The Music Club

Embracing the Randomness of Pop Music
New albums dissected over email.
Jan. 25 2011 2:26 PM

The Music Club

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Still from Glee. Click image to expand.
Chris Colfer in Glee

What's the dilly-yo, my pals? I hear the joyful strains our collective poptimism fading, like the mournful tinkle of a cowbell shaken in the exhausted hours after the discotheque's last call. Jody hinting at a preference for hipster noise couples over trash divas; Jonah following stringy-haired stoners through the looking glass; Carl trashing cotton candy. Well, I can't say I blame you. My momentary acceptance of the bullet-bra baroness Perry aside, I also grew tired enough of the mainstream's Caligula-like focus on self-gratification to write a year-end essay about pop's moral quandary. I myself have lately been turning more toward stuff that feels less blatantly commercial, like the ambitiously literary new releases by indie stalwarts Destroyer and John Vanderslice.

Literary reach and the wankitude that Jonah fondly identified define my comfort zone, after all—I'm a music scribe in my mid-40s, and not even the most artfully crafted pink wig could cover up the mark of Gen X on my forehead. What I've gained in these past few years of living in pop's hurricane eye is not a love of songcraft (I got that listening to Elvis Costello in my dorm room) or a craving for spectacular "muchness" (opera gives me more—Achim Freyer's staging of the Ring cycle for the L.A. Opera was my live event of the year), but a deep appreciation of pop's randomness: the equal likeliness of all possible outcomes.

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That's not to minimize the influence of evil forces like radio consolidation or the marketing campaigns that begin with Taylor Swift Barbies and Bieber lunchboxes. But pop is a penetrable market, and stuff's always wandering in to rearrange its messages. So much happened last year between the two poles of wish fulfillment and dread.

To name just a few things …. The adult yearning of Lady Antebellum's wee-hours lament, "Need You Now," and the post-adolescent angst of B.o.B. and Hayley Williams' "Airplanes." The continued rise of the Every-Voice, best expressed this year by the sensational second season of Glee. (I defy your ability to resist this teenage dream.) Eternal punks Green Day gobbing gold on Broadway with American Idiot. Anthem-rock heirs apparent the Arcade Fire blowing the roof off Madison Square Garden.

I'll shout out some smaller pleasures, too, especially within the unhip but ever-thriving realm of singer-songwriters. Matt Morris and Justin Timberlake sang together during MTV's telethon to raise funds for earthquake-ravaged Haiti and proved that there's life in Leonard Cohen's worn-out "Hallelujah" yet. Corinne Bailey Rae coped with the death of her young husband by making an album, The Sea, that captured both the mundanity and the surprise of grief. With Love and Its Opposite, Tracey Thorn dug into midlife in all its ripe sexiness and unexpected longing. Forming Fistful of Mercy, shaggy troubadours Joseph Arthur, Ben Harper, and Dhani Harrison created a backyard celestial choir.

I've always been a bit hostile to the boho status quo, but as part of a typically varied all-around musical year, I admit that I found what the cool kids liked a little samey. (I think the animal bands of barely yesterday have a slightly more expansive sonic palette than the beach bands of today.) It's impossible to begrudge young listeners the pleasure of a throwback like the Black Keys' Brothers, but it's also difficult, if you've been around this block before, to feel more than the satisfaction that well-wrought artisanal products grant. That's not a knock on the skill and real emotion evident a sultry kiss-off like the Keys' "I'm Not the One." It's as tasty as a home-brewed craft beer. But there doesn't seem to be much risk in it.

That's the question I'll leave us with, this round—where did you find risk in music this past year? In Kanye's work, yes—we can't stop circling it. (Though at the risk of repeating myself, I'll point out that his lyrics often return to hip-hop's safe zone of female objectification and machismo.) M.I.A. took some big chances on her pop-exploratory summer release, Maya, and lost her next-big-thing momentum. Hard-country-music maverick Jamey Johnson risked the bloat of a double album, and about half of it is truly great.

I don't know, maybe risk isn't a reasonable expectation now. There's too much chaos in the world, too little succor. One song I loved this year was Ryan Bingham's "Depression," a small slice of Springsteeniana that tells the story of one man's gradual reconciliation with despair. The melody goes nowhere; it rises and falls like the breath that Bingham's protagonist threatens to hold until something changes, but nothing ever will change, so with a sigh, he keeps letting go. In the end, he turns to his lover: "All I have is you," he sings. It isn't enough. It has to be enough. The depression may never lift, but at least he has someone to dance with.

Oh, and speaking of dancing: Bieber's best song IMHO is "Eenie Meenie," his madly catchy collabo with Jamaican junior teddy bear Sean Kingston. Because that is the one that will get a roomful of first-graders dancing the hardest.

U smile, I smile,
Ann

Ann Powers is a critic at NPR Music. She is the former Los Angeles Times' chief pop critic and the author of Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America.

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