The Music Club

Will the Real Justin Timberlake Please Stand Up?

Hi, Jody, Jon, and Ann:

Greetings from the godless North.

There’s no such thing as a bad year for music. Not even a bad week. There is always some young asshole-genius somewhere wrenching newness out of the same old notes. But if forced to plot the passing year on a tentative pop-historical bell curve, I’d come out on the flip side of Jody’s cautious optimism: 2006 was a half-bad year for pop music.

Mainly it was a year of etceteras: More solid one-off singles from rappers, R&B, and pop singers, using producers often named Timbaland. There were standout exceptions, such as the Clipse, Ghostface, and Lupe Fiasco, but none of them, as usual, is spawning any movements. I hold out my habitual foolhardy hope for the Nas album. And I share everyone’s awe at Lil Wayne, but his ultra-casual virtuosity seems like an isolated case, unless I’m just too white and nerdy to make more of him. (By the way, does anybody have a theory about what it means when Weird Al has a banner year?)

Out of Nashville, aka the only robust part of the music business for grown-ups without AARP cards, there were fine narrative and love ballads on a bygone model of songcraft. Currently it’s a polished variation on 1970s, Outlaw-era country-rock—complete, as a friend recently pointed out, with a spate of lover-man tunes in a leering Conway Twitty mode from the likes of Josh Turner.

But behind the singles, with rare exceptions, have been full-length letdowns. The creeping death of the album that Jody mentioned is being countered by many artists who, whether from nostalgia or marketing, are trying to make their sets more integrated wholes. But that didn’t help many former hit makers this year, such as Jay-Z, the Dixie Chicks, Outkast, and Christina Aguilera. Of that echelon, Beyoncé is the only one still looking, er, irreplaceable.

Well, except for the maturing Mouseketeers. Despite the Magic Mountain-style plunge in quality between Xtina’s lead single and her unlistenable album, it can be excused as an awkward stage between teen and adult careers. Likewise for Justin Timberlake’s not-quite-convincing persona as savior of sex. Timba’s tracks, of course, sound fantastic, and I like Justin’s Prince even better than Justin’s Michael Jackson (even more than the real Prince’s own 3121, though I liked that, too). But I’m still waiting eagerly to hear Justin’s Justin.

It’s tempting to call 2006 the start of pop’s lame-duck term, when the winners of the first half of the decade just pork-barrel the days away until new voices displace them.

But instead of dubious political parallels, I’d like to chase Jody’s demographic discussion further: Back when Disney, pop-rap, and nu-metal ruled, I argued that it was a phase generated by the big population bulge generated by the kids of the boomers, who then were mostly tweens. I compared it to early-’60s bubble gum: Pleasurable as it was, it was thin fare. But in a few years, they’d be older adolescents, with more sophisticated appetites. And pop music would change with them.

Timberlake’s and Aguilera’s growing pains punch one square on my get-one-free card at the prophecy counter. But so do the Killers, the Arctic Monkeys overseas, and especially My Chemical Romance, who have taken the place holder angst of emo-rock and deepened it with the richer, more complex fucked-up-edness of late adolescence. While I find MCR’s contradictions fascinating, too, they’re being overrated because they herald a new breed. I’m more curious about what comes next—in, to be politically tendentious, 2008.

To stand up for the maligned indie world, the gestures coming out of MCR or Panic! at the Disco, from the grand thematics and cathedral-choir-sized sounds to instant-message verbosity, were done there first and smarter (though, of course, in a more insular way). Which may bode well, because now you see the indie scene itself opening up to a more cosmopolitan set of tastes, eating up Baltimore club sounds with Spank Rock, Brazilian art-party music with Cansei de Ser Sexy, or Scandinavian electronic experimentalism with the Knife. So, I look forward to the coming mainstream emo-reggaeton-fusion wave.

What’s more, the echo-boom kids themselves, when they’re not busy creating do-it-yourself culture on YouTube (one of the brightest spots in 2006), are starting bands with a pop-history savvy that can only be attributed to the instant-music-collection effect of the Internet. In my own area, around Toronto, there are tons of new bands with members still in high school—and according to the Times, the teen-band boom is also happening in New York and elsewhere.

So, as down on 2006 as I may be, I’m bullish on the future. And I haven’t even gotten to the great heavy-metal resurgence this year, or my own favorite records, which mainly seem to involve harps, violins, garbled Postmodern poetry, and/or electronic sampling of found objects. Don’t blame me: I plead Canadian.