Chumbawamba have just split up. It is July 2012, and the way the news has gone viral online, you’d think Gen Y has gone into a state of deep mourning. All of a sudden, we seem to care about the British band Americans know for one song only, a horrible, dude-y, football-esque (or “soccer,” to normal people) 1997 hit called “Tubthumping.” As soon as the “Tubthumping” hype turned to hate (it didn’t take long), Chumbawamba fell off the radar completely.
But now that they’re really gone after an apparent three-decade career (I know, crazy), we feel an ironic sorrow for some nineties memories that now somehow seem iconic.
Taken objectively, the body of musical work produced during Gen Y’s formative years isn’t exactly an example of creative brilliance. But we’re beginning to understand and experience a phenomenon that happens so universally—that distance yields genius. This is not to say that we now consider “Tubthumping” to be some musical masterpiece. (We’re not that dumb.) But while Billboard-topping acts like Britney, Smash Mouth, the Spice Girls, SisQó, Ace of Base, and Barenaked Ladies rank nowhere near in caliber to, say, the Beatles, they’re all important in their own ways, or at least more kindly considered, thanks to an ample dose of nostalgia.
This may be because our nostalgia isn’t just about the songs. It’s about an era in which the music industry was still hanging on to an old-school model before Napster would come along and desecrate it, "Independence Day" style. As our generation began bridging the gap from physical to digital, we realized that we’d also be the last group to experience a pre-digital music industry.
We began consuming music under highly controlled conditions. Information was fed directly to you through "TRL" or other mainstream media sources, and then it was up to you to acquire and keep information, which was valuable. Your CD collection was, after all, a representation of your allowance. It was also a physical embodiment of how cool you were.
As for me, I found myself forming three different relationships to music in my pre-MP3 days. There was my mainstream catalog, which included the stuff that everyone listened to. These were largely teen pop singers and boy bands—Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Mandy Moore, Backstreet Boys. The type of music emblematic of fantasy Hollywood lives. The kind of catchy tunes meant to be shared at school dances and slumber parties. The kind of driving-in-a-car-with-your-girlfriends music that made you feel like this is our moment and you’d almost see things in slow motion.
Then there were soundtracks. The "Romeo + Juliet" soundtrack was and will forever remain huge for Gen Y. Some other notable favorites: Titanic, She’s All That, and The Wedding Singer. (Ironically, my introduction to eighties music would come from that last soundtrack, and it took me years to realize that “Rapper’s Delight” doesn’t actually feature a rapping eighty-year-old woman.) The tracks on these compilations would be tied to movie images and fictional moments, oftentimes involving imaginary makeout sessions with Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Phillippe, Skeet Ulrich, or Freddie Prinze Jr. On these discs were songs that hypnotized, causing you to replay fairy-tale scenes. Think daydreamy ballads like Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me” or the infamous “My Heart Will Go On”—the melodies that drive an adolescent girl to wax poetic on love and life in countless diary entries.
But most valuable to me in that library wasn’t the stuff handed over by YM or Carson Daly. It was the stuff you had to discover (which I knew was infinitely cooler), largely gifts created by Gen X musicians or handed down to me by Gen Xers: Liz Phair, Elliott Smith, Nirvana, Beck, the Smiths, R.E.M., Radiohead, Pavement, the Cranberries, Everything But the Girl. Kind of mysteriously, these groups hinted at a world I’d eventually get to be a part of. This world was outside my bedroom, but far from MTV, and included unbelievably cool people who sat around listening to this same exact CD. I wanted to go to there.
I finally got to there around the time I started college, but by then things were rapidly changing. For a while there was a genius program called MyTunes that let you essentially copy and paste songs from any iTunes library on a shared network. It was awesome. There was so much out there, and we were obsessed with acquiring all of it, fattening up our iTunes libraries to hold days’, weeks’, and then months’ worth of music. I downloaded everything with a name I’d heard of and then downloaded anything with a name that sounded cool (which would account for my extensive collection of Sun Ra). The rate of discovery at this point increased dramatically, and music really began to lose its tangibility. Instead, we found ourselves having this new and amazing advantage of getting to know a new indie group like the Shins or hear the latest Belle & Sebastian album without having to wait for it to make its rounds to us.
Over the years, the result has turned music into a huge, shared thing that exists around you more than it defines you. Instead of discovering, we’re pulling from “clouds” and all sorts of different sources. The accessibility has allowed us to broaden our musical tastes, but it’s also given us a shorter attention span. A perfect example might be Gotye’s 2011 album, "Making Mirrors."
Gotye was, for lack of a better word, what you’d call an “indie” artist. His hit, “Somebody That I Used to Know,” enjoyed a brief stint as a hipster anthem. It was a beautiful song with soulful vocals. Until all of a sudden it sucked.
In the blink of an eye, a little bit of good was enough to catapult Gotye to mass status. The idea of someone like Gotye having the number-one album in America would have been sheer lunacy in 1999. But now popular tastes have shifted to include things that should be niche. It’s unlikely that Gotye will come to belong in the same class of obsolete, one-hit, mediocre bands like Chumbawamba. But then again, that’s what we said about John Mayer. If only we could have had the foresight to see that “Your Body Is a Wonderland” is so not.
Excerpted from "X vs. Y: A Culture War, A Love Story" by Eve Epstein and Leonora Epstein. Published by Abrams Image, an imprint of Abrams. Copyright © 2014 by Eve Epstein and Leonora Epstein. Reprinted with permission of the authors and publisher. All rights reserved.