Flak On Both Sides

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

If I continue to look to hip hop for pop renewal, that's due partly to my regard for James Brown and partly to hip hop's art-commerce interface. But it's too late for semipopular music to stop now—way too late. So I meant what I said about not counting undergrounds out. Which brings us to 1999's most striking statistics.

Reflecting Megapop Inc.'s withdrawal from the succès d'estime game, a record 14 of our top 40 (more than '96 and '97 combined) were manufactured and distributed by independent labels—including 69 Love Songs and Play, the first indie one-two ever. In part that's because indie patterns have changed. Playis on V2, the thumb Richard Branson stuck in EMI's eye after unloading Virgin; Prince Paul works for hip hop pioneer Tommy Boy, still half-owned by Warners but otherwise independent; former runner-up Pavement finished only 29th in what I hope isn't its swan song on Matador, which earlier in the '90s took two majors' money and ran. Moreover, five of our finishers—Moby, Waits, Willis, XTC, Prine—spent years at Megapop before bailing to conspicuously solvent indies (or, in Prine's case long ago, forming his own shoestring one). With all respect to The Soft Bulletin, can Built to Spill be far behind?

All this downsizing is one reason P&J's newbie quotient is dipping as its indie quotient rises. For most of the '90s, half or more of our top 40 artists were cracking the album list for the first time. In 1998 the total was down to 18 including the Fugees' Lauryn Hill; this year it's way down to 14, including Black Star's Mos Def, Buena Vista's Ferrer, the two entries from former De La Soul man Prince Paul, and, well, Santana. Seven of a 41-50 that goes Dixie Chicks-Caetano Veloso-Chili Peppers-Le Tigre-Blur- Cassandra Wilson-Latin Playboys- Guided by Voices-Buddy Miller-Joe Henry have been top 40 in the past, as have almost half the 51-100 finishers. Maybe this surfeit of repeaters is just one of our logjams, in which so many known thirtysomethings make honorable records that name recognition prevails until a tsunami sweeps them all away. On the other hand, maybe it indicates that the new game is controlled—temporarily, right?—by cheerleaders, suckups, and hitters. Macy Gray or no Macy Gray, the only 1999 newcomers I can readily imagine establishing new rules are my favorite hitters, Eminem and Kid Rock, both also hip hoppers of sorts. I bet both are too old, and materialistic, to risk it.

Lots of comments, so I've farmed out only one mini-essay, in which longtime indie-rock participant-observer Katherine Spielmann advances an encouraging claim: that at long last indie privatism is giving way to polemic and struggle. Since the privatism was a reaction to Nirvanamania, an indulgence of the agoraphobia that's as bad for semipopular music as racism, heroin, and Germans playing synthesizers, it damn well ought to recede—especially now that the invaders are gone when you stick your head out of the root cellar. And having spent my adult life watching lefties make speeches to people who aren't listening, I don't expect any new bunch of white people with more time than money and not enough of either to save many souls or forge many polities. But since Spielmann's case begins with Sleater-Kinney, whose The Hot Rockwas the most undervalued record of 1999 and who this year will release two more projects (one with the Go-Betweens!), and Le Tigre, a top-30 band if more voters had heard them and certain cult heroes if they stick at it, I do expect some of them to lift mysoul—and yours, if you're into it. WHICH I HOPE YOU ARE!

We nerds need to stick together. No matter how many critics share the banal belief that the others are caught up in some banal mesh of herd mentality and genteel taste, our consensus can tell the world something about musical quality. It can also tell us. Looking down my own lengthy list of gooduns, I find scarcely an item that wasn't originally supported by some species of word-of-mouth. I look forward to hearing and reading about more in the years to come. Maybe I'll even be wrong about the soul saving. It's happened before.

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