Sufjan Stevens and Vampire Weekend: Indie Holiday Sellouts?

12/23/2010 03:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If there is one absolute constant during the holiday season, it's unbridled commercialism. And of course, we've become so happily anesthetized to it, we hardly take notice.

But for those of us who are also hopelessly devoted to the ideal of independent musicians who find success without abdicating creative control or artistic integrity, this ideal has itself been commercialized to become the cultural catch-all known as "indie," and the seeming contradiction creates a real dilemma for some listeners.

If an indie band's music is used to sell us products other than the songs themselves, is the band just a group of sellouts? If an indie songwriter licenses his tune to promote the Christmas company line, is he or she out of line? This holiday season, we have two high-profile examples with which to answer this line of questioning.

First, there is the case of Vampire Weekend, whose song "Holiday," from its latest album Contra, was used in Honda's "Happy Honda Days" ad.

While the song is certainly excerpted to fit a 30-second TV spot, the music itself is essentially unaltered, as we see several fun-loving couples give each other the time-honored gift of the Honda Civic in equally fun-loving stop-motion style. Did Vampire Weekend sell out, giving way to shameless corporatism in order to cash in?

Seemingly more harrowing is the licensing of Sufjan Stevens's "Hey Guys! It's Christmas Time!" to promote the cable channel AMC in its lineup of December movies. There is the standard voiceover, and the requisite video montage of the featured flicks. But from the commercial's get-go, Sufjan Steven's unmistakable style takes over, imbuing a typical holiday-themed promotional video with an eclectic individuality that dinstiguishes it from comparable ads. Did Stevens cede the creative high ground to increase his pop culture clout?

In both cases, my answer is a resounding "No." It's all too easy for us, the listeners, to cry "sellout" at the first sign of widespread notoriety or commercial success. We feel that the artists have wronged us in some way, because they are no longer just for us who are "in the know." They no longer fit into the constrictive box we've made for them.

But more to the point, if the musicians in question do not have to change their songs to suit the commercials in which they are placed, and the company is merely granted permission to use the music, as-is (with the exception of editing for time) -- how is that selling out?

Is that really compromising one's art for the almighty buck? I don't see how, because the only real compromise I can is the one being made by the company acquiescing to the artist's requirement of monetary compensation. An artist, like anyone who sells his or her product, deserves to be paid for the quality work that he or she does. People cannot "sell out" simply by making more money than they once did.

So, weary indie music fans, my humble holiday recommendation is this: Enjoy those indie-tastic holiday ads this year, free from shame. I don't know about you, but simply hearing those songs played on television is a minor coup worth rejoicing over.