An alternate history of Big Shiny Tunes 2
by Devin King
For a lot of people, Big Shiny Tunes was a big deal. We can say that, if for no other reason, by its sales figures. Big Shiny Tunes 2 is one of the highest selling albums in Canada, ever. Many of my generation have also been privy to nostalgic conversations about that series. This alt-rock compilation has served as a cultural touchstone – a sort of monoculture primer at the time, and defining cultural artifact now. Looking back, it would be easy to remember these songs as the only noteworthy songs of those years. However, Big Shiny Tunes – indeed, our very recollection of that time – could have been dramatically different.
In 1997, the year of BST2, the Foo Fighters had two prominent singles that appeared on the charts: “Monkey Wrench,” and their best song, “Everlong.” Neither of these tracks appear on BST2, though BST3 does feature “My Hero.” (The music industry would correct this, when between 2003-2008 the Foo Fighters would be one of five bands to share over half of the number one Billboard singles – an era which Chris Molanphy refers to the “Oligopoly.”) There’s a trend that begins to emerge where we can see that some songs were seemingly excluded, or whose omission in retrospect is surprising.
Something striking is the number of songs and artists who were popular on the alternative charts at the time but were denied a place on BST2. U2 is a prime example. They had several hit singles (“Discoteque,” “Staring at the Sun,” and “Last Night on Earth” in that year) and not only do they not appear anywhere on BST, but those songs are largely erased from the U2 legacy and the broader cultural memory despite being widely popular at the time. We can’t say that BST was influential in striking these from cultural memory, but not jumping on board the popular U2 train seemed a wise mood, in retrospect.
For U2 and other British rockers like Oasis (who also have two #1 hits in 1997) it might seem that the bias against them is based in regional bias. However, Big Shiny Tunes doesn’t discriminate based on region – rather it discriminates based on label. Three major labels, along with MuchMusic, came together to curate the Big Shiny Tunes series. Universal, Warner Brothers and EMI all helped to shape the yearly compilation. This might explain why U2 (Island Records), Oasis (Epic Records) and Foo Fighters (Capitol Records) don’t get the love you might expect.
What else could have been on the Bizarro version of BST2? Label power notwithstanding, it’s hard not to think that even if it is a bit of a misread, obnoxious anthem now, “Tubthumping” deserved more recognition than Holly McNarland’s “Numb.” One might even think that “Numb” was included solely for CanCon reasons, but even that doesn’t necessarily hold water. Canadian faux-poets Our Lady Peace commanded a number of prominent singles (“Clumsy,” “Superman’s Dead,”) which are both ignored here. Indeed, it’s not until 2001 that OLP is recognized for their painfully optimistic dirge “Life,” and then not again until 2009. So not only are they not recognized for what would be considered their best singles, but they were recognized for their worst singles that made the least impact. The 2009 inclusion of “All You Did Was Save My Life” can be read as a rewriting of history, trying to give the band the credit it was seemingly missed at the time. The same can be said of The Verve and their hit “Bittersweet Symphony” – excluded in BST2, though they apparently had a single in 2008 that warranted inclusion on BST13.
Further, it’s hard not to look at this compilation and see how it’s pretty skewed to dudes. Though it’s largely a sign of the times (then and now), there’s very little representation from women here. Scanning the Year That Was Music, you can see there’s not a lot of music by women in the alt-rock world. There’s Celine, Missy and Mary J Blige among others, plus the mega-success that was Spice Girls, but the genre represented here is mostly left to the guys. There are some contrasts however: Sleater Kinney’s “Dig Me Out” (which wasn’t even a single, but charted in some places anyway) is one notable example. Though a band comprised mostly of men, Shirley Manson’s Garbage did have a #1 song with “#1 Crush” for several weeks.
All this by way of saying that taste is a construct; sometimes it’s companies that formulate it, or sometimes it’s hindsight. Sometimes that construct is a product of other factors, such as sex or gender as it presents in a culture. BST is important in how it illustrates this. While it would be easy to think that we come upon our preferences solely on our own, our internal baggage and the external forces in our lives shape not only what we like in the present, but what we remember being great in the past. All tunes are shiny, but some will be remembered as bigger and shinier than others.