Rock gets rolled over

Culture | Sluggish rock sales, Hollywood's Matt Drudge, C-SPAN turns 20, and other cultural buzz

Issue: "God, Caesar and taxes," April 17, 1999

The year the music died?
Rock 'n' roll won't live forever after all. Decades of musical dominance may be going away because pop music itself seems to be a dying art. While the sounds of the pop divas and teen idols can still carry a nice chunk of change, reaching that mass audience is getting harder and harder. Here's a sign: Rock music is losing market share, according to a new industry survey. Those aged 15 to 29-the folks who keep the rock business alive-accounted for only 39 percent of music purchases last year. That's down 3 percent from the previous year, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Online music piracy, which is an epidemic today, can't account for all of this drop. The last decade has seen an explosion of formats and styles, but they haven't added up to big sales. While Hispanic music, rap, and R&B have skyrocketed this year, rock's market share is falling through the floor. It only made up 26 percent of the music sold last year (down from 33 percent in 1997 and 42 percent in 1989). With a selection so large, some people may be choosing to choose nothing and sticking to their old favorites. Christian music, which tends to be two to five years behind the times, is still imprisoned by the soft rock/country mix familiar to radio listeners. Today the rock music business may be in trouble. It can't drive many mega-sellers into the postmodern marketplace. It can't keep up with the MP3 technology available in any shopping mall, which lets people make their own CDs that hold over 10 hours of music. With a market so diverse, the next Elvis, Michael Jackson, or Mick Jagger will never be created. There are no gatekeepers to usher them into stardom. It's amazing that the decline of rock, which has come to define American culture, is going unmourned. Classics as teen flicks
Want Shakespeare in Seattle? The Taming of the Shrew is the basis for the teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You (Touchstone; rated PG-13 for profanity and adult themes). This is another of the romance genre in which the turning point in life is a senior prom. Ever since Clueless updated Jane Austen's Emma and became a hit, filmmakers have rushed to turn literary classics into teen-exploitation flicks. Updates of Pygmalion (as She's All That) and Les Liaisons Dangereuses (as the vile Cruel Intentions) are currently showcasing Gap-escapee adolescents at the multiplexes. 10 Things I Hate About You features the Stratford sisters: Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) and Kat (Julia Stiles). Younger Bianca is cute and popular, while Kat is obnoxious, anti-social, and reads Sylvia Plath. Their divorced father wants to keep the more-desired out of trouble; he says she can't date until her sister does. That launches Bianca on a quest for a guy willing to date her man-bashing big sister. So her two suitors, vain Joey (Andrew Keegan) and nice guy Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) come up with a plot to pay off this Shrew's Petrucchio, named Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger). The rest of the movie plays out from there. One cheesy bit about a rapping English teacher actually works (Daryl Mitchell). The suburban Seattleite Dad in this film is more likable than most heads of households in recent years, but he's played as hung up over letting his daughters run their own lives or some such. That so many fathers in today's movies are so wimpy tells us something about our society. This movie doesn't rise to the level of Shakespeare in Love, but it has some clever moments. Once the story is rolling along, though, it drops down to the crude sitcom-ish level. There's the usual battle-of-the-cliques going on, the standard teen party that wrecks somebody's house, and a steady stream of cheap gags eating space. This won't change anybody's view of Shakespeare. Leaking the bombs
The Internet doesn't create celebrities. It builds up people like Harry Knowles, an Austin, Texas, webmaster who built a site called "Ain't It Cool News" and raised the ire of Hollywood. In Matt Drudge-like fashion, he built up a network of contacts to pass him dirt on the latest movies. Mr. Knowles also did something the studios considered unpardonable: He posted reviews from people who attended test screenings around the country. Those showings were intended for market research, not the press. But it meant Mr. Knowles's readers knew that certain movies were clinkers well in advance of opening day. "Ain't It Cool News" was partially blamed for the failure of movies like Batman & Robin and Godzilla. Mr. Knowles's star is rising as the industry figures out how to co-opt him. He's scored a few movie bit parts and even snagged the chair next to Roger Ebert for one post-Siskel episode of Siskel & Ebert. His site may leak some tidbits about Star Wars, but it isn't electrifying reading. He's just a big fanboy. The reviews look like they were written by college freshmen who happened to be in the mall at the right time when the movie passes were being handed out. But the site's reviews are early, and that's enough to give studio execs a quick headache. In the past, the movie industry has used the press as an extension of its publicity machine. "The Golden Age of Hollywood" was also a golden age of hype. The studios controlled information about their projects until the reviews came out. Now there's too much media floating around to hold off a leak. Today, a movie opens on Friday and its success or failure is added up when the receipts are counted Monday. If bad publicity hits too early, that might bite into opening ticket sales, from which it may never recover. Hollywood builds movies on its marketing campaigns, not the quality of its films. If the secret gets out that many movies are bad, the business will sink. Happy Birthday, C-SPAN
Brian Lamb is one of the most enigmatic people on American television. The chairman of C-SPAN presents endless hours of congressional coverage and assorted beltway events without dropping the slightest hint about what he really thinks. Watch him on Washington Journal or Booknotes or his other appearances and he pulls off this amazing feat without a hitch. And he's been doing it for 20 years. C-SPAN is a tradeoff between Washington and the cable industry. In exchange for providing gavel-to-gavel coverage of the House and Senate, TCI, Cablevision, and the rest get to do a "public service" that might win the favor of a few legislators. That's why C-SPAN exists with a money-losing $33 million annual budget. While a relatively small audience of news junkies tune it in, the network's sharp neutrality is familiar to every cable viewer. Everything about C-SPAN looks spartan: simple, stationary camera angles, press pool feeds, and no commentary. You can believe it because it's raw, untouched, and live. Congressmen immediately caught on to the demagogic possibilities. The Senate wanted its share of attention, so C-SPAN2 came in 1986. The two networks played out the full hearing-room melodramas of Oliver North, Clarence Thomas, and Monica Lewinsky. They've taught us what Robert Dornan, Barney Frank, and Carol Moseley Braun look like. C-SPAN led the way for CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and the rest, which have siphoned off the hard news audience from broadcast TV. Instead of everyone having no choice but to watch David Brinkley or Walter Cronkite, America is split between a majority that is apathetic about events and a minority that still cares. C-SPAN itself serves the hardest of the hard core.

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