What we're going to hear next

Most record execs agree: Youth pop is fizzling

rock will rule.

Pop Music

November 18, 2001|By Geoff Boucher | Geoff Boucher,Special to the Sun

Trying to predict music trends is like tossing darts blindfolded. It's even worse for the music executives who have to do it for a living. For them, it's more like throwing darts at a bull's-eye on the ceiling above their desks: If they miss once, it's going to hurt. If they miss a lot, they leave the office a bloody mess.

Some knowledgeable, top-level executives were invited to speak with candor and anonymity via blind quotes. The core question: Which music movements and genres are hot and which are not?

Most think the youth pop craze will hit an awkward age in the next year. (A few even think it will completely evaporate.)

Few are sold on the viability of the new wave of rap artists who resist hard-core sensibilities.

They worry about (or ignore) the grim state of country music, but they couldn't be happier about the lovely new faces of R&B.

The near future of rock could be a return to big, melodic rock and punk-pop sound beloved by the young.

The conclusion: The size of the marketplace and the meshing of different sounds make it more complicated than ever to place sure bets. "If I knew, really knew, the next big thing, then I'd be in fat city," one said. "The longer I do it, the less I know."

Here's what they did know:

"The thing I see right now," said one of the executives, "is a lot more rock albums drifting up toward the top of the music charts."

The question is, which type of rock is going to be stronger?

Most said aggro and heavy rock acts accounted for their most recent and coming signings, and many of those have some hip-hop component, suggesting the wave of Limp Bizkit, Korn, Papa Roach, etc., is still building.

One panelist, though, blanched at that thought. "I think the Limp Bizkits of the world sound dated to me. It's old. Let's move on."

Return of the rock star

He went on to predict that the pounding metal sound of rap-rock will yield to one that also has attitude but more range. "Hip-hop and rap will continue to influence rock and other genres. I just don't think it will be as obvious or as limited as Limp Bizkit."

One exec insisted that a young wave of Mick Jaggers and Aerosmiths is right around the corner. "I don't think radio is seeing it yet, it's about nine months to a year out. But this new generation, all of them have guitar solos again, big, melodic rock, huge rock choruses, and musicianship and the rock star is coming back. ... No DJs, no rapping, no synthesizers. Rock stars ... and the girls will be taking their tops off again."

In recent years, criticism of hard-core rap has come not just from the usual quarters (politicians, parent groups, etc.), but from the hip-hop community itself. A big reason: artistic staleness. Bling, bling. Been there, done that.

So music executives must be optimistic that all of this is going to change, right? Not even close.

'It was ahead of its time'

The wave of critically acclaimed "positive" hip-hop stars -- among them Jurassic 5, Mos Def, Common, Black Eyed Peas and the Roots -- has yet to click on a major commercial level, and executives said they don't think it's going to happen any time soon. It's not the themes that keep hard-core rappers at the top of the charts -- it's their studio prowess and sound.

"This positive / conscientious hip-hop is more of a hippie, spoken-word thing. If it was more danceable ... it would be more commercial," one executive said.

Said another: "If you're talking about street records, it needs to be a kind of language that is universal. When it becomes too fancy, it becomes more difficult. But the sound has promise. If you look back at Arrested Development -- it wasn't a fluke, it was ahead of its time."

No topic elicited more derision than youth pop. The genre has been the record industry's best-selling performer in recent years, led by Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync. The labels have made a lot of money from the sound, but one executive was still amazed to hear occasional defenses of it as meaningful music: "You know things are getting crazy when artists you respect are saying, 'Hey they're really good, they're really good.' Please. Sure, those kids have talent and they do what they do and there will usually be a market for that. But c'mon. It is what it is."

In the late 1990s, the female voice surged in rock and pop (Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan) and country (Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Dixie Chicks), and now R&B and neo-soul are ramping up with a collection of female singers who tap into either hip-hop, gospel or the singer-songwriter sensibility.

It's this year's new sensation, Alicia Keys, along with Lauryn Hill, Macy Gray and Jill Scott who seem to best exemplify the vibrant movement in the genre.

One executive with a roster light on R&B acts finds great inspiration in the new scene. "It was only a matter of time when the Billie Holiday sort of voice would emerge again in some sort of contemporary way, and I think there are a number of singers that have that now -- it's healthy and great. It's artistry at its highest."

Geoff Boucher is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing Newspaper.

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