Chances are you’re not a fan of all eleven bands Dan Ozzi chronicles in Sellout. I know I’m not. I dig Jawbreaker and Green Day, and have marginal interest in At The Drive-In and Against Me! (Dan, it should be mentioned, helped Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace write her memoir a few years back). I didn’t think I’d give a shit about the other seven acts discussed here, many of whom I think of as kinda slick Hot Topic/mall emo bands (like Thursday and My Chemical Romance, to name two). I assumed that the stories shared by the groups in Sellout would be samey, following similar trajectories. As it turns out, none of my skepticism was warranted. Sellout is a compelling, nuanced read despite the fact that I’m not a fan of most of the bands here (even after using the book as a hypertext and checking out the catalogues of the groups as I went).
Often, authors who write rock books don’t take audience into account—they either mansplain or don’t provide any context. One of Ozzi’s strengths is his deft touch. To be sure, a lot of names are tossed around in Sellout, but I never lost track of who was who, nor did I wish that he’d shut up with needless details. This may seem like a small thing, but over the course of eleven chapters, small bits add up—the lean delivery helps Ozzi tell the bands’ stories in a compelling fashion.
As I read, I noticed Ozzi develop through lines which made for a cohesive read when I assumed the book would be a collection of one-off chapters. Certain record label execs feature prominently in the tales of multiple groups, like Craig Aaronson, a guy who starts off as a low-level guy with Capitol Records and moves his way up to head of Sire Records by the book’s end. Stories of label shake-ups, mergers, and reorganizations leaving bands out in the metaphorical cold after signing their deals are another common thread in many of the stories.
This isn’t to say that the tales here are all the same, as I feared—far from it. Some groups wrestle with the jump from indie to major, like Rise Against, who decide to leave Fat Wreck Chords for Dreamworks. Others, like Blink-182, make the transition easily enough, without any of the strum und drang of a band like Jawbreaker, who publicly denounced bands that signed before they made their well-publicized jump to Geffen for Dear You and suffered backlash with their fans.
Of the bands discussed here, I found myself drawn most to the story of Jimmy Eat World, who got a deal because they were referred to record execs by their friends in Christie Front Drive, one of my most beloved bands. I had never checked out the Distillers before reading this book—and I was shocked by the toxicity and shittiness of Rancid’s Tim Armstrong following Brody from the Distillers’ breakup with him. (Why isn’t this talked about more by Rancid fans? Does Tim get a pass, and if so, why?)
In the right hands, a book about music and bands can be compelling even if the reader isn’t a fan of the groups in question. Dan Ozzi has hands, kid. In Sellout, Ozzi has written a detailed, inviting map of the complicated world of punk ethics wrestling with corporate interests. A great read I didn’t know I needed. –Michael T. Fournier (HMH, hmhbooks.com)