Down With the Blogstablishment: The last few years have seen the rise of unexpected tastemakers — sites like Pitchfork, blogs like Stereogum, and webcasters like KEXP. Let’s revisit a few albums they heaped praise upon in 2006. (Pitchfork ratings in parentheses.)
. Beirut, Gulag Orkestar (7.7): A Balkan-bent reanimation of Neutral Milk Hotel and Magnetic Fields, two canonical but scant touring indie artists from the ’90s
. Girl Talk, Night Ripper (8.4): A mash-up record whose greatest virtue is the inclusion of prominent samples by Top 40 artists like Paula Abdul and 50 Cent
. Junior Boys, So This Is Goodbye (9.0): Cool-as-cucumber electronic pop more elegant than Phil Collins solo, slightly less so than the Pet Shop Boys
None of these records was awful, but none was all that interesting either. For this we accepted the death of print? When people complain about the power of the blogosphere, I think this is what they’re referring to: a cabal of thought-leaders whose dull, lockstep judgments are now inescapably influential in underground music.
The good news: I suspect Blogosphere 1.0’s influence will deteriorate in 2007, as it’s challenged by a series of new, more professionalized sites. Contenders include PaperThinWalls.com, a terse and admirably restrained site; NME.com, whose U.S. launch is backed by TimeWarner; and Idolator, launched by blog powerhouse Gawker Media. None of these has perfected its formula yet, but the entrants in Blogosphere 2.0 are well financed, carefully edited and less prone to hipster tedium. (I’ll be out of a job soon!)
Romancing the Past Commentators far smarter than I claim “echo boomers” (a.k.a. millennials, a.k.a. individuals spawned between ’82 and ’95) are the first generation of kids more conservative than their parents. It makes sense. Young’ns need to rebel against the permissiveness of their hippie-era parents. But isn’t this also the generation that’s into oral sex at teen sleepover parties? (Remember Oprah’s rainbow-party scandal of ’03?)
Regardless, this notion of youthful conservatism is borne out by a wide array of contemporary musicmakers. These artists spent ’06 yearning for a simpler, pre-Beatles/Dylan age. The formalist camp looked to Tin Pan Alley, Brill Building pop and the slightly more outré sound of early R&B. Take James Hunter’s People Gonna Talk, which sounds like it was recorded by Sam Cooke in 1959. Or listen to the bummed-out “ba-ba-bas” of Swedish chanteuse Sarah Assbring (a.k.a. El Perro Del Mar), whose songs borrow from Phil Spector–era girl groups. Or the wide-screen near-yodel of Richard Hawley, whose Mercury Prize–nominated Cole’s Corner borrows from Roy Orbison’s grandiose romanticism. Even established artists such as OutKast and Christina Aguilera got into the act with their new albums — the former with a pastiche of styles and sounds from the ’30s, Xtina with an update on the early Atlantic Records vibe.
More peculiar still were artists whose modern music belied old-fashioned attitudes. Sufjan Stevens’ five-CD box set Songs for Christmas is dominated by Christian traditionals like “Silent Night,” “Amazing Grace” and “Joy to the World,” which sit comfortably alongside his sharp, modernist originals. Much creepier was the stealthy moralism of the Killers’ Sam’s Town. Its lead single, “Bones,” sounds like U2 and Springsteen’s Americana-tinged arena rock. But when the narrator asks, “Don’t you wanna come with me? Don’t you wanna feel my bones on your bones?” an “angel” suggests, “Wait till tomorrow, you’ll be fine.” Holy cold shower, Batman!
These backward glances are certainly more profound than Tony Bennett’s superstar duets, or Barry Manilow’s disc of midcentury American songs. (Both were foisted upon us by Sony last year.) These younger artists seem to be cribbing an entire psychological POV from a half century ago. It’s as if our most conspicuously talented artists, troubled by the culture at large, would like to reimagine an America that was never muddied by upsetting rainbows — no oral sex at sleepovers, no Aquarian daydreams. (OutKast’s fable, Idlewild, represented a Southern past devoid of lynchings — and damn near devoid of white people.) How will this trend play out? Does this indicate a newfound idealism among “the kids” or an embrace of ’50s-style conformity?
The Death of Monoculture: While artists spent 2006 romanticizing America’s past, literate pop fans mourned those who once chronicled it: In December, longtime New Yorker writer George W.S. Trow died at age 63. His modest fame came from the essay “Within the Context of No Context,” which railed against television. (He called it “the force of no-history.”) In November, first-generation pop crit Ellen Willis, 64, died of lung cancer. And this past summer, the entire arts journalism community was riveted by the Village Voice’s dismissal of Willis’ former boyfriend, Robert Christgau, also 64. This self-proclaimed “dean of American rock critics” was fired “for taste.” Christgau later ignited a small scandal by granting an interview to PopMatters.com, in which he made a surprising confession: “When I grew up, there was a monoculture. Everybody listened to the same music on the radio. I miss monoculture. [Italics mine.] I think it’s good for people to have a shared experience.”
Christgau — an avid explorer of niche musics like African pop and riot grrrl punk — was the last person you’d expect to champion majority tastes. But his point was insightful. We are entering a time when pop history is quite literally disappearing. All the commentators who witnessed pop from the start are dying off or being put out to pasture. SoCal lost its own rock-critical doyen when Robert Hilburn stepped down from his 40-year post at the L.A. Times. (Fortunately the paper has had the good sense to retain him as a frequent contributor.)
Though Hilburn was less the pseudo-intellectual than his N.Y.-centric peers, his reporting often benefited from the fact that he witnessed pop history firsthand. By comparison, the new generation of writers and journalists rarely do more than venture guesses at what’s hot and what’s not. For example, compare today’s blog posts and magazine capsule reviews to “Eclectic, Reminiscent, Amused, Fickle, Perverse,” Trow’s remarkable profile of recently deceased Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun from a 1978 issue of The New Yorker. It offers — among other things — a close-up look at the Rolling Stones and David Geffen during his brief retirement. No links to MP3s, no YouTube videos — just plain old observation. Surprise, surprise: The lack of multimedia is no great loss.
Sure, canonical artists will never be forgotten — witness recent biopics on Johnny Cash and Ray Charles — but there ?is a real danger that eventually no one will even understand the concept of a musical canon. A stern warning: All our niches will seem far less fascinating when there’s no mainline against which these alternatives can measure their obscurity.
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New Music Business Models: This year the music business finally started to acknowledge the sales potential of the Internet. Exhibit A: Three of the four major labels (Warner Music Group, Sony-BMG, Universal) took an equity stake in YouTube, in exchange for allowing the site to host their music-video content. When Google recently bought YouTube, the labels profited to the tune of $50 million dollars apiece. None of that money will go to their artists, of course, but it was a shrewd business move and, more importantly, an acknowledgment of how their customers actually want to consume music in the 21st century.
Along those lines, EMI chairman Alain Levy — the one holdout in the YouTube deal — was recently quoted as telling a business-school class, “The CD as it is right now is dead.” I’ve since heard rumors that EMI is seriously considering licensing its catalog to a service like Emusic.com — the successful subscription site that’s currently indie-only. None of this will stop the industry from doing deals with ludicrous ventures like www.spiralfrog.com, a service that will let listeners listen to songs for free, but only after making them listen to a 90-second commercial. (Spiral Frog’s site describes it as a “secure environment where music lovers can satisfy their unyielding passion and thirst for music, entertainment and information.” Uh, sure, and a prison is “a secure environment where crime lovers can satisfy their unyielding passion for weightlifting.”)
But it was tech companies who made the biggest blunders this year. Napster inventor Sean Fanning unveiled his SnoCap registry. It was supposed to revolutionize the music business overnight by enabling bands to sell MP3s directly from their Web sites and MySpaces. Its popularity has proven completely underwhelming. Then Microsoft’s Zune was supposed to give Apple’s iPod stiff competition. So far that product launch seems to be joining a distinguished line of overhyped flops, including the LZ-129 Hindenburg, New Coke and democratic regime change in Iraq.
And Finally .?.?. a subjective and completely incomplete list of 26 artists who made my 2006: Arctic Monkeys, Band of Horses, Beck, Brightblack Morning Light, Lindsey Buckingham, Manu Chao, Cold War Kids, Dirty Projectors, Bob Dylan, Gnarls Barkley, Grizzly Bear, Justice, the Knife, Lily Allen, Joanna Newsom, Phoenix, Professor Murder, Steve Reich, Shakira, Simian Mobile Disco, Spank Rock, Regina Spektor, Chris Thile, T-Pain, Scott Walker and Wolfmother.