Like the idiot I am, I got Grimes’s Art Angels very wrong when it surfaced last year. What with the album’s chewy pop hooks, glitzy textural filters, and absurdly high-pitched vocals, I accused Claire Boucher of treating Femininity Itself like an ironic one-dimensional caricature when in fact she aims to create a new, sincere, futuristic, explicitly feminine-identified pop style. Especially on “Flesh Without Blood” and “Kill v. Maim” but really throughout the whole record, she succeeds as gloriously as her genuinely ironic counterparts PC Music, who also fashioned a neat little concept-pop record last year that really grew on me. Below, find an array of musical gender roles performed with varying degrees of acuity.
Anohni: Hopelessness (Secretly Canadian)
When the former Antony Hegarty came out as a transgender woman named Anohni and announced her next album as a shift into electronica, I couldn’t help but hope for a radical change of pace — finally, I fantasized, she’ll abandon her weepy chamber-pop style, realize her true voice over some smashing electrobeats, and settle into an aesthetic she was previously too sad and too quiet for. Although the actual electrobeats fall toward the trickier, less instantly accessible end of the spectrum, that’s pretty much what happened.
What sets this album above previous ones isn’t Anohni’s voice per se, which remains the model of a pathologically strained Brit-soul school that tackier artists like Sam Smith have since taken to the pop charts, or her political lyrics, which have gotten more alert and continue to dwell on rising tides and dying animals with more sentimentality than an ecologist might prefer, but rather the new experimental electronic template. Co-producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never fashion for her a batch of beats whose avoidance of ordinary melodic structure draws attention to all the cool noises chomping along underneath — sharp, sizzling glittersirens, piercing rays of sunlight filtered through glass prisms, abrasive metal slabs undercut with sweet synthesized bass — forming an elegant, pulsating, computerized musical body that’s always on its toes. Backed by music this solid, this crunchy, Anohni’s singing becomes a painfully pungent sigh now contributing to the electronic burn rather than fluttering off into the distance. Especially on “4 Degrees,” which soars over synthesized strings — or are those gunshots or maybe heartbeats — and “Drone Bomb Me,” which turns an act of violence into a creepy erotic gesture, her vocal mannerism becomes conscious vocal strategy. Even the downbeat ballads, caught in conventionally expressive codes as they are, barely spoil the mood.
Neatly textural and savory though these implied protest songs are, they’re too oozy, too melancholy, too harsh to start any sort of fire on the dance floor. Anohni’s intensity is altogether narrower and more inwardly directed. She’s achieved a redefinition of self.
RuPaul: Butch Queen (RuCo Inc.)
The infamous drag queen is on a roll: this marks his third album timed with a new season premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race. If critics never touch him, following the same rules that lead us to ignore music by television stars like Leighton Meester and Hugh Laurie, we’ll miss a great master of the dancefloor and an irrepressible comedic talent.
On a purely musical level, I think the reason he’s recently been making the best albums in a two-decade career concerns EDM. More rhythmically attuned to straightahead bounce than the elegant glide of retrodisco, he must have been delighted when the giant inflatable hooks currently bursting all over the radio came into fashion, and if this album doesn’t reach the instant grace of 2015’s Realness, it compensates with its own herky-jerky style of angular keyboard momentum. Where Realness foregrounded a style of blissful/soulful dance anthem whose catchiness was inextricably linked to a sense of universal anonymity, this time around the point is dialogue — an array of organized, sampled, looped, perfectly timed drag queen voices chattering at each other over stark beats that suit the cadences of Vjuan Allure, AB Soto, and RuPaul himself. “Cha cha bitch.” “I’m a drag queen honey.” “Category is high couture Broadway chic! Category is butch queen nutcracker! Who’s gonna crack that nut?” “I hear an audience on the other side of that curtain ladies and gentlemen. Do not be alarmed, just hide your pocketbook. I’m not talking to the queen I’m talking to the audience.” “Are you a woman? You don’t look like a woman. But you feel like a woman!” You get the idea.
Jittering and giggling and jumping til the end, his prevailing mode is comic because he considers sexuality a grand joke, and ditto for language. I’ve never seen the show. It couldn’t live up.
Gwen Stefani: This Is What the Truth Feels Like (Interscope)
Gwen Stefani claims her first solo album in a decade is a breakup record expressing all her deep dark negative energy, which means she has a fabulous sense of humor — it’s one happy relationship song after another, each drilled into your head with true megapop panache. And while she’s always relied more on filler than befits a hitmaker of her caliber, almost every one conveys the feeling of being irresistibly in love.
Hooks are what make the record go ‘round, synthetic bells and fizzle and pitched percussion and gleaming keyboards, pink fluffy puffy bouncy explosive squealing sugary syrupy cotton candy slick streamlined crafted softcore erotica, keyed to the contrast between the lightness of her sound and the smokiness of her voice. But Stefani’s persona is what makes the record fascinating. She’s always played the national pop princess so compulsively one wonders what makes her distinctive, if anything; how, exactly, does one describe what Rob Sheffield once called a “pure product of the American girl factory”? This very plastic quality, obviously, is what makes her distinctive — it explains her problems with genre, why she feels compelled, sporadically, to branch out into ska, reggae, funk, hip-hop, and otherwise depart from her teenpop destiny, and when she sticks to the latter genre, as she does here, this plastic quality at the very least ensures an instant-classic feel, as if her tunes have been playing on the radio for years and you’ve been living with her husky, dreamy, uniquely anonymous cadence your whole life. If on earlier albums she voiced quintessential adolescent dreams and desires, here she’s adapting to the role of Adult Pin-Up Star. She nails it, too.
“Make Me Like You” layers the bubblegum rhythm guitar without ever popping the bubble. “You’re My Favorite” rides a clattering synthesizer that floats up into the clouds. “Send Me a Picture” makes the mediated eroticism explicit. “Rare” is even sweeter. The whole album lights up with a big smile.
Now That’s What I Call Country, Vol. 9 (UMG/Sony)
Commercially expedient and redundant though they are, the Now That’s What I Call Music! compilations can be useful tools if, say, a genre consists solely of one-hit wonders, or if you prefer your listening to evoke the flow of a radio mix. Elsewhere they reveal the problems with certain radio formats, particularly in the country series, and this installment is one of the most aggravating.
Although Nashville’s new strain of overblown arena-rock has become universally reviled thanks to King Bro Luke Bryan and his clone army, it’s still pretty shocking how total the gender split is. The men, each made exclusively of congealed beefcake paste, guzzle cheap beer, drive giant trucks, zoom their motorboats all across the ocean, and subsume their descriptions of such behavior into a reactionary celebration of the idealized white working-class American male — and let’s not forget the adolescent nostalgia hidden beneath that toned muscular exterior, which can turn any innocent party song into a heartfelt cry lamenting a lost way of life. With the exception of Dierks Bentley’s mildly amusing “Drunk on a Plane,” the only decent songs are by women, but with the guys still dominant, it’s almost like the women are tokens, trophies, included to absolve the guys from sexism while accidentally providing solid evidence that these attitudes victimize real human beings. With his skintight V-neck undershirt and strategically ripped jeans, Bryan provides the nadir with his godawful ballad about hey sweetheart let’s fuck just like we used to as kids and relive those summertime memories. But whoever compiled the album had some nerve to include Maddie & Tae’s “Girl in a Country Song,” a smart, funny, putatively progressive, and genuinely negative song about sexism in country music, reframed, in context, as mild, tolerant ribbing and thus validating the ethos it was written to criticize.
Picture the grossest, dumbest, most macho and/or incestuous frat house; then picture their female sex objects scattered around, fretting and coping and trying to keep their heads above water. Gee, maybe the compiling strategy was meant as a feminist statement!
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