No, it's not your imagination: things are getting smaller. Or at least, it seems that way in the funhouse-mirror world of modern music, where the semi-demise of the major-label factory has colluded with the anti-star obsession of the underground to produce a chasing of microgenres into mazes of musical self-selection. The result? An ever-narrowing list of stadium-striding superstars as we replace our pop demigods and worship at the altar of thousands of obscure deities, each with its own bizarre rituals and rites. Granted, the ridiculous excess of the rock-and-roll era was one whose time may have come. After all, it's hard to build a mythology of trashing hotel rooms and other assorted debaucheries when you're Twittering the whole thing. But are we all really ready to let go of the whole music-biz machine and adorn our teenage walls with the likeness of any minstrel who managed to shift a few thousand virtual copies last week?
A BLAST! Gaga has covered Madonna’s first decade in a tenth of the time.
Even with their mastery of both hooks and hype, newer acts like MGMT
(this year's Best National Act) must be all too aware of the already crowded market they're entering. That said, the overcrowding is also a by-product of the music biz's growing efficiency — bands no longer need to stagnate for years before hitting the big time. Both MGMT and fellow National Act nominee (and Best National Album winner) VAMPIRE WEEKEND
were barely ideas in their members' minds half a decade ago. Now they're blowing up stadiums, just like rock's royalty of yore.
Speaking of marketplace hegemony: this year, we threw a bit of a curve on the ballot by creating the category "Best Pop Shit," but you, dear readers, in your infinite knowledge, understood — correctly — that this was not a pejorative and rushed to do the right thing. Thus, Best National Pop Shit: LADY GAGA. A mere two or three years ago, she was just a struggling NYC boho playing piano bar, but since then, in just a tenth of the time, she's condensed Madonna's first decade — pop hits and fashion bits alike — into a blast on the popular consciousness. And let's not even get into the strange career of Adam Young, a/k/a OWL CITY (National Pop Shit nominee), who took just two years to turn his basement synth-pop project into a #1 single and album — and all by pilfering the sound of the not-yet-cold corpse of the Postal Service.
So the underground is now the mainstream, with its domination in metal (Best National Metal winners MASTODON, and indeed all of the runners-up, are decidedly non-Ozzfest material) and rap (MOS DEF and the runners-up: "Jay-who?"). And few acts in recent memory have gone as far with as few concessions to what's expected of an above-ground rock sensation as the dour, minimalist xx (Best National Breakthrough).
So, as the old gods are unmasked and made human thanks to 24/7 technology and splintering genre wars, we must come to grips with a change in scale in our pop mythology. Sure, you could put together all the outrageous rock-star antics of ALICIA KEYS (Best National R&B Act), WILCO (Best National Roots Act), and KINGS OF LEON (WFNX Song of the Year), count them on one hand, and still have some fingers left to play "Use Somebody" with. But in the new economy of pop, those old antics just don't have the same currency. And if the concern is that everything is getting smaller, rest assured that it's also getting far weirder than even the fevered psychedelic dreams of previous generations. Here's to facing the strange for years to come.