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Pop Life

Old farts top year in review

By Karl Byrn

THE RISE of Britney Spears, 'N Sync, and the boy groups has in recent years fueled a music-industry focus on younger audiences. Alt-rock marketing of the mid-'90s targeted 20-something Gen-Xers, but "tweeners"--preteens and young teens--are the tastemakers for today's hits. Top 40-style radio formats have made a comeback, flush with tweener hits from such breakout R&B, dance, and rock talent as Nelly, Destiny's Child, Pink, Papa Roach, and Creed.

But during this year, the collective pop music ear turned slightly away from tween-targeted sugarcoating to hear a different, deeper voice. As much as anything, 2000 was a year dominated by established artists.

This dominance took two forms: Veterans of the '60s, '70s and '80s reasserted icon status with their umpteenth releases; and breakout acts from the late '90s achieved journeyman status by delivering on anticipated follow-ups. Oldies like Neil Young, Paul Simon, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Patti Smith, Madonna, U2, B.B. King and Eric Clapton, Iron Maiden, Sonic Youth, Sade, Emmy Lou Harris, and LL Cool J all received devoted plaudits for their new works--and, in many cases, topped the year's concert box-office receipts. Meanwhile, developing acts like Radiohead, Limp Bizkit, Outkast, Erykah Badu, Wyclef Jean, the Wallflowers, Joan Osbourne, D'Angelo, Godsmack, Green Day, Elastica, Everlast, and Matchbox 20 sought to strengthen the promise of their initial noteworthy success.

A few factors guided this shift in attention to established acts. As the industry reaped huge numbers selling to tweener tastes, Boomer-aged parents buying Britney & the Boys for their kids (or simply hearing them at home and everywhere else) have been forced to pay closer attention to the pop market.

With older music fans paying more attention and spending more money on their kids' music, a window of opportunity opened for Boomer heroes like Clapton, Simon, Harris, and U2 to again stand in the spotlight and make waves with a captive audience.

The dawn of Internet music, uninhibited by traditional industry marketing, has also created a reverse interest in the well-known. Younger audiences more at ease with new technology take Napster, MP3 files, and CD burning as a given. For hit-oriented tween-ers growing past the industry's kiddie-pop forcefeedings, the next logical step is mixed CDs, a venue in which they essentially create their own new releases. Tweeners are becoming less dependent on whole albums, which leaves the record companies with Boomers and Gen-Xers, two demographics weaned on the classic concept of the album as a work of art, much more accustomed to ingesting new music in the album form.

Additionally, the warm reception given to veteran and journeyman acts was something of a response by older audiences to Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP, a lippy work by a new youth-oriented artist that, in terms of its pervasive impact on pop music discourse, was clearly the album of the year. Kids loved his rebelliousness, politically correct do-gooders hated his hatred, and most parents simply chose to ignore his genuine ugliness. Eminem forced music fans to have an opinion, but his success heralded more than a rekindling of the age-old debate over pop music virtues.

He's one of the first superstars in a new generation of pop music icons, and the vehemence with which older ears dismissed this uncomfortable album signaled a desire for the values of more familiar artists.

THAT'S ONE REASON why U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind has received glowing praise despite being a yawner. Lauded for its kinder, gentler melodicism, U2's new disc has a high comfort level. Without saying much, they sound good--or do they?

Are these new works by established artists just the comfortable adult versions of tweener bubblegum?

There is a predictable guarantee to Madonna's sassy electro-funk, Merle's confessional hillbilly jazz, Neil's this-time-I'm-acoustic old-age musings, Smith's literate call to arms, and Sade's languid fireplace soul.

In 2000, veterans made it easy for older fans to like new music again.

For excitement, though, the upcoming journeymen faired a bit better. Radiohead's Kid A may have been the album of the year for convincingly creating a musical introspection that thwarted our guitar-rock expectations. Outkast's Stankonia raised the ease of Southern hip-hop to a hyper-techno pace. The tough country-rock of Shelby Lynne's I Am Shelby Lynne saved her from major-label reclamation and gave her indie-style hipness. Wyclef Jean's alt-hip-hop referenced Kenny Rogers and Pink Floyd. Soulfly's world-metal employed Sean Lennon. D'Angelo's Voodoo sounded as if it came from a New Orleans connection to Mars. With all ears open, developing artists almost had carte blanche to evolve.

So where did that leave the truly veteran ear?

If Boomers and Xers were really paying attention, they saw that the new releases by their favorites fit into the pop market's ongoing quest for diversity. Hearing '90s leaders like Wyclef, Outkast, and Radiohead evolving is reassuring. For Boomers needing a more secure rebuttal to the tweener scene, there are always old farts talking about aging--Joni Mitchell's misplaced stab at torch songs, Simon's dismissal of his rock-and-roll memories as something less than godlike.

My favorite old-fart moment of the year was Warren Zevon's cover of Steve Winwood's "Back in the High Life Again," from his typically sardonic and unsettlingly sober disc Life'll Kill Ya. With only acoustic guitar and his cracking, unsure voice, Zevon recast Winwood's '80s synth-world-pop classic as a pure confessional moment. When he unsteadily sings the key line, "All the eyes that watched us once/ Will smile and take us in," it's nothing short of newfound optimism.

This year, the extra notice given to Zevon and other vets amounted to a good reason to feel that strong.

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From the December 21-27, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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