Archive for December, 2014

Other Ten Percent 12/16/14

Dec 16 2014 Published by under Daily Posts

We argue about pop music having integrity in the moral sense but I think we need to be more concerned with their integrity in the structural sense of the word. When Grimes came out with Go earlier this year her fan-base attacked her lack of integrity in making what was essentially a pop song and, while their authenticity argument was total bullshit, in a structural sense they were right. Grimes’ persona could not contain her previous body of work and Go at the same time. One had to be abandoned and she chose to ditch pop-star Grimes in favor of the Indie Darling audience she already had.

It seems like we should be past those kind of choices. Madonna pretty much demolished any need for a cohesive artist narrative in pop around the time I was born. Madonna is vast, Madonna contains multitudes. Nobody gives a shit if the Madonna of her new album and the Madonna of her last album are mutually exclusive.

But in the land of female pop-stars this year has constantly demanded they prove the structural integrity of their personas. Everybody had to make a definitive statement of WHO THEY WERE and then they had to back that up. I mean even Beyonce had to stand in front of a 20 foot high FEMINIST sign and stare critics down like the goddamn angel of death to get people to accept her bit.

If there’s any great failing in Broke With Expensive Taste, Azealia Bank’s long (long long long) awaited debut album it’s that you leave with no cohesive picture of who Banks is as an artist. The thing’s about a third good but nobody can decide which third it is (except Chasing Time which is just objectively a great pop song). The thing isn’t just sonically all over the place though. It’s four different statement albums all smushed together seemingly at random. It sounds like Azealia Banks tried out a bunch of different personas, couldn’t make up her mind, and then shoved them all at the audience saying “fuck it, you decide.” And now that I’ve written that out I’m pretty much 100% sure that’s exactly what happened. And in 2014 you can put out a shitty album but you sure as hell can’t put out an unclear one.

Look at FKA Twigs. I’d argue the hit to miss ratio of her debut is way lower than Broke With Expensive Taste. But its hard to imagine a better statement of purpose than the Two Weeks video and so she’s the critical darling.

Nicki Minaj knows how to work this problem. She spent the year releasing alternating singles that seemed beamed in directly from “real rap” Nicki Minaj and “sell-out pop star” Nicki Minaj just to fuck with everybody’s head about which one we’d get this time. Then, of course, this week she reveals the whole thing was a long con to blow up that dichotomy and releases a real bummer of a break up album. “Screw your narratives of me,” The Pinkprint says “you don’t know me.” That secured her place as music’s greatest troll but it didn’t quite make her the winner of the pop-star integrity olympics.

No, this is the metric where Taylor Swift exits the year triumphant. She managed to take direct, public control of her persona and in doing so she steered it in an exciting new direction without raising too much of a ruckus.

When she first released Shake it Off I thought it was a brutal miscalculation on Swifty’s part. Taylor Swift can’t have an “I don’t give a fuck” anthem. Giving too much of a fuck is the entire Taylor Swift brand! But I, like Kanye West and so many country music superstars before me, had underestimated Swifty. Because then came the video for Blank Space and I finally got the bit.

(The video for Shake it Off remains awful though. Not just because it’s vaguely racist but because it tries to paint Swifty as too good to sell herself with sex like other, lesser, popstars…and then sells her with sex anyway.)

Shake it Off was Taylor Swift trying to talk herself into not caring because she’d finally noticed that how much she cared was a problem. 1989 turned out to be an album of Taylor Swift trying to come to grips with the Taylor Swift persona and trying every trick in the book to fix the problems with it. It makes sense that having finally embraced that she’s just as much of a try-hard as Kanye West she would make her own My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Okay, that gives 1989 a bit too much credit. It’s not Taylor Swift’s perfect album. The fundamental craft is always there but every joke about how “Welcome to New York” sounds like a New York anthem written by a tourist is totally accurate. Plus the back half has a 3 song stretch where the lyrics sound like Swifty just heard about metaphors and was really excited to try them out.

But the basic narrative arc (protagonist becomes disgusted with themselves, seeks escape through every imaginable avenue, learns there must be a reckoning and embraces their failings) is exactly the same. And in performing that narrative Blank Space is a masterstroke.

It actually outdoes Kanye because it manages to make Swifty’s failings palatable for public consumption. Kanye’s dark side is only ever going to be the price of admission for getting the rest of Kanye West. Crazy ex-girlfriend Taylor Swift however isn’t the downside anymore, it’s the dream. Come for the blonde pop star, stay for her going batshit insane. And people are lining up to take that deal. How does she manage this trick?

First of all, let us acknowledge that the video is amazing. Taylor Swift inexplicably trying to beat up a tree is the only animated gif the internet needs anymore even if I’m going to offer a bunch more because she also dresses like a flapper and stabs a heart shaped cake. Also she stands on a horse for no reason. Also she wins the Academy Award in the newly created category of Best Crazy Eyes. Also she commits to destroying the hood of a dude’s car with a golf club with more passion than I’ve mustered up for anything in my entire life.

Swifty builds the perfect life with a J. Crew model boyfriend in a Better Holmes and Gardens mansion and then systematically destroys it all with such glee I’m continually amazed there are people who didn’t get the joke. It’s amazing how far you can get with me just by being self-aware.

But that’s just what gets her in the door. The song itself does all the heavy lifting for her persona because it’s laying all the cards on the table. For years Taylor Swift’s private life of constant messy breakups was in conflict with her public persona of hopeless romanticism. But Blank Space, as this idea channel video argues, is Swifty taking control of that dichotomy through authorship. Now there’s no conflict, there’s just an acknowledgment that both are true. “Taylor Swift WILL dump you and it will be a hellishly messy breakup” isn’t just what people think of her anymore, it’s now The Taylor Swift Guarantee. It’s the natural consequence of what a romantic she is. Swifty figured out she can just tell her audience that directly without threatening her position as a sex symbol because, no matter how batshit she goes, at the end of the day you’d still have dated Taylor Fucking Swift. And having the confidence to look her audience right in the eyes and dare them to not take that deal is what the pop star victorious looks like in 2014.

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Other Ten Percent 12/9/14

Dec 09 2014 Published by under Daily Posts

It’s been a shit year for music, right? Like I’ve been locked in a room down here in LA trying to write words in an order where they actually make sense and seem good for most of the year but I’ve still kept my eye on the internet enough to say that the musical output of 2014 has been…subpar.

That’s not to say that nobody’s put out any good work. There have been some real standouts. Taylor Swift put out an album so finely crafted it totally turned me around on her and honestly earned itself a whole other 800 word essay from me down the line somewhere. (short version- Swifty is the Tracy Flick of pop music and God bless her and her terrible, terrible understanding of what romance is.)

But If I wanted to make an Other Ten Percent Top 10 albums list for the year I honestly think I’d run out of albums I listened to for more than a day somewhere around 8. Is that true? I was just bullshiting let me write this out real quick.

Run The Jewels 2, TuNe-YaRdS, Swifty, St. Vincent, Isaiah Rashaad, Jenny Lewis, Caribou, Royksopp & Robyn,

Yep. I’m sure I’m subconsciously forgetting something just to be EXACTLY right but honestly that last one wasn’t even a full album so lets just call it even.

When Rolling Stone declared the new U2 album of the year even after everybody angrily deleted it off of their phones every music reviewer on earth lost their goddamn minds about what a dumb pick it was and, sure, Songs of Innocence is a dad-jams pick par excellence. But if I was in Rolling Stone’s place I’m not sure I’d have had a better Rolling Stone approved option at the ready.

The last plausible contender for “biggest rock band in the world” put out an album and it was…fine. It’s a U2 record about a decade after that prospect was exciting to anybody but U2 fans but it is undeniably a record of competently produced music that lasts about an hour and has guitars and Bono singing on it.

I know, high praise, but if you’re looking for Album of the Year that at least has some historical weight to it. Bono’s smirking sunglass wearing version of gravitas is at least gravitas of some form and that trumps whatever forgettable Indie Rock warbeldry The Gen X-ers at your favorite music publication decided to describe as “Transcendent” before dropping Run The Jewels into the #2 spot. (Oh, by the way, Run The Jewels 2 was the Best Album of the Year. We’ll circle back around to that in a minute.)

I wrote at the start of summer that the summer jam shortlist seemed like it was waiting for a winner that never arrived (thus allowing the continued career of Iggy Azalea) and that feeling ended up permeating the whole year in music. Everybody seemed to be awaiting some other “next big thing” and that gave even the best albums the feeling of an opening act for a headliner that never bothered to show.

Both Grimes and Kendrick took shots at pushing things forward but in both cases the singles were so divisive they decided to go back to the drawing board for a bit. Other than that we got a lot of albums that were largely enjoyable extensions of bodies of work that are bordering on the predictable with two notable exceptions.

The first is Swifty, who was so on point synthesizing the last few years of pop that she managed to write that better version of Video Games that Lana Del Rey has been looking for for three years and then tossed it off on the back half of her album. Swifty’s lyrics are still cringe-inducing at least once a song which disqualifies it from album of the year consideration but 1989 is such a triumph of pop music as pure craft it earns special recognition.

The second exception is Run the Jewels 2.

Before I sound too disappointed that RTJ2 is taking the top spot let me take a moment to make it clear that it’s an absolutely phenomenal album. Easily the best work Killer Mike or El-P have done in a run of fantastic rap albums from the two of them over the last few years. It’s the only album this year that manages to grapple intelligently with the widespread institutional disfunction that’s come to define this year and sound fucking cool doing it.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is another one of those largely arbitrary distinctions I love so very very much: while Run The Jewels 2 sounds like the Best Album of 2014 it doesn’t sound like an Album of the Year.

The Album of the Year has a sense of incumbency about it or at least inevitability. It was already the album of the year before somebody called it that. It already knew. It feels IMPORTANT in all caps and you can see it being marked down next to that year in the grand procession of history. “Ah, yes” they will say in a thousand years “1997 was a very good year. The album for THAT year was…”

Some years have a lot of Albums of the Year to pick from. I’d say last year had at least 4 plausible contenders with Yeezus (the rap answer), Modern Vampires of the City (the correct answer), Daft Punk (the summer jams answer) and Haim (the impeccably crafted answer). Also I guess there was a Drake album but I continue to find his popularity inexplicable. In other years there’s just one clear answer. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy kinda blew away all possible contenders that year for instance.

But 2014 is the first year I’ve ever seen where NOTHING has that feeling about it. Nothing demanded to be called the best. Run the Jewels 2 demands a lot of things. It demands your attention. It demands you stop ignoring institutional racism and all the other fucked up things about our world. It demands you give them the fucking jewels. But it doesn’t demand to be album of the year.

I mean the two of them have pretty much admitted Run The Jewels is just a passion project so they can keep fucking around making music together and the album sounds like it in the best possible way. It’s an album that’s utterly uninterested in being album of the year. It’s just two guys trying to make a damn good rap album who fully expected some other album to come along as the critical darling that gets the award. But that other album never showed up, and even when they’re fucking around Killer Mike and El-P don’t fuck around so RTJ2 is popping up in top fives all over the goddamn place.

2014 still feels like a strange void in the history of popular music. A pause before some huge shift I can still just make out the edges of, (Or that I’m just making up entirely) But that’s not on Run the Jewels, they’re just two guys that put out an amazing fucking album in an otherwise off year.

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