Sugar High '98

Pop Still Matters? You Must Be Crazy!

I blame Mark Morrison for everything. Morrison, you may remember, delivered one of the great and mysterious singles of 1997, "Return of the Mack." Return? None of us remembered him being here before. But more importantly, why was the guy claiming mack when he sings like a Brit sissyboy with a jones for things falsetto?

"Return of the Mack" was hardly the first song to talk tough and sound pretty. In fact, it's the confused heir of New Jack's hip-hop/urban contempo synthesis (which peaked with Blackstreet, and Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It"). Or maybe Morrison's spiritual forebears are those crooning bitches like Sinatra and Bennett, running around Vegas waving automatic guns at nuns. Nonetheless, his hit became the blueprint for the best genre of 1998: schizophrenia.

Closest in spirit is Ginuwine's "Same Ol G," from Dr. Doolittle. The lyrics tell a familiar story, about a hustler from the streets ("most of my friends still thugging") who makes it out but stays true to the game. "Though I might be on TV, cuz I got my own CD," goes the chorus, "All that you will ever see: Same ol' G." It's rigged so you'll mishear the end as "O.G."— not just how he says it, but the way you've come to expect two-letter acronyms. TV, CD, OG.

Except he's not. He is the softest G in the universe, singing a slow and lovely cash-money melody with faux-gospel harmonizing on the chorus. The song doesn't even have the taut sexuality which stiffens many a smoove ballad. And what's more, the sound is organized around a digitized acoustic guitar as pretty and prissy as anything this side of Madonna employee William Orbit. But not just pretty— the whole song is the epitome of I Got a Major Label Budget and Sold My Soul for a Pop Hit, perfectly canceling its entire claim. That ain't irony, it's a total failure of self-awareness. It's also the most beautifullest song of the year, a transrational Top 40 koan.

Also operating near the frontiers of reason, Big Pun decided to title an otherwise rock-steady sex rap "Still Not a Player" and then claim "I don't wanna be a player no more," and "I'm not a player, I just crush a lot." Maybe this is a shell game to throw the player-haters off the track. But if it's merely a logical contradiction, then it's clearly also a stepchild of schizophrenia: "A mental disorder occurring in various forms, all characterized by a breakdown in the relation between thoughts, feelings, and actions."

Which brings us to the Backstreet Boys. The genius single from their debut album intros with the proud and/or horrified shout "Oh my God we're back again" (and you didn't even know they were gone; does this sound familiar?). Losing time often signals a psychotic episode, but there's an explanation: "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" wasn't on the band's initial public offering. Not at first, at least. When they added "Everybody" to their portfolio— er, repertoire— they immediately rereleased Backstreet Boys plus one. Why wait for the lab techs to cook up a whole 'nother album? Time's a-wasting, and a billion hormones are jumping like a disco right now.

But nothing can explain away the chorus. It begins with four questions which, given the nature of life, history, and toy-boy pop, can only be described as freaky: "Am I original; am I the only one; am I sexual; am I everything you need?"

For those unfamiliar with the Backstreet Boys, the answers: no, no, yes, good question. You gotta give 'em "sexual"— a billion moaning keening weeping teen-year-olds know what they're creaming about. As for "only one," it seems fair to point out the band has five members, and that's not counting 'N Sync, 5, Boyzone, East 17, etc. Inevitably, however, it's the "original" clause that seems indicative of a break with reality.

Why would you raise such a question when you are in fact the least original guys in music right now (not counting 'N Sync, etc., etc.)? The synth part isn't just borrowed, it's stolen— most recently from another song on the same album. The whole song is blatantly jacked— and that's the insane genius part. Having added this track after already blowing way past platinum, these guys manage to load up seamlessly derivative dance-pop with an awesome sense of their own juice. They sing "Everybody" as if they're changing history moment by moment, rather than passing "My Prerogative" through a microchip and an autoclave.

Pretty fucking teen, even if the Boys'll never see those years again. "Everybody" isn't just the millionth kiss ever stolen under the old gym bleachers; it's the ecstatic conviction that such a thing could never have happened before. And yes, some days that feeling is more or less everything I need; thanks for asking.

If the Backstreet Boys defy reason, Local H defy their very existence; "All the Kids Are Right" is a last-wave grunge song about how over grunge is. "It's never good when it goes bad, no one wants to feel like they been had," moans Scott Lucas, who's half the band with Joe Daniels. Lucas is blowing a kiss to Uncle Tupelo's anti-rock-star rant "We've Been Had," but here the stars in question are Local H themselves: "Walking through the set, as drunk as you could get, and what the hell was wrong with Joe?" It's like a Maoist autocritique; you start expecting they'll take themselves out back any minute and put bullets in their heads. Meanwhile the song's busy raving like grunge still mattered— mattered more than anything— at once as epic and ingratiating as it is self-hating, concluding "all your cred won't save you from the kids." The movement's sound was always self-loathing, from the creamy dread of Kurt's voice to those signature mood swings on which grunge is built: each shift from repressed'n'quiet to furious'n'loud is supposed to grind like the bad gears of your shit-filled heart.

Or maybe the song's the last echo of Kurt's suicide (now that's self-canceling). His note, after all, was about the sickness of rock stardom, and about his failure to have the right relationship to the kids. To Local H these aren't private demons— they're simply material. Now that grunge has laid its cards on the table, we can all stop playing. Dave Grohl has. Despite being one of the living relics of the religion, this year he canceled grunge entirely. Having wandered onto Howard Stern, he apparently figured it was too late to be cool (Where's the "Corporate Shock Jocks Still Suck" T-shirt, Dave?). So instead he played an "Everlong"— aimlessly aggressive on record— that ended up displacing the original from mod-rock playlists. He sang it slow and sad, like a real love song, and worked his acoustic guitar like an amateur. You could hear him breathing as he sang "breathe out so I can breathe you in"; you could hear him waiting when he swore he'd "waited here for you." And when he pleaded "come down and waste away with me," damn if he didn't sound wasted. To finally get it exactly right, to get at the truth of your song on an idiot talk show, in a way that makes everything you've ever sung seem like bullshit— it's enough to make you crazy.

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