Sound of the City’s year-end roundtable, with contributions from Tom Ewing, Eric Harvey, Maura Johnston, Nick Murray, and Katherine St. Asaph, continues.
Hello all, and thanks! I’m honored to be here. Let’s talk about the collapse of the global economy.
Or rather, let’s not; as tempting as it is to link early 2011’s glut of apocalyptic dance or late 2011’s druggy numbness to financial panic or cultural malaise, you’d have to glibly ignore 99% of both music and the cultural moment. Even the arguments that almost worked didn’t, like the reductive meme that Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne was just about being rich, not about the experience of being black and having become rich. And speaking of the 99%, it’s far too soon to anoint any Occupy Wall Street anthem. (Sorry, Jonah, Miley’s track is just a fanvid.) There’s been music on the ground, of course, and there’s an album coming out, but it’s telling (of my now-bastardized Google Reader feed, if nothing else) that my main associations between music and Occupy are three things: the Radiohead non-concert that turned out to be a new-media bro’s prank, the musicians whose Zuccotti cameos were probably out of good intent but in practice indistinguishable from photo ops, and the albums in Occupy’s library, which was seized after the NYPD raids—alas, the cloud couldn’t save it.
Nor can megastars—they’re too busy mythologizing themselves to survive in lieu of those megasales. There are exceptions; candor in interviews and mega-megasales aside, you can’t really call Adele a “celebrity,” at least not using that term. (Contrary to rockist belief, this is not a selling point.) But take Rihanna, who’s wearing herself out being better at this sort of thing than anyone else. Icky news stories? Out-ick them on Twitter! Gossip cackling about Chris Brown? Tease it in the “We Found Love” video! Moral guardians carping about being too sexy? Send racks of raunch down the Talk That Talk assembly line!
The problems happen when this isn’t deliberate. Beyonce’s 4 got pregnancy close-readings before the world knew she was pregnant, and it’s almost impossible to review Born This Way without also reviewing how magnetic and/or obnoxious you find Lady Gaga’s persona. Again, these are reductive. 4 has plenty of baby talk, but it’s also got jams (alas, I’m not down with “Countdown,” but “Run the World (Girls)” is hugely underrated) and tasteful, deliberately mature craft. It’s a request for longevity, and it’ll be granted. Meanwhile, Born This Way, if you trim it to an EP (adios, “Americano”; couple more Hail Marys, “Bad Kids”), is full of album gems: “Government Hooker,” a horror of a track with sinister laughter, hesitant arias and an utterly pliable narrator; the gloriously campy “Bloody Mary“; and the post-post-feminist, love-is-bullshit anthem “Scheisse.” And let’s not forget single “Marry the Night” (disclosure: it’s my critical and personal song of the year), in which I still can’t decide whether catharsis wins over heartbreak or vice versa.
It’s been a great year for pop elsewhere, too. Rihanna’s career probably isn’t sustainable, but at least it gave us one soaring dance banger: “Where Have You Been.” Britney Spears made the genre’s third mega-album, and while I’m still wary of how her career and her conservatorship intersect, her producers went gorillas. Kelly Clarkson’s Bruno Martian single “Mr. Know It All” was misleading; Stronger was a pop-rock triumph in a year where it seemed like only Paramore still cared about the genre, with more nuance about relationships than she gets credit for. Katy B can do little wrong. Former tween JoJo (you know: “get out, right now, it’s the end of you and me…”), re-emerged strong and splashy by spiking Drake’s drunk dial “Marvin’s Room” with one jaw-dropping line I won’t spoil. And yes, Drake, who I generally find either hilarious or hateful (I made and ate pumpkin cookies yesterday, so he’s not so, not so proud of me! Then I went for some dim sum and didn’t even pun it.), won me over intermittently with Take Care‘s… instrumentals.
I’ve left someone out. Tom, you wrote on the Singles Jukebox earlier this year that a certain pop artist serves a useful purpose in giving pop fans someone to point to and pan. And last year, Maura, you predicted you’d be sick of her soon. Yes, folks; much like Kevin, that sociopathic kid whose ills may have been spawned by his surroundings, we need to talk about Katy Perry. In 2011, she gave us so much worth so little: the least sincere of the year’s It Gets Better bait (“Firework,” sneered more than sung), blatant racism (“E.T.,” a No. 1 hit about wanting to be victimized by a foreign guy, where Kanye West plays along with “I’mma disrobe you, and then I’mma probe you / see, I abducted you, so I tell you what to do!”), and blatant bullying (“Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F),” whose nerdface mascot Kathy Beth Terry whined and punchlined on Twitter about having no friends until an along-for-deriding Rebecca Black saved her with makeup, booze and—on the remix cover—a spread-eagle photo shoot on a bed). Then there was the ado about her potentially breaking Michael Jackson’s ultimately arbitrary chart record, which meant we got so many throwaway non-remixes, one of which somehow made Missy Elliott (!) also a throwaway. She’s trying it this time with B.o.B—who, remember, is partly responsible for Jessie J becoming a thing in the States.
But enough about bad female role models. You can’t call any year in music since, I dunno, those of Hildegard of Bingen the “Year of the Woman” without ignoring the surrounding years with women, but anecdotally, more than one critic in my circles has wondered aloud why their year-end ballots are so full of ladies, and critics’ lists aren’t looking quite so lopsided. It helps that the big hitters are all at bat; this was a year with great albums by Tori Amos and PJ Harvey and Bjork and Kate Bush. Amos wrote the classical suite she’d trained for since childhood; Harvey’s folk retrofitting, as Tom mentioned, rang particularly resonant in the U.K. this year; Bjork went the innovation, app-enhanced route (it’d seem too self-conscious and/or Shirky if anyone else did it); and Bush delivered a hushed, seductive masterpiece that’s made me cry three times this month already. Critically beloved St. Vincent and Laura Marling more than earned their plaudits, and newly critically beloved EMA proved she deserves her own. In the darker, electronic underworld, Charli and Lykke Li are fantastic as mentioned; to them, I’d add Katie Stelmanis’ group Austra, Zola Jesus and genre stalwarts Ladytron, who delivered another typically gorgeous album that only sounds unsurprising because everyone else has ripped it off.
I’ve punted on a lot—Bon Iver, whom I find inert; Frank Ocean and The Weeknd and those sorts, whom I hate myself for liking; the U.S. surge of K-pop, which is great but requires more words than I’ve got; almost all hip-hop, which would also require far more words; dubstep; the cloud, which, no; all trollgaze, which, also no. Someone else will have to wade under that bridge. Nick? Eric?