The InsiderOne Daily Report

  Thursday, February 22, 2001

The Celebration Of Product

InsiderOne's Michael Goldberg writes: Can someone please tell me why such mainstream media as Newsweek persist in pushing the message that this is a dismal time for music? In the current Newsweek (Feb. 26 cover date), Lorraine Ali, who certainly knows better, offers this analysis: "While critics are busy deconstructing exactly what it means to have Eminem and Elton perform a duet at this year's Grammys, they are also secretly thanking some higher power for the distraction. It does, after all, keep them from focusing on the scant musical offerings of the past year — a dismal period in terms of new creative genius, or even mildly original schlock...." Now what I believe Ms. Ali means to say is that there have been few good albums in the Top 10 during the past year. If she really believes what saw print in Newsweek, it means that she's just stopped listening. Which we know she hasn't, because just three pages later in the same issue is a short piece by Ali titled "Instrumental Rock for the Drinking and Thinking Crowd" in which she recommends Godspeed You Black Emperor, Japancakes, Tortoise and Drums&Tuba. As I write this, it is the day of the Grammys, and what better time to consider the divide between what those in the record business call "product" and what some of us consider to be art. For a brief period in that decade known as "the '60s," you could find quite a bit of art — songs such as Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" or the Rolling Stone's "19th Nervous Breakdown" — on the radio and on the charts. Certainly by the mid-'70s and the release of albums by Patti Smith and the Ramones, that period had ended. For the past quarter century, much of what sells in large quantities is product, which resembles the art in the most superficial of ways. It is usually released in the same formats (these days mostly as CDs), and it is marketed by the music companies as if it were art, or at least very important. It is tracked using the same methodology as the recordings by real artists: the Billboard Top 200. This has made for much confusion. People, including some music critics, seem to look to the Top 10 and find a creative desert, with only the rare oasis of a U2 or Radiohead album, and then despair, as Ms. Ali does this week. Yet why should art be valued by sales, which is what that chart tracks? Historically, many great and influential albums (the entire Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart catalogues, for example) were never popular. What if Loaded had been released last year? Or Trout Mask Replica? I'd argue — have argued — that many significant albums have been released in the last year, and I'm not alone. Music writers from all over the world voted in the Rock & Rap Confidential Fourth Annual International Music Writers Poll this year. The Top 100 they came up with may have some albums that I don't care for, but for the most part it's an amazing statement in defense of all the art released last year. By the time you read this, the Grammys will be history. Many rock critics will have watched them not because they have nothing new and good to listen to, but because the Grammys are an entertaining spectacle that often celebrates the worst in product marketed as art. We may spend our time listening to Japancakes, but that doesn't mean we don't want to keep an eye on what product the public is buying.

Datastream: It is at least amusing that Steely Dan's Two Against Nature and their song "Cousin Dupree" won Grammys. If one simply examines the lyrics to their most recent work, one finds some not-exactly-ready-for-prime time material. The late William Burroughs is having a good laugh somewhere. What is predictable, however is that the most recent work of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, while interesting, is just not on the same level as their '70s masterpieces, which included Katy Lied and The Royal Scam. One can only hope, however, that now that the Dan are making albums again and know that there is still an audience for their work, they'll dig in and return with something exceptional. ... For U2 to grab a bunch of Grammys in 2001 seems a bit redundant. "Beautiful Day" is a decent enough song, but it appeared that even Bono was a slightly embarrassed that it won "Song of the Year." But then that's business as usual for the Grammys. ... That much hyped Eminem and Elton performance was no big deal, kinda boring really. ... There were a few worthwhile moments: Destiny's Child proved themselves to be a talent worth paying more attention to, at least based on their performance of "Say My Name," but what's going on with Macy Gray? She didn't appear to be all there. Moby was. Assisted by Jill Scott and Blue Man Group, he turned in a fascinating performance of "Natural Blues."

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Michael Goldberg is the president of He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.

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