The line on Chicago's 1993 contributions to the national pop firmament--Liz Phair, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Urge Overkill--is that they've in effect agreed to disagree on musical approaches, making for a fractured "scene" with little cohesion. This is true, but their stylistic differences mask the philosophical ground that unites them and seems likely to influence a second wave of bands from Chicago in 1994: an explicit rejection of much of the insularity that increasingly characterizes underground music and the fringes of underground music in America. Few would question what I guess would be called the artistic integrity of any of these acts: yet they've avoided (Phair), criticized (Pumpkins), or loudly abandoned (Urge) the harshness, vontrariness, and machismo of the underground in favor of a professed desire to sell records. Hence the reaction of certain fans, smaller record labels, college-radio DJs, and other scenesters: scathing attacks on Urge, gleeful, sexist whispers about Phair, the contemptuous dismissal of the Pumpkins' Billy Corgan. Of course, the players have to varying degrees brought a lot of their problems on themselves, and at any rate they're beginning to see the sort of bank balances that tend to put such problems into perspective. Yet each artist had to grapple with what's supposed to be a dichotomy between being popular and beeing "alternative." Once it became apparent that the line between the two was blurring, the rear guard from the underground--which I would define as deliberately nonpop, whereas I guess alternative would be relatively personal music that doesn't necessarily exclude pop--tried not only to keep them clear, but to make a big deal about which side of the line you were on. This, of course, is bullshit, and these artists took a stand and the resulting heat to prove it.
Corgan, whose teen-friendly guitar-rock seems a likely foundation for a Depeche Mode- or Cure-sized career, had the best '93, finding the critical respect denied him in his hometown from the likes of the LA Times's Robert Hilburn and the New York Times's Jon Pareles (who named Siamese Dream their number-two and number-three albums of the year, respectively) and scoring an album heading for double-platinum status. Urge Overkill, a band made up of some very smart boys acting dumb, had a more ambivalent year, cursed, you might say, by the granting of all their wishes. The band had a good record company enthused about promoting a good record, and good wishes and support from all quarters: both alterative and mainstream radio, the press, MTV, Nirvana, you name it. Yet for some reason, while the group's very smart record sold respectably, it never really clicked with buyers. Nor did its even smarter videos turn on the MTV kids. On balance, the band was either too smart about being dumb or too dumb about being smart. You decide; Hitsville's head is spinning.
Of the trio, Phair (whose album wasa number one on Pareles's list, number six on Hilburn's) had the roughest year as Guyville bit back. Growing up in public is no fun, and there's no good advice (just a lot of it) about how to navigate the infrequently traveled path she seems to be on. The snarkiness of the local music scene is irrelevant to most normal people, of course, but Phair, for better or worse, live in the midst of it and has endured its extreme, almost pathological preoccupation for about 11 months now. It's difficult to overstate the sheer volume of noise about Phair around town, ranging from slurs about her personal life to endless discussions about when she actually first heard Exile on Main Street (the record she based Exile in Guyville on) to charges that her label (the acerbic Matador) wasn't indie enough. As an amateur Phairologist and free-lance moralist I deem far too much of it nasty to be healthy and the very fact of its existence much more interesting than its substance. Phair's certainly pushing somebody's buttons.
In other local news, Q101's heavily programmed alternative format rolled up ratings. It's a funny station: song for song, it probably plays better music than any other outlet around, and it's pretty aggressive about doing what radio stations should do, which is play new music from new groups. But it has three major problems: One, it almost never plays music by black people. Two, its playlist is far too small, sometimes approaching Top 40-style rotation. And three, it has a museum-quality selection of numbskull disc jockeys. Everyone I know has their favorite embarrassing Q101 DJ moment; Hitsville will be ahppy to list his own and favorites of any readers at some future date.
The Loop, one of the most famous and successful AOR stations in the U.S., abandoned rock music altogether this year. (Disclosure: Hitsville does a talk show on the Loop, but since none of the other papers in town have written about this subject, I figure it's worth mentioning.) The Loop always had a notoriously tight playlist even by AOR standards; pinched by the heavy metal of the Blaze on the right and 'XRT and Q101 on the left and seeing its own audience aging fast, the station took advatage of relaxed FCC ownership controls to buy the Blaze, turned its AM to sports talk, and gave up the ghost on AOR entirely in favor of all talk. Who could have predicted, just a few years ago, such a major shift in the configuration of rock radio stations in one of the largest markets in the U.S.? Could it be that--oh, nevermind.
Hitsville's Top Ten
Liz Phair Exile in Guyville
Urge Overkill Saturation
Dr. Dre The Chronic
Nirvana In Utero
P.M. Dawn The Bliss Album...?
Bettie Serveert Palomine
Jimmie Dale Gilmore Spinning Around the Sun
Stereolab Transient Random Noise Bursts With Announcements