Dear Jody, Will, Lindsay, and Ann
I wish I’d found the gift of “more word count” in my stocking this season: There are a lot of issues we could delve into further if we only had time and space. Jody, I’m sure we could go on for a while about the complex relationship of Donna Summer to EDM. (Suffice it to say her 1970s classics with Moroder were both the creative inauguration of Eurodisco and its foreclosure.) Lindsay, I’d love to pick up your discussion of 2012 as the year of single ladies and encourage us to consider Rihanna, whose on- and off-stage adventures in narcissistic solipsism are transforming, for better or worse, the concept of the 21st-century pop star. And Will, I’ve been struck by Gregory Porter’s retro vision of jazz as identity politics; I’d be curious how you’d interpret Be Good alongside albums by Kurt Elling and Theo Bleckmann.
OK, word count be damned, I want to return to talking about camp. Jody, you’ve riffed on the endurance of icons like Springsteen and Prince (the Purple One’s new music sounds great); you’ve also celebrated how Freddie Mercury continues to haunt 2012 pop, insofar as Nate Ruess, Zebra Katz, K-Pop acts, and feminized boy bands like One Direction are extending his camp legacy. (I even taught a NYU class on Freddie Mercury this fall.) But what’s at the root of today’s Freddie nostalgia? Clearly, many of us are nostalgic for his creative genius as a vocalist, songwriter, and frontman; and some of us are still trying to unravel the mysteries of how he presented a flamboyantly camp persona to the public while his queer sexuality was hidden in plain sight.
But camp is a lot more than wearing purple eye shadow and feather boas. Nate Ruess has a high tenor and fun. makes rollicking, anthemic fusion pop that sounds Queen-like if you strain hard. But the similarities don’t go any further. For me, fun.’s grab-bag music represents the limits of pop music’s 21st century “all-markets” approach—that is to say, the more genreless, eccentric, and just plain weird pop is, the better. Freddie Mercury made fusion music because he was the unique product of a fusion life: As a queer post-colonial Parsi raised in Zanzibar and Bombay before relocating to Britain, he merged his interests in opera and the music of Little Richard, Liza Minelli, and Jimi Hendrix into a seamless whole. For Freddie Mercury, camp was not just style; it was an embodied politic, a way of life.
Our thinking about camp in 2012 pop culture doesn’t have to be limited to David Halperin’s deeply problematic How To Be Gay. The book that’s inspired me more than any other this year is Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, a razor-sharp memoir of New York in the heyday of the AIDS crisis. Schulman shines a light on the heady mix of activism, art, and creativity that defined New York during the ‘80s and ‘90s crisis, and she details how that moment has been insidiously curtailed by rising rents, government cutbacks, and the marginalization (and death) of activist queer voices from public life in favor of the normalization of gay marriage as the singular political issue associated with queer communities.
Reading Schulman’s book reminds me that part of the role of the pop-music critic is to consider not just music itself but the material and political conditions of the individuals and communities creating that music and engaging with it. We’re seeing increasing interest in the sound of black American queer artists like Zebra Katz and Le1f, but are we also seeing interest in addressing the disproportionate burden of the HIV epidemic on those same black queer communities of color? We’re seeing an increasingly diverse range of female pop voices (Grimes, Kimbra, Charli XCX, etc.), but we’re also at war in the United States over whether we should honor women’s reproductive and economic rights, and we’re seeing battles around the world to ensure that women everywhere feel safe in their own communities. This is not to push music into a political corner as much as it is to suggest that music and identity are always, however uncomfortably for some, joined at the hip.
Some may not care to question the newfound hipster love for R&B; but hipsterism is more than style—it can also be a form of class warfare. Far from an innocent process, hipster gentrification in urban neighborhoods like Brooklyn—or even in Kreuzberg or Neukölln—has had, among other effects, a devastating one on the entrenchment of poverty. Schulman’s prescient book, especially read in tandem with Will’s terrific Loves Goes to Buildings on Fire, reminds us that affordable living in urban metropolises can help create a dynamic and cross-class mix of people. Without that cross-pollination—the kind that informed the development of U.S. punk and hip-hop in the 1970s and early 1980s—a diverse creative imagination has a difficult time thriving.
Jody, I’m not so convinced that country artists write songs with more realism than in other genres or that they’re more concerned with the “everyday” than in other genres. Whose everyday are we talking about? Certainly, to speak to your concerns and Will’s, keeping your child safe is understandably paramount, particularly given the recent news of the horrific Connecticut school shooting. But I often wonder to what extent are Americans, and more broadly, Westerners, interested in keeping other people’s children safe—not just in the United States, but in Uganda, or Palestine, or Cairo, too?
Adele was the commercial story of 2012: She continued to rack up sales with her 2011 album, 21. Hardly surprising that this year brought a resurgent interest in all things British Empire: Besides the London Olympics, people went gaga over the royal pregnancy announcement, and there was Prince Harry traipsing around Jamaica (and naked in Vegas). But the performance in pop music that most sticks in my mind this year is 64-year-old Grace Jones performing “Slave to the Rhythm” at February’s Diamond Jubilee concert celebration while spinning a hula hoop for the song’s entire duration. That moment was about subversive Grace—as a Jamaican woman, as cosmopolite provocateur, as fiery symbol of the post-colonial multiculture that Europe has been doing its best to contain for years—declaring her stamina and perseverance to the queen in a campy and cheeky “I Will Survive” moment.
Given the upheaval in which we live—fears of “fiscal cliffs” and eurozone crisis shadowed by the ongoing emergence of China and India as global economic superpowers; the coming minoritization of whites in the United States as Latinos and other “minority” groups like women and gays enter public life in unprecedented ways—we are witnessing the West shattering and remaking itself. All of the exhausting culture and values wars that define contemporary public life are rooted in that unsettling and violent process.
And that shattering and remaking has been given a potent if inchoate soundtrack in 2012: the unbridled and restless creativity of artists as diverse as Tame Impala, THEESatisfaction, Santigold, Kendrick Lamar, The Alchemist, Death Grips, Michael Kiwanuka, and Los Miticos del Ritmo. But “global” artists like Kenya’s Just a Band and South Africa’s Spoek Mathambo and even South Korea’s Psy—as they draw on, fuse, and synthesize world sounds and styles—have just as much or more to contribute to the conversation about the remaking of the West at this point as Westerners themselves. More than ever before, pop music is confirming that we’re all hopelessly connected to each other, and that gives me a profound sense of hope.
Signing off, for now,
PS: my best of 2012: Cody ChesnuTT, Jai Paul, The 2 Bears, Alabama Shakes, Rufus Wainwright, Quantic, The Mars Volta, Fiona Apple, Foxy Shazam, Just a Band, Santigold, MTMTMK, Gotye, Brandi Carlisle, Bonnie Raitt, Sinead O’Connor, Domineeky, SWV, Azealia Banks, Frank Ocean, Elle Varner, Meshell Ndegeocello, R. Kelly, Patti Smith, Miguel, Tame Impala, Sam Sparro, Himanshu, Occupy This Album, Elton John Vs. Pnau, Bright Light Bright Light, Daley, Dawn Richard, Lake Street Dive, Wadada Leo Smith, Dr. John, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars