The word sellout gets tossed around an awful lot these days and for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes, people tag anyone who finds any measure of success a sellout. Sometimes, it’s just pure jealousy. Sometimes, it doesn’t even make any sense at all. I mean, can you really call someone like Paris Hilton a sellout? What is there to even sell out? But sometimes, it’s the only word that really fits. And for the following seven celebrities, sadly, it fits only all too well. They can be called sellouts for many different reasons but the one thing they all have in common is that I’m pretty sure their younger selves -– the ones who made them famous in the first place -– would break down in tears if they knew what they would turn into one day. The saddest part is that none of them really even need the money. And really, that’s the very essence of a sellout.
As the lead singer for the Sex Pistols, Johnny Rotten became an icon of the punk rock era, a living symbol of the sort of anti-authority, anti-corporate spirit which animated the punk rock movement. He was the sort of guy who would spit in the face of the queen or make a mockery of whatever mainstream media outlet made the mistake of trying to do business with him. His whole shtick was wholesale rebellion. But that’s all it was, a shtick, and that’s become more and more obvious over the years with every cloying appearance on VH1 or with every interview in which it becomes obvious that the only thing Johnny Rotten has left to trade upon is his own legendary image. Perhaps that was always the case but at least once upon a time Johnny Rotten represented something different, something fresh, and something uncompromising. Now all he seems to represent is a parody of punk rock, and somebody who’s willing to compromise anything and everything for a few more moments of cheap fame. I mean, the dude did a commercial for Country Life Butter. Country Life Butter!
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George Lucas would film Jar-Jar Binks squatting over Han Solo and taking a giant steaming dump if he thought that he could somehow package it and then sell it to children and nerds the world over. Search your feelings, you know it to be true. He’d sell squatting toy Jar-Jars. He’d sell plastic poop covered Han Solo dolls. He’d even sell synthetic Gungan feces. Then again, some would say that he already did all that when he released Phantom Menace. Or maybe when he remastered the original Star Wars flicks for the 168th time. Or had Greedo shoot first. Or... look, I could go on and on and on here, but it would all just be evidence of the same inevitable conclusion, which is that at some point George Lucas began to pray to the Sith Lord of Marketing above all else. Maybe he always had that side to him -– he almost certainly did -– but he also had that side to him that was a passionate dreamer, who imagined whole worlds and galaxies and characters like Indiana Jones or Han Solo because they spoke to the enthusiastic kid in him and not the cynical marketing droid he would eventually become.
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There was no way I could create a list like this and not put Metallica on it, and it has nothing to do with their musical direction, which is the topic of a whole different debate. What it has to do with is this: watch their documentary, Some Kind of Monster, and watch Lars admiring his art collection or Kirk playing with his horses or James and the gang talking with a friggin’ life coach and then imagine Cliff Burton watching all of that unfold from his cloud in heaven and imagine the horrified look on his face. Once upon a time, Metallica were ferocious uncompromising animals determined to conquer the world on their terms and no one else’s. Today, they are the real version of Spinal Tap. And that pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?
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If the Ice Cube from, say, 1988 woke up and found a time machine outside of his place and then climbed in -– after shooting at it a few times with Easy E that is -– and transported himself to the year 2011 and found himself in front of a TV screen playing his Are We There Yet flicks and TV shows, I’m guessing he would have tried to climb through the screen and pistol whip the elder version of himself. I mean, come on... at one point, Ice Cube was a member of NWA, perhaps the most notorious rap group of all time. Today, his fanbase consists of middle aged white ladies watching TBS. The first movie Ice Cube ever made was Boyz n the Hood. His most recent movies/shows? The aforementioned Are We There Yet, the upcoming romantic comedy, Valentine’s Day and the 21 Jump Street remake in which he plays a cop. Case closed.
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I really didn’t want to have to do this, but some things just can’t be denied. It’s not so much that Harrison Ford has done a bunch of embarrassing things lately, it’s just that, well, he just doesn’t give a rat’s ass anymore. For the past decade (or two) he’s just seemed tired and worn out. After having the good sense and grace to put the Indiana Jones franchise to bed in the early ‘90s, Ford found himself going through the motions in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull a few years back and has already talked about doing a fifth Indy flick, which I’m guessing will be called Raiders of the Lost Integrity or maybe Indiana Jones and the Last Paycheck. It was rumored that Bill Murray’s character in Lost in Translation, a tired, worn out movie star going through the motions and cashing whatever paychecks come his way, was based on Ford. Whether that is true or not doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it seemed like it was true. Watch that movie again and tell me that character couldn’t be Harrison Ford.
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Like Harrison Ford, at some point it became clear that Robert De Niro just didn’t give a shit anymore. De Niro used to be famous for sinking into any and every role, whether it was as a young Sicilian immigrant out to protect his family and make his way in the world, or as a psychotic taxi driver or as a self- destructive boxer or as a menacing mobster or a damaged Vietnam vet or a catatonic mental patient or a... you get the point. I mean, the dude even won acclaim for playing an 18th century Spanish Jesuit priest. He was good and he was one of the most versatile actors in the world. Today, all he does is play Robert De Niro, or at least a highly satirized version of him. When I imagine De Niro taking a role now, I don’t imagine him obsessively preparing, which is what he became famous for, I picture him just shrugging his shoulders and asking how much he’s going to get paid and then shuffling on set and depressingly asking someone to tell him his lines. Look, I get it. That kind of method acting can wear a dude out, and he’s earned a break. But there’s taking a break and occasionally popping by to poke fun at your own image a la Marlon Brando, De Niro’s spiritual predecessor, and then there’s whatever the hell De Niro’s been doing for the last decade. Enough is enough, you know?
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This one is almost painful. Just go back and watch anything Eddie Murphy did during much of the ‘80s. The man was almost supernaturally funny. People forget this because he has spent the last two decades cannibalizing his own career and torturing people with crap like Norbit, but Eddie Murphy used to be both the funniest and the coolest dude on the plant. Watch him run wild in his stand-up specials Delirious and Raw. Do it and then pick your jaw up off of the floor. His sheer talent is just absurd. Watch him spark Beverly Hills Cop or Trading Places or 48 Hours like a human lightning bolt. Watch him carry Saturday Night Live completely on his back. Ultra-charismatic, ultra-talented and funnier than hell, Eddie Murphy was absolutely amazing. Today he makes shit like Norbit or makes insipid family flicks because that’s where the money’s at. And this has been going on for years and years and all we can do is just sit back and watch, depressed, while it happens. A few years ago, Eddie dusted himself off and won an Oscar nomination for his role in Dreamgirls and everyone got all excited because it seemed like Eddie Murphy might be back. His next movie that came out? Norbit. So much for that. It almost feels like Eddie Murphy died in 1988 or around that time and that ever since then some horrible alien has been masquerading with his face. That’s how massive a difference there is between the old Eddie Murphy and the Eddie Murphy who’s still floating around today. This whole thing may seem overwrought and kind of ridiculous, but damn it all, that’s how amazing Eddie Murphy used to be and every time a movie comes out with him PG bantering with squirrels or farting in a fat suit or whatever the hell he does these days, it’s hard not to imagine what he could be doing instead and, honestly, that just makes me feel a little bit sad and that’s why he’s number one on this list.
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Originally published May 13, 2011.