With reference to music, most of what was purported to have happened in 1998 did not, in fact, happen this year at all. Take the lamentable and oft-mentioned swing revival. That happened in 1993. '93 being the year that Brian Setzer--who at this point should be declared the ne plus ultra of retro-fetish prognosticators--first toured the Brian Setzer Orchestra, thereby lending an official seal to what had previously been regionalized cuteness. Perhaps a case could also be made for 1996, what with Swingers and the Squirrel Nut Zippers' "Hot" taking Setzer's cue and running--make that sprinting--with it. All that really took place in 1998 was the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, whose name alone disqualifies them from consideration of having truly happened, and those Gap commercials. The latter, of course, spells death for any self-respecting happening; by the time the advertisements began beating swing over its khakied head and taking it to the outer reaches of cultural marginalia, the original revivalists had long since scampered to cozier confines, like salsa or taibo.
Take Master P and No Limit Records. A savvy marketer builds a grassroots empire by taking gangsta rap to the people via his own start-up label. That happened in 1991. Suge Knight and Death Row. Master P tried to fool everyone for a while by adorning his records with the worst album art in the history of the medium, but earlier this year he finally provided evidence of not really happening when he released a new album from Death Row expat Snoop Doggy Dogg, the artistic stagnancy of which everyone promptly ignored. If last year's Puff Daddy non-happening is any indication, expect very little from No Limit in the next twelve.
Take the blandness of modern-rock radio. That happened whenever Candlebox first received airplay. Or was it Collective Soul? Anyway. All that occurred in '98 was that the names got even more confusing--Blink 182? Eve 6? Eagle-Eye Cherry?--and the songs even less interesting. You know there's a problem when the most memorable song on the radio at any given point is Semisonic's "Closing Time," or when it takes a Nike ad to convince people, a year later, that "Bittersweet Symphony" is kinda cool. Interesting records from the Beastie Boys and Beck hardly made up for the heavy rotation of Marcy Playground and the Goo Goo Dolls; no extant piece of music could possibly make up for the Barenaked Ladies' "One Week." In brief, the very definition of non-happening.
Take Marilyn Manson. Better yet, don't.
Garth Brooks? It's a live album, for God's sake.
Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach? What, now we need two sandmen?
And so on. All of which invites the inevitable question, the logical corollary, the point of all this: What did happen? Where, in the midst of this vast, tiresome roster of non-events and misplaced dates, are the things that mattered, or at least didn't not matter, or at the very least distinguished themselves in terms of relative happeningness?
By all accounts, four things happened in music this year.
1. Jewel revealed herself to be a best-selling poetess. Make of this what you will.
2. A bulk of critics found new and interesting ways to make no sense. The large selection of supporting evidence for this can be pared down to two primary examples. First: new albums by Smashing Pumpkins, Jewel, Alanis Morissette, Hootie and the Blowfish, Sheryl Crow, Mariah Carey, and a few other prominent hitmakers. With very few exceptions, these albums were approached and judged not by their artistic merits, but their sales--or, more often, lack thereof. Smashing Pumpkins' Adore was not deemed a failure because of its overweening ambition or forced songcraft, but because it failed to go platinum. Morissette hasn't yet gone platinum after six weeks, while Garth Brooks's Double Live has sold 12 million copies in four; she must be the failure that everyone says she is. Given that most critics' favorites move approximately five copies each (not including the free review copies), and given that criticism so proudly claims to be based on artistic merit alone, this newfound attention to sales would appear to be, how you say, bad.
And second: the new R.E.M. album, Up. Much was made of the band's decision to continue recording after the departure of drummer Bill Berry; the remaining trio was often taken to task in the media for rescinding its mid-'80s declaration that the band would break up if any of its original members left. Apparently the ironies of a critic chastising other people for changing their minds were lost on these people.
3. Jesse Camp!
4. A small but admirable group of artists rose above the clamor of inactivity and, through sheer will and/or good music, made something happen. Of course, by the strictest of definitions, this "happens" every year, in a general sense. But, since none of these specific happenings happened previous to their first 1998 happening, since they by happenstance happened when they did, we'll let all of that slide for now.
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