Every generation has a musical icon, usually several. Someone who acts as a paradigm shifter, changing the game for all that come after. In the Fifties, it was Elvis. The Beatles and The Stones took the Sixties. Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Sex Pistols and a host of artists turned the tide in the Seventies. Michael, Prince and Madonna ruled the early Eighties, and R.E.M. and U2 ended the decade. Then there was Hurricane Cobain, Biggie and ‘Pac.

However, this decade has yet to produce that paradigm shifter, someone to change the face of music. There hasn’t been one big musical revolution at all in the 21st century. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that music seems to be so segregated these days. Young people these days seem to lock themselves into a niche and not really listen to anything outside of it-and I realize I totally sound like an old coot when I say this.

So, who is going to take the baton and become the pre-eminent musical icon of the decade? Well, first you have to ask what it takes to become an icon? You’ve got to be forward-thinking and artistic-so critical cred is a must. You’ve got to have charisma and an image that resonates with the public. You’ve also-for better or for worse-got to sell records. All of the artists I mentioned earlier were megastars. So, while moving units isn’t the most important thing, it certainly counts.

Now who fits the bill? Well, think of the artists who have managed to maintain critical and commercial success. Radiohead immediately comes to mind, but they’d reached iconic status before the decade even started. Actually, a ton of this decade’s most consistent artists were active through most of the Nineties: Beck, The Roots, Jay-Z, OutKast. I’d even throw Dave Matthews Band in there if critics were a little kinder to them. Aside from maybe The Roots (who really should get some kind of award for most consistent rap group in history, or should at least share it with De La Soul), all of these artists were already icons, at least within their respective genres. There are also a couple of acts-like John Mayer and Alicia Keys, who fall just short of consideration. Here are the artists I think should be mentioned as icons of the current generation.

Eminem-It’s arguable that Eminem was the last major icon that popular music has produced. As the most successful white rapper in history, he opened up millions of ears to hip-hop culture (and by extension, a segment of black culture), all while producing three consecutive albums that are considered either classics or near-classics. He fired up women’s groups, gay groups and everyone from Christina Aguilera to Michael Jackson with his lyrics, and also had that James Dean “I-don’t-give-a-fuck” rebel thing going on.

However, Eminem’s been traveling down the long slippery slope of suck for about half a decade now. He’s turned from a witty social commentor into your garden-variety gangsta rapper, with nothing to rhyme about except guns and clubs. Too much hanging out with 50 Cent, I guess. Em’s upcoming album, Relapse, will be the record that seals his legacy for him. Judging from the tastes we’ve heard of it so far, I think it might be curtains for Eminem as a cultural and musical icon. Sorry, Marshall. It’s been fun.


The White Stripes. Photo by imnotgarycoleman.

The White Stripes
– Detroit in the house, I guess. Jack White’s been the rocker du jour since breaking through with Fell in Love with a Girl back when all the “The” bands were in vogue. He and Meg have outlasted every single one of them. Rock bands these days seem to come and go with alarming frequency, but it’s safe to say that The Stripes are this decade’s breakout American band. There’s also Jack’s side project, The Raconteurs, who have released two solidly successful albums, and his guest shots producing everyone from Loretta Lynn to Beck. All that said, I don’t know if the White Stripes have reached a large enough audience to qualify. Their albums sell well, but not fantastically, and unlike the other artists mentioned here, they don’t have that wide-ranging cultural reach.

Beyonce-This generation’s Diana Ross, Beyonce’s a successful singer, a successful actress, and a successful fashion designer. It seems that she wins no matter what she puts her hands on. Songs like Independent Women and Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it) have definitely endeared her to this generation of strong women, and she has an uncanny knack for the earworm, with inescapable singles like Irreplaceable and Crazy in Love. However, there’s something about Beyonce that just doesn’t catch. There’s no edge to her personality. Also, she can write hooks, but can she really write songs? Keep in mind that Irreplaceable was written by Ne-Yo, who’s a hit album or two from appearing on this list himself.

joe-shlabotnikJustin Timberlake-When Usher’s Here I Stand didn’t set charts on fire this year, Justin Timberlake officially took over as the new millennium Michael Jackson. He’s successfully made the jump from the member of a critically maligned boy band to a critically adored solo artist. He’s certainly ubiquitous-appearing in Gnarls Barkley videos, doing records with everyone from T-Pain to Chris Cornell, hosting some of the most memorable Saturday Night Live episodes in recent memory. You’ve gotta wonder, though. How much of Justin’s success is due to Justin and how much of it is due to Timbaland. Tim’s presence on both the FutureSex/LoveSounds album and its’ videos was so dominant you could practically call them a duo. JT hasn’t really established his own sound yet, and although I think he’s very close to attaining cultural icon status, he just ain’t there yet.

Coldplay-The new millennium’s first and only stadium band, Coldplay has scored four successful smash albums. Once the other guy (U2) blinks, Coldplay can stake their claim as the biggest rock band in the world. Pretty heady stats, eh? A couple things separate Coldplay from who I feel is their biggest competitor in the 21st century musical icon sweepstakes. One, Chris Martin doesn’t necessarily have name value yet, and unless you’re a hardcore fan, I bet you can’t name more than one other member of the band. Two, critical opinion of the band is split, to say the least. Three, the band is still stuck with the tag of being derivative-a watered down mixture of U2 and Radiohead. Granted, you could pick a lot worse acts to steal your schtick from, and Viva La Vida has quieted some of that talk down, but Coldplay will have to settle for runner up status this time around.

So, who’s the closest thing we have to a musical icon in this century?


Kanye West. Photo by s-affandi

Kanye West -Nearly 10 million records sold over the course of four albums. 9 Grammy Awards. Three critically acclaimed albums and one album so far off the beaten path no one knows what to do with it. Outspoken to a fault. Obnoxious. Arrogant. Savvy. Although he sometimes comes off as a rapping, producing George Jefferson, there’s no denying that Kanye’s music is almost as good as he says it is. There’s the fact that his audience is all over the place-from grandmothers who dug Gold Digger to the college kids picking apart 808s & Heartbreak, to the thugs blasting his productions for artists like Lil’ Wayne and Young Jeezy. Think about it-an album like 808s would be a certified career-killer if recorded by just about any other artist. Kanye’s sold a million copies of it in six weeks. He and Jay-Z are the only rappers capable of selling out stadiums, and it’s not hard to imagine Kanye and his mouth pulling off a sitcom, a variety show or a guest-hosting gig on a show like SNL. Add all of that together, and you’ve gotta admit that even if we don’t have an official voice of this generation yet, Kanye’s the closest one.

Do you think I’m loony? Who did I leave off? Has my Kanye-love gone too far? Leave a comment.

special thanks to Kim Rullo, for posing the question that led to the creation of this essay. Click that link and check out some of her work.