2013 in music: The year of endless controversy

2013 in music: The year of endless controversy

If one picture can sum up the entire year in music, it’s that instantly notorious shot of Miley Cyrus grinding on Robin Thicke at this summer’s MTV Video Music Awards. It’s an incredibly loaded image, one that’s been burned into our cultural consciousness as completely as any since Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl nip-slip or the Britney Spears/Madonna lip-lock at the VMAs 10 years prior: the year’s most divisive pop star, tongue corked and skin squeezed tight in latex, and the singer of the year’s most divisive pop song, making the most of the biggest spotlight of his career. Cyrus and Thicke didn’t have much to do with each other before that performance, and their paths haven’t crossed since, but for one moment they were united in symbiotic rebellion, each using the other to shed the last of their images as an innocent Disney girl and a tame Justin Timberlake for the dinner-and-a-movie set, respectively. 
 
To follow pop culture in any capacity this year was to have an opinion about that scene and the artists behind it, each of whom gave the nation’s water-cooler gatherers plenty to chew on. With her use of voluptuous, twerking black women as performance props, Cyrus added a racial twist to the familiar “over-sexualized pop singer” debate. Thicke, meanwhile, paired “Blurred Lines,” a song already soaked with insinuations of non-consensual sex, with a provocative NSFW video that, true to the single’s title, wallowed in the gray area between harmless fun and exploitation. Cyrus and Thicke were hardly the only artists ruffling feathers this year, though they were undoubtedly the best at it. Rick Ross and Lil Wayne were both dinged by lyrics controversies, while Kanye West invited controversy with the psychosexual sloganeering of Yeezus—not that artists needed to court backlash to find it. Even musicians with safer images were called out, including Timberlake (“blatantly sexist”), Drake (“utter male-fantasy bullshit”), and New Zealand’s 17-year-old pop upstart Lorde (“deeply racist”). In 2013, controversy was either a prerequisite for success or the inevitable byproduct of it; either way, you weren’t anybody unless you were offending somebody.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. For as long as there’s been a spotlight, there have been artists laying out bait and critics gobbling it up. But this year the cycle of umbrage was more all-consuming than it’s ever been, as controversy eclipsed everything else to become the primary lens we discussed music through. The year’s critical discourse played out like an arms race: As artists seemed to grow more brazen about skirting the lines of good taste, commentators retaliated by blowing each perceived infraction that much further out of proportion. “Is Lorde’s ‘Royals,’ the top song on the Billboard Hot 100, racist?” a CNN.com headline screamed earlier this fall, examining the sort of semantic debate that was once the primary domain of music forums and Tumblrs, not national news sites. The answer, of course, is no, obviously not. Lorde’s critique of hip-hop materialism may be reductive—“every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, tripping in the bathroom,” she sings, showing no understanding of what an exaggeration that is—but it’s not “racist,” a word that, like “sexist,” “misogynist,” and (shudder) “rape-y,” got thrown around so freely this year that it began to lose all meaning.

It’s a critic’s job to call out artists on bullshit, and artists certainly dropped their share of it this year. Unfortunately, music writers responded by becoming full-time moral police—a gig that, frankly, many weren’t equipped for. Most critics are too blinded by biases to be moral authorities, not least of which is the hunger for pageviews. It’s understood that the hottest take on any given artist will be showered with clicks, as will any think piece to first spot smoke where there may or may not be fire. The bigger, even more unavoidable bias, though, is simple perception. Like all art, music is subjective. Some artists simply rub some listeners the wrong way; others are charming enough to get away with things many of their peers couldn’t.

Those biases came into play big time when even critics traditionally sensitive to feminist issues gave a pass to Robin Thicke for “Blurred Lines.” Pop critics, in general, like Robin Thicke. The singer had been toiling around the margins of stardom for more than a decade, and they were happy to see him finally enjoy his breakout, even if it came by way of a song that was, to use another word that got ground into a nub this year, “problematic.” Certainly a devoted married man and proven good guy like Thicke couldn’t possibly mean that when he sang the phrase “I know you want it” over and over again. Had the same words come from an artist with less banked goodwill, however—let alone a figure like Chris Brown—those same critics would’ve been a lot less likely to give it the benefit of the doubt. Similar personal biases shaped responses to Kanye West and Drake’s latest works. For listeners who respect those rappers as artists, their albums were honest, sometimes confrontational windows into the flawed male psyche. For listeners who find those rappers fundamentally dislikable, though, they’re buffoons whose chauvinism runs so deep they must not even realize it creeps into their albums.

By dwelling on controversy so disproportionately this year, the media turned it into a prized commodity. Artists who had controversy dominated the conversation; those who didn’t disappeared into the background. Both Lady Gaga, whose un-sensational ARTPOP fell short of sales expectations, and The Weeknd, whose creatively and morally bankrupt Kiss Land was rightly ignored by the masses, probably would have paid good money to be the subject of a scathing, widely circulated Jezebel think piece. But there’s danger in incentivizing recklessness, and November gave us a particularly nauseating example of what happens when our culture insists on feeding Gremlins after midnight. Looking to announce her comeback in the cheapest way possible, British singer Lily Allen released a video that cries out for think pieces with a bullhorn. A satirical attack on rap culture disguised as a feminist rallying cry, the video for “Hard Out Here” plants Allen as a fish out of water on the set of a music video, where a pack of backup dancers caress their crotches, spray each other with champagne, and twerk, twerk, twerk (the camera zooms in disapprovingly as the dancers’ asses ripple in slow motion). Allen’s contempt for her surroundings bleeds through every frame, and the optics are cruel: a mostly clothed white artist, surrounded by dancing women of color, mocking them with her detachment (as well as her words: “Don’t need to shake my ass for you, ’cause I’ve got a brain,” she snaps). Where Lorde at least displayed some subtlety in her critique of rap music, Allen just tossed a grenade in a crowded room and hoped the casualties would number high enough to warrant some attention.

It worked. Allen’s video amassed more than six million views in its first week—along with a long trail of righteous rebuttals and equally impassioned defenses—but it did so by taking advantage of some of our worst impulses: a need to weigh in on something just because everybody else has, the tendency to overstate our opinions, an inability to resist clicking something even though we’re pretty sure we’re not going to like it. No video this year was more cynical, but given its undeniable effectiveness, it’s a near certainty that another artist will find a way to top it in 2014.

Filed Under: Music

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