The Music Club, 2012
Entry 11: I’m a blue-state-Brooklyn-secular-humanist-Jewish Obama voter, and I love country.
Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for CMT.
Some scattershot final thoughts before I fold up the laptop for the year.
Thanks, Will, for helping me wrap my mind around The Mumford Perplex. Listening to the band’s bombastic skiffle hymns, I was struck again by how in this century, Brits, traditionally pop’s irony specialists, have become torchbearers for solemn anthemic rock. There’s Radiohead, Coldplay, Keane, Muse. And now, the Mumfords, who pin their quivering hearts to their capos like none since The Kingston Trio. My own taste in British folk revivalists runs more to Fairport Convention, so I want to mention that Richard Thompson, a man who has never released a bad record in a career than spans nearly 50 years, put out another fine one in 2012, the cast album for his “folk oratorio” Cabaret of Souls. It’s worth tracking down.
Speaking of graybeards: The veteran who impressed me most in 2012 most was one I’d never heard before. I’m talking about the rapper Ka, age 40. (That’s 175 or so in hip-hop years, no matter what Jay-Z says.) Ka is a late bloomer. He began his career as a member of the ‘90s rap crew Natural Elements but has admitted to interviewers that he wasn’t a very good MC. His second solo album, Grief Pedigree, is the fruit of patience, persistence, practice. It’s a complete auteurist feat; Ka produced every song and directed his own videos, some of the best I saw all year. The album is impressively of-a-piece, sustaining a mood as dank and ominous as the lamplit backstreets in the videos. The music is calm but menacing, and Ka’s flow is unhurried; he’s less a rapper than a hardboiled raconteur, a teller of tales that require no flashiness or ornamentation.
The result is a ‘90s-style New York thug-rap album, totally deglamorized—an O.G. looking back at the hustle with a headshake, and without illusions. “I admit, not from an environment that let a child flourish/ In the street, slim physique, wild courage/ Five deep, trying to eat, looking malnourished,” he raps in “No Downtime.” “Decisions” ponders the moral ambiguities of thugging, unfolding in a series of a) or b) questions. Occasionally, the rapper turns his attention to other matters, like sex. “Nut?” he asks. “Or reposition?” Ka—a man who likes to take his time—chooses b).
While I’m on the subject of old-timers: Have you guys heard the latest Prince songs? (Jason, if you’re looking for funky antidote to EDM, you could do worse than “Extraloveable.”) There’s been much talk about Springsteen’s indefatigability, but let’s take a moment to marvel at the sylphine agelessness of the Purple One. In fact, I’ve been thinking about Prince a lot recently: For a forthcoming Slate piece, I’ve been listening (or trying to listen) to everything the guy has recorded. It’s been an astonishing experience—a reminder of Prince’s rampant genius, and of the wisdom of musical elders, generally. As critics, we spend so much time focused on the new, the now, the next. But pop has still not caught up with Prince. People are trying, though: cf. Miguel, Jai Paul, and Usher’s Looking 4 Myself bonus track “Say the Words,” a For You-era Prince pastiche par excellence. Maybe these tyros will follow Prince back to the future, reviving the deep groove? Or will the catalyst be the resurgent D’Angelo, more of a Prince acolyte than ever with his newfound guitar chops?
Jason, I loved your tribute to Donna Summer and the scorn you heaped on “bottle-serviced dance pop.” I have a question, though. Wasn’t glamour and aspirationalism a huge part of the disco story? And wasn’t Summer herself one of American pop’s great Europhiles, a woman who fled her pious Boston upbringing for Berlin—who came into her own musically when she went jet-set, teaming with a suave Italian record producer? (Seems to me “Love To Love You Baby” and “I Feel Love” gave soul and funk a kind of fizzy Eurotrash makeover.) I wonder, therefore, if EDM-propelled dance-pop isn’t actually a lot like disco: If the vogue for four-on-the-floor club beats is a kind of cyclical turning away from gutbucket African-American sound—in this case, what Sasha Frere-Jones called “hip-hop’s blues-based swing”—in favor of music that’s more upscale, with a fancy continental pedigree? Is Rihanna Donna’s daughter, after all?
I’m running out of time, so I’ll wind down with a few quick words about country.
Country is the most conservative and hidebound of all pop genres. It’s also the most challenging music I listen to: In a time of intense polarization, it pulls this blue-state-Brooklyn-secular-humanist-Jewish Obama voter into the lives of Americans who fit none of those categories. This can be painful. I love the heft and sweep of Trace Adkins’ Great Recession anthem “Tough People Do” and appreciate its large-hearted populism. But in this year of birtherism and the 47 percent, I couldn’t help but be wary hearing Adkins sing “Tough people pull themselves up by the bootstraps.” And in the wake the Newtown tragedy, it’s even more difficult to stick with Adkins, a card-carrying member of country’s NRA brigade.
And yet: Conservatism, in the form of home-and-hearth subject matter, is one of country’s great attractions. To return to Lindsay’s first post: the flipside of #YOLO is #WADS, We’ll All Die Someday—a verity that hits you hard as you move into middle age, watch your love ones pass on, and have kids of your own. It's one of the reasons I love country so much: More than other music, it carries that #WADS realism, valorizing middle-class lives—marriages, kids, divorces, parents’ deaths—by dramatizing them, in gory detail, and with wit. I vote differently than Trace Adkins; I like guns a lot less than Miranda Lambert and Justin Moore. But my day-to-day life is about loving and fretting over my kid; it’s about trying to throw some breakfast down his gullet and get him to school on time. Country records talk about that stuff. Other pop records just don’t.
Also, like Ann, I’m a song person, and if there’s one thing country musicians know how to do, it’s write them thangs. Enter Kacey Musgraves. I said my piece about Musgraves’ amazing “Merry Go Round” earlier this year. Since then I’ve heard a bunch more Musgraves music—some that’s out there on the Internet, some that I got after begging her record company. I can tell you this: She’s the real damn deal.
Musgraves can reel off witty genre numbers like an old Nashville hand. Her best songs, though, show mastery of Music Row form while giving a wide berth to its clichés and pieties. Her music is pretty but tough; it has a leathery hide. She writes in a voice—young, female, white, Southern, working-class—you won’t hear elsewhere in pop: certainly not from country’s fairy princess, Taylor Swift, nor from Lindsay’s faves Katie Crutchfield or Grimes, nor from Fiona or Regina or any other (sorry, Ann) NPR-touted singer-songwriter. Musgraves is a millennial (she’s 24), but the young women in her songs face lives of sharply circumscribed possibilities—no #YOLO. They’re single, for the time being, but marriage (a bad one, almost certainly) is waiting around the corner, along with a few kids and a crappy wage-slave job. Listen to “Blowin’ Smoke,” a song about (among other things) waiting tables in Las Vegas and nicotine addiction. Here’s Musgraves’ narrator, chatting and smoking with fellow waitresses after a shift:
Well, Janey got divorced again
Her ex-husband’s in the pen
For two to five or five to 10
And Brenda’s trading smokes for cake
Still hasn’t lost that baby weight
And that’s baby’s ‘bout to graduate
I just flick an ash
Into the tray
And tell them both
It’ll be OK
But we’re just blowin’ smoke
Songs like that make Mugraves my big One To Watch for 2013. So I’ll put a little bookmark here, in the hope that we’ll all meet again—same time, same corner banquette, next year. Bottle service optional.
Jody Rosen is Slate's music critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.