Underwhelmed And Overstimulated, Part IV: The Joys Of Nicola Roberts And The Problem With Odd Future


Sound of the City’s year-end roundtable, with contributions from Tom Ewing, Eric Harvey, Maura Johnston, Nick Murray, and Katherine St. Asaph, continues.

Hey all. Again, thanks to Maura for putting this together, and thanks to Katherine for not only writing another outstanding recap of 2011 but also handing off to me no less topics than Bon Iver, PBR&B, K-Pop, all hip-hop, the cloud, and trollgaze. Where should I start?

Not with trollgaze, but we’ll get there, for better or for worse. How about Nicola Roberts? I completely agree with you on that record, Tom, and I know from conversation that Maura and Katherine do too. (Eric?) I’d imagine that my experience with it was pretty common: Blown away by the singles, and by the fact that Cinderella’s Eyes was almost a Girls Aloud album, it took me a while to allow it to develop into much more than that. I still enjoyed it plenty—amid the worst year for music ever, how could you not?—but not as much as I did once I started paying closer attention to its latter half.

Changing the subject, I think this was how I was supposed to react to last year’s Katy Perry record, but while the first few tracks (“Teenage Dream,” “Last Friday Night,” “California Gurls,” and “Firework,” respectively) are all impossibly catchy and made with radio in mind (none are more than five seconds longer or shorter than 3:55), the later, “personal” tracks remain completely unlistenable. Perhaps they have the same problem as “Firework”: Not only are they more sneered than sung, but their oppressive loudness—those beats are ready to destroy anything that stands in their way—doesn’t fit the subject matter and makes intimate listening nearly impossible. If we have to pick our favorite “it gets better” song, I’m going with Selena Gomez’s “Who Says,” which at least allows the listener a little room to breathe and doesn’t set me on that “being self-conscious about being self-conscious” downward spiral.

Okay, so trollgaze. For the uninitiated (god bless you), “trollgaze” is Maura’s coinage for (correct me if I’m wrong) internet-age pop that is designed to circulate through blogs and Facebook walls by doing the sort of things that make people click. Remember Lance Bass’s boy-band experiment HEART2HEART? That, essentially, was trollgaze.

But as we look back on the year that trollgaze both birthed and broke, I have to express some ambivalence towards the term. For one, I think its usage tends to gloss over the many things that differentiate, say, HEART2HEART and Lou Reed’s Metallica-backed album Lulu, even as it tells us the handful of things that they might have in common. (For what it’s worth, I still have no idea whose lyrics are more ridiculous.) I guess this is true of any attempt at pop taxonomy, but I also fear that calling things “trollgaze” can easily slip into another means to level away art that genuinely attempts to be provocative or risky. Perhaps the Internet has already accomplished this, but that claim deserves more direct elaboration.

I guess what I’m asking, more or less, is whether James Ferraro projects like Far Side Virtual and Inhale C-4 $$$$$$$$$ (yes, really) would be considered trollgaze. I know at least one person would say so, but I also think they deserve to be considered on their own merits.

Then there’s Odd Future, a group who I’ll bring up mostly in the hope that we can move on and return to discussing, say, Nicola Roberts, whom I now regret having only dedicated a few sentences to. Even though Earl Sweatshirt hasn’t released a much more than a couple of Facebook photos this year (and even he wasn’t really the one responsible for those), Earl, “Earl” (song), and “Earl” (music video) continue to make the exiled rapper the group’s most compelling figure for me, in part because of the way in which he both expresses “trollgaze” and expresses indifference to it at the same time. Listening to this 16-year-old kid rap couplets like “Set to Earth to poke Catholics in the ass with saws/ And knock blunt ashes into their caskets and laugh it off,” you never get the sense that he’s trying to shock you. Rather, those words and images mean nothing to him; he’s over it.

Tyler, on the other hand… If you wanted to prove the existence of trollgaze, once and for all, a link to the YouTube of “Bitch Suck Dick” would surely suffice. Frankly, the fact that Maura came up with the term way before that song’s music video hit the internet speaks as much to her critical faculties as all her Best Music Writing inclusions combined. (Maybe you should put that on your CV, Maura: “Coined phrase ‘trollgaze’ without having seen ‘Bitch Suck Dick.'” Those who understand will be quite impressed.)

But regardless of trollgaze, not to mention how thrilling I found the video for “Yonkers,” Tyler’s music hasn’t been able to grab me in part because I find his concept of rebellion juvenile and, well, boring. On “Radicals,” his supposed mission statement, he raps “Fuck your traditions, fuck your positions/ Fuck your religions, fuck your decisions/ See, they’re not mine so you gotta let ’em go/ See, we can be ourselves but you gotta let us know.” And this, per the last paragraph of his group’s recent Spin profile, is supposed to be “revolutionary”? In 2011? Fuck. That. In reality, this sort of Oedpial “eff you,” the type that Tyler mercilessly vends, is as old any of our grandparents and probably their grandparents too; it filtered down to him not only through his pop antecedents but also, more importantly, the rhetoric of every ad agency in the country. (My favorite example.)

Which brings me back to Tom’s question about the tendency to link songs to contemporaneous political/social/economic events, which I’ll attempt to quickly answer before passing things over to Eric. The aforementioned Odd Future piece is one of many pieces of evidence that there aren’t many words as overused—and maybe even fetishized—by rock writers as “revolution.” And though I’m not ready to use the r word to describe what’s been going on with Occupy, it’s been refreshing to see most of the critics that I read approach the “music of Occupy Wall Street” question slowly and carefully. Then again, this might have been because, as Katherine rightly points out, that the more common “sign o’ the times” crutch continued to be the recession, which seemed to validate the artistic importance of everything from bedroom recordings to four-on-the-flour chart pop. There’s some truth in both those examples, but few writers elaborated enough to push their assertions beyond the wasteland of received wisdom.

I’ll admit, being able to travel from the Voice offices at 36 Cooper Square to Zuccotti Park in less time than it takes to listen to Lulu closer “Junior Dad,” I couldn’t help but wade into the “music of Occupy Wall Street” muck, but I’d like to think I did so cautiously, attempting to avoid the terms around which the discussion is usually framed. I probably failed, but so it goes.

Eric, I figure that these last four posts have given you plenty of material to riff off, so I’ll avoid boxing you in with a few questions. Take it away.