Well, that was the century that was. It’s strange to feel as I write this that everything made before last week is now classical music.
I’m overcome with nostalgia whenever I put on Moby’s Play. It’s so ’90s.
Thirdhand news: Kid Rock’s impersonation of Puff Daddy impersonating Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Le Tigre’s impersonation of Bananarama impersonating Wire. Basement Jaxx’s impersonation of C+C Music Factory impersonating Newcleus covering Remain in Light. Fountains of Wayne’s impersonation of Elastica covering Glass Houses. Stephin Merritt’s impersonation of the 20th century. I haven’t had this much fun since I saw Rich Little at the Copa in ’71.
If the state of pop music exemplifies a broader dumbing down of American culture, how come the major-league American movie biz is in such great shape artistically and commercially? The entertainment conglomerates have become shockingly adept at locating talented young filmmakers, letting them loose to pursue their visions, and marketing the shit out of the result.
Studio City, California
Getting hit over the noggin by pop music and the entertaining machinations of the American entertainment machine was a full-contact sport and my own preferred form of masochism. If you listened to the radio, watched TV, or went to the movies in 1999, it’s a wonder you have a brain cell left in that pretty little head of yours.
I work in a CD store classified Pop/Urban. Pop means kids-with-discretionary-income (even big allowances get supplemented with Kidwages), Urban means U-know-what. They buy a lot of singles, and we encourage this, via in-store-only compilations we are mandated to play over and over. These include “featured tracks” which are also played over and over on the radio and MTV—and which you have to buy the whole album to own.
The big industry story this year wasn’t the consolidation of major labels. It was the consolidation of commercial radio, especially the clear channel-AMFM merger that made an 830-station monolith. Radio is in the hands of very few fools, outside of which it barely exists.
Long Island City, New York
Why did concert tickets skyrocket? Industry behemoth SFX Entertainment bought some 20 national tours that mainly played SFX-controlled venues. Prices up to $100 meant most young fans couldn’t see Lauryn Hill, one of the few young artists whose music champions self-worth over materialism, and in San Diego she drew only 8000 to a 20,000-seat venue. But no matter, since SFX paid Hill a guaranteed $250,000 per show.
San Diego, California
For all their self-righteous breast-beating, you’d think Rage Against the Machine would just once hit their suburban fans where they live, with a song unmasking the emptiness of consumer culture.
What do we call Woodstock ’99—America’s first consumer riot? We might have known that patrons of rock’s most dreary serial theme park would take extreme measures to distinguish themselves. Luckily, by the end of the year America’s second consumer riot revived active citizenship, kicking the shadowy WTO from the streets of the Northwest. Who knew we’d end the decade with Seattle redeeming the music yet again?
Mount Tabor, New Jersey
Without Rage, there’s no way my local Taco Bell would have a big red poster on the door with the chihuahua dressed up as Che under the slogan “The Revolutionary Taco” —let a hundred Mexi-Melts bloom! I used to think of them as a Chiapas holiday in other people’s misery, but now I hear them as a Chiapas Trick at Budokan. .
Note to the cynics who sniffed at Rage for using their corporate rock pulpit to advance progressive politics among the head-banging masses: Survey the front line of young American left leaders in 2012 and I’ll bet you’ll find few who weren’t inspired, if not galvanized, by The Battle of Los Angeles.
Brooklyn, New York
Mos Def and Kathleen Hanna’s Le Tigre made identity politics sexy for the first time since Do the Right Thing. Both established an invitingly conversational vibe; both name-checked Nina Simone; both hawked inventive sonics that were obscured somewhat by “topics.” I wish more righteous teachers could parlay the politics of outrage into the sort of great rap sessions you overhear on the couches of community bookstores—both Afrocentric and feminist.
“You can look for answers, but that ain’t no fun,” Kid Rock yelped to the mayhem at Woodstock. But Prince Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves and the South Park soundtrack revealed more about violence urban and suburban than all the op-ed pieces about Woodstock and Columbine. Paul introduces a conflicted Everyhomeboy who hustles for one week to fund his rap demo only to end up dead. Trey Parker, who grew up near Columbine, devises a too-human cartoon theology in which evildoers blame bad parents and bad parents blame a cartoon. Both have fun looking for answers, and find that violence has a multifactorial complexity that won’t fit an op-ed piece.
I’ve been dealing with bouts of depression ever since my house burned down and my dad became severely ill two years ago, and Bruce Springsteen’s shows were the first things in a long time that made me feel hopeful—made me feel it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive. I paid for three of the four, and every penny was well spent.
Los Angeles, California
Videotapes revealed the Columbine shooters quoting Shakespeare in planning their melee. In this election year, what candidate will take up the noble cause of removing this insidious dead white male’s works from the hands of our impressionable youth? I know a lotta people who’ve been hoping for an excuse to get Sting’s albums stickered.
Mount Tabor, New Jersey
Album I would have liked to hear: Lou Bega . . . in the Life of Chris Gaines.
Someday we’ll be able to say we knew him before he became the Artist Formerly Known as Beck.
Santa Barbara, California
If this Latin pop explosion was really so major, why didn’t we see bigger sales of the Pope’s album, Abba Pater? He was the only one who actually sang in Latin.
Steve Merritt, Trent Reznor, and that Morrissey kid. “Three Bummers.” Quintuple album. Giants Stadium. Let’s make this happen.
Rock is like a fallen tree. Dead and rotting, it will sustain whole microecosystems of bugs, toads, fungi, mosses, for decades to come—teeming populations of minuscule critters living off its moribund tissue, its necrotic myth-flesh of gesture and expression. Sure you can focus on a specific fungus-patch or toad-clutch (e.g. thrash/death/black metal or emocore) and perceive virulent vitality. But the tree, the overarching macro-myth, is still dead.
This past year rock partied like it was 1999. And like it was 1949 and all the years in between. There’s no future! There’s no past either. If time is erased, rock, the expression of an urgent now, is dead.
I don’t know who’s here to save rock and roll, or even that it can or should be saved. You’d have to give some heavy mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to the thing, and I’m not sure I want to taste its beery breath or feel its bloated corpse. But I’d take a fat, washed-up rock star over a shiny, happy pop star any day.
Brooklyn, New York
Didn’t R.E.M. promise to break up after 1999? It’s 2000—we don’t have our flying cars or robot maids, but we do have Michael Stipe? This is bullshit!
So much for living on the moon or eating steak dinners in pill form. With Santana back on top, the future has been postponed indefinitely.
Curtis Mayfield said what was needed before people realized what was needed. He articulated what others only thought privately, brought the debate out of the family room. His guitar eternally set on quiet fire, he did it with such grace and joy and melody you never knew you were getting a talking-to. He urged people to get ready, and sooner or later, swayed by the sound, they got ready.
Given the horror of the music business, some substance or at least fun grew in its vast black shadow. Maybe it has to do with why I never go to the movies: I’d rather mainline my emotions from the stereo without storylines or explanations. I don’t have true love or a fast car, but I do have a radio, and sometimes it’s the same kind of rush.
Lissa Townsend Rodgers
No more rap-metal unless the people involved are truly freaks on a leash. No more songs about bitches and niggaz unless it’s straight from the heart. No more taking it back to the old school. No more Iggy Pop records. No more even blonder, even younger, even bigger-breasted children lip-synching their way to rehab. No more jazz in hip-hop and vice versa. No more techno videos where someone is feverishly running away from something down dark city streets, through alleyways and up staircases. More than three Latinos on the radio. More banjos.
Fact is, every new year that goes by lately, I actually hear more albums I like than the year before. Which isn’t a surprise given how the quantity of music keeps climbing overall. There’s more awful stuff every year, too.
Brooklyn, New York
My resolution for ’00 is the same one I’ve made the last five years: SPEND LESS TIME LISTENING TO BAD MUSIC. I wish the music business would help me keep this resolution.