2010: The year more people looked at a photo of Kanye West’s purported penis than bought his album. Or any album. #HashtagDays
Kanye West’s Saturday Night Live appearance—surrounded by dozens of half-dressed figures, many of whom I suspect were actual women with, like, lives and personalities—was an allegory for his record as a critical phenomenon: The pretty sounds and garish pomp distracted the audience from the emptiness at its core. If you looked closely, you saw an insecure monomaniac, a mediocre rapper responsible for some of the worst lyrics in hip-hop, desperately seeking the approval of authority. A recognizable rock ’n’ roll type, to be sure. No less manufactured but more talented by a few orders of magnitude, Taylor Swift nailed her stage-crashing chart-mate in a triumph of passive aggression: “Your string of lights are still bright to me.” Just don’t mistake them for evidence of habitation.
Hearing Nicki Minaj smoke everybody on “Monster” made me think that either Kanye is a true gentleman (despite evidence to the contrary), or he’s longing for a woman who will kick his ass.
New Paltz, NY
Kanye’s fundamental project has been to pitch a tantrum about the White Privilege thing that America has been successfully glossing over since the first Tea Party. Not even the bells and whistles of “Power” could obscure this: “In this white men’s world, we the ones that’s chosen.”
The critical success of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy proved that the intelligentsia prefers a Rewarding Mess from a trusted artist of quality (Kanye) than a Polished Artistic Statement from a prolific schemer (Diddy).
When I first heard Kanye West’s “Runaway,” I thought about the douchebags, but subsequent listens, for me, revealed one of the saddest songs of 2010, sadder than any emotion Taylor Swift tries to drum up—or really anyone else. Emotions still win.
New York, NY
I almost feel bad for Pusha T on “Runaway,” basically drafted for the purpose of playing Kanye’s monstrous id, one last glimpse of the type of womanizing cad-demon he’s explicitly trying to exorcise. And just when you think it’s over, when the strings have swollen as high as they can rise, we hear the coda: three minutes of beautiful noise, with orchestral accents placed opposite a synthesizer solo that reveals itself, toward the end, to be just Kanye’s voice run through an overloaded vocoder. He keeps on talking, but at some point, it just becomes noise. “Runaway” gives the listener some hope that Mr. West might actually be—gasp!—growing up.
Single #1: Kanye West, “All of the Lights.” If you can hear him, Elton John sounds great on this.
New York, NY
Ghostface Killah, Apollo Kids: While Kanye West was busy making a great King Crimson album, Ghostface was quietly making a great Kanye West album.
Kanye West is the Don Draper of hip-hop: the arrogant, ostensible alpha-male sad sack who makes an ass out of himself at awards shows, then, like clockwork, pulls an ace out from his sleeve (Don’s bravura pitch to the American Cancer Society, Kanye dropping My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) that instantly reminds us why we keep tuning in. The opening stretch of Mad Men’s fourth season (let’s say, pre–“The Suitcase”) is rather like 808s & Heartbreak: lots of moping, soul-searching, and boozy stabs at self-actualization, prompted, naturally, by their complicated relationships with the myriad women in their lives. Then Don courts (and dumps) the too-good-for-him Faye, and Kanye embraces an inner douchebag he’s through trying to disguise (as does Don, really, in the season finale). And to complete the analogy: Jay-Z = Roger Sterling, Nicki Minaj = Peggy Olsen, Rihanna/Fergie = Joan Harris, Pusha T = Pete Campbell, and Rick Ross = Bert Cooper.
I’m sure that everybody voted for “Fuck You,” but I think the way you voted for it says a lot more. Which of these are you? “Fuck You,” “F*** You,” “Forget You,” or “Forget You (Glee Cast)”?
All I want for Christmas is for “Drunk Girls” to be banned from frat-party playlists.
Last January, I read Rachael Maddux’s thoughtful, exhaustive “Is Indie Dead?” cover essay in Paste. In August, I saw Arcade Fire and Spoon at Madison Square Garden. It felt like a New Orleans jazz funeral. Rest in Peace, darling.
New Paltz, NY
When Arcade Fire take aim at the shopping malls (“Sprawl II [Mountains Beyond Mountains]”) while simultaneously mocking bohemian cool-hunting (“Rococo”), they’re engaging in a painfully trite contradiction: After all, what bohemian thinker in the past half-century has celebrated shopping malls? (Warhol, maybe?) And what has the bohemian’s instinctive distrust of commercialism done to commercialism except entrench it? (How many products have to be sold to us as embodying rebellion or nonconformity before we realize that our urge to rebel and not conform is how products are sold?) It’s no big revelation to note that today’s mainstream is yesterday’s cutting edge—it doesn’t matter whether we buy Converse or Nike or Vans or some currently small-time shoemaker with a Big Cartel website. Nirvana or Pavement, chillwave or slutwave—sooner or later everyone else catches up, or else it probably wasn’t worth catching up to in the first place.
Des Moines, IA
I’ve never spent enough appreciable time in the suburbs to sincerely comprehend what Arcade Fire are trying to get at in their album—at least, not on a legitimately personal level. But what I do remember is that living in the old prewar heart of the city as a kid—when almost everybody in the movies and on TV occupied nice, clean suburban neighborhoods that revolved around shopping malls and high school parking lots—made me suspect that I was disconnected from something bigger and more supposedly universal than what I was living through. So maybe that’s why I can’t entirely connect with the themes of The Suburbs—that, and “Rococo” acting as further evidence that anti-hipster contempt is the last refuge of the self-righteous/self-conscious. But it sounds good enough as oversize anthemic rock that I wouldn’t mind this replacing John Hughes as the go-to fantasy of teenage angst in the sprawl.
St. Paul, MN
Of course, the knock against the suburbs has always been that every house looks the same. So when at first people had trouble distinguishing The Suburbs’ songs from each other, it felt like a little bit too much thematic consistency. However, as anyone who grew up in the suburbs could tell you, once you get inside the houses—even the ones with the exact same floor plans—they’re all totally different, compelling, and usually weirder than you could have possibly imagined.
I adore the idea of Vampire Weekend; their reviews are almost as fun to read as their albums are to listen to. I prefer Contra to the debut because Ezra Koenig (and in the exceptional “Diplomat’s Son,” Rostam Batmanglij) fleshes out scenarios, lyrically and vocally. They’re on to something: the intersection of fashion, homoeroticism, and memory. And as fun as these tracks are, unease is part of the aftershock, too. Koenig’s narrators, way over the threshold of adulthood, evaluate situations whose complexity is beyond their education. Since even Contra’s songs boast the airiest of textures, losing patience with Vampire Weekend is part of the package: The lightness and brevity of these songs frustrate my attempts to pin them down. Intersections aren’t full stops.
In their shared commitment to demolishing binary oppositions (East/West, Black/White, Us/Them), Vampire Weekend, Das Racist, and Titus Andronicus constitute what I like to think of as the “second wave of college rock,” one that’s absorbed the post-structuralist theory so prevalent on the ’80s campuses that birthed R.E.M. et al.
New York, NY
One of the scariest developments of the past year has been the rise to the mainstream of a loose collective of overwhelmingly white reactionaries, defined by a self-contradicting hatred of East Coast elites, a complete inability to understand nuance, and an irrational fear of losing their dominance over a deeply flawed and somewhat scary cultural narrative. I’m talking, of course, about Vampire Weekend haters. Last year, I had fun cutting and pasting the identical criticisms of Avatar with those of Titanic in 1997. This year, I did the same with Vampire Weekend and the criticisms of the Beastie Boys circa 1986.