In 2002, popular music and Western civilization continued their long, inexorable downhill slide. And how ’bout that Jennifer Love Hewitt record?
What a great year for music 2002 was.
Favorite moments? The misguided efforts of three former Mouseketeers to maintain some kind of connection with their rapidly maturing fans, for one. Watching Britney Spears flirt with carnival-midway skankdom as a method to give her Barbie-doll image some gritty resonance and then seeing Christina Aguilera upstage Spears by going for the much more overt San Fernando Valley porn-queen makeover was a real treat.
Meanwhile, Justin Timberlake ditched ’NSync to go solo, but opting for a Jenna Jamison makeover like Aguilera did was out of the question, and he isn’t exactly the next Ron Jeremy. Unfortunately, he picked as his role model a guy whose nose kept falling off—a washed-up, moon-walking superstar who killed what was left of his own career by getting photographed dangling a baby off a third-story hotel balcony in Germany.
Speaking of washed up, the meltdown of Countess Crackula (the artist formerly known as Whitney Houston) on the ABC news magazine Primetime Live made for classic train-wreck TV. “Show me the receipts!” Houston hissed to Barbara Walters, after Walters asked Houston how she managed to blow through more than half a million dollars’ worth of various drugs. “I wanna see the receipts!”
All the above-mentioned acts, save Michael Jackson, record for one company, Bertelsmann. This brings up a problem in the pop-music world: The utter domination of it by huge corporations. Five companies—AOL Time Warner, Bertelsmann, EMI, Sony and Vivendi Universal—own most of the record labels and control most of the business. And if the rumored merger of Warner Music and EMI goes through next year, that list will shrink to four.
But that might not be so bad if the same kind of concentration of ownership wasn’t going on in the radio business. In Sacramento, three corporations own most of the stations: Viacom (which also owns CBS, UPN, MTV, VH-1, BET, Paramount Pictures, Blockbuster Video, Simon & Schuster Publishing and a bunch of other companies) owns six; Entercom owns five; and Clear Channel, the nation’s largest chain of radio stations, owns four. Most of those radio stations aren’t in the habit of adding the latest brilliant unknown on a bedroom indie label to their playlists. Instead, a record label pushing a new artist typically has to engage in the same kind of Byzantine negotiations undertaken by a snack-food manufacturer that wishes to position a new line of tortilla chips in various supermarket chains. And, of course, it helps if the new music being peddled sounds a lot like something that’s already being banged in heavy rotation. A cursory listen to just about any commercial station in town will bear out this theory.
To further complicate matters, Clear Channel is also the nation’s largest concert promoter. In March 2001, it bought a company called SFX, which had gobbled up most of the regional promoters around the country—including Bill Graham Presents, the dominant promoter in Northern California.
Theoretically, a music industry made up of large, well-organized companies would be able to market music to a variety of tastes. And some labels do continue to release the kind of interesting but low-selling records that appeal to omnivorous adults—AOL Time Warner’s Nonesuch and Rhino labels; Vivendi Universal’s Verve and Lost Highway; EMI’s Blue Note, Astralwerks and Narada (which markets David Byrne’s Luaka Bop); Sony’s Legacy; and Bertelsmann’s Heritage and RCA Victor.
But the reality is that, especially in the radio part of the equation, the concentration of ownership tends to focus on connecting with the lowest common denominator. Factor in “synergy,” that magical ability of, say, a company like Sony to foist a new movie (Maid in Manhattan, from Sony-owned Revolution Studios) and tie it in with the new album from its female lead (This Is Me … Then, on Sony-owned Epic Records), and you get the kind of celebrity domination that’s the stuff of boardroom wet dreams: All J.Lo, all the time. And how ’bout that Jennifer Love Hewitt record?
Of course, it wouldn’t be right to slam the big record labels for Mouseketeer overload. They’re just trying to own that huge generation of kids who were born in the 1980s, before their tastes come of age and mutate into something less controllable.
The labels did manage to connect with a number of acts, some of which bear out the idea that hip-hop and R&B continue to dominate as the common tongue of pop music. Among the year’s biggest-selling acts were Eminem, Nelly, Avril Lavigne, Ashanti and Pink. Not a rocker in the bunch.
And, no, Pink doesn’t count. “Could someone please explain to me why people keep insisting on referring to Pink as rock?” asked one of the year’s better screeds. “Wasn’t she doing the white-girl hip-hop thing a minute ago? Yeah, she performed on the Aerosmith tribute show—big deal. She was on the Janet Jackson tribute show just before that.” This vitriol came from an open letter to Rolling Stone, which was attributed to rock singer Joan Jett and posted on her Web site but which was written by an associate of Jett’s named Maya Price. The letter thrashed the magazine for its pathetic “Women in Rock” issue and called Pink a “Spice Girls reject.” Nice.
As for Lavigne, though she’s been photographed holding a guitar, she’s a pop act. In fact, of the 15 best-selling acts, only two can be considered “rock”—Creed and Linkin Park—and both of those are toward the bottom of the list.
Nevertheless, that didn’t stop record companies from trying to figure out how to exploit a “hot” new rock trend, which this year appears to have been plural-named acts preceded by the article “the.” The big labels signed a bunch of them, perhaps banking on the affection a generation of aging rock critics and magazine editors might have for any band that looks and sounds like it got its inspiration from the kind of ’60s garage rock featured on the Nuggets compilation.
Unfortunately, any rock music emanating from a skinny-tie aesthetic tends to have a hard time with commercial rock radio, whose jockish programmers tend to frown on anything that comes across the transom without the Fred Durst seal of approval. Nevertheless, the Hives, a band of Swedish early-Rolling Stones knockoffs; the White Stripes, a Detroit duo featuring a histrionic guitar-playing singer and his drum-bashing sister; the Vines, an Australian combo; and the Strokes, a band of upper-crust Manhattan fashionistas posturing to be the next Velvet Underground, managed to break through, somewhat. They got plenty of ink in glossy music magazines and got their videos played on MTV.
As for the next big thing from a couple of years ago, so-called electronica, the above-the-radar portion of the genre seemed to be confined to Mitsubishi and Volkswagen commercials. In fact, it’s difficult to hear Dirty Vegas’ “Days Go By” and not launch into a spontaneous, seated break dance like that beret-wearing idiot in the ad. Such is the awesome power of televised brainwashing.
One genre that never goes away is country music. Three of the year’s biggest records—the Dixie Chicks’ Home, Alan Jackson’s Drive and the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou (the latter a carryover from the 2001)—connected with the masses. Of those three, only Jackson’s record was a conventional Nashville product. The Dixie Chicks’ disc and the O Brother soundtrack were throwbacks—the former, figuratively, and the latter, literally—to an earlier, pre-NashVelveeta era, before radio consultants weaned on old Styx and Journey albums redefined country music’s parameters.
The popularity of this music, with its twangy vocals, banjos, fiddles and acoustic guitars, may have something to do with the sense of dislocation people are feeling these days. When the government starts pounding the war drum and telling everyone who can’t abide with the bellicose flag-waving program that they lack the requisite patriotism to be genuine ’Murican citizens, it creates a sense of imbalance among those of us smeared as traitors. And what better to help people reconnect with their lost American roots than music from this country’s great folk traditions?
It happened before, during the Nixon years. When a pugnacious Republican administration polarized a generation of young Americans over the never-ending war in Vietnam, listening to country-tinged rock records by the Band; the Grateful Dead; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; and others helped people reconnect with what it meant to be an American. And, given the Nixon-redux vibe of the current regime, it’s a safe bet that the comfort-food attributes of Americana music will continue to catch fire.
One train wreck from 2002 that won’t be catching fire is the long-awaited Guns N’ Roses “reunion”—actually, singer Axl Rose and a bunch of hired hands—that was scheduled to hit Arco Arena on December 30. It went off the rails in Philadelphia. Whether or not you believe in a deity, this would seem to indicate there is an active one.
So, here’s to 2003. Bring on the naked Mouseketeers, the American Idol karaoke singers, the Scandinavian death-metal bands, the overexposed celebrities, the count-the-Cadillac Escalade bling-bling rap videos, the hopeless comebacks, the continuing consolidation of all media properties into one massive cartel of propagantainment, and whatever else is in store. Perhaps somebody will make a great record. Perhaps some radio station will play it. Here’s hoping.