The Music Club

The Sound of the Obama Era
New albums dissected over email.
Jan. 25 2011 12:33 PM

The Music Club

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Barack Obama.
What's the sound of the Obama era?

Wow, a lot of ground to cover. Ann's hypothesis of a prevalent "hard-soft" dynamic in music is definitely appealing. Hard times and a soft recovery—it's reminiscent of the early-1990s "loudQUIETloud" style Nirvana et al. took from the Pixies, which expressed a similar lurching ambivalence for a previous recession-crippled generation. (I think we can expect more 1990s revivalism—when you get beyond the Pixies and Pavement to a Dismemberment Plan reunion, that's a lot of nostalgia tours: Gen Xers, have we given up our demographically given right to snark about boomers' endless recycling of their youths, in pursuit of the comforts we think we've got coming?)

Still, Jody's thumbnail history of Max Martin and Dr. Luke reminds us that the hard-soft combo has been an increasing part of mainstream pop style for quite a while. The contrast I contemplated most in 2010 was instead the minimal vs. the baroque.

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Through the first part of the year, the Gaga factor governed all. She set a bar for much-of-a-muchness that everyone from M.I.A. to Katy to Kanye to Nicki then tried to vault. All this art-world-emulating, plastic-fantastic spectacle recalls early-'70s glam and early-'80s new wave—no doubt for better and for worse.

Monáe's and Badu's equally baroque constructions stood apart from that sweepstakes, sipping from a deeper bohemian well, and that continuity is healthy, too. Jody, I won't mount a full-scale defense of Return of the Ankh except to say her explorations seem less calculated, more musically mature; I, too, get impatient with the mumbo-jumbo parts, but I think years of listening to free jazz and improv, where that kind of syncretic spirituality is common, have conditioned me to ignore the mantras and focus on the music. And it wasn't like she always shied from a fight, either. (Her video also marked a subtler form of exchange between musical worlds than Kanye sampling Bon Iver, or the Roots and Joanna Newsom.)

Of all the post-Gaga performers, Katy Perry remains the least convincing to me, Ann. While she certainly got to cut songs with great hooks and production this year, I never feel like she inhabits them with much more than a talent-show-level presence or performative intelligence. She doesn't make tracks her own the way, say, Rihanna does, so I don't feel the sense of a challenge or agency that you do in her performances. She seems to me like the hired talent: When her Sesame Street cameo got canned because of some parents groups' boob-a-phobia, I realized she strikes me precisely as a stiff kiddie-show hostess gone, er, gaga.

Meanwhile on the semipopular-music side, what ruled was a lo-fi aesthetic—the terribly named "chillwave" style (pioneered by Ariel Pink, as Jonah notes) has gotten such traction that the aughts-dominating Pitchfork felt compelled to create a spinoff site called Altered Zones to deal with it.

As British critic Simon Reynolds cogently argued recently, this is music made and consumed mainly by the guitar-loving P4K gang's younger siblings, kids for whom there's always been an Internet. It's not only the DIY, bedroom-made quality that shows it, but the way the music often seems like a low-resolution JPEG blurred by layer upon layer of superimposed texture and reference or a sonic equivalent of a Ryan Trecartin video. (Jonah, it's not just critics who are drawn to code-switching, referential virtuosity—that's the very definition of cool for hypermediated subcultures, which increasingly is to say all of them.)

Jody's right that a surprising amount of this stuff bears a strong 1960s-jukebox, Phil Spector, Brill Building, Beach Boys influence: Who would have guessed that the Wolf/Bear/Deer of 2010 would be Beach/Surf/Coast? But I think Jody's wrong to read it solely as "teen-dream nostalgia," even as he grants it its elegance—what I notice is the move from animal-and-nature references to humans-and-nature references: The beach is a human creation, a built borderline, not a lost-and-found Eden.

Through the last decade, there was a lot of asexual, childhood-fetishizing or even infantilist escapism among artists such as Animal Collective, the Decemberists, or Sufjan Stevens that I found tiresome and dispiriting—rejecting the darkness and cynicism of the Bush era by diving into a nearly pre-verbal or at least solipsistic disengagement, a sense that it was pointless to push back (present in a different way on the pop charts).

Getting back to the rough-and-tumble, hormonal yearning, and adventurousness of teendom seems like a substantive advance on that point, a re-entry to the social and, in that, at least the potential of a more-than-private significance.

If it's not too much of a stretch, I'd say there's a link there to why Kanye's album matters: It's a milestone in hip-hop finally getting beyond the gangsta and coke-rap eras, when it was overwhelmingly preoccupied with a short list of subjects that tended to locate its thinking (though not its style) at quite a distance from other forms of cultural conversation. In his antic way he's helping refresh hip-hop's flexibility and its ability to offer comment (or at least a Twitter feed) on social life and public events (granted, mainly public events that involve Kanye).

Also like many of the lo-fi bands, his harsher moments come with a self-protective humour or sweetness or hesitancy (a "hard-soft" element) that can charm but also frustrate. In last year's Music Club, I said I didn't think we'd yet heard the sound of the Obama era. This year maybe we did: Music with palpable curiosity, reach, and competence, but not always the daring to confront, to say what we don't want to hear.

That's why, like Jonah, I was grateful for Das Racist—who bring the gutsy-nerd conceptual energy and contradiction-antennae of today's alt-comedy scene to hip-hop without turning into Lonely Island. Not to mention Salem's appropriations or Tyler, the Creator's provocations, which unnerve me by asserting that the kids aren't all right, and Ke$ha's cartoony catharsis can't work that out—that we've got baroque monstrosities and minimalist support structures, that hard things are happening to bodies and minds too soft to sustain the damage.

Pop music's always been someplace to project our wishes, but we also need it to sing our dreads back to us, not just submerge them in a Swedish-designed chorus and a cotton-candy-coochie teenage dream.

Carl Wilson is Slates music critic. 

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