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.
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.
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 òlan 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 Play and 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 not funny--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.
Granted, other funnymen also made our top 40--nasty Randy Newman, kindly John Prine, wiggy Handsome Boy Modeling School, buggy ODB, dirty Kid Rock, and dirtier Eminem constitute the usual quota or better. What's more serious is how many of the critics' favorite albums took up the burden of historical recapitulation. It would be nonsense to call this impulse millennial when it so obviously reflects rock and roll's ever-advancing maturity, which I mean not as stodgy compliment or veiled insult but neutral description. So our winner joyfully integrated rural feeling (not to mention rural hooks) into a "postmodern" "electronica" that has lost its next-big buzz--diehards voted for the Chem Bros. and Underworld the way earlier diehards stuck with Van Morrison, but the utopian rhetoric has faded away. Our runners-up, meanwhile, impassively stuffed an eccentric reading of 20th-century songwriting into slyly rudimentary postrock arrangements that sound like nothing you've ever heard except old Magnetic Fields. The same historiographic impulse touched off the repertory revivals of Prine and Ibrahim Ferrer, and imbues blues-and bluegrass-steeped Tom Waits and Steve Earle. Less familiarly and more pregnantly, it also puts across the pop-schooled orchestrations of Randy Newman (who invented this shit), Fiona Apple (thank you Jon Brion), XTC (West End boys after all), and--a thorny case--the Flaming Lips.
Newman, Apple, and XTC we grasp: sonically arresting showpieces deploying lots of traditional pop instruments, rock only by association that couldn't have happened without it. The Soft Bulletin, on the other hand, is rock period even though it drips with violin surrogates and trips over the beats of a drummer who's spent too much time in the practice room. It's the prime 1999 example of the species of contained adventure in which Megapop Inc. (especially Warners, which is still bravely trying to sell it) once invested with proud alacrity. People love it because it's neopsychedelic in such an American, wide-open-spacy way--generous by nature, jerry-built on principle, and hopeful beyond all reason. What puts me off is that Wayne Coyne evinces so much more sweetness than brain. What puts me off Nine Inch Nails' double-hoohah, on the other hand, is that Trent Reznor evinces neither, unless you think musical intelligence equals human intelligence, his con for years--always with music that says things like "dream job: emperor" and "more fun than death by injection." Handsome Boy Modeling School gives me better goof and better techno-obsessiveness than either attempted masterwork, plus I know they're not just wise guys because Prince Paul's concept-album-of-the-year had deeper politics than The Battle of Los Angeles. Why both finished below The Soft Bulletin and The Fragile (and The Battle of Los Angeles) is for me to know and you to figure out.
The difference between confronting history and leaching life from the tried-and-true often confounds our alt-country branch. Wilco fans believe Jeff Tweedy is turning into Brian Wilson, poor guy; I'm reminded more of Tom Petty and the dogged craft of Richard Thompson, auteur of the not-half-baddest effort on our list. Since good songs infused with the right compound of concept and conviction can signify in any style, Kelly Willis and the Old 97's are a different story. Only it's easier to hear the songs if you feel the style--others pump Robbie Williams and Everything but the Girl as thinking teenpop and techno feminism, whereas for me they're hip fop and pseudo Sade. I prefer the hip-schnook pseudopop of Fountains of Wayne, whose Utopia Parkway promises endless fun-fun-fun to those who can forget what's actually on the car radio and don't know that the real Utopia Parkway is a decaying residential thoroughfare in Queens. I'll also take Mary J. Blige's soulful indifference to class, which more than her stalwart songs is why I prefer her to Macy Gray, whose Billie-and-Dinah voice says Birdland and whose Shara-and-Dionne material (Nelson, Farris, remember?) says bank your advance. As someone who didn't think Me'shell Ndegòocello would come this far, however, I'm not giving up on Gray. Like Ndegòocello, she wants to do something big with her big gift. It's conceivable that someday either might come up with her own Play--or, what can you do, Soft Bulletin.
The hip hop that is regularly shortchanged in this poll is juiced as much by a similar sense of mission as by the new or undiminished musical ideas at its disposal. Figure a more involved and representative electorate would have boosted every rap title in our top 40 as well as elevating Mobb Deep (72nd) and late-December Jay-Z (68th, wait till next year) toward the printed chart. But note that the alt-pop split that has afflicted and energized rock since punk is taking hold in hip hop too. Because its market remains far more discerning than the dolts who assume it isn't, the Roots are genuine stars, and voter favorites like Mos Def and Prince Paul still outsell all but the biggest alt-rockers. But they don't represent the culture, just its Talented Tenth types. Although Prince Paul's very different tours de force make him artist of the year--quite a contrast to Dr. Dre, who edges Marilyn Manson and Celine Dion for shithead of the decade even if his grayboy Eminem has a lot better chance of turning Beastie than Limp Bizkit do--the Roots' soul jazz and Mos Def/Black Star's understated old-schoolisms don't transform enough history to suit me. Nor does flava-of-the-year Mannie Fresh agitate my azz, which never caught the Miami booty-boom either--the embarrassing fact is that I have more fun with the Brits in Basement Jaxx. In case you didn't know, however, I also don't represent the culture--I mean, not only am I down with Q-Tip's electrobeats, I still like the Canibus album. So I'll abide steadfastly until some forward-looking race man--not one of those hippy-dippy West Coast guys, and quite possibly Black Star itself--takes alt-rap all the way home.
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. Play is 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 Rock was 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 my soul--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.
Village Voice, Feb. 22, 2000