The Kevin Barnes Manifesto

Kevin Barnes, the brains behind of Montreal, one of my favorite bands, has penned a truly important manifesto, “Selling Out Isn’t Possible,” for Stereogum. Read it here.

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.

I urge you to read this. In all seriousness, I think Barnes has written an intelligent and thoughtful yet not blinkered or Panglossian defense of an open market economy. In truth, I found virtually the entire piece eminently quotable, but I’ll limit myself to a brief passage.

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. Our generation is insanely lazy. We’re just as smart as our parents but we are overwhelmed by contradicting ideas that confuse us into paralysis. Maybe the punk rock ethos made sense for the “no future” generation but it doesn’t make sense for me. I like producing and purchasing things. I’d much rather go to IKEA than to stand in some bread line. That’s because I don’t have to stand in a bread line. Most people who throw around terms like “sellout” don’t have to stand in one either. They don’t have to stand in one because they are gainfully employed. The term “sellout” only exists in the lexicon of the over-privileged. Almost every non-homeless person in America is over-privileged, at least in a global sense.

This last point is a theme that strikes a chord with me, particularly when I see middle class friends compromise their way to unhappiness. Because the world is profoundly unfair, those of us born into the US middle class are extraordinarily fortunate, and I tend to think we thus are almost obligated to task risks in pursuit of happiness. The very poor face different constraints, and my hope is that we one day construct the kind of enabling state that will give all Americans, and hopefully all people, the freedom to do the same.

Again, this manifesto blew my mind. It is witty and effortlessly smart, and also admirably humble. (“No one’s going to want to use one of my songs in a commercial five years from now, so I’ve got to take the money while I can.”)

So is this an Eazy-E “we’ve got to get this paper” harangue? Far from it.

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.

It’s an insightful meditation on the ethics of commercial life.

Thank you, Kevin Barnes.