Raining Men

Well, this is about the polar opposite of my own life, but I’m glad that Rihanna and Nicki are both getting some. Obviously, the level of bad-bitch-ness that Rih and Nicki Minaj are at is an unattainable ideal, especially for those of us who spend most of our time indoors with our cats. But there’s a little bit of a bad bitch inside of all of us, and we need to remember that when we’re feeling like useless blobs of angst. The musical stylings of Rihanna don’t get a lot of credit for having deep cultural or spiritual impact, and hey, they’re not really there for that. But Bad Gal RiRi is there to remind us that we should be having fun and being fabulous and there’s billions of fish in the sea, just in case anyone cares about fish. Don’t ever misunderestimate how fucking empowering it feels to be fabulous and get in front of the lights and cut loose.

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Pour It Up

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.

Pose

A little while back, I took us on a trip down memory lane to Rihanna’s very first single. It was a catchy, fun, fairly generic pop song, set apart only by the burgeoning charisma of its singer. Flash forward a decade. The singer is now one of the biggest pop stars in the world. The music is no longer generic pop. Up until recently the idea of loving a Rihanna album was hard to imagine; one loved Rihanna songs, yes, but there wasn’t really such a thing as a Rihanna album. A Rihanna album was a collection of Rihanna singles. However, Rihanna’s last album, Anti, is an album in the classic sense of the word – a unified statement not powered by hit singles. It still has elements of pop, but now there’s more interesting things at play; trip-hop, house, R’n’B, d’n’b, edm, etc. Rihanna executive produced the record and cowrote most of the songs, and all that creative control clearly shows that dancing in the sunshine was never her vision of herself.

Pon De Replay

Flashback to 2005, y’all! It’s pretty much a given that whatever’s at the top of the music charts at any given time is pretty much crap that will be forgotten within weeks. It’s been that way since time immemorial. When a young artist tops the charts with their debut single, you expect them to also be forgotten within weeks. But every once in a while that young artist with the catchy single develops into a real keeper. When Rihanna had this, her first hit, there wasn’t much to put her ahead of all the other pretty girls with promising singles, but she soon established herself as pop music’s resident bad girl. It was her rock solid judgement in picking hit singles, her give-no-fucks attitude, her unapologetic glamour, her turbulent personal life and her honesty about it – all the things that make a great pop star, all in one loud package. More than a decade later, she’s not only still at the top of her game, she’s actually growing out of the gilded pop star box and edging towards becoming an artist with vision. The distinction between pop star and visionary artist is kind of a false dichotomy anyway; plenty of successful pop stars have vision. It’s a vision of themselves being successful pop stars. But there’s definitely a difference between those who are content to sing and dance and make money, and those who see themselves as cultural figures with something to say. Rihanna has been evolving slowly from the former to the latter, and if she never arrives at ‘serious artist’ acclaim, it won’t be because she couldn’t transcend the tropes of ‘stupid pop star’.

Only Girl (In the World)

Let’s take a break from the arty and obscure and just enjoy a shot of pure, uncomplicated pop. Yep, simple and uncomplicated with no problematic baggage to unpack or intricate social context to parse- Oh wait! Never mind, this is Rihanna. No pop star in her echelon has more contextual baggage. If you want to ask why I would be a fan of Rihanna, one of the queens of the corporate pop machine, the short answer would be, she’s so damn good at being a pop star. She can dance in a negligee and deliver a mindless song like she really believes in it. She’s great at being glamorous. She’s an unrepentant ‘bad girl’ with very little interest in maintaining a ‘likable’ reputation. And as for the heavy baggage of being a woman of color in the stereotype-driven pop world, of having her difficult personal past made into another item of public consumption, of trying to have a creative voice and control her image in an industry that gives its biggest names the least amount of freedom? She carries it all with remarkable grace. I call it the grace of having no fucks left to give. She’s damn good at what she does, she’s not ashamed to profit from the industry that profits from her, she’s not afraid to reclaim images of black womanhood that ‘cleaner’ stars would shy away from as too loaded, and she will not be a part of anyone’s cheap victim narrative.

Best of 2015 II

Part Two. The Songs.

A little extra space for those whose albums didn’t quite make the top cut, or those who didn’t actually release an album. The songs I listened to. A lot. This year.

1. ★ – David Bowie

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Nothing casts a longer shadow Blackstar. Released in November, it inspired the kind of fanfare only new stirrings by David Bowie could attract. Of course we didn’t know that it was meant as the artist’s swan song, a parting gift, a characteristically cryptic goodbye. We just thought it was mighty epic. In a season of electrosynth, it’s almost painful and wrong to receive something of this caliber, as a goodbye no less. We’re not worthy.

 

2. Ex’s & Oh’s – Elle King

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The naughtiest, sexiest pop confection. So inescapable and so catchy, you almost didn’t notice how subversive it was. Elle King is one of a new breed of smart young pop stars, armed with the message that empowerment is fun.

 

3. On the Regular – Shamir

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This Las Vegas-based new talent combines a soulful countertenor, a love for candy colored disco beats and a playful humor to create what critics have called ‘bubblegum hip hop’. If anyone is going to write this generation’s I Will Survive, it’s gonna be this kid. He’s not quite there yet, but he’s zooming along nicely.

 

4. New Americana – Halsey

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Yeah, it’s a self-conscious, Balenciaga-referencing, portrait-of-my-generation anthem that wouldn’t exist without Royals. But Halsey has greater ambitions than riding Lorde’s coattails for a minute on the pop charts. Her debut was a concept album about an apocalyptic near future of her own invention. She has things to say.

 

5. Tongues – Joywave

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This has actually been stuck in my head since the fall of 2014, and I was waiting to see if Joywave’s debut album lived up to the delirium. It does. This is the best of today’s electric indie pop wave.

 

6. The Party Line  – Belle & Sebastian

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Didn’t Belle and Sebastian used to be known for making sleepy folk music? They’ve been at it long enough to have been a punchline in High Fidelity. But this… This you can dance to. I guess this is a band evolving with the times. Tired of being called twee, they take to electropop.

 

7. Black Sun – Death Cab For Cutie

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Welcome to Ben Gibbard’s big divorce album. It would make a bigger impact if every Death Cab record didn’t sound like a breakup album. The romantic mope is what these guys do best.

 

8. Lifted Up (1985) – Passion Pit

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Passion Pit continues the trend for catchy, New Wave influenced indie pop. There’s been a lot of it lately, mostly of the one hit and out variety, and Passion Pit, with a total of three albums, is looking more and more like a keeper.

 

9. Leave a Trace – Chvrches

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This could be a long lost Cyndi Lauper song, it’s that 80’s. And that’s great. Will Lauren Mayberry grow up to be a similarly iconic figure? Too early to tell, but I’ve been watching Chvrches since their debut a few years ago, and it would be nice if I could continue.

 

10. 10,000 Emerald Pools – BØRNS

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Ok, so maybe Garrett Borns, with his pretentious stage name and sensitive-guy hair, is pure hipster bait. Maybe I’m a sucker for that stuff. Maybe this is a pretty great song.

 

11. Paranoia – Max Frost

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Max Frost is now famous enough to merit his own Wikipedia page, but it’s only a paragraph long. So he’s still got a ways to go before he reaches real fame, but it’s when not if, and when he does, you heard it here first.

 

12. Painted – MS MR

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Just when it seemed like Ms Mr wasn’t going to live up to the promise of Hurricane… This isn’t quite as great, but it’s nice to have them back, and it would be nice to have more fanfare about it.

 

13. American Oxygen – Rihanna

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Rihanna is hardly the first person to use a video montage of iconic images superimposed on an American flag to illustrate a basic political point. We get it, MLK would be aghast at the violence and injustice still being dished out upon a mostly black underclass, and the American Dream is big bust for most of us, etc. (And some viewers might find it objectionable that the singer’s nipples are clearly visible throughout.) But I want to take this as a sign that Rih is beginning to mature into a more serious-minded artist. She has the talent and charisma to become the kind of artist people pay attention to when she has something important to say.

 

14. Blank Space – Father John Misty

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Oh, hey, here’s a novelty song. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. You’ll curse the heavens for taking Lou Reed, and you’ll thank Glob that at least we have Father John Misty. Oh, and maybe, just maybe, possibly, Taylor Swift is not entirely a vortex on inanity in human form.