Monday, August 20, 2012

Review: Year Zero by Rob Reid

If for some reason, you don't think the music industry is absurd enough, Rob Reid's new book Year Zero is here to lock up any competing perceptions.

The basic premise is that back in 1977, the great many alien populations of our universe discovered Earth's music, namely the theme song from Welcome Back Kotter. The discovery of Earth music changed everything. We turned our intergalactic neighbors into the most intense variety of music junkies you could imagine. But all these years later, a few aliens realized that Earth essentially owns the universe a few times over because of the nonstop music piracy that fuels their outer space music addiction. So, two aliens in particular seek the help of a copyright lawyer named Nick Carter who they mistakenly think to be the Backstreet Boy, and shenanigans ensue as they all try to settle the debt and save the Earth from other aliens who think the best way solve the debt problem is just to destroy the planet.

Year Zero walks a fine line between incisive satire and utter cheeseball-ery. The author (Reid, who founded which was responsible for Rhapsody) likes to drop in cringe-worthy phrases like "crosstown traffic" or "free bird," making the writing too cute and too on the nose at times. Characters have names like Carly, Frampton, and Ozzy. Beyond word choice, the book loses some punch amid the sheer exposition involved in constructing a universe from scratch. (Ask me how many toes Perfuffinites have!)

But if you push aside these bits of fluff,  it's a fun read that takes jabs at an industry that mostly feels too big and dumb to believe, something that's so muddled up it can hardly move beyond merely wishing the Internet would go away and on to any real action. At one point Nick breaks it down. He characterizes the music business as paralyzed by fear, or worse, paralyzed by the thought of doing something that might inadvertently benefit someone else. Because, as the book says, music execs seem to hate everyone– the musicians, the radio stations, the fans, the Internet, the retailers, the concert industry, and God knows who else. How could any kind of consensus on anything ever be reached?

In this way, Year Zero does a slick job of splicing in discussion of items like the Berne Convention (for all you Comm Law aficionados out there) without having to resort to bad Bruce Springsteen jokes.

That's not to say that the book should have scrapped all humor. One of the most enjoyable parts of Year Zero is its grounding in modern culture that's both funny and familiar. Take Reid's description of Nick's love interest Manda, who also happens to be an indie artist signed to Merge.

"Manda's something of an It Girl on the independent music scene. Her haunting, melodic songs have obtuse lyrics, and meld folklike arrangements with swish electronica."

I could describe 20 percent of my iTunes library with that sentence. There are also other funny references to things like an Amish v. Aliens Facebook game and a store called Forever 29– "a store for older women who like to dress like trashy youngsters and lie about their age." For all the absurdity, the reader gets the sense that while music-loving aliens plotting our destruction is mercifully not our problem, we've still got our hands (or headphones) full down here.

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