In which I round up unrelated thoughts about this year’s music
When “The Edge of Glory” came out, I described it as like Jason Nevins remixing Kelly Clarkson; should probably have clarified that this was intended as praise, an attempt to convey the splendid excessiveness of the song. Indeed, the song has become my favorite track of the year, and the more I listen to it the more it seems to be even more overstuffed than a Jason Nevins remix. Much the same could be said of Born This Way, and while the continuing parade of terrible lyrics, ridiculous outfits, and 13-minute videos got a bit wearing, I think it’s important to maintain fidelity to the Gaga event. The ambition (and Gaga’s obsession with making sure we know about the ambition) and the failure is kind of the point; Katherine St Asaph’s description of the album as “like the patterns you can use to cast invulnerable 73-foot-tall shadows on the wall behind you with your scrawny Wizard of Oz hands” remains the best explanation of what it’s doing, at least when it works.
Another of my favorite tracks was similarly preposterous in its size. The Saturdays’ On Your Radar is the logical endpoint of the increasing indistinction between dance and pop which has coincided with the Saturdays’ time in the charts, largely abandoning conventional pop song structures in favor of dance builds and breaks, taken to an absurd (and, when it works, as in the case of the Xenomania produced “All Fired Up,” brilliant) lengths. Two widely cited bits of musical journalism discussed something related: Daniel Barrow on songs constructed around a textural and emotional intensification, or “soar,” and Simon Reynolds on “digital maximalism.” Both articles are kind of weak, and would have benefited from more historicization of their objects; I mean, Reynolds writes about music which “is up!, preposterously euphoric but genuinely awesome” without mentioning gabba? And confining his discussion to dance music misses how widespread this kind of maximalism is, or what wider cultural trends it might be tapping in to.
The distinctive thing about the maximalism in the charts this year is the apocalyptic tone. You can see this to some extent in the Gaga and Saturdays videos, but the central exponent here was Britney. Appropriately, because she was already developing this trend back in 2007 with the release of Blackout. At the time, I rather underrated the album, seeing it as part of the narcotic rave&B trend that developed from FutureSex/LoveSounds, but it’s actually doing something else, not withdrawing from the world but attempting to obliterate it. The political significance of this apocalyptic maximalism is something I didn’t really focus on in my own review of Britney’s album (although it’s not incompatible – the proletariat, after all, is the class whose destiny it is to abolish its own conditions of reproduction), but The New Inquiry joined the dots between the barely-suppressed insurrectionary fervor of apocalyptic maximalism and the forms of struggle that have been emerging recently.
This year I started paying attention to K-Pop, which seems to be an entire genre devoted to maximalism. Last.fm has been periodically playing me K-Pop tracks for a while, although the only one I can remember is Girls’ Generation’s “Gee” from 2009, which is amazing. Anyway, Girls’ Generation are great and all, but their recent tracks are a bit restrained compared to their stuff from 2009, and the last thing I want from K-Pop is restraint. But through YouTube’s knowledge of related videos, Girls’ Generation led me to 2NE1, who are if anything even better. This year they released a mini album featuring a great synth-poppy track, “Hate You,” and a slightly confusing entry in the self-esteem pop genre, “Ugly,” but their best song remains last year’s “Can’t Nobody,” which is just fantastic: the amazingly swagged out rap at the beginning, the diva-ey chorus, the screeching tire sounds,the bit in the video with Minzy wearing a suit….
On the topic of maximalism and swagger, Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch the Throne was released to howls of frankly bizarre protest about its supposed excess. The worst of these was probably Ryan Briles’s at The Activist, which calls the album “upper class propaganda.” This is so fucking stupid, and is an interpretation which could only be sustained by failing to pay attention to the album itself and the last, IDK, 20 years of hip hop. Yes, Jay-Z is a petit-bourgeois black nationalist rather than a revolutionary socialist, but it’s not like he doesn’t have a worked-out theory of the relationship between material success and the liberation of poor black people, and the album continually thematizes this complicated relationship (perhaps most straightforwardly on “Murder to Excellence”). I don’t know that Watch the Throne is a great album, but it’s better than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, because MBDTF was about Kanye’s individual and internalized pathologies and self-loathing, which aren’t really all that interesting subjects, while Watch the Throne expands the frame to consider the social context which produces these pathologies. I’m also still mad that that Ryan Briles post completely fails to get Kanye’s very funny joke about forcing his son to be a Republican “so everyone knows he loves white people,” from the album’s best track, “New Day.”
I don’t know if rap hasn’t been very good this year, or if I’ve just lost interest, or what, but the only really good hip-hop album I can think of from this year is Lil B’s I’m Gay. It’s not entirely clear what makes this an album, as opposed to the over 9,000 mixtapes Lil B also released this year, particularly a he put the album up for free download almost as soon as it had been released, but it is both better and more coherent than the mixtapes. Lil B obviously has the most innovative flow in rap since forever, and aside from the entertainment value of his meme-generating lolcat rap, he’s working through a bunch of issues in an honest and interesting, if not always right, way.
Also, I guess, falling in the category of maximalism would be brostep. I’m a bit confused by the attempt to delineate brostep, perhaps because “bro” is a bit of an alien category (we don’t, quite, have bros in England). A lot of the dubstep purists’ criticism of brostep reminded me of dismissals of donk a few years back; the difference is the way the process of Bourdieuvian distinction works rather differently in the US than in the UK. In the UK, the crassness of donk was signified primarily in class terms, with donk unsophisticated because northern and working class. In the US, the racialization of class means that the distinction works differently: the crassness of brostep is signified as white and (thus also) middle class; hence the relatively priveleged fratboy brostep listener is contrasted with the faux-bohemian hipster. Which is to say, I’m not at all convinced that the category of brostep has any real coherence, beyond a general name for big, hooky, populist rave tunes. And if that’s what brostep means, the biggest brostep record of the year would be Katy B’s On a Mission, although Katy is no bro.
Last few things about which I don’t have much to say about. Cher Lloyd’s is really good (even “Swagger Jagger” is good if you can persuade yourself to not hear the “O My Darling Clementine” bits, but “Playa Boi” and “Dub on the Track” are better). Selena Gomez released a fairly consistently good album, Demi Lovato released a less consistent album which did have some pretty good tracks. Beyoncé released the best album of her career. Nicola Roberts released a very good album, Florrie and Sky Ferreira released good EPs, Menya and tAtu split up.