The Music Club

Best music 2011: Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Kreayshawn and pop stars who know how to get talked about.

Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Kreayshawn, and pop stars who know how to get talked about.

Kreayshawn arrives at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards

Getty Images.

Jody, Ann, Jonah, and Carl,

Last time I gave you airport theorizing, and this time I bring you sick-with-a-cold theorizing. (Plus some rock talk.) But you know, after spending roughly a decade in complete agreement with Carl—that chart pop is “simply another niche,” as opposed to a near-mandatory cultural experience—this was the year I found myself doing a slight double-take. Today’s pop universe is home to some serious, world-conquering hams, isn’t it? And a lot of them are wearing outfits strange enough that the oldest folks in any given family room will make faces at the TV and want to know who that is, anyway. When I think back over the year, I get this long, weird string of images: Cee-Lo at the Grammys, performing a winsome Motown pastiche while dressed as a gladiator-peacock Muppet; Lady Gaga doing an actual network-TV holiday special; those two times I was tricked into watching Glee; Bruno Mars and Justin Bieber and Katy Perry winking at everyone all the time. I used to make fun of the way Saturday Night Live, when it needed jokes about music, would always reach back to the ’90s, and beyond, to find artists it thought the audience would understand a joke about; I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Alanis Morissette impressions within the past three years. Not lately, though: There’s this big, shiny pop world, full of characters people seem to recognize whether they want to or not. Yeah, in reality it’s still “simply another niche.” But for the moment it’s easy to imagine feeling otherwise—feeling that it’s ubiquitous and oppressive and attended by an absurd amount of flash and pageantry. It’s something you can find room to get really, really sick of.

So it’s handy that, at this point, just about every genre has a richly developed artsy-and-oppositional side. We’ve already talked plenty about the sudden boom in bad-vibes R&B. And about hip-hop’s burgeoning field of young eccentrics, these rappers who mess with hip-hop orthodoxy—partly as a way of proving something fairly orthodox. (Namely: how little they give a fuck.) Personally, I’ve spent a lot of years being fascinated by the various oppositional splits within indie-rock, which was meant to be an “alternative” to something in the first place. At this point, we’ll use the term to describe everything from a singer-songwriter like Feist (whose great 2011 album, Metals, is full of roomy, naturalistic, adult-friendly crooning) to a grab-bag of self-consciously scuzzy rockers, low-fi noise-makers, stoned synth-pop dreamers, and a big segment of the audience that vocally despises “nice” music like Feist’s and craves something more rough-and-tumble.

I can think of two great records from this year whose popularity among indie-rock types—and whose appearance across a lot of different year-end lists—might have something to do with that last impulse. One comes from Iceage, a band of Danish teenagers whose New Brigade distills a lot of different things people like about punk and post-punk into one brief, chilly, and incredibly stylish burst. (It clatters its way through sounding like everything from Joy Division to hardcore, which is exactly the kind of base-covering people get excited by when they realize it’s been a while since they’ve listened to this sort of thing.) The other one is Aesthetica, by Liturgy, a Brooklyn band that plays something right near the borderline of black metal. Only, instead of sticking with that genre’s creepy misanthropy, they shoot for something transcendent and sublime—monumental patterns of riffs, inspired partly by the members’ backgrounds in modern-classical composition. The last time I talked to a friend about Liturgy, he compared them with some of the other handmade, artisanal, organic products being made in Brooklyn these days, like menswear, pickles, or salsa—i.e., it’s the one heavy-metal product specially constructed for a certain class of people. Which is to say that the album has a kind of boutique appeal, which is the point I’m driving at. A lot of our independent rock now works that way; follow the right blogs, and you see a constant turnover of boutique-appeal buzz bands, some of them great, some of them lightweight, some floating in between. (Carl wanted to understand the appeal of one of those bands, Real Estate, who jangle casually along in the manner of very early R.E.M.—my answer is that if normal music were like watching TV, then listening to Real Estate would be more like staring at a very ornate tapestry. Nothing much moves or happens, but that’s sort of the joy of it.) For this year’s music club, we all talked a lot about people like Kanye, Drake, and the Weeknd. We also talked plenty about rock bands, but we mostly each talked about different rock bands, which is one of the drawbacks of stylized niche appeal. My year-end lists are full of acts I think are doing rich and magnificent things—this song, by a guy who now records under the name King Krule, feels like one of the richest, most magnificent things I’ve heard in years—but few of them are in a position to support, say, in-depth conversations about different ways of performing masculinity, like Drake currently is.

And that brings me around to one last thing about this year: the ongoing rise of artists who, however good they are at making music, are spectacularly good at being talked about. At the beginning of the year, music press and fans alike had one big convulsive response to the Odd Future crew, and at moments it almost seemed like there were more people interested in getting into the intellectual debate over them—to dissent, decry, defend, whatever—than there were people directly interested in the music. Over the summer we had the California rapper Kreayshawn, with a likably goofy track called “Gucci Gucci,” followed by constant deconstruction of the social and racial dynamics of a small white woman from Oakland’s relationship with black people and/or culture. More recently, we had Lana del Rey, a pop singer with a style pasted together from bits of “old Hollywood” imagery and modern celebrity culture, and lengthily argued over for reasons that still seem unclear. A few weeks ago, I sat in on an NYU class that was discussing this, during which a lot of young performers agreed that it was Just Too Bad how our conversations about music are dominated by controversial flashpoints, or “gimmicks,” or spin off into endless fascinations with viral novelties like Rebecca Black’s “Friday”—instead of, I suppose, some earnest, Utopian, meritocratic discussion of what we all really care about. But then as soon as the seminar took a brief break, they were all gathering around someone’s laptop to marvel at cheap videos from some of Rebecca Black’s teenage peers at the Ark Music Factory. And of course nobody stood up and tried to lure them all away to look at some less-funny video he really cared about.

I don’t relate that as some kind of bleak anecdote. I’m actually pretty curious what kinds of strange argumentative flashpoints 2012 will bring, or propel to major-label deals—and which artists will manage to command some common conversation, even if the bulk of people’s tastes still exist in somewhat more private spaces. Thanks to all of you for having me along for the ride this year!

Back to the cough syrup,