Year-end music lists are everywhere, for better and worse. Here at IASPM-US, we like popular music, too, so a few of us have sorted out what we listened to and enjoyed a lot in 2012 and are sharing it with you. There’s no pretension that anything here was the best of the year or even that it’s good. We just really liked it, that’s all.
Today’s list comes from David K. Blake.
My 2012 in 5 Songs
1) The Weavers, “The Roving Kind”
I spent a long weekend in the Midwest in April delivering a couple of talks and conducting dissertation interviews. As part of the weekend, I drove between Bloomington and Champaign, a drive I’ve done a few times recently for archives and newly transplanted friends. The topic of my talks: folksong clubs at Illinois and Indiana, specifically how (mostly) urban-born students reconciled being students, folk music fans, and transplants to the native milieu of their musical passion.
There I was, a coastal Northeasterner driving down I-74 amidst farms, small towns, and rolling hills. And what’s in my car stereo? The Weavers’ Greatest Hits. There I was, singing along to “Around the Corner,” “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” and “The Roving Kind,” the latter of which epitomizes some tropes of the band’s music: spurious relationship to folk traditions; trademark Decca orchestration; arrangements halfway between entertainment and pedagogy; and utter catchiness. I thought of the talks I just gave, dissecting how folksong club members debated both the definition of “real” folksong and the most ethical way to appreciate it given sociocultural distinctions between students and local residents. And there I was, happily singing along to the Weavers, reflecting on their complex relationship to both “tradition” and “the music industry,” and reflecting on my own romancing of the Midwestern landscape outside my window. You are what you research.
2) Julia Holter, “Moni Mon Amie”
The song is a sparkling slice of electronica, an ethereal orbit of descending fourth harmonies. I first heard the song in May, where in a brief week of lucidity between semester’s end and summer writing’s beginning I decided to make a CD of new songs for my car each week (a project which, like many others, lasted one whole week.) This track and video resonated with me due to its portrayal of that basic human emotion (especially in grad school): wanting to be somewhere else, someone else. The Youtube link describes it as a “lyrical appeal to the unattainable other.” Both song and video capture the yearning for the infinite possibilities of Nebeneinanderen and the melancholic resignation to the realist Nacheinanderen, but they also captures the beauty of hoping for something better.
3) Grimes, “Vanessa”
When I first heard this song this summer, I flipped out. Grimes’ composition, which teases out the potentialities of an eight-bar ostinato with acute layering of background vocals (which shift from a menacing alto to swooping soprano vocalizations), drum machines, and keyboard riffs, is just fantastic. (Especially when the background vocals enter in the second half of the chorus). Her video (as does “Oblivion,” though quite differently) engages issues of sexual abuse and empowerment in nuanced, powerful ways.
I admit I’m behind the curve on this, but Holter and Grimes made 2012 the year that guitars officially became stagnant to me. (I’m not alone in making this assessment during the 2010s.) I dug groups like Wild Flag and the Japandroids, but they offered nostalgia for mid-1990s rock rather than a sense of 2012 zeitgeist. I gave Girls a chance, but the end of “Vomit,” their anthemic statement, cops the end of Teenage Fanclub’s “The Concept” (from 1991) right down to chord progression, tempo, and use as a two-minute-long coda of a six-minute-long-rock-song. I’m not trying to stake a claim in the eternal “rock is dead” question; instead, these two songs opened up new potentialities for listening, writing, and appreciating in me in a way that rock hasn’t done for the past few years.
4) Primal Scream, “Come Together”
This year, I’ve been thinking a lot about a recent JAMS colloquium called “inclusiveness”—changes in popular music tastes, in popular music’s fit with musicology, and with popular music studies’ relationship with what Celia Applegate called the “Schengen zone” of modern humanities scholarship.1 In a YouTube/Wikipedia procrastination clickfest this summer, I reheard this song. It struck me how, though dating from the early 1990s, the song encapsulates the stakes of the inclusiveness debate. Two white British guys sampling a 1972 Jesse Jackson speech for black solidarity and turning it into a cry for musical inclusivity (the selectivity of the song’s sampling is covered here) through a utopian cry of “we know that music is music” whitewashing the racial, class, and gender dynamics of such a claim. In the aforementioned colloquy, Eric Drott writes that “calls to interrogate boundaries and disrupt hierarchies…are themselves redolent of a particular set of aesthetic values, a certain taste culture, one indexed to those social positions in possession of the resources necessary to range freely across social, cultural, and artistic regimes.”2 It seems easy to point to the British rave scene and cry privilege; it is far less simple to engage the inclusions, exclusions, and boundaries of popular music scholarship without mirroring the very same privileges.
5) PSY, “Gangnam Style”
Over Thanksgiving, my eight-year-old niece was using her mother’s iPad, playing “Gangnam Style” and dancing along to it. When I was her age, I listened to tapes in my parents’ Suburban (mostly John Fogerty’s Centerfield and a zydeco album that I’ve since forgotten) and sitting in my sister’s room taping Beatles songs off of the oldies station. Yes, part of my reaction stems from reaching that point in life where “when I was her age” (and “when I was my students’ age”) statements have started to crop up in my conversations. However, PSY’s ubiquity reminded me of the sea change in the music industry over the past few years to the point that the YouTube Top 100 (nonexistent at the beginning of my graduate studies) matters far more than its Billboard counterpart. My niece didn’t make me nostalgic for the way things were when I was young (let’s face it- waiting for radio stations to play songs so you could tape them, with DJ banter and without the first ten seconds, sucked) or excited for the supposedly revolutionary power of social media, but instead demonstrated to me that changing technologies render our theories, epistemologies, and pedagogies of pop music obsolescent just as we figure them out. Accounting for change, and/or the place of our scholarship within it, is the maddeningly exciting task of our field.