Rap Supremacy to American Idol

Pop music in the early to mid 2000′s would see no major new directions. Instead, dominating the radio waves were sounds that listeners had heard before. Chart topper Santana had performed at Woodstock; Madonna had been on the radio since the early ’80s; Destiny Child’s brand of slick R&B had been in vogue since the early ’90s; and the year’s rap tracks continued grooves from several years back. But a few fresh glimmers were heard. Chiefly, the Latin music of Marc Anthony, the idiosyncratic R&B of Macy Gray, and the spunky punk-pop of Pink. The year’s biggest success was Eminem, with his wildly popular The Marshall Mathers LP. Eminem would not push rap as a whole in a new direction, but his lyric and rhythmic talent produced some of the genre’s best work.

Dido’s “Thank You” was stuck in heavy rotation for months, and the lilting tune would become the default soundtrack for all sentimental home videos from now on. The year’s largest change was the phenomenal rise in country music. The music itself wasn’t new – far from it – but never had it been so popular on mainstream radio. As the country shifted toward the conservative in politics, country artists reaped great gains, as seen in hits by Toby Keith, Diamond Rio, Kenny Chesney, Travis Tritt, Tim McGraw, and Brooks & Dunn. Also this year, Latin kept growing – witness the hits of Enrique Iglesias and crossover artist Jennifer Lopez (though J. Lo crossed so far over that her Latin roots were all but obscured).

Linkin Park released its melancholy but intense rap ‘n’ rock single “In The End” in mid 2001, and the song immediately climbed the charts. It became one of 2001′s and 2002′s most played radio tunes. Its crunchy power chords and introspective rap lyrics seemed to be an anthem for a generation, much as Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” had been four decades earlier. On another front, Avril Lavigne emerged as the anti-Britney, as she snarled and declared that Tween Pop was over. Also having a good year were R&B crooner Usher, light rocker Sheryl Crow, and Latin artist Sharkira. Missy Elliot released her hip hop classic “Work It”: “Girl, girl, get that cash / If it’s 9 to 5 or shakin’ your a** / Ain’t no shame, ladies do your thang / Just make sure you ahead of the game.”

The non-stop radio play of 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” made it clear, if any doubt remained: rap was now popular music’s dominant style. And gangsta rapper 50 Cent was the genre’s king: shot nine times (and stabbed a few times for good measure), with his mother killed in a drug deal – 50 lived the life he rapped about. But his desperate upbringing was soon behind him as he sold more than 20 million albums worldwide. Also getting heavy radio play were the highly produced R&B of Beyonce and the soft-edged rock of Matchbox Twenty and 3 Doors Down. Finding runaway success was dark alt-rock outfit Evanescence, with the emotional peaks and valleys of “Bring Me To Life.”

In 2004 it was Usher’s world, and we just lived in it. The R&B love balladeer had been building a career since the mid ’90s, but this year’s Confessions sold a cool million units in its first week. Not be outdone, Britney Spears reinvented herself – from Tween Queen to grown-up dance-rocker – with “Toxic.” (The tune did well, but her greatest success was now as a tabloid star.) American Idol became a major force in music, and three of its stars, Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia, and Clay Aiken, saw chart success this year – and winner Carrie Underwood’s debut sold strongly the following year. Clarkson in particular, having rebuilt her image, from vanilla pop singer to edgey rock artist, enjoyed a high profile this year and next.

Earning Comeback of the Decade honors was Mariah Carey, who had fallen from favor a few years back. But the big-voiced songstress struck back with the emotional mega-smash “We Belong Together.” Green Day’s alt-rock opera American Idiot proved that rock still had plenty of fight left in it. And Gwen Stefani, who was as big a style maven as rock singer, was heard poolside all summer long on her hit “Hollaback Girl.” Finding a pot of gold was new group the Pussycat Dolls, six female dancers and burlesque performers who typically appeared in lingerie, or close to it. Their light ‘n’ frothy pop was about as profound as Paris Hilton’s deepest thought, and almost as memorable.

The top songs this year were solid pieces of craftsmanship. Tunes like “Bad Day” and “You’re Beautiful” offered tasty melodies and sweet harmonies – and become runaway hits. Yet plenty of this year’s music was, at best, disposable. There’s no chance that we’ll be listening to Dem Franchize Boyz’s “Lean Wit It Rock Wit It” five years from now – or even next year. The same is true of this year’s hits by Ne Yo, The Pussycat Dolls (haven’t they disapeared yet?), or Chamillionaire. Not that there weren’t some bright moments. Gnarls Barkley, the year’s most significant emerging voice, touted a hipper-than-thou mix of DJ beats and soul vocals. Also quite cool: KT Tunstall’s “Black Horse & the Cherry Tree,” which has real spirit.