Melancholy Babies:  Angst Is In Again
New York Times    Sept 99

by John Pareles

Popular music, the id of American culture, market-tests attitudes along with rhythms and tunes.

For most of 1999, the pop charts have been divided among four disparate, teen-centered moods: the gooey romance of groups like the Backstreet Boys, the peppy Spanglish pop of Ricky Martin (who is scheduled to perform amid bilingual squeals at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 28), the frat-boy boorishness of bands like Limp Bizkit and the action-movie nihilism of gangsta rap. Part of the audience is soaking up sweet nothings; another part fantasizes on lashing out.

What has been missing for some time amid pop's puppy love and acting up is a mentality that was a staple of early-1990s rock: brooding, questioning, self-lacerating angst.

With a buoyant economy and a pop-cultural landscape full of pumped-up wrestlers and invincible action-movie heroes, pop audiences grew impatient with troubled rock stars who turned their frustrations inward, especially when they proclaimed their need to be alone while they worked the arena circuit.

But in the 1999 season, angst is going to try for a comeback. Leading the misery brigade is Trent Reznor, who has taken five years to come up with a sequel to "The Downward Spiral."

Between albums, he has steered Marilyn Manson to notoriety and supervised the soundtrack to "Natural Born Killers," but Nine Inch Nails' particular blend of industrial crunch and Beatles melody, self-loathing and blurted confessions of bad impulses went silent.  

Worked over in studio solitude for years, the new Nine Inch Nails album, "The Fragile," which is due Sept. 21, seeks new nadirs of bitter disclosure matched to fine-tuned sonic assaults.

Another forlorn character, Fiona Apple, returns in November with her second album, which, cantankerously, has a 90-word title. Her songs provide a corrective to the dewy-eyed, happy-ever-after romance that has retaken the Top 10; she remembers the ups and downs and messy, self-destructive details of love and lust, and she sings about them in a voice with a melancholy bitterness that makes her seem far older than 22.

The reception of both albums will measure whether adolescents still want to admit they're tormented from within. Other songwriters who are about to release albums that are neither sunny nor belligerent include Tori Amos and a subdued David Bowie.

But all those performers have to wonder whether listeners are still interested in the continuity of a career. From the 1960s onward, rock songwriters have been able to depend on loyalty from radio programmers and fans.