More than a year after its release, Creed's shamefully derivative Human Clay remains in the Top 10. The Grammy nominees for Album of the Year are a joke (Midnight Vultures? Paul Simon?). And Christina Aguilera is turning into the Connie Francis of the 21st century, churning out niche-market product at a dizzying rate; next stop, Christina Sings Japanese Favorites and Hanukkah My Way. Sometimes pop music is so gut-wrenchingly banal I want to stick my head in the oven. What the world needs now is a three-armed Boy George.
The other day a friend was complaining about the bright faces of the WB and the meticulously manicured sounds of the Mickey Mouse Club. "Teenagers hijacked our pop culture," he moaned. I chuckled and ran my fingers through my graying hair; we turned into the cranky old farts we used to wag our pierced tongues at.
Pop culture is youth culture. I have no objections to that. I love 'N Sync as much as the next godless homosexual or seventh-grade girl (not that there's a world of difference between the two). What baffles me is when did adolescence in America become so rosy that kids stopped making stars out of artists who behaved even weirder and more fucked up than the average 14-year-old and his or her sea of roiling hormones? The airwaves still hum with songs fueled by the same emotions: anger, angst, unabashed romance. What's missing is imagination.
When I was in high school, I didn't want bands that looked like my classmates; I craved exotic creatures whose very existence promised a more interesting life beyond the suburbs. And thanks to MTV, I got them: Annie Lennox, Cyndi Lauper, Prince. I remember the first time I saw the cover of Culture Club's Kissing to Be Clever and thinking "Who let Brooke Shields make an album?"—and the visceral thrill when I discovered that was actually a man, a big old drag queen, prominently displayed in my local record shop. Who is turning heads like that today?
(And no, I am not calling for yet another New Wave revival. They had that in England a couple years ago. It was called Romo—as in Romantic Moderns, a spin on the New Romantic tag that dogged Spandau Ballet and Visage—and although it spawned a couple of good-for-15-minutes bands, the trend was so blatantly calculated you could set your Swatch to it.)
Back when so-called "modern primitives" were coming into vogue, and tattoo parlors hadn't moved in next to the Disney Store at the mall, some wag asked me what I thought would follow when folks had covered every available surface in ink, punctured every flap of flesh, and stitched every last ball bearing under their scalp. In Amsterdam, kids had reportedly started chopping off knuckles and augmenting their abbreviated digits with customized metal tips; I proposed going further and grafting on fantastic prosthetic limbs. Voilଠmore canvas for the needle and the hole punch! Alas, this idea hasn't taken off like I'd hoped; even in LA, plastic surgeons are reluctant to give you so much as a pair of elf ears, let alone a third arm, no matter how much cash you flash.
So far, the only successful musician that's come anywhere near fulfilling this dream is artificial limb enthusiast Marilyn Manson. Coincidentally, he's also the only genuine weirdo who can still get face time on MTV, nurturing a modicum of promise for future generations. Sure, Holy Wood rewrites much of Antichrist Superstar, and Mechanical Animals wasn't much more revolutionary than the best of Gary Numan, but at least the man can hold his own on Politically Incorrect, as opposed to the member of 'N Sync (I believe it was the perpetually stoned-looking Lance Bass) who, on a recent talk show, answered the question "What are you reading lately?" with a quizzical "You mean, like a book?" If Bowie was my gateway to Genet, Brecht, and Cocteau, hopefully Manson is turning some of the Hot Topix set on to Andrew Vachss and the Brothers Quay, and making them at least consider the possibility of a world where Carson Daly is less influential than the president.
Perhaps the distance between kids dressing up as their favorite member of Slipknot and 15-year-old me going through a whole canister of mousse trying to fashion a hairstyle that emulated all three Thompson Twins isn't as vast as it seems. But for now, I'm hoping that life under George W. Bush is as oppressive for the arts as it was with his heinous father and Reagan so that a new clutch of outrageous characters will come crawling out of the woodwork and into the Top 40. Because I truly believe it's essential for breathtaking freaks to be part of the pop landscape—and unfortunately, Michael Jackson's new album still isn't finished.