What's After Modern Rock?

"What's next?" is a question music-bizzers hear all the time. And anyone who claims he knows is lying. Sure, some smart guy could have told you last January that the "Macarena" was going to be big. But given the tune's earlier international success, that answer's a no-brainer. And so's the "Macarena." Those who wonder about the future of popular music, which in the '90s has come to mean modern rock, don't care about the cotton candy. They want to find the meat: the heart, soul, liver, and loin that's going to nurture a new generation of fans and performers -- music that's going to change lives.One thing is for sure. Modern rock has stopped speaking to us. It has made its brilliant contribution and has now begun the painful process of a twitching, undignified public death exemplified by everything from the dearth of CD sales to the industry's desperate marketing of utter shit like the Bloodhound Gang and Prodigy (Sigue Sigue Sputnik reanimated). Of modern rock's superstars, the latest from R.E.M. and Pearl Jam slid quickly off the Top 40. Hole haven't made a follow-up to Live Through This. Nine Inch Nails have become a self-parody; leader Trent Reznor has even made a parody of a parody in championing Marilyn Manson. Right now the best and brightest new entries on the rock charts are U2's single "Discotheque," with its trendy revamped '70s beat and '90s sonic glossolalia, and Tricky's Pre-Millennium Tension, with its pancultural angle and urban-paranoia creepiness. But U2's song is too much of a sonic in-joke to mean anything, and the band are too known an enterprise to rattle real expectations. And Tricky's mix ultimately won't play in the still-provincial US pop sphere, where a single -- and usually singularly American -- face and voice, whether it be Kurt Cobain's or Bob Dylan's, has always emerged to lead. Forget about techno for the same reason.Another thing is certain about rock today. It is poised for a change, an infusion of new blood that's going to reconnect the music and its audience and sell a lot of CDs. This will happen. And it will be artist driven. Time and again in its history, when rock becomes fallow, a strong new voice emerges and turns the market -- and for a little while the world -- around. Chuck Berry is the greatest example. A songwriter and opportunistic businessman, Berry understood that Patti Page and the rest of what came out of the early '50s music-biz mill weren't speaking to the lucrative teen market. As a black man in America, he knew the sting of alienation even better than white youth do, and perhaps his own arrested personality (think of his infamous exploits filming women through holes drilled in bathroom walls) made him uniquely equipped to write tunes addressing adolescent concerns. He knew that when you're worried about getting wheels, partying, and getting laid, you don't give a shit about how much that doggie in the window costs.And so it's been. Rock has changed its course at the behest of artists with a vision and an entrepreneurial streak. After Berry came the Beatles, then Dylan, whose lyricism paved the way for the success of the Eagles and their Southern California-sound compatriots, then the disco empire built atop the funky foundation of Sly & the Family Stone, then the punk response of the Sex Pistols and the Ramones (which was bridled and successfully marketed as new wave), Springsteen's '80s political wave surfing, and the Nirvana revolution. (If you doubt that Cobain had commercial aspirations, remember this: every songwriter wants his work to be heard, and therein lies the germ of industry.) And always following tight on their heels have been businessmen ready to ripen the fruits of their innovative labors -- whether managers like the Beatles' Brian Epstein and Dylan's Albert Grossman, or empire builders like Asylum Records' David Geffen and disco label Casablanca's Neil Bogart. Whether artists, businessmen, or a combination of both, these innovators have all been men of the moment -- of a time when something was missing, was wrong, was needed. Now, we've reached that moment again. And soon someone we don't know yet is going to come along and change our world -- or at least write it a new soundtrack.


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