Dear Ann, Jody, Jonah, and Nitsuh,
Either Nitsuh’s been reading my notebook or his cold medication is giving him clairvoyance, because “the artist who … is spectacularly good at being talked about” is exactly what I’d wanted to, well, talk about next. In part that’s because of a post earlier this year by the wonderfully pop-savvy music editor of the Village Voice, Maura Johnston, in which she coined the word “trollgaze” to describe “a somewhat toxic cycle where those people who are willing to wear lampshades on their heads over and over take attention away from artists who are trying to figure out what the hell they're doing, and who don't want to play for laughs to the cheap seats in order to establish a foothold.” Along with Kreayshawn and various songs explicitly about the Internet, Maura relegated to the trollgaze camp Odd Future’s Tyler, the Creator, as well as Lana Del Rey, Rebecca Black (or at least Rebecca Black parodists), and even, sort of, the Lou Reed/Metallica collaboration.
The term resonated with me at the time, but in the intervening months I’ve come to think that it’s more a product of the overload a journalist feels when she is deeply immersed in online culture and rigorous about her critical duty to track each new phenomenon (not to mention beholden to pageviews herself). Ultimately trollgazing is what pop culture has always been about. Novelty, gimmick, flash, and provocation is everywhere in pop history, from Elvis and Little Richard to the Beatles and James Brown, David Bowie and the Sex Pistols, Prince and Madonna, on through to Gaga and Lil Wayne today. Being a pop star automatically includes being spectacularly good at being talked about. And new artists have always dug into that bag of tricks—a distinctive look, a quirky video, an outrageous statement—to get noticed, even as they developed their skills and sensibilities as songwriters and performers. I really don’t believe anyone on Maura’s list (even Tyler, as annoyed as he can make me) is in it solely for the pageviews.
I’ve been particularly irked by people (and here I don’t mean Maura) taking that attitude to Lana Del Rey, who seems to have been nailed to the cross of an authenticity double-standard rife with gender prejudice. She’s accused of phoniness for having adopted a style, persona, and pseudonym, like almost every artist we’ve been discussing. She’s criticized for having had a previous label contract (under her given name, Lizzie Grant) while supposedly fronting as an “indie” artist (a term we seem stuck with even though it has no remaining meaning as a business model, musical style, or anything else that isn’t immediately contradicted by a thousand counterexamples), yet all that could be also be said (but isn’t) about the much-praised Frank Ocean. She’s denounced for having appeared as if from nowhere—forget it, Jake, it’s the Internet; that’s a feature, not a bug. The game really gets naked when people attack her by conjecturing that she’s had a lip job.
Partly people are cynical about her because too many of her songs, as well as her stage performances, don’t stand up to her best ones. But I think they’re also ill at ease because her best single, “Video Games,” has such an ambiguous POV on gender and relationships: Is its melodious but bathetic plaint from a lovesick girlfriend to her neglectful beau a critique of the power dynamics that can render women passive, or a literal enactment of them? I’m inclined to assume songs are seldom un-self-consciously autobiographical—they’re by definition constructs, and if they seem double-edged, they were probably meant to be.
The range of reactions to Drake partly has to do with whether the listener identifies with his ambivalence or ends up shuddering at the thought of what it might be like to date him. “Video Games” strikes me as a queasy evocation of just that scenario (though Drake would more likely be zoning out with his smartphone or recording gear than with an Xbox), or alternatively what it’s like to be the girlfriend of a bro out of a Judd Apatow movie. So it’s a timely take, nowhere near as empowering but perhaps more kitchen-sink realist than some other new music by young women we’ve discussed. I’m not saying this makes Del Rey a major artist, but she’s made one great single and could make more.
The Internet does make it possible for humongous numbers of people to play these pop-culture games, and the sheer volume can be dizzying. But isn’t that mostly democratizing? One of the most sobering pieces of music journalism this year was on NPR’s economics show Planet Money, called “How Much Does It Cost to Make a Hit Song?” It offered a window into the creative process of a “songwriting camp,” the modern version of the Brill Building or Tin Pan Alley, as well as the recording studio, but it also showed how one song—Rihanna’s “Man Down”—took $78,000 to write and record and then then required a million dollars to market (including the contemporary version of good old-fashioned radio payola). And—this is kind of the comforting bit—“Man Down” didn’t even become a hit.
In that environment, hell, why not let a thousand Kreayshawns bloom? My reaction is more like Rayanne Graff’s on My So-Called Life to high-school gossip: “Everybody running around, all upset, rumors flying—can’t you feel it? It’s like being alive! Man, it’s such a rush—all that conversation.” Rebecca Black’s song obviously wasn’t the best of the year by any conventional measure, but it may well be the one I heard, sang to myself, talked and thought about the most. As Nitsuh said, there’s no justification in speculating what an obscure brilliant songwriter’s stance and persona says about the broader social panorama (though you can talk about patterns among a lot of them)—that kind of analysis begs for the empirical backup of mass reaction, which usually requires not only a keen instinct for the zeitgeist but, apparently, a million bucks. Yet a viral song or video by an anonymous anybody can deke around that marketing machinery, directly to the collective semiconscious.
What we lack is an aesthetic language for it, a way of explaining to ourselves why one meme is stickier, swifter, or more pungent than another. But meme culture is still in its infancy—what it will become a decade from now is a mystery. Though it gets overblown, the impact of social media on the Arab uprisings and the memelike identity of #occupy are things we couldn’t have imagined a few scant years ago. Being alarmist and bummed about it all is too much of a get-off-my-lawn reaction—and it’s not your lawn; it’s everybody’s lawn (#occupythelawn).
It’s the same way I felt about our colleague Simon Reynolds’ very successful 2011 book, Retromania, despite the sharper insights buried under its grabby, “there’s nothing new in music these days” thesis. (Ann and I, along with Daphne Carr, are discussing it next week in a panel on the Bookforum website.) It’s a loss of perspective to assert that the ways young musicians are collaging genres, microsamples, and found forms now is emptier than the way punk combined retro garage rock, downtown boho, and suburban trash culture, say, or the way early hip-hop blended Jamaican DJ toasting, African-American patter traditions, and funk and disco beats. Nothing comes out of nowhere; revival is always also reinvention.
All that said, for a would-be universalist pop critic, #occupy also has been a healthy reminder of the joy, and sometimes necessity, of taking sides—embracing what speaks especially to and for you. So let me end my contribution to all this conversation this year by mentioning a few artists that enticed me, irrespective of any larger significance.
Just as Jonah liked Cage the Elephant for sounding like the Pixies, I was helplessly (and a bit guiltily) mesmerized this year whenever I heard Yuck, a London group that, in that British expertly-retro way, are only a copy of Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and half the other bands I loved most when I was 20. Not only would their songs fit right in on a mixtape of late-’80s/early-’90s alt-rock, they’d be some of the catchiest stuff on it.
And in a year that—Pistol Annies, Eric Church, and a few others aside—wasn’t stellar for Nashville country, I was delighted to get better acquainted with one of the few worthy younger heirs to the lineage of my favorite kind of country, the Texas-outlaw variety. Hayes Carll’s fourth album, KMAG YOYO (and other American stories), has plenty of the n’e’er-do-well road rockers, drinking songs and lovelorn ballads, but he brings unusual vim, wit and an of-the-moment lefty political edge. The title track (from the military-slang acronym for “Kiss my ass, guys, you’re on your own”) takes the template of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and overlays a shaggy-dog story about an unwilling Afghan-war recruit who ends up on a drugged-up and ill-starred covert op: “I won't ever ask you, Lord, for anything again/ I'll swear it on the Bible, Torah or Koran/ Lyin' in a rhino track/ 'Bout to have a heart attack/ IED got to me, someone call the Medevac …”
Better yet is the even-less-programmatic, “Another Like You,” in which Carll and guest vocalist Cary Ann Hearst duet with Johnny-and-June or Conway-and-Loretta gusto on a back-and-forth of ribald barroom banter and slander (“You’re probably a Democrat” “What the hell is wrong with that?” “Nothing, if you’re Taliban” and “Were you hitting on the stripper ’cuz you can’t afford to tip her, or just afraid of being alone?”) that winds up inevitably in room 402 (“well, I gotta hand it to ya, there’s a chance I’m going to screw ya”) for a snowball’s chance in hell at lasting love.
I have a conflict of interest on this next one—I’m friendly with the artist and wrote notes for the album—but hardly anyone heard it, and they should. I’ll concede that the perennially undernoticed Vancouver pianist, singer, and songwriter Veda Hille is a case study in what happens to career artists in the current musical economy who don’t have that knack for getting themselves talked about. Since album sales alone won’t pay the bills—and because she enjoys the challenge and the collaborations—she ends up taking a lot of commissions to write music for theatre, dance, and other arts bodies. Here, the (sadly defunct) CBC Radio Orchestra hired her and contemporary composer Giorgio Magnanensi to arrange and record a suite of songs by two Canadian legends, Neil Young and Buffy Sainte-Marie. The result is Young Saint Marie, a whirling mobile of music featuring Hille’s passionate, fine-toothed reinterpretations of these classics and Magnanensi’s molecular, almost fractal orchestrations. Unfortunately I can’t find samples online, but trust me, you haven’t heard all that Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid” or Sainte-Marie’s “Codine” can encompass, until you’ve heard this.
Finally, my most jawdropping out-of-the-blue discovery this year didn’t happen online but in a movie theatre, during Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In: Suddenly, during a wedding scene, there appeared on the screen this incredibly forceful flamenco-fusion singer, Concha Buika, whose 21st-century-Nina Simone presence made the rest of the movie seem like the dire and gratuitous chore that it is. I later found out that she’s 39, of Guinean descent, “bisexual, three-phase and three-dimensional” and released a retrospective collection in 2011 as well as an EP with the songs from the soundtrack, including the stirring “Se Me Hizo Facil.”
Yet more proof that there is always more music than we can know. All the charts, trends, anti-trends, and playlists we can wear ourselves out pursuing pale beside the wonder of turning a corner and finding ourselves in a room where another human being, duo, family, or band of outsiders is humbly making life richer with the improbably infinitely malleable materials of notes, rhythms, syllables, tones, and timbres, as they always have and always will. To another year of that, I say cheers to all of you.