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The Year in Music

The "return" of the singer-songwriter, declaring R&B's true king, and the paradoxes of pop in 2012

This is not going to be helpful.

My editors asked me to write a year-in-review story about pop music in 2012, where I look at an arbitrarily selected portion of all the songs and albums released in the past 12 months1 and attempt to devise some grand theory about “what it all means.” I agreed to write this story, though I know it will not ring true for many of the people who read it. My editors have assigned similar stories about the other areas of sports and culture that Grantland covers, and I already know (without seeing them) that those pieces will seem more accurate than mine.

If you’ve come here in order to be told what to think about music released in 2012, I’m afraid I can’t help you.

I’m only being honest. It is possible to assess the terrains of film, television, and prominent athletic enterprises and extract what is important from each. You can construct narratives about these forms of mass entertainment that make sense, and help people understand larger themes that will contextualize experiences that are, for lack of a better term, universal. With music, however — even if we limit ourselves to genres that are “popular” — there is no one story line that fits. We watch the same games, sitcoms, and summer blockbusters, but we generally don’t listen to the same songs. (There are just way, way more songs.) Nobody wants to read about music they didn’t listen to this year, which means whatever I write will only hit home for (at best) 18 percent of you.

This is why, when it comes to pop music, I’m a nihilist.2 I don’t believe in a single overarching point. I don’t believe there’s anything holding us together other than an occasional coincidence of taste. What I do believe is that popular music is impervious to order or easy classification. Any attempt to condense it down to a snappy theory or ideology inevitably requires dismissing huge swaths of inconvenient data. And if we learned anything in 2012, it’s that those who dismiss inconvenient data eventually get exposed.

For example, if I weren’t a pop-music nihilist, I might suggest that 2012 was a banner year for singer-songwriters. In fact, I would argue that we’re in the midst of the greatest period for singer-songwriters since the early ’70s. Exhibit A in this theoretical is the year’s top-selling artist, Taylor Swift, who is commonly perceived — à la predecessors like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor — to be creating music that is informed by her personal life. Her songs reached the widest cross-section of listeners of any artist in 2012, but those people probably thought about Taylor Swift as much as themselves when they heard them. Exhibit B is Marcus Mumford of the similarly mega-selling band Mumford & Sons, whose every-guy spiritual yearning and populist posturing is inspired by Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young (or, rather, a very earnest young man’s naïve perception of what those guys signified in 1975 and 1972, respectively).

Speaking of Springsteen and Young, they both put out pretty good records this year, as did fellow Living Blueprints For Singer-Songwriter Integrity Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Then there’s a long list of critical favorites such as Frank Ocean, Fiona Apple, Kendrick Lamar, Miguel, Ty Segall, Sharon Van Etten, Jessie Ware, and The Weeknd.3 There’s also Lana Del Rey, who wasn’t exactly critically acclaimed or hugely popular in 2012 but was omnipresent in the media until she suddenly wasn’t. Finally, there’s Adele, whose 2011 album, 21, steadfastly refused to go away, winning the Grammy for Album of the Year in February and crossing the 10 million-sold mark last month.

If I continued with this faux-thesis, I could attempt to explain how the success of singer-songwriters — as opposed to bands or superstar-driven pop machines — speaks to the public’s distrust of big institutions in light of war, unprecedented political divisions, and the ever-present possibility of economic collapse. And how our favorite solitary artists represent the feelings of alienation and introspection (veering into solipsism) prevalent in the pop audience.4

For something I just made up, it sounds pretty good. I don’t think it’s untrue at all. But it’s not completely true, either. It ignores the two “It” genres of 2012, EDM and K-pop. It doesn’t really work for any metal record I heard this year (or the ones I didn’t, presumably). It disregards one of my favorite LPs of the year, Usher’s Looking 4 Myself, which is the epitome of a “superstar-driven pop machine.” And it’s a stretch to say it applies to many R&B, hip-hop, and country artists outside of the small handful I mentioned.

Taylor Swift

Talking about pop music in 2012 often requires being a little true and a little untrue at the same time. You must learn to embrace apparent contradictions and navigate various paradoxes. “Singer-songwriters were big this year; they were also irrelevant to much of the popular music released in 2012” is a paradox. Let’s talk about two other paradoxes. Not because they’re more important than other paradoxes — as a pop-music nihilist, I won’t make that distinction — but because they best illustrate that there is no God (musically speaking, of course).

Paradox No. 1: “The monoculture is never coming back, though the monoculture kind of seems like it came back this year.”

First of all, the monoculture never really existed. There used to be a monomedia, which gave the impression that everybody listened to Culture Club and watched Family Ties. But there was a lot of stuff beyond that. There was Rick James and Hee-Haw and Channel Z and Zen Arcade. Now that the monomedia has been augmented by websites like the one you’re reading right now, we get the opposite impression: In 2012, the media tells us again and again that culture (especially music culture) is more disparate than ever. Last month, Spin magazine named the bratty anarcho-rap duo Death Grips its artist of the year. There’s a very good chance you’ve never heard of Death Grips; there’s an equally good chance that you’ve heard of Death Grips but couldn’t name one of their songs. Even if you’re president of the Death Grips fan club, the Spin honor likely came as a surprise. Death Grips are primarily known for what they didn’t do in 2012, which includes not staying signed to Epic Records and not performing a planned 30-date tour and not not releasing an album with an erect penis on the cover. If it’s possible for a group to be purposely obscure while at the same time being prominently featured by a well-read music publication, Death Grips is that group.5

There are a number of alternate, non–Death Grips–starring narratives that could be used to sum up pop music in 2012, but they all fall short of that old-time mono feeling. It was a year of self-conscious hip-hop “masterpieces” like Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city and Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music.6 It was a year of gorgeous, self-consciously arty R&B like Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream. (And don’t forget my man Usher, whose goose-pimply single “Climax” showed he could beat the indie upstarts at their own game.) It was a year that signaled the end of Brooklyn’s hold on indie rock, with records like Animal Collective’s Centipede Hz, Grizzly Bear’s Shields, and Dirty Projectors’ Swing Lo Magellan deliberately scaling back from those bands’ previous pop overtures. It was a year when rock radio was swallowed up by pop groups like fun., Imagine Dragons, and Passion Pit as well as a legion of Mumford rip-offs, while slightly off-the-radar bands like Japandroids and Cloud Nothings signaled an unexpected comeback for revivalist ’90s rock. It was a year when country sounded like whatever T-Swift wanted it to sound like. It was a year of melodic metal bands with classicist songwriting chops like Torche, Baroness, Horisont, and Graveyard.

Then there’s the narrative about how the monoculture is real and can still maybe exist in 2012, thanks to zeitgeist-jocking, Facebook-clogging, YouTube parody-inducing songs that you could not, for the love of Jesus, get the hell away from. For the first time in a long while, there was music that threatened to invade your personal space. If not for “Somebody That I Used to Know” and “We Are Young” and “Call Me Maybe,” kids today might not know what it means to hear a song against your will, over and over again, until love gets pushed to hate and back to love again. With “Gangnam Style,” the youth got their very own “I’m Too Sexy” and “Macarena” rolled into one. It was glorious. It was annoying. But only if you chose to not check out of this narrative and head elsewhere. Monoculture, like Peter Pan or a life after love for Cher, only happens if you believe.

Paradox No. 2: “Artists still aren’t getting paid for recorded music; artists are also getting entirely too much money to create recorded music.”

The year’s most notable music writing came from non-music critics,7 and much of it had to do with how the record business will definitely be extinct by this time next year. In June, a 20-year-old NPR intern named Emily White wrote an opinion piece about how she and her friends have never owned music, never will own music, and are only looking for “the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it,” with royalties “hopefully” going to artists based on play counts tabulated by streaming sites. This piece inspired bygone alt-rock era icon David Lowery to roll up one of those outmoded newspaper things and stubbornly assert the antiquated notion that since people still enjoy hearing recorded music, they ought to be paying for it on a per-unit basis.

Then, in a column that appeared in November on Pitchfork, fellow aging indie-rocker Damon Krukowski8 thoroughly outlined just how much money artists don’t make from music-streaming services.9 This isn’t exactly news; we’ve been reading about how musicians have been screwed over by the Internet (and by extension us, the greediest and artist-unfriendliest record company there ever was) for the last 57 years. Krukowski just reiterates how insane it is that anybody is still bothering to make albums in 2012. Here’s the money quote: “The sale of recorded music has become irrelevant to the dominant business models I have to contend with as a working musician. Indeed, music itself seems to be irrelevant to these businesses — it is just another form of information, the same as any other that might entice us to click a link or a buy button on a stock exchange.”

Krukowski (and Lowery) doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions. Nobody has a solution. Not paying (enough) for music has been incontrovertibly normalized in the minds of consumers. Except when it’s not. Sometimes, you can convince your fan base to fork over $1.2 million to pay for the recording of your album. And then, just months later, ask them to show up at your concerts to act as your backing band for a “beer, hug/high-five.” And while this might generate bad press, it won’t dramatically affect your relationship with the people who gave you the money in the first place, even if those people end up paying more than they would’ve for a CD back when record stores still existed in every town.

Amanda Palmer using Kickstarter to fund the creation of her album Theatre Is Evil and the subsequent controversy over her soliciting fans to act as tour musicians for basically nothing underscores a weird reality: The record industry is facing a treacherous fiscal cliff that will eventually make full-time careers in music untenable for anyone who’s not already a superstar. And yet artists are still finding ways to keep on making records. A lot of records. A veritable shit-ton of records. How do people keep on making so many damn records? We are now in the third decade of the post-Napster era and there’s more music than ever.

I’m not complaining. I thought 2012 was a fantastic year for music, but I think every year is fantastic for music. There’s so much good stuff released in any given year it takes five years to fully absorb it. The sheer volume is oppressive — though only if you’re silly enough to feel confined to a best-of list or a set of assumptions based on the misguided belief that you can possibly hear everything worthwhile. Because you haven’t. And you probably never will. Pop music is burying us. Pop music is disappearing. It is annoying. It is glorious.

Filed Under: Music, The Year In Music

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden