By Matthew DeMello
Photo courtesy of Asterio Tecson.
Just when naysayers like Variety’s Bob Lefsetz were going to write off the medium forever, albums made a roaring comeback in 2013.
I want to talk about the comeback of albums here, but do I really just mean Beyonce’s? The point is debatable, but what isn’t is that now, just as the year was coming to a close, the real ‘Queen B’ of pop came out of nowhere and showed the whole world how it is done. And by ‘done’, I mean get people to start caring about long-form musical statements again.
Admittedly, it’s been a while. So long in fact, that when an artist whose last record tied Michael Jackson’s “Bad” for most number ones on the Billboard singles charts from a single album puts out 12 acoustic-ish songs to express her soul and the proverbial world doesn’t care; then yeah, sure. It might seem sensible then to wonder whether the medium as a musical moment we can all share at once is ‘dead.’
But what was dead were the times and the way of doing things which had worn itself out. In a time when Tom Waits’ release parties are reduced to depressing let-downs through YouTube videos, no artists could succeed with putting their highly anticipated albums out the old way.
Which is basically everything Lefsetz gets right in his Variety piece on the so-called “death” of the album-as-cultural-moment, as seen in the case of Katy Perry’s heavily promoted and personal Prism. If it’s read in the sense that the current model definitely doesn’t work, many of his criticisms are spot-on. But as of Monday morning, Lefsetz’s arguments received their straight shot to the chest.
I don’t want to distract anyone anymore from listening to Beyonce, so part of me thinks I shouldn’t even jinx it. Why keep writing? Why fix, or wonder even through gentle inquiry, about what isn’t broken?
More than that, I won’t be surprised in the least if this new ‘lust for life’ for 40-minutes or so of one, singular musical experience is short-lived. Just as the last time an album release defied all convention (for my money, Radiohead’s debut of the pay-what-you-want-for-it model with 2007’s In Rainbows) the wonder of invention is exhilarating, but very temporary. Once the trick is done, how do you top it?
An album, after all, is not a small, compact format, like a song; and when artists can change how everyone can absorb their biggest and farthest-searching ideas, they change the entire game. When the game is changing at a rate fast enough, the times in which do prove to make for the most interesting cultural experience.
[Insert long, obnoxious baby boomer-esque speech somehow including both Sgt. Pepper and The Marshall Mathers LP here.]
Still, I feel the need to protest here. In my heart of hearts, I think albums-as-cultural-moments happen all the time and in ways that are going to make what Beyonce did earlier this month quite a rarity in the foreseeable future. But those smaller moments will continue on forever, and by my estimate, just keep getting smaller, being shared between increasingly more exclusive niches of listeners.
I think it’s obvious that during the other 11 months of 2013, music was pretty divided into two groups: people who love albums and people who don’t care that much. There’s no difference at all in terms of how much either cares about music overall, or at least one that can be pinpointed in a way specific enough to make a real point.
After that, it may be safer to say the market of American consumers who care deeply about albums probably number in the hundreds of thousands. Meanwhile the market for those who don’t, yet still just as passionately and voraciously consume music, is in the millions. This is why album sales are a terrible judge of how much today’s generation of listeners actually cares about music, especially in comparison to mp3 player and mobile device sales.
For the people who do care, there were a lot of noteworthy moments this year — many more than those felt by people who don’t, who may only remember Beyonce as being the only musical event of 2013. If they remember anything else, it may be The 20/20 Experience. Duly, as Beyonce proved the LP was not dead in the eyes of the listening public, Justin Timberlake proved earlier this year that neither was the double LP, albeit with less fanfare or surprise. (Go ahead and complain about Disc 2 and then tell me what classic double-LP has one disc all of its fans prefer to the other.)
Even Lou Reed came out of the woodwork to say a thing-or-two about Kanye West’s Yeezus. Gaga’s Artpop, despite its detracting monicker “Artflop”, was still a moment, even if it may not have been an initially successful one. Perhaps her album needs a more appreciative audience who might let a potentially subtle record grow on them in a few years, but for the time being, it’s safe to say more than a few are disappointed.
And is it all that unreasonable to talk about Daft Punk and Arcade Fire — each front runners for critics’ year-end lists for sure — alongside of them? Arcade Fire are, after all, Grammy award winning artists in every way such a merit could be meaningful. Meaning, someone has to care about them besides indie rock fans.
Their double disc Reflecktor (further evidence that the double LP still has some life in it) inherently builds on two of the biggest moments of 2010: the Album-of-the-Year-winning Suburbs and the final LCD Soundsystem record, This Is Happening. Even if Reflecktor‘s good-to-great standing with critics and fans becomes its legacy, it’s still a one-of-a-kind experience. As of December 2013, there is only one place in the world to find the collaboration between Arcade Fire and LCD-frontman James Murphy. It may remain that way for all we know, but here’s hoping.
If Beyonce never saw the light of day, Reflecktor, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, and the like may be all we have had to talk about of 2013 from now on. I stand slightly with Lesfetz’s disposition in that I think there’s little reason to believe things won’t continue as they have. The attention arc of the music listening universe is long, but it bends towards those with more important things to do. Still, there is greater hope there will be more Reflecktors every year than there will ever be Beyonces.
I guess you could say Beyonce’s out-of-nowhere release of her latest self-titled record is a little like Prince at the Superbowl. No one’s been able to figure out how to make an album release a big deal since the days of N*Sync, and those are times that will never come back. So leave it to who you’d least expect to prove that new music, no matter the form it takes, can still be as exciting and cathartic as ever. It can also be something we — from the Taylor Swift fan to the Wilco-loving snob — can all participate in.