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Say Goodbye to Hard Rock

[whitespace] Elton John Media Manipulator in the Wind: Thanks to Princess Diana's death, Elton John became pop music's biggest seller.

Country music, R&B and Elton John are what the record-buying public really wants

By Gina Arnold

AT THE END of every year, rock critics are required by editorial law to agonize over the esoteric and subjective task of enumerating the best 10 records of the previous 12 months. This season, critics are busy debating the merits of records by the Rolling Stones, U2, Oasis and Bob Dylan, as well as querying the ultimate importance of newer acts like Prodigy, Cornershop and Radiohead.

And yet a glance at the recent Billboard's Music Awards show demonstrates just how pointless and misleading such exercises really are. This year's show was entirely dominated by four acts: the Spice Girls, Toni Braxton, Leann Rimes and Garth Brooks. The first three won 10 awards among them, while Brooks received a special achievement award for logging sales of 65 million.

That's pretty solid evidence that hard rock really isn't all that relevant anymore. Indeed, to the majority of consumers, the only things that matter are country music and R&B--the kind of music that rock critics hate.

This phenomenon has been true for a long time, but the rise of grunge postponed the inevitable by briefly making hard-rock acts seem important again. Now that Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Nirvana have been replaced by the less scintillating copycat music of Bush, Live and Days of the New, traditional rock & roll has faded out again. On the Billboard's show, it was represented only by Aerosmith (performing, clownlike, in front of a troupe of synchronized swimmers) and Metallica, as plain and dour as could be imagined.

With these two hoary acts as the genre's spiritual leaders, it's no wonder that hard rock is in such a slump. I can't imagine either one leading a new youth movement.

This lessening of rock's magnetic powers is partly owing to the fall of MTV as an influential (and interesting) cultural icon. Too many episodes of Singled Out mean that radio has vanquished the video star. Sadly, rock magazines have become equally obsolete. Judging by their covers, you'd think that Marilyn Manson was the biggest act of the year. In fact, Manson hasn't even blipped the public's consciousness lately.

Yet another reason for hard rock's downfall is mere entropy: too many acts plus too little talent equals disinterest on the part of a public unable to sort through it all. According to one report in Soundscan, 1997 saw the release of some 24,000 CD titles. And although that figure includes all types of music--classical, jazz, rock, reissues--it demonstrates a terrifying and indiscriminate glut of music.

FOR ALL its shortcomings, however, 1997 was a wonderful year for singles. The Billboard nominees for best modern-rock single were Smash mouth for "Walking on the Sun," Third Eye Blind for "Semi-Charmed Life," the Mighty Mighty Bosstones for "The Impression That I Get" and Sugar Ray for "Fly," all of which are just the kind of inescapable pop hits that used to color the world through the medium of AM radio.

Other highly memorable songs from this year include Whitetown's "I Could Never Be Your Woman," Space's "The Female of the Species," The Spice Girls' inescapable "Wannabe," Chumbawamba's marvelous anthem "Tubthumping" and Aqua's hideous but undoubtedly sticky "Barbie Girl." Not one of these bands is likely to prove an enduring presence on the rock scene, but all have given the world the kind of fantastically catchy songs that are bound to become staples on oldies radio of 2020.

This year was also notable for giving the world its top-selling single ever: "Candle in the Wind 1997," the remake of an old Elton John song written and recorded for the funeral of Princess Diana. The hastily penned new lyrics--"You called out to our country / and whispered to those in pain / Now you belong to heaven / and the stars spell out your name"--could not be called lyricist Bernie Taupin's finest moment, but the record has sold 35 million copies since its release in September. It shattered the previous one-week sales record of 650,000 copies (for Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You") when it sold a whopping 3.4 million copies in America alone.

John's appearance at the fantastically pompous funeral at Westminster Abbey provided one of the more peculiar--and perhaps telling--moments in 20th-century history. With a viewership in excess of one billion, the funeral was a damn good gig, but even at his most somber, the man inadvertently calls to mind giant light-bulb spectacles and a multicolored top hat. (John appears Feb. 6 at the San Jose Arena.)

Incidentally, Luciano Pavarotti, who had sung at Gianni Versace's funeral a few weeks earlier, declined to appear at Diana's service because he said he was too distraught. Pavarotti, however, did not have a new record, conveniently due in stores, and there is the rub.

Although sales from "Candle in the Wind 1997" are to go to charity, the whole exercise was really a huge plug for John's new album, The Big Picture, coincidentally due out the same day as the single. In fact, it's hard not to view John's gig at Westminster Abbey as one the most vulgar marketing gestures of our era, indicative of every rotten aspect of modern media methods and, of course, by extrapolation, of Princess Diana's death and life.

In John's defense, there's little doubt that Diana, one of this century's master media manipulators, would have approved of his motives entirely, but there's still something nauseating about a man who is so easily able to make moral hay out of a funeral for a friend.

John may not make a lot of year-end lists for 1997, but thanks to that one appearance, a century from now, when the Beatles and the Stones have faded from the collective memory, Elton John will probably be recalled as the most important rock star of the century.

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From the December 31, 1997-January 7, 1998 issue of Metro.

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