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By Matt Ashare

DECEMBER 20, 1999:  In 1913, a concerned Claude Debussy ruefully considered the implications of technological developments that had brought about a world in which "one can hear famous pieces of music as easily as one can buy a glass of beer." And he wondered, "Should we not fear this domestication of sound?" Well, it's safe to say that he didn't know the half of it. After all, the music "industry" had barely gotten off the ground at that point, and it would have been impossible for anyone standing that far back in time to imagine the degree to which recorded sound would be commodified and "domesticated" over the next decades, or the enormous influence pop music would come to have, for better or worse, by the end of the 20th century (not to mention the close marketing bond that would develop between beer and music).

Of course, the 20th century hasn't quite ended. At the stroke of midnight this December 31, we will still have 365 more days to get through before the 21st century officially begins. But not even history is immune to domestication. So most of us will join in welcoming the dawn of a new decade/century/millennium in just a couple of weeks because, well, let's face it, the 1999-to-2000 changeover looks a hell of a lot more dramatic and is therefore a more marketable proposition than 2000-to-2001. Which says a lot about the degree to which appearances have come to dominate reality in our culture.

I found Debussy's words in, of all places, the text of the 300-page book that comes with the absurdly comprehensive new 26-CD box set Soundtrack for a Century: Sony Music 100 Years. You'd think that Sony would want to play down the notion that recording technology -- the company's bread and butter -- has in any way cheapened, commodified, or domesticated music. Instead, Debussy's thoughts are proudly displayed among pages and pages of text devoted to celebrating 100 years of moving music-as-product while occasionally helping to facilitate the creation and/or distribution of music that's actually moving, like Bessie Smith's "St. Louis Blues" (1925), or Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" (1962), or Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man" (1968), or Iggy and the Stooges' "Raw Power" (1972), or "Fu-Gee-La" (1995) by the Fugees. It's as if they were rubbing Debussy's nose in it, really. And why not: recorded music is so solidly entrenched as a commodity in our culture that's it's hard to imagine things being all that different 100 years from now.

The release of the Sony set is, no surprise, timed to coincide with the end of the century/millennium. If Sony had really been interested in marking its first 100 years of making music available in recorded form, then the set would have come out 10 years ago, on the anniversary of the release on wax cylinder of "The Washington Post March" performed by the United States Marine Band conducted by John Phillip Sousa (the composition's author), and commissioned by what was then known as the Columbia Phonograph Company. It's the first cut on the first two-CD subset of Soundtrack for a Century, "Pop Music: The Early Years, 1890-1950" -- which, like the rest of the collection's two-disc subsets (devoted to everything from country and jazz to classical and "Movie Music"), can also be purchased as a discrete two-CD set. And it marked the actual beginning of Columbia/Sony's first 100 years.

Sony isn't the only company to have taken advantage of premature end of the century. There's also the more modest five-CD Rhino set Respect: A Century of Women in Music, which features, as its earliest cut, Ada Jones performing "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" and goes on to include everything from Mae West doing "I Like a Guy What Takes His Time" (1933) and Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" (1939) to X-Ray Spex's "Identity" and PJ Harvey's "Legs." It's easier to find a narrative thread in Respect than it is in Soundtrack for a Century, if only because gender is there to provide one. But Respect is no less a fabricated reaction to the perceived end of the century.

When it comes to pseudo-events, though, nobody does it better than the folks at MTV. And though the Sony set offers more in the way of rare treats like the Sousa recording, and Respect seems to have more cultural relevance in terms of the chunk of pop history it examines, the four MTV: The First 1000 Years CDs -- "Rock," "New Wave," "R&B," and "Hip-Hop" -- that Rhino now has on the market really do capture the moment more poetically. Each CD appears to have been thrown together at the last minute: "Hip-Hop" is organized chronologically whereas "R&B" is not, and "Rock" goes in reverse chronological order, from Beck's "Devil's Haircut" back to the Pretenders' "Brass in Pocket." But each CD is a reminder that music, no matter how crassly commodified, still has the power to mark important occasions, even when it's presented in a form that's not all that different from a beer commercial.


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