Sound of the City’s year-end roundtable, with contributions from Tom Ewing, Eric Harvey, Maura Johnston, Nick Murray, and Katherine St. Asaph, continues.
Look, it’s what I’ve been dreading talking about all year! Anyway. For the past hour, Maura, I’ve tried to think of one—only one—perfect antidote track, or line even, by a woman to the pickup whines by Drake and those who’d love to be him. I haven’t even come close. Nicki Minaj has little interest in this, which is absolutely her right but rules out the most obvious candidate. A few Rihanna shame-changers, like “Watch ‘N’ Learn“‘s “don’t ask me if you were the first to sleep here/ ’cause if he did, you wouldn’t even be here,” might work, but they’re lost amid album filler, raunch and career churn. Laura Marling’s “Sophia” would work if it had any genre relation whatsoever and if the point of the song wasn’t “how and with whom I’ve moved on is none of your business”—the only safe response when being candid as a female writer almost automatically means people call you oversharing (imagine if Drake was a woman), but no good for countering. And more plausible answer songs like “212” have reaches, as Eric said, currently confined to music blogs and whatever came of Banks’ day out with Kanye. JoJo’s “Marvin’s Room” remake doesn’t even pinprick Drake’s original hit if you go by audience—even discounting the implications of wanting a white pop singer like JoJo to dethrone a black R&B singer like Drake, which shouldn’t be discounted.
I’ve said “Drake” four times this post. I’ll explain—I’m having a hard time adjusting to these guys’ fame. I’d happily take a year’s worth of Weeknds, for instance, over the continued prominence of Chris Brown, an obnoxious, abusive tool whose career has not only outlasted a dozen career-killing tantrums but who had a fantastic year because of stans and good-ol’-dude goodwill. And Drake catches a lot more flak—by which I mean any flak—than, say, LMFAO’s considered-harmless smash containing the lyric “running through hos like Drano,” more disgusting the more you think about it, or Hot Chelle Rae naming themselves to mock a would-be MySpace groupie, or any of this cultural moment’s casual cruelty. That didn’t make me any less disconsolate seeing critic after (usually male) critic prostrate themselves before Drake’s weary feet, and the few quietly uncomfortable voices letting themselves be drowned out by the consensus and admittedly gorgeous, downbeat sounds. They’re not all like this—some are more like smoke-soaked dungeons, some are like noir soundtracks conflated with Aronofsky, others are just haze—but either way, they signify not just gloom but glamour, creepiness and cachet. This isn’t casual anymore. If 2011 is the year of the bro, it’s the year of the bro showing off a fantastic sound system atop his baggage.
But before we unpack that baggage, it needs better tags. Eric, your “PBR&B” is amazing and perfect, but alas, I’ve never gotten it to translate off-Tumblr. “R&Bummer” isn’t quite it, either, because this music isn’t entirely bummed-out. Sad Drake memes aside, nobody’s seriously worried about his mental state, or those of Abel Tesfaye or Frank Ocean or The-Dream. Or, per Jody on Slate: “I don’t buy the idea that these young men are having such a bad time banging groupies.” People don’t see these guys as just mopey. They’re mysterious and complicated and deep, and they have equally deep taste in aesthetic and sounds. The one Weeknd lyric I keep coming back to isn’t druggy or outwardly douchey; it’s this, from “The Birds Part 1″‘s “don’t make me make you fall in love with me,” the lyrical equivalent of “don’t think of an elephant.” A pickup line, in other words—one that’s probably working really well for him. Will you, dear listener, be the lucky lady good enough to lift the gloom?
That starts to get at my big theory about the year. Of course artists make themselves into characters, whether they’re playing the pop supervillain like Brown, the Kanye pal/insider who’s really an outsider-artisan like Bon Iver, the impassive royal like Beyoncé, the warm royal like Lady Gaga, the big sister like Taylor Swift. And of course the music’s always ancillary to the persona to some degree—the big money’s either in multi-platform parading for fans or owning “Rolling in the Deep.” Drake, Frank Ocean, and the Weeknd et al. are great at the former, parceling out little snippets of faux-conversation with you, letting you speak with them or be spoken to. The music’s like this, too—are you making the “Marvins Room” dial, or are you the girl asking if he’s drunk right now? I suspect the appeal lies in the former, getting to pretend-love and leave shattered hearts in one’s wake; it’s a high without a comedown, play-acting with no stakes. For people without that fantasy, though, what’s there? Sometimes there’s substance left. (Frank Ocean’s “Novacane” is on my Pazz & Jop ballot; his songs ring true to me even if his songwriting’s not quite developed.) Otherwise, you’re just being negged. But negged with such production! Ugh. I’m done with these guys except to say that I’m not looking forward to 2012’s inevitable glum glut of Drake wannabes (one of whom, incidentally, is Justin Bieber, who has now covered a song with the lyric “I don’t trust these bitches” to zero freakoutery; again, imagine if he were a 17-year-old girl). I’m hoping against hope that these sounds will at least get a bro-ectomy as well.
So no, this isn’t the Year of the Woman. But it’s not completely barren out there. As you’ve pointed out, Maura, there’s a whole world of alternatives called “R&B radio,” and even if it’s got its landmines (either the premise of that one line in “Dedication to My Ex,” or certain J. Cole or Miguel tracks), it’s also mostly free of that nonsense. (Again, dreading 2012.) There’s the whole It Gets Better subgenre, which can be self-congratulatory but has probably literally saved lives. And among the ladies, pick your royal. I’ll single one out: this is why I don’t really have a problem with Adele. Yes, she’s a phenomenon because her voice is a crinkled copy of better soul singers but marketed as real anyway; yes, only Bon Iver rivals her in being a straw person for rockists. But “Rolling in the Deep” is great for those who want to feel control and triumph, and “Someone Like You” is, as Saturday Night Live lovingly skewered, great for catharsis. And “I hate to show up at your door uninvited” could be a Drake lyric, no?
All that said, I realize I’m in the critical and public minority on the aforementioned guys. Perhaps you, Tom and Nick, aren’t—how wildly off-base was I?