The Music Club, 2012
Entry 6: How did South Korea turn into a gigantic drag show?
Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Ann, here’s the thing about fun.: Nate Ruess can really sing. It helps, for sure, that he and his bandmates write excellent songs, with storm-surge choruses worthy of that big voice. You’re also right that Ruess is a compelling character, a kind of gonzo emo confessor—a little bit Sorrows of Young Werther, a little bit My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I love how emotionally all-over-the-place he is in “Some Nights”: whipsawing from navel-gazer (“Who am I?” “What do I stand for?”) to zealot-at-the-barricades (“This is it, boys, this is war”), from alienated artiste (“Ten years of this, I'm not sure if anybody understands”) to ADD-addled youth (“Five minutes in and I’m bored again”), from little-boy-lost (“I miss my Mom and Dad”) to megalomaniac (“I always win”). The music that thumps and swells behind him is a bit nuts, too: “Some Nights” opens with an a capella chorale borrowed from Kansas and steals a refrain from Simon & Garfunkel; there’s hip-hop production and auto-tune and “tribal” chants. It’s that sound, I imagine, that enticed the Grammy nominating committee: a mix of contemporary and classic, earthy and synthetic, that feels right in 2012.
But, bottom line, Ruess has the pipes. (My favorite song on Pink’s album is the Ruess duet, which he also co-wrote, “Just Give Me A Reason.” It’s no mean feat to sing Pink to a draw.) Of course, it’s not hard to detect the voice behind Ruess’ voice: He flaunts his debt to Freddie Mercury. Mercury has returned to pop with a vengeance recently, his influence audible in Ruess and Lady Gaga and Adam Lambert and Mika and Foxy Shazam’s Eric Sean Nally, who has also revived Mercury’s moustache. (There’s a Mercury biopic in the works, too, starring Sacha Baron Cohen.)
The cult of Freddie is one example of the resurgence—the resilience—of camp, which, as Jason drily notes, “is still very much alive in pop music.” Certainly fun.’s appeal is due in no small part to its savvy updating of Queen’s camp theatricality—the best way, maybe, for a rock band to go mainstream in an age of pop spectacle—not to mention Ruess’ embodiment of epicene hipster style. But camp was all over the place in ’12: bubbling up from below, and agleam at the top of the pops. There’s the “post-closet black queer overground” that Jason writes about, a category that includes not only Azealia Banks but fast-rising rapper Le1f, and Zebra Katz, whose mesmerizing “Ima Read” I’d slept on until Music Club professor emeritus Jonah Weiner woke me up this past weekend. And no surprise, the 21st century’s great pop fop Kanye West got into the act, sporting a leather skirt for his performance at the 12-12-12 Concert for Sandy Relief.
Meanwhile, the commercial story of 2012 is the return of boy bands, whose traditional role has been to prod young listeners toward sexual awakening, with mild puppy love songs and androgynous good looks. I think we can agree that the pretty boys of One Direction and The Wanted are fulfilling their mission as camp emissaries to the world’s tweens. And what about that fondue-fancier, Justin Bieber, who in his awkward barely legal phase has become an awesomely campy figure. With his teased-up quiff, Bieber is a kind of gender-bending three-fer: he looks like a little boy trying to impersonate k.d. lang trying to impersonate Elvis.
But our Anglo-American faunlets shrink in terror before the pop stars of Korea, where camp musical spectacle has been taken to rococo Ziegfeldian heights. Forget about Psy—K-Pop’s David Niven. Consider Super Junior, and SHINee, and a chart-topping rapper in a Wonder Woman bathrobe. The gender-bending goes both ways, of course: I give you BoA and T-ara. The K-Pop takeover was big industry news this year, but for me the headline was this: How the Fuck Did South Korea Turn Into a Gigantic Drag Show? (John Seabrook, writing in The New Yorker about K-Pop stars at press conference in Anaheim: “The boys’ faces were as pancaked and painted as the girls’, and their hair was even more elaborately moussed, gelled, and dyed, in blond and butterscotch hues. Some guys wore high-waisted jackets with loose harem pants or jodhpurs, circus-ringmaster style; others wore white cutaways with high, stiff collars and black ties, like dream prom dates. They were more androgynous than Ziggy Stardust.”) In this year of marriage-equality landmarks, we have begun to hear fretting about the End of Gay Culture, about the splendor that is being lost as gays and lesbians trade the closet for the white picket fence. David Halperin, you needn’t worry: Camp aesthetics will thrive where they always have, in pop music, and if 2012 is any indication, Seoul will lead the way. RuPaul, meet G-Dragon.
But the truth is, the normalization of gay life is changing the world—and it’s changing music, too, in some pretty exciting ways. I don’t think I buy Lindsay’s theory about millenials and #YOLO: I’m pretty sure young people have always been into “dynamic experiences and ambiguity”—have been saying carpe diem since, well, Horace. What’s different now, is that people, young and old, feel free to talk about, and to sing about, for example, their gay experiences, dynamic and otherwise, and to do so openly and unambiguously: without recourse to the closet’s codes or camp’s pink neon scare quotes. I’m a guy who grew up the only child of a lesbian mom, at a time when you didn’t admit to your friends that your mom was a lesbian. I can tell you, it’s something to see a NSFW video like Amanda Palmer’s “Do It with a Rockstar,” in which Palmer beds-down a hot girl-groupie.
As for Frank Ocean: the directness with which “Bad Religion” treats its gay subject matter—the blunt “I could never make him love me”—is a breakthrough. The effect, though, is as familiar as “Only the Lonely,” by that other Frank. "Bad Religion" is just a great torch song, which speaks for any spurned lover, of any sexual stripe.
And then there’s Mica Levi, of Micachu and the Shapes. She’s a lesbian, and I guess you could say she looks it: She’s as androgynous, in her scruffy way, as G-Dragon. She also happens to be a musical savant, who uses homemade and jerry-rigged instruments (including a vacuum cleaner), to cook up small, rackety pop songs, which conceal their hooks beneath all kinds of dissonance and rhythmic clamor. Listen for a sec, though, and tunes emerge from the din; listen closer, and you begin to hear how she’s how artfully she’s deploying the noise, how many tasty sonic details she packs into her very short songs, many of which clock in at under two minutes. She’s something of a spiritual cousin to Fiona Apple, but I like Levi’s deft little records a zillion time more than Apple’s willful, long-winded ones. When you strain your ears to pick out Levi’s lyrics, you realize she’s an excellent storyteller, too—a writer of wry, sad, very British songs that are matter-of-factly about lesbian love, often unrequited. Here’s the entire lyric to “You Know”:
I just leant across to let you know
You're the reason my blood flows
You're the reason my blood flows
And I'm telling you this 'because I care, yeah
I'm putting them out there, yeah
My feelings are out there
And I leant across to let you know
You're the reason my heart goes
That's the reason I said so
And she said: “I know”
Micachu certainly qualifies as one of Lindsay's millennial single ladies. As does the most exciting newcomer I heard in 2012, generation next country gal Kacey Musgraves. But I’ll save my Musgraves praise song, and other country thoughts, for Round 3.
Jody Rosen is Slate's music critic. He can be reached at email@example.com.