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Don't Know Why Norah Jones Is Hot? Critics of Hip-Hop Do

March 03, 2004|Jody Rosen

Norah Jones' "Feels Like Home" is at the top of Billboard's album chart, where it lodged last month after selling more than a million copies in its first week of release, one of the best one-week sales records of all time. For the last few years, the music business has been dogged by sluggish CD sales and preoccupied with the threat of Internet file-sharing. Now the industry has found an unlikely savior: a self-effacing 24-year-old piano-playing balladeer -- a kind of anti-Britney Spears -- who rarely raises her singing voice above a whisper, showed up to collect a bagful of Grammys in 2003 wearing a dress from Target and specializes in jazz and country-tinged songs that are decades out of date.

The success of "Feels Like Home" marks Jones' graduation from mere pop superstar to bona fide cultural phenomenon. Pundits who normally fancy themselves above such matters have been lining up to detect the zeitgeist in Jones' dulcet songs. Even that bastion of gravitas, the New York Times editorial page, felt compelled to weigh in on The Norah Question, offering the interesting theory that Jones' popularity among her core audience of baby boomers reflects widespread desire for musical consolation in difficult times.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 18, 2004 Home Edition California Part B Page 15 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Norah Jones -- Jones' attire at the 2003 Grammy Awards was described incorrectly in a March 3 commentary. She wore a dress designed by Michelle DeCourcy, not a dress purchased at Target.

But what exactly is troubling these millions of middle-aged listeners who seek solace in the music of a woman young enough to be their daughter? Is it the war in Iraq? The sputtering economy?

A better answer may be found elsewhere on the pop charts. Jones' was not the only Billboard milestone last week: For only the second time in history, all of the Top 10 singles were by African American artists. More precisely: All of the songs were by hip-hop performers. A quarter of a century after the American mainstream first encountered hip-hop's radical revision of the pop-song form -- replacing sung verses and traditional instrumentation with syncopated speech and dense, machine-generated rhythms -- the genre's conquest of hit radio is complete.

The difference between the songs on "Feels Like Home" and those topping the singles chart could not be more stark. Jones' songs are steeped in the timeworn sounds of American roots music: gospel piano, bent blues notes, finger-picked guitars. By contrast, hip-hop hits are studies in musical hyper-modernity. The No. 1 song in the country, "Yeah!" by R&B star Usher, begins with a lurching synthesizer riff and piles on shards of rhythm and melody -- shouts, raps, sing-song verses, skittering electronic drumbeats. Songs like "Yeah!" undoubtedly strike most of Jones' fans as inscrutable noise. A gulf of taste separates those millions of young people who love hip-hop music from older listeners who can barely comprehend that it is music at all.

Jones' success can be seen as an expression of this musical generation gap. While Jones' contemporaries are busy downloading Jay-Z songs to their iPods, their parents are buying tens of thousands of "Feels Like Home" CDs every day, comforted by the sound of a young performer -- a certifiable member of the hip-hop generation -- so skillfully embracing rock-era musical values. Indeed, more than a few commentators have hailed Jones for bringing back the "real music" that has been missing in action since rappers and DJs crashed the party.

But is Jones' music actually more authentic than, for instance, Usher's? Such thinking rests on false assumptions: that acoustic instruments are inherently more soulful than electronic ones, that whatever is on hit radio is by definition pap, that teenagers have no taste. In fact, as pretty as Jones' music is, there's something a touch ersatz about it: She is merely recapitulating the work of torch singers who preceded her.

Hip-hop musicians, meanwhile, are participating in real-time collective invention. In terms of sheer sonic surprise -- shockingly new sounds that seem to leap out of the radio -- today's hip-hop-dominated pop rivals the mid-1960s heyday of Motown and the Beatles. Even the most mainstream pop music is benefiting from hip-hop's cut-and-paste aesthetic. The current Britney Spears hit, "Toxic," is a thrilling mishmash of techno beats, Bollywood soundtrack music and pure pop melody. Bubblegum has never sounded so avant-garde.

Of course, it is right and fitting that middle-aged fans of Jones be repelled by hip-hop. If pop history tells us anything, it is that parents and kids rarely agree about where to set the radio dial. But those tempted to cheer Jones' success as a triumph of good taste should heed another historical lesson: In matters of musical taste -- from bobby-soxers at the Paramount to Beatlemaniacs at Shea Stadium -- the kids have usually been right. When it comes to identifying the day's vital music, don't trust anyone over 30.

Jody Rosen is a music critic and the author of "White Christmas: The Story of an American Song" (Scribner, 2002).

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