The Music Club

Learning To Love Katy Perry; Learning To Cope With Critical ADHD
New albums dissected over email.
Jan. 24 2011 3:47 PM

The Music Club

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Janelle Monae's The Archandroid.

Hello, boys, it's nice to type at you again! Oh, wait, interact with you. I've applied Leechblock to my Facebook page and am trying hard to focus on that mash-up labeled 2010. But as I struggle to churn out six or so coherent paragraphs, I keep interrupting myself, my thoughts pinging off Jody's Taylor takedown (hey! I hated that nightlight, too!), Jonah's Kanye-criticism defense (yo, my review of the Fantasy wasn't just a rave), and Carl's lovely list (Wow, you picked my second-favorite Extra Lens song). I find myself wishing we were tweeting instead of old-school writing. My brain feels like a hip hop sample database today.

The static in my mind field might be particular to my life as a critic for a daily publication; the nonstop news cycle already yanked one critic's notebook out of me as I tried to meet this deadline. And then I had to spend the evening tweeting about American Idol, a task that thrusts me into a whole new style of critical thinking—one that unfolds as a conversation with others (shout-outs to @maura at @popdust and @richardrushfield at @thedailybeast!), where the job is to work toward real insight within the flow of dumb jokes and emotional asides.

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So I mine distraction for a living. But I'm pretty sure my apparent case of adult-onset ADHD is not unique. One genre over from music, at the movies, all anyone can talk about is The Social Network, a thriller about how a database overtook the American soul. It's not just that life seems to be moving faster than ever before—it's shakin' all over, constantly rearranging itself within all of the cognitive windows we keep open at once.

Music is changing along with every other cultural form in response to this psychic revolution. Janelle Monáe's The ArchAndroidwas my favorite album of the year partly because it powerfully communicates this experience of internal fragmentation, not only through the science-fiction story line that influences the lyrics, but in its agitated relationship to genre—on the album, Monáe and her collaborators in the Wondaland Arts Society itchily move from show tunes to psychedelia to funk without pausing to signal their changes—and in its very sound. I think Monáe's theatricality is a plus in this regard, even if it turns off you haters. Through her singing style, which is both arch and disconcertingly in-your-face, Monáe explores how playing multiple roles alters emotional experience. That's a subject we should all be thinking about.

Monáe is hardly the only artist who tramped on those floorboards this year. We've talked about Nicki, who finds the fierceness in cartoon femme-fatalism, and Kanye, whose overstuffed arrangements speak to our most profound anxieties about race, class, and credit card consumerism. And don't forget Ke$ha, the top-selling trash genius who (as the pseudonymous Tyrone Slothrop pointed out in a brilliant essay titled "Vomiting Up Tequila and Glitter") brilliantly embodies the YouTube generation's performance of amateurism. Or Cee Lo Green, whose brilliant Matt Stawski-directed video for the reasonably priced (not cheap!) joke that is "Fuck You" makes comedy of the paradox of that song, its shiny blur of anger and uplift, sacred soul swoon and profane rock attitude.

Green has been working such relevant contradictions for years, from the psychedelic rap of Goodie Mob to the gospel punk of Gnarls Barkley, and his emergence as a mainstream personality this year felt like a triumph for those of us who like our heroes leaping stereotypes with a single bound. But what of the woman who drives me most crazy with her embrace of musty old (in this case, gender) roles? I have deeply mistrusted Katy Perry ever since she stole Jill Sobule's one big line and started hard-selling her retrograde, seemingly anti-feminist idea of girlie sexual liberation. (Remember "UR So Gay?" Ick.)

What finally allowed me to come to terms with Perry—and it was the song "Teenage Dream" that really did it—was realizing that the very point of Perry is the way her old-fashioned emotions rub up so provocatively against her right-now poses: She's a good girl going bad, over and over again, and she's going to make us feel every step of that process. The predicament that rules her is eternal for young women: How to give yourself without losing yourself in a society that still prefers its feminine constituents artfully posed or vulnerably prone.

"You think I'm pretty without any makeup on," Perry whispers incredulously in the first line of "Teenage Dream," her voice leaning slightly stunned against a latticework-privacy-fence of kick drum. The plucked way Perry sings the lyric—as if what she's saying is just impossible—says so much about how far we all feel we've strayed from our genuine selves. That line is the most important one to make the Top 10 this year, I think: its tragic nostalgia, playing out the new version of the hard-soft dynamic that made 1990s alt-rock so shocking—yeah, that Nirvana sound—except now what this jarring contrast expresses is a woman finding her power, a woman not knowing if that power is going to cost her everything and certainly not whether it will be worth it, instead of a boy-man like Kurt Cobain getting in touch with his feminine side.

The hard-soft dynamic is everywhere in music now: in the beautiful ugliness of Eminem and Rihanna's poperatic account of the cycle of abuse, "Love The Way You Lie"; in the ballads of genius girl whisperer Bruno Mars, blending power-ballad punch with Motown style seductiveness; in boozy duets from Lady Antebellum and in all those boy-girl hipster bands, who live out the rivalries of the gender-integrated workplace through tense little handfuls of noise-polluted ear candy. We can all cite examples of why this is nothing new, yet I think it's back now in force because hard-soft is what the cruel world of chronic unemployment and weird weather and distant war demands that we be. We still need to feel pleasure and hope, to be open in the way music makes us. But we need to maintain a sharp edge, to be ready to hit "delete" and "refresh" and move on. So much pop music now has that cynical tinge, which is a bummer. Yet at the same time, within the same songs, there's a struggle to defeat it. That cheers me up.

Oh dear, I've exceeded my word limit and haven't touched upon the wonder of Justin Bieber! Jody, I guess I'm ceding that to you. Though as the mother of a 7-year-old who forced every visitor to our home in 2010 to watch her perform an original dance to the Bieb's "Baby," I feel distinctly qualified to weigh in. Let the little children lead us. They have pretty good taste.

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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