Underwhelmed And Overstimulated, Part The Sixth: Was 2011 The Best Year For Women In Music Ever?


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

Hi again everyone,

Sure, there was lots of great music put out by women this year—my Pazz and Jop top tens will be stuffed with them. But does that make 2011 a Year of the Woman by any stretch? I’d argue no, and I suspect the guy who I overheard on the subway the other day, who was complaining that while he liked Lady Gaga going to a concert of hers would make him feel like less of a man, would agree with me; those people horrified by “Super Bass”‘s showing on the Pitchfork singles list might as well. If anything what bothered me about the Year of the Bro (yes, I’m calling it this now) was the way that gender roles became more circumscribed, the way that people who called bullshit on misogyny and homophobia (OK, I’m mostly talking about Tyler here) were mocked in ways that Nick rightly pointed out were absolutely conservative, and the end result was little more than a lot of empty laughter and “objective” music-blog reports that implied an overtightened sphincter on one side.

Jonah Weiner got into this with a depressing and probably mostly correct tangent on misogyny in hip-hop specifically and how that positions the artist espousing those beliefs as possessing “a frisson of otherness” in the minds of those listeners who consciously believe that they’re down with the idea of male-female equality. (I’m putting the word “consciously” in there deliberately, by the way.) So where, then, does that leave female listeners who are just put off entirely, who have had their own personal “‘Dudes In Paris’ On Repeat” sessions because that beat is irresistible, but who still flinch at the ladies-as-property values espoused within, or who want to be able to hear what the fuss is about certain musicians—in rock and rap and pop and pretty much any genre, really—but who can’t get past the notion that they’d be treated as second-class listeners, if that? I’m speaking from a perspective that I keep wanting to describe as “confused,” but it’s more complicated than that; I grew up listening to and loving music that was vicious to women, to the point where I would often sublimate my femininity and identify with the dudes singing, and then I had my feminist awakening but still listened to the Afghan Whigs (and still do), and as I got older I got more dismayed for reasons personal and political and started wondering about what stories would be told in answer songs to some of my favorite tracks that had been penned and sung by men. (In this respect, “My Curse” was probably the most brilliant move Greg Dulli could have pulled; this year he got Ani DiFranco to back him up on the new Twilight Singers album, too.) There are also the professional hazards entwined with reading pick-a-little gossip blogs and their attendant hatefuck-ready comment sections, which will probably tell you more about the ugliness of the current moment’s throbbing id better than any sociological survey ever could, and which in my darker moments leave me wondering what anonymous sludge lurks underneath the nice people I see and talk to every day.

Maybe the solution for women is to keep flipping the script the way Azealia Banks does in her thrilling single “212”; she takes on (and takes in) both men and women like the world is hers to consume, and thanks to the balls-out musical bed provided by Lazy Jay she’s got the springboard to do exactly that. I will admit that finding out the instrumental was pretty much borrowed wholesale made me a teeny bit less bowled over, but she’s still outrageously dextrous with her tongue throughout—which I know is part (or all?) of the point.

Banks’s rise reminds me a bit of what Tom said about music and comics becoming more alike, and how pop is creating a string of characters; that Banks went to the same performing-arts high school as Nicki Minaj sort of sets her up as a next-generation icon. (Her “Super Bass” will, then, be a monster—pun intended.) And speaking further to the comics-related point, there’s something to be said for the idea of the “origin myths” surrounding both the Canadian-born r&bummer outfit the Weeknd and the silky-voiced, Odd Future-affilated Frank Ocean, and how both those artists’ debuts on the scene were reminiscent of none other than Radiohead, at least as far as the popular perception of their music’s distribution strategies went.

To further complicate the picture, though, let’s bring in the lightning-rod singer Lana Del Rey, whose gloppy pop I find more insufferable by the day but who has a similar backstory to Ocean (languishing away on one major under a given name, refashioning the persrona into someone more “mysterious,” hitting pay dirt). Yet while Frank gets co-signs from the Throne and winds up topping R&B lists ahead of people who can write better hooks, Lana has her backstory probed as part of proof that she’s inauthentic, gets relentlessly Carles-ed for being “hot,” and so on. Saying that the music is secondary to these criticisms is an insult to the number two. I feel like when I defend Lana on these points I’m putting myself in the same position that I did when I pointed out that maybe “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” wasn’t the best way to greet Michelle Bachmann to the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon stage—I have no fondness for the aesthetics or arguments put forth by either, but I don’t think that reducing them to their femininity and then denigrating that is all that great a portent for the way that, say, I might be criticized should I dare step out of line from accepted dogme. (The personal is political once again.)

And not for nothing, but all three of them are going to wake up and hit, say, 33 or so and realize that they really screwed up by not having as much fun with sex as they could have in their youth. At least Banks has some idea of how to seize the day on that level.

As it has been for much of 2011 and for most of my year-end recaps, I feel like I’m running out of time and there’s so much that I still want to talk about. Bullet-point time!

• There’s the debut full-length from Yelawolf, the Alabama MC who showed so much promise last year with “Pop The Trunk” and whose Radioactive is great… until for some reason Eminem shows up and starts telling him to make songs for women, at which point the record slows down and loses a ton of its momentum. (The Fefe Dobson cameo is pretty tight, and I adore the Billy Joel interpolation in “Everything I Love The Most”—Long Island ’til I die. But the rest, I dunno.) I’m pretty sure I can blame this awful turn on Skylar Grey and Alex da Kid, who made some of the year’s most insufferable radio staples with their forays into Glee-rap, where the girls sing all serious and sad-like and the dudes fulminate and never the twain shall meet. Here’s hoping Yela comes out with a mixtape full of more nu-Southern Gothic miniatures like “Growing Up In The Gutter” soon—it certainly would speak to the moment in more ways than one.

• This year’s candidate for the Album That Came Out In December That Snuck Onto My Year-End Top 10: Robin Thicke’s Love After War, an album of sex jams that is so cocky, it manages to stick in a baroque pop track worthy of comparisons to Sgt. Pepper, or at least to Jellyfish’s Spilt Milk. Also, can someone please force Lil Wayne to make a collaborative album with either him or with Lloyd? It would help ground him a bit.

• The James Ferraro album, which I gave an initial spin to this afternoon, is so slick and self-consciously “futurist” that to fully appreciate it I need to be in a room with bleached-white walls and moving walkways—even to travel between, say, my chair and my door.

• My favorite televised music moment of the year is still Jacob Lusk on American Idol, killing “You’re All I Need To Get By.” I still get shivers. I hope he gets to work with R. Kelly on a Love Letter-inspired project and that they keep any and all “modern” producers a thousand miles away from whatever studio they’re holed up in.

• The best song I heard via browsing “New Releases On Spotify,” which is pretty much the closest I’ll get to stalking the new-in-the-store racks at the Virgin Megastore and Tower Records these days, is Little Racer‘s “Split For The Coast,” which sounds straight out of the C86 era with its sharply defined guitars and straining vocals. They’re from Brooklyn, but I found them on the Internet. 2011!

Katherine, you’re up next; this has been so much fun and I don’t want it to end, but I guess this is my last missive in this format; those of you who want to Spotify-browse my favorite tracks of the year can check me out over here. (Be sure to listen to the Razika track, one of the most joyous-sounding pieces of music to come out in a dog’s age, even though it’s about being heartbroken.) Time to return to counting down awful things that happened to my ears this year. Oh, and sometime before tomorrow, can one of you remind me to fill out my Pazz and Jop ballot?