Frank Ocean Is Boring: The Year Lifeless Music Found Critical Praise
In 2012, nothing was as popular as being massively boring. Frank Ocean drained the sexiness and excitement out of r&b, to widespread critical acclaim. Lana Del Rey sighed listlessly over string arrangements in a tight dress, like some kind of Kristen Wiig character who stumbled out of the Holodeck and into real life (to mix my references a bit), and sold an indecent number of records. Gotye's "Somebody I Used to Know" was the year's biggest single (number one on radio, digital downloads, and Spotify); it was a song about a bad break up recorded by an Australian in a barn over a spare arrangement on a xylophone . What the hell is wrong with you people?
"Hi. I'm boring."
This year, it seems that an unusual number of the year's most critically-acclaimed records were also incredibly boring. In their boringness, however, there was considerable variation: some were self-indulgent artistry that gave the listener nothing to engage with (Swans), some recycled boring genres from the past a listener might have thought she'd managed to escape (Purity Ring, The xx), while others were simply made by lazy vocalists whose songs blend together into one album-length mumble (Lana Del Rey, Frank Ocean).
That Swans released a record of atmospheric largely instrumental music isn't totally surprising, musically. Chronologically, it's something of a shock, coming more than 30 years after they first emerged onto the music scene. What was surprising was how passionately their work was embraced by the music community at large. It is moody and atmospheric, a dark sea without a single piece of melody for a listener to cling to. Records like this have always existed, or at least they have for the past six or seven decades, from John Cale to Lou Reed, to, er Lou Reed and Metallica. How can people think this is a record of the year, though? Is it just to prove that they have heard of Swans? It's hard to imagine a person actually enjoying this music--appreciating, sure. Although 70 years on from the work of Cale, it's hardly an innovation deserving of the effusive praise that's been heaped on it.
On the other end of the aural spectrum, Purity Ring and xx make essentially recycled "chillout" music. I have never been to a show of either of these artists, but I am interested, if only to see a crowd of hormone addled teenagers and young 20-somethings try to get themselves worked up while listening to music that would be more at home playing softly at a sushi restaurant. Much has been said of Lana Del Rey, and I don't wish to wade into the debate over her authenticity or "indieness," questions which seem to be long settled. I will just say that she has somehow made a career out of sighing moodily over second-rate strings that don't sound too far from coming pre-loaded on a keyboard. Good for her, if not for her listeners.
Still, if there was one record that stands out above the rest in terms of not just boredom, but bitter betrayal and shattered expectations, it is Frank Ocean's Channel Orange, which received glowing reviews and sits near the top of many year-end lists. Ocean was praised rightly and roundly upon its release for his bravery in openly embracing his sexuality in a community that is typically less than accepting of homosexuality.