Art is how we decorate space, Music is how we decorate time

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September 4, 2001




What does the new Top Ten list mean?


Issue of 2001-08-20 and 27
Posted 2001-08-20

In 1973, for an essay published in The New York Review of Books, Gore Vidal read his way through the Times best-seller list in an attempt to understand popular taste, trashing as he passed, among others, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and the author of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” We have long known that there is a division between literary fiction and the mass market, but it says something about the fragmentation of pop music that there is now some kind of musical equivalent. The Billboard charts of top-selling LPs in the month of July, 1971, included “Sticky Fingers,” by the Rolling Stones; “What’s Going On,” by Marvin Gaye; “4 Way Street,” a live double album by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; “Aretha Live at Fillmore West,” by Aretha Franklin; and “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon,” by James Taylor. You can imagine that at the time even the most curmudgeonly critics might have found it in themselves to gush over at least a couple of those. Now, however, in addition to the self-explanatory top-seller charts, we have myriad other lists, from MP3 downloads to top alternative albums to top college, whatever that may mean. (These lists may well have been born of the music critics’ despair at popular taste.) There is “literary,” critically approved popóLucinda Williams, say, or Wilco, or Nick Cave, none of whom trouble the Billboard statisticians muchóand the MTV-driven hard rock, rap, and R. & B. that you can find at the front of your local HMV. Some might argue that the critics who wrote about Marvin and Aretha thirty years ago are the very same people who rave about Lucinda Williams today, and they’d have a point: rock critics now seem to have tenure, like senior faculty, which could explain why current youth-targeted music seems relatively unexamined.

I decided, however, that my own lack of familiarity with what people are actually buying in bulk was far too shaming, and so I sat down and listened to the ten best-selling albums in the United States according to the July 28, 2001, issue of Billboard. These were, in descending order, “Songs in A Minor,” by Alicia Keys; “The Saga Continues . . . ,” by P. Diddy & the Bad Boy Family; “Devils Night,” by D12; “Break the Cycle,” by Staind; “Survivor,” by Destiny’s Child; “Jagged Little Thrill,” by Jagged Edge; “Take Off Your Pants and Jacket,” by Blink 182; “Lil’ Romeo,” by Lil’ Romeo; “Skin,” by Melissa Etheridge; and “Hybrid Theory,” by Linkin Park. I’d caught a couple of minutes of one of the Destiny’s Child videos on TV, but, then, so has everyone who has access to a television. As far as I was aware, I had never previously been exposed to the work of Blink 182, D12, Lil’ Romeo, Staind, Alicia Keys, or Linkin Park. In fact, I had to ask myself, Who are these people? What do they sound like? And what’s with the numbers in the names?

The single biggest influence on most of these artists, according to the acknowledgments in their liner notes, is . . . Actually, let’s see if you can guess. Who do you think is at least partially responsible for such songs as “Where the Party At,” “Bootylicious,” “Bad Boy for Life,” “American Psycho,” “The Girlies,” and “Pimp Like Me”? Who do you think inspired the rapper on D12’s “Ain’t Nuttin’ but Music” (“Independent women in the house / Show us your tits and shut your motherfucking mouth”óa chummy reference, presumably, to Destiny’s Child, whose hit “Independent Women Part 1” opens their “Survivor” album)? Give up? O.K. You may well be surprised to learn that the very first person thanked in the liner notes of the CDs containing these gems is the Almighty Himself. He gets thanked on seven of the ten albums, by sixteen different contributing artists. Brian, of Jagged Edge, for instance, declares that without God “we wouldn’t be here doing this third album”óincontrovertible, according to much creationist theory, but a somewhat reductive view of the universe nonetheless. Let’s face it, without God the first two albums would have been pretty tricky, too. In a similar spirit, Michelle, of Destiny’s Child, is moved to point out to the Creator, “There is no one like you!!,” which is, on reflection, one of the tidiest ontological arguments you could wish to hear.

In fairness, there is very little that would cause offense on either Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” or Jagged Edge’s “Jagged Little Thrill.” (The hopeless pun on Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album “Jagged Little Pill” seems to be an homage to Alanis’s ability to sell CDs rather than to her penchant for agonized self-exploration; “Jagged Little Thrill” is not an introspective collection.) There is plenty of cleavage on display on the front of the former, and a lot of tattoos and motorbikes visible on the cover of the latter, but these girls and boys are good-bad, not evil, as the Shangri-Las once put it, and although He might be baffled about what He had to do with any of it, He is unlikely, I think, to get wrathful. This is sweet-natured and competent contemporary R. & B., and though it is almost perversely unmemorableóhow hard can it be to write one tune that sticks?óand utterly derivative (think girl-power pop soul in the style of the Spice Girls and TLC), you are unlikely to feel the need to call an exorcist if you find copies of either lying around in a teen-ager’s bedroom.

Similarly harmless are the albums by Lil’ Romeo and Alicia Keys. Only you will know whether you want to listen to an album by an eleven-year-old rapper. “It’s teenage music, but it’s also adult appealing,” the biography on Lil’ Romeo’s Web site claims, but this seems extravagantly hopeful, because it’s hard to imagine that anyone in his teens would swallow this stuff, and it certainly didn’t appeal to this particular adult. The intro features a version of “FrËre Jacques”; track two is effectively a rap version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”; and “Somebody’s in Love” contains the line “Be my Mickey Mouse, and I’ll be your Minnie.” The twelfth track, incidentally, “When I Get Grown,” was written by Lil’ Romeo, Master P, P.K. a.k.a. Marcus Carter, Gip Noble, Cecil Womack, Linda Womack, Ahmad Lewis, and Stefan Gordy; one or two of these, one suspects, weren’t at the very top of their game.

The Alicia Keys disk really isn’t bad, however, and is certainly the only album in the Top Ten that I might contemplate playing again one day in the not too distant future, when the memory of this whole Billboard experience is a little less . . . vivid. “Songs in A Minor,” like a lot of diva R. & B., is overproduced and overpolite, and the songs rely too heavily on the groove and on Keys’s melisma, rather than on their own structure, but it has its momentsómost notably the bluesy, moody “Fallin’,” which borrows liberally from James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” and her cover of a Prince song, “How Come You Don’t Call Me.” Indeed, one of the strengths of the album is Keys’s recognition that there was black American music before Whitney Houston. The string arrangements echo Curtis Mayfield, and the occasional willingness to lean on piano and voice suggests that Keys might have come across Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

Politesse comes to seem like the most important and attractive of virtues when you enter the midnight worlds of P. Diddy and D12. P. Diddy’s “The Saga Continues . . .” and D12’s “Devils Night”ólike the Staind and Blink 182 albumsócome equipped with parental-advisory stickers, and these warnings, let me tell you, mean business. Anyone who has lived through Deep Purple, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, the Cramps, Grandmaster Flash, and Nirvana could be forgiven for thinking that there is nothing out there with the potential to alienate in the way that our music antagonized our parents. We have become accustomed to sonic ferocity (and it was that, as much as anything, that terrified a generation raised on Frank Sinatra and Pat Boone) and to songs that contain every conceivable obscenity, covert and overt endorsement of drug use, and sexually explicit language. Despite all this, an hour in the company of P. Diddy (formerly Puff Daddy, or Puffy, or Sean Combs) is a dismal, sordid experience. We have been told often enough that to disapprove of gangsta rap is pointless, middle class, and smug, like disapproving of modern urban life itself. Nevertheless, one is entitled to feel queasy about the enthusiasm for and endorsement of the gangsta life audible on “The Saga Continues . . .” The eponymous first track (the title, as it happens, of the first track on the Jagged Edge album, a coincidence indicative of the general level of self-mythologizing going on at the top of the charts) could, it seems to me, be summarized as follows: some rich, powerful, violent people have been away for a while (who these people are, and where they have been, remains a moot point, particularly since we know enough not to confuse the artist with his narrators), and if, in their absence, you have been trying to muscle in on their turf, then they will not be happy about it. “Y’all niggaz still talkin? Oh you got a little name little fame little fortune? What you have is a portion / Bout the size of the hats in the back of my Porsche and / So you better use caution.” These rich, powerful, violent people seem to be on speaking terms with people who own firearms; beyond that it is perhaps best not to speculate.

The star of the rap collective D12 is Eminem, who, as some readers may be aware, has caused a stir in the last couple of years, mostly by directing a Tourette’s-like and apparently inexhaustible torrent of bile toward his fellow-entertainers, his partner, and members of his family. The D12 album “Devils Night” offers no respite, needless to say; listening to the fourth track hereóa “skit” entitled “Bizarre,” in which one of the gang members’ attempts to seduce a colleague’s girlfriend goes awry, because he farts all the way through itówas, I think, the single most dispiriting moment of my professional life so far this millennium.

This, of course, is more or less the entire point, and it gives pause. When one is confronted by “The Saga Continues . . .” or “Devils Night,” any complacency one might have felt about pop music’s no longer having the capacity to alienate or irritate heard-it-all-before liberals evaporates. By comparison, the Sex Pistols’ nihilism seems thoughtful and politically engaged. (It came as something of a shock to realize that the music I have been listening to over the past few years is exclusively and disgustingly sensitive. Even my favorite recent hip-hop song, OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson,” contains the line “I apologize a trillion times”óa sentiment that would make Eminem gag.) Just about everyone, from the scariest metal singer to the dimmest dance act, wants the world to be a better place, but not Eminem, who veers more toward unmediated hostility and threats of violence, rampant consumerist bragging, casual misogyny, and puerility. “What’s going on in the world today? People fighting feuding looting, it’s O.K. / Let it go let it flow let the good times roll,” goes the chorus of D12’s “Ain’t Nuttin’ but Music.” (The music on “Devils Night,” incidentally, is frequently superbótense and springy, with a wit and energy that blows P. Diddy’s stale, pompous beats away.) The echo of Marvin Gaye is gleefully and knowingly perverse. Eminem must realize that Gaye wanted an answer to the question, and, to the rapper’s way of thinking, that kind of political angst is contemptible.

We should have seen this coming. Ever since Elvis, it has been pop music’s job to challenge the mores of the older generation; our mistake was to imagine ourselves hipper and more tolerant than our parents. The liberal values of those who grew up in the sixties and seventies constitute an Achilles’ heel: we’re not big on guns, consumerist bragging, or misogyny (where are the people who objected to Bruce Springsteen’s use of the phrase “little girl” when you need them?), and that is the ground on which Eminem and his crew choose to fight. I know when I’m beaten; I can only offer sporting congratulations and a firm handshake.

Blink 182 makes chirpy pop-punk music in the tradition of Green Day and the Dickies, and they have received their parental-advisory sticker for services to grotesque schoolboy humor. (A previous album was entitled “Enema of the State.”) Most of the songs on “Take Off Your Pants and Jacket” deal straightforwardly and unimaginatively with first dates (“First Date”) or youthful alienation (“If we’re fucked up, you’re to blame,” and so on); every now and again, presumably to dispel the air of Monkees wholesomeness, they stick their fingers down their throat and vomit all over their lyric sheet. The chorus of “Happy Holidays, You Bastard” is as follows: “Unless your dad will suck me off / I’ll never talk to you again / Unless your mom’ll touch my cock / I’ll never talk to you again / Ejaculate into a sock / I’ll never talk to you again.” Why? I don’t know why. My copy of the album came with four exclusive bonus tracks, one of which is called “Fuck a Dog,” but maybe I was just lucky.

It is with some relief, then, that one turns to Staindónot because of the music (Staind is a metal band, and can think of no higher calling than to soup up old Black Sabbath riffs) but because at least you know where the group stands. “Most of you don’t give a shit / That your daughters are porno stars / And your sons sell death to kids,” they sing on the very first track. Those of you whose daughters are kindergarten teachers and whose sons sell literary novels in independent bookstores should not take offense. Staind tends to look on the gloomy side, but at least its members care, and their howls of anguish are clearly connecting to the right crowd. One satisfied customer at Amazon.com writes, “I’ve had a rough time dealing with abuse, peer pressure, love, rape, hate and self-mutilation” (and although her despair is affecting, is it permissible to wonder whether the self-mutilation at least was somehow avoidable?), before praising the band for providing consolation. Who are we to doubt her? Linkin Park, which performs a similar function to similar acclaim (“One of the best albums of all time by far,” another enthusiastic Amazon customer says of its new album, “Hybrid Theory”ówith a bold disregard for the usual mealymouthed critical timidity), is a rap-metal band not dissimilar to Limp Bizkit, or, for that matter, to Staind, or to . . . Actually, the truth of it is that neither Staind nor Linkin Park nor Limp Bizkit is dissimilar to just about any other band that has played an electric guitar very loud in the past thirty years, which means that there is very little to be said for or about them, though I wish them no ill.

The only album in the Billboard Top Ten made by an artist who is forty or older is the one by Melissa Etheridge, and, yes, the music sounds tired, clapped out. Part of this is deliberateó”Skin” is a breakup album, Etheridge’s “Blood on the Tracks”óbut, in truth, her rock ballads, all throaty vocals and melodramatic chords, do not have the emotional power they might have had fifteen or twenty years ago, and much of the writing here is on the hackneyed side of generic: ” ‘Cause you live and you learn / And you learn to hold on / And time will make it heal / And time will make it gone.” It is all obviously the product of personal pain, but this path is rutted with ancient tracks, and, sure enough, Etheridge finds herself trundling along in them. “Skin” is unlikely to remain a best-seller for long, one fears; it’s too grownup, and it’s too predictable, and maybe in the Billboard universe those adjectives are now synonymous.

Sales are no longer the absolute indicator of success or popularity that they once wereóthis is what we must tell ourselves. The Billboard Top Ten means nothing! Kids download everything now! Or they burn CDs for each other! And, yet, hundreds of thousands of young Americans have wanted these albums badly enough to go to a store and spend their cash on P. Diddy and D12 and Blink 182; someone on your street might be listening to “Fuck a Dog” right now. I shall, when I have recovered my strength, creep back to my little private Top Ten, which consists of penniless artists like the Pernice Brothers and Joe Henry and Shuggie Otis and Olu Dara, who make music full of thoughtful, polite ironies and carefully articulated cynicism and references to our glorious heritage. But I won’t kid myself that it’s pop musicónot anymore.