Rattle and Bum

Why doesn't this always work? Why have the record sales and tour grosses of just about every superstar and supergroup of the past decade -- U2, Springsteen, R.E.M., Sting, Prince, Public Enemy, Madonna -- fallen so precipitously? The music industry panic of 1997 is supposed to be about the failure to develop new stars; but the real music industry crisis has existed for most of this decade, and it's about the failure of the system to sustain the stars it's already created. The media corporations made huge investments in each of the artists named above, and yet none of the suits seems to have a clue how to exploit them effectively.

That's because the system of corporate commodification doesn't function as smoothly as the theorists claim. Even celebrities like Schwarzenegger and Seinfeld have half-lives. Media corporations don't enjoy having to stumble around in the dark searching for the next set of superstars as the ratings and profits of the current bunch dwindle. They would prefer to establish a handful of brand names and tinker periodically with packaging (ideally, bigger and better packaging -- like the PopMart tour).

But that doesn't work. Nothing seems to work. And failure stems not only from the charges against Jackson of pedophilia, or Springsteen becoming a folkie, or U2 miscalculating how much marketing the average fans are willing to have rubbed in their faces, or Madonna deciding to make a film about a fascist concubine with music by the world's worst composer. R.E.M.'s first flop, Monster, was in many respects the most musically daring record the band has ever made.

To say that this descent of stars reflects a mere generational shift doesn't explain much. The fact is that even with sophisticated marketing and surveying, corporations still cannot readily identify preferences in music, let alone control them. Electronica has so far produced few chart busters. And the music that the industry most loathes and fears -- rap -- remains its commercial powerhouse. (U2 got headlines for selling about 350,000 copies of Pop its first week in the racks. The Wu Tang Clan's Wu Tang Forever sold almost twice that many its first week.)

A more likely explanation is that today's rock, with its roots in and continuing links to society's most dispossessed, somehow effectively promotes resistance and critical thinking -- even if at a pretty shallow level.

Rather than lapsing into cynicism, newer rock performers already show signs of recognizing these links. Rage Against the Machine, chosen as U2's opening act on the first dates of the tour because it's probably the biggest new concert act in rock, used the stadium shows to talk about, among other things, the injustice of journalist and convicted police killer Mumia Abdul Jamal being on death row. And R.A.T.M. made this work because it doesn't talk about such issues coldly but with real rage. The band projects a sense of conviction that speaking out will make a difference -- a sense of conviction you can't buy at Kmart.

Of course, by agreeing to appear with U2, and by recording for Sony, R.A.T.M. also chose to become part of the spectacle. It's too soon to say whether such involvement will tranquilize the band, but it's worth worrying that it might.

Other artists -- Ani DiFranco comes to mind -- have begun to reject spectacle altogether. And she has done so in ways far more crucial than the noisy pronouncements sometimes made by lingering Sixties vets like Neil Young, a major California landowner last seen pissing and moaning about the price of tickets to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinner (which pretty much sums up the tenor of his social involvement since "Ohio").

The popular anarchist DiFranco has refused to accept a major-label record deal. She has also shoved hip-hop beats into the face of her folkie audience. That has a lot to do with her insistence on personal freedom, of course, but in a way it also reflects a different concept of how to liberate listeners.

Despite its corporate affiliations, Rage Against the Machine pulls off a similar aesthetic coup by tying agit-prop, like its supportive comments about Mumia and American Indian Movement icon Leonard Peltier, to the kind of dense metallic noise that lefties have generally frowned upon. Is this effective? Well, it certainly hasn't damaged either R.A.T.M. or its subjects. And it has been effective in raising the profile of Mumia and Peltier (and Noam Chomsky and the radical groups cited in R.A.T.M.'s album notes) among rock fans.

Watching pop-culture bombast on the scale of U2 collapse beneath its own pretension and arrogance is indeed rewarding. But vengeance doesn't get you very far, in politics or culture. Young performers like DiFranco and R.A.T.M. create their own forms of resistance. They have found listeners who respond and they have inspired others to emulate them, which suggests that the celebrity system obscuring so much of contemporary reality can be undermined.

Corporate rock has already proven that it cannot learn. The few stars who seem to have learned something in the process of being commodified -- Springsteen, R.E.M. -- have been utterly unable to marshal the corporate forces and regain their mass audience. Given the way the game is rigged, it's impossible to imagine a music business free of corporate control -- to believe otherwise is to whistle "Won't Get Fooled Again" past the graveyard.

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