The Music Club, 2011
Entry 10: Why was there so much whistling in pop this year?
Photograph by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images.
Dear Jody, Jonah, Ann and Nitsuh,
My system is still working overtime to process turkey, lamb, yule log, liqueurs, oysters, cookies, and wine—when your birthday and Xmas are a couple of days apart, celebrating becomes a bit of an extreme sport, like a slow-motion LMFAO video. Digesting all you have said comes as a welcome change.
We’ve analyzed the Drake-Weeknd-Ocean cluster almost to the point of brain-death, but I’ll add a final point: Jody’s right that R-Neg-B (an alternative to Eric Harvey’s clever but too reductive “PBR&B,” prompted by Katherine St Asaph’s sharp argument at the Village Voice’s version of Music Club that its grimness is really the musical equivalent of the sleazeball pickup technique of “negging”) thins the genre’s emotional range. But styles in hip-hop and R&B hadn’t changed radically for at least a long half-decade. So this and the underground-rap explosion came at the right time: It’s not the new normal, but it’ll be the catalyst for whatever that turns out to be.
Now let me pick up where Nitsuh left off, with Let England Shake, the best retort to those who bemoan the dearth of political music. Overall, pop is lousy at explicit protest; Dylan’s early topical songs are weak compared to “Maggie’s Farm” or “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which expand adaptably to rage against any given machine. There are some moments that call for specifics: Just as “Ohio” still packs heat after 40 years, Tunisia won’t soon forget the intervention (and arrest) of rapper El Général with “Rayes Le Bled” at the dawn of its revolution. But pop’s power more often lies in its flexibility.
Singing about England and the First World War, PJ Harvey needled nationalism and empire, and when 2011 brought both the English riots and the EU crisis, she suddenly seemed uncannily prescient. On a more minor scale, so did Stephen Malkmus (formerly of Pavement), when his jokey chorus, “I know what the senator wants/ What the senator wants is a blowjob,” arrived just after the Anthony Weiner scandal: coincidence, but one that will recur as long as sex, power, and political hypocrisy do their ancient dance. It punctured the pretensions of the summer’s hollow congressional standoffs.
Likewise, Foster the People’s unlikely hit “Pumped Up Kicks,” the “I Don’t Like Mondays” of 2011, was at once effortless, earwormy whistle-pop, a disturbing evocation of cultural unease, and consumerist critique: Rockin’ sneaks, dude, but what good will they do when your survival’s at stake? Given this and tracks like “Dancing Till the World Ends,” I (perhaps too wishfully) see hints of a self-critical impulse emerging in the charts as the erstwhile teen-pop audience gets older and queasier. Next year, perhaps more songs will echo the dynamic of U.K. sci-fi movie Attack the Block, in which a hedonistic teenage gang taps into its collective heroic potential as things get truly dire (though hopefully it won’t take an invasion of blind outer-space monkey-wolves to do it). The imminent avalanche of #occupy-inspired songs will be the first test.
Sidebar: Why was there so much whistling in pop in 2010-11? I think it was partly taking the place of T-Pain-style Auto-Tune; a whistle has the same chromatic-slide effect, which blends perfectly with synths and stuttering beats, but in a time of heavily processed vocals it also satisfies our nostalgia for non-cyborgian humanity. After “Kicks,” the grating-but-massive “Moves Like Jagger,” and Britney’s “I Wanna Go,” it’ll be a while yet before pop’s pucker tuckers out.
All that said, the hasty pace of digital culture has made it tougher to pull off the trick of being at once of-the-moment and timeless. In fact, my biggest criticism of current pop is that, in between the hooks, lyrics and vocals frequently seem to ramble sloppily, all text-message chatty—a side effect of persona dominating nearly every other tool in the box.
The bombast Ann mentioned on Lady Gaga’s Born This Way seemed like an overdone attempt to counter that casualness. I think she’s got the creative stuff to get the balance right eventually, but meanwhile, we don’t have to rely on Gaga to hold up women’s half of the sky. This year brought new work by the exact cohort of female innovators—Harvey, Bjork, Tori Amos, Kate Bush, and Wild Flag (a supergroup comprising Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and other post-riot-grrrls)—who godmothered freak-flag-flying sisters tUnE-yArDs, St. Vincent, Planningtorock, the Knife, Dum Dum Girls, Eleanor Friedburger, Best Coast, Lykke Li, Florence and the Machine, et al. This isn’t chart pop yet, but it’s a tidal wave I bet will ripple outward.
On that note, it’s worth remembering that chart pop, as diverting a zeitgeist barometer as it can be, is now simply another niche. A big one, but still a specialized sector. Ann questions where all the rock has gone; one reason it seems to be missing is that it just doesn’t fit in to the beat-addicted formats of most hit radio. But moreover, after a half-century, it might be that there are too many other, fresher ways to dance, bang your head, and shout along in 4/4 time for meat-and-potatoes rock to attract sustained mass attention from younger, multicultural generations who weren’t reared on it.
That doesn’t mean great rock’s not being made, particularly in the myriad thriving subgenres of metal; when I hear the amazing likes of Tombs, I wish I were more than a tourist there. (For a backgrounder, you could do worse than the charming new doc series Metal Evolution on VH1.) But at this point complaining that rock’s rare on the charts is like being upset because there aren’t instrumental jazz hits: I loved Matana Roberts and Ambrose Akinmusire this year, but they’re not going to flow well out of the Black Eyed Peas. Rock’s far from extinct—Ty Segall gave one of the more thrilling shows I saw in 2011, and even the Black Keys are better than they need to be—but its most basic versions seem to flourish better when converted to country, a genre I’ll save for our last go-round.
Otherwise, rock’s near future probably lies in borrowing energies from dance and electronic music, as the late, lamented LCD Soundsystem did. Which reminds me of a beguiling album that’s been unjustly forgotten since it dropped last January, the Dirtbombs’ Party Store, on which the fiery Detroit garage-soul guitar group covered classics from the era when their town was busy inventing techno. For a one-off, it does a remarkable job of demonstrating how much connects these two routes to getting fast and loud.
Part of rock’s problem is that without a pungent sense of irony it tends to skew either superearnest or supergoofy (or both). Which brings me round, if only because you asked, to Bon Iver. I see the appeal of Justin Vernon’s traffic-stopping falsetto and deft arrangements, but I can’t handle the overbearing self-seriousness, which seems to obviate the need for the music to have any kind of forward momentum, melodically or rhythmically—his songs not only don’t go anywhere, they don’t seem to start out anywhere. The only tune on Bon Iver’s self-titled second album I can even listen all the way through is “Beth/Rest,” on which, like Jonah, I appreciate the nakedly cheesy, John-Hughes-credit-sequence vibe.
Vernon generally sings as if he’s afraid he might bruise a word by articulating it, so many listeners might miss how strained and awkward his poetry-class-stoner lyrics are. In interviews he has credited the influence of one of my favorite and most overlooked living songwriters, Richard Buckner. Unfortunately he mimics only the mannerisms—the elusiveness, not the resonance, of the wordplay. Between his mushmouthedness and his thesaurusisms, the songs end up, paradoxically, oozing excruciating sincerity but evading almost any discernible content. Buckner, by contrast, never shrinks from casting aspersions on all culprits in his songs’ emotional bloodbaths. I wish I could sit every Bon Iver fan down to listen to Buckner’s first album in five years, Our Blood—songs like “Escape” or “Confession,” for instance—so they could hear the difference.
Carl Wilson is Slate's music critic.