• U.S.

Spinning in Its Grave?

4 minute read
Josh Tyrangiel

The single drove the chevy to the levee, and the levee is now officially dry. Following a 40% drop in 2001, sales of singles on CD and tape are down 67% so far in 2002, putting the format on the fast track to extinction. It’s not just consumer apathy; many major labels have simply stopped manufacturing singles, which retail for about $4, figuring that if consumers really want to hear a song and have no other choice, they will just fork over $18.99 for an entire album. Some consumers have even resorted to downloading the songs they want for free online. Shocking.

In the ’50s and ’60s, the single was responsible for about 80% of the record industry’s profits. It was acknowledged and accepted that an artist might have only one good song in him, just as a novelist might have only one good story. And for millions of Americans, that song sounded best coming out of a dashboard radio in a convertible on a summer afternoon.

This summer could be the single’s swan song. Fewer than half of the Top 100 songs in the country are available for individual purchase. The great shame is that from Sheryl Crow to Ashanti to Toby Keith, the summer of 2002 has produced a bumper crop of wonderfully disposable, inexplicably indelible singles–none of which are available as singles. Only a few of these songs come from albums worth owning, so how you get your hands or modems on them is up to you. But every summer needs its singles, if for no other reason than to mark the time–and remind listeners 10 years from now not only what they were doing in 2002 but who they were.

There are two songs that will cause the future young women of the world to recall just how miserable they were as adolescents. Jimmy Eat World’s The Middle is packed with enough angst and affirmation to inspire a John Hughes trilogy. It’s a classic teen ugly-duckling song that begins with lead singer Jim Adkins’ addressing teen girls directly: “Hey, don’t write yourself off yet/ It’s only in your head you feel left out or looked down on.” Forget the twee lyrics; it’s a taut three minutes of guitar rock that won’t let go of your ear. Avril Lavigne’s Complicated is power pop about a guy who’s a private prince and a public jerk. Thus the complication of the title. “Life’s like this,” sings Lavigne with the resignation of a teen falling out of love for the first time.

From a saturation standpoint, it’s hard to get past Ashanti’s Foolish. Foolish was the No. 1 song in the country for 11 weeks, mostly on the strength of a hook borrowed from the Notorious B.I.G.’s 1995 summer hit One More Chance. Ashanti is smart enough to let the hook do the bulk of the work while her smooth voice flutters around creating a sense of longing. In a thin field, it’s summer’s best tortured ballad. Without Me is another chapter in Eminem’s romance with himself. While a woolly sax laughs in the background and an upbeat snare marks time, Eminem raps, “We need a little controversy/ Because it feels so empty without me.” It’s the one summer song that feels a little dangerous, and that’s not a bad thing.

Sheryl Crow’s Soak Up the Sun wants very badly to be your classic rock song of the summer. The title is begging for it, but the lyrics–“I don’t have digital/ I don’t have diddley squat”–are as empty as a high school yearbook quote, and the chorus sounds like an orange-juice jingle. But who doesn’t go around singing the occasional orange-juice jingle?

Toby Keith’s Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American) hauls out every cliche from both the pop country canon and the Rush Limbaugh guide to foreign policy. Keith sees America as the world’s “big dog,” and he has a message for those who “sucker punch” us: “You’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A./ ‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” It’s the catchiest song about vengeance since The Caissons Go Rolling Along.

The only summer song that really is available as a single is Nelly’s Hot in Herre, which is about being available and single. Nelly raps about how hot it is and how everyone should take his clothes off. It’s very catchy and very dumb, but then, no dumber than killing off the single.

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