ART TIMES 2009: Young Royals, Subtly Drawn

We'd be ever so pleased if you'd join us at the coronation

Man, French people. They are pretty good at directing movies.

This is what I thought after I watched Jean-Marc Vallee’s The Young Victoria, an unexpectedly nuanced, well-drawn period piece about Queen Victoria in her 17th and 18th years of life.

Imagine my surprise when I did a little recherche on the director and realized that Jean-Marc had directed Quebecois coming-of-age flick C.R.A.Z.Y. Jean-Marc ain’t no Frenchie, he’s Canadian! And for days after I saw his most recent movie, my friends and I were waxing poetic about the soft, adept touch of the French. We admired the directorial restraint, the subtlety involved in making as delicate a movie about as gargantuan a personage; we lauded his ability to avoid obviousness at all costs; etc. And then Jean-Marc had to go and ruin all our Gallic stereotyping with his Canadianness.

I saw C.R.A.Z.Y. almost 4 years ago in France. Apparently, French people have a hard time understanding les Quebecois, and this French-language movie was subtitled… in French. Ha. The film centers on a teenager, Zach, who is a bit of a space oddity in his very Catholic, traditional, suburban family home. Lots of friction between father and son ensues. Son wants to just live rocknroll, dad says he has to get a real job. It was the kind of movie that makes you laugh, cry, etc, and mainly illustrates the saving power of music (Bowie, Pink Floyd, 70s stuff like that, specifically) to a young teenage soul.

C.R.A.Z.Y. didn’t get much press States-side, or probably anywhere, but it was mosdef one of those movies that actually conveys an understanding of what it’s like to be 17. Luckily for us, Jean-Marc applied this understanding to The Young Victoria, and made one of the most excellent and yet understated movies about growing up that came out last year. Move over, langorous youth of New Moon and magical adolescents of HP: The Half Blood Prince.

Remember all the hullabaloo about Marie Antoinette? It features a no wave soundtrack! And pretty young American things! Ooh, so unconventional! Sofia Coppola aimed to repaint the young French royals as young Gossip Girl cast members. And sure, that movie was totally pretty, but it was also totally uncompelling. The danger of portraying vapid shit is becoming the vapid shit.

Coppola’s mistake was to conceptualize history within the trappings of our contemporary understanding of glamour; therefore, she didn’t latch onto anything essential or important, either in Marie’s time or ours. Maybe that was the point–but still, glamour is all relative, so the movie was all fluff, or to be precise, mille-fueille icing.

Jean-Marc Vallee, fortunately, chose the opposite path for his period piece. Of course, he made a pretty movie. But he latched on to the only things that are always essential: love, family, power struggles, and the life of the mind. And then he applied these essential life factors to the young royals in his film (Victoria and Albert, specifically), and what he came up with was a totally plausible, sympathetic and yes, even TIMELESS portrayal of what it is to come of age and also be royalty.

To sum up the plot: Victoria is the heir to the English throne but her uncle, the king, (played memorably as a fizzle-headed jolly old chap by Jim Broadbent) is going to be dead soon. Lots of other people want the power Victoria is about to inherit; they jostle. King dies. Victoria is queened, but she’s been sheltered all her life, so has to learn how not to get swindled, and fast. She finds a cute indie rock boyfriend from Belgium, they write letters (probably drawing cute owls in the margins), get married, lose virginities. Victoria gets swindled a couple times, blushes, learns from it, moves on, rules England. Fin.

This movie doesn’t pretend to be more than it is; it’s just about one lady’s very momentary struggle to find her voice amongst a chorus of manly voices. It’s about having butterflies in your stomach when your new Belgian boyfriend touches your hand. It’s sometimes even a little bit about pretty dresses, and it doesn’t touch imperialism with a stick. But still, ultimately this movie is about politics, both personal and political, and how to balance those two spheres… specifically, how to balance these spheres with a pearly glow in your English cheeks, while a golden hue is cast over everything by some excellent Polish cinematographer… you get the idea. Go see this movie, you won’t be disappointed.

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2009 ART TIMES: Belgium and Existential Unrest

The Empire of Light

This past summer I went to England and took a brief sojourn over in Belgium, land of beer and wacky people. Has anyone seen the movie In Bruges? This film nicely summarizes the existential weirdness I have felt in Belgium. At one point in the movie, hitman Colin Farrell sits on a bench in a medieval square of Bruges. The incongruity of a brash Irish assassin plopped into a fairy-tale backdrop is enough to cause a laugh. But then the camera focuses on a dog with bulbous, insect-like eyes and an alien shaved snout. This dog is looking expectantly, or perhaps sympathetically, at our Irish hero. Colin Farrell just stares back in disbelief, and surely he is thinking, “What is my life?!”

It is no coincidence that this nether land evokes the sad revelation that life may very well be a meaningless, gloomy, and absurd jaunt.  Perhaps this existential dismay is caused by Belgium’s uncertain cultural position between Flemish and French; it doesn’t know who it is, (every two or so years someone writes up an article about how the country is on the verge of splitting) so how are outsiders supposed to get it? Or maybe the old cultural centers of Belgium, such as Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp, never got over the descent from their Renaissance-era Golden Age, and a bad Qi settled over them. Or maybe it’s just the weather, or there is a vortex of weirdness settling over the land. Who knows.

But what we do know is that Belgium has its own special brand of bleak absurdism, courtesy of René Magritte. This summer, my trip to Belgium was a lonely one. Like Colin Farrel, I wandered around the beautiful environs, wondering wtf I was doing there. On one occasion, I was merely trying to cross the street, and a parade of people dressed as medieval peasants marched by, smiling maniacally, playing brass instruments and exercising national pride by recalling their cheerful feudal past. I looked at other bystanders, hoping to find a face expressing the same shock as mine. But there were none. People either weaved through the parade, indifferent, or stopped to acknowledge this event as pleasant, as opposed to surreal and jarring.

I had been to Brussels three years prior, in February, and I was struck by the cold, joyless modern buildings of the E.U. capital. Barren gardens surrounded the royal’s castle in the city center, and these ‘jardins royaux’ had, foot-for-foot, far more gravel than manicured grass or stately fountains. At night, Brussels seemed more lively, with waffles and beer and falafels to warm the masses. Strolling down the Rue du Marché aux Fromages in search of dinner, my companion and I were heckled and harassed by the falafel stand owners, inviting us in all tongues to partake in their meilleur/mejor/beste shawarma. From there we took night shots of the buildings in the lovely old town square, which were either unscathed by/well restored after the bombs of WWII. The night literally sparkled, with a few spot lights illuminating the rococo lookin’ facades, while all the tourist traps lining the square exterior were twinkling with candles and art nouveau lamps.

Being in Brussels again this summer was like entering a weird fucking dream, because I walked the same streets and even went to the same waffle stand, only this time it was hot out, I was older, and I was alone. I wondered why I decided to come to the city and I could not come up with an answer. Yes, for some beer, but all the famous beer-brewin abbayes are outside of Brussels, and as an unaccompanied female traveler, I couldn’t do too much drinking alone as it was.  However, I did have one thing to look forward to–the newly opened Musée Magritte of the Musée Royaux des Beaux Arts.

On a sunny July day, I entered the new wing, which was three floors of purposely plain, darkly lit corridors. Magritte’s paintings and some of his advertising work was more or less chronologically ordered. The top floor featured his earliest stuff. By the third floor, I was completely overwhelmed. I have never quite figured out whether Magritte has a sense of humor, or if his juxtaposition of opposing sentiments and objects is the result of a serious attempt to create a new order of meaning. There is a lightness and deftness of hand even in his most terrifying work, but there is also a terrible weight in his lighter subject matter; eggs are made of stone, clouds lose their fluffiness and constitute real matter. His paintings, as any art history 101 prof would agree, left me unsettled and uncertain, since on the one hand they are representational and contain mundane, obvious objects, and yet the objects do not cohere to an earthly logical order.

Magritte will be an artist to ponder for a long time, and I left the museum with something other than loneliness on my mind. And so it was, oddly, that a king of absurdism and surrealism gave my trip some telos. And that was one of my great encounters with art in 2009.

In Defense of Aesthetic Contingency

Le Spleen de Paris causes me much pain; mayhaps I should get it removed

Compiling and reading end-of-year, and, good lord, END-OF-DECADE lists, can be an exhausting and unrewarding process. I thought about making a list of my favorite movies from the past year, but then I realized that my list would contain 5 or 10 of the same movies as everybody else’s list. I got bored just thinking about how much I liked The Hurt Locker, and it is sad when the best art is robbed of its exhilarating properties by the expected, codified way critics note their “favorites.”

Furthermore, we all know that there are objectively good and bad things that came out this year–we hardly need a list to sum it up if we’ve been paying attention. Daftpop was supposed to avoid shit like that, because it was originally conceived in appreciation for the subjectivities and contingencies of artistic taste, which is to say that daftpop wants to celebrate what a person feels drawn to and ends up loving the most. And let not this celebration of individual artistic taste be confused with the stupid egoism of some critics (more on this in a minute). The daftpop quest is to discover how we make our aesthetics, and that is a rather grand quest.

Baudelaire wrote in “Wagner and Tannhauser in Paris,” one of his more enjoyable long-winded essays on aesthetics, that writing from the “I” point of view binds the writer within the strictest confines of sincerity and truth. Now, I personally don’t prioritize sincerity or truth as important virtues when writing, but I do think these qualities are more integral to criticism than, say, disingenuous posing, mindless trend-following and stubborn contrariness, which together make the triumvirate of bad critical thinking. Baudelaire builds on his concept about “I,” by close reading the Tannhauser reviews by other respected critics. He then draws parallels between the critics’ subjective perceptions of the Wagner opera and calls the reader’s attention to the uncanny similarities between his, Berlioz, Musset and god-kn0ws-who-else’s-thoughts on the opera. From there, Baudelaire builds his totally psychedelic theory of “synesthesia,” the idea that great art can elicit the same experience in all those who encounter it. I am not talking about synesthesia here, in fact it’s pretty much contrary to my plan, but I did want to talk about the “I,” and the strength of subjective responses to art.

So in the spirit of not codifying a damn thing, and by humbling myself to the majesty of Art (a la Baudelaire), this week I will just write about my favorite encounters with “art” this year. These will include arts high and low… so watch out.

I Forgot About These Albums

Dude you are wack
Do I look seductive in this photo?

Yo! You know, I can’t believe I forgot to include these two albums in my list of the years best stuff. Here’s my final word:

Morrissey: Years of Refusal

Not the man’s best, but this man is still the best

Jay Z: The Blueprint III

Not the man’s best, but this man is still the best

This year, I liked some recordings, I found a lot of new stuff inspiring, but I hardly listened and relistened to anything. However, this is not true for either of the above-noted recordings. I listened to these albums all the damn time, but they aren’t new and flashy, so I forgot that they existed. In many ways, Jay Z and Morrissey are similar dudes. Both are megastars who are the defacto musical representatives of their nations. Jay Z’s King of New York Music thing is obviously a more self-conscious construction, but that doesn’t mean he is any less than one of our biggest, most significant stars, someone who skillfully uses American archetypes to make a great American myth, showing us Rags To Riches 2.0, making blueprints for how shit gets done, etc. He also claims that he made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can. What is a Yankee can? What am I not getting here? Whatevs, though, Jigga is the elder statesman of America’s most relevant musical/cultural product: hip hop.

Likewise, Moz is so British. But I will let one of the queen’s own argue that.

Tim Lott for The Guardian once noted in a great article about the Moz’s lyrics:

Also, the sentiments of Morrissey… were English sentiments. This poet – for it was clear that he was a poet – had the knack of taking the national experience as well as the national mindset and rendering it both visible and valuable. Until Morrissey wrote about fairgrounds, and Shelagh Delaney, and grey provincial towns, they were just there, part of the background hum(drum), hardly to be treasured or noticed at all. They were all of a piece with the generalised self … hatred and obliviousness that pervaded much of England in the 1980s as Margaret Thatcher drove the nation into two opposing, glowering camps.

Word.

Hypocrite Listener vs Daftpop Music Showdown

To Hypocrite Listener: Like all haterisms, hating hipsters sure gets old. I agree. What I’ve tried to convey is my boredom with the whole dismissive irony of some of the men making music in this genre. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the woman part of me feels left out from this entirely dude-ly genre. Trend-spotters have identified hipster style as gender-ambiguous, but I’d say it’s really more like women are dressing like men. I will be satisfied when men mix flannel with skirts and eyeliner. Anyway! Men are still the majority of music critics, the music makers, and the people at shows. And fo’ sho’, a majority of men present in a scene does not mean said scene is evil. But it does mean that I feel left out and will look elsewhere for a more colorful, various backdrop for my interests.

But, Anna! I can almost hear my detractors say: what about them women in the Dirty Projectors, what about Annie Clark and Natasha Khan? Yar, yar, yar: I agree and am very excited by the music they make. Also, for the record, I think the Dirty Projectors are totally, unequivocally awesome.

But besides the grievances I carry on behalf of my sex, Nige, I am probably more on your side than it seems. I get pissed too when people diss “hipsters” who live in our hoods. And I see that just by having a music blog, attending Pitchfork’s festival this summer, and owning a pair of black skinny jeans, I am clearly taking part in this massive subculture–as you pointed out, this subculture is a force that pretty much defines our generation. But I think it’s important to forever keep an eye on how this subculture bizness develops, what it includes, and what it leaves out. I think you’d agree with me on that.

But everything I’ve said so far makes it seem like taste is a conscious decision. In many ways, it is. But I’ve been bothered for a long time about the mystery of personal preference, especially when it comes to music taste. Can I tell you that you need to like T-Pain? Yes. But can I actually make you like him? No. Same goes for someone like Grizzly Bear. I can appreciate what the band is doing but still be totally bored by soft, mid-tempo acoustic songwriting. This might seem an evasive thing to say, because I am essentially acknowledging that even if we argue all day about the merits or demerits of T-Pain and Grizzly Bear, my ill-drawn pseudo-scientific theory about personal preference trumps all. Critics use ideas and objective material to discuss art; subjective likes and dislikes shouldn’t be an excuse. But at the same time, does not music possess mystical and intangible properties? We do our best to qualify all its empirical qualities, but still, the reason some songs sound awesome evades all logic. And besides, if all of art could be neatly codified into good and bad, wouldn’t it be something other than art?

Another note, for another blog post–I didn’t like 2009. It was a desert for good music no matter the genre. It was so bad, some people even postulated hip hop was dead. Maybe it’s all dying, or it’s just end-of-naughties fatigue.

Anyway, you may not prefer to listen to any of these songs, but perhaps you can appreciate them.

THE PLAYLIST IS LINKED HERE

Here they are, in no particular order:

–Beyonce: “Halo” and “Single Ladies”

There are few stars that I would indulge a double album showcasing the two sides of their persona. But Beyonce endlessly fascinates; she’s reserved, classy and a great old fashioned star, akin to Diana Ross, but with better pipes. Though I’ve seen her bare most body parts, B retains mystery and tact when overexposure is the norm. But more important than her persona is her voice. The brassy sass of “Single Ladies,” is all the more impressive heard in the context of “Halo.” Turns out, I need both sides of B’s coin. “Single Ladies,” which I have positively described elsewhere as a “robotic Motown stomp,” is alone in its aural universe; there’s really no other song like it. “Halo” is obviously one of millions of ballads, but Beyonce’s singing on that one sorta makes me cry.

–Big Boi feat. Gucci Mane: “Shine Blockas”

This is probably the most refreshing hip hop song of the year. Seriously, I was attentive to everything that came out. In the classics we had Ghostface, Mos Def and Raekwon. Commercial faves like Jay-Z, 50 Cent and to a much lesser extent Fabolous all released albums. There was a come back from Eminem. Clipse finally released their third album the other day. But you know somefink? Though some of that stuff was good, none of it was really new. (Although Clipse’s pandering to commercial hip hop was new, but that’s for another blog post.) Big Boi picked up hot-on-the-streets-today Gucci Mane and made a song that embodies a warm, breezy Georgia day, with slightly nostalgic and thankfully un-2009 instrumentation, and made an unassuming track that sounds like it’s been here for a while but will stick around forever.

–Most the-Dream songs, notably “Rockin’ That Thang,” “Walkin’ on the Moon,” even his collab with Fabo on “Throw It In the Bag,” and his production on Electrik Red’s album.

I object to the idea that most pop is “the set-it-and-forget-it trend of auto-tuned to death vocals over recycled beats and increasingly boring sampled material.” The-Dream and his buddy Tricky Stewart guarantee that a lot of the music on the radio sounds interesting. The warm, human option in a radioverse of T-Pain’s playful robotics, the-Dream is very like a chubby cherubim with a bewitchingly lovely voice. He also knows his way around the studio, channeling MJ on “Walkin’ on the Moon,” Prince on the Electrik Red song “Friend Lover,” R Kelly every which way, including a persona favorite, Electrik Red’s song “Freaky Freaky.” He’s not copping these masters, though, he’s paying a dutiful tribute while adding his own shit: speeding up the songs and adding like 16 tracks of bleeps, bops, strings, space sounds, etc: there’s literally never a dull moment on one of his songs. Pitchfork identified his style as rococo; indeed, the-Dreams interior design equivalent is probably this room. Did I mention the-Dream co-wrote “Umbrella” and “Single Ladies”? And that he is younger than you and me? ! ! !

–Ghostface: “Do Over”

Turns out Ghostdini didn’t have the lasting power I’d hoped for. Many long-time fans complained that Ghost didn’t bring it on this album as he had on his soul songs elsewhere. But I still think this song is a success.

–Pet Shop Boys: “All Over the World”

Okay, this song is totally ridiculous. It sounds like it was produced in 1996 and features gruesomely tacky faux-strings playing a famous ditty from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.” But whatever! This song is totally exhilarating; every time I hear the chorus, I imagine the aging Pet Shop Boys standing on top of a mountain with their arms majestically stretched out to the sky. As the feverish 90s-British-gay-club bass pounds, we see the snow-capped peaks around the P.S. Boys, and the expanse of this colorful world unfolds before our eyes.

–Bassment Jaxx: “Scars” & “Raindrops”

Sasha Frere Jones helpfully pointed this out earlier in the year:

Two dance acts emerged around the turn of the century, both of which had the visas to pass between the worlds of pop and dance. One was Daft Punk and the other was Basement Jaxx. Especially since Basement Jaxx used actual human vocals and wove a wide range of references into their music, I thought they would reach more people, and for longer. Quite the opposite.

Daft Punk offered the nexus of studied unhumanity, the final solution of Kraftwerk’s menschmachine universe. And yeah, I think DP is more accessible than BJ, because even though BJ offer uplifting melodies, they are often hidden in an unintelligible chaos. DP makes a squeaky clean sound, even when they’ve got a shit ton of distortion on. Anyway, Bassment Jaxx is becoming a much more compelling group than DP–they’re a lot more prolific, and their emotional register is wide and varied. “Scars” is an auditory thesis in desperation and darkness. (This song also puts Kelis’ at-times gruff alto to much better use than her new single “Acapella.”) “Raindrops” is the opposite, the refreshing washing away of darkness, like the last drizzle before a rainbow appears! Yay.

–MSTRKRFT: “Heartbreaker”

You’re probably mad at me because I am including a bunch of dance music in my list, and most fans of dance/electro/whatevs wear skinny jeans. But alas, it’s technically a different genre. I know most MSTRKRFT songs consist of Justice-esque power-punching distortion, (their 2009 album is called Fist of God, for heaven’s sake), but this walk on the sensitive side plucks my heart-strings every time. The piano is simple but more emotionally effective than the catharsis-mongering of, say, Alicia Keys. The lyrics are rather basic: “I feel like crying/just want to die.” But the spirit is similar to the substance of Kanye’s 808s, and who hasn’t felt that desperate?

–Raekwon + Ghostface: “Cold Outside”

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II is so dense that I haven’t absorbed more than half of it. But this song stuck out during my first listens; it’s all street-elegy, a pointed picture of what sucks about being poor, cold and stuck in the hood. Kids are smoking weed, mothers can’t afford diapers and no one can afford Newports at $7.50 a pack. Mariachi horns blare in and out of tune in an endless loop, sounding a bit like the undying cycle of human misery.

–Keri Hilson, Ne-yo, Kanye, “Knock You Down.”

Sure did love this song.

–Lady Gaga, “Bad Romance”

I had to acknowledge this one-woman phenomenon in some way, and it is by honoring her with a place on my playlist. “Bad Romance” has just the right amount of Gaga affectation; “Poker Face” was as static as the visage it describes; “LoveGame” featured a hook so obnoxious that it lulled you into a state of catatonic braindeath; “Paparazzi” was effectively creepy, but less because it’s about a stalker and more because it sounds uncannily like Gwen Stefani.  But the way she pronounces the word “romance” in this new single is brilliant: she slips in and out of a linguistic anachronism like she slips in and out of pop star cliches and robot outfits.  I am still embarrassed every time she says, “I’m a free bitch, baby,” but then again, no Gaga song is complete without something stupid like a “disco stick” popping up. Beside that, this song is pretty cool in a farty, thumping, idiotic sort of way.

–Jay-Z: “Thank You”

As previously mentioned, this song ain’t nothin new. But it suits Jigga to a ‘t’–I can just see him in his $4,000 suit, shimmying up his Italian silk tie, nonchalantly thanking all of us for providing him with riches. The marching horns on this track are a more effective testament to his old school New York cred than they are on “D.O.A.,” and, despite the questionable analogy about “9-11″ing his enemies, this song is a relaxed and enjoyable example of the rapper comfortably gazing down on us from his pedestal.

–Cam’ron: “I Hate My Job”

If there was a theme song for enduring a job during the recession, it’d be this one. Obviously being unemployed is miserable, but being locked into a job with a shitty commute, shitty boss, shitty hours, and shitty wages can be just as demeaning and dehumanizing. The piano loop sounds more like a Billy Joel rag or a Kermit the Frog sing-along than a track for the rapper of Purple Haze infamy, but I guess that just shows us that Cam’ron’s got the flexibility and wherewithal required to survive hard times.

–Clipse + Kanye: “Kinda Like a Big Deal.”

I listened to this song about 5 billion times this year, and I can’t remember what I ever liked about it. However, from an objective stand-point, this song features Kanye’s best verse of the year, and the guitars on this song are a much better way to rock in rap, as opposed to, say, Lil Wayne’s idea of how to rock in rap.

Rihanna Crosses to Dark Side, But Not Far Enough

i stole this glove from beyonce, but it's cool, it looks way more convincing on me anyway

So, Rated R. I still have a hard time knowing what criteria to use when considering the strengths of a pop album, because pop stars are not made by their full length albums, but by the strength of their singles and their image/aesthetic. I love pop music these days, but there are very few albums from this decade’s Billboard artists that I still find engaging or good.

Good Girl Gone Bad had a few excellent singles (“Umbrella,” “Disturbia”), while the rest (“Take a Bow,” “Rehab”) were conservative ballads that were timeless in a bad way: totally generic and characterless. There were a couple of “Watch out! I’m Rihanna and I’m really mad” songs, but those fell flat due to the flakiness of the production; sirens hesitantly blared and should have been more urgent, electric guitars were not nearly abrasive enough, etc. The “bad girl” was barely present; when she was, she was doing stupid stuff like throwing around some nice china and driving fast. Rihanna could have handled tough sounds and a tougher, more avant-garde image, but I suspect her production team was trying to preserve some femininity for the somewhat robotic and aloof star. Verdict: Good Girl Gone Bad was a transitional album, with tween-pleasing characterless ballads and sparingly few jolts of truly forward-looking shit.

Rated R has nothing as good as “Umbrella,” but the sad-sack songs have vastly improved, and, aesthetically, the album is a slightly more cohesive statement than Good Girl Gone Bad. Visually, Rihanna has finally given in to the darkness that she has always courted. The album cover features Rihanna as Siouxsie Sioux in 1982, or something, instead of the curvaceous Barbados babe she was on her last cover. Musically, the album is not as dark as it purported. The album opener is a strange little ditty inviting the listener into the “Mad House.” The organs and narration are straight outta “Thriller,” MJ’s compelling and enduringly spooky musical testament to the weird.

But it all gets lighter from there. In “Hard,” Rihanna’s newest single, she reminds us that she’s a hard mofo; unfortunately, it features Mr. Young Jeezy, who rhymes about heart attacks… again. Remember this, from Kanye’s “Amazing”?: “Standin’ at the podium/tryin’ to watch my sodium/die of high blood pressure/that or let the feds getcha.” What the fuck? What does a podium have to do with anything? Pfork gave “Hard” a 7 out of 10 as a single rating, but I am not convinced that this song is even that good. Even though Rihanna’s diction conveys her robotic strength as an elemental, necessary force, the song is a little silly; for example, none of the instruments sound good, and nothing sounds particularly hard. They should have put some chainsaws (or something) in the song to make it sound more convincingly badass.

“Hard” is followed by songs falling into one or other of these categories: conservative ballad, a la her old days, but with a darker lyrical bent, or stupid, stupid lite rock song. How come R&B and pop people can’t figure out how to make a guitar sound cool? Also, the pianos in “Firebomb” are cut from the Disney-single playbook. You know those Disney singles? Like Christina Aguilera’s version of that Mulan song? Ugh, those sparkly pianos. What I am trying to say is that all the guitars and pianos and everything sound like muzak in many Rihanna songs. This is especially true of the song “Firebomb,” which, again, doesn’t have enough power to sound like it could have things to do with real firebombs. Which are powerful!

Producers on Rated R include the-Dream, Ne-Yo, Justin Timberlake and other cool people; so how come this album sounds bad so much of the time? I hate to bring her up, but let’s talk about Lady Gaga for a second. This woman took an aesthetic and ran with it. She collected all the 90s euro synths she could, and hoarded them onto her album. If she was going to fail, she would fail miserably, as all her eggs were in one musical basket that sounded a bit like 90s Cher. But, hey, guess what, it worked! Congrats, Lady Gaga, you milked 6 singles off of one cd, and they pretty much all sound the same! Rihanna would do well to take a similar chance.

Sometimes, when Rihanna tries to go all classic, it works. “Te Amo” and “Cold Case Love” are both pretty beautiful, touching songs, and they will both age well. (Nevermind that “Cold Case Love,” JT’s contribution, sounds a lot like the gospel choir part of “Losing My Way.”)

Sometimes, songs sound eerily familiar. The dreaded will.i.am makes an appearance on “Photography,” a song whose parts are pretty much jacked from the verses of Kanye’s “Love Lockdown” and Burial’s love-lorned warbles on “Archangel.” I guess will.i.am is finally running out of ideas; thank god, maybe he will leave us soon.

Sometimes, the songs are just right. Take “Rude Boy.” This could be Rihanna’s thing: it’s a fast-paced dance/sex jam replete with synthesized steel drums reminiscent of the Caribbean. The song is a shout out to a rude boy, who Rihanna dares not to get it up for her. Clearly ‘rude boy,’ just sorta means gangsta in this song, and has no specifically place/time rooted identity; too bad–Rihanna and some dude in suspenders, a fedora and skinny black tie dancing in a sultry club surrounded by Jamaican palm trees and 14 kinds of rum would have made for a hot video.

In conclusion, Rihanna needs to come up with a production team that can create all the power she is singing about. She needs to take some chances on an aesthetic, and I think her next move could easily be a sort of goth Caribbean musical hybrid. She’s a big enough star that we’ll all still be with her for her next move.

Update: Kanye West in 2009

Shiny orbs reveal a contemplative Kanye

Last year this time I was sullenly nodding along to Kanye’s “808s and Heartbreak.” This year this time I am marveling at Kanye’s 2009 brand expansion. He didn’t put out an album, but he was all over everybody else’s, guesting, producing, sputtering, chuckling, but mostly, as some might say, spittin’ raw game.

Probably because everyone was so mad at him for making a depressing cd, Kanye made up for all that 2008 autotuning with some witty, sad, self-reflective, angry and haughty rhymes on his various guest appearances.

A playlist of Kanye’s 12–COUNT EM’–12 singles is available for your listening pleasure (or displeasure, depending on the song) here. The best of this crop is “Walkin’ on the Moon,” with the-Dream. I LOVE THAT SONG! But other artists with whom Kanye worked successfully include Rick Ross, Keri Hilson and Clipse. Least successful collabs were with the Teriyaki Boyz, as well as with everyone and their mom on “Forever,” which is an EPIC FAIL (to use internet speak) featuring the megastars Drake, Lil Wayne and Eminem. (I think it’s because I HATE DRAKE.)

Many of these songs feature similar themes and references to products. Below is a sort of index for Kanye’s songs of this last year. I was inspired by the index Slate compiled for Sarah Palin’s new book; the index topics revealed a lot about the book, so if you don’t have time to listen to Kanye, this list will fill you in on what you missed.

Brands (cars):

Mercedes Benz (Maybach Music 2, Poke Her Face, Whatever U Want)

Maybach (Maybach Music 2, obviously), also known as “May-what?” (Run This Town)

Lexus (Maybach Music 2, Whatever U Want)

Ferrari (Walkin’ On the Moon)

Volvo, did not buy for family a (Run This Town)

Rav 4, did not become a rapper to drive a (Run This Town)

Brands (not cars):

-Reebok, implying it is okay to wear a pair of (Knock You Down), scoffing that you still own pair of (Run This Town)

-Louis Vuitton, implying it is higher class to wear (Knock You Down),

-Dolce & Gabbana, in your closet, Kanye finds (The Big Screen)

-Grey Poupon, rhymes with poop (Mayback Music 2)

Women:

-dykes, at the club, men who are not Kanye get (Maybach Music 2)

-breasts, for women who want them, Kanye will purchase new (Whatever U Want)

-nipples, aka bee stings (Run This Town)

-Michelle Obama, just cuz (Forever)

-sororities, Kanye has seniority at (Poke Her Face)

Movies:

-Good Will Hunting, in a sea of ill-will, Kanye goes (Run This Town)

-Karate Kid, because Kanye is rhyming with Asians, he mentions (Teriyaking)

-Return of the Jedi, when Kanye returns from out of town, it is similar to (The Big Screen)

-Hollywood (The Big Screen, Forever)

Wine Varietals:

riesling, drank too much (Run This Town)

Champagne, drank a little (Poke Her Face)

Affecting Foreign Accents:

‘chahnce, ‘ British pronunciation of the word “chance” (Supernova)

‘ting,’ Jamaican pronunciation of the word “thing” (The Big Screen)

Technology:

Macbook Air, Digitial Girl in question watched on(Digital Girl)

Blackberry, please stop using your (Walkin’ On The Moon)

-Macberry, horrible pun referring to iPhone (Walkin’ On The Moon)

-OMG, Internet lingo (Knock You Down)

texting, drunk (Walkin’ on the Moon)

Biology/biological functions:

gonads, someone grabbed him by the (Teriyaking)

poop, used in extended metaphor about world as his commode (Maybach Music 2, Teriyaking)

dick,  to prove point to women, Kanye uses (all songs)

-Medulla Oblongata (Poke Her Face)

-scoliosis (Poke Her Face)

comatosis, rhymes with scoliosis (Poke Her Face)

-sex, in library (Poke Her Face), with mentally challenged girls (Kinda Like a Big Deal)

Musical References:

-Slick Rick, Kanye is the new (Knock You Down)

-Hey Young World, [Slick Rick reference] (Knock You Down)

-Michael Jackson, this is bad, real bad, similar to the album by (Knock You Down)

Joe Jackson, Kanye is mad, real mad, similar to the mood of (Knock You Down)

Emotional Themes:

-palpable regret (all songs, especially Kinda Like a Big Deal, Run This Town, Walkin on the Moon, Knock You Down)

-haughtiness (all songs, especially Mayback Music 2, Poke Her Face, Whatever U Want, Forever)

-combination regret & haughtiness (all songs)

But shiny bags can't take away the pain