Pazz & Jop 2011: Carol Cooper on Keny Arkana’s Rebellion, Chart Pop’s Disco Revivalism, and Voters’ Fear of Gospel

These days American pop music sounds too fat and happy, so full of its own global importance that would-be anthems like “Born This Way” and “Run the World (Girls)” come across as insular and petulant, rather than triumphantly universal. Even their companion videos look more like carnival rides than artistic expression. Which is not to say that contrived artistry never works — the country scene is notorious for overthinking how certain singers, concepts, and songwriters might go together. Acts like the novelty trio Pistol Annies hit a sweet spot between humor and truth that brought to mind the Roches and inspired longing for the Dixie Chicks. Big & Rich, meanwhile, gave teens their own hip-hop hillbilly theme song with “Fake I.D.,” replete with bluegrass fiddle and banjo riffs. I also love the typically country juxtaposition of soft voice/hard lyric as illustrated by Ronnie Dunn’s mournful pragmatism on “Cost of Livin'” and Sunny Sweeney’s deceptive bravado on “Drink Myself Single.” It’s hard for my r&b homegirls to match country candor when singing through so much routine signal processing, but Nicki Minaj’s Rihanna-assisted “Fly” proves how sweet two bionic babes can sound once they unleash their inner TLC on the perfect power ballad.

Anybody can luck into a hot hook, but I was won over by the way that both “Rolling In The Deep” and “Moves Like Jagger” dared to be retro-disco numbers, executed with just the right amount of wit and disingenuous charm. Maroon 5’s hit thrillingly quotes “Miss You,” Mick’s shameless attempt to woo the mirrorball crowd; meanwhile, Adele’s legato phrasing and echoplexed sustinato works the roller rink to a frenzy, which makes me smile.

Being earnest is just as effective as being ironic when it comes to making a pop hit or a point, and the egocentric snark and endless whining that sometimes dominates albums — and, in some cases, entire careers — gets really old really fast. I listen to country, gospel, and international pop for sonic antidotes to the entitled smugness of, say, Katy Perry (whose singles I love), LMFAO (whose image and timing are genius), and Jay-Z (whose work ethic I admire).

It’s curious that country acts have had more crossover success on this year’s P&J lists than gospel acts, even though great, highly topical gospel records from former format jumpers like Kirk Franklin and Mary, Mary came out this year. Gospel ain’t only about Jesus, y’all — don’t be “skeered” to listen. As with country, there tends to be a higher standard for vocal ability even among minor artists, so the chance that Kim Burrell and Lashun Pace can sing rings around most of their P&J competition is high. That both Burrell and Pace have chosen to record for Shanachie, which has reconfigured itself as a retro-soul label a la Arista, means that even if mainstream critics don’t see it coming, an Aretha-like catalog is likely to emerge from these Christian soldiers.

I’ve said it before: The meaning conveyed in lyrics sung or written by the likes of Concha Buika, Chico Buarque, Tite Curet Alonso, rapper Keny Arkana, and Martinho Da Vila transcends differences in language. Implied in Buika’s smokey contralto are a thousand candles leading to a midnight grotto where the lover who will one day betray you worships your body on a bed of scarlet petals; Alonso’s syncopated couplets contain all the energy and questions of a leftist newspaper. The percussive rhymes of Arkana penetrate the heart and belly with the rhythms of rebellion and the promise of liberation. Chico Buarque is a cerebral mystic like Jung whose cool tenor evokes desperate women trapped in urban labyrinths. Da Vila’s honeyed alto is steeped in the history of samba in Rio, which goes back to the street bands of the 1920s, and he speaks of only one thing with a thousand faces: love.

These artists move me more than Lil Wayne or Rihanna ever will. And if I’m the only 2011 Pazz and Jop voter who wants Americans to know as much about their music as they know about Adele’s, so be it.

Published in: Village Voice, January 19, 2012