Yesterday morning, author Daphne Carr announced that her Kickstarter campaign to fund an independent 2012 edition of the annual Best Music Writing anthology had met its goal. Several hours earlier, as if trying to preserve some cosmic equilibrium, Esquire published a strong early contender for the year’s most appalling foray into music criticism. Ostensibly reviewing the debut album by Lana Del Rey, Tom Junod’s piece soon wanders away from that to discuss the Nature of Woman and Song Today. A dismissive reference to “our wives” and their listening habits suggests that he is not feeling it. Junod’s awkwardly vain prose style galls on its own — “mechanistic melismata,” “drizzly samizdat,” and “wan wastrels” all appear in a single sentence — but the greater offense is his exegetic condescension towards female musicians, and how many male critics get away with the same hustle.
Anyone who attempts to explain “the state of the female singer” will probably feel dissatisfied with whatever they imagine it to be. “Once it seemed that every great girl singer was capable of generating her own style and fomenting her own revolution,” Junod laments. Now they all sound like “precocious 12-year-olds keeping secrets” or “machines.” After seguing to Florence and the Machine via limp wordplay, he specifies the devices that pop stars remind him of: sex toys. “Beyoncé and Gaga, Rihanna and Ke$ha: They share little but an ability to impart an awareness that whatever their music pretends to be about, it’s really about becoming Beyoncé, Gaga, Rihanna, and Ke$ha – about living up to their porn or (in Stephani Germanotta’s case) their drag names.”
Beyoncé inherited her Creole mother’s maiden name as a tribute. “Rihanna” dates back to both Old English and ancient Arabic; it’s her middle name, but then pop already had a Robyn. And aside from the vertical stroke, “Ke$ha” is what appears on that woman’s birth certificate. Sorry, Beyoncé! You may have erroneously thought that your music is “about” hard-won female independence, or the joys of creative fidelity, or making people dance, or, as Daphne Brooks once wrote, “what it means to lose, and to have, and to possess.” But you’re a silly girl with a trashy name. The real theme of those albums was demonstrating your fuckability for Tom Junod.
After returning to his stated subject, the breathing’s still audible: too many observers have already tried reading meaning into Lana Del Rey’s lips, but at least they brought some reference points beyond Xtube. When not making outright factual errors (how could she be singing from “the impersonal vantage of celebrity” if she wrote the album as an unknown?), Junod remains devoted to the “Chicks, man” school of criticism. The heat surrounding Born to Die didn’t exhaust every writer’s focus; Rob Harvila and Jessica Hopper published insightful pieces in the same magazine from two very different perspectives. Imagining what those silkscreened James Deans might be like outside her lyrics, to hilarious effect, Harvila knocks Del Rey’s “Ooh He’s a Bad, Bad, Sexy Man routine.” What’s worse, though? Getting off on some artist’s ingénue-in-trouble clichés, or taking them as license to suggest her “fat lip” would look so much more “honest” after a few punches?