This has to be one of my favorite hits in recent memory. I think about this song when I go to ride the subway. It’s so indelibly catchy and it should have been on every radio on the planet 2013. As it was, it was only on indie radio and most of you probably don’t know Portugal. The Man from Portugal the geographic location. But you should. (They just released a new album a few days ago, which I’ll get back to you on.) The world needs more ironic club kid anthems like this one. It’s upbeat as fuck, but it speaks to The Way We Live Today, or rather a specific subset of young adults whose personal aesthetic and hashtag lifegoals were formed by Paris Hilton’s sex tape. There’s no higher aspiration than a well documented joyless performance of the act of partying. Because Millennials, amirite? It’s a little disturbing and once again begs the question what is reality and is it even worth experiencing without chemical and technological filters?
Are you ready for some very NSFW stripper exploits with your girl Rihanna? After you fap to the video, we can have a debate about the delicate intersection of sexual exploitation, body politics, and artistic liberty. In a word, Rihanna has produced a strip club anthem for the ages, and she doesn’t hold back on the imagery. People of delicate sensibilities may find this offensive. Some may want to slut-shame the singer for exposing herself in this way. Some may hold it up as a gross example of the overall pornificiation of popular culture and its seemingly unbreakable habit of dehumanizing women. Those are all valid arguments; we have indeed reached a saturation point where the aesthetics of pornography permeate the mainstream, and it’s mostly geared to the gratification of the male gaze, at the expense of female performers; and some of the worst examples of exploitation and objectification occur at the upper echelons of pop music. All of which, I’m sure Rihanna is well aware of. She’s a performer whose success allows her control over her image, and it’s unlikely that anyone tells her how to present herself. That she’s chosen to show herself as, in the words of pearl-clutchers, ‘little better than a common pole dancer’ is a self aware move, and a show of solidarity. Being a pop star isn’t all that different from being a stripper; it may be degrading or empowering, depending on what you make of it, but all it comes down to people throwing money at you in return for a fantasy. Another point, too often ignored in these debates, is that for women of color, there are not that many avenues towards the good life, and they often find themselves making choices that white women don’t have to. Strip club culture is in many ways black culture, just as criminal culture is intertwined with black culture, as a necessity and a result of outsider status. For many dancers, a few hours of getting naked is worth going home with a few thousand dollars cash, and separating yuppie douchebags from money earned sitting down is its own kind of empowerment. It’s merely turning to your advantage all of the forces that are supposed to be working against you, it’s rising up when you’re supposed to be kept down.
The lesson of Rihanna’s song may be that though critics have often dismissed her and shamed her for being provocative, she is not ashamed. No, when you compare her to a stripper, she is proud.
There’s some – unconfirmed, as of now – anticipation of a new Arcade Fire album coming out soon. This is a big event; Arcade Fire have grown from just another indie band out of Canada into the upper echelon of artist who are both popular and taken seriously. Their last album, Reflektor, was four years ago. That record represented a great quantum leap forward – it was a masterpiece. It wasn’t exactly a concept album, but it was strongly thematic, with its sprawl and ambition more than making up for the honestly fairly generic choice of theme. The theme, tiredly enough, being the difficulty of making human connection in the age of the omnipresent glowing screen, with its glut of mirage-like pornographic images. It doesn’t in any way take away from the overall musical achievement of the thing to say that its ideas are its weakest point. The mythological references are clever, but exploring modern-day technological alienation isn’t exactly original, especially when, as artist and public figure, you benefit greatly from the very things you take aim at. Taking potshots at the plugged-in post-millennium lifestyle is as ubiquitous today as ‘sticking it to the man’ was in the 60’s. However, social media and the technological web that it exists within, unlike the suburbs, has powerful practical benefits that are hard to argue against. It’s a tough argument to deny that instant access to all of the knowledge of the world is a bad thing. Pandora’s box and the fall of Eden both come to mind, of course, but one could argue that those cautionary tales are, at their very root, nothing more that centuries-old propaganda of the kind that denies people empowerment by denying them knowledge. Someone should write a concept album about that.
In the world of indie music, Courtney Barnett has established herself as the smartest girl in school. She’s head and shoulders the best writer on the scene, and her snark is what she’s best known for. Which, of course, makes her a treasure. I also love her romantic side, which may be less evident. She’s not a confessional writer, per se, but her writing is very intimate. It’s reveals what’s going on inside the mind of the smartest girl in school, and it turns out there’s a lot of unrequited crushes and romantic longing in there. This song is less verbose than her usual, but it’s the atmosphere that tells the story this time.
I’m still on the fence about this one. This was a massive hit, way back in 2013, and we still can’t escape it on the radio. What I’m still not sure about is if it’s the most annoying novelty song of the decade, or if Bastille is actually a real band. I mean, it’s definitely an annoying song that’s been overplayed to the point of fatigue. But also I kind of like it? Also Bastille had a few other hit songs from the same album that were less, um, distinctive and more typical indie pop. They’ve bravely gone on to make a second album, which I don’t remember a minute of. So perhaps they’d be better off if all of their songs were this aggressively irritating. Then you could at least say they’ve got their own sound going on. But if you had to ask me to bet which currently successful indie band is ending up on the list of ‘where are they now?’ one hit wonders, my money’s on Bastille.
There’s something a little uncanny about Jake Bugg. He’s a button-faced millennial boy who somehow carries the vibe of an old folksinger who peaked in 1962. He has a voice that belongs on a warped old record you found in your uncle’s basement. How much of that is self-conscious, I’m not sure. He knows his music history, that’s for sure, and he didn’t choose that bowl cut by coincidence, either. But lots of people try to look and sound vintage only to succeed in looking like poseurs. So there’s more to it than just liking the aesthetic very, very much. I honestly didn’t love Bugg’s third album (he experimented with some new directions that didn’t suit him) but I have complete faith in a long solid career about to unfold. Let’s see this kid go from a prodigy to a fully baked artist.
Out of dozens of recent new discoveries, Courtney Barnett is probably the most exciting. I’m pretty confident that she’s one for the ages. Being a mold-breaker has something to do with it; Barnett doesn’t have much in common with the indie pop crowd et al. From her droll observational humor to her normcore style, she’s an artist outside of trends and firmly inside a long tradition of clever, verbose songwriters. And mostly, being much more clever than anyone else is the most appealing thing about her. She plays with words like a jigsaw master, and she nails the pointed emotional currents that color the most banal moments. Because grand outbursts may happen in extreme moments, but our emotional lives are really a constant slow trickle that bubbles and flows and gets affected by tiny, tiny things and rights itself without us really noticing it except as mental wallpaper, and we don’t usually stop and consider how every object and moment has subtle value. And we most certainly don’t write songs about the boring things we see and feel all day long, unless we’re Courtney Barnett.