The film industry may be currently going through a crisis, but it’s got nothing on the music biz. Over the past decade, there was a paradigm shift in the industry and huge, fundamental changes in the way people discover, buy and listen to music. Ten years ago, the idea that everyone would cease going to record stores to flip through plastic discs and would instead buy music digitally, completely devoid of a physical medium, only existed in a fringe world called Napster.
Now record stores are all but gone, and the album as an art form exists only in the fringe world of purists. We’ve become slaves to the mp3 single and the little sweatshop-produced devices we rely on to listen to them. The new Luddite is just the poor iPhoneless wretch who manages to get by with only a BlackBerry.
The volume of music has changed too, in both decibels and quantity. Bad recording habits created a culture of one-upmanship and ever increasing levels of compression during mastering — that’s why CDs and mp3s sound like crap next to a good LP (on a record player with a decent needle). With the rise of digitized delivery, the way we hear music has become the auditory equivalent of a traffic jam, a deafening pile-up of Ford F-150s all adorned with a deafening pair of rubberized truck nuts, each louder than the next.
When Radiohead sang “Anyone can play guitar and they won’t be a nothing anymore” in the early ’90s, many of us took that to heart. Maybe too many — it sometimes seems like everyone under the age of 35 is either in a band, starting a band or quitting a band. What stands out above all the noise of the Naughts and captures its tone all at once? What tune, chosen to play on some future soundtrack, would sum up exactly what post-millennial era the movie we’re watching takes place in?
Music is such a personal thing, more so, really, than film, and perspective here is tougher. While Radiohead seems an obvious emblematic choice for the era, “Knives Out” and “Pyramid Song” just don’t hold up objectively — this isn’t about the best band or my personal decade. (If that were the case, I’d be choosing from among Fleetwood Mac, Philip Glass and Velvet Underground records.)
In a decade of war and great political upheaval, maybe a song like Brooks & Dunn’s “Only in America” would be a fairer choice, a track that was used constantly by Bush and the GOP starting back in 2000 and heavily recycled in 2004 to draw lines in the sand between Democrats and Republicans and who had country music on their side. Incredibly, President Obama used this same song for his inauguration in 2009, confounding many and making this flag-waving hit the biggest song in American politics.
But is that who we are? Have the last ten years been a tug of war over “Only in America,” a battle for the heartland and the twangy sound of the red-blooded blue collar voter? A large portion of the country would say you betcha. But the true character of this decade has been just the opposite of that — something less serious, with more shake in it. The fact is, most people have little connection to politics outside of election years, and even less connection with our ongoing wars. To honor the Naughts, we need something with more baby dolls and suga in it.
Something glossy, something shiny, something universal — like Outkast’s “Hey Ya!”.
Yes, “Hey Ya!” been ubiquitous since it “put the world on fire,” as a friend of mine in the biz put it — from the first episode of “Entourage” to the beloved “Hey Ya! Charlie Brown Christmas.” It speaks to everyone, but isn’t about anything. It’s a jumble of jive talk and good times, but also has a great honesty about a generation with a score of double zero: “Thank God for Mom and Dad for sticking two together ’cause we don’t know how!” (“This is a celebration of how men and women relate to each other in the 2000s,” André Benjamin told VH1.) It topped the charts in 2003, as the U.S. military went to war in Iraq and the rest of us went to the mall. It struck at the height of hip hop, and more than that, the heart of pop.
If “Hey Ya!” doesn’t feel heavy enough to be emblematic of the closing decade, well, for all the ’00s’ weight, we remain a nation of lightweight plastics, obsessed with entertainment and celebrity. Perez Hilton called “Umbrella” the best song of the last ten years — you can’t even set up a Ponzi scheme on taste like that, but it’s what we’re awash with, easy metaphors and color-saturated tweens. There are graver candidates for tune of the times — take Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion (Lies),” which would be the melodramatic echo in what quiet moments of introspection were left, post-“Hey Ya!”, over, the flagship song on an album (“Funeral”) that influenced and launched an armada of indie bands. But for all its earnestness, the sound of “Rebellion (Lies)” is easily washed away. Ten years from now, when it comes on the radio (or stream cast, or whatever we’re listening to by then), it’ll just blend into the many emo refrains played by those many bands from across suburban North America that the Arcade Fire inspired.
No, what will endure as the soundtrack of our Naughts lives is the genre-busting anthem where Andre 3000, ice cold, told us all to “shake it like a Polaroid picture…” (which, by the way, is the wrong thing to do). And maybe it’s fitting that the most famous line in music in this decade of debacles, fraud and bad fiscal advice perpetuates a complete fallacy.
I don’t mean to hate. “Hey Ya!” has proven to be genius, handsomely delivered pop that remains undeniably unforgettable, sugar spun the finest of the fine, and, in these days of niches within niches, maybe the last giant crossover hit that the world could sing along with. As frivolous as “Hey Ya!” may at first seem, compelling questions and honest admissions exist in its funny funked world. “Why are we so in denial, when we know we’re not happy here?” At the Naughts’ end, André 3000’s musings are at once a battle cry and a weary plea. We just wanna shake it.
This feature is part of the Naughts Project.