Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Life After Nirvana

Even if everything has changed, music is as good now as it was a decade ago

By Noel Murray

JUNE 28, 1999:  Ten years ago, as the Nashville Scene was putting its first issue to bed, I was an expatriate Nashvillian attending the University of Georgia and sweating through my flannel at the local nightclubs. In those days, we had a thing called "college rock," and Athens, Ga., was considered a hotspot on the college rock circuit. During my four years there, I saw The Feelies, Camper Van Beethoven, The Pixies, Meat Puppets, Billy Bragg, Robyn Hitchcock, Uncle Tupelo, My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur, Sonic Youth, The Lemonheads, The Replacements, Fishbone, fIREHOSE, and the list goes on. Almost more impressive are the bands I didn't see, like Living Color, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana.

Some would say that by missing Nirvana, I missed the most important thing to happen in popular music over the past 10 years. They'd say the story of '90s rock is the story of Nirvana--the way they re-popularized the loud and fast, and the way Kurt Cobain's suicide seemed to slam the door on a movement before it even really got started. When the magazines start running articles about the past decade in music, Nirvana will likely be on the cover.

But for me, the real story is that list of names in my opening paragraph. Many of those acts are still around--either under their original brand or in some new configuration--but their appearance on the marquee doesn't hold the same potential for excitement that it did when I was a sophomore writing bad checks every week at the record store. That happens, of course. There's a bitter undercurrent, though, to the decline of my former heroes, in that so many of them seemed to have been ground up and spit out during the Nirvana years. As the underground spilled into the mainstream, there were hits and money was made, but many artists alienated fickle scenesters when their records started selling; then they were abandoned by their new corporate pals when their popularity waned.

So what else is new, right? Name a cultural epoch that didn't end in full cash registers and empty souls. Still, if you're looking for something to miss, turn your radio to the "left of the dial," as we used to say, and see how long you can listen to your local college radio station before you scramble back to the right, looking for melodies and backbeats (and maybe a little Pearl Jam). College radio lost its way in the '90s, as student programmers let "credibility" preside over quality. The medium today is mainly a refuge for well-meaning amateurs and unyielding genre fetishists.

That's the bad news of the past decade. I could go on, but to be honest, I heard more good records last year than I did in all of 1989 and 1990 put together, so why quibble? Plus, the grunge scene shoved the arrogant, joyless Brit-poppers off of MTV for awhile, so that's one good thing about the last 10 years.

Here are three more:

SoundScan. This new method of recording album sales, adopted by Billboard in 1991, completely changed the public's perception of America's listening habits. Before, records climbed up the charts slowly until they reached the Top 10 by some kind of mysterious (possibly corrupt) fiat. Afterward, however, hit records shot to the top with no delay, and we suddenly realized just how many people were buying the music of Metallica, Garth Brooks, Ice Cube, and, ultimately, Nirvana. Suddenly, to be "with it," Americans had to broaden their tastes.

The Internet. Speaking of staying "with it," I don't think I'd ever want to go back to the days of reading about an interesting new band and then coming up empty when I searched for their music at the local record store. Technology in general is making it easier to sample and buy new music, and with the recent announcement that some labels are planning to offer made-to-order discs of out-of-print material, we may be heading into an era when anything we want to hear is available at the click of a mouse.

Nashville's local music scene. When I left Athens and returned home in 1992, the nightlife in Nashville was so pathetic that me and my gang often spent our nights hanging around the Opryland Hotel, watching the "dancing waters." Then downtown started booming, the Ryman was restored, Greg Garing and BR5-49 revived live country music, local rockers began to pursue indie expression instead of waiting for major-label record contracts, and Murfreesboro goosed its neighbor with some legitimate competition. Today, the Nashville Scene actually has a "Nashville scene" to cover.

There's definitely been an overall net gain in popular music this past decade. I could close with a list of contemporary bands that is every bit as exciting as my opening litany, or I could talk about how there's a genuine underground again, where music is being made with little regard for future T-shirt sales. Except that I haven't really touched on the biggest pop music trend of the past 10 years--and no, it's not electronica, which is still more a flavor than a full-blown foodstuff. The '90s ultimately aren't about Nirvana, but about The Fugees, Dr. Dre, Master P, and Puff Daddy. Hip-hop has influenced just about everything in the culture, including film, television, fashion, and advertising.

As an art form, though, rap is nowhere near as vital as it was 10 years ago, when Public Enemy, Ice-T, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and N.W.A. made each new release a revelation. Most hip-hop records now (aside from the one-hit wonders) lack the urgency of these pioneers' original releases, and new rap discs are often endurance tests, given the modern propensity for double-CDs packed with disturbing between-song "skits" and slow, druggy, repetitive beats.

A final lament, then: When Public Enemy and De La Soul were at their liveliest, their music was heard less on urban radio than on--you guessed it, college stations. Yet another reason to mourn the foundering, wayward format of college radio; all the technology bearing down can't take the place of the free public airwaves. As the 1990s come to a close, both rock and soul are in need of a galvanizing act to give popular music an edge again, to steal the thunder from the bite-less bubblegum boy-bands storming the charts. But if this pied piper were to suddenly start blowing, where would the kids go to hear his song?


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