The Year in Music

The J. Lo-Down
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 17 2002 5:12 PM

The Year in Music

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Gerry,

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Glad you got Eminem out of the way first thing. Here's my problem with 2002 being Eminem's year: It feels damn repetitive. Haven't we been living in his world since 1999, when he won two Grammys, along with many horrified responses from boomer pundits, for The Slim Shady LP? Then, in 2000, there was The Marshall Mathers LP, which sold 8 million copies in the United States alone. Eminem's "breakthrough" definitely increased his profit share for Vivendi Universal, but the inevitable Elvis comparison takes me back to Jailhouse Rock, not Sun Records 1956, or even Ed Sullivan. 8 Mile was as well-crafted and socially relevant as the King's cinematic trip to the pen, though I'm with the many who said 8 Mile is just a remake of Purple Rain (minus the enlivening tricksterism of Morris Day).

I totally agree that Em's rhymes in the movie are whack—was that deliberate, a way of enriching his character acting? Anyway, my favorite moment is the end, when he walks away from Mekhi Pfifer, mumbling about how he's got to do his own thang, i.e., leave this black-dominated environment to become the superstar his homeys never will be. Now, THAT'S Republican—positively Lott-ish. It's scary that the sole mainstream white rapper in a field of black talent (Kid Rock's basically gone over to the metal side) sold double what his closest rival, Nelly, clocked in with Nellyville.  Still, I give Em credit for staying true to his interracial crew, and for continuing to live in Detroit, though comfily on the other side of 8 Mile.

As for Em's sexism, it is slightly unnerving that his new boomer fans have decided to forgive it, but I think 8 Mile reveals why. His brand of misogyny is also deeply conservative. Any sexualized woman—Mom or mate—will betray him, while the only beacon of purity remains the virgin child, his sister-daughter, who supports his rebellion and saves his soul. Em is really skilled at sprucing up this ancient family plot, which runs through horror movies, gothic novels, medieval tales, all the way back to the Bible and Greek myth. Maybe that's why his imagination resonates—it doesn't describe the modern world so much as it reaches into archetypal territory.

That said, Eminem in 8 Mile reminds me of no one as much as J. Lo, who's also aiming for world domination through multivalent stardom. The biggest story in music this year wasn't one of artistic achievement, but of an industry's desperate scrambling to adjust to its own obsolescence. CD sales were down 13 percent, and I don't think it's because of file-sharing. Attention deficit disorder has audiences craving more than a mere musician can give, and the way we've been taught to consume—in big box stores where we can get our groceries and power tools and non-prescription drugs and J. Lo albums all in one stop—requires stars to diversify. Thus Eminem's in the movies, Puffy's a fashion designer, Shania's niche-marketing her creative process, J. Lo's making a side career out of showing off her affair with Ben. Entertainment eats us alive. My favorite comment of the year came in an interview I did with Tom Morello of Rage/Audioslave for the Nation. He said, "People should be erecting barricades in the streets for what's going on. Forty million Americans under the poverty line. Fifty million without health care. And people are just psyched about Christina Aguilera's short shorts."

Meanwhile, the "return to rock" represents that old craving for authenticity critics and college kids begin to feel when they've been force-fed too much corporate sugar. The Strokes etc., are popular in Seattle (Sub Pop has even found its own  "return to rock" band, Victoria, B.C.'s Hot Hot Heat), but hardly as beloved as Queens of the Stone Age or Mudhoney, who still hold strong after all these years. But the skinny-tie revival feels very East Coast to me, despite or maybe because of its euro-fashion connection—though I do want to use this moment to admit that I underestimated the White Stripes. The duo's gender dynamic still bugs me—Jack gets to flail around and be the genius while Meg supports him on the drums with corseted beats—but he's got something in his voice that takes him beyond the revivalism those other bands rarely exceed.

Being in Seattle reminds me that, on one important level, rock is regional. Maybe what Jack's got in his voice is Detroit. We actually have talked about doing something on Timbaland in the museum, and I love the Virginia Beach idea. Yes, I think producers matter as much as (not exactly more, but in partnership with) singer-songwriters these days, and the N.E.R.D. record, In Search Of, was the first this year to get stuck in my Mazda's CD player for a good while. But what also interests me here are the flavors of a very divided nation coming through in artists' work. Locality matters again, after our long visit to Disney World with the teen groups. Even J. Lo, that Hollywood creation, wants to be just Jenny from the block.

OK, here's what I thought we were going to talk about right off the bat: Beck. Bruce Springsteen. Political music or the lack of it. Shania! Avril Lavigne and the return of tomboy rock. Wilco—I'd like to hear more of what you think of that record, beyond the contributions of Mr. O'Rourke. And, hey, what records meant something to you this year? I hate lists, but I like opinions.

Ann Powers is a critic at NPR Music. She is the former Los Angeles Times' chief pop critic and the author of Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America.

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