IT WAS A DECADE IN WHICH WE SAW OUR LEADERS squander the peace and prosperity of the previous decade. We watched as they sold us into an endless war, stomped civil liberties and trashed the economy, all while the icebergs kept melting and the seas kept rising. It was a decade of lost chances, which we can only hope are not last chances. The ’00s really began on December 12th, 2000, the day the Supreme Court blocked Florida from recounting ballots and anointed George W. Bush. Other bad days were to follow – most famously 9/11. But we never recovered from 12/12, spent the rest of the decade trying to forget it and mostly succeeded. Before you knew it, we were at the airport, waiting in line to take off our shoes. Why? Who knew? We just were.
Yet music offered shelter from the storm, even if it was just for one three-minute song at a time. Amid all the chaos, it was a glorious decade for music. As the mainstream broke down and all sorts of weird new alleys opened up, everything got revitalized: classic-rock stalwarts, hungry young guitar bands, soul divas, hip-hop poets, DJ beat fiends.
Legendary figures like Bruce Springsteen, Bono and Bob Dylan could have easily coasted if they wanted to – but they had work to do, music to make, and they roared back with their most passionate music in years, if not ever, to engage with the times. They raged against the darkness in their hearts or in the White house – or both, as in Neil Young’s “Let’s Impeach the President.” These guys were too tough and seasoned to pretend their songs were going to change the world. But they knew that articulating this rage was essential, and that meant something. Speaking your mind was a dangerous game in those days, when the government worked harder than ever to convince people to watch what they say. The fact that these veterans were willing to lead the way was a sign of hope in itself. “I’m an old guy who can do what he wants, you know?” Springsteen told Rolling Stone in 2006. “So now, like, the rules are off.”
Bob Dylan threw himself into his wild-ass 60s, towering over everyone as rock & roll’s wiliest trickster. He made four great albums (counting the crucial Tell Tale Signs compilation), toured relentlessly and wrote his revelatory Chronicles: Volume One.
U2, who stumbled in the Nineties with their 1’opMart phase, regained their mojo and started making unabashed U2 records again. Bono got back in touch with the passion behind his quest, the passion that made him a major figure in the first place, and embraced his role as a global activist. “Our definition of art is the breaking open of the breastbone, that’s for sure,” he told Rolling Stone in 2005. “Just like open-heart surgery. I wish there were an easier way. But in the end, people want blood, and I’m one of them.”
The only rocker who could plausibly claim to be bigger than U2 was Bruce Springsteen, another open-heart artist, one who’d kept an unusually low profile in the Nineties. But in the 2000s, he seemed both more down-to-earth human and more mythic than ever. It was his busiest decade – who would have predicted 10 years ago this famous perfectionist would give us five studio albums? He got heavily involved in two presidential elections and wrestled with cultural crises in his grittiest songs. And he capped his gloriest-of-glory days with a run of live shows at the end of this year, where he covered his classic albums all the way through – often ending up crowd-surfing before the night was over. As the man said, “I’ve never felt freer or like I have more music in me.”
You could hear that freedom all over the musical map, if you were willing to go look for it. It’s odd to recall how awful the radio sounded 10 years ago, when the airwaves were clogged up with boy bands and rap-metal wankers. But the kids left it behind and went elsewhere for their kicks. Before long, it was like Top 40 radio never existed. Guitar rock enjoyed a creative explosion, and you could hear the excitement everywhere but the radio.
Crowd-flattening live bands like the White Stripes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Hold Steady didn’t tone down their weird side for the crossover masses – because there weren’t any crossover masses left. Airplay was out of the question, so they made their own racket and found that there was an audience out there starved for rock & roll bands that didn’t play by the rules.
Artists built audiences on a grass-roots level, whether it was on the road or via MySpace. The smartest artists often seemed like the craziest. Anybody with any sense could have explained why it was a dumb idea for Lil Wayne to give away trunkloads of free music – except Weezy didn’t give a fuck about conventional wisdom, and his street mixtapes blew him up from a superstar to a megastar. Music changed so fast, it took a toll on our sanity, our attention span, our love lives. To paraphrase the old Grateful Dead song, it felt like we were living on reds, Vitamin C and T-Pain. But we just kept on truckin’.
If there was a band that summed up the era, it hail to be Radiohead. They aimed highest, yelled loudest, pushed hardest. In 2000, they released Kid A. As a conceptual statement, it was a Seventies art-rock cliché; as a listening experience, it was so fucking sublime it helped lift dead souls through the decade. Then the band released three more albums that were just as good.
I bought my CD of Kid A on the sidewalk in Chinatown for five bucks – that’s what piracy meant in 2000. I bought Amnesiac at my local Borders, on the ground floor of the World Trade Center. I downloaded In Rainbows from the band’s website, with its voluntary tip jar. (I paid $5.27, in honor of my mom’s birthday.) That’s how music mutated in the 2000s.
Now, as we head into a widely dreaded new decade, we don’t know what our country will look like – all we can count on is more strange mutations. “This victory alone is not the change we seek,” Barack Obama told the nation on election night 2008. “It is only the chance for us to make that change.” With Obama in the White House, it’s not too much to hope for a second shot at this decade’s lost chances. Musicians are discovering what so many other Americans have been forced to discover: We are on our own. The old-school pop-music machine is not going to spoon feed music to us, the fans, any more than it’s going to spoon-feed audiences to musicians. In years to come, our iPods and hard drives will look as quaint as a Discman does now. For artists, being innovative won’t be a clever move, but a necessary survival skill.
It’s a scary thought, but in many ways a liberating one. Just think – the members of your next favorite band probably just plugged in their guitars for the first time. They’re not going to sit around and wait on the record-company contract, the radio programmers, the underassistant West Coast promotion man. They are going to hunt you down, moving faster than anyone used to think possible. More than ever, music will inspire us to keep up the pace.