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Year of Singing Dangerously: PJ Harvey, on 'Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea,' took artistic chances in 2000.

Beyond the Band

The best of the year in music wasn't a band but Napster--a whole new way of listening

By Gina Arnold

YEAR AFTER YEAR, day after day, hour after hour, the rock critics of the world are sent forth into the trenches to search out the Next Big Thing. They trawl the nightclubs and the big arenas. They watch endless hours of VH1. They paste themselves to their stereos the better to weed through hours of bad music, as they wait, ever vigilant, for the birth of a new messiah.

Usually, of course, they wind up disappointed. And around this time of year, they tell us the results of their endless journey, and it is often one long moan about the state of rock & roll. The music is bereft, they say, of originality or style, its energy flags, its components are commercial.

But then, they will add contritely--like the faithful fans they are--that that has always been the pattern. At all the lowest points of musical ennui, when we are at our most despairing, only then comes the deluge. Elvis. Dylan. The Sex Pistols. Nirvana. These are their touchstones, the holy ones whose work shook the world and who make critics wait all the harder through times of great boredom and strife.

Now, there is no doubt in anyone's mind--even those pundits whose method of dealing with the great long swathes of disinterest is to anoint some unworthy interim like Radiohead to be their false God for a year or two--that the year 2000 was one of those periods that occur just before a breakthrough.

Put another way, 2000 was a period singularly bereft of interest, riddled with horrid boring boy bands, with Britney and her clones, and with certainly certified lifers, like Madonna and Aimee Mann and Rage Against the Machine, whose music, though interesting and enjoyable, is not exactly groundbreaking.

Indeed, the year 2000 offered almost nothing of substance to trend watchers. Beyond the bestsellers and their inevitable gimmickry--Christina's belly button, Eminem's loud mouth and the Boys of Backwardness' strange domination of the charts--there have been a few good records scattered here and there but nothing with the power to lift the entire genre out of the depressing mire it's sunk into.

BUT JUST AS it has occurred before, so too it has occurred again. In the midst of this unbearable cacophony of crap, a new muse has risen. The only thing is, this time it is not a group or an artist. It is a technology, known as Napster.

Oh, forget the legal issues surrounding the intellectual property laws for a minute! Forget the ensuing commercial development of the business, which is guaranteed to follow in a familiar pattern--soon to be co-opted, exploited and destroyed by the Military Industrial Complex. Napster, as a concept, may be a goner already for all we know, but like its artistic forbears, it has changed how we listen to music.

To me, its overall effect has been similar to that of punk rock. Before I heard the Sex Pistols, rock music was just a series of songs on the radio. After I'd heard them, I started applying different standards to the groups I heard. I listened not just for lyrics and tunefulness but also for contextuality and meaning. I wanted to know where the bands I was hearing came from and what they were telling me about the world. I had an ideology by which to judge all acts on, and that made all the difference.

In just the same way, Napster--or I should say file sharing, the technology that Napster uses to help clients exchange MP3 files with each other--has changed my perceptions.

Prior to installing it in my computer in May of this year, I was trapped, like everybody else, in a listening rut. I no longer remembered why I was listening to music. Moreover, the whole thing had become so blasé.

The routine had become a rut: Get a new CD. Take the shrink rap off. Peel off that awful little sticky sticker that goes along the outside with your fingernail. Put the disc inside the CD changer. Turn the CD player on. Listen. Repeat. Listen. Repeat

We took that sequence of events for granted at the time, but looking back, how terrible it was! What a grind! What a prison! What a dampening effect it had on one's love of music!

I mean, let me ask you something. How often have you had five CDs in your CD player, only three of which your really liked? Sometimes at my house it was really only one. And I didn't even have the hassle of going shopping for said CDs, since they came to me via UPS.

Napster has changed all this of course. Now when I want to hear something, I go to my computer and click a button. And if I want something new, I sit down and search for it. The experience itself is new--and the result is, so are my feelings about the music I hear.

Of course "new" is a misleading term here, because most of the time when I search for songs in Napster (or other file-sharing websites) I am not looking for "new" music but for old music that I just don't happen to have. I also look for bootleg versions of concerts of bands I already like (in many cases by bands that are already broken up) and for music that I just found out about, that is not by any means "new."

Taking Chances: U2 broke new ground on 'All That you Can't Leave Behind.'

THUS, I DOWNLOAD songs by '60s blues-nut Screamin' Jay Hawkins, the '80s now-defunct Replacements and '70s French ye-ye singer Jeanette. I download movie themes, Mexican chart hits and everything I can find by a Dutch band called the Shocking Blue.

I download songs by friends' bands and friends of friends' bands, and by bands I used to like in high school but thought that I'd outgrown, like Abba, the Beach Boys and the Beatles. Sometimes I even download songs by bands I used to hate in high school but have found that I now like. (Earth Wind and Fire falls into this category).

What I don't download--and not on principle, but because I don't want to--is music by new bands, and I don't think I'm alone. New bands? Who are they? I feel like I know what I like, or at least know how to discern whether I will like something or not, without the tedious task of downloading and then listening to something I have no clues about.

After all, there are so many songs already in the system waiting to be rediscovered, who has time to explore? Especially when the vast majority of new artists--at least the ones whose publicity machines are strong enough to break into our overfilled consciousness--are so extremely worthless.

Let's face it--those of us over the age of 30 have no interest in boy bands or girl pop from Florida, and those of us over the age of 15 have no interest in mean-spirited, misogynistic, homophobic excesses of hard rock and rap. And the rest of what's released, though possibly very worthy of our time, is having a hard time being heard over the more beloved things we find in cyberspace.

In fact, there is actually new evidence that Napster use is on the wane. Many fewer people are in the system these days, which leads one to believe that everyone has already downloaded everything they want. Perhaps Napster has already served its purpose, but that doesn't lessen its import: by reinvigorating the world's love of music and making it so cheap and accessible, it may well have inspired a whole new generation of new, young rock musicians.

Now the world's rock critics really have some straw to grasp during their next long wait for the Next Big Thing. And until it comes along, we are being left in the very good company of our own musical memories, all now easily accessible online.

Top 10 2000

1. Napster
2. Dido, No Angel, Arista
3. Manu Chao, Clandestino, Ark 21
4. Twilight Singers, Twilight, Sony Columbia
5. Tom Jones, Reload, Virgin UK
6. PJ Harvey, Songs From the City, Songs From the Sea, Island
7. Alex Chilton, Set, Bar None
8. Bettie Serveert, Private Suit, Palomine Records
9. The Go-Betweens, The Friends of Rachel Worth, Jetset Records
10. U2, All That You Can't Leave Behind, Interscope Records

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From the December 29, 2000-January 3, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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