How the music biz has changed--From hip-hop to ''Mickey Mouse Club'' divas to mp3s, there are new rules to this game

By David Browne
March 31, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Anyone who’s been a music fanatic for the last few decades probably felt comforted watching this year’s Grammys. The Santana sweep? Bravo, Carlos! Cher, Sting, and Black Sabbath yanking major awards? Legends all! But the reality was that Santana was guitar-soloing while Rome burned. For better and sometimes worse, the pop landscape has been dramatically altered in the last year. Here are the tools everyone — especially boomers — need to help make sense of the new rules:

PERCEPTION Rock & roll is here to stay!
REALITY Hip-hop hooray!

What country and blues were once to rock — its forebears and foundation — rap is now to modern pop. It’s no longer just another genre but contemporary music’s ground zero. Balladeers like LFO act like backstreet boyz, rockers rap, and hip-hop beats underscore everything from Kid Rock to Britney Spears. Pop’s new elder statesman and most in-demand album guest is no longer Bono but Snoop Dogg, who first emerged way back in 1992. In the last decade, sales of rap albums have doubled, while those of rock albums have been nearly sliced in half. And the rock that does sell best, from Korn to Powerman 5000, is rooted in hip-hop.

Such a generational changing of the guard is natural and healthy. But unless you grew up with this stuff — as an entire generation has, since rap is now two decades old — this thumping reality is utterly disorienting, like having to learn a new language. The days of the mosh pit seem downright quaint, don’t they?

PERCEPTION Aretha rules!
REALITY Mariah rules!

Forget the influence of revered divas of the past. We are currently witnessing the frightening rise of a generation of performers whose ultimate ambition is to replicate the Notice me! vocal gymnastics of Mariah Carey. ”I discovered Mariah in my room one day listening to the radio,” remembers Christina Aguilera, ”and as soon as ‘Vision of Love’ came on, I ran downstairs going, ‘Mommy, mommy — I just found the greatest person in the world! I just heard the greatest new voice!”’ For years, the forum for displaying such throat skills was the gaudy TV extravaganza Star Search — and guess where everyone from Spears and LeAnn Rimes to Usher and Shanice first appeared? Sony’s newest young-diva contender, Asian-born CoCo Lee, delivered one of her first performances on the Hong Kong equivalent of, yes, Star Search.

An occasional dab of R&B grit, however jejune, is heard in Aguilera’s voice. But the spectre of a nicely wrapped empty box like Jessica Simpson mimicking Carey’s fluttery delivery and hand gestures — or, in boy-band land, of ‘N Sync recycling the squishy harmonies of Boyz II Men — is enough to give anyone pause. Perhaps they’ll outgrow their influences and blossom. But for now, they make one long for the comparative nuance and taste of Whitney Houston. At least she cut her teeth on gospel.