The Music Club, 2012

A Great Year for Music About Single Ladies
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 18 2012 5:02 PM

The Music Club, 2012

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A great year for music about single ladies.

Nicki Minaj attends the 26th Annual ARIA Awards.
Nicki Minaj at the 26th Annual ARIA Awards 2012 in November in Sydney, Australia.

Photo by Caroline McCredie/Getty Images

Dear Jody, Ann, Jason, and Will,

Once upon a time I spied on you all, Bud Light Lime in my hand—and now here I am, receiving your 3:30 a.m. drunk texts. Or, if you don’t speak Kitty Pryde, what I am saying is: longtime reader of the Music Club, first-time caller, thrilled to be passing notes with y’all about the state of music in the Year of Our Lord Carly Rae Jepsen, Two Thousand Twelve.

Jody, I want to start off with the question you asked in your initial post, wondering if pop music was getting quieter or if there just happened to be fewer kids on your lawn this year. It’s an astute observation, and I agree that it’s probably a natural reaction against EDM’s omnipresent (borderline hegemonic, at press time) influence and the Skrillex-ification of pop radio. In a year when even Taylor Swift could tell you where the drop was, it only makes sense that you stand out when you quiet down. That was the appeal of a couple of my favorite singles this year: Usher’s cyborg slow jam “Climax,” Nicki Minaj & 2 Chainz’ flatly carbonated “Beez in the Trap,” Jessie Ware’s slinky Sade nod “Sweet Talk,” and the hush menace of Zebra Katz’s vogue anthem “Ima Read.”

But I think 2012 was the year we began to see a certain kind of quietude and smallness manifest as something more than just a production style. Earlier this year my colleague Carrie Battan coined the term “recession pop“ in an article about a crop of up-and-coming, indie-leaning pop artists like Sky Ferreira, Charli XCX, Blood Orange, and Solange (also known as Ivy Blue Carter’s aunt), all of whom are less interested in appealing to mass audiences and more concerned with making pop on their own creative terms. When Battan describes “recession pop,” she’s mostly talking about minimalist sonics and noncommercial career arcs, but I want to extend the term to describe a thematic change I saw ripple across both mainstream pop and underground music this year, which felt like a response from a youth culture coming of age without the promise of the institutions that were there for their parents: job security, Social Security, marriage, etc. (What good is a cultural paradigm shift if it can’t be encapsulated in a hashtag, you ask? Well, all I’m really saying here is #YOLO.)

I’ll get to my albums and track lists in a minute, but I hope I’m not being too predictable when I say that no other 2012 record for me even came close to Frank Ocean’s sprawling, poetic, eccentric, invitingly human Channel Orange. Will, I’m right there with you on the Fallon performance of “Bad Religion” being one of the defining and most goose-bump-inducing musical moments of the year. As Jody was saying, our musical experiences are now as screen-centric and hyperactive as a “Call Me Maybe” supercut, but something about “Bad Religion” made my brain X out of all its other proverbial Firefox tabs—it was one of those “I remember what I was wearing and what the weather was like” moments that the Internet seems, at its peskiest, hellbent on eradicating. For me, “Bad Religion” made time stop. Of course some (though not all: that augmented chord in the chorus is a killer) of the performance’s impact came from the back story: Ocean had just posted a note on his Tumblr revealing that the first person he’d fallen in love with, at age 19, was a man. But to me, and a lot of others who’ve written eloquently about him, the radicalism of Frank Ocean wasn’t about the fact that he’d “come out”—it was about the fact that he didn’t.

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I loved his response in a recent GQ interview, when asked if he identified as bisexual: “You can move to the next question. I’ll respectfully say that life is dynamic and comes along with dynamic experiences, and the same sentiment that I have towards genres of music, I have towards a lot of labels and boxes and shit.” So maybe I’m being a little generous with my definition of #YOLO (a hashtag acronym coined by either Drake or Fritz Lang, meaning “You Only Live Once”), but I see it not so much as dancing ‘til the world ends in one giant, sky-cracking dubstep drop, but instead a fitting motto for a generation of young people beginning to privilege “dynamic experiences” and ambiguity over continuity (not to mention, as anyone who’s graduated college post-recession will tell you, short-term contract work over long-term job security and benefits). Jason, your analysis of how race functions with regards to Ocean’s success and universal critical acclaim is very sharp, and it’s a conversation I want more people to be having about him. But on some level I do find it inspiring that his message of “dynamic experiences” has resonated across race and genre lines. I don’t think Frank Ocean is the face of gay America, or the average white indie listener’s relationship with black music, but I see him representing a new kind of freedom: of a generation beginning to forge identities not around sexual orientation—or marital status, or work life—but life experiences. I heard a lot of music this year questioning institutions, identities, and timelines—reflecting the realities of a lot of people in or around their 20s right now. Maybe we can think of this as—if The Year of the Girls Think Piece hasn’t surpassed its annual quota on the M-word—millennial pop.

And another reality that cropped up in a lot of music I heard in 2012: the Life of the Single Lady. I doubt I was alone in feeling, a few years ago, that Beyonce’s refrain of “if you like it, then you shoulda put a ring on it” wasn’t exactly reflective of how a lot of young women were feeling: as Kate Bolick wrote in her much-discussed Atlantic cover story “All The Single Ladies“ last year, as many as 43 percent of young women see the institution of marriage becoming “obsolete.” And even those that still want to walk down the aisle are, on average, doing so much later in life. So I was glad this year to hear a more nuanced take on modern female singlehood from a voice decidedly quieter than Beyonce’s. One of my favorite, criminally underheard records of 2012 came from Alabama’s Katie Crutchfield, who records her emotionally direct lo-fi songs under the name Waxahatchee. She wrote and recorded the searing American Weekend (which reminds me of an early Mountain Goats record, or Sebadoh, but cut through with a distinctly and, in the indie world, still much-needed female perspective) while snowed in at her parents’ house, and the resulting record echoes with this quality of isolation, searching, and unabashed self-destruction (“I don’t care, I’ll embrace all my vices,” begins the best song, “Grass Stain”). I have been foisting this record on everybody this year; it broke my heart in about a thousand places the first time I heard it. There’s also a striking, emotionally candid song called “Rose, 1956,” which seems to be about watching her grandmother succumb to illness (“your breaths are short and urgent, and it is unsettling”), but it’s intercut with the refrain, “You got married when you were 15,” a line Crutchfield delivers with simple astonishment, as though she’s imagining how different her own life would be if that were her generation’s norm. Its cover scattered with vintage family photos of women, American Weekend is—like one of my favorite records of last year, EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints—at times a meditation on the anxieties of matrilineage, but it’s also a record full of love songs for people who’ve grown up internalizing Facebook’s “It’s Complicated” as a viable relationship status. “You don’t wanna be my boyfriend,” she sings, a little unsure, on “Be Good.” “And that’s probably for the best.”

We have to talk more about Carly Rae Jepsen, who I’m—perhaps too optimistically—hoping outlives “Call Me Maybe,” since I think Kiss was hands down one of the best pop albums of the year (if and only if you delete “Good Time,” her schmaltzy duet with Owl City, from your iTunes library forever). Kiss also felt emblematic of this shift in female artists, away from writing about long-term relationships (though, we’ll get to you, Tay-Tay) and toward music that almost feels like a nod back to disco, glorifying the ecstasy of the Brief Encounters. Still, slow your roll, Rush Limbaugh—Jepsen’s whole record is noticeably (and maybe to some, refreshingly) chaste. So when I say Brief Encounters, I’m not necessarily talking one-night stands. Unless I am. Enter Ke$ha, Warrior Princess.

In the words of rap game Betty Friedan, we’ve been keeping it PG, but I wanna get a little frisky. Ann, I always enjoy your musings on gender and sex, so I trust you with a question I’ve been grappling with all year: What are we to make of all these female-identified pop stars singing about their dicks? Is this empowering? Or vaguely transphobic? Maybe something in between? There’s Ke$ha’s kiss-off to a (presumably) male “slut” in “Thinking of You” (“I’m over it/ So suck my dick”) to—hands down, five of my favorite seconds in music this year—Nicki Minaj’s diva-licious “dick in your face” interlude in the glorious, hysterical menace that is “Come on a Cone.” I know we’re both Nicki superfans, so I’m looking forward to talking more about her wild year. And I know you’ll feel me when I say: When I’m asking Ann Powers I’m really asking Ann Powers. Ain’t a metaphor, punch line, I’m really asking Ann Powers.

So much more to discuss, on the NSFW tip! Pussy Riot! Pussy Rings! “Pussy Is Mine“! A lot of music fans might join me in thinking Webster’s went a little conservative with their Word of the Year choice this year.

Lindsay Z.

P.S., here are my top lists:

Albums:

1. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange
2. Beach House - Bloom
3. Grimes - Visions
4. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel
5. Jessie Ware - Devotion
6. Anais Mitchell - Young Man in America
7. Chairlift - Something
8. Bat For Lashes - The Haunted Man
9. Waxahatchee - American Weekend
10. Grizzly Bear - Shields
11. Angel Olsen - Half Way Home
12. Cat Power - Sun
13. Andy Stott - Luxury Problems
14. Daphni - JIAOLONG
15. Dum Dum Girls - End of Daze EP
16. Kendrick Lamar - good kid mAAd city
17. Miguel - Kaleidoscope Dream
18. Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music
19. Swearin’ – Swearin’
20. Carly Rae Jepsen - Kiss

Tracks:

1. Grimes - “Oblivion”
2. Frank Ocean - “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You”
3. Chairlift - “I Belong In Your Arms”
4. Fiona Apple - “Werewolf”
5. Carly Rae Jepsen - “Call Me Maybe”
6. Kendrick Lamar - “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”
7. Jessie Ware - “Sweet Talk”
8. Icona Pop - “I Love It”
9. Nicki Minaj & Cassie - “The Boys”
10. Bat for Lashes - “The Haunted Man”
11. Usher - “Climax”
12. Miguel - “Adorn”
13. Grimes - “Genesis”
14. Nicki Minaj & 2 Chainz - “Beez in the Trap”
15. Killer Mike - “Reagan”
16. Daphni - “Yes I Know”
17. Four Tet - “Pyramids”
18. Japandroids - “The House That Heaven Built”
19. Dum Dum Girls - “Lord Knows”
20. Solange - “Losing You”

Lindsay Zoladz is the pop music critic at Vulture.

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