I woke up this morning to a story in Slate by the critic Carl Wilson that admonishes cranky critics to admire the fresh virtues of HAIM and Lorde, about whom this cranky critic recently wrote. Oh, and he also extols Drake, also treated crankily here recently.
Now, my first-listen critiques of HAIM and Drake weren’t meant to be for the ages. It is entirely possible that I got either or both of them totally wrong, and that at some point down the road I will love either or both of their records, but that does not excuse the thin gumbo Wilson serves up here as some sort of revelatory musical trend piece. “By the end of the decade, will people look back at the fall of 2013 as the moment when the outlines of twenty-teens pop music began to solidify into a distinctive shape?” he starts his piece. “It’s starting to feel that way.”
Wilson goes on to say that HAIM and Lorde are, “young white women drawing on multiple genres to forge voices as brash as any dance diva’s or swaggering MC’s. In the mirror play between the two trends we might be glimpsing a new chapter in pop cross-dressing, sexually and racially, or at least a fresh length of leash for the century of everything-goes.” What?
Wilson’s incredible argument is that these young ladies are transforming the world of music, marrying white-girl lyrical concerns with the beats and textures of dance music. He says they treat all sounds as “common property, as matter-of-factly as someone flipping through tracks and pictures on her smart phone and grabbing whatever grabs her.” He seems incredulous that Lorde, facile with words, is performing without an acoustic guitar and beret, and writing about things other than the beauty of the natural world. He also finds it ironic that in the song “Royals” she mocks those who value brand-name luxury, but then in real life says Kanye West is one of her favorite artists. Incredible!
I really like “Royals,” and Lorde’s album, “Pure Heroine” is equally appealing most of the time, if ultimately a little draggy. But even if you thought it was electric all the way through is there justification for Wilson’s claim that “while Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber strain to assimilate completely to the dance-pop mainstream and Taylor Swift enters it with wariness, Lorde haughtily assumes a place that’s in that game but not of it.” Can’t the same be said of scores of artists? If you just want to focus on poetical girl singer-songwriters who could have gone the acoustic guitar and beret route, Ellie Goulding certainly got there first, and you can’t listen to “Pure Heroine” without hearing the echoes of what Lana Del Rey and Kid Cudi created last year. And isn’t it surprising to hear rhythmically and sonically how much of what Amy Winehouse and Adele have produced echoes in these newer artists?
Admire Lorde all you want, but to claim that she is singular in this business is pretty crazy.
Wilson then goes on to describe HAIM, and reveals something I didn’t know. The group’s album was supposed to come out last spring, but there was unhappiness about it and they went back and reworked it. He extols the new version’s “bear-trap-tight production values,” what I might (and did) call “a giant machine of a production that envelopes it, full of synths and booming drums, spastic tempo changes and processed voices erupting out of nowhere,” and goes on to praise the group’s melding of their prodigious musical skills (all play percussion as well as their other instruments!) and the contemporary R+B sound so many indie groups (like the Strokes and Jenny Lewis) reject. Which just seems like whacked out straw-indie rockerism.
He does, here, credit Amy Winehouse and Lana Del Rey, along with Grimes and The Blow, as getting there first, which raises another question. If so many others got there first, why is he claiming that Lorde and Haim are ushering in this new age? And does he really mean what he seems to, when he looks “across the divide” and brings in artists of color who are working the same turf, like Janelle Monae, Solange and (gender disruption here) Cee-lo Green? It seems that Wilson, looking for an angle, has executed a tremendous overreach, turning enthusiasm into the discovery of a trend so big that it extends across all of history. Young women make music and like to dance, and sometimes they do both at the same time.
I’ll leave you with Wilson’s head-scratcher of a penultimate graf, which seems to be more about dudes like Wilson than anything having to do with this music:
“[Young women are] making the case for the sounds that have always been their default domain. Dance-pop has been disdained for decades by rock dudes and jazz guys before them with sneers that this music “for girls” (or at best, with some forms of R&B, “for the ladies”) is manufactured pap, seldom meriting serious consideration. By blending dance-pop pleasures with an auteurist individualism that defies such condescension—as Sasha Frere-Jones recently wrote in The New Yorker, HAIM “became everyone’s favorite band in America in roughly two weeks”—these younger artists are taking the sting out of that stigma, with luck for good.”