At this year's Super Bowl, the Black Eyed Peas performed, and it was spectacular. They played a medley of all of their best songs, which is to say, they played all of their songs. This was their year. Not only did people want them to perform at the Super Bowl, but when it was finally announced, everyone understood why and really just fucking loved it.
Their best accomplishment, though, is probably their 2011 hit that is definitely a real thing, "As Long as We're Partyin'." They played it at the Super Bowl, at the Oscars and anywhere you can play songs. Except of course on a webcam on YouTube, so I thought I would help them out. Here is my cover of my favorite Black Eyed Peas song that totally exists, "As Long as We're Partyin'." Watch it with the annotations on for the full experience.
The following is horrifying, if you think about it: A poll this year showed that one in four teenage girls thinks she'll be famous when she grows up.
Let's do the math. There were about 15 million teenage girls in the USA at the moment they answered that question. Within that group is a minority, let's say 20 percent, who have enough talent to earn encouragement and compliments from friends, family and strangers. Each of them has grown up believing her talent is "one in a million," rather than "one in five." Then you have another 5 percent who have no talent and are just delusional.
Among those 3.75 million girls is a tiny handful who actually have the unique combination of talent, charisma and physical beauty to become a celebrity in some capacity. A tiny handful of others will achieve fame in the purely accidental reality TV Snooki way. All told, my scientific calculations show that for every one teenage girl who goes on to become famous, there are 100,000 who fully thought they would be, but will have their hopes dashed.
This terrifyingly unrealistic view of fame has created a whole new class of public figure, the "Let's make fun of this laughably untalented person because she had the audacity to think she deserved fame" celebrity. These are random members of the untalented 100,000 who we will drag in front of the spotlight and humiliate in front of millions -- the hilariously bad contestants in the early stages of American Idol are the most prominent examples of this.
And then you have Rebecca Black.
It turns out there are companies now that cater to the aspiring fame monsters of the world and their parents. Rebecca Black's mother, for instance, paid $4,000 to Ark Music Factory to make a pop video starring her 13-year-old. This probably happens every day, and YouTube is full of bland and generic performances from autotuned teens, most stuck at fewer than 1,000 views.
But whatever paint-by-numbers process this label uses to produce these songs has somehow, in the case of Rebecca Black, created something amazing. And profoundly terrifying.
To call the lyrics of "Friday" shallow or mindless would miss the point -- most pop music can be described that way. No, hearing this child enthusiastically celebrate in song the choice of which car seat she will occupy for the five-minute commute to school ... it's something different. Something dark and cruel and knowing.
"Friday" digs in its claws and rips the top off your skull like an ape pulling apart an orange, exposing your tender mind to the cold truth of the universe: that all of our life decisions are exactly this vapid and meaningless, a tragically oblivious tune we all hum on our way to the grave. "Friday" is nothing more than death holding up a mirror and saying, "This is you, as viewed through the eyes of eternity. Do you see?"
"DO YOU SEE?"
We watched that video 166 million times on YouTube (eventually a dispute between Black and Ark Music would result in her getting it taken down -- the version above was uploaded to her channel later). That's more views than any but a few of the biggest hits from pop superstars. In other words, the Internet found the act of pointing and laughing at this middle school kid more compelling than the entire collective body of music made by all of mankind's geniuses throughout history.
None of this is Black's fault, obviously. She was 13. She didn't write the song. She was told by everyone around her she was really good at singing and so she did the ambitious thing: she recorded a tune. She took what she thought was an opportunity to get a career started. For her efforts she would get interviewed on TV shows and get death threats and eventually drop out of school.
We hope you learn your lesson, Rebecca Black. And when you do, let us know what that lesson is, because we have no fucking idea.
I'll admit, this was a toughie for me. Though I have broad musical tastes, I'm also an elderly man trapped in the body of a young man with the physical capacities of a middle-aged man, so I'm not totally "in the loop" on the latest "Rihannas" and "other popular singers" of the pop world. Add to that a modifier as restrictive as "most representative of 2011" and I'm reduced to pawing at my third-generation iPod touch like some kind of fucking Luddite caveman.
THE SCREEN IS MADE OF ETERNITY.
And that's when I realized with a cold jolt of horror: It's all Rihanna. Where was I ever going to find a song that fit my theme of "economically downtrodden post-apocalyptic DIY creative renaissance?" Then I remembered Hadestown, probably my favorite album of 2010, and further recalled that Cracked is a comedy site and not the damned Vatican, so here's an interview with Anais Mitchell about this awesome folk opera that she wrote, set in a depression-era post-apocalypse and chronicling the Greek Orpheus myth.
And to appease you sticklers, also note that the show is still very much active now, in the year 2011, and also that there are songs in it. "Epic (Part II)" is one. Sounds epic, right? What do you think, Anais?
ANAIS: "... premature ejaculation ... anatomically weird ... YOUR SHLONG ..."*
*Please note, all of Anais' quotes are taken maliciously out of context. Mine are fabricated entirely.
Sometimes I bang a tambourine to punctuate my words.
ME: "Wow, I've never interviewed anyone before; it's much more of a power trip than I'd expected. At any rate, it's pretty clear how articulate you are, Ms. Mitchell, so I'm going to get out of the way and let you plug your awesome thing that I fully endorse."
ANAIS: "The thing about the Greek myths is they are open-ended enough to lend themselves to many interpretations. We don't have as much cultural baggage with the Greeks as we do with Bible stories or Native American stories, so we can really make it our own."
ME: "Right, also Ani DiFranco and that guy from Bon Iver are on the record. I guess they're not really records now, huh? It's funny how that --"
ANAIS: "It began as a stage show in the independent republic of Vermont. There were three collaborators: myself, Michael Chorney and Ben T. Matchstick."
ME: "You interrupted my observational bit. That's very rude. Now I'm going to speak in a computer language for a while that will allow readers to easily navigate to some songs from Hadestown."
"Why We Build the Wall"/"Our Lady of the Underground"
"Wait for Me"
"Way Down Hadestown"
"Epic (Part II)"
"Pretty neat, right?"
ANAIS: "We just roped in all these friends of ours from different bands around Vermont to sing the roles. When the record rolled around, and we started working with Todd Sickafoose --"
ME: "Wow, explicitly mentioning the record. You've really undermined me from the start of this interview, Ms. Mitchell."
ANAIS: "If there's a conflict between Hades and Persephone, there's a conflict between industry and the natural cycles."
ME: "Fuck you."
A big thanks to Anais for sitting down with me, and if you don't love this album and thank me for using this opportunity to shoehorn it into an article and share it with you, you are wrong.
I took a leap of faith and picked a song that I'm guessing most of you don't know. I did it on purpose. If you're still game, watch this:
There are about 38 reasons why I picked "The Honest Truth" by Typhoon as the song that best represents 2011, but let me just list two or three for brevity's sake. For one, the lyrics:
"So be kind to all your neighbors
Be kind to all your neighbors
Cuz they're just like you
They're just like you
AND YOU'RE NOTHING SPECIAL
Unless they are, too."
Bold type mine. If there were something I could drill into the hearts and minds of all American children, this would be it. Be nice. You're not so special. Stop slouching.
Your miracle of creation just pooped in my hand.
Which brings me to the other thing I love about this song -- there's a freaking village of people performing it. All of them on a stage, each playing an instrument that he had to practice years to learn. Watching these Movember-faced musicians perform this song reminds me that despite all the crap going on in the world right now, good lord, kids are still learning how to play instruments. Horn instruments and stand-up violin instruments and things that look like toy keyboards but aren't. For every hundred hipsters out there talking about the magic of music and putting cliched text over retro-looking images and calling it art, there's at least one kid who's really dedicated to learning a craft that he's going to one day beat you over the head with. Because he (or she) is so good.
And then maybe he'll gather 72 of his friends and write a kickass song for you.