Saturday, December 15, 2007

The sound of good Brit-pop dying a horrible death

Or at least the sound of good Brit-pop on a respirator with no hope of surviving.

Maybe it's more of a "last gasp".

Let me explain: I'm hopelessly and inexplicably obsessed with music from the 90's. Most of what I listen to has not come out during this decade, which is now close to being over.

This U2 performance of "Please" was one of the last gasps of 90's Brit-pop, at least as it pertained to American patience for the genre, at that time. Thankfully, after years of Britney Spears and Limp Bizkit, the internet music landscape has changed so drastically, we can ignore what's on MTV entirely and listen to good music again.

For some reason, after Oasis' Be Here Now came out (and, by the way, outsold Morning Glory worldwide and accounted for 2/3 of all music sold in Great Britain the week it came out), after Princess Diana died, and after the 1997 MTV Music Awards, the musical landscape in this country changed. Apparently people got sick of the cocky Brits and their wanna-be Beatles and Rolling Stones behavior. The Verve was really the last group standing, which toured through 1998 after Oasis had released their cocaine album and U2 was wrapping up PopMart, not to be heard from again until over two years later. When The Verve broke up in 1999, we of good musical taste knew the party was over at last.

It wasn't just the groups breaking up or indulging in far too many drugs to retain a decent touring schedule, it was the lack of American counterparts taking the place of bands like The Verve and Oasis. There will never be even an attempt at replacing or outdoing U2, but the US response to Oasis was Third Eye Blind. Third Eye Blind? Even Foo Fighters were pretty good for a bit, but it's been downhill since The Colour and the Shape...apparently, Dave Grohl used the "u" in "Colour" to attract the Brits to some decent American music, and since then, he's been shamelessly playing to the UK audience while becoming a self-parody. Can we blame him for playing to the UK audience, though, when no one in the US was listening? On the other hand, every band wants to become DMB these days; albums come secondary to touring schedules and raping customers of their hard-earned cash with absurd ticket prices.

Sadder still is the example of the Smashing Pumpkins, who seemed to age overnight with constant drug problems and then the sacking of Jimmy Chamberlain, perhaps the best Neil Peart knockoff who ever existed. The video for Thirty-Three could easily be the funeral music of the last true Smashing Pumpkins moment that mattered. "Adore" had to be the worst post-1997 alt-rock album. Garbage kept things hopeful for a bit with "Version 2.0", but ultimately, couldn't keep the "alternative music" segment, that strange grouping of bands as diverse as Green Day and Pulp, going by themselves.

Part of the problem in the late 90's was that there was a time when everyone wanted to have center stage, have it all, be the next big thing; and then of course it all imploded. Oasis' attitude toward their fame, after winning the battle of the bands vs. Blur, could partly be blamed for that attitude. Garbage may have been a bit immune to that because nearly the entire group (except that redhead who, ya know, had nothing to do with their success or anything) was made up of music producers who were too busy with other projects to worry about whether or not they were the highest-grossing new act of the 1990's. But I recall one time in particular when I was watching an airing of the Smashing Pumpkins in the UK, and they were playing Tonight, Tonight. The stage was covered in flowers and Corgan was yukking it up with his bandmates half the time instead of performing the song; I realized then that the Pumpkins had outgrown even Mellon Collie's huge borders, and just wanted to be big for the sake of being big. Gone was the badass, messed-up looking kid who defiantly sang "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" with a backdrop of disturbing-looking individuals rolling around in mud. In his place there was a bigger-looking guy with clean teeth and a polished, shaved head, sporting dark clothes everywhere he went. Billy Corgan had become a product, nothing more.

Every band followed the lead, and interestingly, PopMart was the least of it. PopMart was a colossal joke on the American psyche that, ironically, we were too stupid to understand. A band of alt-rock heroes like the Pumpkins becoming too big, Green Day trying to outdo themselves with Insomniac (though, in fairness, they recovered quite well with everything they've done since), Oasis snorting far too much coke and unplugging themselves from their fanbase, The Verve not being able to handle their would-be savior role...these were all symptoms of the genre collapsing, making way for the record executives to say "you had your shot doing it your way; now we're going to use the 'push' method and just force any junk down your throats that we can cram in there".

Now, ten years later, we have iTunes, torrent sites, blogs, and other methods of grabbing great music out of the airwaves (or the cable internet pipeline). We also, finally, have great bands again, like White Stripes, BRMC, etc., who can at least partially thank the internet and a loyal cult following for spreading the word. It might be more segemented and the record companies might have a harder time keeping tabs on their own "business"...but I dont' think any of us fans of a much better time in music are complaining.

Sure, the new era comes with its own set of complications: there's more pressure on bands to keep themselves ultra-connected to their fanbase; these bands still only make money off touring, and with the shrinking attention span in this country it's become harder to retain a good reputation in our insta-internet world by the time a decent money-making tour can be organized; record contracts for six-plus albums still exist, which keep bands locked down to a horribly tradionalist and 50s-esque way of releasing music...but overall, the scene is much better than going through commercialized genre-pushing decade in and decade out.

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