Sitting on a Saturday morning flicking through different sites on my iPad, I stumbled across a longform article by music writer Steven Hyden on the rise to fame of KoRn and Limp Bizkit in 1998. Hyden was writing about how he, as a product of the early 90s grunge phenomenon, could never relate to the “nu-metal” that captured the hormone driven angst and “fuck you, mom!” attitude of the generation of pale, skinny, sexually frustrated middle-class males who, like me, hit the 13 mark somewhere around the turn of the millenium.
I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry. This post is not going to be a nostalgia trip to a spottier, angrier MK. As it turns out, the article was the ninth of a ten-part series chronicling the rise and fall of ’90s “alt-rock” through Hyden’s eyes, himself having turned 13 in 1990 as Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit was about to jam itself into the heads of the skinny, pale, angst-ridden generation before mine.
I want to highlight one passage, about hearing grunge on the radio for the first time, which particularly struck me.
It’s hard to convey today how revelatory it was hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” come out of your parents’ car stereo for the first time, but this was a bona-fide, according-to-Hoyle, head-slapping pop-culture surprise of the highest order. By the time I started 7th grade, I had already absorbed enough bad TV and cut-rate pop music to get a sense that culture unfolded in a predictable series of fads and trends; nothing ever came along to upset the applecart. But Nirvana clearly was not part of that. It didn’t matter that the band was on a major label; that was just underground-rock semantics and I didn’t speak that language yet. These guys were not supposed to be here, on MTV, sandwiched between Jane Child and Lisa Stanfield videos at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday. Nirvana finding you was like being sucked into a whole new reality tucked inside the simpler, grayer world you’d always known. All of a sudden it was just there. If something this incredible could exist in the world right under your nose until it streaked in seemingly out of nowhere and smacked you repeatedly across the face, what in the hell else was out there?
Why is this relevant? as Hyden points out, this happened to him pre-internets. These days, there are no pop-culture surprises. There are, of course, still skinny white dudes singing about that bitch girlfriend who broke up with them for NO REASON when they are such NICE GUYS and instead she decides to date that ASSHOLE from English class who thinks he’s SO cool – there will always be a market of similarly hopeless 13-year-olds eating that kind of thing up. Just as I was leaving horrible “singing”, and even worse “rapping”, over amelodic guitar riffs behind me, a generation of Blink-182 wannabes had started making what would result in Fallout Boy’s ascendency several years later (although, naturally, my generation did it better).
That said, Hyden makes a valid point regarding the way these kinds of phenomena used to happen versus now:
I honestly wonder if the rise of grunge and alternative rock in the early ’90s will be the last time that a musical movement has that kind of impact on youth culture. With the Internet, we know about every promising band seemingly from the time it records its first demos. By the time the album comes out, the backlash has already kicked in. Now the challenge is to not be informed; surprising people has gone the way of putting current events on newsprint. It’s almost like we don’t want to be surprised anymore, because that means we’re somehow out-of-the-loop, or not savvy enough to be there first, which seems to be of the utmost importance when it comes to music these days.
Going on from there to read about the albums that defined rock in the ’90s made me reflect on the ’00s, which was the decade in which I “came of age” and should be full of the music that defined my generation. To help fuel my train of thought, I looked at the top 10 albums of the ’90s and of the ’00s from both old media and new media – Rolling Stone magazine and seminal music blog Pitchfork. The lists are included below.
Apart from spurring me to listen to that My Bloody Valentine album again to try and get into it again even though I’ve never really “got” it, there are a few things that I took away from these lists. One is that Pitchfork really are wankers. More importantly though, the ’00s lists are not very impressive. The bands of my generation are not going to be revered by generations to come, a lot of them have already been forgotten. If you try to tell me that Fred Durst doing George Michael comes close to Smells Like Teen Spirit your credulity will not be at an all-time high.
Also, the vast majority of the best albums of the last decade were made in its first two years. The only album that Pitchfork could come up with from the second half of the decade is by Panda Bear, who most people outside certain circles would not listen to. Similarly, Rolling Stone opted for the album by MIA, i.e. the one album that has the one song that is carrying her entire career, and a Bob Dylan album that probably wouldn’t make a list of the top 10 Bob Dylan albums.
There is always the argument that the album is dying as a medium and I should be looking at singles, so I did, and it looked a little better, but not by much. The first few years of the decade are still overwhelmingly the ones that produced the best music – and that’s when KoRn and Slipknot were at their peak … yeesh.
I appreciate that this is hardly a scientific study (in fact I have an idea of how to do this with statistical accuracy, but who could be bothered?), but I do really feel like the music industry has noticeably declined in the last few years. One thing that has spread with the internet is a lie: “music is free”. Music is not, and should not be, free.
Yes, the distribution model has shifted from albums to singles because of the way music is now shared, but the plummeting sales have a very real impact on artists. A quality track doesn’t just come from nowhere – it is one out of a lot of tracks that the artist writes, it then receives creative input from other artists, a producer and other individuals before you hear it. Each track requires hundreds of hours in writing, finessing and recording, never mind marketing and distributing. All of this costs a lot of money.
Plus, the band needs to be making music to begin with. If there is a guarantee of no income, there will be less bands. The argument that they can make money from touring and selling merchandise does not hold up when you have a look at how much money small bands actually make from tours and merch sales.
This is why, for all its flaws, SOPA (or something like it) is desperately needed. People should not be forced to give their work away for free and when they are, it will never be as good. It’s quite simple really: if no one is willing to pay for good music, no one will make any. People stopped buying albums and there have not been any great albums since, songs will go the same way. I am not defending the out-of-touch and overly litigious music industry at all, there definitely needs to be a new distribution model, but there is no reason why the owners of Megaupload and Piratebay should become multi-millionaires by giving away other peoples’ work for free. Sure it seems great that you no longer have to pay anything to get that album you want, but if everyone keeps doing that there won’t be any more albums you want. That should be a sad thought – and come on, you can spare the $15.
Rolling Stone‘s top 10 albums of the ’90s:
10. Pavement, ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’ (1994)
9. Beck, ‘Odelay’ (1996)
8. The Notorious B.I.G., ‘Ready to Die’ (1994)
7. Nirvana, ‘In Utero’ (1993)
6. Pearl Jam, ‘Ten’ (1991)
5. Lauryn Hill, ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ (1998)
4. U2, ‘Achtung Baby’ (1991)
3. Radiohead, ‘OK Computer’ (1997)
2. Dr. Dre, ‘The Chronic’ (1992)
1. Nirvana, ‘Nevermind’ (1991)
And of the ’00s:
10. Kanye West, ‘The College Dropout’ (2004)
9. M.I.A., ‘Kala’ (2007)
8. Bob Dylan, ‘Modern Times’ (2006)
7. Eminem, ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’ (2000)
6. Arcade Fire, ‘Funeral’ (2004)
5. The White Stripes, ‘Elephant’ (2003)
4. Jay-Z, ‘The Blueprint’ (2001)
3. Wilco, ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ (2001)
2. The Strokes, ‘Is This It’ (2001)
1. Radiohead, ‘Kid A’ (2000)
Pitchfork’s top 10 albums of the ’90s:
10. Guided by Voices, ‘Bee Thousand’ (1994)
9. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, ‘I See a Darkness’ (1999)
8. Pavement, ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’ (1994)
7. DJ Shadow, ‘…Endtroducing’ (1996)
6. Nirvana, ‘Nevermind’ (1991)
5. Pavement, ‘Slanted & Enchanted’ (1992)
4. Neutral Milk Hotel, ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’ (1998)
3. The Flaming Lips, ‘The Soft Bulletin’ (1999)
2. My Bloody Valentine, ‘Loveless’ (1991)
1. Radiohead, ‘OK Computer’ (1997)
And of the ’00s:
10. The Avalanches, ‘Since I Left You’ (2000)
9. Panda Bear, ‘Person Pitch’ (2007)
8. Sigur Rós, ‘Ágætis Byrjun’ (2000)
7. The Strokes, ‘Is This It’ (2001)
6. Modest Mouse, ‘The Moon & Antarctica’ (2000)
5. Jay-Z, ‘The Blueprint’ (2001)
4. Wilco, ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ (2002)
3. Daft Punk, ‘Discovery’ (2001)
2. Arcade Fire, ‘Funeral’ (2004)
3. Radiohead, ‘Kid A’ (2000)
Rolling Stone’s top 10 songs of the ’00s (there was no one for the ’90s):
10. Eminem featuring Dido, “Stan” (2000)
9. U2, “Beautiful Day” (2001)
8. Amy Winehouse, “Rehab” (2007)
7. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Maps” (2004)
6. White Stripes, “Seven Nation Army” (2003)
5. M.I.A., “Paper Planes” (2008)
4. Outkast, “Hey Ya!” (2003)
3. Beyoncé Knowles featuring Jay-Z, “Crazy In Love” (2003)
2. Jay-Z, “99 Problems” (2004)
1. Gnarls Barkely, “Crazy” (2006)
Pitchfork’s top 10 tracks of the ’90s:
10. Weezer, “Say It Ain’t So” (1994)
9. Beck, “Loser” (1993)
8. Aaliyah, “Are You That Somebody?” (1998)
7. Neutral Milk Hotel, “Holland, 1945” (1998)
6. My Bloody Valentine, “Only Shallow” (1991)
5. Wu-Tang Clan, “Protect Ya Neck” (1993)
4. Radiohead, “Paranoid Android” (1997)
3. Dr. Dre [ft. Snoop Doggy Dogg], “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” (1992)
2. Pulp, “Common People” (1995)
1. Pavement, “Gold Soundz” (1994)
And of the ’00s:
10. Arcade Fire, “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” (2004)
9. Animal Collective, “My Girls” (2009)
8. Radiohead, “Idioteque” (2000)
7. Missy Elliott, “Get Ur Freak On” (2001)
6. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Maps” (2003)
5. Daft Punk, “One More Time” (2000)
4. Beyoncé [ft. Jay-Z], “Crazy in Love” (2003)
3. M.I.A. [ft. Bun B and Rich Boy], “Paper Planes (Diplo Remix)” (2003)
2. LCD Soundsystem, “All My Friends” (2007)
1. OutKast, “B.O.B.” (2000)