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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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.

Best of 2009 albums: take with grain of salt, this year kinda sucked

This year I was pretty consistent with this music blog, so if any of you read it, or if any of you know me, you will likely know my favorite albums of the year. Henceforth I will just make a list of my favorite albums, and in lieu of providing long descriptions, which come easy to me, I will assign one phrase/sentence per album to sum it all up.

The-Dream: Love vs Money

Brilliant, lush antidote to T-Pain production hegemony

Bat For Lashes: Two Suns

The pale English sun doth an imaginative, sensual & elfin musical genius make, again–just ask Kate Bush.

Mos Def: The Ecstatic

Spit fire, diverse beats, acrobatics from Brooklyn Globe Trotter

Micachu & The Shapes: Jewellry

THIS is the shape of punk music 2009–Dadaism and collage combine with a pop penchant for melody

Bassment Jaxx: Scars

Playful, emotive maximalism; dance to it, cry to it, hope to it

St. Vincent: Actor

Composure, well composed

Kid Sister: Ultraviolet

Joyful, jokey girl-next-door runs gamut from juke to house, proving Chicago know how to party

Raekwon: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx: Part II

When in doubt, return to 1995

Wale: Attention Deficit

Lacking personality? Maybe. Lacking listen-ability? No. Dude got potential? Yes.

Now let me say this: what was 2009? A year of disappointments.

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.