For music fans who came of age in the late 20th century, the term “sellout” may still carry a few lingering negative connotations. In the ’80s and ’90s, the charge was most often leveled at artists who accepted money from corporations in the form of tour sponsorships or ad placements. But it was also applied to outsiders who dared to put themselves in a position to be heard by a mainstream audience. R.E.M., The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Nirvana — all were tarred by underground detractors as “sellouts” after they signed with major labels, hired big-time producers, and agreed to appear in music videos.
Of course, as recently outlined by musician and writer Franz Nicolay in an insightful piece for Slate, calling an artist a sellout for merely pursuing a living “has come to seem obsolete and naive.” The collapse of the record industry at the start of the 21st century is usually credited with removing the stigma of accepting financial support from brands. As for the matter of an archetypical indie band chucking gritty underground art in order to go pop, the question now isn’t whether to stay pure but rather if anyone is even buying. Contrary to the dire warnings of purist record-store clerks back when record-store clerks were a significant music-geek constituency, selling out is actually pretty hard to do, particularly in a commercial climate in which rock bands from the fringes have minimal cachet.
In the last ten years, I can think of only two examples of bands that established careers in the indie-rock world and then successfully crossed-over via a calculated shift to a pop-friendly sound and image. The first is Kings Of Leon, who started out as a backwoods version of The Strokes on on their first three albums, and then traded up to become a backwoods version of U2 on 2008’s Only By The Night, which included the absurd (and absurdly catchy) hits “Use Somebody” and “Sex On Fire.” The second is the Black Keys, who finally escaped the shadow of the White Stripes with 2010’s platinum-selling Brothers, which sold on the strength of the Danger Mouse-assisted single “Tighten Up.” The following year, the Black Keys released an even poppier LP, El Camino, collaborating with Danger Mouse as a co-producer and co-writer on every track.
But now another band appears to be on the verge of joining those ranks. Portugal. The Man, a prolific journeyman psych-pop outfit that’s put out eight albums since 2006, has a bonafide late-summer hit in “Feel It Still,” a sinewy Motown pastiche that entered the Top 40 this week, peaking at No. 34. “Feel It Still” has already topped the alternative and adult alternative charts, and it unsurprisingly has gained an early foothold in commercials, appearing in a recent ad for the Apple iPod Pro.
Like its signature single, the band’s recent album Woodstock unapologetically panders to the sound of radio circa of 2017. (It also includes contributions from Danger Mouse, the modern sellout’s spirit guide.) With its cool, retro snappiness, “Feel It Still” would feel instantly familiar even if it didn’t recall similar smash hits from recent years by Pharrell Williams and Bruno Mars. A cynic might argue that the twangy bass line and splashy horn accents are virtually Pavlovian cues at this point, a proven formula guaranteed to warrant a positive response from pop-radio listeners weaned on songs like “Happy,” “Uptown Funk,” and “S.O.B.,” the 2015 alt-radio hit by Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats.
Admittedly, repeated listens to “Feel It Still” have brought out the cynic in me, dulling the song’s modest charms and underscoring its annoying (though undeniably effective) machinations. It sounds like product, the sort of blandly peppy song that’s played endlessly in movie trailers, airport bars, and casinos because it won’t inspire a passionate reaction, just mental and emotional blankness.
Blankness isn’t new for Portugal. The Man. Unlike Kings Of Leon and The Black Keys, Portugal. The Man didn’t have a distinctive musical personality before it signed in 2011 with Atlantic Records. During its indie career, Portugal. The Man was sonically malleable practically by design. When I heard the band’s 2009 album The Satanic Satanist, I dismissed their pleasant polymath pop as a poor man’s MGMT, one of the era’s biggest indie bands. To be fair, PTM’s debut, 2006’s Waiter: “You Vultures!”, preceded MGMT’s first album, Oracular Spectacular, by one year. But Portugal. The Man’s also-ran status, unwittingly bolstered by that pointlessly convoluted moniker, seems baked into the group’s prodigious output. While their records have boasted wide stylistic range, including stronger echoes of R&B and hip-hop on major-label releases like 2011’s In The Mountain In The Cloud and 2013’s Evil Friends, Portugal. The Man’s has always been a follower, rather than a pace-setter, in indie-pop.
Perhaps that’s why Portugal. The Man promoted the release of its latest LP, Woodstock, with a T-shirt that joked, “I Liked Portugal. The Man Before They Sold Out.” When you never had a reputation for indie integrity to begin with, calling yourself a sellout qualifies as a form of humble-bragging. Besides, it’s not as if Woodstock‘s backward-looking plundering of pop history is out-of-step with what’s in vogue in indie music right now. It’s just that Portugal. The Man has succeeded in producing an actual pop hit. They didn’t just sell out, they found an audience to buy in.
Woodstock is out now via Atlantic Records. Get it here.