PRINT December 1996



THE RANDOM PLAY button on my six-CD player is my own personal DJ. It’s free-associating discreet pieces of information, but that’s as bricolage-y as we’re going to get. I want my music to tell me something, not reflect my environment back at me in freaky fractals, and I’ve stacked this deck so the player will deal me meaning in spades. 1-2-3-4-5: 3 the machine stops and makes a joke, “Beep! Mark, it’s the wicked witch of the west, your mother.” It’s “Voice Mail #3” from the Rent soundtrack; talk about disrupting the narrative! Then the player goes meta on me—guitars like jackhammers and a voice, “Turn on the radio, naw, fuck it, turn it off.” Rage Against the Machine.

The buzzsounds of the year were recombinant and abstract, ambient and illbient, electro, techno, postrock, postdance, and postmeaning. But me, I don’t play that way. I’m a linear girl, and I want to hear some songs. So random play proceeds to pitch me a content carnival: Bikini Kill singing about boys taken away by AIDS, Sleater-Kinney dissecting female bodies and identity, Stereolab waxing Marxist, Rage waging war for Aztlan, and the Rent cast singing about death and love and everything in between. Yeah, I’m feeling righteous, and it’s making me groove. I don’t want your dance if there’s no revolution in it.

Dance: 1996 belonged first and foremost to one song—“Macarena,” in whatever version. What does it mean that during the year of the biggest dance craze since disco, the hippest club music was all about lying down? Are the macarena and illbient points on a continuum, equally authorial and meaningless? Do you think anyone’s ever macarenaed at New York’s illbient mecca, Soundlab?

I admit I’ve hung at Soundlab and headbobbed to DJ Spooky’s mixes. And there’s not much point in being against the macarena—talk about tilting at windmills. But neither 1996 musical extreme, prog nor pop, provides me the life validation for which I turn to music—makes me cry or get pissed or dance-around-the-room delirious. I need songs that carry me through the day, songs that remind me of who I am and what I believe when I’m up against the world. How do you get an ambient or electro song in your head if it’s just a piece of the environment you’re trying to be human in spite of? And how do you get “Macarena” out when it’s stuck there like a piece of old bubblegum?

I worry, as a critic, that my tastes are too particular to my milieu, that I’m taken only with music that speaks to my liberal, white, middle-class generation, that there should be hip-hop, country, R&B, and some world beats in my player. But, with a few exceptions (Dwight Yoakam, Sandra St. Victor), music seemed rigidly genre-ized this year, each style heavily coded for the appropriate marketing niche and inaccessible to outsiders, the center of the musical universe a curdling mass of diffuse gases about to supernova into the millennium. For a minute there, The Fugees looked primed to rule the world. But then hip-hop hipsters—cultivating their own prog aesthetic—unleashed a backlash. And instead of rising like stars, The Fugees seemed burdened by the enormousness of their own success and desperate to restore their street cred.

It’s even hard for me to get emotional about the death of one of my generation’s most talented and interesting artists, because, like Kurt Cobain before him, Tupac lived so self-destructively and died so stupidly. The violence that seems to await those who do “make it” deepens my feeling of alienation.

So I cling to those records that move me with what can only be called belief. Yes, they say something. But they also give great form: my CD player spews slogans and credos and confessions, but they come attached to killer riffs and beautiful melodies and great voices and irresistible hooks. Form and content are inseparable; I don’t trust people who don’t like their music political, because that means they’re trying to protect some interest. I’m down with the theory that says that in saying nothing the Abstract Expressionists offered a convenient, conservative diversion from the work of social realists. I mean, it’s much safer to be into ambient than to be into Bikini Kill.

Beliefs make me optimistic. Even though the scene is mired in theory, one of the good things about Soundlab is its cultural diversity: both its racially heterogeneous audience and DJs who fold dub, salsa, Sufi, hip-hop, techno, spoken word, space-age-bachelor-pad music, rock guitar, and jazz into their mix like international chefs. Illbient’s verbal content may be fleeting and fragmentary, but there’s a revolutionary aspect to not respecting boundaries in a pull-apart world, and DJs like Spooky annoy the keepers of that order.

And though they may share demographic appeal, my CDs of choice are scarcely monotonal. There’s punk rock and rap and metal—and that’s just Rage Against the Machine. Stereolab fuses French yé-yé and kraut rock and lounge jazz. And then there’s that Broadway musical, in which Jonathan Larson dabbles in tango, house, Sondheim, grunge, gospel, and ballads. His death was truly tragic—epic not epochal, restoring my faith that there is art, as opposed to lifestyles, worth living and dying for.

Rent’s lead character is a rocker boy who feels alienated and alone, for good reason: his girlfriend killed herself, leaving a note saying they have AIDS. He’s wrapped up in his own world and his own head, but his friends, a utopianly diverse lot of transsexuals, lesbians, blacks, Latinos, and of course artists, pull him out of it, showing him “the need to connect in an isolating age.” “And when you’re living in America at the end of the millennium/You’re what you own,” they sing later. Shuffle: “It’s fine/When it’s all mine/It’s on my wall it’s in my head/ Memorize it ’til I’m dead”; the CD player goes to Sleater-Kinney, explaining the need to define and hold onto identity when it’s something being torn away. Those Sleater-Kinney songs, speaking to struggles as a woman I’d rarely heard articulated, were my anthems all spring. But they got dislodged by Rent, because I do believe that tribes must ultimately come together, not factionalize.

Evelyn McDonnell is publisher and editor of the culture-’zine Resister.