So, does Eminem get to do the Super Bowl halftime show? I mean, what’s left besides a White House drop-by? Which might not be all that far-fetched, given the warmth of the mainstream’s embrace of Mr. Mathers. There are precedents: Gun-toting Elvis’ visit with Nixon, Michael Jackson’s photo op with Reagan. And the Eminem story—or the movie version that unfolded in 8 Mile—is an echt Republican story, one about pulling yourself up and overcoming your circumstances while your pathetic single mom waits around for a handout. Anyway, Eminem is the pop-music story of 2002, isn’t he? Who since Nirvana has had a year like this? I guess that’s the place to start. Me, I’d like to thank him for helping to re-establish music as a really popular art form (9 million units sold domestically this year and counting), and for dropping two of the year’s knockout singles—”Cleanin Out My Closet” and “Lose Yourself.” The Eminem Show and 8 Mile’s soundtrack mostly bored me, though: tired beats and lazy, crazy rants about his status as a hunted cultural terrorist (way exaggerated), along with his bathos and his still not all-that-worked-through misogyny. I wonder how many of the boomers who’ll remember 2002 as the year they made their peace with Em have listened closely to “Drips”? I used to listen to him for his unschooled poetic skill and his remarkable descriptions of just-this-side-of-welfare life in America during the Boom, but that’s not where he’s coming from anymore.
The other big pop-music story of 2002 is the rise of neo-garage rock, or whatever: the four bands with simple plural-noun names and not-so-simple but carefully spare guitar-driven songs. How does this music sound in Seattle, the city that gave us the last rock breakthrough? And what does a great student of alt-rock like yourself make of it? I have to agree with Chris Morris’ suggestion in Billboard this week—the Strokes and Hives and Vines and White Stripes are at this point more a media-driven story than a commercial phenomenon. (Although taken together, they have sold a couple of million records, which is not too shabby.) That said, I saw no more exhilarating show this year than the White Stripes and Strokes at Radio City, and I am rooting for them—actually I am rooting for Jack White to get beyond his conceptual art phase and get himself a real band. These bands are not simply a throwback to the ‘80s—that distinction is reserved for techno-pop, the epiphenomenon of 2002, at least here in New York. Did you ever imagine we’d live to see a Human League revival? Someone’s going to have to get Susan Sontag to write notes on meta-camp or something.
Finally, in this broad-brush rendering of the year in pop music—I figure it’s better to work toward, rather than begin with, our Top 10 album lists—I’d like to crawl out on a limb and offer what I think is the big pop-music story of the year, as it will look 10 years from now: This is the year that saw the triumph of a new generation of producers. Beck released his best album, and a lot of the credit for it goes, or should go, to its producer, Nigel Godrich, Radiohead’s very own George-Martin-style ” fifth member” and a brilliant creator of vast aural spaces and rich sonic textures. I didn’t much like Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising—the lyrics were mostly empty clichés, whatever the Boss’ good intentions—but I did like the new, thick guitar sound of the E Street Band, woven by producer Brendan O’Brien. And how about Jim O’Rourke’s work at the mixing board with Wilco, on their very fine Yankee Hotel Foxtrot?
Then there’s the Virginia Beach contingent: the production team of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, aka the Neptunes, are the bomb, in their own stuff, with N.E.R.D., and in their producing of singles for—God, who can keep count? They did some of their best work on Justin Timberlake’s solo debut, Justified; track for track, beat for beat, it’s a better album than either of Eminem’s. Timbaland produced a few songs for Timberlake too, and I suspect that in 10 years’ time people will be talking about Timbaland as a pop genius. He is experimenting at the top of the Billboard charts in a way no one has since Brian Wilson in the ‘60s. I mean, listen to Missy Elliott’s Work It, which was produced by Timbaland and is the most adventurous hit single since her (and his) last one. If pop music’s history is that of sound, not song, as I believe it is, Timbaland is the one pushing things forward.
Hey, but you’re the one immersed in history and sound every day at that remarkable museum of yours, the Experience Music Project. Can you imagine a show 10 years from now, “Virginia Beach: Turn-of-the-Century Music Capital”?