Mariah Carey and Whitney Huston
There was, of course, a lot to love about pop in the late 90s: I was entranced by the weird, warped sound of anything Timbaland had a hand in, from Missy Elliott’s “The Rain” to Aaliyah’s singles– even then, there didn’t seem to be a far leap between that stuff and Adore-era Smashing Pumpkins (for better or worse). I loved the brazen cool and wild futurism of TLC, and later, in my most emo moments, I’d turn to Promise Ring LPs and the overblown, belted-out emotions of Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera ballads. But not all of this felt fit to broadcast. Alt-rock had lead me to punk and indie, and, in turn, those ever-elusive “like-minded people.” So while my teen memories of punk are public, communal, and external (moshing in VFW halls with my friends, affixing buttons to everything I wore), my experiences with pop music at this time feel private– almost secret. I’m not sure many people knew I’d voted for Kelly Clarkson on “American Idol” every week, or that I spent the entire afternoon Aaliyah died crying in my bedroom.
At first, my local punk scene seemed like a utopian space of total freedom and meaningful rebellion. But after a while, I became aware that I was still expected to dress and act and talk a certain way: that this world had rules of its own. Sometimes, they weren’t so bad (studded belts always, all the time!), but sometimes they didn’t feel so different from the rules that governed the rest of the world: because I was a girl, I could be the band’s photographer, or the guitarist’s girlfriend, but to actually be the guitarist was somehow out of the question. After a while, I felt bogged down by The Rules, as though a hidden part of me was still stifled.
A sea change was happening around the new millennium, and it was also tied to anxieties about the unknown future of technology. In his devastatingly smart 33 1/3 book on Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love— subtitled A Journey to the End of Taste– Carl Wilson chronicled rockism’s rapid decline: “It came with startling speed. A new generation moved into positions of critical influence, and many of them cared more about hip-hop or electronica or Latin music than about rock, mainstream or otherwise… Online music blogs and discussion forums sped up the circulation of such trends of opinion. The Internet pushed aside intensive album listening in favor of a download-and-graze mode that gives pop novelty more chance to shine.” For the music fan, the move from analog to digital means a sudden shift from scarcity to unlimited access. And as many writers have observed, the person with the most discerning taste was no longer the “music snob” devoted to obscure subgenres and hating on anything that might be popular, but instead the “cultural omnivore” who likes a little bit of everything and gives all genres– including pop– a fair shake. The tectonic plates are still shifting and colliding as we continue to sort all of this out. It remains a confusing, anarchic, oddly liberating moment.