The breakdown

DECADE IN MUSIC: A hyped-up digital decade stung by its own long tail

Guardian illustration of Rihana, Lady Gaga, and Britney Spears by Matt Furie and Aiyana Udesen

DECADE IN MUSIC The long-tail slither of the ugly aughts connected umpteen memes: from the rise and fall of Napster to the triumph of "freemium" and the tragedy of the commons, Britney's vanilla titillations to the haute couture blandishments of Lady Gaga, the funky vulture schematics of Beck to the smoky heroin whispers of Amy Winehouse, the Cristal-fueled corporatism of Jay-Z to Lil Wayne's codeine-and-tattooed hallucinations — then on to Gwen Stefani, Friendster, TV on the Radio, Justin Timberlake, Franz Ferdinand, Lil Jon, Radiohead, M.I.A., Bonnaroo, the Strokes, Björk, Peaches, the Black Eyed Peas, Justice, Ghostface Killah, Missy Elliot, Pharrell, Animal Collective, Kanye West, and the Libertines ...

We, the greedy-eared, were merely supplicants in the age of relativism, competitively rationalizing any product a multinational corporation, small business, or dude in his bedroom surrounded by thrift shop gadgetry marketed to us. So when half-naked Disney Channel tarts got dirty and partied in the U.S.A. with sk8er bois, we loved them as feminists disturbing the status quo and made them VH-1 Divas. When thugs in white tees commanded us to drop it like it's hot, sold us crack music, and promised to P.I.M.P. us, we hailed them as cultural revolutionaries and gave them Pepsi and Sprite commercials. And when hordes of drive-by truckers took us out, screamed silent shouts, and brought good news for people who love bad news, we granted them a 9.0 rating on Pitchfork and a headline spot at Coachella.

But we should have known better. When positive word-of-mouth and community spirit is codified into "murketing," popular artists become ready-to-sell-out brands, and songs are critiqued through cyberbuzz and SXSW showcases, then even hipster nerds, true-school backpackers, stolid minimalists, and iconoclast idolaters are susceptible to megabucks advertising campaigns and Clear Channel heavy rotation schemes. (Only the overly familiar arc of hype kept its traditional shape in the warped musical universe with his provocative 2000 masterwork The Marshall Mathers LP [Interscope], Eminem twisted shock-jock observations over steroidal keyboard tracks, leading Rolling Stone magazine to dedicate an issue to "The Genius of Eminem." Nine years later, the rapper's album Relapse scored 59 out of 100 on the reviews aggregator Genius: still fleeting, apparently.)

Overshadowing it all was what Time magazine recently called "The Decade From Hell": the hanging chads of the 2000 election, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the red state-blue state civil wars, the housing bubble. The world did not end, but we swathed ourselves in materialist follies like grief-stricken widows turned desperate housewives, cougars on the rebound. We justified our war on ourselves with a complex financial instrument called "freeconomics." We raped and pillaged our creative communities and paid nothing, and only offered a salutary blog post in return.

Amiri Baraka once called music "The Changing Same." Written in 1966, his essay was an old jazz poet and cultural activist's valiant attempt to reconcile his beloved "new thing" of free jazz and Black Power with the uplifting, integrationist rhythm and blues of Motown. Four decades later, we can't even muster Baraka's conflicted praise for the music world. All is dead. Wired magazine used a photo of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster to portray "The Fall of the Music Industry." Nas declared Hip Hop Is Dead.

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