America invented rock and roll, but ain't it typical that the most perceptive words about rock-and-roll taste come from a Brit named Simon -- in this case Simon Frith, brother of uncategorizable guitarist Fred. In Facing the Music (Pantheon, 1988), Frith wrote, "Rock 'n' roll was from the start . . . constituted not simply as music but also as knowledge. To be a rock fan is not just to like something but also to know something, to share a secret with one's fellow fans, to take for granted the ignorance of nonfans . . . In a world in which everyone is an expert -- everyone knows what makes their music significant, other people's music vacuous -- self-proclaimed expertise is despised. Rock critics despise rock academics, rock musicians despise rock critics, rock fans despise each other."
That's what's so beautiful about the results of the eighth annual Phoenix/WFNX Best Music Poll: everyone knows Alanis sucks, and everyone also knows she's the Artist of the Year, knocking the Grammys for a loop as well as taking Best New Artist, Female Vocalist, and Song. In the year 2 AK (After Kurt), the little tribe of millions has splintered again. It started with the arguments about "What is punk?" that tarnished the credibility of Rancid, Green Day, and the Offspring, and now it's getting harder and harder to tell what Kurt called "false music" (including, before he changed his mind, Pearl Jam) from the real. Rock and roll is by definition "authentic," and, ideally, "alternative." As in the old saw, "There's no such thing as a bad poem. If it's bad, it isn't one." If it isn't real, it isn't rock.
Rock and roll began by defining itself against the mainstream. In Robert Palmer's invaluable Rock & Roll: An Unruly History (Harmony), the original anti-rock mainstream was Perry Como, Frankie Lane, Patti Page, et al. Once the music got under way, it was easy enough to identify Pat Boone's remakes of Little Richard as the devil's spawn. These days it's trickier. The villains are poseurs Bush (National New Artist runners-up), Stone Temple Pilots, and Alanis. The days of Nevermind are gone like the Summer of Love -- you remember, when we all loved the same beautiful things?
And thus we can safely predict the coming divide in rock and pop (which make up the bulk of the categories in the Best Music Poll).The alternative will really become alternative again, because the charts will be filled with Alanis, Bush, and STP (who didn't win anything in this year's Poll), and the "real" music will be underground, with Sleater-Kinney, Team Dresch, Come, Kustomized, Noise Addict, and the Spinanes -- music that's too underproduced, too amateurishly performed, too "inaccessible" in form and sentiment for the mainstream.
Kurt Cobain worried about the kind of fans Nirvana's music would begin to attract when it got huge -- just the kind of homophobic, Gulf War-mongering, racist shitheads he was trying to get away from when he fled Aberdeen for punk. These days the divide is less clear. Is it that too many 508 white caps like Bush? When I posed the idea that the rock audience was going into a new cycle of polar fragmentation, the guy at the next desk expressed relief: "Good. I don't like it when people I don't like like the bands that I like." The New Age will see a return to the good old days of '70s punk, when it was easy to know that Yes and Zep -- and Clapton, Journey, and Foreigner -- were all equally the enemy, and the heroes were the Pistols, the Ramones, the Clash, the Buzzcocks, and later X, the Germs, and Fear.
So Alanis is evil because her anger is "packaged," and it sells way too much. The "real" underground is supposed to be "threatening" -- like Hole and the critics' darling, PJ Harvey. I love Polly Jean, too, but is she really all that threatening? Isn't it simply that her music is demanding in form as much as content? No easy pop hooks, simple as that. And for a jazz-head like me, that's what makes the difference. All the Goddess mythology that seems to attach itself to Polly goes over my head, but I love those weird guitar sounds and that voice. For me, Alanis is fairly harmless. "You Oughta Know" might nail a narrow range of emotion, but it nails it. The rest of the album is as innocuous as Aimee Mann. And Aimee, after all, is still "alternative" because no one's buying her record.
If there's any real underground represented in this year's Poll, it's in the local categories -- Ted Condo and 6L6? Trona? I wasn't sure the mass of Alanis lovers even knew who these people were, but fine by us. (See Brett Milano's "The Return of Noise" for the official community post-mortem.) The national categories didn't reveal a whole bunch of surprises. For the record, Alanis quashed a trend of locally based winners in the National Female Vocalist category. Last year Letters to Cleo's Kay Hanley took that one, and the year before it was Juliana Hatfield.
In fact, after being stars of the Poll for the past two years, Letters to Cleo got skunked and had to settle for runners-up nods in National Female Vocalist (third), CD/Tape (second), and Song (third, "Awake"). So the home-team advantage will take you only so far, even though Wholesale Meats and Fish (Giant) was a great leap forward from their '93 debut, Aurora Gory Alice (CherryDisc/Giant).
Some artists have certain categories in an apparent mortal lock. Eddie Vedder was our Best Male Vocalist for the third year in a row (following Bono's two-year reign, and Sting, Stipe, and Lou Reed before them). But don't think it's all that unanimous -- local hero Mark Sandman is Eddie's closest runner-up, followed by Stipe and Jeff Buckley.
Brian Eno has won best producer every year since 1991. Did that many people really listen to Eno's Passengers: Original Soundtracks 1 (Island) in the year that Flood helped produce both PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love (Island) and the Best CD/Tape, Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (Virgin)? The Beastie Boys took Best Rap/Hip-Hop for the third year in a row. Lyle Lovett seems to have settled into the Country category, taking it for the second year following k.d. lang's six-year gig at the top. Harry Connick Jr. took Best Jazz for the third time (second consecutive), and the Indigo Girls are back for their fifth Best Folk win after a one-year interruption by Sarah McLachlan.
In some of these categories, it seems as though ignorance and name recognition win out. When our core audience listens to "modern rock," Ani DiFranco (the true folk performer of the year) and Bill Morrissey have to settle for runner-up status. Likewise for the first runner-up: modern-rock crossover folkie Suzanne Vega (did she do anything this year but grow her hair?). B.B. King didn't have a new disc, but he continues to tour hard at age 70, and still blows down all blues contenders, so we're happy to have him leading the R&B/Soul category against upstarts Blues Traveler, G. Love, and TLC.
But there's a bubble-under factor that's taking slow effect in the non-rock categories. Joshua Redman continues to show up in our Jazz category (third runner-up). Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the extraordinary Pakistani qawwali singer, got enough votes to make our nomination ballot, despite being eliminated in the finals. Still, the Gipsy Kings, the Chieftains (last year's winners), Selena, and this year's International Act winner, the provocative New Age-y Celtic vocalist Enya, were all worthy choices. In the days when we called this category "World Beat" it was dominated by ska and reggae, so it's good to know that the rest of the world is finally making it into the category, just as Dwight Yoakam and Shania Twain are getting in there with the crossover likes of Lyle and Mary Chapin Carpenter.
Speaking of categories, these are always a sore point for the Best Music Poll judges as well as voters (a few people gave local rock band Fledgling votes in the International category -- I guess because they sometimes live in England). Robert Palmer recounts Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler's invention of the term rhythm and blues "to refer to any sort of music that was made by and for black Americans." Likewise, DJ Alan Freed took the African-American euphemism "rock and roll" as a crossover term to sell R&B to white kids. So we've tried to update "cutting edge" by renaming the category "alternative." And maybe it is a more suitable moniker. "Cutting edge" suggests innovation, whereas "alternative" merely suggests different. In broad terms, it might mean non-commercial, alternative to or subversive of mainstream culture. In terms of the poll, it's simply the thing you can't name. So at this late date, after 12 years of putting out albums, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are Best Rock Act, not funk or R&B, and represent the mainstream, the thing that's known and can be named. The Brit-rock hopefuls Radiohead are Best Alternative. No one seems to know what Heavy Metal is anymore, except that Alice in Chains are it, with like-minded runners up White Zombie, Metallica, and Ministry.
And our newest category is DJ/Dance Producer, meant to account for the electro beats of ambient, techno, and all the rest that make up rave culture. Not surprisingly, Moby was the one, his vocals and guitar bringing this most alternative of alternative genres closest to a mainstream, accessible form -- one that everyone knows.