It wasn’t only at the Voice that the emerging subgenres of pop were considered proxies for the social and political sensibilities of various subcultures. This ethos was common to the prominent national music magazines of the 1990s. Spin was the home of the indie rock and hip-hop generation. Sassy was aimed at feminist girls. Vibe targeted blacks, and The Source was for hardcore hip-hoppers. The writers for these magazines socialized together, and the Voice continued to be a place where they aired their ideas in print. This is not to suggest that every piece of writing—or even most of them—viewed the music as a political cudgel to forge and defend subcultures. But many of these writers seemed to put the melting-pot philosophy firmly behind them. As they saw it, pop music didn’t dissolve the boundaries between listeners; it reminded them of exactly who they were.
Now, thirteen years after Powers left the Voice, this equivalence of personal identity, pop culture, and politics seems both overheated and out of line with how Americans listen to music. For one thing, identity politics have fallen out of intellectual vogue. For another, the idea that one must relate to Eminem’s fantasy of killing his wife in order to enjoy the song “97 Bonnie and Clyde” never made complete intuitive sense. Still, the more elusive question is why the critical establishment failed to find a new argument for the importance of pop music (let alone its own role as interlocutor). And that discussion must begin with the alternative press and its ubiquitous successor, the Internet.
The sensibility of pop-music criticism has always found its fullest voice in the alternative press. The reason for this is that the most memorable music critics have been self-styled members of an insurgency. In this way they, like the pop musicians they covered, have struck an anti-professional pose. Never mind that many of them were and are literary stylists, products of the Ivy League and its equivalent, with a fair amount of theoretical expertise. They presented themselves as members of the audience, who, by virtue of their position in the press, were able to intervene in the national conversation, and to make room for voices and ideas that might not otherwise find their way into print, or even television and film. When Jon Landau argued for the importance of Bruce Springsteen, or when Greg Tate did similar honors on behalf of Public Enemy, they were both convening an audience and declaring the cultural and political significance of its tastes.
By giving everyone the ability to publish, the Internet represented a victory for this populist sensibility. But it also took the critical prerogative out at the knee. Add to that the fact that during the Web’s rapid maturation, many music writers were preoccupied with un-popular pop music (there’s an oxymoron for you), and it becomes harder and harder to make the case that a professional critic’s opinion should be taken more seriously than that of the Internet Everyman: the blogger.
The Internet did not make the music irrelevant. Indeed, a case can be made that this is a particularly fascinating moment in pop-music history. Hip-hop, which has succeeded rock-and-roll as the dominant genre, is arguably the most direct line to urban black America ever invented. Indie bands like The Shins, the Magnetic Fields, and the Fiery Furnaces have won national audiences without the benefit of mass radio or television exposure. And American Idol is perhaps the presiding cultural metaphor for American meritocracy and the currency of celebrity. Nor did the Internet truly balkanize the broader culture, which has always been a fluid and multifaceted beast. Rather, it revealed the volatility of the cultural moment—and reminded us of just how complicated it can be to get a critical grip on even a song-length fragment of it.