THE MERCHANTS OF COOL
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Interview: Ann Powers

Ann Powers is music critic for The New York Times.

What's changed in the popular music business today? What is the situation now?

To some extent, the idea that rock 'n roll used to have this sort of free antediluvian identity, frolicking in the 1950s with Elvis or something, is totally wrong. It's insane. Elvis' relationship with Colonel Parker, his manager, was one of the most possibly corrupt, certainly lucrative, and intense business partnerships ever in rock 'n roll. So let's just dismiss that idea.

However, when rock started, and even through the 1960s, the counterculture era, the music industry didn't exist as we know it now. There just weren't these huge conglomerates; there were fewer labels. Initially, they were indie labels, or labels that were changing their identity when they hooked onto rock 'n roll.

You didn't have this whole machine that you have now. Now you have this incredibly elaborate machine like any other business--marketing, research and development. It could be the drug companies. It's basically a very similar thing. And intellectual property in a situation like that becomes highly contested. So that aspect of it really has changed. The machine is bigger. The tentacles are bigger, and the stars are savvier at this point. They know more about the business than they did before. And it's a good thing. So many people were ripped off in the old days.

In the new century, intellectual property has become a whole new game in music. Because of the internet, because of Napster, music is now seen as a commodity by everyone involved. You can't fool yourself anymore that your art is your art. When you're not getting paid for that song that's being traded back and forth among millions of people on the internet, you have to think like a businessperson.

And so we see people like Courtney Love and Fred Durst getting smart about business, and really, if not becoming their own managers, then becoming their own intermediaries, both with the companies and with these new technologies.

What is Fred Durst known for in music?

 I really don't think you can pinpoint a moment of purity in popular music where it was divorced from commercial interests. What I think that's different nowÉis that the fan is so much more aware of the machine. Aside from his charming connection to the youth, Fred Durst is known as someone who always wanted to be an entrepreneur as well as a star. This is not unique to him. This is very common in hip-hop, which is the world that Fred takes his inspiration from. For a white rock star to take on that identity of the player, however, is somewhat new. Usually we think of the white rock star as the kind of David Lee Roth, go nuts with the groupies, hair flying in the wind. Fred Durst, from the beginning of his career, said, "I am just as interested in running a record label as I am in being a star. I want the money. I want the control. I want the power." There is one person that he shares this in common with, of course, who is a white rock star, and that's Madonna. Madonna is kind of the model for Fred Durst, like it or not.

Talk about the two sides of MTV's "Total Request Live" (TRL).

Well, the brilliant idea behind TRL that really works--it's not a new idea, but it's been revamped--is that kids are consumers and that their power is mostly the power of consumption. This is just a fact in our society, which we should maybe look at in a bigger way. We don't let kids vote. We don't give them much control over their life in public spaces, but we like them to buy. And when you give a teenager a job at age 14 or 15 working at McDonald's, they have their own expendable income. People are very hungry for that money with this generation, because it's a large generation.

So "Total Request Live" came about at a moment when that awareness of the baby boomlet as a consumer demographic hit a kind of fever pitch in our culture. And it really worked. Not only was it right--and, in fact, it's worked so well for MTV that "Total Request Live" has put it right back on the center of the culture map--but it also confirmed the worst fears of all of those parents out there, that their kids were possibly even more savvy as buyers, it not as people, as they themselves were.

On the face of it, it's very democratic. But what a unique opportunity to sell something.

Let's look at "Total Request Live" as the world's biggest focus group, because that's really what it is. It's just a public version of what happens when they put 20 people in a room and give them a new flavor of chewing gum and say, "Do you like this?" The chewing gum is called Christina Aguilera. That's really what happens. So it's taking a business idea and transplanting it to a new venue, but it's also doing something with "American Top 40" and Dick Clark in the past. Remember when people used to rate records on Top 40? "Can you dance to it?" "It's got a nice beat. I'll give it a nine." That's the same thing as "Total Request Live." It's just flashier now.

But what's its role in the music industry?

The role of MTV itself is very significant. Predating "Total Request Live" was the whole idea of whether you get a budget even to make a video at this point, because MTV went away from programming videos 24-7. Not every band gets a video anymore. And so the first tier is getting that video at all. Then the next tier is, are you the kind of artist who they think they can bring to a mass artist level?

Then the next tier is, are you the kind of artist that they think you can break to a mass audience? Only that really tiny, tiny elite gets on "Total Request Live." What it does to, say, your average major record label division is that it creates an intense caste system that was already there, but it makes it more so. So you have the upper echelon, and then everybody else is way down here. The resources for smaller bands on a major label are very small now, and a lot of artists feel that it's not even worth it to sign with a major label anymore.

A lot of artists feel it's not worth it to sign with a major label, because if you don't have a giganto hit, then you're not going to get a video made. You're not going to probably get much tour support. You're not going to get promotion. You're certainly not going to get a publicist who's going to pay much attention to you. All you're going to get is really good distribution--maybe, if they get it out there--but even though they're going to ship millions and millions of copies of kid rock, are they really going to get that small record into the stores? There are many tales of bands touring the country working hard going into towns and the record isn't in the stores, both for major and independent labels. But it's a problem with major labels, because their priorities are so intensely focused on that top echelon of artists.

So MTV has the effect of narrowing the choice of music?

MTV definitely has the effect of narrowing the range of music that hits the mainstream. On the other hand, isn't that the effect of television in general? Television has been an illusion in terms of its variety since the beginning. I think it was one of those big rock stars, Bruce Springsteen, who said "500 channels and nothing on." Now it's just 500 channels and Limp Bizkit on. It's the same thing.

How important is TRL as a powerhouse of music?

In the dead center of the music industry, TRL is certainly maybe the most important thing at the moment for those top ten artists. Are you going to break your artist into those very, very top spots? For an artist like Limp Bizkit, they have to do it.

I remember very vividly Eminem, when he was coming out with his last album, going on "Total Request Live" and basically saying, "Look, I know I have to do this. I'm going to market myself any way I can." It's not like he really wanted to as a person, as an artist. But they know it's a requirement. I think for the Backstreet Boys, for 'N Sync, whose image is all tied up with whether they're number one versus even number two--when number two is seen as a failure for an artist--that's a lot about TRL. The whole idea that you can sell so many millions of albums and still be considered kind of a flop is very much of this era. I think "Total Request Live" has completely intensified that.

You could say that "Total Request Live" is democratic in the way that this year's election was democratic. The field of candidates is very small. And there are organizations behind them, not unlike the Democratic and Republican parties, who are deciding which candidates get promoted. So, in other words, you can't just be Joe Fabulous who's releasing your little indie record and get on "Total Request Live." The record label has to decide that you're a priority. Then the MTV staff has to sort of approve it, right? The execs have to approve it. Then, maybe by then you'll get some kind of prescreening and then finally you get one slot. And it's the hardest slot to get.

You have as much chance as an artist of getting on "Total Request Live" as you do as a young athlete of making the NBA--no, less--of making the All-Star team. That's about it. It's really not democratic.

Limp Bizkit's first notoriety happened with your paper. What happened?

For better or worse, MTV is listening to kids--maybe for the wrong reasons--but how many people outside that world listen to kids on a daily basis?  Hardly any.  How many businesses?    government?  So that's the thing.  It's easy to target them. Before Limp Bizkit became the darlings of the rap rock set, they were attached to a scandal. Limp Bizkit's management company bought an hour's worth of radio time on Modern Rock Radio. This, of course, was scandalous to anyone who believes in the separation between art and commerce. It was certainly not unprecedented, considering that payola scandals have been with us since the days of Alan Freed in the 1950s. However, for the band to break in that way, especially fairly soon after the whole alternative rock phenomenon when we had a brief moment where we felt that rock bands had integrity, was a scandal. What's interesting about the Limp Bizkit scandal is how quickly it faded and how soon both the industry and the critics and the public were willing to forgive and forget.

So after Limp Bizkit started to get successful, the first demand, practically, that Fred Durst made was that he become a vice president of his own record label or of his record label. This is actually not that unusual these days for stars. What's more unusual is, say, Madonna's deal with her record label, Maverick, where she actually is the controlling factor and seems to exert both financial and artistic control. Most artists who have these little boutique labels are its vanity projects. Their name's attached. It's a good way to promote a new artist and it makes them feel in control.

With Fred Durst, though, on the other hand, see, he'd thought about it. It's very easy to see Fred Durst sitting at Jimmy Iovine's knee and becoming the next Jimmy, becoming the next record man. I don't see why that couldn't happen. Herb Alpert did it. After "Tijuana Brass," he became a big record executive. Why not Fred Durst?

The point is that he wants it.

It's important to stress; however, that for Fred Durst to want to become a businessman is not new in music, and it's really not unusual in the current scene. It's just unusual for a white person, for someone who's associated with rock. With hip-hop, think of Puff Daddy, one of the most famous rappers out there. He was a record executive before he was a rapper. He's always presented himself as a mogul first and an artist second.

This is not at all uncommon for hip-hop artists and for R&B artists also. Heavy D, one of the earlier rappers, has been a record label executive. Babyface, one of the great R&B artists, is a record executive. So in black music, in R&B, it's very common. It's just for some reason we think that the counterculture is so pure, the white counterculture's so pure. So it's a shock when it happens with one of those artists.

Does the fact of this kind of commercial pursuit estrange the music from its roots?

I don't mean to be cynical. But I really don't think you can pinpoint a moment of purity in popular music where it was divorced from commercial desires and commercial interests. What I think you can see that's different now, which can be read as less pure, I guess, is that the consumer, the fan, is so much more aware of the machine. So Fred Durst being a record executive has been not only good for his career, but it's been used by his publicist as an attractive aspect of his image.

That would never have been an attractive aspect of Elvis Presley's image or David Crosby from the 1960s. His image was something like that. Jimi Hendrix's image--can you imagine? No, because at that time, people believed that popular music was a space of freedom, a space of escape, a place where you can get outside of your day-to-day, concerns and the business world was part of the day-to-day. Now, I think, hip-hop has given popular music a flavor of being about the day-to-day. It's changed the purpose of the music a little bit. And for young people, for even the youngest people, 12-year-olds, 14-year-olds, they know what a manager is. They know what a VP executive is. Why not? They know what the NASDAQ is, if they're on the internet. So why not that?

What about the difference between editorial and commercial not existing?

The idea, for example, in MTV of what music news is, is very much tied up with what the network is promoting at the time. I don't think anybody at the network would deny that. It's basically the same thing in the music press if you really look at it. Rolling Stone or Spin, for example, do have separation between editorial and ads, but certainly the editorial is driven by the same companies that buy the ads. In a weird way, that's even more of a marriage than MTV, because MTV has ads from, whatever, some mint or something or Burger King. Their ads are not necessarily from the record labels. . . .

When MTV first debuted, basically everyone saw it was a station of commercials. Videos were originally television commercials for artists. There was never an idea of separation in the industry about that, and artists accepted that. I think if you talk to any average artist, that's what a video is. It's making a commercial. So MTV, in a sense, was one of the first infomercial stations. The information you were getting was about the new bands. And as MTV became a cultural force, it had to establish an identity apart from just the videos and the VJs introducing them. So they did things like created a new department that actually does serious news. You had Tabatha Soren, for example, interviewing presidential candidates. They created specials. They'd do all that non-music programming. But at its heart, at its origin, is the idea of selling music, selling music for the major labels, really. Indie labels were never really represented on MTV. . . .

MTV is basically a tool of the music industry. It's part of the music industry, but it wouldn't exist without the records that it has to sell. It exists as basically a promotional tool, and that's how it originated. Since then, it developed its own identity; it has other aspects to its identity, but that's its heart and soul. And I don't even think that's really a negative thing. That's just what it is. It's just reality.

How do we reconcile that with their very strongly held conviction, belief--or whatever you call it--that they are going into the lives of kids and representing the lives? They do more than market research. They say that this is about the kids, that this is their channel. It's very hard to reconcile those two things.

Is it so hard to reconcile the idea that MTV represents what kids want and that MTV is selling music to kids? And what kids want is to buy music, among other things. They also want to buy fashion, fast food, all of those things. Kids want other things, as well. But I think if you really sat down with an MTV marketing director and asked them what they mean by saying that they're representing the kids, they're representing the kids' consumeristic desires. That's part of being a human being, and it's part of being a citizen, frankly. It's part of being an American, at least. And that's what MTV's hooked into and they've done it very well.

Is the feedback loop from kids actually a disempowerment for kids?

Certainly as a commercial television station, MTV wants to sell kids and wants to know kids in order to sell to them. The argument against selling to kids confronts our whole system. And I think to single out MTV, frankly, is kind of a straw dog. MTV is a place where kids congregate, so I guess they're easy to target. But I just think it's so obvious that they're selling to kids, and I wouldn't expect them to do anything else. Rock 'n roll has always been sold to kids, from the beginning. I guess I don't have a problem with that.

A lot of purists say, even music critics say, that they're not giving kids enough choice. But the thing is, nobody's forcing kids to watch MTV. I review concerts for a living. I go out and see kids all the time, checking out subcultures, finding their own thing. And with the internet, it's ever more possible to find your own thing and completely avoid this monolithic corporate culture of television and music television. It can be done, and a lot of kids are doing it all over the country, all over the world.

So I think the thing that frustrates me is that we live in a society in a country where we've limited our interest in kids to this question of whether or not MTV is somehow controlling their minds in some kind of Orwellian way. I actually, frankly, find this offensive. For better or worse, MTV is listening to kids--maybe for the wrong reasons--but how many people outside that world listen to kids on a daily basis? Hardly any. How many businesses? How many other aspects of government? So that's the thing. It's easy to target them.

. . . What do you, as a music critic, think of the argument that when so many strong commercial forces are applied to art and music that bubbles up from below, you get an emptying of content, a cheapening of the art? It becomes forms of music that are either pre-fab, or rage without any kind of direction, and that isn't really music.

I just don't believe in that kind of cultural elitism. Yes, there's plenty of stuff that's at the top of the charts that, when I look at it as a critic, I certainly don't prefer it to some incredibly complex, obscure, post-rock symphony that I can get if I go to the specialty record store. But the thing for me that's fundamental in music is the magic that happens when the audience and the music come together.

The thing that I'm most impressed about today in this supposed wasteland of commercial music--which I do find frustrating for myself--is how much kids can do with it, the power that kids have to finding meaning, energy, and their own truths in this stuff that, to an average 36-year-old, looks like pap. I've been to a lot of Limp Bizkit concerts. I've been to Backstreet Boys concerts. I've seen the kind of passion that teenyboppers have toward a teenypop band like the Backstreet Boys. I've seen young girls raise their fists in rage and connection to Fred Durst, a man that I think insults them with almost everything he writes.

Something is going on there. Something alchemical is going on there, and that's what I've found the most intriguing about this moment. We can sit here and condemn this moment, but for those kids, it's what they have. And I always feel like, when we condemn the moment, we're condemning the kids a little bit. As a former Andy Gibb fan, as a former teenybopper myself, I just can't go down that road.

What's your take on the rap metal genre?

One thing that doesn't get discussed very often about today's supposed wasteland of music, and especially about rap rock, is that one of the most popular bands in the genre was Rage Against the Machine. They were a highly political--in fact, radical--socialist band whose lyrics addressed issues like sweatshop labor, the Zapista struggle in Mexico, the WTO demonstrations. Rage Against the Machine was the most political band of the 1990s, bar none, that hit a mainstream audience. They were also a rap rock band. So throw that into your equation.

Nonetheless, Rage Against the Machine was marketed and sold the same way Limp Bizkit was sold. They were on MTV as well. They were on a major label.

So that's the funny thing about the market, right? It's not moral. It doesn't have politics. It is an empty machine that we feed. And I like to see that rock 'n roll can be fed with something that I think is good, like Rage Against the Machine. They broke up, by the way.

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