Courtrooms and Meltdowns and Bling… Oh My!

The Controversial World of Music in 2007

The streamers have been pulled down, the champagne hangovers finally dissipated, and 2007 has come to a close. For many music fans, it was a year we were very glad to see over. The music world was a hotbed of controversy, a place you couldn’t venture unless you wanted to be bombarded with a barrage of spin and wolf-cries. The industry and its mouthpieces were undoubtedly in high gear in 2007, enough so that it made anyone who cares about music want to scream “Alright! Enough already!”

We watched the murder trial of the most influential producer in modern music unfold. Phil Spector, creator of the “wall of sound,” has long been infamous for his control-freakery and abusive behavior, going so far as to point guns at artists in the studio: from Dee Dee Ramone to John Lennon to his own ex-wife Ronnie Ronette. This courtroom drama could have been an opportunity for the music press to ask tough questions about the industry. If big record companies truly cared about their artists, then why subject them to such obviously dangerous people? Instead, the biggest mags ducked the question, devoting more ink to Spector’s eccentric wardrobe than the actual trial. That it ended in a hung jury means we may not have heard the last of it.

We saw pop stars melt down in front of our very eyes. The tabloids were clearly out for blood this past year, gawking with mean-spirited fascination at Britney Spears’ shattered sanity, Pete Doherty’s legal troubles, and Amy Winehouse’s battles with addiction. Though it would be wrong to pin it all on the red-tops, one wonders if these artists might have more success tackling their troubles if they were, in the words of Chris Crocker, simply left alone.

The Imus debacle was cynically twisted into an opportunity to go after hip-hop. While the sacking of a well-known radio bigot was a victory against sexism and racism, his “nappy-headed hos” comment ended up being an examination of rap culture’s trumped up depravity. All of a sudden, pundits began acting like the first sexist words ever uttered came from Grand Master Flash in 1979.

This pseudo-debate was even brought into the halls of congress. Representative Bobby Rush accepted Imus’ logic hook line and sinker when he held his “From Imus to Industry” hearings in September. Not only did these hearings completely miss the root of sexism, but further targeted rap through myths and half-truths. As a former Black Panther, Rush should have known better.

Last year saw the music industry set out to criminalize ordinary music fans. The Recording Industry Association of America began penetrating college campuses, demanding that administrators hand over lists of students who had downloaded “illegally.” The RIAA brought outrageous lawsuits against peer-to-peer file sharers, on average demanding $7000 a song! Jammie Thomas, a single mother in Minnesota was ruled against and ordered to pay $220,000 to the same record companies who keep artists in debt until their third release. If anyone needed further proof that the courts aren’t on our side, this was it.

At the same time, the stranglehold of big business over our airwaves wasn’t loosened one bit. Terrestrial radio carriers (Clear Channel chief among them) found yet more ways to make a buck off of independent artists struggling to get airplay: take away their digital royalties. They also didn’t get any more comfortable with anything smacking of dissent, as evidenced by AT&T’s censoring of Pearl Jam’s Lollapalooza rant against George Bush this summer.

And yet, 2007 also saw some very measurable cracks in the industry’s well-polished veneer. They might have come from artists or fans. Either way, they showed that there is a lot more to music than the business side of it.

One of the biggest bands in the world released their album via direct download, with the option of paying absolutely nothing. Not only was Radiohead’s In Rainbows a masterpiece in its own right, it proved that artists may actually stand to make more money by giving the finger to the major labels and going straight to the fans. In short, it was yet more proof that the industry is talking out its ass, and is ultimately and archaically outdated.

Despite the fire that hip-hop was under this past year, we saw MCs and artists take a stand in the case of the Jena Six. Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and many more of today’s most eloquent rappers took a vocal stand in what may prove to be one of the most important civil rights cases since the Scotsboro Boys, and in doing so showed what the real face of hip-hop is.

Furthermore, 2007 was the year we saw the first rap group allowed into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five were inducted despite great controversy, showing that hip-hop has indeed had a great effect on our culture. And as much as some may abhor it, rap isn’t going anywhere.

And, of course, Pearl Jam weren’t the only artists railing against Bush and his policies this past year. Nine Inch Nails, Tori Amos, the White Stripes, even Linkin Park threw in their two cents of dissatisfaction with Dubya and his ilk. It certainly didn’t come out of thin air. Musicians write about the world around them, and if a significant number of them are willing to vocally take issue with the war, poverty and racism, then it shines light on many others who feel the same.

This is why, despite the roller coaster ride that was music in 2007, there is reason to be hopeful this year. The RIAA, Clear Channel, the pundits who smugly write our side off; none will be going away anytime soon. But we do know that you can’t keep a lid on resistance forever. The more you try, the more heated it gets… and it also gets a lot more fun. This seems the best reason to keep the faith in 2008.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at Read other articles by Alexander.