I blame Mark Morrison for everything. Morrison, you may remember, delivered one of the great and mysterious singles of 1997, "Return of the Mack." Return? None of us remembered him being here before. But more importantly, why was he claiming Mack when he sang like a Brit sissyboy with a jones for all things falsetto?
"Return of the Mack" was hardly the first song to talk tough and sound pretty. In fact, it's the confused heir of New Jack's hip-hop/urban-contempo synthesis (which peaked with Blackstreet and Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It"). Or maybe Morrison's spiritual forebears are crooning bitches like Sinatra and Bennett, running around Vegas waving automatic guns at nuns. Nonetheless, his hit became the blueprint for the best genre of 1998: schizophrenia.
Closest in spirit is Ginuwine's "Same Ol' G" from Dr. Dolittle. The lyrics tell a familiar story, about a hustler from the streets ("most of my friends still thugging") who makes it out but stays true to the game. "Though I might be on TV, cuz I got my own CD," goes the chorus, "all that you will ever see: Same ol' G." His vocal is rigged so you'll mishear the end as "O.G."--Original Gangsta. It's not just how he says it, but the way you've come to expect two-letter acronyms: TV, CD, OG.
But even if it's just plain ol' G, that's still "Gangsta" where I come from. You might protest the G is for "Ginuwine," but the only vocalist who names himself is one "Timothy" (producer Timbaland, natch, who proves for the final time he can't rap and that his terse 'n' technical beats work a lot better with rich melodies than they do with spoken word). Anyway, "Gangsta" is the code that makes the plot make sense, right? The singer may have a record deal, but he's still the real deal, hard as hell, etc.
Except he's not. He's the softest G in the universe, singing a slow and lovely cash-money melody with faux-gospel harmonizing on the chorus. The song doesn't even have the taut sexuality that stiffens many a smoove ballad. And what's more, the sound is organized around a digitized acoustic guitar as pretty and prissy as anything this side of Madonna employee William Orbit. But not just pretty--the whole song is the epitome of I Got a Major Label Budget and Sold My Soul for a Pop Hit, perfectly canceling its entire claim. That ain't irony; it's a total failure of self-awareness. It's also the most beautiful song of the year, a post-rational Top 40 koan.
Also operating near the final frontiers of reason, Big Pun decided to title an otherwise rock-steady sex rap "Still Not a Player" and then claim, "I don't wanna be a player no more," and "I'm not a player, I just crush a lot." Maybe this is a shell-game to throw the player-haters off the track. But if it's merely a logical contradiction, then it's clearly also a stepchild of schizophrenia itself: As the big book of words would have it, "A mental disorder occurring in various forms, all characterized by a breakdown in the relation between thoughts, feelings, and actions."
Which brings us to the Backstreet Boys. The genius single from their debut album intros with the proud and/or horrified shout "Oh my God, we're back again" (and you didn't even know they were gone; does this sound familiar?). Losing time often signals a psychotic episode, but there's an explanation: "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" wasn't on the band's initial public offering. Not at first. When they added "Everybody" to their portfolio--sorry, repertoire--they immediately rereleased Backstreet Boys plus one. Why wait for the lab techs to cook up a whole 'nother album? Time's a-wasting, and a billion hormones are jumping like a disco right now.
But nothing can explain away the chorus. It begins with four questions that, given the nature of life, history, and toy-boy pop, can only be described as freaky: "Am I original/Am I the only one/Am I sexual/Am I everything you need?"
For those unfamiliar with the Backstreet Boys, the answers: No, no, yes, good question. You gotta give 'em "sexual"--a billion moaning, keening, weeping nearteen-year-olds can't be wrong. As for "only one," it seems fair to point out that the band has five members, and that's not counting 'N Sync, 5ive, Boyzone, East 17, etc. Inevitably, however, it's the "original" clause that seems indicative of a break with reality.
Why would you raise such a question when you are in fact the least original guys in music right now (not counting 'N Sync etc.)? The synth part isn't just borrowed, it's stolen...most recently from another song on the same album. The whole song is blatantly jacked--and that's the insane genius part. Having added this track after already blowing way past platinum, these guys manage to load up seamlessly derivative dance-pop with an awesome sense of their own juice. They sing "Everybody" as if they're changing history moment by moment, rather than passing "My Prerogative" through a microchip and an autoclave.
Pretty goddamn teen, even if the Boys'll never see those years again. "Everybody" isn't just the millionth kiss ever stolen under the old gym bleachers; it's the ecstatic conviction that such a thing could never have happened before. And yes, some days that feeling is, more or less, everything I need; thanks for asking.
If the Backstreet Boys defy reason, Local H just defy their very existence. "All the Kids Are Right" is a last-wave grunge song about how over grunge is. "It's never good when it goes bad/No one wants to feel like they been had," moans Scott Lucas, who's half the band, the other being drummer Joe Daniels. He's blowing a kiss to Uncle Tupelo's anti-rock-star rant "We've Been Had," but here the stars in question are Local H themselves: "Walking through the set/As drunk as you could get/And what the hell was wrong with Joe?" It's like a Maoist autocritique: You start expecting they'll take themselves out back any minute and put bullets in their heads.
Meanwhile the song's busy raving like grunge still mattered--mattered more than anything. It's at once as epic and ingratiating as it is self-hating, concluding "all your cred won't save you from The Kids." The movement's sound was always self-loathing, from the creamy dread of Kurt's voice to those signature mood-swings on which grunge is built: Each shift from repressed and quiet to furious and loud is supposed to grind like the ruined gears of your shit-filled heart.
Or maybe the song is the last echo of Kurt's suicide (now that's self-canceling). His note, after all, was about the sickness of rock stardom, and about his failure to have the right relationship to The Kids. To Local H these aren't private demons--they're simply material.
Now that grunge has laid its cards on the table, we can all stop playing. Dave Grohl has. Despite being one of the living relics of the religion, this year he canceled grunge entirely. Having wandered onto the Howard Stern show, apparently figuring it was too late to be cool (Where's the "Corporate Shock Jocks Still Suck" T-shirt, Dave?), he played a version of "Everlong"--an aimlessly aggressive dud on record--that ended up displacing the original from mod-rock playlists. He sang it slow and sad like a real love song, and he worked his acoustic guitar like an amateur. You could hear him breathing as he sang, "breathe out so I can breathe you in." You could hear him waiting when he swore he'd "waited here for you."
And when he pleaded, "come down and waste away with me," damn if he didn't sound wasted. To finally get it exactly right, to get at the truth of your song on an idiot talk-show, in a way that makes everything you've ever sung seem like bullshit--it's enough to make you crazy.
The Top 10 Singles of 1998
1. Foo Fighters, "Everlong" (Howard Stern Show acoustic version) (Capitol)
2. Local H, "All the Kids Are Right"(Island)
3. All Saints, "I Know Where It's At" (London)
4. Master P, "Make 'Em Say Uhh"(No Limit)
5. Backstreet Boys, "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" (Jive)
6. Ginuwine, "Same Ol' G" (Atlantic)
7. Natalie Imbruglia, "Torn" (BMG)
8. Dixie Chicks, "There's Your Trouble"(Monument)
9. Big Punisher, "Still Not a Player"(Loud)