July 26, 2022

This column originally appeared in The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter that centers conversations about gender in media. Subscribe here to join the community.

I want to buy a house one day. I open Zillow and scroll through houses for sale in my city, and then in every city I’ve ever lived in, and then in every city I hope to live in. I coo over farmhouse sinks and built-in bookshelves and gasp when I find a craftsman-style home for under $500,000.

“It’s so affordable,” I gush to my husband, as if I have any idea how much money $500,000 actually is and I have that kind of money at all. It’s a cliche at this point, parodied by a “Saturday Night Live” sketch so accurate it’s embarrassing.

But in the harsh light of online mortgage calculators, I have to face the truth: Unless something totally unpredicted happens — I sell my book proposal for a big fat advance, my podcast somehow gets purchased for a billion dollars, or a long-lost aunt wills me her life savings — I don’t know how I will ever muster up enough cash for a down payment.

I think to myself, do I need to sell out?

“Selling out” as a concept is almost quaint in a time when sponsored content sits comfortably alongside news posts in our social media feeds. But as a millennial raised by Gen X parents, my ideas of art and labor (and art as labor) were shaped by my father sitting me down to watch the 2001 “Josie and the Pussycats” movie and then explicating its themes on the perils of selling out, of trading your art and integrity for fame and money. A creator with integrity is one who says no to the payday, one who eats ramen with drumsticks and shares a bus pass with her two best friends.

These beliefs have shaped my career. There’s a short list of media outlets and tech companies I’ve vowed I’d never work for. I left legacy media in part because I wanted the freedom to speak more freely about politics. And I became a freelancer because I wanted more control over the work I did — even if that meant less job security and paying for my own health insurance.

Still, I talk to friends who work for international tech companies that offer six months of paid parental leave and free health care, and I wonder if I’m making the right choice.

This anxiety around selling out is a hangover from the Gen-X ethos that the most respectable thing someone could do is to say no to a big payday to protect the integrity of their art. But as Bob Dylan said before he sold out and went electric: The times they are a’changin’.

“Selling out is fundamentally an anxiety of wealth. It’s a concern that arises when there’s cash floating around and people comfortable enough to say no to it,” Willa Paskin said in an episode of “Decoder Ring” about selling out. “You don’t turn down a job during the Great Depression. As the postwar economy is roaring, dropping out becomes a kind of luxury, but one that also signals integrity, a rebellion against the stultifying dehumanizing mainstream against life as a housewife or a man in a gray.”

If the paragon of Gen X creative integrity was a refusal to sell out, millennials took the opposite tack, clutching copies of #girlboss and leaning in and demanding the raises and promotions they deserved. Now, even that flavor of empowerment is passé. We’ve seen how it replicates the same harmful conditions these neo-feminists were raging against by simply wrapping an individualist and capitalist business mindset in a facade of millennial pink faux-activism.

Laura Mayer, a cofounder of podcast studio Three Uncanny Four with Sony Music Entertainment and former executive producer at Stitcher, has similar anxieties. Last week, she launched her newest project, a podcast called “Shameless Acquisition Target.” Part performance art piece, part sincere business endeavor, Shameless is Mayer’s attempt to make what she calls “house money” in the show’s theme song, a parody of The Flying Lizards’s version of “Money” with lyrics she wrote herself: “All the best podcasts are free, but free won’t give me house money. To be acquired, that’s what I’d like — shamelessly acquired.”

“House money” is a kind of totem for the podcast. It’s not the outrageous wealth that some podcast founders landed in their own acquisitions. It’s not private jet money. It’s not even private school money. House money is a level of financial comfort that signifies safety and stability, having made it. It’s a version of the American dream that feels increasingly out of reach amid rising inflation, interest rates, and professional precarity that has defined most of the adult lives of young Gen Xers, millennials and older Zoomers.

There’s something about the idea of a creative project launched with the explicit goal of acquisition — and big money — that rankles.

“It feels like selling out is something that no matter the medium, you can understand,” Mayer said. “I’ve heard from like everybody in my life. People in podcasting that have reached out to me have been positive. Anyone else I know who’s not in podcasting has been like, ‘You OK?’”

Mayer, a veritable boss babe (apologies), reflects on her time in Big Podcasting as one that made her shrink into herself. She told me about a particularly memorable Zoom call she took when she was pregnant.

“I had one of those stupid ergonomic chairs that doesn’t have a back,” Mayer said. She was leaning forward in the chair, and the executive on the call interrupted her to tell her that her body language was terrible. “In the moment I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m so sorry,’ I felt really embarrassed, really ashamed.”

Mayer’s pregnancy was complicated. “I almost died,” she said. “So when I was recovering from being really ill after she was born, the urgency around figuring out what I want from a material perspective and trying to get it became a lot more urgent … I stopped caring as much about trying to be inoffensive to others in professional environments.”

She realized she had pursued positions of power, but always underneath men with more power. She was an agreeable deputy with an everlasting smile, a prewritten meeting agenda, forever inoffensive.

So, in some ways, she is attempting to empower herself through “Shameless Acquisition Target.” But unlike with girlboss feminism, Mayer isn’t deluding herself that this pursuit of capital is anything more than what it is.

She wants a house. She wants to get a crate at the local pet shelter named for her cat. She wants to be able to pay for her kid’s day care. And if she really hits it big, she wants to see a weight lifting trainer five days a week so she can get ripped.

“I’m not trying to do anything inspirational or aspirational,” she said. “If anything, it’s going to be just a little bit of a train wreck that people could watch, but I’m going to try and be kind to everyone along the way.”

What I didn’t know in 2014 is that I am more than my career. Our identities are more than what we write in our email signatures, or our Twitter bios, or on our LinkedIn pages. And when the world gets bigger, the possibilities for how we can inhabit it — and how we can make it better — expand, too.

We don’t need to change the world during our nine-to-five. It can just be the labor we do to make money to cover necessities so we can use the rest of our energy to actually be members of our communities. But with so much capital swirling around the podcast industry, it would still be nice to strike gold and buy a house.

Mayer said one response from the “You OK?” crowd has made her think.

“Someone said to me the other day, ‘No one’s ever going to hire you again for the kind of jobs that you’ve done before now that you’ve done this.’ Because it makes me seem like not a company person.”

But maybe that was the goal for the project all along. “For better or for worse,” she said, “I can’t go back to doing what I had been doing before.”

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Alex Sujong Laughlin is the writer and editor of Poynter's The Cohort, a newsletter about gender in media. She's a writer and an award-winning audio…
Alex Sujong Laughlin

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