Friday, April 19, 2024

A Study Of 2016: The Year America’s Pop Stars Went Weird

What we need, truly, is someone to thank. Whoever the source of this modern blessing in which we find ourselves. Someone who is doctor zero. Someone who provided cure to a middling malaise suffocating our car rides, club visits, and casual nights in. A wave does not form without a disturbance within the ocean. Someone else caused it. Or possibly, in our unique case, something.

This much is clear: An outside chemical chums our pop music waters in 2016. What some may call coincidence instead feels like a collective shift in the elements.  All at once, our country’s biggest pop stars got weird. They dove inward. They stopped playing the game. They introduced technology, in startlingly various ways, into their craft, into their art. It was like the pop music school board approved new toys for the kids simultaneously. They didn’t so much play different sports exceptionally well as invent new ones games only they could play.

What is strange, then, is how just as music’s greatest stars dove headfirst into these stranger tides, it has resulted in the biggest, most beloved year for those same stars and for music in general. 2016 offers such grand possibility for enthusiasm in music fandom that virtually every star has a #hive or a stan army or a stunt-worthy merch line or a universe-shattering concert tour this year. Think of our most popular stars: Kanye, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Chance the Rapper, Drake, Taylor Swift, and somehow, improbably, more.

And how did they achieve such a rarified feat? For most of them, it was simple: they released the most off-the-wall, reclusive, multi-faceted, and niche records of their careers. How anyone keeps pace with *the culture* in their free time is beyond me. Thank Yeezus someone pays me for this.

All Hail Bey

Speaking of demagogues—well, shit, I could go anywhere with that preamble nowadays. Whoever your musical idol is probably could earn the reference. And it’s possible the conversation could begin there.

Instead let’s discuss the Super Bowl, though the football hardly matters. Admittedly, a 30-second interlude of mental self-flagellation was required to recall whoever won the damn game (Dad-rocker Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos—to think I used to be a sportswriter…) because anytime I hear “Super Bowl,” I think about Beyoncé almost falling.

Few celebrities seize the ADD-rambling zeitgeist like Beyoncé: That Friday she dropped her haunting “Formation” video without promotion, its corkscrew-y beat rattling headphones; by Sunday everyone knew the words. The performance absorbed a political activist stance because of the context Beyoncé placed it in, dancers and singer donning Black Panther garb. It made Janet Jackson exposing a nipple seem like a Pixar short—G-rated nonsense.

A surface reading indulges listeners that “Formation” itself isn’t politically natured beyond feminine empowerment. “Come on, ladies, now let’s get into formation.” But in those uniforms, and with a black ancestry-soaked music video, that lyric oozes militaristic intention. No pop artist utilizes visual configuration to transform songs like Beyoncé. She simultaneously dared and ruined every pop artist to construct a visual album or component to their release. Few ever come close; none touch her.

Seemingly Lemonade shows a vulnerable Beyoncé analyzing the broken pieces of her marriage then, like it were just a puzzle to be solved, she puts them back together. The weakest moments, both visually and sonically, come in the resolution. Not that you’re rooting against her and Jay Z; it’s just more thrilling to watch an apathetic Bey smash shit apart, like in “Sorry,” the year’s best pop anthem (sorry, Drake). That dead-eye, alien look she does arouses, irresistible yet liable to rip your heart out. Her ecstatic, biting falsetto singing “I ain’t sorry” and “Middle fingers high” renders listeners moths to Beyoncé’s flames.

But as Lemonade demonstrates, Beyoncé craves control. She is the woman after all who bans professional photographers from concerts and convinces awards shows to perform whatever and however she wants, even when it upsets their base. (I ain’t sorry, CMAs.) Everything Beyoncé enters the world precisely how Ms. Knowles intends. You must meet her on her terms, like watching an hour-long visual album or viewing pictures only on her Tumblr and Instagram. She shares only when and how she wants. At times, this vice grip on her image approaches something suffocating (the Beyhive not helping matters), though it never crosses any line. And why should anyone craft “Beyoncé” besides her? In a digitally-obsessed culture where individual identity feels perpetually exposed and out of one’s grasp, Beyoncé’s total control appears divine.

It probably explains why I’m so obsessed with her Super Bowl stumble. You probably didn’t realize it happened in real time. I didn’t. But think of the ripples if she falls—it’s all anyone remembers and probably becomes a meme (“when you ain’t flawless…smh”), swiftly undercutting the Beyoncé myth she so meticulously assembled this year. Without such momentum, does Lemonade’s reception feel, I don’t know, lesser? Do the award show performances not encroach such spectacular domination?

Who knows. Instead Yoncé recovered, stumbling in rhythm and stepped into formation. She forever woke up like this. She’s immaculate, untouchable, practically perfect, which is exactly why we’ll never have enough of her. We’re all drinking the lemonade.

Kanye And The San Pablo

Is it possible to reasonably discuss Kanye West and Life of Pablo anymore? Previously the album resembled a spiritual crisis; the next conclusion now might be a mental breakdown, though that seems trite and shallow. The Trump support, the Jay Z and Beyoncé lashing out, the trenchant tribal lines from Stans and critics, the maximum Kanye-ness of Kanye swirling around currently subverts the music, the fashion, and intentions of Mr. West’s life-as-art ethos.

Yet Life of Pablo remains one of the best records of the year. His Saint Pablo tour was a sermon. “Ultralight Beam” isn’t so much a song as a spiritual journey. Maybe you can dismiss the man, but you can’t deny the music.

Whereas Beyoncé portrays perfection, Kanye always seems in pursuit of it. Even when he gets there, he seems perpetually unsatisfied. Not only is he forever “fixing” these Pablo records like “Waves” and “Wolves,” he’s even still tweaking 808s & Heartbreak and Yeezus tracks. The release of Pablo was manic and exhausting, though supremely intoxicating. For most of his career, you never knew what Kanye might do next, but this year we really didn’t know what Kanye might do next. In “Feedback,” he snarls “Name one genius that ain’t crazy.” A taunt at the time, it now sounds like a dare to himself. Kanye doesn’t so much want control, as reserve the right to lose control.

As Deep As The Ocean

Meanwhile Frank Ocean lost control and despairingly needed it back. His tactful maneuvering to sidestep his Def Jam contract was masterful, though it’s probably more interesting to the media than actual fans. Following the releases of nostalgia, ULTRA. and Channel Orange, Frank received due praises as one of our best songwriters around. His descriptive storytelling (Coachella girls with ice blue bongs, pretty boy granddaddies, Forrest Gumps) paired with that wailing voice embellished pop’s rigid structures to breathtaking results. The lane was all Frank’s.

His response? Blowing up his own spot. Forget songwriting, forget structure, forget his own singing. He hid one exclusive album underneath a painstaking *visual* album that routinely crashes, lags, and straight-up breaks (thanks, Apple Music!). On the other, he modulates and distorts his voice, crafting a dialogue within himself. When Frank gives you his honest voice, it’s fleeting. Ideas float in and out, never quite settling for the most part, a “Siegfried” and “Nights” more musical suites than songs. He doesn’t just croon about “How you made me lose my self control,” he shows you.

Endless (a purposeful vanishing act of a masterpiece) and Blonde (an act of self-erasure to discover the ink lines underneath) each demand so much of listeners. They aren’t serialized nor episodic; they require full playthroughs multiple times. To pull out a “Solo,” “Nights,” or “Comme des Garcones” doesn’t cheat the song of its verve, but it cheats you out of your own possible richness.

Both Kanye and Frank sort of dare fans not to like them—albeit in wildly opposite manners. In Frank’s case, he reminds us want what we can’t have and desperately seek: blue-eyed love. Kanye seems to wonder if that thing’s even possible.

So Much More

These weren’t the only artists that mattered in 2016. Drake continues to dominate the radio and streaming waves. Rihanna released her best record ever, but doesn’t really seem to care if you care. Chance the Rapper showed us rap isn’t in need of saving any time soon. Others like Anderson .Paak, Mitski, and The Weeknd released some fantastic ear worms.

None, however, achieved the scales of artistic statement while capturing a roving sentiment between identity and technology in the digital age. It’s really weird to be alive right now. It’s confusing and chaotic, your very self seems perpetually out of grasp. What matters and who matters. Do I?

Bey, Ye, and Frank seized control precisely how they wanted, carving out possibilities and identities we didn’t know possible. They were fully and unapologetically their arty selves. Thanks ya weirdos.


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