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Beyonce’s Odes to Joy

How’s this for an understatement: Beyoncé’s fourth album finds her hollering, “I care.” That’s like a hurricane saying, “I blow.” Beyoncé doesn’t merely care! Her essence trembles with feeling! She seizes with emotion! Her voice flutters with the intensity of a hummingbird! She brims with the creativity that could fill half a dozen albums in the time given to create one (she reportedly delivered a whopping 72 tracks to Columbia in advance of 4). Caring is something you do while sitting on your ass, and we’re talking about a woman who put “bootylicious” in the dictionary by doing virtually everything but sitting.

Beyond these indications, the words “I care” come off as oversimplified because of the force behind them, a torrent of gut and throat. In the face of this ironic delivery, you may wonder if words alone could even describe the inner workings of the storm that is Beyoncé, anyway. Her lyrics are, after all, the most ordinary facet of her output—boxy vessels to get her from point A to point stratosphere.

“I Care” is one of several 4 songs in which deceptive calm gives way to intensity-cum-chorus. Clearly, she will not be contained. She builds tracks like jack-in-the-boxes being wound slowly until out pops Sasha Fierce, her wild-eyed, wild-haired, flying man-eater of an alter ego. Last year, Bey told Allure that she had “killed” Sasha “because I’ve grown and now I’m able to merge [Sasha and Beyoncé].” The result is as volatile as smashing atoms.

On 4, the ballads bang (even the Dianne Warren–penned weepie “I Was Here” knocks harder than anything on 4‘s bloated predecessor, I Am … Sasha Fierce) and the up-tempos clang. The faster songs possess a Fela Kuti influence that she translates into a marching-band aesthetic reminiscent of Destiny’s Child’s 2004 hit “Lose My Breath.” They’re passé in the best way possible—they are mini-parades.

Other references are just as unfashionable. Boyz II Men’s “Uhh Ahh” provides one in the tangled collection of hooks that is the whirlwind career highlight “Countdown.” Martika’s “Love, Thy Will Be Done,” is conjured in the Frank Ocean–written “I Miss You,” which boasts a sound design of ambient synths that expand and contract as they progress through their chords, maintaining an even level of intensity throughout. The mid-tempo “Party” sounds right out of the S.O.S. Band’s catalog (its plodding tempo is the only thing that lets you know she isn’t quoting a particularly poetic, desperately meth-seeking craigslist m4m ad: ” ‘Cause tonight/I’ll do it every way/Speakers knocking till the morning light/’Cause we like to party”). “Love on Top” bops around on the easy listening/easier dancing boogie vibe of Raydio’s “Can’t Change That” and New Edition’s “Mr. Telephone Man”; before it ends, it has ecstatically, hyperactively changed keys half a dozen times.

None of this is cool, per se, thus it all suits Beyoncé. No generation’s King Diva has ever been cool (certainly not in temperament, but also because of the constraints of popularity), and she isn’t one for innovation. She is an executor, and that’s why she can get away with replicating Lorella Cuccarini’s performance art or making an album that, despite all the huffing and puffing, is little more than a snapshot of one woman mid-evolution. (It’s the sonic equivalent of a mountain made from a molehill.) Beyoncé’s art is delivery, and 4 is a gorgeous frame for her voice at its absolute best.

Bey’s lack of coolness is why the pseudo-edgy sampling of Major Lazer in 4‘s failed first single, “Run the World (Girls),” rang false (and why Kanye West’s dorky “Party” pun—”You got the swag sauce, you drippin’ Swagu”—feels about right). “(Girls)” is no more informed or activistic than I Am …‘s first single, “If I Were a Boy,” but at least it’s frolicking in femininity as opposed to wondering, “How much is that penis in the window?” (Evolution is evolution!) Similarly progressive, “Best Thing I Never Had” isn’t as iconic as its reference point “Irreplaceable,” but nor is it as shady. Reducing her sneering, Bey takes the opportunity of a failed relationship to count her blessings (“Thank God you blew it/Thank God I dodged a bullet”). Optimism is helium in 4‘s balloon.

Really, 4 is about joy, and that may prove too much for people who expect our R&B stars to be tortured at least some of the time, who expect life’s lemons to produce sourness instead of lemonade. Few know the details of Beyoncé’s private life, and sadness is relative, but the perception that Beyoncé has had it easy, and thus doesn’t carry the scars to make her authentically soulful, is not an unpopular one. Mary J. Blige, as good of a Bey counterpoint as any, once griped, “There’s no school for organic,” in reference to Bey’s supposedly smooth path and its effect. But if happiness is at the root of Beyoncé’s soul, 4 could be just as much her truth as My Life was Mary’s.

And why shouldn’t 4 find Beyoncé enamored with life? This multimillionaire was well rested when she started recording this thing, having come off a multi-month break; by virtue of the fact that she’s one of the most famous women in the world, her will alone is a force. Girls don’t run the world, but you can see how a woman of Beyoncé’s stature and with her justified self-interest could make that mistake.

But then she’s a tricky one; a few gasps before she assumes de facto world domination, she talks about her place on earth in the most uncertain of terms: “I Was Here” finds her longing to “leave my mark so everyone will know I was here,” as if she hadn’t already accomplished that a decade ago. The way her voice gnaws at this song till it bleeds might make you wonder if her joy comes from within or if it’s dependent on approval from without. But this question only comes up in the fleeting moments that her joy isn’t overwhelming your senses, rendering the distinction irrelevant.

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Q&A: Pop Mixmaster Pete Hammond On Nostalgia, Boring Radio Songs, And Remixing Kylie

If the ’80s are defined by excess, perhaps no body of work is more endemic of that age than that of Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman (collectively known as Stock Aitken Waterman), the production trio who ruled British radio at the end of that decade and into the next. Churning out globe-trotting hits for the likes of Rick Astley, Kylie Minogue, Donna Summer, Dead or Alive, Bananarama and so many more, their sound was a composite of the 25 years of dance music history before it. The sum of their parts felt particularly heavy—their highly plastic sound is what you’d get if you stacked house on top of hi-NRG on top of Italo disco on top of classic disco on top of Motown and removed none of the constituents. The sound of dance music ballooned as the ’80s progressed, and SAW made sure there was plenty of pop to go along with it.

Helping sort them out was Pete Hammond, a veteran musician who played in Limme and the Family Cooking and remixer. Hammond was hired by Waterman to be the resident “mixmaster” of PWL (Pete Waterman Limited), the label home of SAW, and got his hands on most of SAW’s best-known productions. By the time Hammond left in ’92, the PWL sound was past its prime and the target of much derision. It fizzled shortly after. To get a sense of its legacy, the derisive prank known as Rickrolling was about PWL’s biggest revival since its heyday.

Until now, maybe. In recent years, Hammond has been commissioned to produce a series of “retro remixes” that approximate the giantness of his ’80s work, starting with his stunning take on Alphabeat’s 2008 single “Boyfriend.” In that time, he’s given Wynonna Judd’s music an ’80s makeover to match her hair and, you know, vibe; he brought Amanda Lear back to the disco; and, maybe most satisfyingly, he’s remixed Kylie Minogue in the style that launched her career in 1988. His just-released remix of “Put Your Hands Up (If You Feel Love)” is packed to the gills with joy. It could be the slightly wiser older sister of “I Should Be So Lucky.”

We reached Hammond at his studio in England to discuss his career and the revival of his sound, which of course required a ton of reminiscing about the past.

What exactly did being PWL’s “mixmaster” entail?

[Stock Aitken Waterman] would record a song and they’d put far too much stuff on them, far too many overdubs. We had 48 tracks and every one of them would be full up with something, pretty much. Then they’d give it to me and say, “Make a record.” Very often, there was no introduction, no middle section, just a verse or something. It was up to me to create something in those areas. It was executive production in many respects.

How much has your process changed since the early ’90s? Are you still using the same equipment?

I hardly use the equipment I used to. It’s mainly the computer now. Fortunately, I had a lot of old sounds on a DAT tape. But they aren’t the source of the sounds I use now. The only real source of sounds from back in the day is my DX7. When I was asked to do the first of these remixes in this retro style it was Alphabeat’s “Boyfriend.” I dug out the DX7 and it had lost its memory because the internal battery had gone years ago, but I was able to reprogram it and get the original PWL bass sound.

And so, you started revisiting this style as a result of someone asking you to, and not of your own accord?

I had no inclination at all to do it, really. I figured that was the past. But then, Ian Usher, who works part time for Peter Waterman, was in touch with Elias Christidis at Parlophone. I think it was his idea to [revive] it, and then Parlophone said, “Yeah, let’s do it with the ‘Boyfriend’ remix.” It started off a whole string of them. I’ve done lots of them since then. It’s kept me busy for the past two or three years.

So when you do a PWL-esque track today, your process is different than it was back then, since you’re not being given parts, but creating them all.

Oh I create all of them, yeah. But I did put a lot of stuff on the records back in the day. A lot of the quirky bits were mine. I used to overdub, take the vocals off, put in samples, all of that kind of trickery.

I was wondering if you did the famous cut up “uh-I-I-I-I” in Kylie’s “I Should Be So Lucky” and if you were referencing it with the cut-up vocals at the end of your “Put Your Hands Up” remix?

I didn’t do that [in “Lucky”]. I think that was Matt Aitken. We used to fly the vocals in. We’d record one chorus and put it in a Publison Infernal Machine. It had 20 seconds of sampling, which is just enough for a chorus. You can record in stereo all your backing vocals and then you could just play them in wherever you want them. He was just fiddling about doing that, and that’s what brought in the “I-I-I-I” thing about. But yes, I was harking back to that with the new Kylie remix.

How did the idea come about to remix “Put Your Hands Up” in Kylie’s old style?

I’ve done a number of these remixes, and people on Facebook have been asking, “When are you gonna do one with Kylie?” Ian Usher had been badgering Elias Christidis to do one, but nothing came of it. Out of the blue, I emailed Elias saying, “In return for the ‘Boyfriend’ remix, which has given me a string of work for the past three years, I’ll do you one for nothing.” It took me about two weeks to do it, from start to finish. I did the remix, submitted and then I heard nothing for a few weeks. I figured they didn’t like it. I thought it sounded great, personally. And then I got word eventually from Elias that they liked it and that they were going to take it out to serve to Kylie where she was on tour, to play it for her personally. Another two weeks went by and then I heard from Elias saying, “Kylie absolutely loves it and wants to do a video and put it on her website.” And then they decided to put it out. Of course then, we negotiated a fee for me.

I wonder what you think of the concept of coolness and how it applies to what you do.

I don’t know how you describe it. It’s just a feeling you get from it. If it feels cool or if it doesn’t and it feels too cheesy… it’s really a fine dividing line between the two, I think. I don’t know how to define it. Do you think it sounds cooler these days?

Well, if you use “cool” as a sound descriptor versus a gauge of its hip factor, I don’t think PWL stuff ever sounded cool—there’s too much going on and it’s too bright. It’s a lot different than the icy disco of the early ’80s. It’s big and there are orchestras and a palpable Motown influence.

You know, I hear so many boring records on the radio. Just people strumming a guitar and singing. That isn’t enough. You need more! That’s why they aren’t selling in great bundles in the majority, because there’s not enough interest. I always try to put a lot of interest in the records so you can play it over and over again and hear something you didn’t hear last time: lots of little counter melodies on the synth lines and little hooky bits all over the place. You can’t just rely on vocal gymnastics and sex to sell records. Not that I’m against sex. Sex is all right.

What do you think of the concept of nostalgia and the way some people automatically dismiss it?

I think all music’s got its place. A good song and a good piece of music, there’s nothing wrong with it. Why should you be anti that piece of music because it’s old?

Is there something about the source material that draws you to do a retro remix over a contemporary one? Something that makes you go, “Well, this reminds me of PWL because of X, Y and Z, so here’s my take”? Or are you doing this strictly on a commissioned basis?

What I’ve been doing is having a rough chinwag with whomever I’m doing it with and they kind of say, “Well, I’d rather like it if it was a bit like that or that.” So you kind of get a plot, if you like. Like with Mini Viva, they wanted that to be like Mel and Kim because Mini Viva reminded people of Mel and Kim. So I sat down and recreated all the Mel and Kim sounds from “Respectable” and the rest of the records. Nothing was sampled. I won’t do that. But I can usually recreate these things. That’s usually what happens and then it evolves from there, really. I try to put in the middle sections and introductions a bit more technology, with filtering and all sorts of stuff like that. There’s so much more you can do with computers now that you couldn’t do in the old days. You’ve got unlimited tracks to work with! On the Kylie track, there are, I think, about 133 tracks playing.

What’s funny to me about that is that the excess is so ’80s, and yet you couldn’t achieve it back then. It’s very, “Greed is good.”

Although we only had 48 tracks back in the day, we’d get more out of them. Tracks would share sounds. You’d have a track where nothing was happening [at some moment], so you’d put something else on there, which was always very dangerous. Now you don’t even have to worry, though. You just add another track. But that makes it very difficult for some people because they never know when to stop.

How do you know when to stop?

I get to a point where I’ve had enough. I think, “It doesn’t need anything, it sounds fine.” I spend about two weeks on [these remixes], though. It’s not a quick process. If you spend time, it gives you time to think. A lot of the thinking I do in bed.

As a blogger, I appreciate the luxury of taking your time on a piece.

If you go back to PWL, though, that’s totally the opposite. We were really under pressure back then.

People referred to it as a factory.

It was a factory. Mike [Stock] and Matt [Aitken] would come in by day and they would record in the upstairs studio. I’d come in at 11 at night and mix what they’d done that day, or the previous one. And everyday, it was a different song. We’d keep it going like that. I wasn’t just doing their stuff, too. I was doing my own thing, remixing outside jobs, we called them. So there was always something, night and day. Pete Waterman was basically getting two days of studio time out of 24 hours. That’s why he wanted me to work at night.

Did you have any time to be passionate about your work under those constraints?

Oh yeah. I can’t do anything unless I do it properly. If I wasn’t happy with it, I’d stay on and continue it the next night if I had to. But the turnaround period from conception to leaving was about three weeks. And sometimes, I didn’t even know what to do with the stuff, like Rick Astley. There was a song of his I was told to mix, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” He was a tea boy at the time. And then, I think it was around Christmas, I did this mix of “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Stock Aitken Waterman didn’t like it because they said it sounded old fashioned. I didn’t use any of the stuff they’d recorded, I just kept it very simple. Seventies disco, basically I made it. It got sent out on an upcoming-artist promo to Capital Radio in London and they started playing it and so we were forced to rush-release it. They had no plan for Rick at that point. They just put him in a suit and made a video. And the rest is history. It’s still a really good record.

What did you think of the Rickrolling phenomenon?

It’s mad, isn’t it? It’s great fun, but I’m not sure if they’re taking the mickey out of him or if they’re liking the record.

That was often the question with PWL stuff, though, right? And then after a certain point, the style was widely mocked.

Very much so. In fact, you rarely hear it on the radio [today]. Over here, they don’t play PWL records much. Not many of them stood the test of time, as far as recurrent airplay goes. Not even Mel and Kim, though I think those records still sound good today.

Do you feel that PWL is underrated?

I don’t think it deserved the derision. People would say, “It’s just a computer,” but they obviously didn’t listen to it and understand how complex it was. They have very clever chord progressions, all of them. In fact, there was a song [Morris Minor & the Majors’ “This Is the Chorus”] that took the piss out of the whole thing. It was a stupid record, but that’s how bad it got: people were laughing at [PWL’s records] instead of enjoying them. I think if you go back to the original PWL sound, it was much heavier than it became in the later years. I think what did it for them is that they got some less-than-good singers.

It’s interesting that PWL basically represents its own genre. You can hear the sum of its parts within it, but nothing really sounds exactly like it.

There were a lot of sections to it. It was quite diverse. That’s the whole thing. People would say it all sounded the same, but to me, it all sounded quite different. I think we got too big. People like to shoot you down when you get big. I remember asking Pete Waterman one Christmas, “What are we going to do next year?” He said, “More of the same.” And it worked for another year or two, but then it just kind of died.

Was there ever a genre name thrown at it that you agreed with? I guess “Euro beat” was most prevalent.

No. I suppose the most common one I heard was “cheesy pop.” Those aren’t my words, but that’s how most people refer to it. I would have just said pop-dance, really. Good quality pop-dance.

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Kate Bush’s Rework

Not even the concept of retrospect is immune to Kate Bush’s charms. Her new album, Director’s Cut (Fish People), is a second stab at songs from two post-peak albums in her oeuvre, 1989’s The Sensual World and 1993’s The Red Shoes. Much of it is newly recorded and all of it has a lovely cohesion of sound, and so it feels OK to refer to it as her first new album in six years . . . and yet its source material is of drinking age in her homeland of England. That’s just strange enough to feel surreal, even though revising her work before our eyes is something she has done a few times; most notably, her compilation The Whole Story featured a re-recorded version of her biggest hit, “Wuthering Heights.”

Bush’s return to form here, though, recalls her initial artistic blossoming. Beginning with the greatest negotiation of her artistry and pop savvy, 1985’s Hounds of Love, every Bush album has had a thematic, often narrative concept tied to it. That was less the case with her breakout, 1980’s Never for Ever, and its follow-up, her 1982 masterpiece, The Dreaming. Both were about several things, but none more than a young woman taking hold of her career and producing the hell out of the way she communicates with the world. The process was the concept, and that was enough.

And so it is on Director’s Cut, a very conscious revisiting of old material that wears its m.o. on its sleeve (literally—the title says it all). Bush packages the collector’s edition of the album with the two records she’s picking through, making it easy to compare the old with the rearranged, resung, and, in a few cases, entirely revamped. This woman is showing off her work.

She’s also providing a service, at last doing justice to songs on overlooked and inconsistent entries in her discography. Though there is a faction of her fanbase that swears by The Sensual World (present company excluded), few would deny the fact that it sounds laden in late-’80s smog. A clean-up is well in order. The Red Shoes had worse execution, as Bush wrapped her grieving for her mother and guitarist Alan Murphy (among her losses around its time of release) in a silly song-story loosely based on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 film of the same name. On Director’s Cut, her gravitas has new weight—Shoes’ “Moments of Pleasure” once skipped merrily but now moves tentatively along with her hands on the piano. She sounds so rich with ache that she doesn’t need the original’s chorus (“Just being alive/It can really hurt/These moments given/Are a gift from time!”). She does more showing than telling and, in the process, reveals “Moments” as one of her finest compositions. A similar reading proves less effective in the new, dragged-out version of “This Woman’s Work,” in which the original’s howling sadness is replaced by ambient gloom. It has the opposite effect of “Pleasure,” feeling like she has dumbed down her original with too straightforward a reading.

Not that she’s wallowing—life is now “sweet,” where it used to be “sad,” per a line in “And So Is Love.” And hooray to James Joyce’s estate for finally saying, “Mmmm-yes!” to her request to excerpt Ulysses: As a result, “The Sensual World” now sports vastly different lyrics and a new name (“Flower of the Mountain”). But sometimes leaving the words alone makes for the most delicious contrasts of all. The line in “Song of Solomon” that goes, “Don’t want your bullshit/Just want your sexuality” is far bolder coming from a 52-year-old woman than a 35-year-old one. (Alternately, “I was loading a new program I had ordered from a magazine,” from “Deeper Understanding,” sounds far sillier in 2011 than it probably did in 1989.) Similarly, if you ever had a question as to what kind of climax Bush was going for in “Top of the City,” listen to her voice ooze all over the spiffed-up version and wonder no more. It’s amazing how simply resigning can open floodgates of poignancy.

Musically, things certainly sound cleaner, though that’s not always a good thing. “Understanding” has lost its icily programmed glide in favor of stuttering live drums. [In fact, almost all electronic elements of the songs have been replaced by more traditional instrumentation (and not even all of that is safe).] You see what she’s going for: something less “dated,” with less bloat; orchestral sections, too, are wiped away, making this Director’s Cut a far less cinematic-sounding affair. But in Botoxing her sound (just like she seems to have done to her face, per a recent, shocking promo shot), she’s turning her back on her legacy of technological savvy.

Bush’s production has long been as key to her sound as her songwriting and delivery, and the “organic” rearrangements on Director’s Cut sometimes feel safe and out of character. At least she’s still letting weirdness in via her vocals, which are gloriously unhinged. Her voice quivers like a scared fox in “Lily,” blasts punctuating madness in “Solomon,” and moans like a chorus of aristocratic ghosts in “And So Is Love.” Even while wailing Brontë references at 19, she sounded like a crazy old lady, so she achieves the desired timelessness most effectively through her natural resource.

There’s always been a “genius at work” element to Bush’s music, but the work part is particularly palpable on Director’s Cut. Bush doing Bush has resulted in her most navel-gazing album to date, but if anyone has earned the right to pat her own back, it’s the notoriously spotlight-shy Kate. Besides, it’s good business. How does a veteran artist like Kate Bush fashion an album so that it’s relevant to our time? By making it all about herself. 

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Lady Gaga’s Fame Ball Rolls On

Fame has been demystified enough for us to know that the adage “Fake it till you make it” does not go far enough. As a culture, we watch celebrities with such scrutiny, we understand that making it isn’t even half the battle—keeping it is what separates the stars from the starlets. Lady Gaga’s fame is still teething, and her solution to this conundrum is paradoxically simplistic: make it, and then make more.

The oft-hurtled criticism that Gaga is all style and no substance is at least semantically wrongheaded, as it ignores the amount of content she perpetually churns out through music and videos and performances and performative interviews and performative speeches on Capitol Hill and Google Chrome commercials and SNL cameos and just showing up places wearing things. Whether that substance is, in fact, substantial is another thing, but the genius of her aesthetic is that it barely matters. Before you can finish contemplating the implications of her dictating a gay-rights anthem (as opposed to putting it out there and letting the people decide) with “Born This Way,” she sideswipes you with quasi-religious imagery suggesting she has some bubble gum stuck between more than a few pages of her Bible via “Judas.” If her piss-yellow hair doesn’t do it for you, give her a few minutes and she’ll come out looking like a skunk. Just when you get used to the idea of her playing her piano on a giant shoe, she’s Eltoning it up behind one that looks like a series of piled gift boxes and, oh, wait, no she’s not, she’s dancing to a furious club track with choreography that is practically signed in synch with her lyrics. As spectacles go, Lady Gaga works overtime. If ADHD culture didn’t exist, she would have induced it.

All of this makes her third album, Born This Way, a perfect expression of her process. Like Gaga herself, it is calculated to overload our systems. The most straightforward way it does this is by being louder than even the hellish volumes that today’s pop music routinely revels in; Gaga’s waveforms are not blocks, but bricks she hurls at your head. In the past, Gaga has settled on disco du jour as her defining sound, but here, there’s a conscious hybridization going on. (Call her Ms. Vitalic and slap a hair bow on her for old times’ sake.) Born’s hair-metal tendencies, for example, find Gaga taking on more abrasive textures via screeching guitars, grinding synths, and stomping drums. When these and other elements pulverize in unison, as they do during just about every chorus on the album, her sound becomes as impossible to process as her trajectory: Sometimes, it feels like the next logical progression for Gaga will be a record of white noise.

Pop sludge feels risky, and it’s always encouraging to watch a superstar dance on the edge of alienating her global audience. (“Judas” flopped mostly because it’s nearly impossible to parse out what the hell is going on.) But for as overblown as Born is clearly intended to be, it’s very difficult to love it for its nature—its gentler moments are more rewarding. None of her shock tactics hold a candle to the silence that follows the abrupt ending of the Van Halen–housey “Highway Unicorn (Road to Love).” When Gaga goes toe-to-toe with Italo-disco bass lines and not much else, like in the verses of “Bad Kids,” the vibration from the bouncing octaves feels almost soothing. A gentle string of sung oohs and hoos heroically snakes its way through the clank and hiss of highlight “Heavy Metal Lover,” giving way to Gaga intoning, “I could be your girl, girl, girl . . .” with a distracted delivery that empathizes with her listeners. There’s a flower-through-the-asphalt vibe and when prettiness makes it through the cacophony, her slingshot melodies (aimed, obviously, at the stars) feel that much more triumphant.

The we-shall-overcome sentiment is communicated most effectively by Born This Way’s egalitarian use of house beats. Assuming that Gaga understands the for-gays-by-gays origins of house music, her tacking 4/4 beats onto virtually every genre she dabbles in—power ballads, metal anthems, MOR pop, flamenco—symbolizes equality better than her sloganeering, which can sound trite (“Don’t be insecure if your heart is pure!”) and about as insightful as a Garbage Pail Kid card (“I’m a nerd: I chew gum and smoke in your face/I’m absurd”).

Also present on Born is what musicologist Charles Kronengold (as cited in Alice Echols’s tremendous disco tome Hot Stuff) calls the “arbitrariness” of disco’s instrumentation. Elements like rapping, guitar solos, and saxophones wind their way into where they shouldn’t belong; the song structures feel similarly slipshod, and her belting, clenching, bellowing, wailing, monotone, Germanic voice is all over the place. (Never let it be said that Gaga isn’t a phenomenal interpreter of her own work.) But whether that’s coincidence or a wise co-opting of genres is unclear.

In fact, Born This Way asks more questions about Gaga than it answers. Is her conflating of nature (see the title) with nurture (“I’m a bad kid like my mom and dad made me”) a statement on both elements’ inherent coexistence, or just her being inconsistent? Is a woman who once said, “I’m not a feminist. I hail men, I love men,” but is now calling herself (in Born highlight “Scheiße”) a “blond high-heeled feminist enlisting femmes for this” someone who we’re watching evolve or someone who, at any given point, doesn’t really know what she’s talking about? Is the Born album cover really a “testament to liberation through transformation,” as she recently told the Times, or is the juxtaposition of a half-Gaga, half-motorcycle beast and the words “Born This Way” a bit of visual irony? The unresolved nature of so much of Gaga’s content explosion makes Born This Way ultimately too much and not enough. In order to communicate in this time of media bombardment and retain her rock-star mystique, she probably couldn’t have it any other way.

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Jessie J Sings For Her Life On “Who You Are”

All the world’s a stage, and singer-songwriter Jessie J’s corner of it looks something like American Idol (or maybe X Factor, since she’s a Brit). The 23-year-old’s debut, Who You Are, is not so much an album as it is a pleading, 50-minute audition, the logical byproduct of someone who doesn’t yet have the control of her own talent. Thus, it is temping to judge her with the same encouraging vagueness as the Idol panel (“Jessie’s in it to win it!” “At first I wasn’t sure, but then it felt really, really real!” “Zip zap zababble zab zezozose zadfrack, come on down and sit in my lap!”). Who You Are is a string of missteps, but the right path often feels just a few taste levels and stern talking-tos away.

Her rabid approach to song interpretation makes sense given the woeful climate of the industry she’s entering (the air pressure’s rising, like that of a sinking ship). As on the Idol stage, it feels like every second matters, so there’s little sense of crescendo or climax–Jessie just blows. She channels so many in such a short amount of time. Her vocal tone is somewhere between Kelly Clarkson and Tiny Toon Adventures’ Elmyra. Her excitability is all Xtina. Her butchie swag was previously spotted in P!nk. Her disaster chic seems swiped from Fantasia (who swiped it from Patti). At one point in “Casualty of Love” (which apes the doo-wop aping in the Spice Girls’ “Too Much”), she sounds freakishly like Ciara. In addition to its obvious influences, Jessie’s acrobatic voice contains an arsenal of annoyance: wormy vibrato, fluttery spasms, punishing shrieks, possessed snarls, syllables stretched into eons and squeaks indebted to Betty Boop as much as they are to chew toys. Her frequent, serpentine melisma plays like a dissertation refuting David Browne’s Times article from December that proclaimed the vocal technique irrelevant.

But then, annoyance is the tack that pop music often uses to adhere. Unfortunately (or whatever!) Jessie’s tunes don’t match the, erm, distinctiveness of her voice. Her R&B-lite’s whatever-sticks aesthetic spans junk crunk and rhythm-and-bombast ballads, but it’s really just a blur of shouty, fluorescently lit choruses. When Jessie’s lyrics aren’t complete nonsense (“I gotta have ya like abracadabra!”), they espouse puffy optimism (“Strive to be happy and live to believe!”) and sub-Girl Power empowerment. That “Do It Like a Dude” is probably the most overtly feminist pop song of the past year, but sports subject matter handled by TLC with far more finesse almost 20 years ago, should make you wonder if we are regressing as a culture. (Actually, it shouldn’t: you know we are.)

Speaking of regression, in Who You Are‘s first U.S. single “Price Tag”–which was produced by Dr. Luke, though you’d never know it–Jessie calls for a return to the days “when music made us all unite,” and claims that she only wants to make people dance. “It’s not about the money money money / We don’t need your money money money,” she sings. Well, first of all, she’s charging for the album, so if you believe her proclamation, I’ve got a stripper who’s in love with you that I’d like you to meet. But there is some truth there–regardless of whether she needs listeners’ money, she probably won’t be getting much of it, given the state of the industry. (It’s also probably easy to go pro bono when you’ve got a bank full of residuals from writing Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.,” as Jessie did.)

There and everywhere on Who You Are, the thinnest layer of disingenuousness obscures painful honesty. Peeking from behind Jessie J’s bravado is desperation to be liked. Psychology like this that’s visible from your parlor is nothing new; nor is playing to the crowd. But it’s amazing how uncomfortable it all feels when thrust into your ears with the force that Jessie J is capable of. It’s enough to make a near-miss sound like a tragedy. If she’s still around next week, let’s hope she steps her game up.

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Britney Spears Runs on (American) Idol

Britney Spears doesn’t need to say anything of consequence to be relevant—after all, she hasn’t yet and her career is thriving, 13 years in. She doesn’t even need to bother with dancing (the closest thing she has to a formidable talent)—her minimal movement in this year’s “Hold It Against Me” video has not stopped the clip from grabbing 25 million VEVO views in a month. Even her off-the-clock extra credit has dried up lately. There have been no new men with crotches to grab publicly, no new children to endanger, no new public meltdowns to keep both our hands full (one on our pearls, the other on our trackpads). There’s something Zen or minimalist or just plain lazy about Brit’s recent public profile, but it matters not, just as long as she periodically shows up. There are people who are famous for being famous; Britney Spears is almost that. She is famous for being a famous singer.

In this respect, her seventh studio album, Femme Fatale, is a perfect snapshot of her current public life. It is expression from the expressionless, and it will do nothing to mar Brit’s consistent track record (the first two singles are already hits, and get ready for highlight “I Wanna Go” to score your summer). Britney does very little over the course of Fatale—it’s the first album since her debut on which she has not a single writing credit. Even more telling is her frequently blank-eyed delivery: She’s never been a great vocal interpreter, but on Fatale she sounds about as present as she did on Blackout. In case you need reminding, that album was recorded and released at the height of her public self-destruction, so that there was a legitimate question as to whether the album title described her overall state of consciousness.

If Femme Fatale were merely an album of innocuous pop, Britney’s distance from it might not matter, but it’s problematic for an album whose subject matter is hedonism and how being hot facilitates it. The lyrics say, “Id!” while Britney says, “Meh!” And it’s amazing the difference a little bit of effort makes—her most spirited vocal turns occur on Femme Fatale‘s best tracks. The forgoing of her usual derpy bleat for a dramatic upper register nicely complements the camp lyrics of “Trip to Your Heart” (“Spread my wings out into the dark/I’ll fly away on a trip to your heart”). She straight-up squeals during the aforementioned and perfect “I Wanna Go,” drawing out her e’s (“Shame on meeeee!/To need reeeleeeeease!/Uncontrollableeeeey!”). Even better, at one point we hear her chuckle. Suddenly, the joy she sings about is palpable.

But even that track relies heavily on the manipulation of her vocals—Brit’s longtime collaborator Max Martin and Shellback stutter out her words (“I-I-I wanna go-go-go”) to maximize the chorus’s earworm potential. (They succeed: The New Order–esque drum fills and Bob Sinclair–does–Frankie Knuckles whistles don’t hurt, either.) Her voice is even further manipulated on another winner, “How I Roll”—it goes high, low, and also drills (“Speakerrrrrrrrrrrrrr!”). It’s just one component of Bloodshy, Jonback and Magnus’s head-spinning design that includes glitches, pops, claps, heart-beating sub-bass, a Charlie Brown piano, and a lyrical reference to ODB’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.” Maybe Britney didn’t even need to show up to this gently frenetic monster, but by the time she purrs, “You could be my fuck tonight,” you’re happy she did.

“How I Roll” is the rare forward-thinking moment on Femme Fatale, an album that otherwise is content to revel in today’s dance sound. Sure, wobbly, dubstep-inflected bass lines pop up occasionally (the underrated first single, “Hold It Against Me,” includes an entire half-time breakdown) but they don’t do anything that Blackout‘s “Freakshow” didn’t already do years ago. It’s tempting to compare the dance-mindedness of Fatale to that of Blackout, but be careful: Blackout came at a time before dance music reclaimed U.S. radio to the degree it has in 2011. As an exploration of all things electro-pop, Blackout played like a gamble a bunch of enthusiastic producers were able to take given their (probably) catatonic conduit. Femme Fatale is, in contrast, an album almost solely reliant on the 4/4 stomp of house music (its second half is particularly monotonous).

Britney’s voice doesn’t add much to the conversation, but neither does her music. Maybe her enduring relevance says more about us than her. As someone who’s never been forced to mature publicly, perhaps she is this generation’s Peter Pan, a vicarious fountain of youth. It also could be a rare case of our culture collectively getting it right: We don’t expect Britney to unleash great insight because we know that early fame probably arrested her development so much that she is unable. Whatever it is, there is something preternaturally intriguing about Britney Spears, and there always has been. Her team got a decent amount right with Femme Fatale, but nothing more so than its title.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Katy Perry, Ke$ha, and the Great Gay-Pander-Off of 2010

The culture war between gays and bigots has been intensifying for years, but in 2010, the conflict went pop. Representing the social conservatives, a handful of rappers once again tossed around gay slurs. Rick Ross opined that credit-card scams were “for faggots.” It took T.I. less than 15 seconds of No Mercy to declare, “No big-mouth, hoe-cake, fag-bait-ass niggas allowed!” Eminem, meanwhile, told Anderson Cooper that he was “like whatever” about gay people, but suggested otherwise alongside Nicki Minaj on “Roman’s Revenge”: “All you little faggots can suck it/No homo, but I’m-a stick it to ’em like refrigerator magnets.” At best, this is willful ignorance; at worst, it’s outright hatred.

Same shit, different day. Cooper also asked Em about the same “Criminal” lyrics (“Hate fags? The answer’s yes”) Kurt Loder used to confront the rapper 10 years ago, back when people were already writing think-pieces about the other F-word. But in 2010, Twitter offered a new avenue for derision. 50 Cent: “Perez Hilton calld me douchebag so I had my homie shoot up a gay wedding. wasnt his but still made me feel better.” The Game: “What kinda man let another man put is d!ck in his booty . . . I’m just askin n!igga that sh!t krazy tho. #buttpirates.” (At least these former friends remain united in spirit!) And, look, when you have Drake, on T.I.’s “Poppin’ Bottles,” dropping unsolicited discomfort like, “You with a lot of dudes, that’s that Elton John shit/Ah, to each his own, I like a fruit that’s grown,” despite (or because of?) his reputation as the game’s most sensitive player, you have irrefutable proof that the world of major-label hip-hop—pop music, in other words—is no safe place.

Swooping in to rescue us gays from the no-homo hostility are hyper-femme girls like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Ke$ha, P!nk, and, yes, Nicki Minaj. (Gee, thanks, ladies. Now they definitely won’t call us faggots.) Through their art, they’ve all acknowledged the humanity of gay people, or at least gay males—lesbians generally go ignored in perhaps a silent “Pause.” Even so, it’s tempting to call any gay acceptance in pop radical, but, really, what these women are offering is at best a tentative embrace, and at worst, lip service. The Times called the art in question “songs of survival,” but none of the tracks comprising this “soundtrack for a generation of gay fans” are as explicitly gay-friendly as the aforementioned rappers are gay-unfriendly. Katy Perry’s “Firework,” P!nk’s “Raise Your Glass,” and Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R” are all thumping anthems that preach nonspecific individuality, the gay subtext of the first two mostly confined to their videos’ imagery, whereas Ke$ha claims she was inspired by the recent rash of gay suicides when writing “R.” But there, too, the gay theme reads like an opportunistic afterthought tacked onto a single that happened to arrive right at the zenith of “It Gets Better,” when being OK with gay was trendy.

Moreover, P!nk and Ke$ha both claim to rank among the very freaks and underdogs they rhapsodize, smacking their message with self-involvement, but at least they aren’t going the Kathy Griffin route and reducing gays to fashion accessories. Gaga arguably did just that when she showed up at September’s MTV Video Music Awards with four former members of the U.S. military who’d been affected by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a subject already handled with more sophistication in her “Alejandro” video. (To be fair, Gaga spends much of her free time rallying for gay rights; time is money, and money is pop-star fuel.) Let’s not neglect the fact that Perry’s last album had a song that sneered “Ur So Gay,” and that anti-femme sentiment shares space with Ke$ha’s supposed queer anthem on Cannibal. And then there’s Minaj, whose Roman Zolanski alter ego is supposedly a gay male, and yet she not only permitted Eminem to say “faggot,” but didn’t even address it. Some gay dude she is.

Of course, these are singers first, not activists or sociologists. But even if we assume their sincerity, we can’t separate the message from the marketing, or the way their peddling interferes with the natural, less pandering-based gay sensibility. I’m speaking generally, and with awareness of the great variance of gay people’s interests, but to me, the beautiful burden of being gay forces you to search for your own heroes. To court us so visibly, explicitly, and successfully (as I write, Katy’s, P!nk’s, and Ke$ha’s gay bait all rank in the top five of the Billboard Hot 100) is to take the connoisseurship out of gay taste, to sap the queer from queerness. There is great worth in not being spoon-fed: It helps you develop your own interests, and can link you to your people in a way that feels mystical. There’s something magical in discovering how much Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” video meant to so many pre–gay ’80s kids, years before she boldly (and far less condescendingly) announced her allegiance to the gay cause via the likes of “Vogue” and Truth or Dare. There’s something fascinatingly eerie about the way gay men gravitate to Siouxsie Sioux or Kate Bush or even Robyn despite neither having made a production out of gay acceptance. There’s something awesome in being drawn to house music as a child, before you even learn its for-gays-by-gays history. Those moments transcend the overwhelming evidence of homosexuality’s biological nature and cut right to the soul.

Aged gays like Karl Lagerfeld, Bruce LaBruce, and Fran Lebowitz have spoken against gay marriage, conceptually suggesting that the binding normality we’re now striving for is antithetical to our previous fight for the freedom to be queer and live outside society’s ideals. A song won’t get you hospital visitation rights or remove inheritance tax, but there is something uncomfortably normalizing, too, in pop music’s faddish embrace of gay acceptance. But then again, Eminem himself said this year, in seemingly reluctant support of gay marriage, that “I think that everyone should have the chance to be equally miserable, if they want.” Perhaps all of us have the right to be coddled into buying pop music, but it’s not like we weren’t already. These purportedly strong, colorful, beautiful, and popular women who sing over cheerful house derivatives would of course appeal generally to gay men; it’s nice to be acknowledged, but any fan-fishing by way of pro-gay gestures is strictly redundant. We’re 10 steps ahead of you, girls. Once again, the straight world struggles to catch up.

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The Ballad of 2010: A Journey Through the Insipid Year That Was

As previously noted, the pop-house that dominated the charts in 2010 was really fucking insipid. So to see this boneheaded year off, here’s an anti-poetic tribute comprised of over 30 hits, misses, and album cuts that came out (or flourished) this year about going to the club, taking shots, dancing, and generally being as mindless as possible. If things continue on like this, you may not have to use your brain whatsoever in 2011. Fingers crossed! (Click on the line for its source track.)

]

So we back in the club
The party don’t start till I walk in
I’m a club rocker that’s my personality
I didn’t come to get bourgie, I came here to get crazy
I came to dance, dance, dance, dance
Dance, d-dance, d-dance, d-dance
Dance: it’s all I wanna do
The music’s on and I’m dancing
I keep dancin’ on my own
We’re dancing like we’re dumb
The club can’t even handle me right now
I’m feelin’ so fly — like a G6.

Don’t be fancy, just get dancey
You came here to sit or party?
If they mad and they don’t wanna party, tell them shut the fuck up
(Not that I don’t like you, I’m just at a party!)
What part of party don’t you understand?
Party people just keep on rockin’
It’s my song, come on, it’s lonely on this dance floor
Let’s remove the space between me and you
Throw away all your problems, ’cause right now it’s party time
We can pump this jam however you want
Rock that body, come on, come on

Rock that body, rock your body

Rock that body, come on, come on.

When you’re in the club, get your ass on the floor

When you’re in the club, get your ass on the floor
When you’re in the club, get your ass on the floor

I fell in love with shawty when I seen her on the dance floor
Honey got a bottom bouncin’, droppin’ low, on the ground
Turn around and let me see them pants
The way that booty movin’ I can’t take no more
Baby I like it — the way you move on the floor
Damn, I like the way that you move
Love is the party, my heart is such a disco ball.

There’s glitter on the floor
I’ve got that glitter on my eyes
Glitter all over the room
We’re over capacity
Strobe lights dance with the stars
Let’s light up the night
We gon’ dance it up until we see the light
I wanna dance, I wanna dance in the light
I own the light and I don’t need no help
We don’t need no lights: time to shine like a star
We gon’ light it up like it’s dynamite
This one something special, this one just like dynamite
I’m sizzlin’ from head to toe
Slide an ice cube down my neck
Like a blizzard.

Don’t stop baby, just keep on shaking along
Don’t stop it baby, don’t stop till you get it up
Don’t take your hands off my waist, keep it right there,
Don’t disturb just move, come on

All the pretty young things at the party, let me see your hands up
Hands up, when the music drops
It’s 2 in the morning, get your hands up

If you’re sitting, stand up.

Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,

Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,

Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t stop the party.

Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,

Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,
Stop, stop, stop,

The, the, the, don’t stop the party.

Don’t stop the party

Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,

Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,

Stop, stop, stop,
The, the, the, don’t stop the party.

You like to drink? So do we
Yeah you can meet me at the bar if you wanna see the star
Got a water bottle full of whiskey in my handbag
Now give me two more bottles ’cause you know it don’t stop
I’m dancing a lot and I’m taking shots I’m feeling fine
Last call is coming
Oh shit, my glass is empty. That sucks.
Can’t stop now, more shots let’s go – 10 more rounds can I get a Kato?

…We took too many shots
Now I’m drunker than a motherfucker,
Trying to find my way back to your heart, you motherfucker

Stilettos and broken bottles, I’m spinning around in circles
Spinning like a disco
No control of my body
Like a blizzard.

So come on, let’s go, let’s lose control
I am feeling a little out of control
Still feelin’ myself I’m like outta control
I want you to take control now
You got control of my heart, turn up the level
Take control and feel the band.

Yeah, baby tonight, the DJ got us falling in love again
Tell the DJ turn it up
Tell that DJ turn it up
DJ turn it up

DJ turn it up

DJ turn it up

DJ turn it up

DJ turn it loud, then watch me turn it up
DJ, blow my speakers up
Space be boomin’, the speakers pop
DJ, better man up!
Go go go DJ! Go go go DJ! Go go go DJ!
Club is on fire

Oh, you’re my favorite DJ, baby
Come DJ, that’s my DJ
DJ, you build me up
You break me down

I feel like a zombie gone back to life (back to life).

Tonight we’re going hard

Just like the world is ours

We go until they kick us out, out
DJ’s passed out in the yard
All the crazy shit I did tonight, 
those will be the best memories.

Party, (oh yes I like it) — karamu, fiesta forever!
Party, (oh yes I like it) — karamu, fiesta forever!

T.G.I.F.
T.G.I.F.
T.G.I.F.

T.G.I.F.
T.G.I.F.
T.G.I.F.

I throw my hands up in the air sometimes
Saying A-yo, gotta let go
I wanna celebrate and live my life

Saying A-yo, baby, let’s go

A-yo! A-yo! A-yo! A-yo!
Yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeah
Yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeah
Tonight is the night

Hey, hey
Ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo

Yeah, yeah
Ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo

Hey, hey
Ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo

Yeah, yeah
Ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo

Hey, hey
Ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo
Yeah, yeah
Ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo
Hey, hey
Ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo
Yeah, yeah
Ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo

Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh,

Oh my gosh!

Eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh…
I’m busy!

Like a blizzard.

Dirty bit!

Works cited:

Usher – “DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love”

Ke$ha – “Tik Tok”

Black Eyed Peas – “Fashion Beats”

Black Eyed Peas – “The Time (Dirty Bit)”

Taio Cruz – “Dynamite”

Girlicious – “Face the Light”

Kylie Minogue – “All the Lovers”

Christina Aguilera – “Not Myself Tonight”

Robyn – “Dancing on My Own”

Ke$ha – “We R Who We R”

Flo Rida featuring David Guetta – “Club Can’t Handle Me”

Far East Movement featuring Dev and Cataracts – “Like a G6”

P!nk – “Raise Your Glass”

Janet Jackson – “Make Me”

Chris Brown – “Yeah 3X”

Lady Gaga featuring Beyoncé – “Telephone”

Enrique Iglesias featuring Ludacris and DJ Frank E – “Tonight (I’m Fuckin’ You)”

Pitbull featuring T-Pain – “Hey Baby (Drop It to the Floor)”

Black Eyed Peas – “Rock That Body”

Diddy/Dirty Money – “Ass on the Floor”

Usher featuring will.i.am. – “OMG”

Black Eyed Peas – “Light up the Night”

David Guetta featuring Akon – “Sexy Bitch”

Enrique Iglesias – “I Like It”

Diddy/Dirty Money featuring Lil Wayne – “Strobe Lights”

Ke$ha – “Take It Off”

Katy Perry – “Last Friday Night”

Girlicious – “2 in the Morning”

Black Eyed Peas – “Don’t Stop the Party”

Girlicious – “Drank”

Ciara featuring Usher – “Turn It Up”

David Guetta featuring Kid Cudi – “Memories”

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? Death To Chris Brown

Welcome to Sound of the City’s year-in-review rock-critic roundtable, an amiable ongoing conversation between five prominent Voice critics: Rob Harvilla, Zach Baron, Sean Fennessey, Maura Johnston, and Rich Juzwiak. We’ll be here all week!

America's preeminent lady-beater weeps. Photo via <a href="http://wordup.bloghiphop.net/2010/07/01/did-chris-brown-use-eye-drops-to-fake-crying-during-bet-performance/" target="_blank">Word Up!</a>
America’s preeminent lady-beater weeps. Photo via Word Up!

Funky drummers,

You know what shocked the shit out of me? The Chris Brown renaissance that occurred this year. After a series of interviews, in which he took very little responsibility for beating a beloved celebrity’s face in and tactlessly attempted to use the opportunity of major press to mend his image, his petulant whining climaxed with him begging fans via SayNow.com (whatever that is!) to help “bring me back.” You may already know this, but it bears reminding that he actually said these words: “My singing and my music is all great, but I do it for you guys and everything else but it won’t be possible if I’m not relevant on the radio and it won’t be possible for me to be an artist if I don’t have any support from people that give me an artists outlet. I can’t be an underground mixtape artist! I just want all my fans to help me.” (And, for the record, his singing is merely adequate and Graffiti was, hands down, the worst major r&b release of the last 20 years. Motherfucker is tasteless, through and through.)

And this pandering worked! Well, this and making a Michael Jackson tribute all about himself at the BET Awards by doing precisely what he did to turn the public against him in the first place: lacking control of his emotions. (He did, after all, have a job to do that night and he fucking failed.) Whatever! No matter! We won’t actually think about what this dipshit does and what re-cosigning on him means! We’ll just accept him back because he cried! After that, he was everywhere: his tuneless “Deuces” was a huge hit (a legit hit – like Top 20 pop – from a mixtape; that makes him a quintessential mixtape artist, no?), despite it showing off what Chris Brown does most: mediocrity. He’s popping up on Keri Hilson’s album and Twista’s and Nelly’s and, most despicably, T.I.’s unrelentingly abysmal No Mercy. The track on that one, “Get Back Up,” is an absurd pity party, in which two grown, famous men whine about people investing too much in their lives and judging them for their extremely public misdeeds, as if everyone should just shut up and buy their records. Well, guess what, assholes: nobody’s buying records, and we’re not gonna shut up, either! A woman-beater singing along to the lines, “And when they push you down / You got to get back up,” is a pathological thing to behold. It’s fucking scary what it means for the future, for quality control and for none of it seeming to matter much to anyone. You know what, general public? Have Chris Brown. You deserve the prick. I’ll just be over here bitching about it every step of the way. I’m fine with that. Gives me something to do.

There was simply too much Chris Brown up in my 2010 for it to be anything close to the best year in music. His career should be dead, certainly over that of Janet Jackson. Jermaine Dupri verbalized the palpable sense of doom hanging over the industry in general and Janet’s career in particular when he said that she was no longer interested in recording albums and has resolved to be a singles artist from now on. It’ll remain to be seen, but after three flop full-lengths and a few flop compilations, who could blame her? Shit’s embarrassing at this point (almost as much as limp output like Why Did I Get Married Too?‘s “Nothing”). The-Dream, similarly, predicted Basic Instinct would be Ciara’s last stand if it doesn’t hit big. Her opening-week numbers were more along the lines of Basic Instinct 2 than a blockbuster (a shame, because half of it’s brilliant). But even if she did move units or cross over to pop, it’s safe to say that Ciara is in the desperate-whore phase of her career (“I market it so good / They can’t wait to try-I-I-I-I me-e-e-ay-ay / I work it so good / Man these niggas tryin’ to buy-I-I-I-I me,” on a mechanical bull!?!). I say that with endearment – “Ride” is part of Basic Instinct‘s brilliant half. Mariah Carey famously canceled the release of her Angels Advocate remix album (a ridiculous idea in the first place, as it would have undermined the entire point of her steadfastly collaboration-free Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel). Brandy went on reality TV talking about the sad state of her career and disappointing sales of her 2008 release, Human, with an honesty I would think a pop star would shy away from listening to, much less speaking, herself. (Contrast that with all the talk on Fantasia’s Fantasia for Real VH1 show about the diva’s third album having crossover potential – the former American Idol contestant’s Back to Me is a sensational r&b album that’s ingeniously sung…which makes it about as far from Top 40-bound as anything in English with verses and choruses went in 2010). Roisin Murphy repeatedly said that she wasn’t recording a new album, but that she’d release a track here and there from now on. “Of course, once I’ve released 10 tracks, you can go off and download all 10 and make your own album,” she offered helpfully. That’s about as close as we’re gonna get to hope for the future.

But then, how much can we really trust our stars, anyway? Early on, The-Dream indicated that he would end his solo career with Love King (always leaves us on a high note!)…and then proceeded on that album to set a date for his next album, Love Affair (6/7/2011). Love King, by the way, is my second favorite Dream album (Electrik Red’s How To Be a Lady, Vol. 1 is my favorite, and I can’t see that ever changing – I still listen to that album like it came out last month). It sounds to me like the perfection of an aesthetic he’s been cultivating since Love vs. Money: his multi-song suites are longer and more complex, and he’s finally at peace with his persona (“I’ll never be a pop star, I’m too raw…”). You have to be pretty fucking comfortable with yourself as a dude to sing something as high and frothy as “Turnt Out” (bonus points for the woozy backing track that sounds like it’s hosting a melting jewelry box). A lot of guys want to be Prince, but few are as willing to do it down to the dandy. Clearly, Terius Nash is not.

(Oh, and incidentally, time has done nothing to diminish the gorgeousness of Thank Me Later‘s sound, and “Shut It Down” is, indeed, magic.)

To continue the thread of r&b and to get back to Maura’s question about time travel, my favorite micro-trend of the year was the return to pure, unadulterated, early-’90s style hip-hop soul (why is it that commercial r&b got back to boom bap before commercial hip-hop?). This was most evident in Jazmine Sullivan’s “Holding You Down (Goin’ in Circles),” which samples the Honey Drippers’ “Impeach the President.” That source track is so basic in the fabric of the genre, it’s like hip-hop’s denim. Miguel had a similarly neo-old school vibe with “All I Want Is You,” a song so stripped down, it’s practically a percapella. It’s a contender for my song of the year (its starkness is mesmerizing) and it’s such a simple formula (say it with me now: hip-hop + soul) that it makes me wonder why more shit doesn’t sound like this. Why did we decide that hip-hop and r&b had to always be more involved than just someone emoting over a simple drum machine that’s pounding and snapping? I can only hope that this trend continues and I become as tired of it in 2011 as I became with pop-house in 2010. And then it’s on to the next retro trend.

What do you think, Maura? Care to make any predictions of what you’ll be sick of in 12 months?

Previously:
Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? Bowling With Titus Andronicus and the Joy of the Work
Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? LCD Soundsystem and Nostalgia’s Creeping Scourge
Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? Defending Taylor Swift And Hailing The-Dream
Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? American Idol Wobbles, R&B Thrives, And The ’90s Rise Again
Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? House Music vs. Hashtag Rap
Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? Throw Taylor Swift In A Well
Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? Redeeming M.I.A.
Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? Five SOTC Critics Discuss.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? House Music vs. Hashtag Rap

Welcome to Sound of the City’s year-in-review rock-critic roundtable, an amiable ongoing conversation between five prominent Voice critics: Rob Harvilla, Zach Baron, Sean Fennessey, Maura Johnston, and Rich Juzwiak. We’ll be here all week!

The most important artist of 2010.

Hi everybody!

To completely gloss over the Taylor Swift effect (I listened to 30 seconds of Speak Now and thought, “Uh, no,” and never looked back), and get to what actually matters: despite Sean’s prediction, I don’t even care enough about Dr. Luke to defile him. His is the sound of now, and that means so much more than what’s actually going on within most of his producing. I think most of Teenage Dream is ingenious, though. It’s an album of power ballads with house beats and rave sounds and blood-curdling yelping. We know the ingredients of this frothy girly drink well, but they’ve never quite been blended like this. Objectively, it rocks and knocks harder than Robyn’s output this year, which may be precisely why those people who enjoy Body Talk would avoid it. Wimps.

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Dr. Luke is particularly important to this year, though, because he helped Ke$ha cast a shadow over it- “Tik Tok” spent the first nine weeks of 2010 at No. 1. I never thought I was a fan of pretense, but through Ke$ha I realized that I like my stupidity to be a little bit subtler. I’ve seen Ke$ha’s reveling in idiocy and recklessness interpreted as some kind of feminist retribution for all the dirty dicks that have littered our culture, but I’m pretty sure that being a douchebag is an equal right that one is better off not pursing. All chewing and snarling and stomping, “Tik Tok” is the sound of a preschool. Or better yet, it’s the sound of our collective standards shrinking before our ears. It is also by far the best thing Ke$ha has released. All hail, Queen of the Dumb.

If pop music was our textbook (and thank god it isn’t), we all would have gotten a little bit stupider in 2010 (which, by the way, was not the greatest year in music ever – that was a joke, right?). House music has never had more of a hold on the Billboard Hot 100, and it’s never sounded more brainless. Anyone who’s listened to Chic (who, incidentally, released my favorite compilation of the year: a four-CD box set collecting all manner of Rogers/Edwards productions and sporting a few seriously gorgeous Dimitri from Paris remixes – and no, that isn’t a joke) or Inner City is used to meta-disco, but in 32 years, the novelty of dancing to music about dancing has worn off. I have too much faith in humanity to believe that we’re becoming so unfeeling as a culture that we need the likes of Taio Cruz and Usher to vaguely describe how a club feels and looks. Doesn’t, “I came to dance, dance, dance, dance,” go without saying at this point, making the redundancy that much more ridiculous? (I will admit that Taio’s “Break Your Heart” eventually charmed me – the melody is unshakable, and I like how Luda made it hip-housey.) It was a real be-careful-what-you-wish-for-time because five years ago, I would have given a year’s worth of tanning passes for house music to come back into vogue (remember when they used to make club bangers about not dancing, like Terror Squad’s “Lean Back?”). Instead, I feel like I had my head up a guido’s asshole for most of the year (boom boom boom boom). Jersey Shore is more than a little to blame for this.

On the less commercial side of things, dance music flourished in a way it hasn’t since the ’90s. A few big albums were released that felt like throwbacks, not because they sounded like it, but because they acted like it. The ’90s were full of Very Important Dance Albums (Underworld and Massive Attack and Portishead and Goldie and Meat Beat Manifesto and The Orb and and and…), but in recent years it’s come down to…what? Girl Talk and Human After All? Skream rectified that problem with his gorgeous and satisfying VIDA, Outside the Box, which was as much of a journey as you were likely to find in LP form this year. It’s amazing, the way that album predicts your expectations and delivers every time (when you start to yearn for a hook, he gives you the bonkers pop of “How Real”; when you wonder where the fuck this dubstep producer’s dubstep is, he wobbles “Fields of Emotion” into your life; when toward the end of the album, you’re exhausted and want to just zone out, he gives you the ambient tear-jerker “A Song for Lenny”). Salem’s divisive King Night was so steadfast in its sound – white people teasing the hell out of crunk – that it stood out as the modern-day equivalent of Portishead’s Dummy. Crystal Castles wondered what would happen if house music had slit wrists instead of limp ones – their self-titled 2010 album was leaps and bounds and pummels beyond their debut. Flying Lotus and Gonjasufi (the latter to a lesser extent, and via Flying Lotus’ production) also seemed particularly reverent of the full-length form. It was just the antidote for these MP3-addled times.

And speaking of that, below are 20 of my favorite dance tracks of the year. None of them made me feel particularly stupid or anything!

Storm Queen – “Look Right Through”
Sare Havlicek – “In Out”
Netsky – “Moving With You”
Roisin Murphy – “Momma’s Place”
Rusko featuring Amber Coffman – “Hold On”
Katy B – “Katy on a Mission”
Magnetic Man featuring Katy B – “Perfect Stranger”
Ray Mang featuring Lady Miss Kier – “Bullet Proof”
Caribou – “Odessa”
Anthony Rother – “Disco Light”
Aeroplane – “I Don’t Feel”
Chemical Brothers – “Swoon (Linstrom and Prins Thomas Remix”)
M.I.A. – “XXXO”
Ellen Allien – “Flashy Flashy”
Ali Love – “Smoke and Mirrors”
Azari & III – “Into the Night”
Vega – “No Reasons (Tensnake Remix)”
San Serac – “Music Never Ends”
Sister Sledge – “Thinking of You (Dimitri from Paris Remix)”
Grateful Dead – “Shakedown Street (Tres Gueros Edit)”

I listened to more drum and bass in 2010 than I did in the 10 years that came before it. How fucked up is that?

So as not to divert the conversation too much into territory that’s particular only to my taste and not the group’s, I’ll return to Rob’s question of four entries ago regarding hip-hop. This year definitely was more exciting than most, in terms of envelope-pushing — a few people were willing to put their finger in hip-hop’s conservatism and wiggle around a little bit. Kanye expanded the sonic palate (at last, music that sounds as expensive as the lifestyle he brags about overtop it!), Drake changed the game with courageous softness (dare I say “femininity?”) and despite my overall take on her as a frivolous person, Nicki Minaj impressed me simply for being a female rapper that commanded props from even misogynists who brag about pissing on women. Rick Ross sounded liberated on Teflon Don, and were it not for the pronounced compression and oppressive loudness, Diddy’s Dirty Money album, Last Train to Paris, would rival Kanye’s as the biggest-sounding, most forward-thinking major hip-hop release of the year.

And yet, hashtag rap became a real, live thing. Whatever hope you had in the fad (which forced more rhymes than a first-year English major — #poetryconcentration) must have been dashed when Justin Timberlake got around to doing it on Last Train to Paris‘ “Shades”: “I’ma bend yo body, bend yo body – Magneto / Let me have my way, I’mma have my way – Carlito” are words he actually says. That’ll do, hashtag rap. That’ll do.

Maura, please tell me your favorite hashtag line isn’t, “So where my dawgs at, Randy.”

Previously:
Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever?, Part Three: Throw Taylor Swift In A Well
Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever?, Part Two: Redeeming M.I.A.
Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? Five SOTC Critics Discuss.