- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2004

You’ve either never heard of her or forgotten her name. She’s not a musician, but symbolically, she was the most important story of pop music in the year just past: Brianna LaHara.

With sales off for the third year in a row and Internet piracy in its cross hairs, the entertainment industry shifted into panic mode, ensnaring 12-year-old Brianna in a lawsuit against a few hundred active file swappers in September.

“This is a 12-year-old girl, for crying out loud,” Sylvia Torres, Brianna’s mother, was quoted as saying. “It’s not like we were doing anything illegal.”

Well, as much as it defies common sense that a preteen might face six-figure penalties for downloading music off her home computer, technically, she was doing something illegal. But was a lawsuit the best response? Early evidence says no: It may have temporarily spooked file uploaders, but downloading on sites such as Kazaa still sizzles.

Promisingly, a parallel development last year was spearheaded by Apple Computer guru Steve Jobs: the iTunes Music Store, a successful legal downloading site. Even Napster, the underground file-sharing service that started it all, came back online, this time on a legitimate, fee-for-song basis.

It may have taken three years, but the music biz has finally dragged its carcass into the new century. But it may have waited too long. The downloading phenomenon had industry observers and artists lamenting last year that MP3 receptacles such as the iPod signal the death of the LP.

They may prove right. Come to think of it, two of the best rock performances of 2003 weren’t even on LPs. They were in the movies: Jack Black in “The School of Rock” and Johnny Depp, doing Keith Richards, in “The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”

Hence, Jay-Z may have picked the perfect time to bow out of an ailing business. The popular New York rapper said late last year that “The Black Album” will be his last. If so, he finished on top — in his own right, and as a guest on girlfriend Beyonce Knowles’ “Crazy in Love,” one of the year’s most beloved singles.

Yet, 2003 was still a decent stretch for the old long player. One of its best, artistically and commercially, was hip-hop duo OutKast’s double disc “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.”

At 39 songs and a nearly two-hour runtime, Andre 3000 and Big Boi churned out product worthy of the ‘70s — a brilliant, bloated, experimental concept album.

Ditto Radiohead’s “Hail to the Thief,” an art-rock album that Pink Floyd might’ve made had laptops been invented contemporaneously with bell-bottoms.

Another duo, the White Stripes, stood out as defiant throwbacks. In the liner notes to “Elephant,” the garage-rock revivalists proudly informed that they recorded it without aid of those grotesque machines that Radiohead loves.

Speaking of whom, White Stripes frontman Jack White finished 2003 with a bang — seven bangs, to be exact, into the face of Von Bondies singer Jason Stollsteimer. Before Mr. White has a chance to collect a best-album Grammy, he’ll likely begin his 2004 in a Detroit courtroom facing assault charges.

The Dixie Chicks didn’t run into legal troubles but weathered something just as bad: mass backlash, from fans angry over lead singer Natalie Maines’ anti-Bush comments at a London concert. When half the country exercised its own right to free speech in opposition to the bosomy trio, the Chicks convinced the other half that they were free-speech martyrs.

R. Kelly wasn’t quite as lucky, but the neo-R&B; singer, accused in January of child pornography and later of sexual assault, experienced a similar rally-round-the-rock-star effect with his fans. His steamy “Chocolate Factory” was a huge hit, and, permitted by a Chicago judge to leave his home state for a limited tour, the singer packed arenas such as the MCI Center.

In the same month, the Who’s Pete Townshend shocked fans when British police arrested him for viewing a child-porn Web site. He said it was for research for his memoir, and he wasn’t officially charged.

With all this underage sexuality in the air, it’s no wonder 2003 was another strong year for teen pop. Canadian punkette Avril Lavigne was a welcome break of undersexiness, inspiring young girls to don dad’s neckties instead of baring their navels.

Ex-squeezes Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears each reinvented themselves for slightly older audiences. The latter’s new target demographic was, so to speak, sealed with a kiss. Her mouth smooch with Madonna during the MTV Video Music Awards was the year’s tackiest and, let’s hope, forgettable cause celebre.

With hip-hop, R&B; and neo-soul singers such as Alicia Keys all selling reasonably well to young listeners, the bloodletting online still proved intolerable. Consequently, the music industry pinned its hope last year on an audience even older than the one Britney is shooting for — baby boomers.

Spurred by the success of Norah Jones, record labels aggressively sought dollars from middle-aged buyers, notably with a new magazine, Tracks, for soi-disant mature music fans.

The legendary jazz label Blue Note Records, which carries Miss Jones, sensed the market shift and, in a bid to win over new fans (and possibly alienate old ones), put out records from non-jazz singers such as Van Morrison and Al Green.

Another reason for optimism came from television — the “American Idol” series. Ruben Studdard, crowned in May, and runner-up Clay Aiken each sold well with their debuts.

Not everyone was happy. Train frontman Patrick Monihan, mistaking tripe such as “Calling All Angels” as somehow being superior to prefab “Idol” material just because he wrote it, complained that the reality-TV posers were diverting precious attention away from the real deal.

Happily for Mr. Monihan, the “Idol” stable also saw casualties, with previous winner and runner-up Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini starring in a horrendous movie and the latter being dumped from RCA Records because of paltry sales.

The music world saw real-life casualties, too, losing Sun Records legend Sam Phillips. Johnny Cash and wife June Carter Cash passed away in the space of four months. Singer-songwriter Warren Zevon gamely fought lung cancer, recording a Grammy-nominated swan song before dying in September.

Another singer-songwriter, Elliott Smith, faced no health complications but took his own life at 34. He left behind an increasingly popular school of depressive imitators such as Dashboard Confessional who, against their will, go by the genre name of emo.

The indie-rock group Fountains of Wayne struck the year’s cheeriest chord with “Stacy’s Mom” and, along with the Strokes, made 2003 seem like 1983, back when Michael Jackson was on top of the world.

We would mention Mr. Jackson’s current troubles, but we have a sneaking suspicion they will produce a major media bonanza in 2004. Too bad the music industry won’t see a piece of that action.

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