Thanks to fans and foes


Popular music is one of the great passions of my life and

I've spent almost 30 years of my career writing about it. Although I've left

the game for the new generation of music journalists to sort out, I still enjoy

music with as much passion as I did as a teenager listening to London Calling

or The White Album for the first time.

This year's Grammys, the television event where the music

business hurls a little bit of everything at a confused nation for three hours

a year, was a messy, vulgar, over-the-top affair as usual.

For the first time in years, things are looking up for the

field of recorded music, which completely collapsed for good in the mid-1990s

after a decline that started around the time that John Lennon died and picked

up steam as the millennium approached.

There are actually new superstars and legends of the 21st

century. Beyonce and Jay-Z are known the world over in the same way Michael

Jackson was. And whether you're a fan or not, Lady Gaga is this decade's

version of Madonna and Taylor Swift our Stevie Nicks.

Meanwhile, there seems to be a greater appreciation of the

great legacy of recorded music bequeathed us by previous generations. The

Beatles, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan and Tupac Shakur are heroes to countless

numbers of young Americans, and disaffected high-school kids still have posters

of Kurt Cobain and the Sex Pistols on their walls.

The Grammys broadcast mixed Dylan, Mick Jagger and Barbra

Streisand with Rihanna and Arcade Fire, and the strange mash-up worked. This

year marked a return of style, swagger and sexiness that made Grammy shows such

a blast when I watched them as a child in the '70s.

The music industry seems like a more enjoyable business now

that it has accepted the fact many people who consume recorded music prefer to steal

it instead of buying it. Artists have long dreamt of a day when "music would be

free," although they got more in the bargain than they'd hoped.

Maybe there are still teenagers who flock to music stores

and enthusiastically spend their allowance money or their paycheck from

McDonald's on CDs, but most young people I know download whatever they want for

free whenever they feel like listening to it.

Music has changed from a product enjoyed in a physical form

— crates full of vinyl, CDs and tapes — to a much less constrained

product. If you want to download the entire recorded history of the Beatles or

Pink Floyd, for example, all you need is a high-speed Internet connection and

BitTorrent, not a fistful of $20 bills.

When you have an unlimited supply of music, as most music

fans do, you tend to pick a little bit of everything. Billie Holliday and

Paramore. The Flaming Lips and Donovan. Classic soul and jazz and rap are just

a click away.

Whether there is an immorality in stealing vast amounts of

music is an irrelevant point, since wishing people started spending big money

on music again is like wishing Bill Clinton was back in the White House. It

simply isn't going to happen.

So with the music executives seemingly surrendering to the

inevitable, they put on a Grammys show that encapsulated the most outrageous

elements of modern music while still trotting out the oldtimers for another

turn in the spotlight.

Seeing Cee-Lo Green dressed like Elton John was great fun at

the Grammys, as much fun as admiring Katy Perry's bountiful cleavage and

Rihanna's dancing. The fact that Bob Dylan's voice sounds even more hoarse and

gravelly than it did five years ago is a reason to celebrate.

When Arcade Fire, an independent label band, finally took

home the prize for Album of the Year and closed the show with two stirring

numbers, the picture was complete.

This was the year that the music business stopped trying to

fight the battles of the recent past and began, at long last, to get back to

its roots as the purveyor of wild, colorful, energetic fun.

It seems as if the reality has sunken in. Even the cheapest

iPod will hold hundreds and hundreds of songs, available on demand. This

metamorphosis has solved the inherent problems of the music industry's delivery

issues by eliminating them entirely. There is no need for record labels except

as publicity machines, not aggressive sales agents — and they're not even

very good for that.

What the music business is good at, however, is finding

attractive, voluptuous women to sing pop songs, groups of nervous young men to

summarize teenage angst, and convincing the hitmakers from decades gone by to

come out and play one more time.

In that sense, the Grammys served its purpose as an

informercial for recorded music. More than that, it held out the hope that

music, once again, might someday return to its former position as the most

vibrant, innovative and exciting medium in entertainment.

If so, it would be a welcome return to relevance that music

hasn't seen in years. Let's hope it happens.


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