December 2019 – January 2020

Arts & Letters

Bodak moment: Pop’s decade of superstars

By Anwen Crawford

Cardi B

Cardi B delivered the song of the decade as a new league of superstars overcame the significance of bands

Remember “Telephone”? It was released as a single in January 2010, way back when the song’s lead artist and co-writer, Lady Gaga, was the centre of attention. Everyone, then, wanted a ringside seat at her circus: to gawk at the outfits that made her resemble an antique lampshade or a butcher’s counter, and to bop along with a dance-pop style that, reviewed from this end of the decade, sounds both trebly and cluttered.

With its chopped vocals (“Stop telephoning me-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh”) and burring synthesisers, “Telephone” was designed – like Gaga herself – to commandeer the whole of your attention. This makes it an artefact of a pre-Spotify world. The service existed in 2010, but barely – it didn’t launch in Australia until 2012. And Spotify, more than anything else this decade, has altered the sound of pop music. The goal now, for aspiring hit-makers, is a song melodically addictive but also inconspicuous, built to withstand repeated streams without ever becoming an irritant, or a provocation. But “Telephone” was both.

It’s a song about a man’s claim upon a woman’s attention that both re-enacts his pestering in sonic form (“Stop calling, stop calling / I don’t wanna talk anymore” bleats Gaga, in the chorus) and proposes a solution to it, which is to choose self-expression (“I’ll be dancing”) and the company of women over some loser guy. In this respect, “Telephone” foreshadowed the popular feminism that has lately surged to prominence, while the song’s high-concept, nine and a half minute promotional clip, which came stuffed with product placements, was the first indication of music video’s renewed importance to this decade’s pop stars. (The video’s setting, a women’s prison, also happened to anticipate the multi­ethnic cast and lesbian frisson of Netflix hit Orange Is the New Black by three years.) Lastly, in her choice of guest vocalist for “Telephone”, Gaga got one more thing right about the decade to come, and that was the reign of Beyoncé.

Back at decade’s dawn, difficult as it may be to recall now, Beyoncé was more or less in a career lull. It had been two years since her third solo album, I Am… Sasha Fierce (2008), while her album 4, which followed in 2011, would yield no number-one singles, and was outsold both here and in the United States by, among others, Gaga’s Born This Way, Adele’s 21, and Beyoncé’s husband Jay-Z’s joint effort with Kanye West, Watch the Throne. But 4 did include “Run the World (Girls)”, a dancehall-influenced track (to trace the impact of Jamaican dancehall on this decade’s pop music would take an essay in itself) that was, up to that point, her most explicit feminist statement. “My persuasion can build a nation”, she sang, but no one in 2011 – apart from maybe Beyoncé herself – could have foretold that she would ascend, by decade’s end, from pop star to pop sovereign.

Maybe her encounter with Gaga helped shake loose something in Beyoncé that needed shaking. Her fifth album, Beyoncé, which arrived at the very end of 2013 without a word of advance promotion, was her most daring solo work by far: a “visual album” (each track had its own elaborate video) that explored sexual pleasure and sexual insecurity, marital happiness and marital anxiety. In an ideal world I’d excise Jay-Z’s vainglorious guest verse, but “Drunk in Love” was and still is a mega pop single. Its rebounding sub-bass and Beyoncé’s
soaring voice – she takes flight into each chorus like she’s hang-gliding off a cliff – give musical form to the up-down, heart-in-mouth thrill of romantic passion.

There followed, in swift and merciless course, a commanding guest appearance on Nicki Minaj’s “Feeling Myself” (2014), a performance at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards that might as well have been a coronation, the mighty single “Formation” (2016) – which surely boasted the music video of the decade, in a crowded field – and then Lemonade (2016), which, if not the decade’s best album, was certainly its most conspicuous triumph. Lemonade earned Beyoncé the kind of dominance in popular discourse that few musicians ever achieve; she is the pop figure through which the era can and will be read. Apart from anything else, she brought a good deal of adult experience to a musical landscape that, though it was feminist in superficial ways, often lacked depth, and tended to coalesce around younger and more girlish figures: Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Grimes, Lorde, Ariana Grande. Beyoncé turned marriage and motherhood into subjects of her art, which doesn’t mean that she’s automatically more worthy of praise or analysis. But motherhood, in particular, is still rarely glimpsed in mainstream pop, and it has added to her potency.

This has been very much a decade of the superstars – and, too often, of a fannish obsequiousness to them that has taken the place of critical engagement. I always thought that part of the point of fandom – and also of criticism – was to hold artists to their own best measure, and to say if they failed it. One of the consequences of feminism’s newfound popularity, especially as that popularity is stoked through the simplistic interfaces of social media, has been a backslide into moralism: the bunk notion that a negative response to a woman’s art must be motivated by anti-feminist feeling, and the equally specious idea that any work motivated by declared feminist principles must be for the good.

The latter confuses feminism, which is a mode of political analysis – or many modes, actually, and some of them at odds with each other – for an end in itself, a kind of moral virtue. As for the former, women are as likely to make mediocre art as anyone else, and admitting so seems vital if we wish to regard ourselves as complexly human and humanly imperfect – which I do. I’m not convinced that it’s good for art or for women to be slathered in reflexive praise. Even when it’s given by other women, such praise tends to feel insipid and condescending, as if we’re little children, and will cry at the first sharp word. I say that Miley Cyrus’s pop career is both vacuous and cynical, Lorde is wildly overrated, and Beyoncé’s 2018 album with Jay-Z, released under the name The Carters – don’t get me started.

The ’80s, too, was a superstar decade: Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, et al. (Oh, Prince. I can still picture him onstage at the Sydney Opera House that sultry February night in 2016, teasing “Joy in Repetition” from the piano. Eight weeks later he was dead. As for David Bowie, who, being Bowie, turned his own death, earlier the same year, into his final performance: I hadn’t cried like that for a musician’s passing since Kurt Cobain.) But ranged along and sometimes against these figures was a set of thriving musical subcultures, from house to hardcore to indie. There’s still an underground out there, or several, though the algorithmic operation of sites like Spotify and YouTube has made musical obscurities harder, not easier, to find. If you stream Drake – the ubiquitous, wearying and intermittently splendid Drake – you’ll be recommended Drake, or someone else with comparable exposure. But how to search for a sound that you don’t have a search term for? Or where, in the physical world, to discover it?

I spent a good number of nights this decade at shows organised by the Sydney-based independent label Paradise Daily, which was founded in 2014. The music showcased at these gigs and on the label has often been brilliant and weird: droning, sinister experiments by Ela Stiles, whose records are like soundtracks to the creepiest horror film you’ve never seen; or grainy, downbeat synth-pop by the wonderfully named Video Ezy. And lest I forget Orion, one of Sydney’s best contemporary bands, who recently – alas – called it quits. Look up their self-titled 2017 album, if scrappy melancholia (think early New Order on a Newstart budget) is at all your thing.

Eventually, though, I stopped going to the shows, because the smallness of the scene depressed me. It felt close to suffocating, to have all this music pushed to the absolute margins – to the stages of suburban community clubs and the depths of Bandcamp. Only those who already know about this stuff are ever likely to find it, and I wonder what other musical riches of this decade have passed me by completely.

I miss bands, you know. Not guitar rock, specifically – that genre sputtered out in a way it mostly deserved to sometime in the early 2000s, and has offered little inspiration since. Anyway, there’s no rule to say that a band must play guitars.

No, what I miss is the model of collaborative art-making that bands once offered, and which has always been, to me, the most important thing about them. Our admiration for collective artistic endeavour has shifted now from music to television; it’s television shows that enthral us with the complexity of their creation. But television is expensive and difficult to make: the necessary domain of expert technicians and bankable talent. Most of us will only ever be passive consumers of television, and while the same may be true of our relationship with the pop charts, music is still an art form that requires fewer material resources than television to actively enter into. Even as an audience member at a gig, you’re part of a shared undertaking in a way that TV simply can’t offer. (This hunger for participation may explain, in part, the puzzling longevity of a live television talk show like Q&A, not to mention the bazillion websites dedicated to fan analysis of TV shows.)

A band suggests, at heart, that there are things we can do about loneliness, and damn it’s been a lonely decade, politically, artistically, existentially. A decade ruled by solo artists and political egomaniacs (sometimes the two types seem interchangeable, insofar as mainstream politics is all about performance), and the interpersonal competition of social media, and the dread a lot of us wake up to each day, that everything is completely fucked and how will we find each other in the midst of it, before it’s too late. That’s why I miss bands – because they can feel like a form of mutual aid in action. There have been some good ones this decade: Young Fathers and Tropical Fuck Storm and Totally Mild, Gold Class and Algiers and Mere Women, none of whom have made a dent on wider public consciousness. Tame Impala, though, who got their start in Perth towards the end of last decade, inexplicably rose to global, festival­headlining popularity. Even more inexplicably, they’re forever being described as psychedelic when they sound about as tripped out as paracetamol.

If you wanted proper drug music the place to turn was trap, a subgenre of hip hop that bubbled under for nearly 20 years, particularly in the American south, before it conquered the global mainstream, mid decade. Trap is icy yet decadent. Its narratives – as typified in songs like Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” (2015), Migos’s “Bad and Boujee” (2016) and Future’s “Mask Off” (2017) – are obsessively concerned with the pursuit of both opioids and wealth. The music’s bleakness compels, as does the way in which each song seems barely raised out of a negative space – but then, I’m someone whose formative years were spent dwelling with stuff like Joy Division’s Closer (1980), which possesses a comparable atmosphere of marble-cold nihilism. Trap is gothic, in the true sense: its perversity is an exaggerated shadow of a real social malaise, and when I think about the characteristic pop style of this decade, I’ll think of trap – its frigid hi-hats, lugubrious melodies and benumbed raps.

There were other things happening in hip hop, of course, now firmly established as the lingua franca of global pop music. Kendrick Lamar shot through the atmosphere like a rocket, releasing not one, not two, but three of the decade’s best albums: good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012), To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) and Damn (2017). He’s so good it’s frightening, but anyone would be a fool to envy his vertiginous rise. I watched him in concert after the release of To Pimp a Butterfly, and the sense of separation between him and the arena-sized crowd was as definite and impliable as a window pane. It would have destroyed him to permit the proximity to his aura that we wanted. All the self-doubt and self­mythologising is there on the albums, anyway, and those will last. Earl Sweatshirt occupied his own gnarled space; Shabazz Palaces, an extraterrestrial one. Locally, Sampa the Great came through with a hip-hop sound partly shaped by soul, while A.B. Original had some of that collar-grabbing, old-school boom bap feel. “How you wanna raise a flag with a rifle / To make us celebrate anything but survival?”, the duo rapped, on “January 26”, from their album Reclaim Australia (2016).

Some of the decade’s best music came out of hip hop’s increasing integration with R’n’B. Beyoncé was onto this, naturally, as was her sister Solange, whose two albums this decade, A Seat at the Table (2016) and When I Get Home (2019), are each singular, superlative achievements. (And what a live performer she is, too.) Solange’s frequent collaborator, Blood Orange, brought an infallible ear for sweet melodies to his solo work; not even Canadian pop darling Carly Rae Jepsen, a guest vocalist on his album Freetown Sound (2016), could best him on that front. But it was sweetness married to struggle: Blood Orange’s records, including last year’s Negro Swan, have borne witness to the difficulty of living both black and openly queer.

Which brings me to Frank Ocean, another queer and black musician who has helped to shape the decade’s pop sounds and sensibility, while also managing, somehow, to retain his own mystery. His songs – the taxi­passenger confessional “Bad Religion” (2012), the campfire outpouring of “Self Control” (2016) – are painfully honest, but Ocean himself has kept slipping out of view. (He’s the anti Kanye West, in this regard, while West’s weakness, and sometimes his strength, this decade, has been to put every dazzling, ugly, inspired and insipid moment on the public record.) Ocean’s albums, Channel Orange and Blonde, on which the aforementioned songs appear, repay repeated listens, their disparate musical influences and emotional currents never quite resolving into anything that can be summarised, paraphrased or imitated – though others have tried, at the latter. Both lucid and inscrutable, he’s the rare kind of artist whose work prompts a lasting love.

If Frank Ocean is the anti Kanye West, then Ocean’s opposite, in terms of someone happy to take the spotlight and revel in it, is Cardi B. Look, I know some of you out there are busy thinking that Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2011 smash “Call Me Maybe”, as sugary as Coco Pops, is the song of the decade. And you can think that, but – I pause here to sip at a very expensive and elaborate cocktail, then slap my imaginary credit card on the bar – you’d be wrong. Cardi B parlayed an early notoriety, gained through social media and reality television, into the all-conquering single “Bodak Yellow” (2017), which is deserving of that accolade.

“Bodak Yellow” followed the sparse musical template of trap, but Cardi B – a Bronx native with an accent to match – brought a near-murderous intensity to the genre’s previously anaesthetised rapping. If Lady Gaga found the dance floor to be a sanctuary, then Cardi B, who once worked as a stripper, was ready to leave it for good. “I don’t dance now / I make money moves”, she announced, sonorously. There’s something about “Bodak Yellow” that reminds me of a song like the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK”, from 40 years prior: it has the same steely glint of contempt. “I’m a boss / You a worker, bitch / I make bloody moves”, spits Cardi, which sounds at first like the inverse of punk sentiment, but is it, really? After all, a part of punk’s thrill was the tyrannical glee it expressed at the thought of a class hierarchy turned upside down, where monarchs would fall and the despised would rule. “These is bloody shoes”, Cardi raps, meaning her red-soled Manolo Blahniks, but sounding for all the world like a sans-culotte on the barricades. At the heart of “Bodak Yellow” is rage: elaborate, studied, righteous. I suspect there’s more rage to come.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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