Electrical Engineering

At the start of the year, it looked as though 1997 would be, like 1996, the year of the Macarena. In January the hackles-raising dance track racked up its 70th week -- 70th! -- on the Billboard singles chart. Mercifully the the song faded away sometime in February, but don't tell that to the folks who manufacture the Macarena Dancing Monkey, available at your local Eckerd.

Will 1997 instead be remembered as the year of Sean "Puffy" Combs? Between Combs and other artists on his record label (Bad Boy/Arista), the rapper grabbed four No. 1 singles this past year. Or perhaps 1997 will go down as the year of the Spice Girls, those five pretty Brits who scored the best-selling album of the year and will soon see the release of a movie about their lives. For many 1997 will always be equated with the death of Princess Diana, and Elton John's tribute to her, "Candle in the Wind 1997." The single sold a staggering 8 million copies within a month of its release. It's now the biggest-selling single in history.

Any summary of 1997 must certainly mention the pubescent faces of the country singer LeAnn Rimes and those cute Hanson brothers, but the most important presence of the year had no face at all. Technology dominated 1997, and though it didn't always conquer the sales charts, it made its presence known in various guises, most notably the sampler, electronica, and the Web.

The sampler, that ingenious device that allows one to manipulate bits of recorded sound, has been around for some time, but it has never been as prominent as it was in 1997. Puffy Combs owes most of his career to the thing. "I'll Be Missing You," Combs' tribute to the slain rapper Notorious B.I.G., became the third-best-selling single of the year. But it had already been a No. 1 single back in 1983: Combs' song lifted its entire melody and even its title from part of the Police's classic ballad "Every Breath You Take." Combs' album No Way Out liberally sampled Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message," David Bowie's "Let's Dance," and the old Yarborough & Peoples tune " Don't Stop the Music." It became the year's tenth-biggest seller.

Critics almost unanimously took Combs to task for his apparent creative poverty, though it was hard to argue with his success. (Earlier in the year, Combs signed with Arista Records for a reported $700,000 salary, $6 million bonus, and $50 million line of credit.) Oddly, Combs' most vocal critic was Keith Richards. Asked about Combs and his music, the 54-year-old Rolling Stone guitarist told an MTV interviewer, "He's bereft of imagination. What a piece of crap."

In October the Stones' manager, Allen Klein, took legal action against the Verve, the neohippie British band whose single "Bittersweet Symphony" became a smash hit in England and generated a video that went into heavy rotation on MTV. The song's lilting, symphonic melody is basically a sample of part of the Stones' 1965 "The Last Time." All royalties from the Verve's single now go to Klein and the team of Jagger-Richards. ("50-50 should have been okay," Verve bassist Simon Jones complained to Entertainment Weekly.)

Sting, the author of "Every Breath You Take," wasn't complaining when Puffy's version of his song went No. 1. In fact he joined the rapper for a live performance of the song on the MTV Music Awards. Other artists who probably never thought they'd hear their music on Top 40 radio again: Donovan, Joni Mitchell, and Herb Alpert, whose old hits were sampled by Imani Coppola ("Legend of a Cowgirl"), Janet Jackson ("Got 'til It's Gone"), and Notorious B.I.G. ("Hypnotize"), respectively.

The sampling in rap music seems fairly old-fashioned (like a vinyl album or something) compared to the futuristic, technocentric sounds of electronica, the musical genre that few can satisfactorily define but that everyone pretends to understand. Not long ago the term encompassed everything from ambient to techno to house music -- similar to the late Seventies when "new wave" referred to both Devo and Tom Petty.

Since its inception in British raves and dance clubs at the dawn of this decade, electronica has had few successful ambassadors to the U.S. Among them were the Chemical Brothers and Orbital, but their anonymous, behind-the-mixing-boards image made it difficult for Americans to match faces with the names.

Not so with the British band Prodigy, whose snarling, pointy-haired frontman Keith Flint made quite an impression on MTV viewers. The video for Prodigy's aggressive dance track "Firestarter" showed Flint flirting with snakes and crocodiles in a broken-down hotel room -- all very urban, very colorful, and very marketable. Prodigy became the first electronica act to have an album debut at No. 1 on the Billboard LP chart. Fat of the Land reportedly sold 200,000 copies in the first two days of its release in early July. Prodigy was fortunate enough to generate some controversy -- over the allegedly pro-arson lyrics of "Firestarter" and the pro-women-battering lyrics of the follow-up single "Smack My Bitch Up" -- to keep album sales steady.

The success of Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers (whose second release, Dig Your Own Hole, debuted at No. 14 in April), was further proof for record-label execs that the new alternative to "alternative" rock was upon us. Last year saw a glut of electronica and electronica-influenced releases from Laika, the Sneaker Pimps, Roni Size, Spring Heel Jack, David Holmes, Portishead, Daft Punk, Crystal Method, Cornershop -- not to mention scores of lesser lights.

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