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Lady Rizo and Bridget Everett Show us How Stars Get Made

“I’m fameish,” slapstick chanteuse Lady Rizo deadpanned to me, understandably sounding a tiny bit bitter. Funny, Rizo doesn’t look fameish. She looks like a major talent who can wow an audience with her “caburlesque” antics and who would have been great in Funny Girl when they were fishing around for a revival not long ago.

But while Rizo (aka Grammy-winning Amelia Zirin-Brown from Portland, Oregon) has built a following on the Joe’s Pub circuit since 2004, that big break remains as elusive as a comeback for that other Lady. “I’m so ready for world domination,” Rizo told me, angstily. “I think it’s coming this year. I hope so. Doing this costs so much money. I’m tired of making an opportunity to invest in myself again. I enjoy being cult and being discovered by audiences every show, but I’ve been sweating on the boards long enough. I’m ready for ‘the negative side of fame.’ Bring it on!”

It certainly beats the negative side of fameishness, which generally means holding down a day job, tirelessly rehearsing and performing nights and weekends, and pleading with friends, both real and on Facebook, to come support you one more time, all while waiting for some Scott Rudin type to swoop in and make you mega. Alas, even those who deserve that transition don’t necessarily get it, especially when they eschew the reality-show route in favor of the old building-momentum-via-live-performing approach, which is honest but a bit quaint these days.

Bridget Everett, a wonderfully ribald rock singer from Kansas who’s sort of like a fleshier Rizo, has been lighting up NYC stages for years and has had a few great breaks along the way. In 2007, Sex and the City writer Michael Patrick King and musician Kenny Mellman collaborated with her on an Ars Nova show called At Least It’s Pink, which was supposed to transfer to a large theater, but somehow that fell through. Everett then gained the interest of Patti LuPone, who duetted with her at Joe’s Pub in between singing her praises to the audiences. (“Everybody listen to me,” crowed Patti. “Bridget Everett, there’s no one like you!”) More recently, Amy Schumer hired Bridget as an opening act, exposing her to large comedy clubs and other venues way different from the usual local cabaret rooms. But once these gigs pass and superstardom still evades, then what? “It’s back to square one,” Bridget told me, “but not really, because you’ve done something and established relationships. You never know when it’s gonna pay off. It’s such a slow road, but it’s getting better.

“Every year I feel is gonna be the year, but honestly, you have to be so tenacious and you have to really love what you’re doing. I do love it, but I’m ready for some action. I’ve had what feels like a million near-misses. I don’t count on anything till I’m cashing a check.”

That same day, Bridget was scheduled for a conference call with William Morris, so hope sprang big-time again. She’ll update me if it doesn’t work out. If it does, I’ll hear about it.

Meanwhile, a protégée of Bridget’s, Molly Pope, is experiencing a similar mix of frustration and hope. Molly is a powerful 31-year-old actress/singer who may have been born too late; her vocal stylings seem Ethel Mermanesque, though she fascinatingly applies them to contempo stuff; her brassy “Rolling in the Deep,” performed in a cardboard lifeboat, gave Adele a run for her angst. She’s done a lot of shows, but performing is not exactly lucrative at this level (which is why Molly works as a personal assistant/organizer for seven clients by day, never turning down an offer).

“The Duplex is the only room I’ve ever made money in,” she told me, referring to the long-running West Village club. “I can get more people to come there than Joe’s Pub because it’s a cheaper cover charge.” Of course she’d love to go all the way to Broadway, but Molly admits that could be a challenge “because I’m non-union and have no representation. But I look at Bridget and say, ‘She stuck with it.’ Maybe I’m expecting things to happen more quickly than they will.”

As a result of her career frustrations, Molly had a “full-on breakdown” last fall—”not my first. It’s a constant mental and emotional battle for me,” she admitted. But rather than remain hostage to her fears, she’s learning to make adjustments. To bolster her spirit, Molly quit Facebook, where everyone’s amazing news made her feel horrible about herself. “But I need to stop focusing so much on the negative,” she realized, “and know there are good things happening. And know that what I’m doing, however I’m doing it, is getting me somewhere. Also, I need to set goals and work toward them or I could wind up going around in circles.”

For example, Molly recorded a demo for Bernadette Peters for Smash, but now wonders, “How do I turn that into something more? Or find a way to still work a day job and maybe have cabaret not be the life goal? I change my mind every day. There’s no right way to go about having a career, so I vacillate between ‘Be happy with what you’re doing’ and ‘No, I have to burn down [big casting director’s] door.'” Advice to the fameish: A little of both might be advisable.

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Spring Arts Guide: The Once and Future Ratking

Patrick “Wiki” Morales, frontman of the Harlem hip-hop group Ratking, is dressed in a baggy T-shirt and jeans, sitting at the Pakistan Tea House in Tribeca. He’s with his bandmates, producer Eric “Sporting Life” Adiele, 31, and Hakeem “MC Hak” Lewis, 18, shoveling forkfuls of rice pilaf and chicken tikka masala into his mouth while speaking almost as frantically as he raps. Almost. “I’m like a shy person,” Wiki explains. “But when I’m on stage it’s over, it’s like letting it all out. I don’t have to worry about what I say, or what I look like and shit . . . it’s our show.”

At just 19, Wiki has been widely lauded as the future of New York hip-hop, held up as the kind of lyrical savant the city needs in order to regain the prominence it once boasted in the ’90s with acts like the Notorious B.I.G, Jay-Z, and Wu-Tang Clan. But even while other uptown rappers like A$AP Rocky and Azealia Banks are busy scoring No. 1 albums and hit singles worldwide, it’s clear that Ratking sees New York, and what it needs in order to move forward, a little differently.

“I’d rather be the future—us as a group would rather, I mean—be the future of New York in a little bit more than just hip-hop,” says Wiki. He’s sporting a freshly buzzed head and a few of his front teeth are missing, though no one offers an explanation. “The future in culture and in art. But maybe that is part of the future of hip-hop.”

Things have happened fast for Ratking. Since the music video for their song “Wikispeaks” first began to buzz on the Internet last spring, the group has toured the U.S. and the U.K., played the Pitchfork Music Festival in Paris, split with their fourth member (producer Ramon), and signed with prestigious British record label XL Recordings (Radiohead, M.I.A, Adele).

Their debut EP, Wiki93, is like an unwashed window into urban rot. The world brought to life by Wiki’s nasally, spastic flow is one of teenage delinquency and discontent. Jumping subway turnstiles, wreaking havoc on the police, getting drunk and stoned on city stoops—all of the small vices one might associate with growing up in Manhattan (on the Upper West Side for Wiki) come through on the record.

“A drunk mutt, that’s my pedigree, it’s meant to be/Hennessy’s the only thing that’s friendly to me/I’m straight New York when a lot of y’all pretending to be,” declares the half-Irish, half-Puerto-Rican Wiki on “Wikispeaks.” And while it’s true—the style is authentically NYC—it’s also undeniably left of mainstream, somehow too avant-garde to be labeled as just plain hip-hop. The influences of Biggie, early Jay, and Dipset’s Cam’ron can be heard on 93, but it’s done as homage, almost pastiche, and coupled with tastes of ’70s No Wave, layers of noise, and the spirit of ’80s hardcore punk to keep things interesting.

“We try to make songs that haven’t been made before,” explains Sporting Life, the group’s producer. “Like we mix some things that maybe singe your eyebrows off, or explode in your face, but when we finally get that mix right. . . .” He trails off.

“The master of analogy over here,” laughs Hak. Tall and soft-spoken, Hak has his head down and is busying himself by drawing a cartoon on a paper napkin. “You should try rapping using only analogies.”

Sporting Life first met Wiki and Hak (the pair have been friends since middle school) two years ago at a downtown park jam. Wiki had fought his way onto the stage and was freestyling over an instrumental. When the beat ended, the young MC continued a cappella, causing the crowd to go wild and Sporting Life to take notice. In the days that followed, the group quickly bonded over their love of hip-hop, as well as a shared appreciation for film, art, and New York No Wave acts like proto-punk duo Suicide.

“It was like, ‘Oh, you guys know what’s good,’ ” says Sporting Life, who grew up in Virginia, and then Baltimore, before moving to Harlem. “I guess it was serendipitous that all of us could be into Cam and also into Alan Vega, you know what I mean?”

While much of the attention has been placed on Wiki—the frenetic pace at which he spits, the bushy unibrow set above his eyes (Wiki One Eyebrow is one of his nicknames), the overall strangeness of his bravado—Ratking views itself as a band, not a solo project. One of Sporting Life’s favorite analogies is to a basketball team: Wiki playing shooting guard and knocking down jumpers, Hak as the big man in the paint crashing the boards, and Sporting Life handling the ball at the point, setting up all the plays.

“We’re all getting to the stage where everyone is getting more comfortable with their roles in the band,” he explains. “Like if I’m going to play guard, then you guys can’t play guard. You can be forward or you can be center. It’s a team effort. You gotta get rebounds, and I’ll get assists, and he gets points.”

The group’s aesthetic, though more refined and pronounced on their newer material, is indeed largely a product of Sporting Life’s loop-laden production and Hak’s odd mixture of spoken word, sung melody, and straight-up rap verses—no longer solely a platform for Wiki to showcase the wit and intricacy of his rhymes. Songs like “Comic,” a glitchy, fast-paced track added to the XL re-release of Wiki93, as well as cuts leaked off their forthcoming LP So It Goes, show Ratking moving away from retro rap and toward something more inventive, a style bound less and less by the five boroughs. The beats are noisy and industrial, pushing the sound closer to that of California punk/rap outfit Death Grips than, say, Jay-Z’s classic Reasonable Doubt or Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers (two albums that Ratking members still reference constantly in conversation). Hak’s role in the band has also been amped up, and his dueling vocals with Wiki give the songs a certain amount of tension and drama they once lacked.

The result is something fresh, weird, and a little bit schizophrenic, like we’re listening to Ratking wrestle with its own potential. The title track from So It Goes (the name is a nod to Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five) continues in a similarly manic vein; the group says they’ve started to build a collage of ideas found in literature, film, art, magazines—even words they’ve seen carved into city sidewalks—in order to create something new.

“[So It Goes] is not necessarily more experimental, but it’s more mature—even with ‘Comic,’ I didn’t necessarily have my hands completely around the sound I was going for,” explains Sporting Life, who says he strives to construct a record the same way that Quentin Tarantino pastes elements of classic film genres together in his movies. “‘Comic’ was like a rest stop on our way.”

Wiki jumps in: “Yeah, it’s not just past it, it’s past it and then that way and that way,” he says, pointing left and then right.

Though there’s no release date yet, Ratking has finished tracking between 12 and 14 songs for So It Goes. The album was recorded by Young Guru—the Grammy-nominated audio engineer who has mixed 10 of Jay-Z’s 11 albums—and New York’s DJ Dog Dick, and will be a chance for the group to see if artistic ambition can translate to staying power in a genre that doesn’t always reward it.

“We’re trying to merk Hot 97 and merk the art world at the exact same time,” says Sporting Life. “We wanna box with the big dogs.”

Fresh from SXSW, Ratking are hitting the road for a mini-tour with Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA starting in late March. For more info, visit ratkingnyc.com or follow @RatKing on Twitter.

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The Grammys: Rock and Grohl

Sunday night’s Grammy awards were touted as the night America would be introduced to a pop-skewing, Americanized, thumpy version of “dance music.” But Dave Grohl had other ideas.

Grohl was one of the artists who took to the stage for three performances Sunday night, two with his band of rock survivors Foo Fighters and one as part of a show-closing jam where a gaggle of the older white men who had appeared earlier in the evening—Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Joe Walsh—displayed their chops while playing the medley from Abbey Road. (Bonnie Raitt, herself a guitarist with fairly substantial bona fides, was a startling omission from this salute to the past, as was the night’s big winner, Adele, who, though not a six-string whiz, surely would have given a fantastic assist on vocals.) He also took some time during his acceptance speech to rant a little about trends that he considered troubling.

Accepting the award for Best Rock Album for Wasting Light (RCA)—which he recorded with the help of his old pal Butch Vig—the former Nirvana drummer said: “This is a great honor because this record was a special record for our band. Rather than go to the best studio in the world down the street in Hollywood, and rather than use all of the fanciest computers that money can buy, we made this one in my garage with some microphones and a tape machine.” (How tricked-out that garage is, he didn’t let on.)

He continued: “To me, this award means a lot because it shows that the human element of music is what’s important. Singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument and learning to do your craft, that’s the most important thing for people to do. It’s not about being perfect; it’s not about sounding absolutely correct; it’s not about what goes on in a computer. It’s about what goes on in here [the heart] and what goes on in here [the head].” He probably would have talked longer, but his speech was cut off from the viewing audience by the bully-club keyboards of LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” and the ever-smiling, overemployed Ryan Seacrest.

It was an odd outburst, though one in keeping with the unspoken themes of the night; the show promised to be a step into the future, with performances by Nicki Minaj and various dance producers heavily hyped in the run-up. But it was bracketed by veterans. In addition to the Beatles tribute closing the show, Bruce Springsteen opened it with his Magnetic Fields-gone-Obama-rally anthem “We Take Care of Our Own.” And the Next Big Hope Adele, whose music won all three of the genre-agnostic categories it was nominated in (Record, Song, and Album of the Year) is, while a spellbinding performer with an undeniably heartbreaking voice, definitely a throwback to the Dusty in Memphis era.

Grohl didn’t steer entirely clear of newfangled fakery. Foo Fighters’ second performance was part of an oddly sequenced “tribute to dance music” which had his band sharing the stage with the mouse-head-wearing Canadian DJ Deadmau5. After the Foos blazed through their track “Rope,” Deadmau5 took over, and the cameras happily cut to Grohl, wearing a Slayer T-shirt and a blazer and a shit-eating grin, jerking his body to the beats and drops emanating from the stage. But Grohl’s tirade about machines and imperfections made me wonder if he’d heard the new album by his fellow grunge-era refugee Mark Lanegan, Blues Funeral (4AD); the imperfect and human are placed side-by-side with the mechanical on the album, and the results are often arresting.

Lanegan’s voice was one of the more distinctive of the alt-rock era, its weariness telegraphing itself from note one. It’s a cracked instrument made even more stunning by its wear and tear, like those super-high-definition photographs of people that don’t get airbrushed, that instead show the lives the subjects have lived by exposing and even highlighting every wrinkle and mole and imperfection. In the early ’90s, his former band Screaming Trees’ bombastic alt-era classic “Nearly Lost You” flirted with MTV notoriety; its placement on the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s love-in-the-time-of-grunge chronicle Singles introduced the band to more casual fans of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, and it’s one of that album’s most indelible tracks. Lanegan’s burr grounded his band’s thick cloud of feedback and snaky, Hendrix-inspired guitar line; the wistfulness with which he sang the chorus’s first words right before the riff came blasting in tugged at heartstrings.

Blues Funeral (credited to the Mark Lanegan Band and produced by Alain Johannes) has a couple of tracks that hew to familiar rock templates. On “St. Louis Elegy” Lanegan moans over a shuffling riff and subtly threaded organ line; “Gray Goes Black” is a desolate tune for a nighttime drive, its shadowy guitars recalling the mournful AM-radio pop of years ago and the gloomy goth tableaux of the Cure. Yet what makes the album on the whole work so well is the melding of new wave ideals and his worn, wounded instrument. Although there are traditional “rock” tracks, some of the album’s most stunning moments come when his voice collides with the synthetic. “Ode To Sad Disco” combines a sad shooting-star guitar line with a methodical dance beat that sounds inspired by the DFA catalog; “Harborview Hospital” has a synth-spangled outro that brings to mind New Order getting lost on a dancefloor, and it could probably extend another eight minutes past its four-and-a-half-minute cutoff point and still be absolutely mesmerizing; the stomping “Quiver Syndrome” places Lanegan’s voice alongside a sparkling pop chorus reminiscent of the Dandy Warhols’ most decadent tracks. Throughout, the lyrics chronicle pain and sadness. Despite the mechanics at work, there’s no party rocking happening, let alone enough to warrant an apology.

Perhaps Grohl was ranting against common ideas of what pop is right now—the Auto-Tuned straw women who lurk around every corner, waiting to have the melismata they can’t hit in live sessions manipulated into existence by masterminds with supercomputers. Blues Funeral, though, shows how the imperfections of man and the shortcomings of the machine can blend into something beautiful, a piece of art that heightens and highlights the humanity at its core.

mjohnston@villagevoice.com

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The Spotlight Shines on Adele’s Heartbreak

Adele warned the world, and nobody listened. “Go ahead and sell me out,” she said, then her voice launched millions of shipments: She turned 21‘s sorrow into treasured gold certification and beyond. Now people around the world, not just in Britain, think of her in the depths of their despair. She’s practically a global weepie laureate.

This would have been ludicrous circa 19, when “Chasing Pavements” appealed for being diluted, denatured Amy Winehouse—who herself drew from an older soul vintage. Critics routinely ranked Adele among the best of the next Winehouses, but one nevertheless sensed the only difference between her, fellow belter Duffy, and the rest of the retro trade was which demos were fished from the pile and which were binned.

Fast-forward two years: Duffy exemplified the sophomore slump, Winehouse unjustly passed, the soul legends they emulated remained legendary and ensconced, and the other acts tacked onto the trend pieces faded away. Adele, meanwhile, turned 21 and outgrew them all. She gave Patti Smith and Linkin Park a common interest. She cracked the dance, hip-hop, and Latin charts. And she both lodged “Rolling in the Deep” at #1 on the Pazz & Jop poll and got a second track, the ballad “Someone Like You,” into the Top 10. Only three artists have managed this since the Voice added its singles ballot in 1979, and they’re all veterans: OutKast (in 2000), Prince (twice, in 1984 and 1987), and Michael Jackson (in 1983). Sure, Kanye might have gotten three tracks from his opus onto last year’s list, but the album’s wealth of consensus never coalesced around one comparable song.

“Rolling in the Deep,” in short, worked, well enough for everyone to demand the formula. Problem is, “Rolling” makes poor evidence for every argument leveled in its favor. Neither Adele nor her song hit big for being “authentic” or “real,” as XL Recordings exec Richard Russell, pundits the press over, and too many other musicians suggested. She has indie-label cred, but the BRIT School gave her star schooling as proven as that given to Mouseketeers. She mostly shuns the fan-tweeting, tabloid-baiting game, but her blog has comparable candor and cheek, and she reserves more than enough sass for interviewers. Those interviews tend to see her praise the very artists she gets pitted against; her defenders are probably more interested in “credibility” than she is.

And yes, Adele prefers singing alone on a spotlit, still stage, like those of her arguable breakout performance at the Brit Awards last February or its reprise at September’s VMAs, to the glowsticks-and-iPad frippery of will.i.am or the scrambled-egg staging of Lady Gaga. But that real, unsullied voice likely produced realer vocal sullying, and “Rolling” soars as much as any of 2011’s poppier songs. No wonder so many artists embraced the song—it’s an infinitely adaptable template. But neither did “Rolling” hit big for being, well, big: There’s little diva bombast, no string swell (or strings at all), no key change, and no repeated blowing out of the barely blown-out chorus. “Rolling” is hardly decorated, and it’s propelled solely by kick-drum and guitar strum. (Who said guitar rock was dead?)

Nor did “Rolling in the Deep” get big simply for being confessional. Saturday Night Live skits aside, you can’t really cry to Adele—the music is too controlled. “Rolling” might warn of fires and fevers, but it’s really about the revenge Adele just might allow herself, maybe tomorrow. She’ll lay her ex’s shit bare, but only if really, really provoked, and the matter-of-fact chorus certainly isn’t that provocation. He’ll feel no nails down someone else’s back; his souped-up four-wheel drive will remain unkeyed. “Someone Like You,” meanwhile, is about the moment after those feelings have been dismissed—its chorus even begins “Never mind.” Adele’s place among listeners (girls, especially) as a surrogate-next-door à la Taylor Swift or Kelly Clarkson can’t be dismissed, but for all her heartbreak, she never seems anything but composed.

That’s fitting. The composition of “Rolling” is impeccable, more than anything else on the radio this year. First there’s only Adele and her guitar, each trying to seethe more than the other. Then enters a kick drum, determined as a march; then a piano follows, just as deliberately. Everything swells to make you feel the chorus, but only just; Adele’s voice never explodes like you know it can, and her backup singers always stall at 50 percent volume. “Rolling” only becomes truly cathartic if the listener makes it so.

In other words, it respects its audience. And in a year when artists sang that “it gets better” while storyboarding nerd jokes or bragged about scribbling their lyrics in 10 minutes or taunted listeners with eyedropper-tiny tidbits of finished work, it’s no wonder that Adele’s kindness was paid back in full—and then some.

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tUnE-yArds, PJ Harvey, and St. Vincent Get Physical

Merrill Garbus had to get over being stared at this year. “I’m amazed at my capacity to look at myself in pictures and see myself on YouTube and not do to myself mentally what I used to do,” she said in November. But if Garbus proved anything in 2011, it’s that she’s able to plow past her insecurities when faced with a larger mission. Like a motherfucker. “Women . . . need to see a woman doing more on her own [and] being really weird and bizarre and loud.” Thanks to w h o k i l l, the 39th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll #1 album, lots of women (and men, too!) saw and heard Garbus doing exactly this, but you know, virtuosically. More than any artist this year, male or female, Garbus reinserted the body back into body politic, crafting a feral feminist manifesto that refused to bow to the binaries framing pop discussions about gender, sexuality, and power.

“I gotta do right if my body is tight, right?” At the end of each verse of “Es-So,” Garbus’s voice splits into two to ask this question, a sharp bit of soft psychosis masquerading as self-help and a stark shift from the soulful, high coo surrounding it. But she doesn’t stop at body image; she aims much higher. Think of the song’s title as both a play on Esso, the trade name for Exxon Mobil, and “is so,” a statement of assumed fact implying “Of course, that’s the way things are.” When she confesses, “I run over my body with my own car,” she parallels the junk we put in our bodies with the war-starting crude shit that powers our automobiles.

Equal to its political force, pop music has always been about the human body: its capacities to create music, to register and display the effects of that music, and its sui generis potential to narrate all of this while it happens. 2011 indeed was a remarkable year for the pop body in all of its beautiful, ugly, complex, and grotesque forms. w h o k i l l might be the best of the bunch, but Garbus has contemporaries who crafted career highlights out of the corporeal. PJ Harvey both has and hasn’t come a long way since daring a lover to rub it until it bleeds nearly two decades ago. On the stunning Let England Shake, which finished a strong second to w h o k i l l, Harvey floats over the English battlefields of the 20th century’s first Great War, reframing her penchant toward unflinching accounts of bodily extremes to address the blunt impact of political conflict. Less expressly political but not lacking in force was Strange Mercy, on which Annie Clark forcefully challenges the archetype that her demure physical appearance suggests by finally perfecting the self-reflexive form of musical theater she has created as St. Vincent.

While Harvey, Clark, and Garbus pushed ideas of the body in new directions, and Occupy Wall Street’s human microphone displayed the capacity of lungs and larynxes alone to circumvent public noise regulations, the most prominent musical narratives were marked by more traditional tropes. Adele’s curvy frame and Beyoncé’s “baby bump” (is there a less humane phrase for a nascent human?) were translated into evidence of these ladies’ ostensible “realness,” while upstart chanteuse Lana Del Rey’s noticeably engorged upper lip was given as state’s evidence to the contrary. It took the cocky come-on “I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten'” to elevate the pigtailed Harlem rapper Azealia Banks to her first taste of stardom after years of label limbo. When she wasn’t paralleling her heartbeat to a dude’s trunk rattle on “Super Bass,” Nicki Minaj was detailing the myriad virtues of her own lady parts. Then there was the fashionable misogyny of Kanye West and Tyler, the Creator—the former joined in his gothic mansion by many dead models dangling from chains in the long-delayed video for “Monster,” while the latter unleashed his goulish, boyish id on Goblin, which detailed, among other things, the pleasures inherent in punching pregnant women.

Then there was this line, which topped them all: “I’ve seen bodies fall like lumps of meat/Blown and shot out beyond belief/Arms and legs were in the trees.” This terrifyingly mundane account of war, which could have been drawn from a soldier’s journal at any time over the past five centuries, is perhaps the most powerful single lyric of 2011, delivered by PJ Harvey in her highest vocal register and buffeted by a ghostly autoharp on “The Words That Maketh Murder.” Let England Shake might end with a moving ethnographic portrayal of Iraq’s more recent life during wartime, but the album needs little current context to register powerfully. England poetically captures a visceral reality that applies to all armed conflicts: They are waged not only between competing ideologies of nation-states but also between human bodies and the technologies we design to destroy them.

Harvey’s 10th album is notable for exposing the bodies we don’t see. Her words ring so true because the imagery—limbs dangling from trees, verdant European hills sown with the blood of young boys, the smell of rotting flesh covered over by thyme—lists the human remains that are carefully cut from war nostalgia. Official accounts of war are about validating and protecting life, not the decomposing corpses left in the wake of battle. Yet Harvey cuts England‘s stark reality with an aching sense of beauty—even wonder—at what she opens herself to. She splashes and laughs in the fountain of death, finding a morbid poetry amid the brutality of war.

“Bodies, can’t you see what everybody wants from you?” Annie Clark wondered on “Cruel,” a fitting obituary for a year in which bodies were pulled in every direction at once, for pleasure and pain, life and death. Clark’s word choice is strategic: She’s addressing not sentient beings (or “My Country,” as Garbus does), but the assemblages of flesh and bone that are prone to inhuman actions. On “Surgeon,” Strange Mercy becomes a salacious soap-opera hospital, and the invasiveness of surgery is conflated with the act of lovemaking. The song starts off dreamily, as if succumbing to a local anaesthetic, before building to the sort of orgasmic climax for which Prince should get residuals. Clark’s repeated plea “Best finest surgeon, come cut me open” could emanate from a desperately injured person or one seeking a tabula rasa for her outward appearance.

Yet it remains. Even the smartest critics were taken aback by the sight of Clark’s tiny frame slashing through Big Black’s “Kerosene” at the Mercury Lounge in May, recasting its dark, nebbish machismo as something they didn’t have language for, as if the Y chromosome alone contains the predisposition to fucking shred. In their own virtuosic manner, Garbus’s remarkable live performances extend her body’s built-in capacities with a simple loop pedal, collaging her own utterances to create an organic funk foundation with a fiercely primal urgency—the tribal face paint doesn’t feel like an affectation.

w h o k i l l is at its most compelling when Garbus unleashes her most primal desires—the “jungle under my skin,” as she calls it—particularly those that don’t jibe with stereotypical understandings of bodily empowerment. On the sultry slow jam “Powa,” she confesses her preference for ceding control in the bedroom, punctuated with the confession “my man likes me from behind,” before collapsing into a gorgeous orgasmic wail. She one-ups even this on “Riotriot,” admitting an erotic attraction to the Oakland cop she watched handcuff her brother. It’s a quietly stunning moment to hear an artist, especially a woman, so bluntly admit the most repressed form of desire: that which arises when encountering a source of power well beyond your control.

Garbus opens w h o k i l l by speaking truth to state power. By nicking the first two lines of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” she twists that song’s claim—that America is made up of sacrificed human bodies—by boldly asking, like Harvey, if that’s necessarily a good thing. As tribal drums layer atop one another, Garbus extends the metaphor of country as human, acknowledging her discomfort in her native land’s embrace, its misdeeds in her name too egregious to overlook. She can’t see a future within America’s arms, but Garbus’s own body politic will incorporate anyone. Most importantly, sacrificing one’s body isn’t required. The only rite of citizenship is answering in the affirmative to the question Garbus is known for yelling out in concert: “Do you wanna LIVE?!”

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Pazz & Jop’s Album Results Get Soundscanned

Famously, Nirvana’s major-label debut in 1991 was only expected by David Geffen Company to sell about 100,000 albums, tops. That’s about how much indie godfathers Sonic Youth sold for DGC with their major-label debut, and surely, for Kurt Cobain’s little band, that figure would be a reach.

The reason this probably apocryphal bit of lore is oft-repeated with such delight is the gobsmacking way Nevermind went on to surpass expectations—by a factor of roughly 100 times. What’s gotten lost is what the anecdote reveals about the realism of music-industry expectations. Sonic Youth were the ultimate critics’ band, and a conglomerate-backed label was both willing to sign them and fairly sensible about how many copies they, or a band like them, could shift, largely on the strength of ink-stained wretches’ hosannas. (Attempts to break Thurston and Kim on the radio, via the then-emerging alternative rock format, were halting at best.)

It’s worth reflecting on the 100,000 figure when we consider the winner of the 2011 Pazz & Jop critics’ poll. Currently at 47,000 in sales, and having never got higher in Billboard than #148, tUnE-yArDs’ w h o k i l l is—likely—the lowest-selling and lowest-charting winner in the poll’s history.

I say “likely” because reliable recording-industry sales figures are hard to come by before 1991, when Billboard converted its charts to Nielsen Soundscan data and made them dependably accurate. Hence, it’s hard to know how well, say, the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks had sold in America by the time it won the 1977 edition of Pazz & Jop; 47,000 in year one is probably a reasonable figure for them, too, but who knows? Bollocks did eventually go gold, in 1987, and platinum five years after that—sales marks tUnE-yArDs will have trouble reaching.

Garbus’s sales and chart figures might say less about critics’ independence and incorruptibility than about how the album format itself has diminished during P&J’s existence. All but one of Garbus’s 38 fellow Pazz album-winners either eventually went gold or peaked in the Billboard Top 40; of the 20 prior winners released in the data-accurate Soundscan era, all have outsold her. For context, here are the sales of the previous five winners of Pazz & Jop, according to the helpful folks at Nielsen Soundscan, as well as their respective peak positions on the Billboard 200 album chart:

Previous P&J winners

2006 Bob Dylan
Modern Times
1,010,000; Billboard peak No. 1

2007 LCD Soundsystem
Sound of Silver
178,000; No. 46

2008 TV on the Radio
Dear Science
203,000; No. 12

2009 Animal Collective
Merriweather Post Pavilion
192,000; No. 13

2010 Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
1,238,000; No. 1

In all five cases, the peak Billboard chart position came in the album’s debut week. Taking Dylan and West out of the equation—each had a serious base of fans boosting their respective discs to the top of the chart—we’re left with a trio of winners in 2007–09 that more closely resemble tUnE-yArDs in pop profile. All three arguably got their first-week chart lift entirely from underground buzz; none had a significant radio presence at the time each album dropped. And even these three acts did better than tUnE-yArDs on the charts.

Generally, albums that win Pazz & Jop peak within the Top 40 of the Billboard 200. Looking just at the Voice poll’s 20 winners from 1991 to 2010, i.e., the Soundscan era in Billboard, we find their mean Billboard 200 peak is 26. That’s a pretty high average for a group of albums that, in their acclaim, are supposedly blind to pop success. All 20 winners made the album chart, and one-fourth actually topped it, including discs by Nirvana, OutKast, and Kanye West; add in discs by Arrested Development and Bob Dylan, and fully half made the chart’s Top 10.

Only four of these 20 albums missed the Top 40; three of the four are by women or are woman-fronted: 1993’s Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair (Billboard peak #196), 1994’s Live Through This by Hole (#52), and 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams (#65). Albums by ladies tend not to debut well unless they’re solidly in the pop genre; avid male rock fans can aptly be compared with boys who refuse to see a girl-fronted Disney movie in its opening weekend. Happily, acclaimed female rock albums improve in sales over time—Phair’s and Williams’s discs are gold, and Hole’s is platinum.

(The one dude among the foursome of Pazz winners missing the Top 40 is James Murphy, with the aforementioned 2007 winner by LCD Soundsystem. Sound of Silver still isn’t anywhere close to gold.)

Garbus is recording in an era of vastly diminished sales. But that’s vastly diminished compared with 12 to 15 years ago, not five—in fact, album sales in 2011 were up slightly from the prior year. All five of Garbus’s immediate Pazz predecessors peaked higher and sold at least three times as many copies as she has. And even if we give her another year or two to catch up, cracking DGC’s 20-year-old Sonic Youth benchmark is going to be tough.

The pop-culture footprint of our 2011 P&J winner, measured numerically, says more about what’s expected these days from an album than it does about tUnE-yArDs’ cultural potential. A recent L.A. Times article profiling veteran indie label Sub Pop notes that most of the Seattle imprint’s albums “now are budgeted to become profitable by the time they sell 10,000 copies — some even 5,000.” Surely Garbus’s label 4AD had similarly modest expectations for tUnE-yArDs; by that yardstick, w h o k i l l is a smash.

Focusing just on the 2011 poll for a bit, here are cumulative sales of the Top 10 albums of Pazz & Jop 2011, according to Nielsen Soundscan:

1. tUnE-yArDs w h o k i l l 47,000
2. PJ Harvey Let England Shake 70,000
3. Jay-Z and Kanye West Watch the Throne 1,232,000
4. Wild Flag 33,000
5. Tom Waits Bad As Me 156,000
6. Adele 21 5,824,000
7. Destroyer Kaputt 32,000
8. Drake Take Care 1,248,000
9. Bon Iver 347,000
10. Shabazz Palaces Black Up 17,000

Including our winner, half the albums sold less than 100,000 copies. Another four ranged from low six figures to just over a million. And then there’s that 10th album (at #6), which outsold the other nine albums combined by more than two million copies.

About three months ago in my Sound of the City column “100 & Single,” I floated the tantalizing possibility that Adele’s 21 might pull what I dubbed (inspired by the EGOT) a PB&G: winning Pazz & Jop, topping Billboard‘s year-end tally of bestsellers, and winning the Grammy for Album of the Year. It’s happened only once before, in 1983, when Michael Jackson’s Thriller won the trifecta. Four P&J winners took home the Grammy but didn’t lead in Billboard; one album, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., was tops in P&J and Billboard but missed the Grammy.

My October semi-prediction looks a bit naïve now—especially given the revelation that several high-profile critics found Adele’s smash album “completely boring”. Still, historically among big hit albums, 21’s sixth-place Pazz finish is impressive. Of the eight albums that both topped Billboard for the year and won the Grammy but didn’t top Pazz & Jop, only one, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, did better in the critics’ tally (fourth place, 1977) than Adele’s did. Most Grammy-and-Billboard smashes do quite poorly on P&J, ranging from a 10th-place showing for Carole King’s Tapestry in 1971 to 58th place for Taylor Swift’s Fearless in 2008; three other albums (Saturday Night Fever, The Bodyguard and Billy Joel’s 52nd Street) won industry hardware but didn’t place with the Pazz-pollees at all.

The facile explanation for tUnE-yArDs’ victory over an album like Adele’s is that critics will be critics. But the sheer range of sales figures in the above Top 10 suggests something deeper—never mind the titles whose sales can’t even be measured. At a time when two titles in the Pazz Top 20 are actually free, download-only mixtapes by The Weeknd and Frank Ocean, the very definition of a culturally relevant album is in flux.

Finally, and for contrast, below are the digital sales for the Top 10 songs of Pazz & Jop 2011:

1. Adele, “Rolling in the Deep”: 5,813,000

2. Beyoncé, “Countdown”: 325,000

3. Nicki Minaj, “Super Bass”: 3,608,000

4. M83, “Midnight City”: 9,000

5. Jay-Z and Kanye West, “Niggas in Paris”:
1,469,000

6. Azealia Banks, “212”: 6,000

7. Britney Spears, “Till the World Ends”:
2,492,000

8. Lana Del Ray, “Video Games”: N/A

9. Adele, “Someone Like You”: 3,750,000

10. Foster the People, “Pumped Up Kicks”: 3,843,000

As is P&J tradition, when it comes to single tracks, the voters had little difficulty rewarding best-sellers. Still, critics like their viral phenomena: the Azealia Banks and Lana Del Rey tracks barely exist outside of YouTube. (The former was released on iTunes late in the year; the latter just last week, hence its lack of sales.)

Even at under five minutes, for recordings in the 2010s, the ratio of cultural footprint to cultural influence is ever-widening. I’m sure Merrill Garbus can relate.

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Pazz & Jop Voter Comments: Singles Going Steady

Linkin Park covered “Rolling in the Deep” and their audience sang along like it was “Numb” or “One Step Closer”; Lil Wayne rapped over it on the title track to his better-than-the-album-proper mixtape, Sorry 4 the Wait; hell, the CBC used it for their Stanley Cup Finals montage. On a city bus, I noticed no fewer than five people singing or humming along as it leaked through another passenger’s earphones. This year, Adele’s song was as inescapable as it was irresistible.

Josh Timmermann
Vancouver

When Adele hits that first “awwwllll” one minute into “Rolling in the Deep,” it still gives me chills, even after hearing it twenty million times on the radio, from my stereo, or in every store or restaurant I walked in.

Charles R. Cross
Seattle, Washington

In “Super Bass,” Nicki Minaj finally delivered a single that fulfilled her big-pop ambitions without masking her absurdly charming smart-aleck spunk. It helped make 2011 feel like Minaj’s true coming-out year.

Hank Shteamer
Brooklyn, New York

The ghastly part of M83’s “Midnight City” isn’t the sax solo—Anthony Gonzalez’s vocal is more proof that indie rockers still aren’t being resourceful about their musical purloining. Steal Curt Smith, John Lydon, or Baltimora, please!

Alfred Soto
Miami, Florida

Twenty years have passed since the end of the 1980s, and the threat of communism dominating the world now seems more quaint and distant than people making records with huge gated drums and cornball synths. M83 want things to stay that way. If you can set up a mental block in front of all the unlikable things about the ’80s while still longing for the days when everything on the radio sounded like “Midnight City,” then you’ll probably love Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.

Barry Bruner
Toronto

“Super Bass” reveled in performance: Minaj makes consonants sound like vowels, and vowels sound like consonants; her loquacious mastery inverts every kind of gender expectation. Azealia Banks’s “212” takes this conceit to geometric proportions. What’s left standing is a one-woman community, a town crier who do the police in different voices, a masterpiece of mimicry and appropriation, L’Trimm, Neneh Cherry, Lil’ Kim passing a dutchie.

Alfred Soto
Miami, Florida

I don’t particularly care about Lana Del Rey, but my RSS feed sure seems to like her.

Leor Galil
Chicago, Illinois

Less a woman than ever, Britney Spears has become the disembodied sound of disco apocalypse. “Till the World Ends” and “I Wanna Go” incarnate a polymorphic essence so post-feminist/post-sexual/post-whatever that to wonder whether she’s used or being used by the purported objects of lust she’s dancing/fucking is as beside the point as comparing “Libya” and “Iraq.”  

Alfred Soto
Miami, Florida

Britney’s anthem was the soundtrack for all of my millennialism and various zombie-induced fears. It’s way better than “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes” by Ultravox, too, although I still give the nostalgic end of the world edge to “Shiny Shiny” by my boyhood faves Haysi Fantayzee.

Scott Seward
Greenfield, Massachusetts

Of the four shooting-spree songs I know, “Pumped Up Kicks” is far and away the sprightliest; of the dozens of whistling songs I know, it’s the only one about a shooting spree.

Phil Dellio
Toronto

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Pazz & Jop Comments: Top 10-Plus

Why doesn’t everyone’s sound laboratories sound as much fun as Merrill Garbus’s?

Serene Dominic
Phoenix, Arizona

I listened to PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake during every critical moment of the year. Ten years since 9/11. The death of Osama. OWS. #OWS. The Resurrection of Godfather’s Pizza into popular conversation. And in a strange way, this album continued to be relevant and adopt itself to whatever political moment was going on at the time, however important or nonsensical it was. Maybe it was just me projecting, but the ability to do this marks the nature of a great work of art.

Mike Ayers
New York

The only reason people have embraced Let England Shake is because it’s brilliant—it’s some sort of masterpiece that makes expectations irrelevant. But if she doesn’t start giving us more electric guitar on her next one, don’t be shocked if the reviews are snarkier.

Mark Deming
Ypsilanti, Michigan

I honestly didn’t know that PJ Harvey was gonna be one of the most exciting artists of, like, the last 30 years! How could I know? Who knew? PJ Harvey, Sade, and Kate Bush. Three of the most creative pop forces of the 21st century. I didn’t see that coming, although I suppose I should have.

Scott Seward
Greenfield, Massachusetts

I deleted Watch the Throne from my iPhone three times. It still refuses to disappear. #OtisIlluminati

Phillip Mlynar
Brooklyn, New York

Mo’ money, mo’ predictable records. Is there an album more out of step with the times than Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne? Beats aside, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard as much “luxury rap” bullshit as I need from Mitt Romney and Donald Trump.

Daniel Durchholz
Wildwood, Missouri

“Riot Grrrl Supergroup” sounds stupid. Luckily Wild Flag’s album doesn’t.

Serene Dominic
Phoenix, Arizona

Tom Waits’s albums never fail to be interesting, but sometimes they can get a bit light on the pure fun—put it this way, it’s been a while since he put out an album with a song the Ramones could cover. Bad as Me has a few: the herky nihilism of “Get Lost” or the foulmouthed chant of “Hell Broke Luce.” And there are a few to play when your bourbon’s for crying into.

Lissa Townsend Rogers
Las Vegas, Nevada

21 is a map of Adele’s reactions to her recent breakup, but those who claim that the album is over-sung and overdramatic miss its more central concept: her age. She has called her now-finished relationship “the biggest deal in my entire life to date,” which is the sort of ridiculous but romantic pronouncement that the young are prone to making.  

Joey Daniewicz
Morris, Minnesota

Video might not have killed the radio star, but overamped hype can kill almost anything. When Adele sings “hard,” many of my critical peers allow themselves to be more impressed than they get when, say, Patti LaBelle or the gospel duo Mary Mary sing “hard.”

Carol Cooper
New York

Thanks to two consecutive Kanye and Drake albums, not to mention the critical success of The Weeknd and Frank Ocean, monstrous self-regard and after-hours sobbing are the new mean. What’s fascinating is how both Drake and Kanye depend on aural chambers whose intricacy is inversely proportional to the boys’ rapping/singing skills. Where their influences didn’t sweat the technique, Drake has none to speak of, and that’s the way he likes it; it makes him, in his own mind, the realest guy in the game.

Alfred Soto
Miami, Florida

Take Care was my favorite slab of music of 2011 in part because I admire Drake’s willingness to appear ridiculous, but I would totally buy him a tuna sandwich if he would shut the fuck up about his sex life for five seconds.

Michael Robbins
Hattiesburg, Mississippi

If Justin Vernon is going to insist on talking nonsense, he should take a lesson from Sigur Rós and invent a new language for his lyrics lest someone make the mistake of dissecting them.

Joey Daniewicz
Morris, Minnesota

Apparently it’s now cool to like fucking Bon Iver but not TV on the Radio.

A.S. Van Dorston
Chicago, Illinois

I don’t have beef with Justin Vernon, artistically. He’s doing exactly what he should be doing: making bold choices and putting his shoulder into them. The glacially-paced, ambient “rock” on Vernon’s second Bon Iver album takes the biggest risk I can imagine from an aspiring mainstream musician: It stakes itself on mind-numbing dullness.

Marty Brown
Brooklyn, New York

If Das Racist are in a constant state of processing the world and spitting it back at us reconfigured, Shabazz Palaces are only concerned with the world inside their heads. I take “Recollections of the wraith” as words to live by—”clear some space out so we can space out.” That deep bass drum sounds like it is programmed to reconfigure a heartbeat and the flanged, wobbling guitar easily disengages me from whatever is in front of my face. Unplug your shit. I like how it feels.

Marc Gilman
New York

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Lady Gaga, Born Superstar

On Friday, the music-industry bible Billboard released its year-end charts, setting the conversational bullet points for any discussions of pop music in 2011. The stormy British songbird Adele topped both the Hot 100, which charts singles, and the Billboard 200, which tracks album sales, with her vengeful track “Rolling in the Deep” and its attendant full-length 21, respectively; an unsurprising outcome, given the wall-to-wall dominance of her music this year. (Thanks to remixes and reworks, “Rolling” made its way onto playlists representing a wide swath of radio formats—it even made Billboard‘s Latin Pop Songs chart.)

Born This Way, the second proper full-length by the New York–bred pop scholar Lady Gaga, landed at No. three on the albums chart, behind 21 and Taylor Swift’s Speak Now. After selling more than 1.1 million albums in its first week, thanks in part to Amazon deep-discounting digital copies of the album and selling them for a mere 99 cents a pop, Born‘s sales cooled off substantially. (It’s No. 32 on the most recent weekly edition of the Billboard 200, where it rests in between a pair of holiday-season releases.) The highest-charting single from it to make the Hot 100 was Born‘s title track, a paean to tolerance recalling Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and released just in time to debut at the Grammys in February. It has a thumping beat and lyrics about accepting people of all races and sexual orientations; the enterprise had the wide-eyed “let’s get along!” innocence of the ’90s while being clad in a 21st-century sense of self-regard that led to it getting a global radio premiere at 6 a.m. on a Friday.

“Born This Way” ended the year at No. 18, and other singles from its attendant album didn’t fare much better on the radio—even though musically, they were stronger. Gaga’s second-highest-charting single on the year-end Hot 100 was “The Edge of Glory,” an exuberant Clarence Clemons–assisted anthem that sounds tailor-made for a particularly swoop-filled montage in a Top Gun remake. It was No. 29 on the year-end chart. “Yoü And I,” a stomping ballad produced by the pomp-rock architect Mutt Lange, ended 2011 at No. 71; the dizzying confused-catechism love song “Judas,” the album’s second single, missed the year-end chart entirely.

Can a pop artist be the biggest in the world if her successes sidestep radio airplay? Later Friday night, after the year-end charts had made their way through the news cycle, Gaga tested that question when she headlined Z100’s Jingle Ball, the top-40 standard-bearer’s annual celebration of its playlist’s brightest stars. The assemblage of Z100 DJs introduced her as the “most important artist of our time” and “our favorite woman on the planet Earth.” Three years ago, she’d been in the show-opening slot, performing the tribute to getting wasted “Just Dance” for the early crowd: They knew that an arena show with a multi-act bill couldn’t operate on “rock time.” Now she was headlining, and her set was full of material that reached far beyond the bounds of electropop potential hinted at by that single.

Gaga’s set stood in contrast to the night’s other acts who did end the year in Billboard’s top 10. The debauched uncle-nephew duo LMFAO (“Party Rock Anthem,” No. 2), despite missing its younger member Sky Blu, threw down songs about getting drunk and preening for the purposes of attracting women. Pitbull (“Give Me Everything” feat. Ne-Yo, Afrojack, and Nayer, No. 5) had similar lyrical themes, though his swank charm stood in stark contrast to LMFAO’s ramshackle Last Night’s Party vibe. (Pitbull also had a fantastic percussion section that could have dazzled on its own.) With a rigid four-count as their collective base, both artists’ biggest hits were shrouded in synthesizers—put enough of them in a row, and all the thumped-out chords start to act like force fields, drawing in listeners while keeping those songs that don’t fit the formula at arm’s length.

The material from Gaga’s first album, which got a cursory, keytar-assisted nod early on in her set, fits in better with current top-40 trends than do her new tracks. Yet at the same time, her material old and new is wholly Gaga, making sense as parts of her whole despite their inspirations coming from all over the pop spectrum. Perhaps it’s a sign that her unbridled ambition has caused her to be one step ahead of the game. A snippet of the video for her latest single “Marry the Night” played before her show-closing performance of that storming flashback to late-20th-century dancepop; its extended riff on the idea of turning a nervous breakdown into an opportunity for showcasing next season’s fashions caused me to wonder what might happen when, say, the embattled belter Demi Lovato, who had performed her down-with-detractors song “Skyscraper” earlier Friday evening, discovers the idea of situational irony.

There was something a bit off about Gaga’s set, though. Between songs, her banter was giddy and nervous and almost chirpy at times, with her remembering how a “Jingle Bell Ball” was her first concert, at age 11, and ruminating on how much she really, really loved New York City. And by the time she’d hit the stage, the music had been flowing for three hours with little time to breathe. The songs remained potent—”Judas” is “Bad Romance” with added Catholic pathos, which isn’t all that bad since the source material is one of the best pop songs of the last 25 years—but the performances seemed like they were still having their kinks worked out here and there.

Despite the hiccups, the excitement did peak more often than it didn’t, with the crowd screaming along with her lyrics chronicling both self-reliance and self-loathing and obliging her by raising their “paws” (Gagaspeak for “hands”) when asked. At one point, prone on a motorcycle, Gaga engaged in the most outrageously festive behavior of the night: She humped the air while singing the verse she tacked onto “White Christmas.” Yes, she added a verse to Irving Berlin’s Christmas classic for the simple reason that she felt it wasn’t long enough for her liking. Put together with her grinding, the makeover was a doubly masturbatory act that should have made any pop-star-in-wait quiver in their boots at what might be—and that cemented her status as the pop world’s biggest name, no matter what the numbers might say.

mjohnston@villagevoice.com

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Pitbull, Top of the Dogpile

Seeing Pitbull on the cover of Latina suited up and turned into husband material shouldn’t be a surprise. The billboard near the indie-riddled Sunset Junction promoting his upcoming gig in Los Angeles? Well, it’s sponsored by Bud Light; they’ve got deep pockets. What about his verse on Jennifer Lopez’s big dancefloor comeback? Fuck, like Sean Paul is bankable anymore. The aforementioned “On The Floor” and his own “Give Me Everything” holding down 20% of iTunes’ top ten singles list? LMFAO has been there—how hard can it be?

It’s easy to discount the popularity of certain artists at a time when the fences have drawn in tremendously, but at this moment, is any other male artist achieving the ubiquity of Pitbull on a multimedia scale? He’s a part owner of a vodka line. He’s got a legit label. “Give Me Everything,” his Eurohousey single with assists by Ne-Yo and Afrojack, has stubbornly stuck at No. 2 on Billboard‘s Digital Songs chart for weeks now, only being outsold by Adele’s unkillable “Rolling In The Deep,” The WWE celebrated Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s birthday by having Pitbull perform on Raw, which means repping Miami (where the Rock went to college) trumps actually being Latino (Johnson’s of Polynesian descent) in terms of kinship. Or maybe the Rock really likes “Give Me Everything.”

This burst of stardom has probably saved Pitbull from being lumped in with reggaeton’s quick and intense usurpation of hip-hop radio during the mid-’00s. (Granted, I couldn’t quite remember whether he played a role in some of my favorite moments of that movement at first—most of them turned out to be the work of Daddy Yankee.) Yet Planet Pit could very well be the #1 album in the country next week without any sort of larger craze buoying it. How in can an act achieve a respectable degree of success, seemingly go away despite making new music and come back even more popular than ever, especially in the iTunes era?

It’s usually attributable to an uncanny ability to be of the moment, and in that sense, Planet Pit absolutely should be next week’s #1 album. The R&B and pop-rap I tend to encounter on the radio in Los Angeles sounds less like music and more like industry, and Planet Pit embodies that 100%—not in a good or bad way, just specifically “industry” in the L.A. sense of the word, where nobody in the bottle service area seems to have a job but they all have some sort of hustle that’s “blowing up, man.” You see Pitbull getting interviewed about “his artists” and how all of them are “outta here”; he’s mastered the patter of music agents trying to convince you that their baby bands are worth your time because they’ve had a killer run opening for Ben Folds. It’s gregarious as hell, but it’s looking to get over on you.

Although that feeling is pretty much to be expected considering Planet Pit‘s big hit is called “Give Me Everything” and features three other singers of tiered popularity. the album on the whole sounds like it does want everything—the beats are insistent, the synth blurts are loud and free of nuance—even though Pitbull often comes off like the sort of guy who has everything. He sounds like someone for whom getting asses on the dancefloor is the end to justify any means, and he absolutely loves the process—the mere title of “Shake Senora” is indicative enough of an insatiable eagerness to please. combined with a keen knowledge of demographic.

Which is not to say he’s a cipher. In fact, he’s still a great MC—outside the context of strict pop-rap, his flow is nimble and he comes up with underhanded, smart lines (“I’m involved with the music business/ but the funny thing is/ half of these fools don’t know music, don’t know business/ have no business in music, what is this?”). But as Pitbull boasts that he “went from Mr. 305 to Mr. Worldwide,” I also can’t help but think of Planet Pit in relation to that other Miami throne-seeker who people feel conditioned to hate—it’s cocky, it’s manufactured, it’s too reliant on industry pal-downs, ugh, it’s inorganic. Then again, it’s perfectly of a moment where “All I Do Is Win” is the must-have self-fulfilling prophecy, and Planet Pit sounds like it’s winning. And even if it isn’t, well, it all but tells you to go ahead and groan—like that other Miami resident noted recently, you’ll still have your same personal problems tomorrow.