Do You Hear What I Hear?

Crossroads, in Western tradition, are points of cultural exchange. Trivia was gossip passed by Romans at the meeting of three roads; Delta bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads to learn how to play guitar. Today's crossroads offer a different exchange. Stopped at a city traffic light, you feel the music from the next car before you hear it-rumbling up from your south forty, gradually reverberating your whole car. At the change of the light, the car pulls off, the musical earthquake passes. But its message lingers: the ways we listen to music, even the organs we use to do so, have changed. Older listeners might feel invaded, younger ones electrified. Younger musicians are getting hip to it, rethinking a broad spectrum of pop: dance music, rap, rock, even New Age. Simple new gadgets, accessible to almost anyone, are reshaping popular music, just like the advent of the electric guitar did in the 1930s. Only this time, the listeners are leading the way.

Oversize car-stereo systems and new dance clubs exploit and explore the way music feels hitting your skin, palpating your organs. This is sound that pounds. At the same time, compact discs, with their exaggerated clarity and separation, have created a fetish for surfaces-the chalky sound of the bow rubbing against the violin string, for example, rather than the resonance of the violin. A new band called Nirvana, three scruffy punks from Seattle, suddenly topped the charts by overloading its surfaces, wrapping simple, angry songs in a layer of incessant buzz. MTV's use of grainy footage works this same fetish, inviting you to linger on the grain-the process of reproduction-rather than the image itself. Foreground is all.

The Walkman, which intensified stereo effects through earphones, made hay in the '80s by creating an illusion of depth and space. The new technology crushes that illusion. In the process, it changes listeners' relationship with music, making it both more intimate and more obscurantist.

The music itself is changing to follow suit. We're now hearing the sounds of the first generation that grew up believing that pop didn't mean anything-beyond, say, Michael Jackson's sales figures-but also inherited a push to act like it meant something anyway.

In Richard Linklater's chronically disengaged film "Slacker" (1991), this generation's sharpest self-portrait, a woman tries to peddle what she says is Madonna's pap smear. She could be a poster child for the new music, offering something everyone knows is useless but everyone values nonetheless. A signature image for post-baby boomers is the cover of Nirvana's "Nevermind" CD, in which a naked baby swims after a dollar bill on a fishing line. It's a sarcastic way for the band, newly signed to a major label, to represent itself, but it's also true. Like pitchman Joe Isuzu, an icon for this generation, it rejects its role and plays it too.

Compact discs and new booming systems give this ambivalence a voice. From the million-selling New Age singer Enya to the grunge-rock peers of Nirvana, this generation has used the technology's fascination with surfaces to define a contemporary moment-one at odds with previous listeners' views on music. For an uninitiated viewer tripping across Nirvana's impenetrable performance a few weeks back on "Saturday Night Live," or feeling the boom coming from a passing car, it's hard to figure out what it all means.

One product of the new technology is music sculpted for maximum impact. Never mind the ears, go for the innards. In rap parlance, a song with a hard beat and an overload of rumbling, low frequencies is called a Jeep record. You boom it in your Jeep. Rap recordings over the last decade map, among many other things, the swing from boomboxes to car stereos. Boomboxes radiated sound into open spaces; car stereos cram it into closed ones. Boombox-era rap was mostly simple and spare, with lots of space between the instruments. Jeep records are dense--even, in the case of acts like Public Enemy or N.W.A, claustrophobic. They're to be felt as well as heard. The highest compliment you can pay a rap record is to say it is slamming.

In dance clubs, the big new sound is techno, an electronic collage of jackhammer beats and bombarding sound effects, without melody or song structure. Though the music has produced minor hits, it has no stars, no personalities. Heard at home or at low volume, it barely makes sense. It's all computerized thuds and and spongy blocks of sound. One label executive called it (admiringly) "keyboard music for amputees." You can't exactly hum the stuff.

Boosted up to club volume, however-and clubs have gotten progressively louder-techno becomes purely physical energy, more like an electronic stimulus than a sound. The beats are no longer dull thumps, they're patches of heavy turbulence; the blocks of sound aren't noise, they're projectiles. One hallmark of techno is its speed. You can feel the vibrations race through your system, accelerating your muscles. It's cramping. Your space extends only as far as your skin; everything beyond that is sonic clutter. Techno locks you in a closed loop with the machine. The performer, the messages, everything else becomes irrelevant.

At the quieter end of the spectrum, compact discs allow musicians to do this without the rumbling vibrations. Enya, the 29-year-old Irish New Age singer uses the exaggerated intimacy of digital technology to create a breathy, ethereal music that is ultimately as anonymous as techno. Her left-field hit, "Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)," set sharp, electronic plucks underneath a wispy chant that sailed away as airily as its subject. Playing her new album, the vaguely hymnlike "Shepherd Moons," is like listening to sound before it's been fully produced. You hear the moist breath gliding over her tonsils more than the nasty business of singing. At times--especially when she's alone with a resounding piano--she sounds inhuman, like a synthesizer. The loop between the surfaces of the sound and the listener gets so tight that it excludes the singer's humanity. At this range, all you get is air and soft tissue moving. This is sound about sound, technology about technology.

But as with MTV's grainy footage, the relish with the surfaces of sound becomes most interesting when musicians start manipulating them. Compact-disc technology, with its ability to eliminate crackles and pop, turned surface noise for the first time from an annoyance into an issue. You can have it or you can not. Nirvana, a smart, bratty trio who plaster their punk-rock songs with a layer of diffuse, buzzing white noise, live by it. The group's hit, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," a rant against apathy, comes on like a product of apathy, languidly amusing itself with cleverly elliptical lyrics and jaded pop references (the Teen Spirit of the title is a niche-market deodorant). But cutting through this are bursts of anger, blunted by all the random fuzz and rendered ambiguous by the group's sarcasm. "Here we are now, entertain us / I feel stupid and contagious," shouts singer Kurt Cobain, 24. This is Nirvana: arch, hazy, angry, equivocal, idealistic--a juggling act of contradictions held together by great melodic songs and opaque distortion. To the surprise of everyone, the group's first major-label album, "Nevermind," recently reached No. 1, and has sold more than 2 million copies.

At the same time, England has been awash in its own more blissed-out version: slight pop songs glazed over with foamy, incidental racket, made by bands with names like Blur and Lush, Swervedriver and Slowdive. Cloudy and elliptical, their music has been called, by turns, oceanic, dream pop or shoe-gazer, the last for the musicians' shyness on stage. All take bright, '60s-style pop songs and coat them in a smear of random noise that scrambles any messages. Compared to modern hit fare like C + C Music Factory or Paula Abdul, these progressives are actually much closer to classic pop tradition. But there's an ambivalence here: a fascination with classic '60s forms, and all the hippie promises that go with them, and a knowing distrust of those forms. The bands revive promises they know never came true. On "Nevermind," bassist Chris Novoselic rants the lyrics to the Youngbloods' 1967 utopian anthem, "Get Together": "C'mon people now, smile on your brother/ Everybody get together, try to love one another right now." Exposed to the light of the '90s, this recitation skewers the false promises of '60s pop music. But couched in an album that reveres '60s pop, it's too self-referential to wield the leverage of simple irony; the words still also mean just what they say. As on their album cover-or in its title, "Nevermind"-Nirvana debunk an attitude and play it too.

This is the dilemma of the post-baby boom generation. They've inherited truisms they know aren't true. Boomers might have celebrated the fall of truisms as a changing of the guard; post-boomers feel insecure and ambivalent about it. In Douglas Coupland's novel, "Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture" (box), the character Dag defaces a car because its bumper sticker reads, "We're spending our children's inheritance." He explains, "I don't know ... whether I feel more that I want to punish some aging crock for frittering away my world, or whether I'm just upset that the world has gotten too big-way beyond our capacity to tell stories about it, and so all we're stuck with are these blips and chunks and snippets on bumpers."

Nirvana, who would be rebels, are caught in this same loop. When the Who smashed their equipment at the end of concerts in the '60s, they were symbolically destroying the outside world around them. When Nirvana do it-as they did on "Saturday Night Live" and frequently do in concert-they're just taking the brunt of their own rage, turning it in on themselves. Simple, direct, outward expression is beyond these guys. Even the group's distortion, intoxicating as it is, doesn't intensify the assault; it disperses it.

Boomers might read the disengagement of all these bands, or the insular self-referentiality of techno and Enya, as simple lethargy or selfishness. The music doesn't take on the world. But this misses the point. The impotence, the glassed-in rage or bliss, isn't the failure of this music, it's the subject. The simple us-and-them polarities the '60s no longer hold, certainly not for a generation that knows the Who never really tore anything down; they've yielded to the layered contradictions of Joe Isuzu. This generation has problems, not enemies. Instead of inheriting conflict, they've inherited contradictions, so their natural mode of expression is to puzzle, not to attack. But Nirvana's music, like the best o the rest, does what all great pop music does: it provides a metaphor for its time. It is equivocal and contradictory because, for these musicians and their audience, the times are equivocal and contradictory. White noise is the perfect voice for this moment: it's literally all meanings, all the time. The random noise doesn't hide the meaning; it is the meaning.

As changes brought about by new listening gadgets go, these are just the beginning. Digital technology, which put random surface noise and static onto the creative playing field, will increasingly make listeners into active players. Devices like karaoke machines and digital samplers already blur the distinction between performers and audience. Anyone with a Macintosh, a CD player and a cheap interface device can cobble together a sample-collage dance recording every bit as complex as Vanilla Ice's No. 1 hit, "Ice Ice Baby." In the coming decade, we will be able to play willy-nilly with the sequencing and even the instrumentation of other people's work. The boundary between musicians and listeners is coming down. The current fetish for surfaces, letting listeners in on the production process, celebrates and delineates the plane where the two camps meet. Right now it's a membrane, porous, luminous, fascinating. Both sides can touch a little bit of raw sound. In the future it will be a door, wide open. Some of the benefits of this are clear, as are some of the traps. Meanwhile, though, the next time you stop at a light and feel the boom of the Jeep next to you--that's the sound of a generation making sense out of incoherence, order out of chaos. In other words, music.

If the post-baby boom generation never makes its mark on the world, it may be because it's too busy defining who it is to actually be anything. For those of us living in the shadow of the boom, it's an obsession. Case in point: Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (St. Martins. Paper, $12.95), the videotropic first novel by Douglas Coupland, 30. Begun as a sort of "Preppy Handbook" for the generation born in the late '50s and '60s, it has become a defining document for people with too many TVs and too few job opportunities. Now in its fifth printing, it has already outsold the hardcover of Bret Easton Ellis's similarly defining "Less Than Zero." Imagine, for reference, the first time Shakespeare outdrew Marlowe.

The novel, peppered with faux-situationist slogans, is as self-conscious as its subjects. Coupland pinpoints the miseries of modern life and assigns them catchy brand names, which are printed in the book's wide margins. A "McJob," for example is "A low-pay, low-prestige ... no-future job in the service sector." The neologisms, like good marketing devices, make the miseries sexy without relieving them. This is the X condition in a nutshell. We're alienated from our own alienation. Whoosh. No wonder we spend so much time figuring out who we are.