Flak On Both Sides

Moby and Merritt Vs. Hitters and Cheerleaders in a Bad Year for Nerds

Rock critics are nerds. We like it that way. We like staying home and listening to records, then trading them in for other records (even, heh heh, beer money). We like being on the guest list, too. There's

lots of good things about this job. We don't have to coo over John Updike or Robert Bresson. We get to use CAPITALS more than front-of-the-book colleagues who don't know our names. And exclamation points! So say it loud—ROCK CRITICS ARE NERDS!! A nerd army, with thesauruses mightier than a ploughshare, and the up-to-the-minute vernacular weapons our chosen artform exploits so greedily. We're paid to have fun! We're not paid much, true. But, heh heh, see the barter part above.

All of which is to explain why, for rock critics, the turning of the millennium took a backseat to something far more important: 1999 was a terrible year to be a nerd. Or anyway, an art nerd; techie nerds did fine. Yet though the spectacle of young workaholics getting rich quick with every IPO hardly enhanced the social happiness of our community of content providers, the year's most galling indignities were inflicted by our chosen artform. We're used to not topping the charts; too many of us enjoy it. But usually there are status perks to compensate, and historically the Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll has partaken of these. The 1998 Lauryn Hill-Lucinda Williams face-off pitted the glamorous teacher-diva of rockcrit's rap dreams against a longtime succès d'estime propelled into something resembling fame by print media; 1997 winner Bob Dylan proffered wordslingers the gift of meaningful old age if not eternal life, while in a grand old Brit tradition Radiohead's art-rocking second-runners rode reviews to sales; in 1996 alt-folk superloser Beck transformed himself into a pop-funk best-seller by dint of the cleverness and chutzpah rockcrits live by; and before that we lived for years off Nirvana's leavings.

Prince Paul #15 and #16 Albums
photo: Dennis Kleiman
Prince Paul #15 and #16 Albums

Our 26th or 27th poll provides no such satisfactions, showcasing shortfall after shortfall. Not only are winner Moby and runner-up Stephin Merritt two of the shrimpiest guys ever to achieve prominence in an artform that has never competed with the NFL, but their albums are succès d'estime only: Moby's Play clawed its way to 125 on "Bodyrock" 's run and is now, cross your fingers, climbing again, while the Magnetic Fields' three-CD 69 Love Songs wouldn't have charted if Stephin's mom had bought out Merge's first pressing. These heroes are followed by former pop-funk best-seller Beck, whose supposed sexx album has failed to back any azzes away from the black pop that supposedly inspired it; Oklahoma's acid-tested Flaming Lips, who floated their magnum opus heavenward in a poll where they'd never cracked 60 before but, as with all but one of their previous dozen longforms, failed to breach the Billboard 200; and the indie-rock debut of old semipop role model Tom Waits. Then the exception, Rage Against the Machine's double-platinum The Battle of Los Angeles, album of the year in Rolling Stone and runner-up in Spin, kudos some call p.c. though clearly both rewarded Rage's rare-in-'99 parlay of critical and commercial credibility. Fiona Apple's solider follow-up to her megaselling 1996 debut clearly lacks the legs of the hit that made it possible, as does Beck's sillier follow-up; released in November, both are certified gold and swooning around toward the bottom of the top 100 as I write. Sadly soothing Wilco and Beth Orton enjoyed even less impressive SoundScan debut-peaks, 78 and 110. And the sole top-10 hip hop selection, Mos Def's Black on Both Sides, is on indie-rap Rawkus, a sales behemoth by indie-rock standards that has yet to command the market share galvanized by nearly every 1999 release on Def Jam or Cash Money.

Shortfalls are business as usual on our unbusinesslike survey, of course. But except for 14th-place Nine Inch Nails, 1999 was exceptional for its dearth of crit-mersh parlays down the line; the hip hop and r&b artists we deigned to recognize don't need us for sales or status, and with 40th-place Santana we're just along for the ride—Carlos's four other '90s albums garnered nary a mention. Worse still, these fiscal embarrassments are epiphenomena. The real problem is that, just like in high school, we're being made to look bad from two sides, and in areas where we thought we'd secured squatter's rights. Hitters like Limp Bizkit will sell records forever, we accept that, but we never imagined that one day they'd get to smash all that Woodstock peace-and-love ticky-tacky to bits—Woodstock was ours no matter how much we made fun of hippies. And though teenpop had been coming and going even longer than metal, it had generally been reducible to a single symbol like the Osmonds or the New Kids. How annoying to have to distinguish between the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. And how ominous that every goddamn one of these cheerleaders and student council suckups was selling a gazillion albums. Like Woodstock, albums are supposed to be ours. They're supposed to have artistic pretensions. Teenyboppers get singles.

For purposes of clarity, I've been free with the editorial "we" here. In fact, not all rock critics are nerds, and if you don't buy that one how about not all nerds are the same? Specifically, some have no use for the state of formal hyperconsciousness that rolls its eyes at pop's trick bag of mnemonic riffs—they like having their buttons pushed. So our singles voters have always made room for trifles album snobs enjoy despising—"Jump," "Lump," "Creep," "Jump Around," "Unbelievable," "La Macarena," "C'Mon N' Ride It," and, most remarkably, 1997's first-place "MMMBop," which occasioned a P&J cover depicting three milk-drinking young Oklahomans taking a bubble ride. With teenpop all over the radio in 1999, the electorate anointed three certified cheerleaders and suckups—Britney, Christina, and the Backstreet Boys. But since "I Want It That Way" is a timeless cipher that deserved to whup the "progressive" "No Scrubs," and the misleadingly kid-identified "Steal My Sunshine" and "Livin' La Vida Loca" are the kind of happy skyrockets the voters always go for, this showing seems pretty lackluster to me. Critic after resentful critic complained that unnamed colleagues were shilling for teen shit, but darned if I know who they mean. Does Metal Mike Saunders loom that large? Am I really not allowed to stick a Backstreet Boys column in between the Latin Playboys and the Holy Modal Rounders? Some people are so threatened by the state of the pop marketplace that any informed response to same is dismissed as a pseudointellectual betrayal just for accepting—provisionally, mind you—the marketplace's terms.

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