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Smashing Success: The sophomore jinx couldn't stop Smash Mouth, which released a popular and critically acclaimed second album in 1999.

Holding Pattern

Rock prefers profitable familiarity to risky progress--what else is new?

By Gina Arnold

TEN YEARS AGO, at the end of the '80s, I recall watching a television special on the decade in rock that boiled the whole sorry kit and caboodle down to the influence of three performers: Bruce Springsteen, Madonna and Michael Jackson. Sadly, here at the end of the '90s, it wouldn't be hard to frame an argument saying the same three acts are still supremely dominant.

Surely, if you went purely on which acts dominate the public consciousness, that would be the case. Forget gangsta rap, MTV, techno or whathaveyou--the majority of listeners out there have little interest in progressing, preferring to ensconce themselves in music they have already digested and understood.

And I can't really blame them. I don't listen to those three myself, but to be perfectly honest, this is the year I finally gave up trying to find something new to pursue. Instead of listening to rock & roll radio--that horrid litany of oldies, power ballads and derivative bad-boy white rap and rock--I've had to turn to Mexican radio in order to entertain myself with new sounds and songs I don't know already. More importantly, my live concert-going agenda is now limited to only attending the concerts my friends want to go to.

In other words, all of a sudden, I've started listening to music just like everybody else, and as a real person who pays for CDs and club shows, I have been given an entirely new perspective. And it turns out that for all the years I've been reviewing shows, there were several things I'd never taken into account.

Consider, for example, the role of drinking at nightclubs. Because I was always working, I never used to drink at rock concerts. In New York, where I am currently based, not only am I not working, but wherever I am, I take a cab home. Well, you can imagine how much better all bands sound now!

Another real-person experience I've had lately is the one about having to get up the next day. I went to the Bowery Ballroom on a weeknight exactly once this fall. Never again. Spanish class at 8am has prevented me from seeing, oh, nine or 10 of my favorite acts. Finally, there is the problem of back announcements (or rather, lack thereof). On station Stereo Sol (noventa y ocho punto nueve/noventa y uno punto uno), my new favorite songs are all in high rotation, but because the DJs don't back announce, I have no idea who performs them.

It really makes you wonder: how can a person care about rock music if (a) she can't go out past midnight and (b) she has no idea who the artists are who do the songs she likes? That anyone cares at all is a total miracle.

Of course, all of these complaints must seem thoroughly obvious to readers who've suffered through them for years. However, they do help explain a number of things that I had previously disregarded or been puzzled by: namely, the disinterest so many people feel toward rock music, their reliance on listening to oldies instead of discovering new music and the fact that the lion's share of new CD purchasers are under 10 years old. All three of those problems bespeak a giant amount of frustration on the part of music lovers.

Beck Free Ride: Artists like Beck enjoy a general agreement that they are good even though their work didn't progress in the past year.

Photograph by Charlie Gross

THE THING IS, because of the inevitable aging of the demographic, more people love rock & roll than ever before, but fewer and fewer are enjoying it. One clear sign of that was the riots that occurred at Woodstock 99, the 200,000-person concert in Rome, N.Y., held this past July. The three-day festival ended in chaos and ruination when hordes of young men wrecked, burned and pillaged the superstructure of the concert. Five rapes were reported; many others allegedly took place.

Apparently, it was the shape of things to come. After all, frustration is also a keynote of many of the more popular white rock bands. Acts like Limp Bizket, Korn, Nine Inch Nails and Rage Against the Machine express frustration and anger with society as a whole. But are they accomplishing any change? No. They're not even remotely countercultural, and that's ironic, because outside of the rock arena, within the superculture as a whole, there are signs that people are beginning to rebel against the crass commercialization of entertainment and the specter of a global economy.

Movies like South Park and Toy Story II, for example, seem to indicate that society is sick to death of being used by corporations; the protests against the WTO in Seattle demonstrate an even deeper level of rebellion. But unfortunately, we're not really seeing that kind of intelligent, easy to interpret and above all lovable critiques of the system within rock.

Instead, the entire genre is frozen in the grip of enmity, greed and indecision. The system itself has ceased to be able to produce anything original or moving, producing instead manufactured ballads and silly punk rock alike.

The '80s boasted plenty of "unheard music" and the '90s did too. Rave and techno, for example, have really existed on tapes and in nightclubs in a relatively uncommodified way, enriching the lives of those who've heard it. So too has the punkier end of punk rock and rap and indie and pop, and there are always those perennial great artists, like Tom Waits, whose Mule Variations was one of the year's best LPs, to keep one listening.

BUT THERE'S A DIFFERENCE between a community and a network, and right now, rock seems to have forgotten what the word "community" means. The Internet may be one way for rock to redistribute and re-ignite itself, but thus far the dot-com world hasn't quite figured out a way to make it happen that bypasses all the rigid old corporate routes.

Put simply, rock & roll has become fat and wealthy and bad. The people in charge have learned to crank every possible dollar out of all the best songs, via advertising jingles, TV theme songs, movie soundtracks, blockbuster tours with $100 ticket prices and merchandise galore. Radio formats, one of the main routes into this lava-flow of cash, are rigid and controlled methods of pickpocketing various demographics.

The result is that what's most popular here at the end of the century--that is, what's making the most money--is kind of pathetic. Dying rap stars, buxom balladeers and teen pop phenoms are hardly worth writing rock criticism about. Perhaps that's why, within the journalism community, the checks and balances have ceased to function.

There tends to be consensus on most acts (Beck: good. Britney Spears: bad) with neither analysis nor acumen actually applied. More often than not, such by-the-book assessment is wrong. In 1999, for example, three of the acts who were universally labeled lame one-hit wonders in 1998--Smash Mouth, Third Eye Blind and Sugar Ray--all released successful and critically admired second albums.

In the meantime, certain wise acts like the Beastie Boys and Beck have attempted to ride out this sense of audience alienation by making fun of the genre they work in. This isn't to say that these artists haven't put out some fine work, but they've also created an atmosphere of self-derision and denigration that can only be detrimental to the field. If listeners are encouraged to laugh at rock--in between being ripped off and bored by it--how long until they ignore it altogether?

Not long, I suspect. Not with the Internet and concomitant tech-related fun stuff taking over the portion of the adolescent brain formerly reserved for rock music. And not unless rock music regenerates its role as an artistically groundbreaking, community-forging, countercultural force.

I, for one, think that rock music can reclaim that vital role. Moreover, I think it will. But not until it breaks the shackles of corporate domination and finds a new way around the radio-distribution-promotion equation, until it finds a formula that gives rock and rocks stars--and then, by association, their fans--back their dignity.

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From the December 30, 1999-January 5, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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