go wrong?"
But despite THX having flopped, the studio still wanted Coppola for The Godfather. Why, you ask? Because he was Italian. Robert Evans, head producer at Paramount, wanted as many authentic Italians in this film as possible; as he put it, he wanted the audience to "smell the spaghetti" when watching the movie.
Which is pretty much the level of subtlety you'd expect from a living cartoon.
Then Lucas, in one of his rare moments of lucidity, reminded Coppola of his crippling debt and that "survival is the key thing here." Coppola eventually caved in and took the money. After that, he was finally able to do the "small, artistic movies" he always wanted, including two sequels to The Godfather and, oh yeah, a $30 million war epic called Apocalypse Now.
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