Monday, November 19, 2007

Is Kevin Barnes The New Ayn Rand? Or: Of Montreal Doesn't Care About Poor People

Kevin Barnes

Ayn Rand

Download: Of Montreal - "Suffer For Fashion"
Download: Of Montreal - "I Want To Have Fun"

We only know a certain extent of Kevin Barnes' personal life via the backstory of Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer. We certainly don't know the Of Montreal singer's political/economic beliefs (hell, why would it matter if we did?). But based on what Barnes wrote on Stereogum, one could have certainly gotten the impression that Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes was a closeted Objectivist.

Stereogum's blog post begins with an anecdote about being introduced to a PA who worked on a T-Mobile commercial starring Of Montreal. Not only was their music featured prominently, but apparently Kevin Barnes was given a two-line speaking part.

Stereogum tells more:

Curious, and jumping into reporter mode, we heard from another source that oM's spot would feature two lines of Kevin Barnes dialogue and the band in full Monty attire. Hello, America. We were curious about the logistics and the band's decision-making process, especially considering some of the flak they received for their Outback campaign, so we reached out to see what was what. Kevin Barnes, master lobster handler, kindly stepped to the plate.

Long story short, Barnes anticipated a backlash and felt the need to address his fans personally. And He did so by getting all Atlas Shrugged on your ass for calling him a sell-out.

After a brief introduction in which he explains why everyone's a sell-out the moment they become productive members of society, Barnes then writes the following:

The pseudo-nihilistic punk rockers of the 70's created an impossible code in which no one can actually live by. It's such garbage. The idea that anyone who attempts to do anything commercial is a sell out is completely out of touch with reality. The punk rock manifesto is one of anarchy and intolerance. The punk rockers polluted our minds. They offered a solution that had no future. Of course, if the world would have ended before Sandinista! was released then everything would have been alright. It didn't. Now we have all of these half-conceived ideas and idiot philosophies floating around to confuse and alienate us. I think it is important to face reality. It is important to decide whether you are going to completely rail against the system or find a way to make it work for you. You cannot do both -- and if you attempt to do both you will only become even more bitter and confused.

Reading this sentence this weekend was quite serendipitous.

This past Friday, I attended a special screening, sponsored by Sound Opinions, of the documentary Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, the film about the great, late leader of The Clash. I'll have a review of the movie up on the blog, but I will say that a lot of the film is about the struggle that Joe Strummer went through in reconciling his bourgeoisie level of success he attained with his revolutionary, proletariat-informed ideals.

What's great about the film is that it shows how Joe Strummer spent his whole life trying to figure out whether or not he wanted to completely rail against the system or if he wanted to find a way to make it work. In trying to find an answer that can co-exist with his ideals, Strummer emerges as an endlessly fascinating, complex person.

So, after appreciating how much thought and struggle Strummer put into the matter, I found Barnes' notion that you need to shit or get off the pot re:revolution v. system to be rather glib--along with his characterization of 70s punk rock as being "pseudo-nihilistic" (Jesus, could you find a more genuinely idealistic person than Joe Strummer?).

Barnes then continues on SG:

When I was younger, and supported my parents, I chose to float between the two. A lot of people choose to do this. There are so many confused young people running around now polluted by this alloyed version of the tenets of the punk rock manifesto. Of course they're confused. It isn't possible to be in chorus with capitalism and anarchy. You must pick one or the other. Very few people are willing to do it, though... When capitalism is working on a healthy level, everyone gets their dick sucked from time to time and no one gets their throat slit. It's impossible to be a sell out in a capitalist society. You're only a winner or a loser. Either you've found a way to crack the code or you are struggling to do so. To sell out in capitalism is basically to be too accommodating, to not get what you think you deserve. In capitalism, you don't get what you think you deserve though. You get what someone else thinks you deserve. So the trick is to make them think you are worth what you feel you deserve. You deserve a lot, but you'll only get it when you figure out how to manipulate the system.

As a confused young person--with the hippin' and the hoppin' and the bippin' and the boppin', I don't even know what the jazz is all about--I'm sure that there can be some sort of middle ground between capitalism and anarchy. Furthermore, I feel as if I can make advances in my field of work without having to suck any one's dick, figuratively or literally. I can just work hard and not bullshit people into agreeing with me that I'm worth what I say I'm worth. Rather, I can lead by example by doing good, honest work.

And to hear Barnes tell it, ain't no harder, gooder, or honester thing than writing songs for a living:

People who wanna be artists have the hardest time of it 'cause we are held up to these impossible standards. We're expected to die penniless and insane so that the people we have moved and entertained over the years can keep us to themselves. So that they can feel a personal and untarnished connection with our art. The second we try to earn a living wage or, god forbid, promote our art in the mainstream, we are placed under the knives of the sanctimonious indie fascists.

I have some late breaking, shocking news. If you are standing up, you may want to sit down. This just came across the MFR newswire. I'm afraid I have no other choice but to report this tragic news:

Kevin Barnes Has Been Murdered By Sanctimonious Indie Fascists

My god, it was horrible! Kevin was just trying to play a song on the ukulele while innocently frolicking in a field full of daisies, when all of a sudden they came! The Dreaded Bloggers! Worse than 1,000 Reavers Put Together! Writing tortuous opinions on their keyboards, with each press of the keyboard manifesting itself by killing Barnes over and over again! With Words! With Horrible, Horrible Words That One Just As Well Could Have Easily Ignored!!

Oh The Humanity! My God! My God! Why have you foresaken Kevin Barnes?

By paying attention to what the so-called "indie fascists" have to say, the only one who is placing themselves under the knife of anyone is Barnes himself.

And that's not even the most foolish part of Barnes' post. After bemoaning the tyrannical reign of the indie-rock brownshirts, Barnes drops this bombshell:

The thing is, I like capitalism. I think it's an interesting challenge. It's a system that rewards the imaginative and ambitious adults and punishes the lazy adults.

As much as I love Of Montreal, I found this statement to be unbelievably ignorant. There are people out in the world who have two or three jobs who work just as hard as Barnes does (not that he would dispute that) but don't have even an iota of his success. Just because they aren't living to Barnes' standards of success doesn't mean they are lazy or unproductive; they just aren't in Barnes industry of choice (which is the only right choice, apparently).

Furthermore, capitalism only rewards the imaginative and ambitious if the imaginative and the ambitious happen to make the people who finance the imaginative and ambitious a shitload of money. But it's rare that the imaginative and the ambitious make that kind of green. If that were true, the highest grossing film of 2006 would have been The Fountain, not Pirate Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.

Capitalism rewards, for better or worse, that which is profitable. And often times, what is profitable is boring, formulaic crap. That's why it makes a lot of money; everyone has seen something like it before and can identify with it. The product makes everyone feel comfortable. Aren't boring, formulaic and comfortable pretty much the antithesis of imaginative and ambitious?

Barnes continues by saying that he reacted against the criticism he got by lending an oM song to Outback Steakhouse by deciding to write more radical pieces of music. He starts the concluding section of his essay by defining selling out as changing your musical style solely to become more profitable (by all accounts, this should be a totally reasonable definition). This is something that Barnes' feels he has never done. The reason, Barnes argues, that Of Montreal is doing commercials is that he feels like now is the only time he'll ever have the ear of the mainstream and that it would be beneficial to profit from that attention for as long as he can:

As sad as it may seem, one of the few ways most indie bands can make any money whatsoever is by selling a song to a commercial. Very very few bands make enough money from album sales or tour revenue to enable themselves to quit their day job.

Next time you see a commercial with one of your favorite bands songs in it, just tell yourself, "cool, a band I really like made some money and now I can probably look forward to a few more records from them." It's as simple as that. We all have to do certain things, from time to time, that we might not be completely psyched about, in order to pay the bills. To me, the TV is the world's asshole boss and if anyone can earn some extra bucks from it and they're not Bill O'Reilly, it's a good thing.

Fair enough. His truest point comes from observing how the only way indie groups can make money is by using their music in commercials. However, I feel like that point is something that actually refutes Barnes' defense of capitalism. After all, why is it that the only way indie bands can make money is by using their music in commercials? It's because big business monopolized radio stations' playlists to make the most amount of money. It turns out that breaking bands costs a lot more than relying on those true-blue favorites.

Not only that, but Barnes' hypothetical quote is silly as well. Bands have been putting out records since before active commercialization. If there is a will, there's a way. One doesn't necessarily have to rely on money from commercials in order to make an album (though they can if they want to. It's a free country, ultimately).

And that's where Barnes is the most correct. We live in a capitalist society and a free country. He can do whatever he wants to do with his music, his business and his life. But don't pretend that the people who disagree with your actions are forcing you to adopt to ideals that you don't subscribe to in the first place. No one is invading your house and forcing you not to do the commercials that you really want to do. If Barnes feels threatened by pseudo-anarchists, mall-punks, and bloggers, then he never really stopped leaving the house only once a day to buy some groceries.

Ultimately, doing a commercial isn't a bad decision because it's selling out. It's a bad decision because it completely erases the hard work that Of Montreal has done creating their music. Of Montreal's records are nothing if not sonically dense and reasonably complex in their thematic content. If Barnes is going to work so hard to become a sonic architect and to create mind-blowing conceptual worlds about his alter egos, then why negate all that work so you can have people think of your song when they buy a cell phone?

But perhaps that question can't be answered. For more food for thought, here's a quote from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged:
So you think that money is the root of all evil? Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can't exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value. Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears or of the looters, who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce. Is this what you consider evil?

Sound familiar?

Perhaps Of Montreal's next project will be covering Rush's its entirety. But even if it isn't, I'll still buy the new Of Montreal album, which is due in 2008.

After all, it seems as if Kevin Barnes could use the money.

Of Montreal MySpace Page

(Jonathan Graef)

*Of course, there is only one way we could have avoided all of this haranguing about selling out: if we all stopped watching fucking television, then there would have been no need for the advertisement in the first place.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

What the fuck are you even talking about?

11:37 AM  

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