Flak On Both Sides

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

Really, even folks who compare Max Martin to Gertrude Stein or usher symbolic schoolgirls into their sex fantasies have their doubts about this pop marketplace. So before I move on to the music I care most about—Moby and the Magnetic Fields topped my album list too—allow me a few observations and projections. Christina Aguilera could end up a cleaner if not squeakier Mariah Carey, God help us, and some kid cabal Jive Records has never heard of is sure to bust out of the rehearsal rooms. But musically, teenpop's crucial architect so far—producer-songwriter for BSB, Britney Spears, 'N Sync, and counting—has been Swedish Europop mastermind Martin, who has direct links to Ace of Base. Those who believe his songs will fast-fade into oblivion should forget Paula Abdul and the Bay City Rollers and ponder the gaudy durability of Abba. They should wonder whether in 1968 Kasenetz & Katz themselves were certain that the Ohio Express's "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy" would be remembered longer than anything ever recorded by Rhinoceros or the Electric Flag. I'm not even convinced the teenpoppers will self-destruct when their target demo graduates from high school. All these showbiz kids memorize Behind the Music. Isn't it possible that, just like George Michael, one of them will figure a way out of its cycle of eternal recurrence?

Boy-band pimp though I may be, I hope not. Surrounding a few telling details with feel-good platitudes that never face facts or smash up the joint, teenpop is George W. Bush music right down to its faint Latin flavor. But this fact of life is aesthetic, not political—if kids do actually fall for the latest Yalie drug survivor, blame the Democrats or the damn Greens, not Carson Daly, Vibe, and the failure of Seagrams to make role models out of Girls Against Boys. What's remarkable about the present pop moment isn't the ignorance, passivity, and materialism of its consumers, none of it as one-dimensional as elitists assume. Correcting for economic anxiety, which diminished in the '90s no matter how delusory the new mood may be, do you really think Nirvana's millions were so different? The change is almost entirely a matter of blandness quotient, in fans and artists alike. And what's unprecedented is not just that a rather luscious aesthetic has cohered around this vanilla sensibility, an aesthetic that at its best—as in LFO's borderline-stupid "Summer Girls," which ducked insults all the way to its 36th-place tie—makes its gawky self-interest seem coltish and sexy. It's that this aesthetic is the only new game in the console. Not that we should write off future undergrounds—quite the opposite. But except in hip hop, where I hope against hope that breakouts and consolidations are imminent, few imagine that these undergrounds are anything else.

With only four of the top 10 singles on charting albums, no one can grump that the critics are reiterating their longform tastes; it's not their fault when the hits they love are withheld or withdrawn to force people to buy bad CDs with good songs on them. Their singles aesthetic favors energy and edge: "Steal My Sunshine" and "Believe" and "Praise You" and "Bawitdaba" and "Vivrant Thing" and "Livin' La Vida Loca" all devote themselves to toning up the élan vital, while "No Scrubs" and "You Got Me" and "All Star" and "My Name Is" and "Unpretty" are reality rushes, upful doses of home truth that set pungent rhyme to body-friendly rhythm. But of their top 10 albums, only Moby's Playand Beck's Midnite Vultures(both of which scored singles, notice) pay much mind to either effect, and even those are Serious Works. If Beck had accomplished anything like the art-funk/mind-body fusion he's claiming, he would have run away with the poll—his problem isn't that he tries to be funny, but that his jokes are as forced as his horn charts. Moby, on the other hand, not only proved himself the humanistic sellout techno straight-edgers have always suspected but gave unto the world his devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. Atheists have been having mystical experiences on the dance floor since disco. This born-againer made them flesh. He's never believed electronics were the living end, and doesn't show proper respect for the generic blues and gospel he exploits so grandly either. That makes him our kind of guy, and that's why he won. Hurray.

When I say these albums are Serious, I mean for one thing that they're short on laughs. Beyond Midnite Vultures, the only top-10 albums that made jokes a project came from Tom Waits, a funny guy who should be funnier (less Kerouac, more Burroughs, and please mister could we have some Ginsberg too) and isn't as funny as he thinks he is (more pop burlesques, fewer literary grotesques). Plus of course the Magnetic Fields, whose three-CD act of conceptual derring-do is almost never notfunny—even when the presumptive mood is somber, which isn't often, the bravura rhymes make you chuckle with delight if not amusement. Cheap or rich, the tone is so much more complex than what is suggested these days by "irony" that you can assume anyone who uses the term doesn't get the record, which knows things about love that you don't. Since Merge was stingy with freebies, most of its 99 supporters paid or traded for it, which makes its second-place finish even more impressive. It will, it will rock you.

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