Friday, April 15, 2011

That Was It

In hindsight the 90s was a strange time for music. It would be a mistake to overstate the amount of influence Nirvana in specific and grunge in general exerted over the musical climate, but at the same time it's hard not to see the general outlines of the "alternative" exerting an influence over large swaths of the musical landscape beyond the strict confines of guitar-based rock & roll. It wasn't just a matter of how people dressed - although the general shapelessness of 90s fashions was also felt across the music industry, right up until the end of the decade and the concomitant rise of teen pop and metrosexuality. (The phrase "metrosexual" wasn't in common usage until the early 00s, but when seen in contrast with the likes of Limp Bizkit, it's not hard to see the widespread popularity of 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys as precursors of the following decade's fashion consciousness.) Music across the board - from Pearl Jam on through Tupac - was fixated on the concept of authenticity. Even the obsession with irony was a product of this fixation: the only way to truly care about what you were doing was to seem as if you didn't care at all, because that kind of ambition - in any field, not just music - could easily be seen as rude careerism. Of course, there's a good argument to be made that this focus on conscious self-effacement in the rock world provided ample opportunity for hip-hop - with its enthusiastic celebration of material success and unabashed commitment to conspicuous consumption - to leapfrog over white rock and achieve lasting popularity as the "good-time music" of the 90s, occupying the space that hard rock had abdicated in the late 80s.

Let's look at SPIN's Top Twenty Albums for the year 1999, a year in music I remember as being particularly strong. Many of my favorite albums didn't make SPIN's list, but it's nonetheless a good cross section of what critical consensus looked like in US music critic circles at the fin de siecle:
1. Nine Inch Nails - The Fragile
2. Rage Against The Machine - The Battle of Los Angeles
3. Moby - Play
4. The Magnetic Fields - 69 Love Songs, Vol. 1, 2 & 3
5. Prince Paul - A Prince Among Thieves
5. Handsome Boy Modeling School - So…How's Your Girl?
6. Basement Jaxx - Remedy
7. The Flaming Lips - The Soft Bulletin
8. Goodie Mob - World Party
9. Beck - Midnite Vultures
10. Fiona Apple - When the Pawn…
11. Built To Spill - Keep It Like A Secret
12. The Chemical Brothers - Surrender
13. Ol' Dirty Bastard - N***a Please
14. Ibrahim Ferrer - Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer
15. Mary J. Blige - Mary
16. The Promise Ring - Very Emergency
16. Rainer Maria - Look Now Look Again
17. Wilco - Summer Teeth
18. Sleater-Kinney - The Hot Rock
19. Kruder & Dorfmeister - The K&D Sessions
20. Eminem - The Slim Shady LP
If one thing jumps out at me about this list, it's that the late 90s was a time when the leading trends in critically-acclaimed pop music were definitely skewing older. Nine Inch Nails had been around for over a decade before The Fragile, Play was an "overnight" success ten years in the making on Moby's part, the Flaming Lips had been around for fifteen years before The Soft Bulletin conquered the universe. Sleater-Kinney were punk but they were very serious punk, Wilco was "dad rock" long before "dad rock" was even a thing, the Chemical Brothers were retro revivalists for genres most Americans hadn't even experienced the first time around. Making sweeping generalizations about periodization is hazardous business under the best of circumstances. But I've been thinking about this for a little while, so bear with me. As someone who lived through this era in music and who bought around half of those records new off the rack way back in the day - some of them even at a Tower Records, and a couple downloaded off Napster 1.0, for God's sake! - it definitely seemed as good music was really . . . mature back then. Adulthood was a "thing."

Contrast that with the best selling albums of that year:
1. Backstreet Boys - Millennium (13x Platinum total sales)
2. Britney Spears - ... Baby One More Time (14x Platinum)
3. Shania Twain - Come on Over (20x Platinum)
4. 'N Sync - 'N Sync (10x Platinum)
5. Ricky Martin - Ricky Martin (7x Platinum)
6. Limp Bizkit - Significant Other (7x Platinum)
7. Santana - Supernatural (15x Platinum)
8. TLC - Fanmail (6x Platinum)
9. Christina Aguilera - Christina Aquilera (8x Platinum)
10. Kid Rock - Devil Without A Cause (11x Platinum)
There is nothing new in the observation that the music that sells best is often not very good, or that the music industry made a lot of money over the course of many decades by marketing disposable pop music to children. Of the top 10 selling albums of that year, four of them were prefab teen pop, three or four (depending on how you count TLC) were slightly older skewing adult contemporary pop, two were rap-rock albums, one was a complete fluke of a hit by an artist who had been around since the late 60s.

The contrast between what the critics were listening to and what the masses were buying was pretty phenomenal, but not necessarily unusual. What was unusual would not be obvious until a good few years after the fact. See, 1999 was pretty much the high-water mark of recorded music in the fin de siecle period - the last supper, so to speak. We didn't know it at the time, but remember how I said just a few paragraphs back that I downloaded a couple albums off Napster? That was important. The following year, 2000, the number one album on SPIN's top twenty list was "Your Hard Drive." It seemed silly at the time, a puckish response to the fad of music piracy. Remember when it just didn't seem like that big a deal? Remember when it just didn't seem possible that the proliferation of personal computers and broadband connections would really have any effect on the way people consumed and purchased music? It was hype, it was industry fear-mongering, it was hyperventilating futurism on the cover of Wired magazine.

Until it wasn't, and suddenly people just . . . stopped. Stopped buying records, that is. Which is not to say they stopped listening to music - quite the contrary. But the old business model was transformed by changing circumstances into something almost beyond recognition. Lady Gaga is perhaps the biggest pop star to come out of the last decade, and yet her first album - The Fame has sold only 3 million copies in the US since its release in 2008. 3 million records is a big deal now - but for comparison, Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope was released in 1997, sold only 3 million copies in the US, and was considered a relative disappointment.

So far I've put out a fair amount of information, a pair of lists and some numbers. What does it all mean? I'm not sure it all means anything. Correlation does not equal causation, after all, and at the end of the day the gut feelings of an aging industry trainspotter are just that - gut feelings. But if you want to know what brought on this sequence of thoughts, I'll answer that I've been listening to and thinking about the Strokes a lot lately.

If you don't remember or weren't paying attention at the time, the music industry really was violently divided in the last years of the 90s. Guitar-based rock music only sold if it was nu-metal (almost all of which was awful) or sub-Pearl Jam grunge excrescence like Creed. (Rage Against the Machine was very popular and also very good, but they were an anomaly among all the other groups who rode similar sounds to chart success.) When the Strokes came around in 2001 they were a big deal - which is something that I imagine might become more and more difficult to explain to younger listeners the more time elapses. Rock was seen as being officially in the doldrums, and the critical metastory - certainly enabled by reams of recording industry propaganda - was that rock, real rock, was ripe for a rebirth. The twinned forces of grunge and 90s post-college "alt" rock had ran their courses. Hip-hop had stolen the thunder in the mid 90s, and the rise of teen pop had dominated the industry for a solid three years (although, it must be said, teen pop as a universal fad died pretty much the precise moment we hit Y2K). It had been ten years since Nirvana broke! Nirvana! We needed a new Nirvana! Brooklyn was the new Seattle! If this seems a bit intense, remember, I was working college radio at the time: the people who made money off selling records wanted badly for the Strokes to be a huge hit that reignited America's love affair with rock and roll. They said as much in the promo material they sent to radio stations to accompany the US release of Is This It. Because, as I said, teen pop had run its course, and rap-rock was showing its age as well. Sales were maybe, kind of, sort of beginning to get soft. The British press was hyperventilating over these guys, they had to sell a zillion records, right? Right?

The Strokes were never going to be the "next big thing" in America. Is This It dutifully sold one million copies in the US, but no more. There were a number of reasons for this - certainly, the fact that it was released in the US right after 9/11 couldn't have helped. The album's best track, "New York City Cops," was voluntarily excised after the attacks because of its derogatory nature. But regardless of timing, the Strokes were never going to achieve the kind of mass popularity that a large part of the industry breathlessly anticipated. They were too deeply enmeshed in the vocabulary of hip New York at the turn of the century to sell to the heartland. But even moreso than the Stroke's specific appeal, the larger question was whether or not the music industry was still operating under a viable thesis - i.e., whether or not rock music like the Strokes had the chance of shifting the culture once again and making a stab at universal appeal, or whether rock was doomed to diminishing returns as a contingent genre standing largely on the cultural sidelines.

It wasn't the Strokes' fault. I quite like the Strokes now, although I didn't so much at the time. The problem was, and I see this now, that the band wasn't really meant for me. I hear in the Strokes the sum of their influences. They've got the rhythm of the Ramones slowed down from 45 to 33 1/3 RPM, the sparse and nervous energy of Television, the smirk of 70s glam Lou Reed. They sound a little bit like the New York Dolls and a lot like the Feelies. If you can get all that just from listening to Is This It - and if those influences get in the way of appreciating the music - then you're too old. Because the reason the Strokes were popular to the people for whom they were popular and important for the people to whom they were important had less to do with the music - and I really don't want to seem like I'm denigrating them, because really they have grown on me over the last few years - than with the swag. This is something that I just could not understand.

Just watch this, if you haven't seen it in a while. Weird to think that some of them are married with babies. The whole point, back in the day, as that they were young and they had that swag. If the late 90s was all about serious music that older college students and urban intellectuals sat around contemplating while they stroked their beards - I'm looking at you, The Soft Bulletin - then the Strokes were about wanting to be "cool" again. It seems like such a simple idea now but at the time it seemed positively obscene. Remember, the biggest rock album of 2000 was Kid A. Rock was Serious Business. Some kid singing about meeting up with other kids at the bar and getting drunk seemed - well - perhaps revanchist is not too strong a word? Positively atavistic.

Looking back on the 90s, I can now perceive the common denominator between groups as disparate as Pavement and the Chemical Brothers. It was all about the anti-swag. It really got started, I guess you could say, when Kurt Cobain threw on some thrift-store sweaters and torn jeans and called it an outfit - the point was that it wasn't "an outfit," it was just what he happened to be wearing at the time he had the camera pointed in his direction. The clothes you were wearing were not - or were not supposed to be - important. Being a musician meant being a serious person who really wasn't particularly interesting when he wasn't making music, and didn't particularly want to be. Of course, there were still lots of people who wanted to play the rock star game, and many who did - but you always knew that the Stone Temple Pilots and the Smashing Pumpkins were less cool because they wanted to be cool. Pavement were just some dudes who looked like they might just as easily be hotel clerks or accountants in their day jobs; the Chemical Brothers might easily have been university professors if they hadn't gotten into acid house in the early 90s. That was what the 90s - the real 90s - was all about: the best way to show you truly cared was to not care.

The Strokes, on the other hand, tried to say that they didn't care at all by appearing, well, not to care at all. They were louche in a way that no one had been in quite some time. They had no desire to pretend to be anything other than super cool rock stars who just happened to be fabulous. And that's why, when they first came out, it felt to me as if I had set my hand down on a hot plate. What was this kiddy shit?

Next, whenever I get around to it: Swag Stories of the Early Aughts.

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