AS 1992 DRAWS TO A CLOSE, artists, fans and the music industry as a whole are looking ahead to an extremely uncertain future. Sales are down and for reasons more complicated than the recession. Speculation that the rock era has run its course has escalated, though no one – not even that renowned bastion of pop-culture insight the Wall Street Journal, which declared in a page 1 story that ROCK IS SLOWLY FADING – will venture a guess about what, if anything, will rise to take its place. No one has a sure sense where music is heading or whether the fission of the “rock audience” – if it is any longer possible to use that term with any degree of precision – will ultimately prove to be a positive or a negative development.
For all the hand wringing and prognosticating going on, however, there is at least one genuine cause for optimism: Great music is still being made by artists new and old in every field – from Arrested Development to Wynonna Judd, from Morrissey to Lindsey Buckingham, from PJ Harvey to En Vogue. Listeners who didn’t find any sounds to their taste last year simply weren’t looking — to paraphrase the old blues song, it’s your own fault. And though the current musical climate may occasionally seem confusing, times may never have been better for people whose palates are receptive to a wide range of flavors.
But for the most part, rappers, metal bands, country musicians, alternative and aging rockers and more obscure artists in the dozens of subgenres splintering off in myriad ways seemed content to speak exclusively to their own specific audiences. With a few notable exceptions, like the U2-Public Enemy tour or the Lollapalooza extravaganza that ran the gamut from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Ice Cube, no one was truly able – or much interested in making the effort – to reach across boundaries and address what many people have come to envision as the new multicultural America. Some people believe that a coming together of the tribes may not even be possible anymore.
But if popular music is eventually to play a cultural role in the next century of anything near the significance it has enjoyed in the second half of this one, a determination to bridge racial, generational and gender gaps will be the principal reason why.
Before that can happen, however, the music industry will need to wake up and recover from the aftereffects of its Eighties hangover. The commercial expectations engendered during that decade – when the ascent of MTV, the dramatic development of CD technology and an economy racing on debt-driven energy combined to make multiplatinum sales a prerequisite for success – need to be scaled down to a more reasonable level. The past year has shown demonstratively that even the artists who established those inflated standards have not been able to meet them in the Nineties.
The clearest example of that is Michael Jackson, the self-designated and now deflated “King of Pop,” whose 1982 blockbuster Thriller created the model for the modern album that was supposed to linger in the upper reaches of the charts interminably, spin off an endless series of hit singles and achieve double-digit platinum sales. Dangerous, which was released late in 1991, never approached the numbers attained by Thriller or even the somewhat less prodigious showing of Bad, Jackson’s 1987 follow-up. Nor is it likely that anything Jackson releases will perform that well ever again.
Does that mean Dangerous wasn’t a good album or that Jackson is washed up as an artist? Not at all. Jackson has undermined himself not through his inability to match his earlier achievements – no rational person could expect the once-in-a-lifetime success of Thriller to be duplicated – but through his attitudes. Jackson made it clear that as far as he was concerned, nothing short of topping Thriller could make Dangerous a success. That isn’t aspiration or ambition; it’s simply substituting commercial goals for artistic ones. From the moment of its release, virtually all discussion of the album centered on its potential in the marketplace; whatever Jackson had to say with his music was largely lost.
As a result of all that, Dangerous, which has sold more than 4 million copies in the U.S. alone – roughly the same number as the initial sales of Off the Wall, the solo album that first propelled Jackson to superstardom in 1979 – is widely perceived as a failure. Can Jackson possibly be pleased to be judged by so cold and unforgiving a standard – ironically, one that he himself has enshrined?
Bruce Springsteen is another Eighties icon who found himself confronting the harsh economic realities of the Nineties. Human Touch and Lucky Town, the two albums he released last spring, delivered a deep, uncompromising assessment of emotional and family life on the far side of forty. At least partly because in these economically depressed times, putting out two albums at once confused and discouraged consumers (buy one and you’re dissatisfied, knowing you’re not getting the whole story; buy both and you have to brown-bag lunch for two weeks), the albums plummeted down the charts after a fast start.
So is Springsteen a failure? Not in the least – certainly not in artistic terms. But maybe Born in the U.S.A., with its worldwide sales of 10 million, was a peak that he will never again approach. Let’s go even further and say it was an outright fluke. Does an artist who after twenty years still continues to challenge his audience and still manages to sell close to 4 million albums have anything to be ashamed of?
Springsteen never subscribed to Michael Jackson’s code that sales are all that matters — in fact, his good humor about his slump in the marketplace provided some of the most charming moments on his tour. But he and his work were often wrongly judged by that same wildly inappropriate, Eighties-derived measure.
The industry’s insistence on turning to established superstars for salvation may also stifle the growth of the most promising young artists, the very people on whom the future of die music depends. Can the staggering contracts offered in the past two years to aging acts like the Rolling Stones, ZZ Top and Aerosmith possibly leave record companies in any position to take risks on a healthily diverse array of upcoming artists? Will they be able to commit their resources in any significant way to bringing the music of those artists to the public?
The answer is no. The vast commitment of the record companies to the music of the past does, however, whet their hunger for new superstars – after all, somebody has to pay the bills. Consequently, in the wake of the startling success of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, companies broke out their checkbooks last year and hunted far and wide for the next likely alternative – what can that term conceivably mean in this context? – breakout. The commercial pressures such deals bring to bear on young bands can be paralyzing, and they will likely lead to a quick turnover of rosters as labels search feverishly for the next multiplatinum cash cow. It can’t possibly be good for a band like Helmet to begin its major-label career having to earn back a million-dollar guarantee.
Instead of investing in and nurturing a wide range of new talents, record companies are betting wildly like drunks at the roulette table, hoping that one big score – whether by an old favorite or a new lucky number – will cover all previous debts. That’s all-or-nothing Eighties thinking, and that’s the problem. It’s an approach that makes for one winner and many losers, with each spin of the wheel just perpetuating the dizzying, desperate process.
NEEDING TO UP THE ANTE CONTINUOUSLY IS A phenomenon that unfortunately is not limited to the realm of sales. Madonna, for example, seeks to outdo herself not so much in terms of numbers – hers have remained consistently strong, though not up to the level of Like a Virgin (1984) – but in outrageousness. Before 1992 could slip unnoticed out the back door, Madonna launched the latest of her punishing biennial media assaults.
We’ve encountered many of the elements before, of course: a strong new album, Erotica, promoted by a sexually explicit video restricted to late-night airing by MTV (but played relentlessly on the Box, the refreshing video-jukebox cable channel that began to make a serious impact this year), and steamy advance word of a movie, Body of Evidence, due out in January, which in its original version fried the circuits of the rating board before it was cut to achieve an R.
So far, no news. The turn of the screw, so to speak, this time is Sex, a fifty-dollar “art” book in which Madonna and photographer Steven Meisel explore the nether world of psychosexual dominance and submission. That focus, which also runs through parts of Erotica, is potentially compelling, but the overwhelming effect of the book is numbing. The images are derivative, and Madonna herself seems far too eager to shock; that, not even prurient arousal, seems the ideal response the book tirelessly seeks. The potency of Sex‘s subject matter is dissipated by Madonna and Meisel’s self-congratulatory – and silly – sense of their own “bravery,” as if their naughty games were somehow revolutionary.
All the hoopla about Sex suggests that Madonna’s is the ultimate Catholic-schoolgirl rebellion – much as she rails about repressive American values, she needs that repression to lend definition to her identification of herself as a rebel. In that sense, she is as imprisoned by those values as the most strait-laced suburbanite. A world devoid of the notion of sexual sin – the polymorphous erotic world Madonna claims to want – would render her provocations meaningless. And for Madonna, those provocations are ends, not means.
As with Michael Jackson, Madonna’s self-conscious desire to.go further each time out must ultimately prove to be a losing strategy. It is an attitude that has nothing to do with the obligation artists have to urge themselves to new creative heights and everything to do with needing to bask in the vertiginous glare of media celebrity. It not only obscures the quality of her music in pointless discussions of “Has Madonna gone too far?” but it helps fuel the perception that she – and for some burned-out consumers, all contemporary music – is only about image and marketing.
SINEAD O’CONNOR, MEANWHILE, MANAGED THE seemingly insurmountable task of pushing the bondage-clad Madonna out of the headlines with her bizarre attacks on what she quaintly and archaically refers to as the Holy Roman Empire. The Catholic church is a perfectly legitimate target, particularly for an Irish single mother who grew up in an impoverished country in which Catholicism is virtually a state religion, contraception is discouraged and abortion is banned.
But is O’Connor’s aim to educate people about her point of view or to alienate them and insult their beliefs – as she did when she ripped up a picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live, ensuring that they will never take her seriously? However justified her critiques, O’Connor’s conspiracy theories about the role of the church in world affairs are perilously reminiscent of the paranoid – and viciously antisemitic – fantasies of Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Very little about O’Connor – including her opinion that the woman raped by Mike Tyson is “a bitch” – suggests that she would be any more enlightened than the church fathers if real social power were in her hands.
Just as Madonna requires a backdrop of Puritanism to sharpen the thrill of her sexual antics, O’Connor needs to incite resistance – as she has done over and over again – in order for her to glow in the righteousness of her positions. It was painful to watch O’Connor onstage at the Bob Dylan tribute concert at Madison Square Garden in October not only because of the rudeness of the crowd, but for the way that she seemed in some perverse way to exult in the abuse. If Joan of Arc is her role model, martyrdom seems to be her goal.
We’ll never know whether the fans at the Garden would have stopped booing if she had started to sing Dylan’s “I Believe in You” as planned. The point is, she didn’t even try, going so far as to stop the band twice. She also ended up dominating the news coverage of the tribute. Through her actions, O’Connor has overwhelmed her various causes with her personality, diminishing her effectiveness as a voice of protest.
SOME ARTISTS, ON THE OTHER HAND, DID NOT HAVE TO go out of their way to seek controversy in 1992 – trouble fixed them in its cross hairs and fired. The furor over Ice-T’s thrash-metal song “Cop Killer,” which resulted in his pulling the song from his album Body Count, set a dangerous precedent, one that will be with us for some time to come. Is it now impossible for an artist to record a song in which a law-enforcement agent or a government official – however corrupt, however brutal, under whatever circumstances, in self-defense or not – is killed? Will that unspoken rule apply to Arnold Schwarzenegger as well as to Ice-T? Why should events in a song be held to a higher moral standard than those in a movie, a novel, a play or any other work of art?
A crime committed in a work of art is different from a crime committed in the real world. Laws govern our public behavior, the acts we perform, but not what we are able to listen to, read, watch or talk about. If the police groups were appalled by the actions dramatized in “Cop Killer,” they should ask themselves why they are so mistrusted by so many people in minority communities. Rappers are certainly not above sensationalizing conditions in the inner city, but the police’s collusion with drug dealers, harassment of urban youths and indifference to the ravages of ghetto life are not issues made up by rappers for rhymes. They can be read about daily in the newspapers of any major city.
That law-enforcement groups were able, through the threat of a boycott against Time Warner, to pressure Ice-T into withdrawing “Cop Killer” means that it is open season on rap and any other music that attempts to address the gripping social and political realities of our time – and those are the concerns that make music matter. The word is already out that record companies are looking very closely at songs they deem to be controversial, no doubt making artists themselves more cautious and draining the blood from one of our society’s most vital means of self-examination. This is not a favorable trend for anyone interested in freedom of expression in the arts – and unfortunately, it will not come to a halt with the arrival of the new year.
IF RAPPERS WERE COERCED INTO THE POSITION OF being First Amendment fighters, a number of veteran artists who released albums in 1992 suggested approaches to the creation of rock & roll – broadly defined, as it should be – that can help keep the music vital and important in people’s lives in other ways. Taken together, they show how this music can address the entire spectrum of human concerns with sophistication and compassion.
Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss, for example, demonstrated in arresting terms rock & roll’s ability to take on life’s most urgent question – What is the meaning of death? – and explore it with all the richness and complexity that great art has always brought to essential matters. For an artist who has often written about characters mesmerized by their self-destructive urges, it was a bold, heartening statement.
Death also haunted Automatic for the People, R.E.M.’s autumnal meditation on the passage of time and the value of what lasts. It’s a sadly moving soundtrack for the age of AIDS, for a generation of people struck senseless by the premature demise of many of their loved ones. The album’s eloquent string arrangements and eerily seductive melodies dare to be simple and beautiful – a lesson in musical courage that should not be lost on the up-and-coming noise-and-noise-alone brigade.
Less ambitiously but no less admirably, Neil Young’s Harvest Moon took a searching look back at the two decades since he released what may still be his most popular album, Harvest. The album’s quiet, introspective tone showed, once again, Young’s willingness to shift directions – his last two outings, Ragged Glory (1990) and the Arc/Weld live set (1991), threatened to violate decibel-safety standards – and follow the imperatives of his art and his heart Likewise the juicy funk and dreamy ballads of Prince’s bespeak the independence of spirit that continues to make him inspirational. The album is not in a class with Prince’s greatest or most adventurous efforts, but it bristles with the energy of a highly charged, individual vision.
That last quality is ultimately what distinguishes these albums. Whatever the specific merits of their work at any particular moment in their careers, those four artists have neither pandered to gain large audiences nor hidden from popularity when it came. They have made masterpieces, and in the course of following their own lights, they have stumbled into embarrassing mistakes. They have not been afraid to look foolish if that’s the occasional price of achieving greatness. Their followings are loyal because their fans know that they are getting work that is honest and true, whether it is challenging, hard and somber or ecstatic and fun. As younger artists with great potential – from Neneh Cherry to the Spin Doctors – step out into the fragmenting future, those are the kind of values they may want to keep in mind.