I hope you don’t mind some half-baked, airport-bound theorizing here. Jonah’s thoughts on otherness remind me of one of the year’s big critical narratives—you know, the one about how indie music and R&B keep finding more ways to play nice. After all, why shouldn’t they? It’s not like they’re so mechanically different; all the sticky distinctions between them revolve around codes of style and technique and self-presentation. (Which is, tellingly, also true of the distinctions people make about race.) One big differentiator is that R&B often has a showbiz inclination: It dashes, twinkles, glitters, and charms. It knows how to work a stage, throw a wink, plead with the opposite sex. So far as I could tell, this was one of the main things post-collegiate indie types—who will take “artfully disheveled” over “showbiz” at least five days of the week—used to dislike about it. One man’s charming is another man’s unctuous; one woman’s twinkle is another woman’s cheese. So when you think about the kinds of R&B getting buzz among that indie-ish crowd this year—acts like Frank Ocean and the Weeknd—well, showbizziness is one kind of otherness you won’t find. Instead, you get brooding, exaggerated rawness, whether it’s in Ocean’s personable storytelling or the Weeknd’s cinematic fantasies.
But otherness can run both ways. Like Jonah says, there’s an artsy, middle-class, indie-bohemian version of otherness that seems compelling for a wide array of Americans lately, even if those of us who live in the thick of it find it anything but “other,” and definitely anything but dangerous.
All of which is my preamble to saying something about Abel Tesfaye and the Weeknd. Tesfaye’s vision is incredibly aestheticized; the guy’s devoted to hazy, unreal, drugged-up psychosexual dramas and skeezy power plays that seem to hail from somewhere between a David Lynch film and a late-night Cinemax thriller. I emphasize the word skeezy. The main gorgeous thing about his music is how it sounds like a sinister party heard through heavy anesthetic, somewhere along the way to passing out in a corner. His lyrics and self-presentation only double down on that bet. I could never put a finger on why it all bothered me until I saw his first official video—which begins with the 1974 Ethiopian revolution, then has Tesfaye playing the futuristic resurrection of Haile Selassie in some kind of space-Ethiopia that is maybe also Toronto, and then devolves into extended psychosexual metaphors of the variety previously noted. I am describing this poorly because it is a bit hard to follow, which is sort of my point about the guy’s records: There comes a moment where you wonder if what you’re enjoying might just be a heap of grandiose, stylized, and not necessarily coherent fantasies. (Disclosure: I am biased by the fact that my family’s from Ethiopia, too, and I can’t help imagining the look on my mother’s face if I ever made a video juxtaposing the ex-emperor’s face with mine while disembodied asses floated past. Also I just felt better about myself, this year, when listening to kitchen-table straight talk from a singer like Marsha Ambrosius, or enjoying that one gleeful honking register in Lloyd’s voice that makes him sound like a sexy cartoon duck.)
Point being that Tesfaye is the opposite of unctuous, so anyone with an overdeveloped allergy to corn, or a need to feel intrepid about listening to R&B, is pretty safe with him. But he also takes one of R&B’s staple topics—sex and love and their sometimes tenuous relationship—and turns it into something filtered and dreamlike, as opposed to something real. Which is about as indie-friendly an approach as you could ask for, right? It seems emblematic of something about the ways that indie codes and R&B ones have danced around one another lately: The acts that get the most attention seem to be the ones that borrow the “cool” or “dangerous” bits of otherness from both genres.
But there are uncool othernesses in these genres, too. Both excel at quaintness, coziness, and vulnerability. Both are good at fragility, too, though they come at it in completely different ways. Often, I’ll be listening to an artist like Marques Toliver—who makes gorgeously mannered pop with his violin (a bit like that of indie gem Owen Pallett) but sings with a hint of the presence and technique you might expect in the R&B or pop worlds—and I find myself wondering whether, when people talk about this crossover, there’s room to attend to the wider spectrum of ways it can happen.
Which might be a good excuse to talk about Jamie Woon. Woon’s album Mirrorwriting is one of three terrific 2011 albums from singers with roots in British bass music. One of the others comes from James Blake, whom Jonah’s already mentioned, and whose album contains a few blindingly good moments—say, the part where “I Never Learnt To Share” drops in some massive, concussive bass, only the bass turns out to be Blake playing gospel runs on an organ. Another is Katy B, who made the most human-sized dance-pop album I’ve heard in ages: Her On a Mission bounces through a grab-bag of British dance styles like she’s bouncing from club to club, and she describes nights out in those clubs the way they happen to everyday people, as opposed to music-video fantasies. And then there’s Woon, who makes an airy, elegant blend of dance music and R&B—his voice hums and soothes, and the music bumps in a subdued, sensual way, all arched eyebrows and subtle glances. It may not be the most demonstrative way of mixing up codes, but it feels more open, in its way, to new possibilities.
Since I’ve taken an English turn here, shall I bring up PJ Harvey, who’s been dominating critics’ year-end lists in the U.K.? I know at least two longtime Harvey fans who were disappointed with this year’s LP, Let England Shake—mostly because their relationship with Harvey involves love for the visceral, intimidating yowler she used to be. (One in particular hated the “little-girl” lilt in her voice these days, which I’d have called wry and ghostly instead.) But the way Let England Shake is put together might be more impressive to me than any fire-breathing she’s ever done. There’s something seductive and twisted about it: It invites you in with the sound of campfire songs and folk traditions, then leaves them feeling pallid, warped, and uneasy. And it matches them with tales of muddy war campaigns, and private’s-eye views of battle, that keep reminding you of the militarism and gore that’s inevitably wrapped up in any idea of nationhood. It’s an odd gray apple that very obviously has a worm inside, and I’ve been plenty intimidated by that.
Come to think of it, the year’s seen a lot of great albums like this: Records that slink demurely around pop sounds but keep slipping something sinister, sour, or frightening into it, running from St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy, to that Austra record I love, to full-on blood-and-guts and shadowy wailing from EMA and Zola Jesus. So there are dark clouds, apparently, in plenty of places besides the bedroom.