Sunday, January 07, 2001

Play On

Everywhere you look, people have to have the latest and greatest. Palm Pilots weren't good enough; now we have them in color. New cell phones are capable of remembering your entire phone book and working on 7 continents. Having access to all the knowledge on the planet via the internet wasn't enough; now we have to have cable modems and DSL, so we have it 24/7. Our cars are faster, our clothes sleeker, our foods tastier.

So in light of all this, it's curious that the number one CD sold throughout the holidays was a collection of truly golden oldies. "One" was a compilation of all of the number one songs recorded by The Beatles, the most recent of which was 30 years old. Granted, it's great that a new generation would seem to be discovering, albeit with their parent's help, what will be known as one of the greatest bands in history. But truth be told, it's not like they had a lot of other choices.

In fact, given what else was available, it's inevitable that cooler heads prevailed, leading listeners to stick with the classics. It was an infinitly better choice than diving into the queen of pop, Madonna, as she mutilated Don McLean's "American Pie," or cringing as grunge band Everclear butchered Van Morrsion's, "Brown Eyed Girl." Hard to imagine, though, that those weren't even the worst offenders in the race to remake musical history. No, the honor for the year's most appalling cover song goes to Britney Spears, vamping it up on The Rolling Stones "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Oops, Britney, you did it again.

For in spite of Napster and MP3 and home recording studios and cheap digital tape, musically speaking, we seem to be in a vast wasteland. There's lots of stuff, lots of ways to get it, but not lots of good stuff. There was little new, "must have" listening material this past year, the kind that makes you run out and buy a CD, sight-unseen, based on the musicians behind it. Oh sure, a few bright spots poked through, like long awaited outings from Paul Simon, Sade and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straights. But in a year when the level of songwriting was defined by the loathing and loathsome homophobic ravings of Eminem on the "The Marshal Mathers LP," the highlights were sparse indeed.

That may have something to do with the industry's realization as to where the money is. At least that's a more charitable explanation than one which argues that musicality is the reason that Britney and her chief rival Christina Aguilera are getting as much press and promotion as they do. And they're just one element of the highjacking of the music business by the under 15-set.

Unfortunately... or fortunately, depending on your point of view... to truly understand the other component, you would need to possess the genes of a 13-year-old white girl. Perhaps then you could differentiate between the cloned boy-bands that ruled the airwaves this past year. In that light, you could be forgiven if you thought that N'Sync, The Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, and O-Town were one in the same. After all, they are all made up of 4 or 5 loose-limbed 20 somethings, with Gap wardrobes, permed hair and burger commercials to go with their recording contracts.

But all is not darkness. If the past year showed any promise, it is in the nom de guerres' that enterprising acts took into battle. No more simple "Dave Clark Five" or "Herman's Hermits" or "Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels." Literary flights of fancy ruled. As evidence, just take a look at some of the names that debuted in the bins at your local record shop: Apathetically Driven, Barbee Killed Ken, Department of Grooveology, Funkin' Do Me, Jesus of Borg, Perforated Head, Reggae Death Squad, Rest Area 51, 10 Pounds of Dangling Fury and These Drugs Are Killing Me. Makes The Moody Blues seem a model of restraint by comparison.

But it doesn't stop there. Both new and old groups decided that if they couldn't make music that would stand out in the crowd, they could at least cloak their efforts in pretension. How else to explain the following CD Titles: Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline(Gomez), Chocolate Starfish And The Hot Dog Flavored Water(Limp Bizkit), Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven
(Godspeed You Black Emperor!), fold your hands child, you walk like a
peasant (Belle & Sebastian), Bow Down To The Exit Sign(David Holmes), The Notorious One-Man Orgy(Josh Freese), Niun Niggung (Mouse On Mars), Frankie Pett Presents the Happy Submarines Playing the Music of Dead Voices On Air (Dead Voices On Air), Midnight Snack At The Poodle Factory(Midget Handjob) and Pink Bubbles Go Ape, Chameleon(Helloween). Allan Ginsberg would be proud.

But all that aside, it does come down to the music. And no amount of slick packaging or promotion can change the fact that we're waiting for the next big thing. Disco is dead, rap is passe' and grunge is over. As to what will be the next wave to capture the imagination of the listening public, we're guided by words attributed to the late Justice Thurgood Marshall. When asked for a definition of obscenity, he is reported to have replied, "I know it when I see it." Well, Thurgood, so we'll we... and we're listening.


Marc Wollin of Bedford keeps a turntable in his office to listen to old Steve Wonder albums. His column appears weekly in The Record Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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