The Music Club

We Could Use A Kurt Cobain Right About Now

Carl, Ann, Jody,

Who knew that when Barack Obama ushered in the new era of responsibility and personal accountability, it would apply to year-end music discussions, too? In my first letter, I raised a question—what, if anything, has replaced hip-hop as pop’s “timekeeper”?—and then I passed the buck to you all. Now, like a sneaky Where’s George bill, that buck has boomeranged back to me. Maybe the question has been so hard for us to answer, though, because there isn’t any answer: Am I simply parroting hollow aughts trendspeak when I suggest that de-centered, post-monoculture pop might be operating free of some single, overarching timekeeper?

After all, it’s an awfully fraught-and-fuzzy science, this business of trying to nail down the ends of musical eras, not to mention the essential terms of those genres we seek to diagnose in the first place. Things get especially fraught-and-fuzzy when the genre in question is hip-hop, in which the most “essential” musical building blocks—turntables and samplers—are blank spaces waiting to be filled in. (For instance, doesn’t Afrika Bambaataa’s club-based, Kraftwerk-sampling oeuvre seriously problematize the “blues-based swing” criterion Jody mentioned?) When Ann suggests that Beyoncé might be the most important hip-hop artist of the decade, or Jody chooses a Black Eyed Peas song as his favorite hip-hop track of the year, is hip-hop being disrespected and diluted—its transport to death’s door hastened along—or is the dominion of this voracious, shape-shifting, gleefully impure genre in fact expanding?

I certainly won’t deny that the pulse of several of this year’s biggest songs (and last year’s, too) was a Euroed-out, four-on-the-floor thump, set beneath strobing, state-of-the-art synths and voices fed through state-of-the-art software. The figure of the man-machine has haunted pop at least since Kraftwerk (them again!), and over the last few years it has burst back into mainstream vogue with a big-budget, digital-era vengeance. When T-Pain arrived on the scene like a top-hatted Terminator sent from the future to bang strippers, he was confirming what Thom Yorke prophesied, Nostradamus-style, back in 2000 on Kid A: Pop has become overrun by cyborgs bleating over automaton beats. Maybe, as Jody chin-scratched, this has to do with a Europe-trending loss in American swagger. I could see that, but I’ve got some different Europeans in mind than Ibiza promoters and Berlin rave DJs: French theorists! From “Boom Boom Pow” to “Paparazzi” and on and on, the charts are clogged with CGI music, augmented-reality music, and if “the kids” love it, isn’t that because its embrace of artifice and simulacra speaks more directly to their experience of life?

I’m not cheerleading here, necessarily. One of 2009’s most thrilling releases was Nirvana’s Live at Reading DVD, and watching it (particularly as someone who was 11 when Nevermind came out) I couldn’t help but wish there were a Kurt Cobain-like priest or priestess of punkish resistance around now, rising to the top of the charts, hocking loogie-daggers at the tetra-headed, 2.0-version B.S. machine. Would he seem hopelessly out of touch? Would anyone take him seriously?

I sort of think he’d be a hero in this post-crash moment, as people across the country try to pick themselves up amid the smoldering ruins of a giant, corrupt illusion. But (notwithstanding the less-than-paradigm-shifting success of Paramore’s scowling, howling, bullshit-calling Hayley Williams) maybe I’m imagining “resistance” in too-narrow terms that died more or less when Cobain did. (And yes, I’m aware of the irony of this all coming from the guy who recently encouraged people to give a second listen to Creed, a band whose existence and popularity served, in large part, as a refutation of Cobain’s project and legacy: To say that Scott Stapp, a bellowing repackager of grunge as a bludgeoning, Christian-motivational medium, wasn’t a miserable blight on the culture, is to suggest that Kurt Cobain didn’t matter as much as we wanted him to.)

Time for less high-flown points! I was all set to call The-Dream’s Love vs. Money the R&B album of the year, but then R. Kelly swooped in and dropped Untitled, an effortless, sprightly, hook-drunk LP that made Love vs. Money seem a bit sweaty and labored by comparison. Although, when it comes to bedroom music, sweatiness has its place. My favor totters from one to the other with each listen.

Oh, and I need to find a way to represent the Lonely Island’s absurd musical-comedy videos in my take on the decade—from “Lazy Sunday” to “Dick in a Box” to “Like a Boss” to “Ras Trent” to “On the Ground,” Andy Samberg and Co. are some of the decade’s sharpest, most consistent hit-makers. They also happen to be funny as hell, and let’s not forget that “Lazy Sunday” introduced the world to a little something called YouTube. Excluding these guys from a Best Music of the Aughts roundup would echo the dull-witted crime Academy Awards voters commit year in, year out, snubbing comedies as somehow lesser art.

On to the next one,