ROCKTOBER 2012: 1997 - Everything Is Gonna Be OK

1997 was a year in transition for the music industry.  As Chunky Rusty noted in his paean to 1996, the mid to late 1990s found the music industry uneasily poised between the business models of the past and an uncertain digital future.  While (as anyone who was in college in 1997 can tell you) folks had already discovered how to upload their music to the Internet and share it with friends, the process was still unwieldy for most (IRC / FTP sites anyone?).  Napster was still two years away from release and broadband Internet was not yet widely available outside of the dorm.  As such, the CD, with its $17.99 price tag (or life ruining Columbia House subscription) was still the king of the home listening market.  And, if CD was king, radio was its ubiquitous, frequently annoying herald.

If 1997 is not the year with the most overplayed, persistent radio earworms in history, it must be in the top-5.  It is as though the music industry saw the changing landscape and, in a pre-emptive move to retain a stranglehold on the listening habits of the American populace, launched an all-out assault on the nation’s earholes.  But don’t take my word for it.  Rather, take a listen to this list of 9 radio mainstays from 1997 that you will be unable to get out of your head for the next week:

Put these in your ear and, uh, smoke em.

You’re welcome…and I didn’t even bother to include some of the truly execrable crap that was unleashed on the listening public that year like Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love and its ubiquitous single “My Heart Will Go On.”  Shania Twain’s Come On Over may not impress you much but it did sell over 40 million copies worldwide, barely half of the sales garnered by the Spice Girls for their 1997 effort, Spice World.  And, of course, Limp Bizkit’s historically awful rap-rock opus, Three Dollar Bill Y’all$, somehow managed to be the nadir of both of its constituent styles.

However, despite the continuing power of commercial radio and the omnipresence of these pop artists, 1997 also saw the emergence of new and diverse influences on the popular charts and an accelerating fragmentation of what remained of the musical monoculture.  On one end of the electronic spectrum, Portishead released their eponymous album which represented the high water mark for the fast disintegrating trip hop movement (Massive Attack’s Mezzanine came out in 1998 but that was more of a last glorious gasp amongst the wreckage).  On the other, Prodigy (Fat of the Land), the Chemical Brothers (Dig Your Own Hole), and DaftPunk (Homework), among others, made major inroads into the American music scene, introducing a generation of Yanks to European electronica dance music (much to the chagrin of actual Europeans and American dance music aficionados, who now had to deal candy ravers from Des Moines extolling the virtues of the video for “Smack My Bitch Up.”). 

But perhaps the greatest document of the influence of electronic sounds on the pop art of 1997 is Bjork’s Homogenic.  An album that defies easy categorization even today, the album showed Bjork moving away from her peppier roots and into a darker, weirder place. Throughout the album she plays with electronic textures (both on the album and over many, many remixes) and her own idiosyncratic voice to create a wholly unique listening experience, that seems to exist outside the late 1990s or any other time.

In the world of indie rock, the “old guard” and young guns alike were operating at the height of their powers.  In this vein, it bears mentioning that one of the main reasons that indie eventually went mainstream, a little website called Pitchfork, was just getting started.  Though it hadn’t developed a large readership, much less its ability to define the musical zeitgeist, it was yet another indication of the changes that were about to sweep the music landscape.

Notably, indie rock progenitors Pavement released their final album, Brighten the Corners.  It was far from their best work and the band’s internal conflicts made themselves known in the quality of the songs and production but it was still a solid effort and a fitting swan song for one of the most influential bands of the decade.  As Pavement was winding down, another major scion of the indie rock world was just getting started in Modest Mouse.  While the Mouse had previously released a couple of EPs and their first album, This is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About (no, Sad Sappy Sucker doesn’t count), it wasn’t until 1997’s The Lonesome Crowded West that their trademark sound truly coalesced.  Songs like “Cowboy Dan,” “Truckers Atlas,” “Trailer Trash,” and “Doin’ the Cockroach” remain fan favorites and concert mainstays to this day.  And, if that wasn’t enough, they also tossed off an excellent EP, The Fruit That Ate Itself.

While Modest Mouse was taking its first bold steps towards becoming indie rock royalty, fellow north westerners Sleater Kinney, were bringing a very different sound to the semi-mainstream.  As longstanding scions of the Riotgrrl movement with two previous albums (Sleater Kinney and Call the Doctor) under their belts, the ladies of Sleater Kinney were not exactly unknown quantities to music lovers or critics.  However, with Dig Me Out, they further refined their punk influenced guitar heavy sound, creating an album of ear bursting bangers that showcase the musicianship and political edge that made their names.  Tracks like “Word and Guitar,” “Dig Me Out,” and “Dance Song ‘97” are so damn good they should be taught in guitar rock 101.

So, that’s it…oh, and some band called Radiohead released an album called Ok Computer.  It was played on the radio and in clubs.  It sold millions of albums, won awards, and made critics weep with joy (then sadness when they realized how dissociated they were from their fellow man and that the mechanization of culture would eventually strip them of the last shreds of their humanity).  It was rock and electronic, indie and mainstream.

Remember that time when Radiohead WASN'T the best band in the world? Yea. We don't either.

Really, Ok Computer it represented 1997 perfectly.  It was the fear of mechanization and dehumanization set to a beat and distributed by machines.  It was a monocultural event that was also weirdly, counterintuitively unique.  It established Radiohead as “the savior of rock,” when rock was the last thing they had in mind.  It seemed like the future laid bare…and it still does 15 years later.  It’s also a hell of an album, just as good on the 100th spin as it was on the first.

 This is what Paul was listening to in 1997.

 This is what the rest of the world was listening to.