The results of my informal poll have come pouring in, and there's essentially a four-way tie between U2, Radiohead, Wilco (despite my plea) and Outkast. Not a surprising list, but oy. Outkast I can live with, and it seems to me that if an argument is going to be made for any single artist or band's current importance, they're the ones to make it for. As Jacob Danziger, featured in Audiofile a few weeks back, wrote to me, "Is there another band that is as universally loved by people who don't listen to very much of the genre that they represent? Can you imagine a rock band that every hip-hop kid liked?"
U2? They haven't introduced a stylistic innovation in nearly 20 years. Radiohead? They crystallized a moment, and that moment has passed. And Wilco? Well, let me clarify. Many of you, understandably, got the impression that I loathe Wilco, which is far from the case. They do what they do very well, and "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" is an extraordinary record, a record that I love. But for all their occasional brilliance (and the only consistently brilliant thing on the snoozy "A Ghost Is Born" is Jeff Tweedy's guitar soloing), this band has become little more than the sound of white, affluent, middle-aged America.
Other frequently cited bands: Sleater-Kinney, Limp Bizkit, the White Stripes, the Flaming Lips, Mars Volta and, with astonishing frequency, 50 Foot Wave, a band that clearly has an intensely devoted fan base.
I'm somewhat surprised that there were no votes for Beyoncé, Timbaland, Eminem or the Neptunes, all artists who seem to have a more viable claim to importance currently than Wilco, Radiohead or U2. I'd think that it was my fault for having not made it clear that I didn't just mean bands, but any musical artists -- except that that didn't stop a boatload of votes for Dylan and Springsteen.
Many readers also felt that no band or artist can really claim to be the most important right now, and if I had to come down on one position, that would be mine as well. There are many great bands, many bands that seem to dominate specific scenes, but there are none that define their time as Nirvana did in the early '90s, or the Beatles did in the '60s.
Jeremy Schlosberg, who maintains the excellent Fingertips site, writes: "While I don't think the 'important' label is inherently meaningless, I fear that our speed-infatuated Web-based pop culture has helped to make it so, particularly with the Internet's capacity to foster and nourish e-mob rantings, ravings and backlashes. Nowadays it seems pure automatic sport first to affix the 'important' label and then to strip it, as soon as possible. The cycles have gotten so swift that maybe that alone keeps any band from really feeling 'important' anymore. For instance, I can't imagine the Arcade Fire will be 'allowed' by the e-mob to stay great, even if they put out another great CD, and another. After all, they've already gotten too much mainstream media attention. Time to move on to someone else."
And as for what "important" means? Many of you think it is meaningless, or, as I had put it, "imprecise bullshit critic speak." (That's my vote.) But plenty of definitions were offered too, most boiling down to the idea that it's a combination of innovation and popularity, or, as one writer put it, "having the tendency to push musical boundaries, while at the same time reaching a large enough audience to have an impact beyond a niche group." Chris Holm thinks it's "a bizarre alchemy of heart and head and pelvis."
The whole idea of any contemporary band being important rubbed some people the wrong way, prompting a lot of "things aren't what they used to be" kind of comments, worded with varying degrees of vitriol and patience. "The 'C' in rap is silent," Ignatius Reilly wrote to me. "Don't ever delude yourself into thinking that today's music will ever compare in any way to the music my generation grew up with through the '60s. I know music and I know crap when I hear it. This is all crap."
It's true, my generation lives in perpetual envy, under the shadow of the '60s' intimidating pop-cultural legacy. But between our Björks and Becks and Timbalands and Missys and M.I.A.s and Spoons and "Toxics" and "Naughty Girls" I think the '00s are shaping up quite nicely, thank you very much.