Music 2004

Isthmus | December 29, 2004
Okay, what matters more to the future of rock, hip-hop, dance and every other form of popular music: a) that U2 launched their new CD and the sale of a personalized, preloaded black iPod crammed with a career’s worth of tunes simultaneously, b) that the sales of new video games are set to outpace the sales of new CDs, or c) that Eminem hedged his bets by signing up to host a channel on satellite radio before releasing the almost--but not quite--mature and reflective Encore.

If you answered “all of the above,” I’d tend to agree with you. These are strange, quicksilver times for popular music. Consumer electronics and the ever-changing world of high-tech entertainment drive the market far more than any individual musical artist or movement does. Forget concentrating on selling stand-alone tunes through familiar channels; most artists are scrambling to get their tracks slotted in the latest video games, understanding that game titles like Grand Theft Auto have eaten up all the time kids and young adults might have previously spent passively watching MTV.

Oh, and don’t forget ringtones. Some folks in the music industry are already predicting that American artists will reap big profits from selling cheap-sounding renditions of their hits to download-happy cell-phone addicts. (Don’t laugh, ring tones already represent a substantial income stream for artists in Europe.)

No wonder Jay-Z prepared for his retirement from hip-hop by angling for and nabbing a powerful new title in 2004: president of the venerable Def Jam label. Sure, making music has enriched him by hundreds of millions of dollars, but the future of hip-hop--and all other popular forms--will be about directing the music into places no one even thought about back when the Sugarhill Gang challenged the currency of the old R&B scene with the 1978 release of “Rapper’s Delight.”

New delivery systems, new markets, new opportunities for cross-promotion with other youth-oriented forms of entertainment are what it’s about in the morphing music industry. And the changes are coming fast and furious. A case in point: This was the year that both U2 and Green Day, two of the most bankable acts in rock, offered fans the opportunity to preview their new albums online in their entirety before they were available for purchase. What happened to the industry-killing scourge of free downloading? Just yesterday’s news, I guess.

But onto music itself. I’d venture that if Jamie Foxx wins an Academy Award for his dead-on performance in Ray, the late Ray Charles will qualify as the musician of the year. A hit biopic, a hit posthumous album of duets with big stars? All this from a guy who’d been unfairly typecast as a golden oldie during much of his last two decades on earth. Yeah, Ray’s gotta be laughing up there somewhere.

Another great figure from the past, Loretta Lynn, proved that there’s still plenty of music left in her pathos-brushed pipes. If the Jack White-produced Van Lear Rose wasn’t the best album of the year in both rock and country, it was in the ballpark. Like Charles, Lynn illustrated that in order to bring real life into a tune, you have to live a little first.

The same held true from the quixotic Beach Boy Brian Wilson. Years after its original conception, Wilson finally brought the completed version of his masterwork Smile to both CD and live audiences. And what about Prince, who came back from the edge in his middle age and delivered a straightforward album that finds him movin’ to the groovin’ and delivering life lessons at the same time?

With the callow, flavor-of-the-month consciousness that now controls popular music, those are astounding achievements. I mean, how many hip-hop or rock or country stars of today will even get a chance to put out new music at 50, 40...or even 35? My guess is not too many, and that’s a shame.

As far as selling units goes, no one spent more time at the cash registers than Usher, who jumped from the crunk-addled “Yeah!” (formulated with omnipresent party machine Lil Jon) to his considerably creamier duet with Alicia Keys, “My Boo,” with the greatest of ease. He was the toast of R&B in 2004. Naw, make that the toast of all commercial music. His bazillion-selling Confessions even threatened to diminish the impact of Kanye West’s laudably gangsta-free instant hip-classic College Dropout. And it did succeed in making the much ballyhooed return of Destiny’s Child seem parochial and unnecessary.

Snoop Dogg, on the other hand.... With Pharrell Williams and the Neptunes in his corner, his braggadocio-laden R&G (Rhythm & Gangsta): The Masterpiece was pretty much guaranteed to make a respectable showing. But right now it’s doing much more than that. In fact, it’s threatening to turn the former gun-toting cheeba-hound into a amiable, genre-crossing pop star--albeit one who still gives shoutouts to his beloved Crips.

Frankly, I have no idea where rock is going, and judging from what happened in 2004, no one else does either. In a perfect world, gifted prog-metal practitioners Coheed and Cambria, genteel strutters the Walkmen and sui generis indie/electronic explorers TV on the Radio would carry the day, while veteran practitioners of melodic weirdness like Modest Mouse and the reconfigured Wilco kept attracting more and more believers to their sonic cults. What’s really happening, however, is that Dorian Gray wannabes U2 are poised to dominate the rock ‘n’ roll conversation once again with their latest glossy-but-well-meaning studio production, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, while Green Day mesmerizes legions of kinda-sorta punky suburban youth with American Idiot (a surprisingly vigorous anti-Bushie screed) and guileless Jay-Z buddies Linkin Park pound whatever rock fans are left into beat-heavy submission.

As for the distressingly influential tween demographic, those kiddies who aren’t lapped up by tattooed pop goths Good Charlotte have either renewed their love affair with oh-so-professional grrrl rocker Avril Lavigne or have been duped by tone-deaf lip-syncher Ashlee Simpson.

Sad, sad stuff. But, as always, there are some hopeful signs popping up on the margins of the mainstream. English acts like the keyboard-driven Keane, the fun-loving Franz Ferdinand and the genre-straddling Streets threaten to bring some much-needed new blood to both indie and the mainstream. U.S.A. natives the Killers (whose synths and grooves sound English), Bright Eyes and irrepressible Tex-Mex blues-rockers Los Lonely Boys also offer the kind of kick in the head the rock beast requires right now.

Jeez, if even just a handful of young musicians took 10 minutes out of their busy schedules to plug into Tom Waits’ deliciously delirious Real Gone, we’d have a few decades of gloriously bent tunes to look forward to.

But what’s really next? As far as actual music goes, there’s certain to be a spate of new country acts plugging a strong “values” agenda that’s been nipped and tucked to appeal to the straitened esthetic of Red State audiences. Look for more Spanish-speaking acts to push into genres that have remained overwhelmingly Anglo up until now. Also, melodic rock acts that embrace synthesizers are on the rise, and they’re likely to gain a modicum of mainstream appeal. And, of course, if 2004 showed us anything, it was that a canny blend of smooth R&B and hip-hop remains the surest route to a top 10 album.

Still, it’s what happened to the business of making, selling and consuming popular music during 2004 that provides the most insight into its future. At the turn of the millennium, very few folks really believed that hard formats like the CD would be marginalized before the end of the decade. Now everyone and her brother has an iPod-like device, and space-stealing stereo systems seem quaint. In the glory days of Pac-Man, video game soundtracks consisted of a simple synthesizer-generated theme that was repeated ad nauseam. Now the ability to place tracks in the hottest new video games is becoming key to connecting artists with young audiences. Those are big changes.

Think of it this way: Kurt Cobain’s been in the grave for little more than 10 years, and the early-‘90s version of the music industry that helped transform him into a global figure now looks like a dusty relic. Don’t know about you, but I find that astonishing. And, to be honest, a little disturbing.


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