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.
If you don't know this one off the top of your head, just think back to the last time a chain store tried to sell you skinny jeans: This was the song they played. I didn't pick this because it's terrible (though Foster the People are definitely the Monkees to Broken Social Scene's Beatles), I picked it because 2011 is the year we can officially put a nail in the coffin of indie rock, and we're going to hammer that shit in with "Pumped Up Kicks."
2011 is to indie rock what 1979 was to punk rock: It marks the official tipping point from subculture to marketable commodity. You'll find this album wedged firmly in the indie rock section of every record store (ha! Like those are a thing anymore), and yet it's a song written by a commercial jingle writer (seriously, that was his job when he wrote it) who came to prominence after first being featured on Entourage.
Marky Mark taints everything by association.
The worst part is, it's so utterly forgettable and innocuous that the song doesn't even stick out enough for you to hate. It's only once you look into it that you realize how cynical and exploitative a track it really is. For example, the lyrics make allusions to school shootings so as to cultivate that controversial buzz, yet Mark Foster denies that blatant connection vehemently at every turn, because actually acknowledging it might hurt the song's airtime on major stations. You really have to dig to find the source of this bullshit, because there's just so much shit that it's actually, physically concealing the bull.
When I first heard "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F)," I assumed it was a parody of the Rebecca Black song "Friday" that was tearing up the charts among people who are just kidding when they listen to music (Dave has more on that, "Friday" being his Song of the Year). The video for the song even features Black as the cool girl and Perry as a nerd with amazing breasts and striking blue eyes. But it turns out Perry wrote and recorded her ode to Friday before Black recorded hers, and meant every goddamn word of it.
Of course, that's assuming Katy Perry ever really means anything. Her most noteworthy trait seems to be her studied, almost aggressive inauthenticity. She is not the first female musician to flaunt her sexuality with a wink and a nod, but she would appear to be the first to use her boobs for the purposes of prop comedy.
Uh, my eyes are up here, girls.
Part of the time, she seems to be mocking the teenage girls who are her biggest fans. In the video for the song "Firework," which is about babies who are fireworks, we get footage of child cancer patients, and then fireworks start shooting out of her boobs.
So, y'know ... chin up, kid.
Katy Perry owned popular music this year the way Michael Jackson owned popular music for the year and a half after the Thriller album came out. Think I'm exaggerating? When "Last Friday Night" hit #1 over the summer, it became the fifth #1 hit off of her album. Thriller is the only other album to do that.
I don't think that we'll be choreographing prison dances to "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" years from now, but I do think that Katy Perry was clapping to the beat of both the best and worst musical trends of the year. For the worst trends, it's unclear if "Last Friday Night" inspired Rebecca Black or predicted her, because you can't pay me enough money to research Rebecca Black's artistic influences. Either way, Perry's song had some connection with the worst song to gain mainstream acceptance since "The Super Bowl Shuffle."
If she makes it into history books, the written word has failed us.
But "Last Friday Night" is also the perfect song to describe what I think is the healthiest trend in popular music of the past few years: the death of authenticity. We used to require artists to believably embody their music. Rock fans stopped liking you when they got the sense that you were no longer authentically angry. Tupac was a dancer who went to art school, and yet he wound up dead because we expected him to live the thug life that he rapped about. If you sold out (Metallica, Pearl Jam) or didn't shoot anyone (MC Hammer), you were laughed off the charts.
But in the past two years, Kanye West and Drake have released great albums about the difficulties of being a famous douchebag. My favorite song of the year, "House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls," is fun hip-hop with Bret Easton Ellis-flavored lyrics about sexual depravity and drug use. It's the first kickass party jam whose singer I would never want at a party with me.
There's really no point of intoxication where whatever is going on here looks attractive.
The same goes for Katy Perry. I'm sure there are some confused girls out there who think they idolize Perry, but it's difficult to idolize someone who never fully occupies a single persona. She's a pop star, and the meaning of that changes depending on what she finds interesting at any given moment -- which is a pretty good description of how we listen to music these days. In the era of week-long music libraries on shuffle, worrying about what's in the heart of the people singing in our ear buds is an exhausting pain in the ass. In a weird way, Katy Perry is about the music because she's about nothing at all.
Brains off, America. It's time to coast.
With the advent of Pandora and personalized Internet radio, there's really no reason to listen to terrestrial radio anymore. My musical preferences are allowed to get so niche and esoteric that, if unchecked, it will result in me bobbing my head to the rhythm of sad, sustained flatulence in the hopes of uncovering what it means in the historical context of sound. So when a pop song fights its way into my consciousness and I don't immediately hate it, I'm willing to recognize that as a tremendous achievement.
"Super Bass" has become hugely successful because it managed to infiltrate demographics for which it was never intended. It has the rare power only a few songs share to obligate people at any function, from children's birthday parties to candle vigils, to stop in mid-conversation and lose themselves to three and a half minutes of pure ass-shaking. It also didn't hurt that Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez were both caught singing it on camera, indirectly letting their own fan bases know that listening to other genres is allowed. In addition, 8-year-old Sophie Grace and that other one blew up on the Internet for their rendition in princess costumes. It's easy to predict why kids love the song -- the video, after all, looks like a particularly sexy episode of LazyTown. But with all these young girls embracing Nicki Minaj at once, adults had to collectively decide it was too much trouble to point out how overtly sexual the lyrics were and agreed that just this once they could get behind a song about how good drug dealers with six packs are at making underwear fall off. The logic, it turned out, was sound.
Basically the same thing.