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Music

A No-Bullshit Review of Pop Music in 2014

Starring thinkpiece pop, Killer Mike, UK rave nostalgia and the same boring white guys with guitars.

by Sam Wolfson
22 December 2014, 4:35pm

Image by Marta Parszeniew

2014 Was the Year of Thinkpiece Pop

For what seems like forever, old white music journalists have been rising from their Springsteen-induced naps to file columns in the Dad Rock Press complaining that pop has stopped being political – that the glory days of Billy Bragg and Paul Weller joining hands and singing about underfunding at the DSS are behind us, and so now we have to make do with Jedward and John Lewis adverts.

While that's never been strictly true – I'm pretty sure MIA wouldn't take it that well if you suggested her music was ignorant of world affairs – 2014 was the year that pop music not only found a place at the centre of political life, but became a sort of bells-and-butts prism through which the key issues of the day were discussed.

Perhaps because dealing with the real repercussions of global inequality is a bit much to handle when you're just trying to populate your Pinterest, music videos have sort of become the safe battleground through which to argue about missogyny, racism and advanced capitalism. During the Cold War they had war games they used to run through possible doomsday scenarios while retaining some emotional detachment; in 2014 we use Nicki Minaj's arsehole to much the same effect.

It might seem like these debates around pop culture have always existed but they have taken on a new ferocity this year; a few years ago Gwen Stefani was wandering around with mute "Harajuku girls" in school uniforms and people barely batted an eyelid, yet in 2014 Avril Lavigne's Hello Kitty-themed video was, rightly, torn asunder for its racial stereotyping. Nicki Minaj was accused of appropriating Nazi imagery, despite hundreds of videos in the past – from Pink Floyd to Madonna – adopting fascistic themes for the lulz. Depending on who you wanted to listen to, Meghan Trainor's throwaway novelty hit "All About That Bass" was either a body-positive rallying cry for young women everywhere or a gross example of "skinny shaming".

A grab from Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" video – but what does it mean?

Then of course, there was the Taylor Swift album, which arrived on a platter of thinkpieces and analysis. Thought Catalogue seemed to explode under the weight of "9 Reasons Taylor Lets Me Know It's OK To Let Me Be Me" listicles, but it went much further than the usual suspects. In the New Statesman, Sarah Dittum wrote a piece headlined: "Taylor Swift's success makes me hopeful for the future of humanity", while NPR compared Swift to liberty itself, writing:

"Swift's voice on 1989 doesn't simply stand for the freedom Swift feels as a young woman with enough clout to break the mold that made her so commercially viable; its enhancement is that freedom."

One scholar even submitted a thesis to Georgia Tech entitled: "Forever Adolescence: Taylor Swift, Eroticized Innocence, and Performing Normativity", which argued that:

"Swift's image relies on ideas about innocence and normativity that are directly linked to markers of whiteness without ever having to explicitly name it."

What's interesting about this politicisation is that the popstars themselves are left out of it almost entirely. Swift said that, eventually, after years of not considering herself a feminist, she talked to Lena Dunham and realised she was one. Big whoop. Meghan Trainor, meanwhile, announced she doesn't consider herself a feminist. Both women's choices on how to label themselves felt light years behind the conversation journalists and their fans were having about representations of women in the media, intersectionality and female roles in the industry.

Not only has pop become politicised, but it has become democratised – serious debate has been taken from the hands of artists and put into the hands of those of us who actually listen to them. So instead of a few glib Noel Gallagher quotes, you get intelligent debate – even if sometimes those debates are depressingly serious. But while we might not always need 2000 words on Katy Perry's "Firework" to learn that the song contains "empowering lyrics of self-acceptance", a sense-of-humour bypass is probably a small price to pay for making pop important again. Just don't go asking Jason Derulo for a quote on whether "Talk Dirty" is a comment on the freedom of sex-positive millennials to express desire or the sexualisation of our societal discourse.

Retromania: Round Two

I know everyone who isn't a music journalist finds excessive academic theorising about pop culture about as interesting as I find the War On Drugs album (0 percent, if you're asking) but please stick with me for the next two paragraphs because they're the best chance I have of explaining why this was the year we might have killed off underground music.

Okay, so, Simon Reynolds oft-quoted book Retromania argues that pop culture is obsessed with its past, to the extent that culture itself has engendered its own malaise through a combination of fetishising obsolete relics from our recent history (vinyl records, John Lydon) and endlessly rehashing our former glories (29 NME covers a week declaring The Queen Is Dead to be the greatest album of all time). All of this is pretty obvious to anyone who has watched the endless TV shows where that clip of people rushing into a Virgin Megastore to buy either a Blur or Oasis single is interspersed with Toyah Wilcox reading off a piece of cardboard that says "get literally anyone to say that 'Blur won the battle but Oasis won the war'" on it.

One of British culture's main safeguards against retromania has been the hardcore continuum, another one of Reynold's theories, which is basically a way of describing how hardcore rave evolved into British takes on house and techno, which in turn evolved into jungle, drum and bass, and then 2-step, garage, grime, bassline, dubstep and beyond. Reynolds point, and it seems pretty irrefutable, is that these aren't separate scenes but a "single musical tradition" that negotiates "drastic stylistic shifts and significant changes in technology, drugs, and the social/racial composition of its own population".

An old raver laments the lost days beneath the YouTube video for "High" by Hyper Go Go

What we saw in 2014 was the fetishisation of British underground culture to an extent never seen before: it was basically retromania for the hardcore continuum. Basically, the onward march of music's most accelerative trend has been sent shooting backwards to retrace its steps.

Part of this came from Red Bull, who continue to pump money into a series of events and websites that celebrate underground culture; Channel 4's Music Nation documentaries, which did the same sort of thing as Red Bull but on terrestrial TV; and Rinse FM's 20th anniversary celebrations, which provided an entire summer of looking back at grime, funky, dubstep, garage, house, et al.

But a bigger part of it is cultural; young people who would have once been at the forefront of these electronic revolutions are instead looking back at the history of underground music. Nights like Joyride, which play classic garage and house and have old school rave flyers, have become more popular than those that are at the bleeding edge of new music. It's not uncommon to see "roots of dubstep set" or "classic garage set" on flyers, often next to the names of DJs who were seven when "Midnight Request Line" came out. At universities, the biggest bookings at student clubs are DJ Luck & MC Neat and Artful Dodger, performing medleys of their greatest hit. Even a more contemporary star like Jamie XX has spent the year re-hashing rave's glory days, first in this song-cum-oral-history "All Under One Roof Raving" and then in a series of mixes that interspersed old music, new music that sounds like old music and soundbites from classic rave documentaries.

Ravers en route to a free party in Scoraig, Scotland (Photo courtesy of DiY)

The majority of this backward-looking culture has been brilliant. A lot of these genres were barely covered outside niche press in their infancy; now they're getting the thorough and far-reaching canonisation they deserve. But it has undoubtedly been at the expense of a new stretch of the continuum emerging. With so much looking back, no clear evolution in UK underground culture has emerged in the past couple of years. It's not necessarily the end of the line, but it's definitely closed for upgrade works.

The Disconnect Between the Music We Talk About and the Music We Buy Has Never Been Bigger

Right, so we've spent the year talking about Nicki's butt, Avril's denigration of Japanese culture and the golden-era of garage until we're blue in the face. But how has that influenced our record buying in the UK? Not one iota.

Nicki Minaj's album looks unlikely to even end up in the top 20 this week. That Avril song didn't even chart in the top 200. An artist like FKA Twigs, who has been on every magazine cover and newspaper in Britain, has sold less than 15,000 albums this year. The biggest albums of the year have universally been by white men with guitars – Ed Sheeran, George Ezra, Coldplay – and white men without guitars – Sam Smith, Olly Murs, One Direction, Take That.

FKA twigs: looks amazing on magazines, record sales less amazing

Here's a fact that the music industry and the music press seem grossly reluctant to accept. R&B singers, rappers, solo girls with cool styling, girlbands – none of them are selling albums in any considerable quantity any more. The only people who are going to sell big numbers of records in Britain right now are white boys singing soft songs that the Strictly Come Dancing band wouldn't be scared of covering in American Smooth week. Next year, James Bay, a painfully dull singer-songwriter who has already won the Brit's Critic's Choice award, will no doubt further support the argument that diversity has been driven out the top echelon of British pop. This is just how it is now.

Man of the Year: Killer Mike

For most of his career, Killer Mike has been the rapper that most hip-hop fans are crying out for without realising he's standing right there. Deft, provocative, knowledgeable, a sense of indebtedness to those without his breaks and an utmost respect for hip-hop's history without a fear of its future. But it took this year's second Run The Jewels LP – a record that flits between US race-relations, the caging of America's black population in private prisons and fucking the life out of someone like your dad flicking between HBO, CNN and Television X – for Mike to get the critical respect he deserves, especially outside of the hip-hop community.

Killer Mike happened to be playing a Run The Jewels show in St. Louis on the same night that the Grand Jury failed to indict Darren Brown for the shooting of Michael Brown. It was a night when America looked to leaders for solace or response, yet they found little in President Obama's empty platitudes about a nation's hurt, as riots and protests broke out on streets across the country.

Killer Mike delivered a speech on stage that felt like it was accounting for what people were feeling that night. Far be it from me, a Jewish boy from North London, to guess how Black America was dealing with the news, but from the reaction in the crowd you sense this was a less-nebbishy version of Jon Stewart's tearful speech after 9/11, an outpouring of emotion that tried to somehow speak for the hurt that most people were feeling.

In an interview with Noisey the following day, Mike put it like this:

"[I'm] having to explain to a 17-year-old that the policeman isn't going to be brought to accountability for it. I'm having to explain to a seven-year-old girl what this is about. Then I still have a 20-year-old and a 12-year-old son. I'm supposed to teach them to interact with the police and make it through those encounters alive. My child should be worrying about her dance class and her sister's dance recital. I shouldn't have to be preparing my children that the world is going to be unfair to them for the rest of their lives.

"I'm a husband. I'm a man's man. I'm an alpha male. There's nothing about my wife and children that should say 'I'm afraid' because my father and my husband is there to protect me. But when your wife looks at you and just says, 'Man, you gotta wonder if God even loves you.' No man should have that."

If there was one moment in 2014 where music felt like it mattered, it was this.

@samwolfson

Visit our music websites, Noisey and Thump.

More end-of-year stuff from VICE:

What We Learned About Drugs in 2014

What We Learned About London in 2014

Tit Bruises and Bin Drinking: Why 2014 Was a Desperate Year for Celebrities