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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.

More significantly record companies began signing DJs not as artists but as business partners. Island Records was one of the first to do so: In 1996 the company hired Jason Bentley (who still spins records for the Los Angeles radio station KCRW) to help start a jungle/dance imprint called Quango Records. Early in 1997 A&M Records recruited Gary Richards (a DJ who has previously worked for record labels) and Philip Blaine (an L.A. concert promoter) to start 1500 Records, which has already released a handful of electronica-style albums. Later in the year, the British trip-hop pioneer Tricky was approached by none other than DreamWorks Records, the Spielberg/Katzenberg/Geffen conglomerate, to start his own label, Durban Poison.

So far electronica is primarily a boys' club (and a British boys' club at that, aside from the Las Vegas-based Crystal Method). Women serve as singers for a few electronica-styled outfits (the Sneaker Pimps, Dubstar, and Laika, for instance) but rarely are they the ones behind the control panel.

In a sense women provided this year's antidote to electronica mania. For the most part, they stuck to the basics: folk (Jewel, Joan Osborne), pop (Fiona Apple, Gwen Stefani of No Doubt), and soft rock (Sarah McLachlan, Shawn Colvin). McLachlan's all-female Lilith Fair tour was everything electronica isn't: accessible, personable, communal, and politically active. (Scores of booths promoting causes from AIDS research to environmental awareness were set up at each tour site.)

It was a daring idea in a year when even the most established traveling roadshows and big-name arena bands were drawing low-capacity crowds. Lollapalooza suffered from low turnout all summer, as did the H.O.R.D.E. Festival. On their PopMart tour, U2 sometimes played to as many as 20,000 empty seats (though at $52 a head, the band still managed to make money). A couple of electronica-based tours, Big Top and Moonshine Overamerica, generated more media buzz than sales. In the end Lilith Fair became the top-grossing tour of the year.

It also propelled many of its participants up the charts. Jewel, for example, saw her debut album hit the Top 10 and sell well over 5 million copies. "We have gained power by making money," McLachlan told Billboard magazine in September, "and radio can't ignore that people want to hear the music. The public demand is speaking loud."

Lilith Fair cultivated an artsy-craftsy feel (vendors selling summer dresses and funky hats turned the grounds into something like a hippie-chick shopping mall), but it made one concession to technology: a Website. After all not having a Website in 1997 would be similar to doing all your advertising via a guy wearing a sandwich board.

The past year saw plenty of Web activity. Duran Duran released "Electric Barbarella," the first single from its most recent album, Medazzaland, over the Net before giving it to record stores, causing some resentment among retailers. CD Now, a service that sells CDs over the Web, bought advertising space on seemingly thousands of music-related sites. Perhaps the most interesting development, however, was the proliferation of MP3s.

Small, downloadable music files that offer near-CD quality, MP3s were developed within the past year or two. The good news is that those who don't want to shell out fifteen or sixteen dollars for a new CD can go to various independently run Websites and download sometimes hundreds of songs. The bad news is that it's completely illegal. The Recording Industry Association of America claims that inestimably large profits are being lost to computer users trading songs over their phone lines. In December the RIAA shut down perhaps a dozen Websites that were offering pirated files of Pearl Jam's yet-to-be-released album Yield.

"The band takes such pride in the packaging and presentation of its music that for an album to come out in a way that isn't as they intended just isn't fair," Pearl Jam's manager, Kelly Curtis, told Billboard magazine. "And it's not fair to the fans who don't happen to have computers."

The Internet is now strewn with broken links that once led to MP3 sites. Of the various predictions to be made about 1998, one is certain: The outlaw days when cyberspace was an information free-for-all will seem further and further behind us.

Other predictions:
The Hanson cartoon series.
Americans discover the latest sound from the UK: "speed garage."

Impressed by the large revenue generated by the Spice Girls, the Russian government creates its own version of the pop group in an attempt to boost its economy.

The return of Bow Wow Wow -- with a thirtysomething Annabella Lwin.
The "Puff Daddy" remix of the Police's 1979 breakthrough "Roxanne" spawns yet another round of "Roxanne Roxanne" and "Real Roxanne" spinoff singles.

That new My Bloody Valentine album comes out. Maybe.
The return of Richard Carpenter.
The Electronica Dancing Monkey.

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Rafer Guzman

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