Each year I listen to music with a single goal: discovering the handful of songs I will cherish for the rest of my music-listening life. My year-end list is not a tribute to the past but rather a bet on the future, informed speculation on what I hope will still sound great years from now. Tomorrow I’ll publish my top 10, along with Rdio and Spotify playlists on the off chance you haven’t heard some of these. Until then, here are 10 I’ll still be listening to well into 2012.
20. “Daily Mail,” Radiohead. It was bound to happen eventually, I suppose: Radiohead released a bad album this year. Not awful, exactly, but King of Limbs was undercooked in a way we haven’t seen from the band since Pablo Honey. A handful of year-end critics tried to argue that there was gold in all that glitchy piffle, but the truth is that the band’s best song of the year was a non-album B-side. “Daily Mail” is a simple piano ballad until 1:40, when Thom Yorke’s piano zig-zags into something darker and more complicated. Drums rise up and horns sound. Yorke free-associates, and Johnny Greenwood remembers he can play guitar. “Daily Mail” builds like a migraine, grim and inescapable. But it turns out to be a thrilling catharsis — and the one 2011 Radiohead song you would actually look forward to seeing played in concert.
19. “Taken for a Fool,” the Strokes. You thought they were done, it seems like they are done, and yet waiting there on their middling new record was this instant addition to the greatest hits collection. Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr., their guitars still precise as surgical lasers, cut through years of bullshit to give Julian Casablancas some much-needed cover.
18. “Need You Now,” Cut Copy. Releasing Zonoscope in bleakest Februrary, when few of us could tear off our shirts and run down to the beach as “Need You Now” blares from our convertibles, seems like a missed opportunity. Then again, when why deprive us for another four months? The song begins modestly, with Dan Whitford telling his darling not to cry against a bed of shimmering synths. Slowly the band adds layers — soft ooh-oohs from voices in the background, a nice twist in the vocal melody around 2:45 — and suddenly you remember why you’ve been waiting so patiently for the latest from these Aussie disco cheeseballs. (This is the band that named a song “Eternity One Night Only” with a straight face.) The influences are obvious, but the approach is sincere. Play it loud enough and it’s like the springtime is always upon you.
17. “Piledriver Waltz,” Arctic Monkeys. The highlight of this year’s (*rolls eyes*) Suck It and See is a breakup song notable for its empathy. On one hand Alex Turner knows she hates him: “I heard the news that you’re planning / to shoot me out of a cannon.” On the other he knows how much she’s hurting: “You look like you’ve been for breakfast at the heartbreak hotel.” Even when he snipes at her for playing the martyr — “if you’re gonna try and walk on water, make sure you wear your comfortable shoes” — the accusation isn’t hurled so much as sighed. The song wheels to bittersweet conclusion with much left unsaid, and one of England’s best songwriters lets us fill in the gaps.
16. “Heart in Your Heartbreak,” the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. A winning single from one of the most consistent bands working today. “Heart in Your Heartbreak” marries Kip Berman’s wistful vocal to a kicky beat and a sugar rush of keyboards I never tire of. When I saw the band live this year at Slim’s, this was the tune that kept us all pogoing in place.
15. “Hair,” Lady Gaga. Maybe it’s cloying, or pure fiction: the megastar looking back on her youth, recalling a time when her parents wouldn’t let her style her hair the way she wanted to. And yet contained within this song is everything we love about Gaga: the emphasis on self-expression, the tributes to individualism. It’s a cornball ode sung with such conviction that you never once doubt her sincerity — and its four-on-the-floor rhythm seldom failed to send me running to a dance floor, even if the closest one was in my bedroom.
14. “Countdown,” Beyonce. How many discrete musical ideas are in this song? A thousand? Is every verse actually a chorus? Or every chorus secretly a verse? When did Bey start calling Hova “boof boof”? Did she just make that up or is that something that people say? Is it OK if I start saying it now too? And keep saying it forever? Has so much joy ever been concentrated in three and a half minutes? If Beyonce didn’t exist would we be forced to invent her? Is this real life?
13. “Eyes Be Closed,” Washed Out. At last some chillwave to get excited about: anthemic, unembarrassed, built with modern instrumentation. Sure, you could still imagine it playing poolside at some boutique hotel, but what surprised me was how good it sounded on headphones. Ernest Greene, sincere as his given name would suggest, infused his synths with real feeling.
12. “Baby’s Arms,” Kurt Vile. The sound of a hazy, hung-over morning waking up with the one you love. Kurt Vile’s gentle acoustic reverie on the pleasures of his lover’s embrace recalls a young Van Morrison, brown-eyed girl at his side, sailing into the mystic.
11. “Super Bass,” Nicki Minaj. One advantage to waiting until the year’s tail end to pick out your favorite songs is that you have the time and permission to graze on others’ lists. No song I slept on this year was as electrifying as “Super Bass,” Nicki Minaj’s giddy tribute to the guy who turns her heart into a ghetto blaster. “Super Bass” is so wonderfully simple that when it comes time for a bridge, Ester Dean, who is responsible for the hook, just sings the chorus again slightly slower than before. Pure bliss.
When “Born This Way” emerged five months ago, beloved Internet personality Dave Holmes wrote a wonderful piece comparing the song to a garish portrait of his mother painted by a crazy uncle.
Thing was, we loved Uncle Freddy, and he did tend to drop by from time to time. So this big, dumb thing we didn’t ask for was going to have to be hung in our home.
“Well,” my Dad sighed. “This is ours now.”
That is exactly how I feel this morning, as a gay man, about “Born This Way.”
It was how I felt myself: “It is somewhat difficult to enjoy Lady Gaga’s ‘Born this Way,’” I wrote, ‘knowing that I am destined to hear it at every gay bar I go to, ever, for the rest of my club-going life.’
So far this prophecy has proven true: rare is the night out in the Castro, or anywhere, really, where “Born This Way” or one of its many remixes does not come blaring out of the speakers at least once. I was prepared to hate this fact of life, owing to a nagging suspicion that Lady Gaga’s wholehearted embrace of the gays was as much a marketing calculation as it was a human rights campaign. It followed too naturally from what Rich Juzwiak, who is right about everything, called “The Great Gay Pander-Off of 2010.” Nitsuh Abebe, pivoting from Rich’s argument, wondered whether gay rights hadn’t become an empty signifier:
"[A]t some point we might all start using gay men as simple totems or avatars for whatever little personal struggles we go through, right down to the point where some horrible egomaniac on a reality-TV show starts talking about having been born that way. This is a weird amount of pop songs in which, to put it really bluntly, white women point to gay men to explain to all of us how to survive. Not bad, just weird. Because all of these songs get to look like they’re giving something to a community they’re really taking something from.”
As it turns out, the best place to test these hypotheses was not the Internet but the club — and at the club all our tortured hand-wringing about Gaga and the gays comes to feel useless. In the months since “Born This Way” emerged I have seen countless gays, of all ages, dancing to this song with wild abandon — while shouting the lyrics at the top of their lungs, their faces straining from the effort. However fond our community may be of irony, “Born This Way” is a song that we find ourselves taking unexpectedly seriously.
And why not? At its root “Born This Way” conveys the kind of maternal love that queer people risk losing when they come out. Gaga’s mother, teaching her how to apply lipstick, says the words we all waited to hear from the moment we realized we were different: “There’s nothing wrong with loving who you are, she said, / Because he made you perfect, babe.” It’s a platitude that, given the political environment, feels unexpectedly radical. The more I hear Gaga run down her litany of the oppressed — blackwhite beige chola-descent! — the more I think to myself, Fuck yes.
To Nitsuh the whole business reeked of flimflam: “The greatest trick Lady Gaga has pulled — the thing that makes her a genuinely impressive pop star — is creating an atmosphere where people can legitimately feel like revolutionary all-embracing gender-queering ‘little monsters’ by listening to one of the most popular artists in the country.” And this is true, so far as it goes. But it is also true that there is an actual community of gender queers, one that has been historically underserved by the most popular artists in the country, and here in “Born This Way” they have a world-beating banger that ranks with the best pop anthems.
Fame can diminish art, just as it can diminish an artist. It is often said that Dickens didn’t begin to get the respect he deserved until after the stink of popularity faded from his work. “Born This Way” arrived with great expectations that, initially, it seemed to fall short of. But every night on the dance floor, its value is revealed. Unlike the little monsters Gaga cultivates, her biggest hit was not born a superstar. In time, though, it has become one.
“So who is the Lady Gaga you needn’t be a monster to enjoy? Impulsive and willing to make mistakes, she uses her big ego and bigger emotions for good—to work herself hard and make waves. She campaigned outspokenly against don’t-ask-don’t-tell and shovels money to homeless LGBT youth. She never appears in public out of character and she never acts the diva offstage. She spends more on her shows and videos than a shrewd capitalist would. She’s funnier than her putative peers, with an absurdist streak that reflects her downtown history. And none of this would mean a thing if she hadn’t learned how to deploy her hook sense and vocal muscle in mammoth anthems that began with one called “Just Dance” and never stopped coming.”
Lady Gaga has rejected Weird Al Yankovic’s “Born this Way” parody — which is a shame, because if the lyrics are any indication, this would have made for a hell of a video.
It is somewhat difficult to enjoy Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” knowing that I am destined to hear it at every gay bar I go to, ever, for the rest of my club-going life. Do you even bother listening a second time to a song you know that you will hear several hundred more times before you die, whether you want to or not? When you can already picture boys walking around the Castro in “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen” T-shirts? Also — what’s the over/under on when Glee produces an episode in which Kurt sings the song after triumphing over some mildly homophobic characters? Three weeks?
Deerhunter - “Helicopter”
(I know everyone wrote about this topic. But I think I have some really nice points in it. I recommend you take a look.)
Camille Paglia’s takedown of Gaga is, in a generous estimation, supremely silly. Like almost everything written about Gaga – both positive and negative – it is light on actual analysis and heavy on vague or moral-laden adjectives (“disturbing,” “ruthless”). What comes across most strongly from the article is that Paglia is upset that her long-term teen dream – Madonna – has ebbed out of cultural relevance, and that Gaga is both not enough like Madonna (not enough sexual energy!) and too much like Madonna (thief!).
But the key to understanding where Paglia has lost the thread is right there: in Gaga’s lack of sexual energy (or, as Paglia wisely notes, her overpowering asexual energy). It has been pointed out that unlike Madonna, Gaga does not try to attract the male gaze. She’s trying to attract gay men’s gaze, and women, and most importantly, teenagers (her “little monsters”). She does this by being a “freak.” The gaze she cultivates is one of appreciative shock or horror. (Paglia doesn’t like this either: how can she be a freak when she went to Paris Hilton’s private school?)
But true freaks – in the sense of sideshow freaks – are hard to come by these days. Someone like Bradford Cox seems to be more of what Paglia would consider a true freak. His Marfan Syndrome does make him look strange. And although his work is loaded with gay themes and gay subtext, he claims to be basically so unlovable as to be condemned to loneliness and asexuality.
“Twenty-five is the age where, like, certain people would be settling down with a wife, having kids, getting a mortgage and stuff,” he says. “And that’s not where I’m at. It’s never where I’m going to be. So I have to find my own way to be stable and ward off things like loneliness, poverty and feelings of uselessness.”
This asexuality could be partially pushed onto him due to his condition. But it has also liberated him to create. Without the social distractions of “regular” kids, Cox spent large portions of his teen years, alone, creating music. Solitude has encouraged and perfected his art. He keeps returning to the theme of aloneness, and his music has a dreamy, mystical quality that feels like solitude (“No one cares for me/I keep no company” he sings in “Helicopter.”). The cover of Deerhunter’s forthcoming album Halcyon Digest, summarizes the power of freakishness: the cover features a little person – a dwarf, a midget, a freak – praying. Enforced solitude through fear of rejection can produce the necessary conditions for contact with otherworldly feelings. And from this mystical contact, freaks can find a beauty that eludes norms.
Gaga, it should be noted, has no apparent physical deficiencies. But when she first appeared, she was seen as so self-evidently unattractive that hermaphroditism was, for many, the logical explanation for her ugliness. (Gaga’s biggest misstep was attempting to eliminate this rumour, instead of cultivating it.) She may not have Cox’s Marfan Syndrome, but her dress-up form of freakdom lets her hide from a male gaze that wants to turn her into a “freak.” “I have this weird thing that if I sleep with someone they’re going to take my creativity from me through my vagina,” she said. Even now, no one (reliably) knows who Gaga dates. She spends all of her time in her studio or on stage, creating.
This is the kernel of the problem. Paglia doesn’t see deferring sex as creative. Paglia, like any Boomer, thinks sex is the determining feature of teenage rebellion. Fighting against parental repression is what generates art (hence her love for the singer of “Papa Don’t Preach”). But what she doesn’t recognize is that as our world becomes oversexed, many teenagers don’t feel sexually repressed by overbearing parents. They feel sexually inadequate. Their world is filled with insanely perfect visions of sex – they have grown up with porn being freely available; “stars” regularly show their cooches to paparazzi – in their immature, awkward bodies, they don’t know how to plug themselves into it. They feel like unattractive, horrible freaks.
Gaga gives these teens a welcoming place to play – a place free from degrading sexual judgements, and where ugliness can be seen as beauty. It’s a silly, weird, dramatic place, and it’s more for teenagers than over-the-hill cultural commentators. Cox is less interested in creating a venue for expression, and is more interested in capturing what this freakdom feels like. But both of these artists are harnessing the power of freakishness and solitude. They may be coming from very different places, but they provide a clearer mirror to the current state of teenage psyches than many, it would appear, care to admit.
A great take on Gaga, Paglia and Bradford Cox.