When I was a kid, my heroes were, at the very least, deserving of adoration. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Cheap Trick, Dan Pastorini (the one non-musician of the bunch) — the one thing they had in common was that they were immensely talented at what they did. Some would say that they were among the very best, and thus, they seemed bigger than life to me and the millions who adored them. I was inspired by them and what I perceived to be their dedication to the craft. I also admired their shrewd understanding that a fair bit of marketing went a long way, too.
Of course, the music world is not just full of legendary artists such as those named above. For as long as there have been artistes, there have been those whose marketing overshadowed their artistic endeavors. I’m thinking along the lines of C.W. McCall, Taco, and — oh, what the heck — Sigue Sigue Sputnik.
Such one-hit wonders would invariably come out of nowhere, dominate the airwaves for every last second of their fifteen minutes of fame and then, thankfully, disappear into pop oblivion. The respectable artists who were temporarily swept aside to make way for this brief dalliance with the latest “here today, gone tomorrow” pop confection would then return to their rightful place on radio playlists and the ship would right itself.
I mean, acts like Tiffany, Sly Fox, After the Fire, and others had their success, but it was always understood that they’d go away. That’s what one- or two-hit wonders did. It was understood.
But then something weird happened.
When the world began mentally counting down to the new millennium, fearing that the Y2K bug might kill every computerized electronic device on the planet, we closed our eyes, fearing the worst. When we opened them a brief moment later, our PCs still worked, our cars still started, and the world looked very much like the one that had existed in the prior millennium.
What we didn’t know yet was that the world had changed. In fact, it had been turned literally upside down. Like something straight out of a Philip K. Dick novel, reality had shifted just enough to keep us from noticing — that is, until it was too late.
Some eight years into this new millennium, I am becoming more and more convinced that, while we all had our eyes closed for that brief moment mentioned above, we collectively suffered a swift blow to the head, resulting in worldwide blunt force trauma.
Since we all suffered the same concussive trauma, the symptoms of which would amount to having been lobotomized, we each went about our daily lives as if nothing at all out of the ordinary had taken place.
Now, if I am guilty of anything, it is of having a vivid imagination, but I have never imagined myself to be the lone voice of reason or, for that matter, the “cooler head” that ultimately prevails in the face of insurmountable odds. But I have begun to feel as if I am the only one who didn’t get a cup of the tainted Kool-Aid and, thus, am watching a world of zombies who obviously have no idea that they are zombies conduct themselves like a bunch of, well, zombies.
The most obvious proof that “shit just ain’t right no mo’,” for lack of a better term, is that artists who would’ve most certainly enjoyed a relatively quick and painless 15 minutes in the previous millennium are enjoying long, fruitful careers in the new one.
Britney Spears is the first such name that pops into my mind. Truth be told, she was allowed her “… Baby One More Time” and “Oops! … I Did It Again,” but then, unlike fellow blips on the proverbial radar of pop culture, she refused to go away. Of course, mentally speaking, she left the building a long time ago. Maybe she hasn’t so much refused to fade away as we, as a society, won’t let her leave.
We let the Spice Girls leave. Sensing the rules had changed, though, their attempt at a recent reunion and comeback hasn’t so much taken the world by storm (which I mistakenly thought it would) as create a stench that quickly enveloped the room before dissipating — the proverbial fart in a crowded elevator.
How does a Spice Girls reunion tour fall on such deaf ears, you ask? My hunch is that what passed for a wonderfully cheeky pop confection in the ’90s seems to carry an inordinate amount of substance when compared to what passes for pop novelties these days. Let’s face it, selling Posh, Scary, Silicone, Dopey, and Grumpy Spice lunch boxes to the masses a mere decade ago was a slam dunk, but the complexity of their recorded output seems to have been received by we dwellers of the new millennium with the same collective “eww” as the sight of a middle-aged Steely Dan in kilts.
At the same time, since none of today’s pop tarts seem to be going away, the ship never has an opportunity to right itself, as it did in days of yore. As a result, there are no new Beatles, Rolling Stones, or Cheap Tricks finding a mass audience. Instead, such deserving contenders get no radio airplay, no press to speak of, and struggle to fill clubs. Who knows how many thunderously great bands have fractured under the weight of rampant commercial under-achievement?
When I became aware of Cheap Trick, I was so jazzed to go back and discover the three stunning albums that they had released prior to the platinum success of At Budokan in ’79. That a major label believed in the band enough to allow them to continue making records after only moderate sales is a completely foreign concept in today’s musical climate. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, but you can’t help feel that Rufus Wainwright or Mark Everett from the Eels must have incriminating photos of at least one high-powered label executive in their possession.
Of course, nothing short of extortion on a scale too grand to comprehend can explain a reality wherein a narcissistic knuckle dragger like Kanye West is held up as a musical genius. Jay-Z? Don’t get me started. I can’t help think someone shouting obscenities over a three-minute recording of a pay-phone dial tone will be the only one able to depose the current crop of pop phenoms.