I wonder if Exile in Guyville fans would have gotten the point of Liz Phair's "conformist mainstream move" if she'd riffed off another Stones record and called it Some Boys? "Why Can't I?" compares to "Complicated" the way "Miss You" does to "Stayin' Alive"—not quite as good, but sinking its hooks in a chewier cultural context and serving as a gateway to an album vibrant enough to make any stick-in-the-muds who decry the new "artificial" sound seem like a bunch of hippies.
But even folks who choose not to enjoy Liz Phair (there's still no accounting for taste, no matter how desperately the bookkeepers at Universal try to prove otherwise) must realize how few options remain for a female musician with a hankering for "cultural relevance." Unlike those celebrated skinny boys with skinnier ties, indie-gal singer-songwriters generally find that when they "go for what they know" they're more likely to wind up in cutout bins than on magazine covers. Ask Amy Rigby, who wrote more great songs for her fourth solid record in a row than Ryan Adams ever has.
Not a good year to be a woman in the public sphere in general, huh? From Britney to Natalie, famous females faced a misogynist lashing that was consistently coded as something else. I don't hate women, the line goes, just the ones that are stupid or unpatriotic or rich or sexy. I'd be more comfortable with the fact that most of my favorite hip-hop singles consist of powerful men yelling instructions at women if one of the ladies could just occasionally holler back some demands of her own. The saddest album art of the year is the CD insert for the new Kelis record, where the onetime avatar of R & B quirk is stripped down to a lame sash and PhotoShopped to look like an alien goddess from a Frank Frazetta painting.
Then again, much as I like the Strokes and the White Stripes, I'm not sure what cultural significance they have either, aside from offering an opportunity to participate in a vaguely defined pop moment for people too cool to admit that's what they crave. They certainly aren't filling the vacuum in rock that the implosion of nu-metal has left. In fact, Rob, the sad boys you're crushing out on may eventually inch more deeply into the public consciousness. Death Cab for Cutie made it on The OC, after all, and they could slip perfectly between Coldplay and Mandy Moore on some open-minded young thing's iPod. But there will always be a need for metal, so I guess the Darkness, who just signed a big deal, are our best, silliest hope—if they aren't tempted to write the dreadful mega-selling ballad I fear they have lurking in them. Or maybe some evil corporate scientist will devise some terrifying hybrid of nu-metal and emo.
None of which changes the fact that Justin is more fun to dance to than most rock-is-back bands, and he's more fun to be sad to than most indie sulkers. Only Mystikal and Jay-Z are as consistently able to force the Neptunes to earn their rep in the studio. Plus it's nice to see a white boy on TRL who doesn't want to disembowel his mom.
Gentlemen, good night. Ladies, good morning.