Above all, 1999 was a great year to be a white man, as much in music as anything else. Granted, the white man's unprecedented umptillion-year streak of maintaining hegemony makes it hard to notice when we're in ascendance. But there's nothing like several thousand pounds of frothing, steroid-fortified, pyromaniacal mosh-pit mayhem to get your attention. The battle of the sexes is over.
I never fully grooved to the utopian vibes supposedly set astir in the golden age of alternative rock. Sure, kids on both sides of the chromosomal divide meant well, but the road to Alice in Chains is paved with good intentions. Then again, I never thought I'd look back at Anthony Kiedis as a paragon of progressive manhood. So let me tell you something about my particular demographic. Stray onto our turf when we're feeling edgy and all of a sudden the gloves come off. Oh, I know--we only start showing our teeth when our power starts eroding. But ain't we got some half-nasty modes of resistance available to us neither, eh?
Let's start with Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit leading his hordes in the inverted Take Back the Night rally known as Woodstock '99. This should challenge our liberal assumption that violence is always rooted in fear and insecurity. Sometimes it's just rooted in the fact that you're a big dumb jerkoff.
Whether or not Limp Bizkit is "to blame" for Woodstock is ultimately irrelevant. (After all, no one's holding Dave Matthews accountable for the white riot that fans staged outside his Connecticut show later last summer.) There's something insulting about attributing such a simple Pavlovian response to rock fans, as if the more gullible and zombielike they're painted to be, the more magazines can be sold ("Kids Who Listen to Marilyn Manson Become Gun-Toting Neo-Nazis Overnight," see story page 47). When it comes down to the bottom line (and there's nowhere Durst is more comfortable), Limp Bizkit are guilty only of selling more copies of their mediocre funk-metal record than any of their mediocre funk-metal competition.
Still, regardless of the band's largely financial intentions, their success does have certain cultural ramifications, and Limp Bizkit have become the epicenter for the rage of a far-from-oppressed class that seems less likely to topple the pop machine than to lash out at the easiest target. At Woodstock we caught that rare glimpse of anarchy as something more than a symbol carved into a study-hall desk and--surprise--the "weakest" in the crowd got trampled, groped, and discarded. Strange how much that sounds like the reigning ethos of any consumption-based economic system.
But the myth of guitar as instrument of liberation dies hard, and so pundits were more likely to identify rampant transglobal capitalism with the more "disposable," "lightweight" teenybop. The argument that the replacement of guitar bands with well-groomed harmony lads is an insidious Disney-Imagineered plot was helped along this summer by one particular pro-punk, anticorporate screed in the liberal-left Nation magazine. The author was the far-from-disinterested Johnny Temple of Girls Against Boys (as telling a name as Limp Bizkit, no?), a far-from-uninteresting alt-rock band who've parlayed being dropped from their major label into a career as sadder-but-wiser elder spokesmen vis-à-vis the Industry. Call them the Jimmy Carters of modern rock.
Temple's thesis is intriguing, but, if you'll pardon my debased, commercial language, I don't buy it. First off, the GVSB flop in question, Freakonica, was not a misunderstood work of art, as sources from MTV to the New York Times have dutifully reported. It was, in fact, a bad work of art. Second, how many of those who protest that the Backstreet Boys are watering down "genuine" black harmony stylings actually dig Boyz II Men or Jodeci? And third, what's with the way biological impulses are being categorized and divvied up here? Sensitivity is fake and commercial, but violence and aggression are real and transgressive? Three guesses as to which gender gets to claim which mode of expression.
Personally, I don't plan on sublimating my libido to anyone's political program. Back-pats are certainly owed to Rage Against the Machine for trying to put the latent, misdirected unrest to progressive use, with a huzzah for their genuinely useful Web site. But if pure thoughts and good deeds accounted for anything artistically, Joan Baez would be a more seminal rock 'n' roller than Mick Jagger.
And if Rager Tom Morello's ability to make a guitar sound like virtually anything--a buzz saw, an air-raid siren, a turntable, bombs bursting in air--could be put to the service of one killer riff, I'd follow Rage onto the parade ground. But entreaty to "raise your fists and march around" isn't much of a platform, even if there are a greater number of incipient Zapatistas among the RATM faithful than I suspect. Not only is the assertion that Americans have nothing to lose but our retail chains a half-truth at best, but I'd like my revolution to be a little looser in the hips.
If it seems like I'm placing more of an emphasis on the male half of the Great American Overclass than the white half--well, I am. While an undeniable convenience if you're looking to secure a bank loan or hail a cab or land a job, whiteness remains a slight embarrassment on video. When it comes to flaunting the teenage trappings of the phallus--the attack cars, the gilded goblets, the 23rd-century bachelor pads--black men are still more male, and mainstream hip hop grabbed that phantasmal privilege with one hand and its nuts with the other. Since hip hop has reached the supersaturation point, it has remained vital subculturally, regardless of the quality of its best-selling exemplars. Case in point: genuine wunderkinder such as Prince Paul or overrated oddballs such as Kool Keith, and the many bohemian practitioners flourishing as abundantly as negligible Wu Tang spinoffs. Consumers preferred the pathologically haunted DMX, regardless.
Which is hardly to say that whiteness--inasmuch as white hip-hop fans love both Keith and Paul--is a commercial handicap. Kid Rock and Eminem demonstrated that whiteface is quite a flexible mask, that cracking wise doesn't cut down on your groupie quotient, that white kids identify with rappers' dysfunction as much as their machismo, that whigger is just another word for nothing left to lose. And in another genre universe altogether, Moby scored off a bunch of dead black folks who never saw a royalty check to begin with (yet another reason it's so baffling that DJs never used field recordings before now). Like so many rhythmically adept types before him, he went looking among the other for spirituality.
But here's the rub: Moby found that spirituality. Play is deeper--in every sense--than anything the Roots amassed with all their good intentions and real keyboards. That all three of my fellow ghostfaces in the above graph made good music (as in exciting, galvanizing, epochal--all those words) merely demonstrates the range of aesthetic devices white artists have at their disposal. And one of those constructs happens to be the full-length CD--which leads me to close with a quartet of what I'm afraid I'll have to call, well, masterworks.
Or proposed, supposed masterworks. Cue gloomy drum 'n' bass, stage lights to half, enter Spin's Man of the Year Trent Reznor, in black, alone. Listen closely, children, and learn the harrowing secrets Trent gleaned from his descent into rock stardom. Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile certainly has the heft, length, and ponderous self-absorption of an objet d'art, and it is a nifty sound-effects sampler at that. But anyone who thinks these qualities make it a great album deserves to be forcibly dosed on four tabs of bad acid and locked in an all-night basement screening of The Wall. Trent Reznor is the beleaguered white dude as pessimistic modernist. Like T.S. Eliot, but with stodgier lyrics, he projects his malaise onto the sum total of Western culture.
I suppose you could say the same about Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips and Stephen Merritt of the Magnetic Fields. But the former is so nice about it, the latter so ambivalent about it, and they're both so obscure, that you're barking up a tree that could fall in the forest without anyone hearing it. The Lips' The Soft Bulletin is the most humane art rock in recent memory, placing a truly fragile cracked-white-guy tenor into a cosmos so hostile, so pitiless, so unreliable that even Superman drops the ball when he's lyrically called upon. But instead of collapsing into self-loathing, Coyne stands up and says yeah.
For all his vaunted sourness, though, Merritt hangs in there, too. There's something Sisyphean about his three-disc encyclopedia of romance tropes, something doomed in his quest to achieve completeness while eschewing mastery. But nobody pens 69 Love Songs because he thinks the subject is stupid, no matter how he gets off on those oral implications or how priapically keen he is on proving his songwriting stamina. Merritt wants it to work out, and he hits it, baby, one more time. And again.
Of the 16 romances that constitute John Prine's In Spite of Ourselves, however, only four qualify as happy endings. Some of the others are hopeful, some resigned, some perplexed. Like Merritt, Prine searches for truth in product: Instead of the punny ironies of romance, he plows the clichés of music row, breathing new life into the venerable copyrights he exhumes. And like Merritt, he invites women to sing some of the words, dueting with everyone from Iris DeMent to Trisha Yearwood.
The songs, and the singers, revel in the idiosyncrasies that wary grown-ups bring to a relationship--exactly those quirks of character that cultural overviews like the one you're reading are designed to miss when they generalize about gender. His album, like Randy Newman's Bad Love, falls plop between pop and art.
Meanwhile, bubble gum's pinups mouth generalities about eternal affection, then sulk when affairs fall apart: I'm a boy, you're a girl, how could we not be in love? Nihilist auteurs like Trent Reznor cry, "My labyrinthine pain is too idiosyncratic for another human to comprehend!" And ideologues like Rage Against the Machine can't be bothered with the home front--such inessentials can be worried about after the revolution. Yet some people want to fill the world with bitter, contradictory, dirty, funny, keen, silly love songs. What's wrong with that, I'd like to know.
Yes, yes, love is a bourgeois fantasy and a utopian pipe dream and a meaningless abstraction and a distraction. Not only isn't love the answer. It isn't even always a pertinent question. And nonetheless, records like Prine's suggest that this most maligned of emotions just might await lucky backstreet girls when they outgrow airbrushed ideals and plunge into messy specifics. Or it may be in the future for fortunate frat boys and gangstas should they ever decide to shrug off the privilege of hating women. Maybe it'll happen because of our best intentions. But more likely it'll blossom in spite of ourselves.