The Lines Got Blurred
At the beginning of the decade, you could’ve been forgiven for persisting in the belief that indie rock was for white people, hip-hop was for black people, and dance music was for burnouts in giant pants. Genres, artists, and fans were still sufficiently boxed off from one another that such generalizations actually seemed defensible. Ten years later, one of the year’s most critically acclaimed indie-rock records, the Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca, bites straight-faced from mainstream hip-hop and R & B; enterprising MCs have turned Peter Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks,” with its peppy whistled hook, into a classic mix-tape track; and everyone from the Gossip to Jay-Z is going in over four-on-the-floor beats descended from disco. Where do you file an indie-rock remix of a rap song with an electro beat? Does it even matter?
Though the nightmare scenarios concocted by the music industry during the Napster scare of the late 90s haven’t exactly become reality—people still buy music and records still go platinum, albeit not in the numbers they used to—the millions of users who’ve taken to file sharing in the intervening decade have undeniably dealt a serious blow to record labels large and small. Aggravating the plight of the majors are their institutional inertia, suspicion of digital commerce, and frequently uncool treatment of musicians, all of which have made indie labels and self-released records more attractive to fans and artists alike. The ability of DIY artists and small labels to adapt relatively quickly to new technologies and markets gives them an edge over the dinosaurs as the entire industry languishes in what might be a permanent slump. Not only punks—traditional advocates of a DIY approach—but also top-shelf rappers, AOR folkies, and some of the biggest rock bands on the planet are self-releasing free albums, which makes me feel like I’m living in some fantasy world dreamed up by an old-school hardcore kid toting a copy of MIM Notes.
Weezy’s an unlikely dude to be defining a decade of rap music. The erstwhile Hot Boy was once a talented but unexceptional by-the-book Dirty South MC, but he’s since become a syrup-guzzling psychedelic explorer who tops the charts both because of and despite his unstoppable weirdness. He’s astoundingly prolific—many try to match his rate of output, few succeed—and his habit of giving most of his music away free has helped create new SOP in the rap game. When Jay-Z guested on “Mr. Carter” (from 2008’s Tha Carter III) and adopted Wayne’s tweaked, post-Andre 3000 flow, it was the sound of a torch being passed.
Along with the transistor radio, the Walkman, and the CD, the iPod is one of the most important consumer-side inventions of the pop era. Being able to walk around with tens of thousands of songs has transformed people’s listening habits, and some of their social habits as well. Sure, the ability to effortlessly skip around in these massive collections may be encouraging audio ADD, and cheap earbuds and low-resolution MP3s may be ruining the ability of an entire generation to appreciate or even identify decent-quality recordings. But by allowing people to exist in a state of near constant immersion in music, the iPod has extended like no device before it the interpenetration of musical taste and personality formation—and that can only be good for artists, who increasingly must rely directly on listeners for support. Plus when you can carry around a few thousand albums on a reasonably priced little tablet that fits easily into a pocket and also lets you play games and watch movies, it helps you feel like you’re finally living in the future.
Everything Got Connected
A DJ has to use a program like Serato Scratch Live, which costs several hundred dollars, to lend digital files a tactile dimension even remotely comparable to the feel of a spinning piece of vinyl, and the digital perks attached to an iTunes Album pale next to the pleasures of a well-designed gatefold LP. So yes, there are certainly advantages to music that’s manufactured in a physical form. But they’re nothing next to the advantages of music that isn’t. Your sister’s high school emo band can accumulate a few hundred thousand fans without the assistance of a label or a manager, and even casual listeners now have easy access to tons of localized tweaks on hip-hop and dance music from places like Angola and Brazil—stuff that even dedicated heads would’ve had a hard time digging up just a few years ago. Not many Western labels are willing to underwrite something like a compilation of nasty booty-lectro from the slums of Rio, but that’s fine; we no longer need them to.
The Gangsta-Rap Era Ended
Commercial hip-hop rode into the 00s atop a bubble of economic excess, driven by blinged-out thugs big on gun talk and coke-slinging stories. Though trap rap isn’t in any immediate danger of dying out—what else are Clipse and Jeezy going to write about?—the pop market’s appetite for paper-thin gangsta personalities has been waning since mid-decade, and during those same years mainstream hip-hop has been on an experimental tear that makes the Neptunes’ giddy, game-changing early work seem tame. The guys steering rap these days are a former child actor (Drake), a guy who spends his down time making emo-flavored rock (Lil Wayne), and a fashion geek who listens to Can (Kanye).
Of all the embarrassingly named subgenres born over the past ten years—chillwave, hipster-hop, UK funky, shitgaze—my favorite is dubstep. A British-born descendant of drum ‘n’ bass via two-step garage, which itself arose from a hybridization of drum ‘n’ bass and R & B, dubstep shares its forebears’ addiction to deep bass, chilly minimalism, and complicated, syncopated beats, but its rhythms are slow and wobbly instead of rigid and manic. The style produced one of the best albums of the decade—Untrue, by enigmatic British producer Burial—and if just the right conditions arise and a breakout song crashes the charts, it could define the shape of pop and hip-hop well into the twenty-teens.
This androgynous English waif makes rough-hewn songs that split the difference between twee, clattering pop and deep, heavy dance music, apparently by following a radical DIY philosophy that says if you’re capable of picking up an instrument then you’re capable of playing it. If I had my way she’d be as big as Britney.
Mainstream Country Artists Became Critical Darlings
In the 90s plenty of good music criticism traded in Lester Bangs-style snark and outrage, resting on the presumption that the mainstream was basically trying to feed people bullshit. Eventually the implied dichotomy at the heart of that style—popular is bad, obscure is good—was rendered irrelevant by the sheer number of respectable acts that left the underground for positions on the charts. With a push from a galvanizing 2004 essay by Kelefa Sanneh, “rockist” became a slur in certain circles, used to refer to reactionaries who could not or would not see value in contemporary pop—you know, the stuff millions upon millions of people listen to devoutly. The fact that so many critics are now willing to take pop seriously has resulted in some embarrassments (like straight-faced reevaluations of Creed’s career), but it’s also meant that mainstream country artists like Brad Paisley and Taylor Swift have actually gotten some respect. Both make deftly executed pop and move platinum numbers, but their audience overlaps only barely with the tastemaking class, which tends to be bohemian and urban. Critics’ attempts to bridge that demographic gap are a welcome example of populism actually doing good.