YEAR IN REVIEW 1995 : Comfort-Food Menu : Nothing wrong with soothing, but ‘95 had precious little tang or edge to balance the froth.
What does it tell us about the state of pop music in 1995 that quarter-century-old table scraps from the Beatles end up outselling everything else in sight?
Quite a lot.
The most popular music over the years, from the Beatles and Motown through Michael Jackson and Hootie & the Blowfish, has usually given us what we want to hear--songs that comfort or celebrate, entertain or inspire.
But much of the most important music goes beyond that fundamental goal and addresses unsettling issues and themes that we prefer to ignore--from the violent assault of hard-core rappers Ice Cube and Public Enemy to the youthful anger and alienation of such ‘90s rockers as Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails. It’s active music that makes us question our attitudes and assumptions.
Some of the most captivating music of the modern pop era has been able to combine these traditions, giving us best-sellers that dealt with the issues of the times. Bob Dylan challenged us and still sold millions of records. So did the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield and U2.
All too often in 1995, however, the best-sellers simply comforted or entertained. Call it the Year of Soothing Pop.
One reason for the absence of challenging works on the best-seller list was that many of today’s most absorbing artists--from Pearl Jam and U2 to Nine Inch Nails--didn’t release albums this year.
But it’s also clear that the pop world didn’t look for substitutes. Most mainstream fans didn’t want to be bothered with society’s problems. They wanted to be cushioned from them.
The Beatles showed the power of Soothing Pop late in the year, when their “Anthology 1" sold more than 2 million copies in the U.S. following its Nov. 21 release, and Hootie & the Blowfish demonstrated that power all year, registering more than 6 million in sales for its likable but limited “Cracked Rear View.”
The Beatles’ album, according to retailers, was gobbled up mostly by baby boomers who grew up either during or close to the band’s active years and are able to recall the wonder of the music and the times.
The nostalgia lure was so strong for those wanting to celebrate the Beatles once more that it didn’t even matter that the music on the two-disc set was chiefly ragged demo tracks and early, alternative versions of the Beatles’ hits--music that is of vast interest historically but hardly something you would sit down and listen to repeatedly the way you might a formal Beatles album.
The Hootie success was no less impressive. The South Carolina pop-rock band’s album--still in the Top 10 sales chart after more than 70 weeks in the stores--has been declared by the Recording Industry Assn. of America the third most successful debut ever.
Hootie brings us smooth, highly accessible music that mixes a trace of ‘60s soul with a gentle brotherhood message that echoes its racially integrated lineup. “Life’s too short to hate each other,” singer Darius Rucker told a Greek Theatre audience last summer. “Just drink a beer, be nice and have fun.”
That message--at once lightweight and unpretentious--pretty much summarizes Hootie & the Blowfish itself--a band with songs about gentle regrets and enduring dreams. Sweet and simple.
“Hootie songs are lullabies, with big surging choruses and what must be deliberately obvious lyrics,” Eric Weisbard wrote in Spin magazine. “It’s recovery music, and unlike Pearl Jam, who musically create some of the harshness they’re helping you escape, the Blowfish practically stick a milk bottle in your mouth and tuck in your sheets.”
It’s no wonder the group has been such a hit among mostly adult followers in the Year of Soothing Pop. It is surprising, however, how deep an emotional chord the band has struck.
You might have thought that Hootie, however disarming the group’s “aw shucks” manner onstage, would have been out of its league at the Bridge benefit concert last fall in Mountain View, on a bill with Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and the Pretenders. Yet Hootie got the loudest response of the night.
And Hootie isn’t alone.
If you look at the four dozen or so albums that have sold 1 million or more copies this year, according to SoundScan, the majority--whether pop, rock, country or soul--fall under the “soothing” umbrella.
The artists may speak about romantic troubles and life’s hurdles, but they do it in ways that rarely threaten or unsettle. Among the comforting albums and their 1995 sales: Live’s “Throwing Copper” (about 3.4 million), Boyz II Men’s “II” (3.2 million), Shania Twain’s “Woman in Me” (2.4 million), Sheryl Crow’s “Tuesday Night Music Club” (1.9 million), Blues Traveler’s “Four” (2 million) and Mariah Carey’s “Daydream” (2.7 million).
One of the few exceptions to this Soothing Pop onslaught is Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill,” which addresses romantic obsession and betrayal with a frankness and bitterness rarely heard in mainstream pop. It has sold more than 3.5 million copies--and is far more engrossing than anything else in its sales class.
Let’s hope that the success of Morissette, whose music combines the explosiveness of the alternative rock world and the accessibility of the mainstream, will encourage her fans to check out the music of such equally rewarding and demanding artists as PJ Harvey, Courtney Love and her band Hole, Ani DiFranco and Carla Bozulich of the group the Geraldine Fibbers.
But even “Jagged Little Pill” had a seductive lure in “You Oughta Know,” a track whose anger at a former lover was directed with such flash-point fury that it seemed to become an anthem for wronged lovers everywhere. In some ways, then, that album and song, too, may have been comforting to their audience--the sweet sting of revenge. Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket,” another key song from the collection, was indeed one of the feel-good anthems of 1995.
By contrast, there was nothing reassuring about Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” an album that is viewed in the record industry as defiantly uncommercial because it went further than any other in telling us what we don’t want to hear.
The stark and uncompromising album deals with life in America--at least the lives of millions of Americans, both native-born Americans who have become viewed as obsolete in the new economic order and recent immigrants who are viewed as invaders rather than new arrivals.
When Springsteen used to speak of the highway in his songs, the road was a symbol of future and freedom. Now, the highway is a dead-end, a cruel, mocking reminder of social indifference.
“The highway’s alive tonight,” he sings in the album’s title song. “But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes.”
The disheartening thing about “Tom Joad” isn’t that it has sold only about 300,000 copies since its release last month, but that it stands virtually alone in speaking about social problems in a nation besieged by them.
When pop has been at its healthiest in the rock era, the best artists have helped set the social agenda--at least for young America. In 1995, the disappointment wasn’t just that few fans seemed interested in hearing this message but also that so few artists even tried to reach them.