This has been Sound of the City’s year-in-review rock-critic roundtable, an amiable ongoing conversation between five prominent Voice critics: Rob Harvilla, Zach Baron, Sean Fennessey, Maura Johnston, and Rich Juzwiak. We’re sad to see it go.
What might I be sick of 12 months from now? Rich, are you teeing up that “I Hate Katy Perry” piece that Rob was agitating for a few days ago? Even if you’re not, let me (briefly) take the bait. To me, the Christian singer-turned-Betty Boopster is a shining example of how pop feminism has pretty much failed — her career arc since “I Kissed A Girl” first blessed my ears a mere 19 months ago reminds me more than anything of those sex bloggers who decide to settle down and blog about their husbands and/or their offspring, and who are adamantly “MY LIFE CHOICES ARE THE BEST LIFE CHOICES” about every decision they make. She’s kissing girls… but waking up with a boyfriend in the video where she bleats about her exploits! She’s subjecting her cleavage to meek little Elmo… then telling anyone who’ll listen that her husband’s last name will take the place of her own! She’s singing an empowerment anthem about being a California gurl [sic, RIP Alex]… but the perpetually leering Snoop Dogg is the song’s true star! I could go on.
Plus her voice is just terrible; I see little difference between her gulps for air on the chorus of “Teenage Dream” and the beaten-baby-seal yelps of Fred Durst — well, save Perry having today’s pitch-correction technologies available to her. (Hey, whatever happened to Gold Cobra, anyway? And what could “Rock shit doesn’t rock anymore” mean? Could Durst go the pitch-corrected pop route in 2011?) She was one of the many artists on the American Music Awards whose big, swoopy choruses worked directly against them in a live setting; her version of “Firework” on that November show was, to borrow a term from the departed Mr. Cowell, bad karaoke. In particular, the sort of bad karaoke that gets commandeered by someone who had a little too much attention paid to her when she was a member of her high school drama club, and figured that this was a prescription for how people should treat her for the rest of time. This is not to take away from Dr. Luke’s talents; I would probably appreciate the songs they’ve collaborated on much more were they to have a different frontwoman. (Well, except “California Gurls,” which is as inane as it is male-gaze-creepy.)
Like maybe Alexis Krauss of Sleigh Bells, whose Treats was a much more delicious sugar rush than anything Perry could put out — and its overamped dynamics, while probably irritating to the lay listener, weren’t all that far off from the supercompressed pop the likes of Dr. Luke and RedOne were pawning off to the charts. (After all, “Riot Rhythm” is accessible enough to soundtrack a car ad.) Treats ruled much of my summer, although I haven’t listened to it much since the outside temperatures decided to abandon their attempt at 90s revivalism.
And there was another reason I stopped listening, if I’m being honest: In August, Marnie Stern’s self-titled album showed up in my inbox. Stern’s third record was a thrilling, riveting study in contrasts, with her fleet guitar playing and the crazy drumming of Hella’s Zach Hill serving as the latticework for lyrics about summoning up confidence and missing departed friends. It summed up 2010 better than anything else for me; it seemed like so many were forced into a high-wire act where they had to keep up appearances, even if things around them were crumbling. Certainly that’s why Perry and her brute-force persona succeeded; she rarely let her mask slip, and seemed downright proud to hit all the wrong notes during her TV appearances. The fascinating Janelle Monáe, too, had a command of her personality that she rode all the way through 2010, although her genre-shifting made her more of a liability on the pop front. (Which is a shame, since “Tightrope” deserves to take the place of “Boom Boom Pow” on every wedding DJ’s playlist.) And on the flip side, tacit admissions of uncertainty persisted through so many of this year’s biggest pop failures — certainly it was the most common thread through Christina Aguilera’s overlong, overheated Bionic, which was as desperate in its identity-seeking as Eat, Pray, Love, although it lacked the necessary yoga-borne enlightenment to make it actually successful. (A Javier Bardem cameo could’ve helped, too.)
Then again, so many male pop stars struck gold with admitting that they were feeling kinda lousy about themselves — the aforementioned Mike Posner, Drake, Kanye, Cee-Lo. But there’s a key difference: Those admissions were overt, and generally accompanied by training a laser pointer on the people who were causing their strife. Which worked better in some instances than in others; as many times as I cathartically sang along with the chorus of “Fuck You” (because what better way to combat the insanity of 2010?), I have to wonder if the lady whose gold-digging spurning sparked the track was wined and dined initially because of her sparkling personality and rapier wit. Maybe in order to steer out of her post-Bionic tailspin, Christina should go a little deeper than “I Hate Boys” and start naming names? Taylor Swift could give her a little bit of advice on that.
We’re running out of time, and there’s so much more that I feel we didn’t cover. Kings of Leon’s awkward embrace of indie. Best Coast and Wavves trying to capture some of Taylor’s gossip-page mojo for the Hipster Runoff set, and succeeding. Sade, whose bone-dry, yet ridiculously sensuous Soldier Of Love was probably the Grammys’ biggest snub. Gaga entering her Elton John phase. The Black Keys leading the charge against post-grunge on mersh-rock radio, and possibly succeeding. Florence and the Machine’s rise, and why the one British lady embraced by U.S. audiences wasn’t, say, Kate Nash, who put out a pretty fine record in 2010. The rise of charts dedicated to tracking “social media” mentions, and what on earth a post-commerce musical economy could look like.
On that note, I have no idea what to expect in 2011 — well, except for record sales to go down across the board and for people to continue complaining about Pitchfork while clicking on it every day — so I’ll just say that I’m hoping more than anything else that the deluxer-than-deluxe re-release of George Michael’s Faith sets up some sort of terrific comeback arc for him. After all, if Chris Brown can be redeemed…
Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? Death To Chris Brown
Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? Bowling With Titus Andronicus and the Joy of the Work
Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? LCD Soundsystem and Nostalgia’s Creeping Scourge
Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? Defending Taylor Swift And Hailing The-Dream
Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? American Idol Wobbles, R&B Thrives, And The ’90s Rise Again
Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? House Music vs. Hashtag Rap
Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? Throw Taylor Swift In A Well
Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? Redeeming M.I.A.
Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? Five SOTC Critics Discuss.