On the “sell out”

I remember, long ago, the day when U2 released their album Zooropa. That was the moment everyone realized that their favorite Irish band had sold out, in a failed attempt to gain traction in the pop charts. They dumbed down their music, added elements of popular trends of the time, and lost the sound that had made them such a powerful voice in the realm of music. Gone was their ability to strike the cords of political and social unrest and serve as a force for the underrepresented.

They were no longer U2. In their place, some refurbished, overproduced collection of sounds was given rise. Long time fans turned back to the previous releases and refused to accept the new sound, the new U2. The last truly great U2 song was “Where The Streets Have No Names”.

Other bands have trod this same path. Greenday, Black Eyed Peas, Metallica, INXS (after Michael Hutchence died), AC/DC (when they added Axl Rose), Elvis (can anyone say Viva Las Vegas?)…the list goes on and on.

The truth of the matter is, there’s a reason bands do this…to sell. The music industry is a fickle one and what’s popular today won’t be popular tomorrow. So bands alter their sound to keep up with the trends. Sometimes that backfires, sometimes not. Rush is a great example of how a band can evolve while still retaining all that makes them unique. They did it with the turn of almost every generation. Seventies Rush isn’t eighties Rush isn’t nineties Rush isn’t aught Rush. You get the idea.

Although not as prevalent, this also happens in the world of literature…in very different ways. One such way is the “art” of writing down to the audience. When you look into this, you find out some fairly staggering facts. The most important of which is that the average reading level of adults in the United States falls somewhere between 7th and 8th grade.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Seventh or eighth grade.

Compare that to the UK and you see that 5% of adults in the UK have the reading equivalency of an eleven year old and 16% of UK adults are functionally illiterate.

For a writer, those are some frightening facts.

During the last twenty years of my career, I have been approached only twice by readers to see if I could “dumb down” my work. My immediate response is simple: No. Why? Because I am an author and words are my craft. I take that very seriously. You would never approach a musician or band and say “Could you please only compose music with the cords G, C, and D?”. That would be an insult to their art.

Part of my task is to challenge readers. I not only want to help people grow their vocabulary, but also challenge them to learn something and even (on occasion) challenge their thoughts and beliefs. I feel strongly that the duties of art are:

  • Entertain
  • Educate
  • Enlighten
  • Empower

If I fail those duties, then I not only fail my art, but those that take the time to enjoy my art. I feel strongly about this as an actor, as a teacher…anything that demands the “art of me”.

You will never see me sell out. You will never see me “dumb down” my writing. You will never see me give into the demands of the trend du jour. That may, on first blush, come off as somewhat elitist. If you know me, however, you understand that is just me being me. There is no pretense, no ego. This is just Jack being faithful to his truth.

Sell outs happen. I get it. I do. When product sales slump, it’s very easy to scramble to patch the problem. But in the solution might come a much bigger issue…losing your way and your voice. I’ve spent twenty years developing my writer’s voice and I will not sacrifice that by way of dumbing down my art.

With regards to remaining true to who I am, the song “Miracle” by Skyharbor comes to mind (see below), the chorus of which is:

Stay asleep, there’s so far to go. All I ask is please
don’t fill your life with treasure and nothing more.
Never let your temper take control, never choose
to love somebody then sell your soul.

Thank you so much for being a part of this ever-long journey on the Dark Hayride. There is so much more to come.