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Strange Memes and Nascent Trends

Music is a constant source of inspiration, but in 2003 the trends surrounding it mystified us with weird citations, dark prognostications and odd developments. Skim this list for key tracks.

1 DIGITAL MUSIC STORES: On the plus side, Napster is back and has a sharp ad campaign. On the minus, I can’t load BuyMusic.com’s homepage on my Macintosh. On the hype side, Time named Apple’s Music Store the coolest invention of the year, but the reality is, only slightly over 20 million songs have been purchased. Yes, pop music’s future is in 99-cent downloads. Yes, that’s the best way to throw your consumerist weight behind insanely good tracks like Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” Kelis’ “Milkshake” and R. Kelly’s “Step in the Name of Love.” (It’s a Gulf War kind of thing. Support individual troops, not the larger battle.) Still, why is it that the legal way feels less fun than the illegal ones always did?

2 COLLECTIVISM: Music is to protest as Ornette Coleman was to jazz — the shape of things to come. While America at large unites behind twisted expansionist goals, a countermovement of discrete musical cells is developing across North America. From Montreal, the nine-piece apocalyptica of Godspeed You Black Emperor! From Oklahoma, the Flaming Lips’ savior/clown show. From Dallas, the Polyphonic Spree — a 23-member, cultlike choral group. Less cohesive consortiums abound: NYC producers the DFA promote dance-punk revolution; Toronto’s Arts & Crafts label lends support to Broken Social Scene and Stars; Vancouver’s the New Pornographers, a seven-piece power-pop band, combine the talents of an entire regional scene; Omaha’s Saddle Creek label has made the Midwest a breeding ground for indie rock. Not since the ’60s have unwieldy groups of scruffy musicians commanded such fascination. The commonalities are idealism, celebration, prophecy and community. Will revolution follow?

3 TEDIOUS HOMOSEXUALITY: In February, t.A.T.u.’s Lena and Julia kissed on the Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel and Craig Kilborn shows. In August, Madonna kissed Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears at MTV’s VMAs. The world yawned. Not since Penthouse’s first girl-on-girl spread has gayness been so lamely appropriated for the entertainment of straight people.

4 CASTLEVANIA AS INFLUENCE: The plot of Konami’s long-running video-game series is simple: Simon Belmont kills vampires. When it was introduced in 1987, though, the game’s music became as famous as the story line. The thin synths sounded like a cross between a patriotic anthem and a dinky Transylvanian waltz. The broad-based phenomenon of video games could be a musical influence that knows no boundaries. Listen to the twisted keyboard cascades on Andre 3000’s half of OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, Alicia Keys’ “You Don’t Know My Name,” 90 Day Men’s Too Late or Too Dead EP and Juana Molina’s Segundo. They share a common ancestor. Either Nintendo or Nokia is to blame.

5 WHINING SUBURBAN: Now that major labels have begun the emo/screamo signing frenzy, it’s worth wondering: Wouldn’t Thursday, Thrice and Dashboard Confessional sound just like Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit and Korn if the latter hadn’t had girlfriends, shrinks and prescription antidepressants? Basically these groups express the same emotions as their nu-metal precursors, only in a higher octave and with parents in a higher tax bracket.

6 SLURRING URBAN: No one understands metal and punk lyrics, because they’re masked beneath torn vocal cords and the roar of guitars. 50 Cent, Sean Paul, Nelly and Chingy (he of “He’s Herre,” “Right Thur” and “Wurrs My Cash”) have all drawn attention to their speech impediments (or ability to simulate one). A winning theme. The Kingsmen should stage a comeback.

7 TOTAL MARKET XENOPHOBIA: “Hi, I read Tracks! I like Sting, Springsteen, whatever Nonesuch puts out, and might just give this Bright Eyes kid a chance.” “Hi, I read Blender! I like Paulina Rubio’s thong and Liz Phair’s overnight transformation into a MILF poster child.” “Hi, I read Rolling Stone! It’s important to understand Justin Timberlake’s place in the pop-culture canon.” “Hi, I read Spin! My entire record collection consists of new albums by Radiohead, the White Stripes and the Strokes.” Why have music magazines given up defining the Zeitgeist in favor of furrowing tiny niches? (Kudos to Urb for putting Radiohead on the cover of its December issue.)

8 MORTALITY AND TALENT: Elliott Smith’s self-stabbing ranks as one of the most disturbing suicides ever. Phil Spector flipped the script by allegedly shooting a B-actress in the entryway to his mansion. Johnny Cash’s long-anticipated demise was used as a marketing peg for UnEarthed, a creepily titled five-CD box set of unreleased material. A sinister year in the annals of rock death.

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