Archive forApril, 2004

GREY AREA

    No matter how hard fans fight for its legitimacy, Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album was always doomed to a life on the run. But what started as a stunt wound up a masterpiece.

Grey Album cover

Three weekends ago, Emily’s mum came to visit our new apartment. Having assured herself that her only child wasn’t living in a crack den, Sara settled onto the couch for tea. As I got up to boil some water, I turned on the stereo for some background noise. Our five-disc CD changer contained three discs of mine and two of Emily’s, and – anticipating my fiancée’s wishes – I immediately flipped to one of her renaissance music CDs for some proper tea-drinking music. I set the amplifier to a polite volume.

I had barely entered the kitchen and begun filling the kettle when I heard Sara holler back, “Hey! I wanna hear The Grey Album!”

What does this say – other than, my future mother-in-law is unbelievably with-it and hip? Just that everyone is fascinated with this cultural phenomenon. In the subsequent weeks, Emily and I have had a number of housewarming guests, and the Grey Album jewel case, with its arresting cartoon graphics (see above), has been an unwitting conversation-starter. The box has been sitting in my “now playing” CD stand for weeks, and I admit I’m leaving it there, in part, because I know it interests people. But really, the box is sitting there mainly because I’ve been listening to The Grey Album nonstop.

For those who haven’t read any of the reams of online and newspaper coverage, a quick summary: A fellow who calls himself DJ Danger Mouse created The Grey Album by combining the rhymes of Jay-Z’s November 2003 release The Black Album with samples from the Beatles’ “White Album” (a.k.a. The Beatles, 1968). Of course, neither Jay-Z nor the Beatles, nor either record label, authorized the project, and the album is officially banned. Danger Mouse, née Brian Burton, claims he never intended to profit from the project, and indeed no money has changed hands in the spread of The Grey Album, at least where Burton is concerned (bootleg shops and aftermarket profiteers are another story). Nonetheless, lawyers for EMI, the Beatles’ label, have demanded that Danger Mouse cease distribution of the album, as well as any Internet site posting its tracks for free download. The threatening, legalese-heavy letters have been flying all over cyberspace.

I’m coming out of a long blogging silence and getting to this story rather late, obviously. But four months after the project’s release, and two months after hundreds of thousands of listeners downloaded The Grey Album on a single “Grey Tuesday” in protest of EMI, Danger Mouse’s project remains the most exciting release – indeed, music happening – of a still-young 2004.

It’s estimated that The Grey Album has been downloaded somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 times. It’s hard to measure, not only because of the album’s illicit nature, but because many PC users have tracked down the album the way I did: song by song, on peer-to-peer networks. Still, if these full-album downloads could be tallied, The Grey Album would at least be certified gold, on its way to platinum.

The album has been reviewed by the major media, including The New York Times Magazine and SPIN. Rolling Stone even named the Grey Album remix of the hit Jay-Z single “Change Clothes” as its “Hit Pick” of the month back in March, opining that Danger Mouse’s addition of harpsichord samples from the Beatles’ “Piggies” improved Jay’s falsetto-soul ditty. Accompanying the reviews have been news stories on the EMI-vs.-Danger Mouse fight, much of the coverage focusing on fans’ howls of protest over typically heavy-handed record company tactics.

The key point that’s been missing from the coverage has been this project’s doomed fate, from the moment Danger Mouse thought it up. Fans have been shocked, shocked that EMI would strong-arm the DJ and his online followers the way they have. Indeed, the battle does nothing to improve the ever-worsening climate between the record industry and its customers. However, Burton himself, while feeling somewhat victimized by EMI’s army of lawyers, has been appropriately philosophical, calling his masterpiece nothing more than an “underground thing” and indicating he never expected to lead a protest against the record industry. In short, his fans are more surprised than he is.

Let me state this very clearly: There was never any chance that The Grey Album would be an authorized, legal release, and anyone who’s surprised is extremely naive.

For starters, sampling the Beatles is like asking Rudy Giuliani to sit for a portrait by Chris Ofili – you can ask, but you’ll never get a blessing. The Beatles never, ever authorize sampling. To my knowledge, the only major rap release ever to feature recognizable Beatles samples is the Beastie Boys’ 1989 album Paul’s Boutique, which stole some unauhorized riffs and beats from Abbey Road. Had Paul’s Boutique been released after the landmark 1991 ruling in Gilbert O’Sullivan vs. Biz Markie, the Beasties no doubt would have had their Beatles samples pulled, too.

So the law is on EMI’s side, and by extension, the Beatles’. But the moral victors are clearly Danger Mouse’s thousands of fans. Five years after the Napster revolution and three years after the mainstreaming of online “mash-ups,” The Grey Album is the flashpoint for a philosophical battle over 21st Century musical freedom.

The dance between bootleggers and the industry is nearly as old as rock n’ roll. But even widely bootlegged albums like Bob Dylan’s decades-old Ten of Swords haven’t enjoyed the instant credibility of The Grey Album. When unauthorized recordings become this commonly available, they take on the authority of the marketplace, and litigation becomes irrelevant. The Beatles and their representatives, who have resisted all entreaties to bring the group’s music into the Internet economy (most notably, refusing to join iTunes), are going to have to make peace with technology eventually, even if it’s by force.

If only to keep themselves current, the Beatles would do well to embrace The Grey Album, the way Suzanne Vega, 14 years ago, authorized and helped distribute an underground dance remix of her “Tom’s Diner” by British DJs DNA. As for Jay-Z’s people, although they haven’t authorized the Danger Mouse project either, they’ve signaled their tacit approval. Roc-a-Fella Records president Damon Dash spoke to the BBC out of both sides of his mouth, saying that while proper permission should have been obtained, “I think it’s hot. It’s the Beatles. It’s two great legends together.” What Dash should have added is that the album enriches both artists’ work.

Friends know that I’m a Beatles nut, but I’m also fairly passionate about Jay-Z’s latest album. Purportedly Jigga’s last, The Black Album is a victory lap by an MC leaving the game on top (six No. 1 albums in the last six years!) and comfortable with his legacy. The record is heavy on laid-back soul samples and marked by Jay’s effortless flow, but the hubris that could sink the album instead buoys it, and the production and rhymes are remarkably forceful coming from a guy about to retire. Going into 2004, The Black Album was already, arguably, the most critically underrated record of the year, easily better than 50 Cent’s blockbuster and more consistent than OutKast’s epic.

Jay’s MCing has always been easy to take for granted – it can be numbingly workmanlike – but what’s made his last couple of albums special was his increasingly melodic cadence, not unlike Biggie Smalls in his prime. Early Jigga hits relied heavily on melodic samples, most famously “Hard Knock Life”’s Annie quote. But more recently, on The Blueprint and The Black Album, Jigga confidently let his rhymes carry the day, earning some of the best reviews of his career. No wonder he feels ready to retire.

Then The Grey Album came along and exposed added layers of richness in Jay’s flow. The Beatles’ indefatigable melodies nicely underpin Jigga’s rhymes, but surprisingly, the Fabs’ fat hooks don’t dominate Danger Mouse’s mixes; the melodies truly complement – indeed, compliment – the rhymes, bringing out their melodicism even more clearly.

As if there needed to be another reason why the Beatles are rarely sampled, besides the threat of litigation, there’s also the little matter of the Fabs’…well, lack of funk. Genius songwriters though they were, John Lennon and Paul McCartney weren’t exactly avatars of off-beat rhythm or the low-end theory, Paul’s innovative bass-playing notwithstanding. Beatles records brilliantly synthesize the R&B rhythms of their day into what McCartney cleverly termed “Rubber Soul”; but Beatles music, even at its most experimental, is mass-appeal pop, not an intuitive foundation for rapping. Obviously, there have been decades of soul remakes of Beatles songs, by Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Earth Wind + Fire to name a few; but these covers often feature heavy rethinking of the Fabs’ arrangements. Actually rapping over an original Lennon-McCartney or Harrison recording is much tougher. Scores of hip-hoppers, including Chuck D, the Neptunes and Wyclef Jean, have named Beatles records among their all-time favorites, but few of them, I dare say, would choose to rhyme over them.

This is what makes Danger Mouse’s project extra-special. Proudly proclaiming that “all the music on The Grey Album can be traced back to the White Album – every single kick, snare, and chord,” Burton has done the near-impossible, julienneing the original Beatles records into a pulsing sound bed. The most rewarding tracks are the most surprising, as when Lennon’s delicate ballad “Julia” is shredded into a stuttering staccato, over which Jay raps “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” Mouse also finds the sweetest, most underrated hooks on the White Album (no “Ob-La-Di” sampling for him) and showcases them – like my favorite Grey Album moment, in the middle of “Encore”: Danger Mouse cuts everything to silence, then brings back Jay’s “Look what you made me do, look what I made for you,” atop a chunky horn break from “Glass Onion.” It’s a better hook than Jay had on the entire song in its Black Album version.

There’s no question that The Grey Album, in its creation, was a stunt. Black plus white equals grey – a great gimmick. Already, other would-be Danger Mice are mixing Jay’s Black rhymes with music from other “colored” albums (Jay-Z plus Metallica’s own “Black Album” equals “The Double-Black Album”; Jay-Z plus Weezer’s “Blue Album” equals “The Black and Blue Album”) with middling results.

That The Grey Album ended up as the greatest mash-up album of all time is a testament to Burton’s skill, but also to the two records he serendipitously decided to mix – albums by artists at their peaks, and near their careers’ end. The White Album found the Beatles, a year and a half away from their breakup, throwing far-out ideas against the wall to see what stuck. The Black Album found Jay-Z throwing in the towel, with grace and a total lack of fear. When you’re an underground DJ trying to make your mark, you might as well ally yourself with artists who had nothing left to lose.

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SCHLOCK SYMPHONY

    How a cynical, jokey mash-up made me reevaluate a trashy band.

Thanks to for pointing Emily and me to the most amazing mash-up we’ve heard since The Grey Album: “How You Remind Me of Someday,” a side-by-side comparison of two hits by Nickelback. I’ve played it for several friends, and even the most blasé have come away stunned.

“HYRMoS” places two separate Nickelback hits, “How You Remind Me” (2001) and “Someday” (2003), on either side of a single audio track: the former in the right channel, the latter on the left. The result is jaw-dropping – they are structurally, chord-wise and – almost – melodically identical. Anyone who’s ever suspected that bands are compelled to repeat their biggest hits now has an audible Exhibit A.

The parallels, as they say, are eerie. The songs’ crescendos, in particular, match uncannily: the thud-thudd-THUD-THUDDD! / riff-rifff-RIFF-RIFFFF! bridge to the chorus occurs at the same moment, in the same place, in almost perfect harmony. The outro from the choruses, anchored by a shredding rhythm guitar, are virtual doppelgangers, too; “How You Remind Me”’s “yea-ah! yea-ah!” is nothing more than a counterpoint to “Someday”’s lead-guitar filigree. And in slavish School of Cobain fashion, both songs begin in the same son-of-”Lithium” fashion: drumless, two bars of Chad Kroeger’s throaty vocal against an almost-acoustic introduction of the main guitar hook; then, on each channel, feedback, and that booming crescendo.

The first question this experiment prompts is, how real is this? Was either song heavily pitch-treated or manipulated to make it sound like the other? The short answer: a bit, but, as far as I can tell, not much. I did the easy research; according to iTunes, the songs’ lengths differ by about 15 seconds. That may not sound like much, but it’s an eternity between two radio-pop hits. This difference means at least a few seconds were padded or otherwise rerouted to create the matchup. A couple of listens to the original tracks (I’m listening to iTunes’ 30-second samples; no way am I buying these overplayed radio staples) reveals that “Someday” has been sped up ever so slightly, but “Remind” has been left pretty much as is. My other suspicion is that at the middle-eight, when both songs peel back to Kroeger vocals before bringing back the band, “Remind” has been paused for a few seconds to give “Someday” a chance to catch up. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if a verse of “Someday” – which was, originally, longer – was deleted to make the matchup perfect. So, okay, fine, a bit of tweaking. That doesn’t explain away the constant structural reptition.

The second question is, how unprecedented is this in pop music, really? After all, the history of pop music since Elvis (”Don’t Be Cruel”/”You’re So Square”) is littered with songwriters and bands rewriting their own successful hits (to say nothing of ripping off others’ successful hits). Some of the most successful examples, up to the present day:

  • The Kinks, “All Day and All of the Night” and “You Really Got Me”

  • The Righteous Brothers, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration”
  • The Jackson 5, “I Want You Back” and “ABC”
  • Rick Astley, “Never Gonna Give You Up” and “Together Forever”
  • Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis (producers/songwriters): The Force MDs’ “Tender Love” and Janet Jackson’s “Come Back to Me”
  • The Matrix (producers/songwriters): Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” and Liz Phair’s “Why Can’t I”

The difference between all of these examples and Nickelback’s pair of hits is the extent of the tweaking. Take the two Jackson 5 songs: the Motown writing team – led by Freddie Perren and encouraged by Berry Gordy – kept the same chords and gave the choruses a similar rhythm; but the verse steps are quite different, and the structure of the chorus is practically flip-flopped. No way could you play these two songs next to each other. Even the recent pair by the Matrix features heavy interpolation between the Avril hit and the Phair followup, as well as an overall rhythm tweak. The two Nickelback songs, meanwhile, feature harmonic interpolation only in the verse; and the structural similarity is almost unprecedented in a pair of songs that already have so much, melodically, in common. Only the two Rick Astley hits come close to this kind of blatant structural Xeroxing. When I first heard our local top-40 station playing “Someday” a few months ago, I immediately thought, “Nice, guys – classic self-parody,” figuring Kroger had tried to pull an “I Want You Back”/”ABC” (the most artistically successful of the pop self-rewrites, in my opinion). I had no idea he’d rewritten his first hit so faithfully, until I downloaded the mash-up.

Third question: Did Kroeger jump or was he pushed? Who is to blame for a third-rate band polluting our radio with two identical hits over three years? (As the number one Billboard single of 2002, “How You Remind Me” infested the airwaves even longer than the typical hit.) To cut Kroeger some slack, I suspect that his label strongly, strongly suggested that they’d get behind the band’s followup album more enthusiastically if he gave them another “How You Remind Me.” And then I surmise that Kroeger went away to follow the label’s orders, and the hack – not even as gifted a schlock merchant as Rob Thomas – wasn’t able to do much more than copy his hit. Forget reinterpretation; “Someday” is a 20-minute rewrite.

Final question: Does this lessen or increase our appreciation of Nickelback? Weirdly, this is where the bootlegger’s cynical experiment – conceived to expose Kroeger as a shallow hack – backfires somewhat. “How You Remind Me of Someday” is so brilliant, it makes Kroeger’s flimsy songwriting sound grander. Everyone for whom I’ve played this has said the same thing: “I like this better than either song individually.” My friend Jay even called it symphonic, the way one song harmonizes with the other.

The verse, especially, is positively enveloping. Kroeger on the left is singing a rising scale, “How the hell did we wind up LIKE THIS?!” while Kroeger on the right is in bluesy, minor-key mode: “Never made it as a wise man.” Here’s where Kroger, to be fair, did a decent bit of rewriting, changing the rhythm enough that one lyric is a contrapuntal harmony for the other. It’s like one song is actually a verse ahead of the other, singing-in-a-round style, a la “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Together, the effect is so seductive, that the arrival three lines later of the identical crescendo feels positively thunderous.

Chad Kroeger, accidental genius – go figure. I still say he’s the ugliest rock-god frontman/lust object since Jagger and Tyler, though. Apparently, I’m not alone.

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THE BRIDGE IS OVER

    On homeownership, hip-hop and growing up.

Two attractive 30something blacks – a man and a woman, just friends, in suit and skirt – recline in Prospect Park. Sitting back to back on a sun-dappled park bench, they quietly trade verses from the old Common rap track “I Used to Love H.E.R.”

The woman, Sidney, breaks off their spontaneous MCing.

    Sidney: See – that’s why I write and don’t rhyme.
    Dre: For real! [laughs] That song reminded me of us.
    Sidney: It does?
    Dre: Yeah, back in the day. Do you remember that feeling? Just, how hip-hop used to make you feel? Especially back then. It was so real – it was, like, air. Do you remember how you felt the first time you heard “The Bridge Is Over” – the first time?
    Sidney: Yup.
    Dre: That was real.
    Sidney: Ooh – or, um…”You Gots to Chill”? With the sophomore skate party?
    [Both laugh.]
    Dre: “Bonita Applebum” – that was a tight one.
    Sidney: Mmm-hmm. And “Paul Revere”…ooh, I used to love that.
    Dre: See, now that beat was tight.
    Sidney: Mm, the Beastie Boys.
    Dre: Yeah, man – they came with it.
    Sidney: Mm-hmm.
    Dre: [after pause] You know, I don’t have that feeling no more. Know what I’m saying? I cannot remember the last time I had that feeling. I can’t – I can’t…
    Sidney: You ready to talk? What’s on your mind?
    Dre: I quit today, Sid.

A week or two ago, I channel-surfed over to HBO and caught Brown Sugar – an “urban romantic comedy,” by Hollywood’s definition. I had already rented the movie about six months ago, but I got sucked in again. Based in an always-sunny New York and populated with good-looking buppies, Brown Sugar is, against all odds, a remarkably good movie. Or maybe I’m just saying that because right now, sitting in our new Prospect Heights apartment, it hits me where I live – literally and figuratively.

Brown Sugar is about people who love hip-hop, and much of it takes place in Brooklyn. The film’s heroine, Sidney (the lovely Sanaa Lathan), lives there and commutes into Manhattan, where she’s an editor at rap magazine XXL. Her homeboy Dre (Taye Diggs), who met her on the streets when they were children, is now an A&R executive for a Def Jam–like label; he speaks proudly of having grown up in “the Boogie-Down” (Bronx), and he may still reside there. But he travels over the Brooklyn Bridge repeatedly as the movie grinds toward its inevitable, string-swelling, friends-become-lovers conclusion.

Both friends have revolved their lives and made their careers around hip-hop, and now, in their 30s, they have mixed feelings about it. Furious at his label for signing a wack-ass hip-pop duo – their signature hit is a remake of the old Jackson-McCartney duet “The Girl Is Mine,” recast as “The Ho Is Mine” – Dre spontaneously quits his job.

Ambivalence is a hard thing to depict in a movie, but Brown Sugar manages to capture that feeling in two ways: ambivalence about coming of age, and ambivalence about rap’s lurch toward bourgeois acceptance. To paraphrase Dre’s favorite Boogie Down Productions track, “the bridge,” between rap as fringe and rap as mass culture, really is over.

I find it perversely comforting to know that urban blacks feel the same confusion about hip-hop’s rise to prominence that this hip-hop–loving urban honkie feels. Brown Sugar was a 2002 movie (it did fair-to-middling business and got respectful, not ecstatic, reviews), but by the time I saw it, at the end of 2003, hip-hop was coming to the end of its greatest year of triumph yet. Rap and R&B (now heavily informed by hip-hop) solidifed their status as the vital center of pop music in 2003, from 50 Cent’s radio and MTV dominance to Beyonce’s cover-girl coronation to OutKast’s chart-topping, critic-charming ascendancy. It wasn’t even a contest: with the garage-rock fad waning (and the White Stripes fully mainstreamed) and Britney-pop in retreat, hip-hop was no longer ascendant in 2003, it was dominant.

And yet, after years of championing hip-hop to my friends, in my writing and on my mix tapes, I faced the prospect of year-end list-compiling with a sense of ennui and a lack of inspiration. I mean, I could have put together 2003 top 10 lists and name-checked OutKast’s overlong magnum opus, Beyonce’s catchy-like-a-virus hit single, 50 Cent’s numbingly ubiquitous thug anthems. But what would be the point? Like Sidney and Dre, for me, it would be all business.

I never did get around to making my lists. Of course, it didn’t help that I was too busy to blog for four months, pretty much from the moment we found our apartment.

When I first watched Brown Sugar in November, Emily and I had just gone into contract on the new place, after six months of intermittent pavement-pounding and realtor-vetting. Any movie set in “the BK” would feel warmly familiar to me, but as I watched Brown Sugar’s protagonists hang out in high-ceilinged Brooklyn apartments, wander the Brooklyn promenade and fondle tchochkes in Brooklyn boutiques, I felt a renewed sense of voyeurism.

During our search, we had wandered into so many apartments in historically black neighborhoods, in old-school buildings that were once down-at-heel and had gradually, fitfully been polished to a shine by their renters-turned-owners. The tenant of an apartment is often not home for an open house or a realtor visit, and so you find yourself spying on a tidied-up version of their in-between life: furniture still positioned, pictures still hanging, CDs still racked.

I can’t count the number of apartments of – not just hip-hop fans – record-industry people, promoters, label staff we found in Brooklyn’s up-and-coming neighborhoods. The place we ended up buying belonged to a caterer. But during our search, many apartments in our price range – small-to-medium-size, on leafy but not quite upscale blocks – featured signed posters on the walls, promo CDs on the shelves. These were the apartments, one imagines, of 20-to-30something Sidneys and Dres, working their way up from shitty $19K/year internships at Tommy Boy to promising $45K/year slots at Roc-a-Fella. They bought these places with help from Mom or Dad in 1996, when they went for $110K, and are now, rightfully, cashing out, as their former ghettos find themselves awash in trendy restaurants and ghetto-fabulous garb shops. Fort Greene, Windsor Terrace, Prospect Heights – these are newly luxe Brooklyn neighborhoods that, arguably, hip-hop helped build.

Now hip-hop is looking to build out Brooklyn on a grander scale. Anyone reading my fiancee’s blog knows about the proposal to build a Nets basketball stadium at the edge of our neighborhood. The deservedly derided plan is mostly the work of shifty devloper Bruce Ratner. But the proposal’s highest-profile sponsor is none other than retiring MC Jay-Z, donating his name, his promotional muscle and, not incidentally, a few million dollars of his fortune to bring professional sports back to Kings County. A BK native – like the Notorious B.I.G. and Mos Def – J.Hova née Jigga née Jay née Sean Carter sees the Nets stadium as the crowning achievement of his lightning career, a way to make the transition from MC to mogul in style.

I’d be putting Jay on my shit list if I wasn’t such a fan. (More on The Black Album and The Grey Album another day.) In any case, unlike me, Sidney or Dre, Jay-Z is embracing the onset of his thirties and the greying of urban culture and turning it to his advantage. While I am against his Brooklyn-development project, I envy his ardor.

As for our new neighborhood, I only hope that as it gentrifies, it doesn’t lose its soul. We’re around the corner from Pieces, a fly-duds boutique that regularly outfits Dave Chappelle. Then there’s Half, a bar that opened down the block from us just as we got to the neighborhood, two doors down from an old-school black barbershop. We applaud its arrival, but I’m even happier when we stop by and find a mix of buppies and fly boys down the bar from indie boys and single white girls trolling for dates. It’s not just the racial mix that relieves me; it’s the easy comfort of all the patrons, proud of their neighborhood, comfortable in their surroundings. It’s a pleasant counterpoint to the Brooklynites of Brown Sugar, partying in grand old brownstones in fly clothes, but wondering how they got so old and boring.

I can’t believe a flimsy, predictable romantic comedy has prompted this much soul-searching from me. But Brown Sugar not only hit pop culture at an opportune time, it found me at a pivotal coming-of-age moment. I’m engaged, a homeowner, a published author, comfortably self-employed, and arguably happier than I’ve ever been. (Have I mentioned that Emily is a wonderful roommate?) But I wrestle with music, and my place in it, almost daily these days: how to keep myself passionate, how not to drown in a sea of MP3 downloads and cheaply-acquired CDs, how to get excited about fourth-generation MCs like Chingy, Twista and Li’l Jon.

At the end of Brown Sugar, Dre reconnects with his passion for hip-hop by starting his own indie-rap label and signing a broke-ass, first-rate MC played by Mos Def. I’m not sure I will have a similar pop epiphany. For now, The Grey Album and the new Kanye West album have helped me get over my funk. Longer-term, I’ll draw strength from my new neighborhood, which will hopefully guard its Soul and maintain its Funk.

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BOY GENIUS AFTERLIFE

    What Kurt Cobain has missed since he left us in April 1994.

Yesterday was suffused with Nirvana nostalgia. I’m impressed that the media has chosen to commemorate Kurt’s actual (probable) death day, 5 April, rather than the gruesome day his body was found, the 8th. Conversely, I’m depressed that so few radio stations in New York commemorated the day by deigning to play any Nirvana songs.

There’s nothing romantic about my where-were-you-when-you-heard story of 8 April 1994. I was in an office, wearing a tie; college was nearly a year over, and I was already well acquainted with The Man. It was a depressing day: apart from watching MTV that evening – Kurt Loder and endless repeats of Unplugged – it was perfectly uneventful. People keep saying what a sharp, sudden shock Kurt Cobain’s death was. For me, it was a slow-motion, prolonged misery, played out over months and years.

I’ve decided that it was the same for everybody, really: rock fans, Gen-Xers, the music industry, the culture at large. After all, a lot has happened, good and bad, since Kurt exited – and then again, not much at all.

Since April 1994…

  • Courtney Love has produced fewer albums (two) than arrests (around a half-dozen).
  • Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters have released four studio albums, one more than Nirvana did.
  • Krist Novoselic has formed two groups – one album apiece – and broken both up to go into politics; then he abandoned that, too.
  • Soundgarden have broken up; Alice in Chains succumbed when Layne Staley did; and Pearl Jam got their wish, seeing their sales dwindle from 10-times-platinum to gold. Strangely and happily, Mudhoney and the Melvins are still recording and selling not much less than they did a decade ago.
  • The Meat Puppets, the Breeders, the Butthole Surfers and even – belatedly – the Pixies scored their first gold albums.
  • The Sex Pistols reformed, toured, then broke up again; the Ramones broke up, and half of them died.
  • Radiohead went from a one-hit-wonder grunge-pretender act to the most revered band in rock.
  • Weezer: released a debut album; had a hit; released a followup flop; disappeared; unwittingly launched emo as a pop force; reappeared; and saw their debut album reissued in a tony two-disc box set with slipcover.
  • “Electronica” was invented and then died; “electroclash” too.
  • Hip-hop broke more albums, artists and hits than rock, as a half-dozen cities became rap meccas: Atlanta, New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago, even Louisville. Rock produced not one “new Seattle.”
  • Marshall Mathers started recording and became, culturally, the new Kurt Cobain.
  • Tupac Shakur released eight posthumous albums; Nirvana, two.
  • ZZ Top, Paul McCartney and Wings, AC/DC and Jann Wenner were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Black Sabbath, Cheap Trick and the Sex Pistols were not.
  • Mariah Carey never really went away, selling about the same number of CDs after Kurt died than she did before and scoring seven more #1 singles.
  • Shania Twain, Alanis Morissette and Hootie and the Blowfish released three of the 20 best-selling albums in music history.
  • Garth Brooks became the best-selling recording artist of the 1990s, briefly changed his identity, and then retired.
  • Britney Spears finished high school and sold 30 million records.
  • Titanic became the highest-grossing film of all time, while George Lucas destroyed the reputation of the Star Wars series.
  • Quentin Tarantino released three films; Wes Anderson, three; Cameron Crowe, three; Paul Thomas Anderson, four; Martin Scorcese, four; Joel Schumacher…10.
  • Friends debuted, outlasted Seinfeld, and became the last successful network sitcom.
  • The Simpsons went from the most reliably good show on TV to…the most reliably good show on TV.
  • I went from working in corporate communications and living just outside of Manhattan to…um, working in corporate communications and living just outside of Manhattan.
  • Emily Owens graduated high school and college, lived in Germany twice, moved to New York and became engaged to me.
  • Generation X took over the Zeitgeist, took over Wall Street, briefly took over the world economy, and then went broke.
  • The Republican Party took over both houses of Congress and, six years after that, the White House.
  • The United States deficit disappeared, then reappeared.
  • Charts were topped around the world by the likes of Creed, Matchbox 20, Fuel, Puddle of Mudd, Bush, Candlebox, Nickelback, Our Lady Peace, Collective Soul, Stone Temple Pilots, Staind, Eve 6, the Vines, Days of the New, the Verve Pipe, Sponge and Silverchair – all feeding at a trough the Pixies built and Kurt filled with tasty slop.

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