The Music Club

Music Club 2012: Why Frank Ocean received pop culture’s warm embrace.

Should we be suspicious of hipsters’ newfound love of R&B?

Azealia Banks performs on the Dance Stage during the Reading Festival
Azealia Banks performs during the Reading Festival 2012 in August in Reading, England

Photo by Simone Joyner/Getty Images.

Jody, as you’ve noted, interactive immersion—mashups, remixes, covers, responses—informed this year’s most compelling stories. Nielsen published statistics in August showing that the majority of teens now discover music through YouTube. On the exact same day, Psy entered the YouTube “most viewed” charts and quickly racked up nearly a billion views. Gotye and Karmin, among others, were beneficiaries, and manipulators of, YouTube’s status as a discovery engine as well. But this year also saw Google-owned YouTube make clear its desire to “clean up” its reputation as an unpredictable, bottom-up/user-defined database; it seems to want instead to become a top-down broadcaster that can compete with network TV. What this intended transformation portends for the future of music discovery is uncertain.

Jody and Will, you have differing views about whether records in 2012 felt tangential to the larger culture of music-making. I’d say that contemporary music culture seems to be defined by twin impulses: On the one hand, we live in a time of unprecedented abundance, which is partly the result of “celestial jukebox” services like Spotify. On the other, we live with technology that offers us unprecedented opportunities for disconnectedness from each other and for disconnection between performer and listener. I love “Call Me Maybe”—it’s the romantic ditty for the era of sexting and Grindr, an anachronistic yearning for intimacy over the telephone. But as with fun.’s “We Are Young,” I adore the song without feeling even remotely connected to the artist.

Though there’s a surfeit of great albums this year, it seems that less people in aggregate hear more than a handful because there’s simply too much product in distribution (20 million on-demand tracks on Spotify) for any one person to listen with any real attentiveness. Sure you heard Channel Orange, but did you hear Quantic’s brilliant Look Around the Corner? How about Mokoomba’s vibrant Rising Tide? Listening to music in the streaming era is like negotiating an avalanche: Try to stay ahead of it if you can, but chances are you’ll soon be gasping for air, if you surface at all.

Will, I agree R&B is this year’s big aesthetic story. But I want to bring race into the conversation in a more explicit way. It’s been argued that the fantasy of becoming a post-racial nation helped to make Obama’s historic 2008 election possible. But the optimism of 2008 soon gave way to disillusionment as economic woes and increasingly entrenched class divisions came to the fore. It isn’t surprising that indie and indie-sounding R&B became cool again this year. With its emphasis on melancholic confessionalism and interior concerns, so-called “progressive” R&B (far more so than most mainstream club-oriented R&B) delivered authentic blues feeling to a post-affluent culture suffering from collective disillusionment.

But seething anger also seeped back into the culture this year. In the United States, that anger became particularly acute in the wake of the tragic Trayvon Martin case, which helped expose, for some, the hollowness of post-racial fantasy.  In this context, 2012 seemed like a year of resurgent interest in the politics of racial representation. There were public debates about forthcoming black biopics: Should light-skinned Afro-Latina Zoe Saldana play Nina Simone in the forthcoming Nina Simone feature? Should Lenny Kravitz play Marvin Gaye? Those authenticity debates are ultimately about the past, present, and future of blackness after years of racial slippage as pop music and culture became genreless in the 2000s. Meshell Ndegeocello’s Pour une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone, Cody ChesnuTT’s Landing on a Hundred, and Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers are stunningly realized 2012 albums that happen to be unabashedly racially conscious; they suggest that the era of identity politics is not done just yet.

There’s a lot to be said about hipsters’ “suspicious” newfound love for R&B. One aspect that concerns me is the implicitly racist conceit that suggests that R&B only becomes compelling when it takes on an indie-rock aesthetic (a form clearly dominated by whites, though not exclusively). That is to say, for some, contemporary R&B becomes worthy of attention only when it sounds self-consciously artsy, experimental, inwardly focused (“looking for myself”), psychedelic, or trippy, often drained of mirth. Given R&B’s long, rich, and diverse stylistic history, this “progressive R&B” supposition is in many ways a racial perversion of the form itself.

Don’t get me wrong: Channel Orange is one of the boldest and most languorous albums of the year, and I’m encouraged by the widespread critical acceptance of gifted artists like Miguel and Bruno Mars (not to mention hip-hop MCs Kendrick Lamar, Nas, Future, Himanshu, and other men of color who have dominated the best-of lists in 2012). It’s telling, though, that in the midst of the prog R&B celebration, there’s less love to go around for black women in pop. Ke$ha’s brassy “Die Young” will do, but it’s no more impressive than the sly, sexy debut by Elle Varner, Perfectly Imperfect. (I really dig the witty humor of “Soundproof Room.”)

It’s also worth thinking about why, exactly, Frank Ocean received the culture’s warm embrace as an out man. Quiet as it’s kept, R&B has traditionally benefited from camp. You can point to numerous historic examples: Little Richard, Michael Jackson, Betty Davis, Prince, Luther Vandross. Ocean is a thoughtful and innovative songwriter, singer, and producer. But his mainstream acceptance as an out man is likely because he not only captures the disillusioned Zeitgeist but because he sometimes sings about women and draws his samples mostly from white rockers—and because he has no perceivable relationship to camp. (Not that he needs to.) That is neither to take anything away from his impressive achievement this year nor to hold him to an unfair and limiting standard.

Camp is still very much alive in pop music, however. With her eccentric archive of 1990s house rhythms, Azealia Banks remains, for me, the most provocative artist of 2012. More than anyone else, she represents the post-closet black queer overground, one where deep, danceable groove meets joy, melancholy, and sass head-on. That overground remains a porous and flexible club, as nonblack artists like Sam Sparro, Hot Chip, and the Scissor Sisters also delivered dance singles (if not necessarily full albums) that kept my nervous system active. And R. Kelly’s daffy Write Me Back deserves mention in this context: It’s an album-as-archive of classic R&B songwriting (still can’t get over the raucous Barry White-style opener), and that’s not even to mention his revisiting of the queer, experimental Trapped in the Closet series.

Will, I also got lost in the strangeness of Japandroids’ Celebration Rock, though I heard nothing stranger (or more musically challenging) this year than Mars Volta’s Noctourniquet. Fiona Apple’s quirky The Idler Wheel … is a record to which I’ll continually return, but Foxy Shazam’s stadium glam throwback The Church of Rock and Roll was my personal favorite rock album, even if the band did themselves no favor by delivering a cartoonish take on blackness in the questionable lyrics and video to lead single “I Like It.”

Veteran artists came back hard this year with some of their most deeply considered work: Jon B., SWV, and Mint Condition repped the ‘90s, and legends like Patti Smith, Bobby Womack, Bettye LaVette, Leonard Cohen, and Kate Bush brought their respective A-games. And Jody, Auto-Tune may be déclassé, but few songs topped the Internet meme remix of Sweet Brown’s “Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That,” fashioned in the spirit of last year’s “Bed Intruder.”

In July of this year, India suffered the worst outages ever, leaving 600 million people without power. On a smaller scale, superstorm Sandy left parts of the American Northeast flooded and partially disconnected. What happens to recorded music when the power goes out? Down in powerless Lower Manhattan where I live, you might have lost access to your collection in the cloud, but you could still hear live music informally in nearby Washington Square Park. So live music always remains an option, and in many cases, the only option for some artists to make money as you’ve stated, Jody. But then again, when you hear Lana Del Ray’s dismal attempt to sing in her debut on Saturday Night Live, while remembering that she still managed to release an impressive full-length album, you know that the fate of live music is increasingly more ambiguous than it used to be. In an era of abundance and disconnection, everything is … and it isn’t.