Pop Music's Shifting Undercurrent Changes in '92 more evolutionary than revolutionary


By most normal criteria, not much happened in pop music in 1992.

That's not to say there wasn't news, of course, because there was. Plenty of it. There was the "Cop Killer" controversy, and the "Sex" book scandal. There was a riot in Montreal preceded by a concert by Guns N' Roses, and a riot in Los Angeles predicted by Ice Cube and Ice-T. There was Sister Souljah. There was Sinead O'Connor.

But musically? Forget it. Garth Brooks sold millions more albums, and Boyz II Men broke the Beatles' record for most consecutive weeks at No. 1, but those achievements had less to do with art than commerce. And even those recordings that did seem to break ground artistically -- Arrested Development's debut album, for instance -- came across as pleasant surprises, not major developments.

Why? Because no matter how many times Billy Ray Cyrus did the "Achy-Breaky" dance to the top of the charts, country dancing did not become the new disco. No matter how much press Kris Kross got for their bass-ackwards bluejeans, they did not make Kross-dressing a national craze. And no matter how many writers described the Lollapalooza Tour as a "Woodstock for the '90s," it's doubtful anyone will look back upon the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow as one of the defining events of the decade.

Does that really mean nothing happened, though?

We have a tendency to see pop music cycles in terms of specific artists, whose work is seen as the fulcrum on which the whole of the rock and roll world is shifted. That's why the music press is forever looking for a new Elvis, a new Beatles, a new Dylan -- the one act that can become the standard-bearer for change.

But that model is bogus, outdated, irrelevant. So most of the major changes in pop music over the last year have gone largely unnoticed by the media at large.

This isn't like the old days, when we didn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing. Instead, the changes taking place in today's pop music culture are subtly subversive, altering the structure beneath the surface instead of shaking things up at the top.

Take, as an example, the way the tour business played out in '92. It wasn't just the way slow business the previous summer kept a lot of rock acts off the road; there was also the fact that touring didn't quite work the way it used to.

After all, one of the music business' most basic beliefs is that touring stimulates album sales -- get a group to tour a lot, and you'll move a lot of product. But Nirvana stayed home and sold millions, while Bruce Springsteen worked the road for months and still couldn't turn his two albums into the blockbusters the industry expected. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that Billy Ray Cyrus would have sold even more albums if people hadn't caught his act on tour.

Likewise, rap was all but invisible on the concert circuit (apart from Hammer's monumentally disastrous stage show), but still clocked crazy dollars in the record stores. For many young listeners, rap is seen not as a specialty interest but a stylistic staple; just look at MTV or Video Jukebox, where hot hip-hop tracks are greeted with the same enthusiasm as the latest from Nirvana or Metallica.

Politicians and police groups certainly recognized rap's potency. Why else would then-candidate Bill Clinton have gone after Sister Souljah, a rapper who even hip-hop fans hadn't heard of until he made her comments a campaign issue? And if rap isn't seen by at least part of the establishment as a threat to the existing order, why would local Fraternal Order of Police members stage a "Cop Killer" protest outside an Ice-T concert in College Park -- despite the fact that the song is not a part of his rap show -- and then ignore Body Count concerts in Baltimore and D.C. where he did sing the song?

As rap grew, so did the rock-rap crossover pioneered by the Beastie Boys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Not only did both of those bands enjoy enormous success in '92, but a buzz began to grow around similar-sounding acts like Rage Against the Machine and 311. And even seemingly mainstream rockers like Pearl Jam confessed that they got more ideas from listening to hip-hop albums than from the blues and rock material their forebears were weaned on.

Then there was the techno boom, which sparked a genuine revolution in the clubs while barely making a ripple on the charts. Never mind that radio has virtually ignored it, and that only a few techno singles -- L.A. Style's "James Brown Is Dead," Utah Saints' "Something Good," Smart E's "Sesame's Treet" -- have seen anything in the way of commercial success. Techno galvanized the club crowd in a way house never could.

As for the alleged country music boom, it seemed to have more to do with Stetson hats and twangy voices than any sense of musical heritage. Most of what sold big did so on the strength of its resemblance to rock and roll, be it Garth Brooks covering songs by Billy Joel and Little Feat, Billy Ray Cyrus introducing the "Achy Breaky" dance through a slick, MTV-style video, or Travis Tritt writing with Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington.

But none of it really threatened to unseat rock and roll from its place atop the pop music pantheon. That's why those writers who declared rock "dead" at the end of '91 wound up looking foolish by the middle of '92. Big name rock acts were still selling singles, still playing to packed houses, still crowding the upper reaches of the albums chart. Eric Clapton, in fact, had his best year in a decade, with two hit albums, several top-10 singles and even a smash video to his credit.

Rock, though, is no longer the defining force it once was. Bill Clinton may have impressed aging anchormen with his use of Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop," but to anyone younger than 30, it was just another oldie.

And what does all this augur for 1993? More change, obviously, but it's hard to say how long before the disaffection bubbling up from the rap, dance and alternative rock communities begins to boil over into the mainstream. What we're seeing now, after all, is just the beginnings of a musical revolution; how it plays out and who ends up on top is anybody's guess.

But it should make for quite an interesting year.

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