Welcome, everybody, to my first outing as host of this annual cocktail chat-a-thon, after several years as a guest at my predecessor Jody Rosen’s black-tie critical shindigs. Ann, of course, you’ve put on your thinking frock for the festivities many times before; Geeta and Chris, this is the first time we’ve gotten each of you gussied up for the occasion. So happy you all could make it. The bar cart is over there, crudités in circulation, and for pastries, just holler at the waiter to hurry up with your damn croissants.
Well, Friday the 13th turned out to be the day that music critics got unlucky even as music listeners got lucky indeed, as Beyoncé dropped her eponymous avalanche of songs and videos at the midnight hour and crushed the best-laid orderings of a thousand records-of-the-year lists. As Jody wrote on Vulture, it was a coup of secret-keeping that should make the National Security Administration blush, although that only means that people in the music industry are more frightened of Beyoncé and her spouse than the civil service is of President Obama.
Conveniently enough for our conversation, though, this points to one of the novelties of music in 2013: The trending game of peekaboo with songs and albums began early in the year with the sudden appearance of David Bowie’s “Where Are We Now?” on Jan. 8 and continued to various degrees of abruptness with Bowie’s own album, Kanye’s Yeezus, Jay-Z’s phone-app Magna Carta Holy Grail, My Bloody Valentine’s comeback disc, Arcade Fire’s YouTube stream for Reflektor, Nine Inch Nails, Death Grips, and most recently the new EP by U.K. dubstep auteur Burial.
It’s clearly a strategy to defeat the album leaks that have made release dates all but meaningless anyway, and to trump the hot mess of hype with the cool of anti-hype (which on contact becomes hype again). But it’s more than that, too. In the past several years, Music Club conversations have often begun with discussions about delivery systems. Before the Beyquake hit, I was mulling about opening with the fact that now that half my listening is on streaming services and the other half split between iTunes, YouTube, and vinyl, I find myself without a central library to look at when I`m reviewing the year. It’s as if I listened to different sets of music on different planets, in different assumed identities. It’s reached the point where I almost want to revert back to those repulsive chunks of 20th-century detritus, compact discs, just to have a shelf of actual objects to take in at a glance. (Almost.)
Moves like Bowie`s and Beyoncé’s are designed to drop a big brick dam in the middle of the stream so the flow stops dead, just for one day—when we say they “broke the Internet” we don`t really mean that they`ve staged denial-of-service attacks by overloading the servers but that they`ve arrested the Internet`s collective skittering attention and focused it all in one direction, that they`ve monopolized our feeds and timelines. Since that`s not how we expect the Internet to work, we say it`s been shut down. But as argued by this smart Alexis Madrigal piece in the Atlantic, maybe it shouldn`t be how we expect the Internet to work, because it bears no healthy relationship to how human beings work. An increasing number of experiments online are trying out alternatives to the “melancholy of the infinite scroll.” Beyoncé`s album in particular, because of its “visual album” format, with 17 videos, is most reminiscent of one of Madrigal’s models, the mass-release of Netflix TV series that overwhelms instant response and encourages à la carte consumption. In other words, Beyoncé is Ms. Knowles’ House of Cards or Orange is the New Black—the latter featuring womanist themes like the ones that Bey’s collection is refreshingly riddled with, not to mention comparable quantities of sex in inappropriate places (though with fewer newborns in the vicinity).
These challenges to the triviaspewing fire-hose of the Eternal Now only fulfill their promise if they provide some substance greater than “made you look.” Elsewise the thrill of the event release could implode into the ennui of a parade of unclothed emperors. Beyoncé on first listen sounds to me like one of her most consistently high-quality albums. Most of the other out-of-the-blue offerings I listed above likewise make respectable contenders for the year’s-best lists, with the notable exception of Bey’s baby daddy’s record, which perhaps not coincidentally also came with the most gimmickry and corporate tie-ins.
Many of these jack-in-the-box releases were also “comebacks” of one kind or another—My Bloody Valentine comes close to holding a record for the biggest gap (22 years), but we also saw the first new work for a long while from the likes of Bowie, Black Sabbath, Kathleen Hanna (as the Julie Ruin), the Pixies, Tricky, NIN, Queens of the Stone Age, TLC, New Kids on the Block, the Mavericks, Mazzy Star, the Pastels, you name ’em.
There is the whiff of 1990s revival here. There`s also the sense that since all music now exists equally on the collapsed space-time continuum of YouTube or Spotify, there’s no longer any such thing as anachronism. Or alternatively you might say there’s a generational shift in which the split between people who “grew up online” and everyone else has become so pronounced that if you’re older than 30, maybe even 25, you’re already over the hill. There are the young—like the year’s standout new artist, the 17-year-old but remarkably fully realized Lorde—and then there’s everyone else. So in entertainment terms, there are debuts and then there are comebacks and there is nothing in between. This is one explanation for why records by Bey, Britney Spears, Eminem, M.I.A., R. Kelly and even Lady Gaga in a way feel like “comebacks” even after only a couple of years.
All that said, somehow paradoxically—and this is so subjective that you all are welcome to challenge me—2013 also felt to me like a comeback year for that old villain-and-hero, the “monoculture.” More than most years this century it seemed as though there were songs, albums, and musical happenings that nobody could avoid or let pass without forming an opinion. It’s the revenge of the blockbuster on the “Long Tail,” as Kelefa Sanneh recently detailed in The New Yorker. And while there was the “Harlem Shake” white-dance meme early in the year, it seemed that unlike most of the past several years we were focusing on the primary texts rather than on remixes, covers, and parodies.
Besides the aforementioned event albums, especially Kanye’s Yeezus, the biggest examples were “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky”—whereas 2012’s midyear “Call Me Maybe” explosion seemed to come over us unexpectedly, this year’s retro-disco twosome felt like an act of collective will to ensure that we would have and share anointed Songs of Summer, whether they warranted it or not. (I think “Get Lucky” is a genuine classic, whereas when I heard “Blurred Lines” playing out of a shop doorway by late October, I thought, “Really? That old thing?”) This segued directly into the Great Miley Cyrus Controversy of the fall, when even the likes of Sinead O’Connor felt curiously compelled to weigh in—and became more complex when we realized that Cyrus’ Bangers had the musical muscle to fight back, with two of the singles of the year in “We Can’t Stop” and “Wrecking Ball.” And then there was the simple pleasure with which so many of us greeted the warmer melodic intimacies of Lorde and HAIM, the L.A. sister act with a magpie’s eye for the shiniest of many decades’ sounds.
All of that seems in part to support Madrigal’s diagnosis that there is weariness with frantic fragmentation. I wouldn’t want to exaggerate the point—fans of Death Grips, Miley, the new wave of sharp Nashville female singer-songwriters and, say, Paul McCartney’s very charming new album aren’t exactly hanging out on the same iChats. But the outlines of something are solidifying in a way that suggests the era of Obama’s second presidential term might differ intriguingly from his first, and that we might be starting to get a clue about what people will mean in the future when they talk about the pop culture of the two-thousand-teens. Or am I just dreaming?
I’ve said too much and yet left out nearly everything, so I’ll save my own “best” lists for my second installment and pass the torch for now—Chris, what can your practiced pop abacus and other scientific measuring instruments tell you about the truth or bullshit levels of my theories?