The Music Club

Twilight of the Pop Gods

Hey, fellas—happy to be back with you during these uncertain times.

Thanks, Jody, for starting with that poptimistic recap of the amateur agitprop that made YouTube a tonic during election season. These days, as Shepard Fairey’s Obama portrait iconically expressed, hope keeps us sane. The guy with the giant Doberman who lives down my street thought so, too—he stuck a doctored Fairey sticker to his car, with Sarah Palin’s mug replacing Barack’s. Sort of a Girl Talk-style mashup.

As a new universe dawns for the Folk, though, what we once knew as Pop continues to devolve into a dwarf star. Fairey’s image was the most powerful icon of the campaign season, along with Tina Fey’s televised impersonations of Palin. No particular song had much impact, unless you count “I Got a Crush … on Obama,” and let’s be real, that was all about the Obama Girl’s, um, image. I can’t even remember what Obama’s official campaign song was.

The transference of cultural power from the few to the many is a triumph of sorts, but for pop music it also signals a loss. Yes, I’m talking about the monoculture again. As a daily-newspaper critic focused pretty squarely on the mainstream, I’m always looking for what unites—what artists, trends, and sounds form communities in hometowns or across the globe; what potent “product” breaks down social boundaries and cultural prejudices; or more viscerally, what simply makes a listener feel like throwing her arm around another person’s shoulder and laughing or crying. You know, like Sugarland!

I guess that makes me old-fashioned. As culture continues to atomize within the archipelago of virtual realities, I’m finding it hard to maintain my dream of pop as an agent of change. Not to be a grumpy Gus, but I need to bring up this year’s other historical shift: the economic downturn that’s got everyone I know turning in toward themselves in fear.

The sense of retraction that had long overtaken the music biz is now universal. What’s that going to mean for music? Maybe a new era of activism, with the Flobots in the lead (the kids sure love them!), or a further transformation of the do-it-yourself punk ethic through affordable technologies—a thousand Bon Ivers blooming. Maybe a 21st-century Woody Guthrie will emerge, countered by an art-for-art’s-sake movement based around bedroom studios run by hippies raising their own chickens. Maybe rappers will finally stop proselytizing about overspending on bling, and rockers will find a way to be relevant again. (Sorry, Axl, you really picked a bad year to debut a rock epic.) I’m so curious to see what’s going to happen, I almost wish this were the end of 2009.

But back to now, as the goddesses of Labelle said on a comeback album that made my Top 15 list, despite an extraneous Wyclef-produced attempt at a hit. (The Lenny Kravitz material is gorgeous.) I actually found it fairly easy to compile my lists, not because my favorites were so indelible, but because they were so easy to check up on—and to augment. With a Rhapsody subscription and Rex Sorgatz’s indispensable “list of lists” (plus that crumpled piece of paper I stole from Bob’s desk on a Thanskgiving visit—thanks for turning me on to K’Naan, pal!), I could peruse the picks of myriad tastemakers and consider how they compared with mine.

In the meantime, should we finally all agree to admit that critical consensus is just for the birds? I know journalists are embarrassingly prone to navel-gazing, but the enterprise of thinking and writing hard about music is truly undergoing a revolution. I’m not talking about blogging or even about paring down our thoughts to the size of a Facebook status report. I’m talking about the need to recalibrate our ears and minds to suit a new era, when the combination of easy technical access and reduced means could altogether eradicate pop’s role as a unifier.

In November, a major label, Atlantic, announced that its digital sales have surpassed those of physical CDs. That same season, gaming continued to triumph over old-school music consumption via new editions of Rock Band and Guitar Hero. The commercial success of big thinkers Coldplay, Taylor Swift, and Lil Wayne may have been impressive compared with their competition this year, but they’re modest in light of a history that includes Garth Brooks, Michael Jackson, and what Axl calls “old Guns.” We’re living through the twilight of the pop gods.

The space this void creates is, to me, what makes Lil Wayne the logical culture hero for the moment. His relevance goes beyond his wicked flow or his gut-busting rhymes. In any other era, I’d venture to say, he would have been received as a fascinating weirdo—perhaps a 14th member of the Wu-Tang Clan. But Weezy is like the living embodiment of a computer virus. He’s infiltrated nearly every corner of the Top 40 (including country, via a couple of surprise appearances with rapper-turned-corndog Kid Rock), and wherever he hits, things go topsy-turvy. His outsider style challenges rap’s “hard” masculinity; his free-associative, sometimes devilishly profane lyricism makes shocking seem, if not cuddly, at least kind of cute.

However, I do need to call him out on his caveman attitudes about women and sex. That line about licking the rapper in “Lollipop” gets a giggle, but the carnal encounter the song describes is soulless and starving. Yes, he raps a lot about oral gratification on both sides of the 69, which I guess is progress. But his slobbering exhibits no tenderness; it’s just another way of expressing old anxieties about femininity as a snake in the grass (or the bush. Sorry.). Add in T-Pain’s somewhat endearingly hapless need to persuade strippers to love him, and you have exactly zero progress when it comes to creating a space within mainstream hip-hop to express healthy sexual love.

Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio 

Well, that’s always been the job of the ladies and the crooning love men—Eric Benet’s Love and Life is definitely one of my overlooked albums of the year. And then there’s Kyp Malone, he of the Lincoln beard and the Coke-bottle glasses, one of the most unlikely sex symbols that indie rock (never really a gold mine for sex symbols) has produced. But Malone closes out TV on the Radio’s Dear Science with “Lover’s Day,” a volcanic ode to body rocking that’s really pretty embarrassing in its intensity. It’s one reason I adore “Dear Science”—that, and so much more.

But more on that later. Gotta go see Metallica rock the Forum, in utter disregard of the waning power of their chosen art.


Click here to read the next entry.