The Music Club, 2013

“Royals,” “Thrift Shop”: This Was an Incredible Year for Pop Songs About Income Inequality
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 17 2013 10:30 AM

The Music Club, 2013

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Entry 4: Pop music’s great subject this year: income inequality.

Kanye West performs "Blood on the Leaves" during the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards in New York August 25, 2013.
Kanye West performs "Blood on the Leaves" during the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards.

Photo by Eric Thayer/ Reuters

You are raising the bar for Music Club: so many powerful thoughts in the first round. Thank you, and damn you. I’m in a state of year-end-reflection fatigue right now—which says a lot about the space-time collapse to which Carl alluded, since 2013 aint’ even over yet.

I credit Thanksgivukkah for pushing the best-of list cycle nearly into November this year. Everything felt too early, as my favorite holiday YouTube parody insisted. (I finally got my personal lists up at NPR Music, and I hope you will all go read them.) Then came Beyoncé with her rich text, which—I agree, Geeta—is conservative in its inherent structure as a linear-feeling Great Work, not to mention the production values that reflect the Forbes 100 status of its maker. She does have an unusual level of access to the capital, both real and cultural, that aids people in turning pop into art.

I’m not really mad at her about Pepsi, though, any more than I’m mad at my 10-year-old’s favorite pop star, the YouTube sensation Tyler Oakley, for showing kids how fun it is to inhale helium. Nor am I impressed that, perhaps in atonement, she’s now touting vegan cupcakes. Celebrities aren’t role models, even when they present themselves as such. Jay Z ran into his own related contradictions when he launched a signature line at Barney’s, the sartorial playground of the rich, not long after the department store was hit with charges of racially profiling African-American shoppers. Months earlier, he faced criticism from the great social activist and artist Harry Belafonte for not using his mojo for the greater good, to which he notoriously replied, in an interview with Elliott Wilson, “My presence is charity.”

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Whatever they are as creative forces and all-around tastemakers, the Carters also embody black wealth in the 21st century. It’s a main subject of Jay Z’s raps on the less-than-brilliant Magna Carta Holy Grail, and the mise-en-scène of Beyoncé’s “visual album.” (It’s easier to see luxury than to hear it, though it’s definitely present in her beats, too.) I think it’s hugely important, even or maybe especially when talking pop culture, to remember that income equality is the most important social issue of our time. It bubbles underneath the debates on health care and the budget that shut down Congress; it’s altering the demographics and architecture of our greatest cities, perhaps permanently; it’s undermining public education and, in fact, heavily influencing what the soda-swilling kids of America are fed by their struggling, overworked parents. And in terms of subject matter, income equality was all over the charts this year, with responses ranging from the compassionate Horatio Alger tales that Jay and Bey present; to the boho rejections of consumerism crafted within Lorde’s “Royals” and Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop”; to the working-class pride of Kacey Musgraves, fighting back a tide of country hits that approximate Chevy truck ads to stump for trailer park dwellers and shift workers blowin’ smoke.

Unsurprisingly, Kanye West—music’s favorite troubled and troublesome soul for nearly a decade by now—issued the year’s most intense meditation on inequality, race, and privilege. Yeezus is a meditation the way the late Lou Reed’s master-middlefinger Metal Machine Music was one: Its noise and fury induce a headache that re-arranges your thought waves. (Aside: Geeta, I think your tribute to that album is one of the best eulogies for Uncle Lou.) When I first heard Yeezus, I recoiled: Ye’s raps were so deliberately misogynistic that I doubted the impact of any deeper message. But after we all lived with the album’s silliness and slime for a while, its resonances emerged.

Yeezus is West’s bitter argument with himself about what he deserves and what society will grant him. Shouting over hard industrial beats and scattered shards of Jamaican ragga, West spins a grotesque picaresque of sexual transgression with himself as the errant knight in every lady’s chamber. His words offend with as much enthusiasm as the music (which careens from drill music to Death Grips-style noise to Justin Vernon’s delicate coos, sometimes on the same track) intrigues. And there’s that Nina Simone sample, which many critics whom I respect found sacrilegious. West manipulated the voice of Simone, an iconic revolutionary artist, singing the Billie Holiday signature song that is perhaps the best-known musical outcry against criminal racism ever recorded, to support a lyric that basically criticized gold-diggers. “It’s lucky for Kanye that the formidable Simone is dead, because I can’t imagine she’d be overjoyed at being made to serenade a string of petulant misogynist stereotypes,” Dorian Lynskey, a noted historian of protest music, snorted. Initially, I agreed.

When West performed “Blood on the Leaves” at the MTV Video Music Awards, however, his full artistic logic was on display. He stood in front of “Lynching Tree,” a photographic projection made by filmmaker Steve McQueen of an actual former gallows near where McQueen shot his stunning 12 Years a Slave. Within that setting—and following Miley Cyrus’s outrageous appropriations of black dance in her career-boosting performance of “We Can’t Stop”—“Blood On the Leaves” showed its tangled roots in the criminalization of African-American male sexuality through the racist practices of Jim Crow. Yeezus abounds with these associations. They’re not always neatly made—West’s impulsiveness and self-centeredness do affect how he shapes his twisted fantasies. But as a statement about black masculinity and the limits of acquired privilege, it’s one of the year’s most searing political indictments.

The strange reality of the entertainment industry is that, for the stars who are its products and engines, wealth doesn’t always translate to power. (Witness West’s own struggle to create a genuine business partnership, not just a branded line, with a fashion house.) I wonder if West’s anger stems, in part, from watching artists like Cyrus, Robin Thicke, and Justin Timberlake dominate the charts with blue-eyed soul and white ingénue bangerz. Chris, I know you have much to say on the subject of racial representation on the Billboard charts. Do you think that on some level Beyoncé was a self-serving yet still meaningful political intervention—a way to make sure an album issued in 2013 by an African-American artist would make the year-end top 10?

The guy at the top of the year’s singles charts is one of the most controversial when it comes to race and authenticity, despite his comical, lovable persona. I’m talking about my Seattle homie Macklemore, a 30-year-old veteran of the bubbling-under Pacific Northwest rap scene whose breakthrough single “Thrift Shop” was the biggest-selling single of the year. I didn’t get Macklemore for a long time; I believe that much of his current success is due to his never-discussed producer Ryan Lewis, the Teller to his Penn, whose hooks are like bubblegum and Pop Rocks and Dark Chocolate Milky Ways all mixed up. I also give credit to the homegrown featured artists on Macklemore’s four (count ’em!) hit singles, all fine artists in their own right: the soul daddy Wanz, the gospel-trained Ray Dalton, the rapper-in-her-own-right Hollis Wong-Wear, and of course the golden-voiced Mary Lambert, whose heart-rending hook for “Same Love” gave a solidarity move that could have been corny as hell its vulnerable heart.

Macklemore fits a term I came up with to describe Lorde, another artist whose success has been tempered by protests about her both appropriating and wrongly critiquing hip-hop culture. He’s an insider-outsider: a tightrope walker between alternative values and the mainstream, aiming for arenas but intent on hanging on to his wolf-on-the-noggin hipster cred. Throwing it back to you, Carl—I wonder what you think about the state of hipsterdom this year. Or perhaps we could use a less-despised term: bohemia. Is it making a comeback? Or has the mainstream absorbed the underground so thoroughly that we who fancy ourselves at least a little bit oppositional no longer have anywhere to stand?

Ann

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.

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