Years from now, when people look back on the pop music situation in 1991, the significance of the last 12 months may well stand out with crystalline clarity. But for those of us stuck in the present, this was the year pop music stopped making sense.
It isn't as if nothing happened, mind you. To the contrary, it was as if the year were one unending news bulletin. There were scandals and scares, rumors and revelations, breakthroughs and breakdowns -- everything, it seemed, but a way of making sense of things.
Let's start where most people in the industry start: with the money. Concert business was a disaster, with promoters nationwide losing millions on such seemingly sure-fire acts as Whitney Houston, Huey Lewis, Diana Ross and Steve Winwood.
Nor were things much better in the record business, where dollar volume was up slightly (thanks mostly to a shift away from cassettes and toward costlier CDs) but unit sales continued to slide and industry belt-tightening was signaled by a series of corporate contractions that included layoffs at Island Records, Atco, Chrysalis, SBK and EMI.
Yet Columbia paid $13.5 million up front to ink a deal with Aerosmith, even though the aging hard rock act still owes two albums to its current label, Geffen Records. And this after Sony ++ Music, Columbia's parent company, finalized a deal with Michael Jackson said to be worth as much as $1 billion.
Sony wasn't the only music corporation with deep pockets, either. Virgin reportedly paid $44 million for the Rolling Stones and $30 million for Janet Jackson; Elektra finalized a $25 million -- deal with Motley Crue.
Is the music business in a recession? Or is business booming? Obviously, not even the industry itself knows. So rather than try to draw any conclusions about an obviously confusing 12 months, let's take a quick look at some of the year's highlights and low points.
Say it loud, he's back and he's proud: South Carolina finally did the right thing, and released James Brown from prison on Feb. 27. Brown wasted no time getting back on the good foot, announcing a string of concerts, releasing a new album (the solidly soulful "Love Over-Due"), and shooting a video proving that, at 58, he still dances better than half the stars on MTV.
A quick thaw: Vanilla Ice practically owned the album charts for the first three months of the year, thanks to his fancy footwork, blond good looks and his multi-platinum debut, "To the Extreme." But both of his follow-ups -- the concert album "Extremely Live," and a feature film called "Cool As Ice" -- flopped big-time. By year's end, the once-mighty Iceman was cavorting with other has-beens on "Circus of the Stars."
He has the touch: When the video for Michael Jackson's "Black or White" originally aired, some viewers were upset by a dance sequence at the end in which the self-declared King of Pop repeatedly grabbed his crotch; Jackson's moves, they said, were too explicit for young fans. But doesn't that make some rash assumptions about Jackson's sexuality -- like, for instance, that he has any?
Old wine, new bottles: Perhaps the happiest byproduct of the CD revolution has been the flood of reissues, which in '91 included such spectacular packages as Polydor's James Brown box, "Star Time"; Atlantic's "The Complete Stax/Volt Singles"; Rounder's Jimmy Rodgers series; and Mosaic's "The Complete Roulette Live Recordings of Count Basie and His Orchestra." But there is a downside to all this old gold: 1991 also saw the release of Chicago's four-CD "Group Portrait" and a Monkees box set called "Listen to the Band." Sometimes, it seems, history repeats like a bad meal.
Bush league: In June, when N. W. A.'s "Efil4zaggin" found an immediate audience among young, thrill-seeking rap fans for its calculatedly brutal tales of sex, murder and debauchery, the group was lambasted for the utter amorality of its get-the-money-and-hang-the-consequences approach. In March, when N. W. A. leader Eric "Eazy-E" Wright attended a Washington luncheon for Republican high-rollers (George Bush was the speaker), he was said to fit right in. Is it just me, or is there a connection here?
Stop the presses: Apparently disappointed that last year's "Death of Rock" stories didn't pan out, the popular press decided this year that Garth Brooks' stunning success meant that rock was being pushed aside by country, despite a near-total lack of corroborating evidence. No doubt it's just a plot to set up next year's big trend piece: "The Return of Rock and Roll."
That's the ticket: Faced with playing to half-empty houses at $21 a ticket, bands like Damn Yankees discovered that not only could they increase attendance by lowering ticket prices, but that doing so helped build audience loyalty. Now that's a trend worth pursuing.
The best of '91 . . .
1. James Brown, "Star Time." An exquisite selection from the work of rock and roll's greatest performer.