For those who like music with an edge, "I'll Make Love to You," by Boyz II Men (the biggest selling single in the country for over two months now) is not just annoying; it's an affront. Not only doesn't "Love" have an edge--it doesn't have a top, a bottom or sides. It's an amorphous, squishy blob of a song that the four primary members of this vocal ensemble deliver with all the sincerity of baseball owners claiming that they tried their best to avoid a strike. Plenty of hackneyed romantic imagery is bleated throughout the tune, but its genuine emotion could fit comfortably inside a thimble.
Worse, this tune is the rule, not the exception, on the current Billboard magazine Hot 100 Singles chart. Among the first ten songs, there are at least four cuts that are nearly as saccharine as the top dog. "Never Lie," by Immature, is more harmony dreck, Aaliyah's "At Your Best (You Are Love)" and "When Can I See You," by Babyface (who wrote and produced the Boyz II Men smash), are nothing more than dewy-eyed invitations to smooch. Most frightening of all is "Endless Love," a remake of the bathetic Lionel Richie-Diana Ross vomit-inducer from 1981 that features Luther Vandross and Mariah Carey. This endless ditty is the signature piece from Songs, a new Vandross album built upon slightly altered versions of other terrifying artifacts, including "Evergreen" (Barbra Streisand's most wooden hit), "Killing Me Softly" (Roberta Flack's four minutes of fame), "The Impossible Dream" (from Man of La Mancha, for Christ's sake) and another Richie composition, "Hello" (remember the video with the blind girl? Eeeesh).
What's going on here? The same thing that happens during every fallow period in pop-music history. When nothing exciting is happening--no hot trend or collective creative breakthrough--consumers return to the tried and true. And no sonic archetype is sturdier than the icky ballad. The careers of artists from Pat and Debby Boone to Barry Manilow and Gilbert O'Sullivan demonstrate the resilience of this lowest-common-denominator twaddle. Like roaches, these songs seemingly can't be destroyed.
This latest batch of songs suggests, then, that the other currently popular genres and subgenres may very well be running out of gas. Right now, there are plenty of hip-hop singles on the roster of sales leaders, and some of them ("Fantastic Voyage," by Coolio, Salt-N-Pepa's "None of Your Business" and "Bop Gun [One Nation]," by Ice Cube and George Clinton) are quite entertaining in a brainless sort of way. Unfortunately, many more are disposable kiddie rap. As for the much-vaunted alternative scene, it's currently languishing in the chart's backwaters; cuts by Nine Inch Nails, Liz Phair and Weezer remain north of the Top 40, while R.E.M.'s much-hyped "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" (currently at number 25) has lost most of its momentum after only six weeks.
By contrast, retro--especially Seventies retro--is in. Sheryl Crow's "All I Wanna Do" could pass for Linda Ronstadt circa Heart Like a Wheel, Collective Soul's "Shine" calls to mind subpar Bad Company, Candlebox's "Far Behind" is forgettable hard rock that harks back to a forgettable era, and Ace of Base's "Don't Turn Around" and "Living in Danger" will have you pining for Abba. Neat trick. In addition, the industry's big movers include a slew of artists who fall into the adult-contemporary category (Amy Grant, Toni Braxton, Anita Baker) or come off like Boyz II Men or En Vogue clones (Jade, All-4-One). And talk about flashbacks: The Tokens' 1961 hit, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimoweh)," is enjoying a new wave of popularity, thanks to its brief inclusion in The Lion King, which also foisted several of Elton John's most soporific songs on the public.
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Fortunately, the albums that presently are flying out of stores are generally a more interesting lot; it's nice to see Green Day and the Offspring in the top 10; although these groups, too, are retro, they recall a style (punk) that hasn't yet been done to death. Nevertheless, the shortage of recordings that represent truly fresh directions means that we're apt to be subjected to a lot more treacle in the near future.
Of course, music that sounds cloying to us today may strike listeners in the future as strangely compelling; witness If I Were a Carpenter, the new tribute to the Seventies king and queen of easy listening that features performers within spitting distance of hipness. Fifteen years from now, it's possible that the future equivalents of these artists will be doing ultracool covers of Boyz II Men songs.
Possible--but not bloody likely.