Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen)

Amanda Palmer named an album Theatre Is Evil, and she’s got a point. She knows, probably better than most, the incredible power of just getting up on a box with your piano or your ukulele or whatever, and speaking your mind. Palmer started her career literally standing on a box, as a street busker, and she’s built her fanbase through the unconventional means of interfacing with fans directly via social media. She’s earned her share of controversy, mainly from critics (and peers) who cannot wrap their heads around how crowdsourcing and direct patronage even works, and insist that those things have got to be in some way wrong because they cannot understand such a novel model of artist/fan relations. The no-middleman business model isn’t for everyone, but it’s worked out pretty dang well for Amanda Fucking Palmer, and besides all that, it’s given her a unique platform for her activism. She has her very own grassroots network of dedicated supporters, people who may have come for the music but who’ve stayed for the political engagement and consciousness raising. Palmer has always been outspoken in her feminism and keenly aware of her power, as an artist, to be heard and the responsibility to share stories and amplify other voices. Right now, in suddenly turbulent times, she’s tapping and amplifying a deeper rage, as the stakes in activism become increasingly life or death. Amanda Palmer is very serious about being the a spokesvoice for women who are livid with rage and fear, and using her network to blur the lines between entertainment and political action. The personal is the political is the entertainment is the culture is the agent of change.

Small Town Moon

Regina Spektor is hardly a small town girl; she was born in Moscow and grew up in the Bronx. Anyhow, you won’t hear her trying to pander to the kind of people who think that having one stop light is somehow a virtue. For her, the image of that moon is just a jumping-off point to flex her weirdness. The small town, for one thing, is all in your head, it’s a state of mind. A neurosis, if you will. It’s never about the moon, baby, it’s about your existential crisis. Leave it to a Russian to explain to you that the flourishes of Romanticism are just a fluttering lace curtain masking a landscape of nihilistic despair. Or something. Regina Spektor has a sunnier disposition than that, I suppose, and her message is more about getting some living done while you’re still as young as you’re ever going to be.

Slide

I love the plaintiveness of Jake Bugg’s voice. The kid sounds like a sad little angel. In, like, a sexy way. Or course, pretty boys who have the sads for no reason is basically its own genre, and it’s rather a weak basis to build a career on, not that there’s any shortage of people who’ve built careers on just that. Jake Bugg, fortunately, isn’t trying to build his brand on having just one mood. This guy does have some range, although he’s proved that it doesn’t include rapping. And, yes, being all feelsy and sensitive is a strong suit. I like a moderate amount of well-delivered feelsiness, myself. I think this is just the right amount.

Sister Wife

Songs about polygamy are few and far between, so it’s not much competition to say that this is the very best one. This is definitely the best song about polygamy. Polygamy is frowned upon for very good reasons in real life, but it sure makes for a fresh and original spin on the old love triangle songwriting trope. Alex Winston has an interest in unusual topics; her record is jam-packed with songs about unexpected things. If you’re going to write about something as mundane as sexual jealousy, it’s very hard to make that new again. Winston is a rare songwriter in that regard. She makes the same old shit of life new again. Now if only she could get out of record label purgatory and start making new music again…

Simple as This

I’ve been following Jake Bugg since day one, and the kid’s been pretty consistent, even if he’s outgrown the wunderkind hype. But nothing he’s done since 2012 has compared to his debut. Understandably so; the huge impression his first record made was due in part to the wonderment that something so completely well-formed and characteristic could come from a teenage boy with no previous show business experience. It’s the kind of debut that feels really special because it’s so unexpected. The same level of sophistication loses its glow when it’s coming from a guy now in his mid-twenties, and that’s the burden of being an early bloomer. But that doesn’t make the record a novelty or a flash in the pan. It’s held up and probably will continue to hold up better than most of what came out in 2012, because it doesn’t sound like a product of its time. It sounds like the work of someone who doesn’t care what time he’s living in.

Shackled and Drawn

We don’t wait breathlessly to see what Bruce Springsteen will be up to next. He set up his themes and topics very concisely a long time ago, and nobody wants or expects him to go off and make an EDM record or write a rock opera set in space. Springsteen is not going to get weird in his old age and he’s not about to embarrass himself trying to stay edgy. That’s because he’s got a huge legacy of work that still feels relevant and he knows it. He still performs relentlessly, from globetrotting stadium tours to intimate one-man shows, making him one of the hottest ticket sellers in the world. People want to see Springsteen, a whole lot of people, and part of it may be the element of nostalgia for the hits, but it’s also because even the most obscure old material still speaks to real issues. So, it’s not like we really need new Springsteen material, but, I have to say, he’s still putting out some really good work. 2012’s Wrecking Ball was an outstanding album; musically diverse, hard-rocking and very angry. Springsteen has been playing with elements of folk music for a long time, but this may be the first time he’s drawn heavily on gospel music. Gospel makes everything better, obviously, but it also helps place Springsteen’s work within a larger historical tradition, a position in American music history that goes back further than the narrow parameters of rock star hitmaking.

Sex Yeah

“If women were religiously
Recognized sexually
We wouldn’t have to feel the need to show our ass,
It’s to feel free”

More pop stars should have lyrics this blunt. But few pop stars ever confront the conundrum of sex roles and entertainment. Marina Diamandis isn’t really a pop star per se, though. She just plays one as a means of writing commentary about what it means to be a pop star. And feminine roles in general, and the havoc they wreak on the feminine psyche. The fact is that women perform femininity, and in many cases the performance is as studied and effortful as a drag queen’s, except without the option of wiping off the mascara and being a man again the next day. We live our lives as an endless burlesque, putting on the drag in the morning, sashaying all day long, stripping artfully at bedtime, and if we’re fortunate enough to actually have alone-space, catching a few hours of unguarded snooze. Some find that the part comes naturally, that it’s easy and fun; for others, being a socially presentable female is a grinding charade. That’s just real life, though. When women become entertainers, they play wildly exaggerated versions of their own personalities, and the archetypes those personalities are boxed into. (Some end up playing archetypes that have nothing to do with their real personalities at all, which must be its own circle of hell.) There’s the option of satirizing the archetype, or of breaking the box and creating a new archetype, but in the big money pop arena, self awareness doesn’t pay. Nor does ‘the talent’ have much power over what they sing, say, wear or post on Instagram – it’s all managed by handlers. That’s why we really, really need a satirical pop star like Marina, who explores both the absurdity and the fun of sex roles, their potential for empowerment or damage – and wraps it all up in glittering, perfect pop songs.