The Music Club, 2012

Dancing Is Back!
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 19 2012 8:00 AM

The Music Club, 2012

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I for one welcome dancing back to the center of the pop experience.

Nate Ruess of fun. performs onstage during Z100's Jingle Ball 2012 at Madison Square Garden on December 7 in New York City.
Nate Ruess of fun. performs at Madison Square Garden earlier this month.

Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Jingle Ball 2012.

You’ve all said so much already that I’m not quite sure where to start. So I’ve been procrastinating for a couple hours—indulging in the latest viral bon bon (the xx covering Wham!’s “Last Christmas”—so anemic I was tempted to post a comment on YouTube); live-tweeting the predictable final competition round of The Voice; then Facebook chatting with a young critic in San Francisco about Pussy Riot’s best song. Call this communal time-wasting inter-distraction. It’s my Xanax, my panacea, my kickstart, my coal mine.

I’ve written here before about critical ADHD. But the particular ways we execute our wasted time, in hour upon hour given up to social media, is relevant to Jody’s point about pop as a game we join. What Jason calls “interactive immersion” now so thoroughly dominates our cultural experience that the old ways of answering pop’s invitation, from criticism to karaoke, are fast becoming outmoded.  Such responses demand a certain commitment of time and focus. They also presume that the original is complete enough to deserve serious analysis or emulation, rather than being one part of an ongoing process of making meaning. Now, the impulse to share—to tweet, chat, or self-consciously curate what you’re listening to on Spotify—arises not after a song first turns you on, but the minute it enters your system.

This shift can be subtle. Let me give you an example. In March, I went to see the year’s breakout rock group, fun., at a midsized club called Workplay in Birmingham, Ala. The band’s first monster hit, “We Are Young,” was really starting to break, so I wasn’t surprised when every one of the college kids and recent grads in the room sang along with that one. But this crowd anticipated every word of every single song, and bellowed each one as if Nate Ruess and his pals weren’t rock stars up there, but show choir directors, or counselors on the summer’s semi-tragic and totally wasted last night of summer camp. I’ve seen a lot of sing-alongs, but this one felt different: Crafted as they were, fun.’s songs are made to feel incomplete without your voice serving as the crucial plug-in.

Witnessing does still matter, as Jody noticed peering into those Barclays mirrors. Some old-school arena stars—like Alicia Keys, who capped her performance at last week’s big Hurricane Sandy benefit by endlessly chanting “Hold your cellphones high!”—are still clinging to the notion that their own performance is the point and the fans who show up to document their holy manifestations reinforce that ideal of a unified experience. But Skrillex knows better. Amanda Palmer knows better. The churchy buskers spearheading the latest folk revival—the Avetts, the Mumfords, the Lumineers—know better. These leaders in very different scenes are all making centers of their edges by turning the constant back-and-forth that characterizes everyday online existence into the basis, not only of their marketing plans, but of their art.

Often what the crowd provides isn’t vocal power but the kinetic thrill of a packed dance floor. While there’s plenty about EDM that I find retrograde, from the frat-boy personae of most superstar DJs to the relegation of women to the golden cage of the vocal hook, I welcome dancing, whether it’s disco fabulous or Deadhead phunky, back into the center of pop experience. As a basis for pop fandom, dance is deeply liberating, a fundamental force in a moment when, as Will noted, drug laws are loosening and a new civil rights movement (one rooted in disco!) has come into its own.

Though it’s only emerging in fits and starts, the black queer overground Jason identifies is slowly finding its complement in a nascent women’s movement within EDM. Party starters like Los Angeles’DJ Fei-Fei, New Yorkers the Jane Doze and Australians Nervo are gaining steam. A documentary on the history of female DJs is in the works. And then there are the crossover stars: Grimes and Ellie Goulding, both of whom make music about the near-universal female experience of being marked by your body and the promise and risk of engaging with technology to challenge perceptions of what that body means, of how a young woman’s sense of self can grow big and even somewhat monstrous, or get dazzled and a little lost, within the transporting exploration of new technologies. I didn’t really get Grimes’ elf-running-wild-in-a-factory schtick until I saw her at an outdoor festival in June: the sight of this gymnast-size woman dominating the decks of machines foregrounded the struggle in her songs. Her “Be a Body” and Goulding’s “Lights”, a sleeper hit that started building in 2011, were both faves of mine this year. Both cultivate a mood of abandon while examining the limits of that wished-for state—the disorientation and fear that comes when the body reasserts itself.

With all this body talk, Lindsay, it seems like a good time to tackle your question about genitalia. Gently, of course! First, let’s remember that phallic gals have been part of pop at least since blues queen Lucille Bogan, who talked that talk a century before Rihanna discovered Instagram, sang, in her signature “Shave ‘Em Dry,” “my back is made of whalebone and my cock is made of brass.” (Scholar Elijah Wald points out that “cock” could refer to male or female privates back then, and in Bogan’s case surely didn’t mean the peen, but that’s not how we hear it today.) Jazz queen Patti Austin brags about the “horse between my legs” in her cover of Randy Newman’s “Rider in the Rain,” a staple of her live shows. In my youth, I had the pleasure of moshing in many a San Francisco pit as Lynn Breedlove of Tribe 8 brandished her giant rubber dildo. Madonna executed her most famous crotch-grab in the 1989 video for “Express Yourself.” Two years ago we were all looking for Lady Gaga’s Goodbar. And not to fuel the fire of a feud, but Lil’ Kim released her ruminations on the subject in 2000.

I could list as many historic examples of pink-box power, from Sippie Wallace’s “Mighty Tight Woman” to Liz Phair’s “Flower.” So let’s call this a cyclical thing. (Yeah, pun intended.) Neither phobic nor particularly empowering, the current magnetic pull of the Svadisthana chakra further exposes the current shift away from old configurations—of power, of social exchange, of fundamental institutions like the family, and of the physical self.

The theorist Jack Halberstam’s 2012 book Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender and the End of Normal explores this seismic change in the context of pop. Noting the burgeoning presence of the “V” word in both everyday and official speech, Jack writes, “we are living in a new world where the categories of male and female are rapidly being updated all around us. In a world of sperm banks, in vitro fertilization, queer families, butch daddies, transgender men and women,  and heteroflexible women, pretending to be offended by the use of the word ’vagina‘ in a public speech or making insupportable claims about rape and pregnancy are not just quaint and old-fashioned: they signal a deep ignorance about the world we live in and the enormous changes that have taken place within it in the last two decades.” The task at hand, he continues, is to “go gaga!”— “catapulting anachronistic formulations of men, women, and everyone else and recognizing that the current crises in gender relations, like the current crisis in the economy, should not push us back to the tried and true but should force us to try new ways of thinking.”

Gaga herself was fairly dormant this year, but her prosthetic spirit, as invoked by Halberstam, was everywhere, including in those dick jokes you mention, Lindsay. The weirdness of mainstream pop now, and of much underground music, too, has everything to do with artists testing the boundaries where the organic meets not only the mechanical, but the virtual. That living-in-the-moment fluidity you identify among today’s younger folks encompasses new fantasies about bodies, too. When Nicki sings of her dick, she’s playing around with the idea that to sing instead of rap is strictly feminine; she’s also adopting one of her many voices in order to make you think of that member as not only pink, but kandy-kolored: Instead of transforming Minaj into a male, her claiming of the phallus turns it powerfully feminine.

I see an earthier version of these fleshy masquerades in Palmer’s agitprop cabaret (let’s talk about her Kickstarter economics later); in the controversial and, sorry Badoula, really cool video Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips made with Erykah Badu; even in the year’s most famous banana, mounted by One Direction heartthrob and current T-Swift conquest Harry Styles. I hear it all over the R&B renaissance we’ve been discussing—especially in “Climax,” one of my singles of the year, its quiet but intense tension built around a track that sounds like neurons misfiring and Usher’s vocal tour de force, which turns this breakup song into something very much like a session of self-lacerating sexual release.

The fun pop is having with bodies doesn’t bother to hide the intense anxiety that also surrounds and invades them. From the election year battles over women’s reproductive rights to the chronic outbursts of gun violence that have us all on edge, 2012 brought home the message that physical existence poses many problems and conflicts, even as it offers so much joy.

That last thought puts me back at the door of a discussion of fun., the band that’s revived mainstream rock by playing freely with tools of artifice like Auto-Tune and crafting singles that seem so sunny while going so very, very dark. Nate Ruess is a fascinating character, at least as he appears in hits like “We Are Young”: He’s like a sweet version of a Batman villain, half-comical and half-noir, his obvious sincerity compelling him to unleash some very troubling demons. I’m impressed. Jody, I know fun. is on your list, so I’ll turn this over to you. It’s 2:30 a.m., and this body has to get some rest.

AKP

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.