The Closing of the American Ear

We have more musical choices than ever before. So why are so few of us taking advantage of them?

The late Christopher Wallace, who went by the names Biggie Smalls and the Notorious B.I.G., is represented on the Billboard roster of best-selling albums by Life After Death, which at this writing remains the third most popular recording in the country nine weeks after its release. "Hypnotize," the lead single from the two-disc package, is even more well-liked, holding steady in the number-two slot on the singles charts following a brief run in the pole position. Such popularity has led many industry observers to identify the work of B.I.G. as the music business's best hope for shaking out of the slump in which it's been mired since last year. And yet, if you ask the average Caucasian over the age of 25 what he thinks of the set, odds are extremely good that he'll tell you he hasn't heard it. Moreover, most men and women in this category are familiar with Wallace only because his death, on March 9 of gunshot wounds, made the front pages.

How can this be? After all, it wasn't that long ago that hit songs from across the stylistic map reached people of every color, creed and gender. Individuals might have had personal preferences--enjoying, say, rock more than soul--but they were exposed to a wide variety of sounds and had easy access to material of every description. Hence, a sizable percentage of listeners had eclectic tastes. It was not uncommon to thumb through record collections and find a country album beside a funk disc, a heavy-metal platter next to a rhythm-and-blues offering, a jazz effort juxtaposed with a reggae classic.

But not anymore. In 1997, more folks than ever pledge their allegiances to a single style and reject everything else with a virulence that's downright disturbing. The result is the "disco sucks" mentality that struck so many morons during the Seventies writ large. It doesn't take much detective work to find know-nothings who'll tell you that all C&W is stupid or that acoustic music is indefensibly bland or that hard rock as a whole is mere racket--and all too often, these opinions are accompanied by the most noxious stereotypes imaginable. If you dig hip-hop, you're a gangbanger or a crackhead. If you listen to electronic dance music, you're a faggot. And on and on and on.

There are plenty of reasons behind this state of affairs, and an equal number of culprits--including MTV, which no longer plays videos at times when most people can see them. But it's clear that radio has played a key role in depleting the population of well-rounded music fans. Whereas a substantial number of programmers at stations during the Sixties and Seventies prided themselves on broadcasting different styles and DJs were given the opportunity to engage in musical mixing and matching, today's outlets are tightly formatted in order to appeal as directly as possible to specific demographic groups. For example, the corporate suits at one signal may want to attract upper-income women between the ages of 18 and 34. To accomplish this goal, they'll finance surveys and focus groups in which test subjects that fit within the designated parameters are asked what sorts of songs they like most and least; then the power-wielders will design an overall approach that provides what the listeners they most covet say they want.

That sounds nice on the surface, but the effect of such micro-management is willful one-dimensionality--a station that does one thing, and one thing only. For that reason, someone who'd like to hear an assortment of music is forced to search the radio dial in the hopes of happening upon a pleasant surprise now and then. Only a relative few bother, however. The rest end up gravitating to the most familiar sonics they can find and staying there, or giving up on music altogether in favor of talk radio. No wonder sales are down--and bigotry about music is at an all-time high.

The various responses to the Notorious B.I.G. illustrate the repercussions such prejudices can have. Wallace got his first taste of fame in 1993, when he was heard on singles by Mary J. Blige ("Real Love" and "What's the 411") and dancehall-reggae figure Supercat ("Dolly My Baby"). But he made a much larger impact on the hip-hop scene with his debut long-player Ready to Die, a great-sounding but morally suspect collection of street tales that were as politically incorrect as they could be. "Gimme the Loot" and "Me & My Bitch" pretty much established his persona. In the former, he used his booming voice to boast about violence and mercenariness in extremely graphic terms ("For the bread and butter/I'll leave niggers in the gutter...When I bust my gat/Motherfuckers take dirt naps"); in the latter, a love song of sorts, he paid tribute to a woman who eventually died for him with lines like "When I met you I admit, my first thought was the trick/You looked so good, I'd suck on your daddy's dick" and "When the time's right, I beat you right." These words landed with an even greater wallop when coupled with Biggie's admission to interviewers that he had once been a drug dealer--and that he felt precious little guilt for having engaged in that occupation.

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