Whatever happened to rock and roll?

December 30, 1990|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Never mind the best and the worst -- it was easy enough to pick out the big stories for popular music in 1990. They were as obvious as the headlines:

*Mandatory record labeling bills were introduced in nearly 20 states, including Maryland; on May 9, the recording industry headed off legislation with its own standardized Parental Advisory sticker.

*"As Nasty As They Wanna Be," an album by the rap group 2 Live Crew, was declared obscene in June by a judge in Florida's Broward County. Arrests followed; though members of the group were acquitted on charges stemming from a nightclub performance, a local record store owner was convicted and fined for selling the album.

*Milli Vanilli, a dreadlocked pop duo from Germany, were exposed as frauds Nov. 15, when producer Frank Farian announced that the duo hadn't sung a note of the multi-platinum "Girl You Know It's True."

*A sexy, steamy video for Madonna's "Justify My Love" was banned by MTV Nov. 24; three weeks later, the single was at No. 2, the album at No. 3, and a commercially released version of the video became an instant best seller.

Yet the year's biggest story never made it into the headlines. Maybe it wasn't as scandalous as some of the others, or perhaps its development was too gradual to be summed up in a single event. Still, the fact remains: In 1990, rock and roll was no longer the dominant sound in popular music.

Don't believe it? That's understandable. After all, rock and roll has dominated America's pop charts for the better part of three decades. What was once the bane of parents everywhere is now the music mom and pop (and, in some cases, grandma and grandpa) choose for their own entertainment. Rock and roll, it would seem, is definitely here to stay.

And stay it might, but its grasp on the pop charts is growing increasingly weak. As Billboard magazine reported last month, rock "has steadily been losing [its] chart share to pop, R&B and dance recordings." Moreover, the chart-watchers said, two-thirds of the rock that did appear was of the hard rock or heavy metal variety.

In other words, if it's only rock and roll, we don't like it.

Some of this, of course, could be ascribed to the fact that a number of big-name rockers -- Bruce Springsteen, Van Halen, John Mellencamp, R.E.M. -- weren't in the running. On the other hand, a number of classic rockers who did turn out this year pulled up lame. Disappointing sales dogged efforts by Fleetwood Mac, Hall & Oates, Pretenders and Whitesnake, while comeback attempts by '70s rockers Styx, REO Speedwagon and David Cassidy died on arrival.

Certainly, the biggest stars of 1990 -- Madonna, M. C. Hammer, Janet Jackson, Bell Biv DeVoe, Mariah Carey -- were by no means rockers. Instead, what the pop charts emphasized was a whole new groove, one that replaced rock and roll's venerable backbeat with the more contemporary syncopations of hip-hop and house.

Rap, for instance, had an incredible year on the pop charts. M. C. Hammer's "Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em," spent 22 weeks at the top of the Billboard charts, selling almost a million a month since its release eight months ago. But Hammer's successor on the charts -- "To the Extreme" by white rapper Vanilla Ice -- has sold even faster, moving more than 5 million units in just 12 weeks.

Factor in the platinum-plus success of Public Enemy, Digital Underground, L. L. Cool J, Ice Cube and Heavy D., and it seems obvious that rap is no longer a minority music.

Dance music enjoyed a similar boom, as D-Mob, Deee-Lite, Lisa Stansfield, Black Box, Technotronic and Michel'le went from the clubs straight into the Top 10. America may have had little interest in the heavily hyped lambada, but it felt right at home with house music.

Rock didn't simply roll over and play dead, of course; there was plenty of old-fashioned, guitar-based excitement to be heard. But so much of it seemed caught up in the past, whether from revitalized vets like Neil Young and Paul McCartney, or tradition-bound youngsters like World Party and the Black Crowes. And isn't it a bit telling that Led Zeppelin -- a group which stopped recording over a decade ago -- means more to today's rock fans than most modern bands?

Fortunately, there is also a growing number of rockers willing to change with the times. Sinead O'Connor was typical of this year's crop; her "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" substituted R&B balladry and hip-hop beats for the punk guitar, and made her a star. Faith No More took its mix of hard rock and rap from the alternative charts straight into the Top 10.

English guitar bands like the Soup Dragons and the Stone Roses plugged into an acid house groove and turned the alternative scene on its ear. Once-gloomy acts like Depeche Mode and the Cure further consolidated their hold on the mainstream with dance-happy new albums. Even heavy metal turned funky, as bands from Extreme to Living Colour got on the good foot.

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