NPR Music 10: 2012

Feburary 11, 2012

Whitney Houston (1963-2012)

One of the greatest pop voices of the 20th century goes quiet when Whitney Houston, who'd long struggled with the personal fallout from fame, dies alone in a Beverly Hills hotel bathtub.

February 21, 2012

Pussy Riot stages a protest performance inside Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral

It lasted less than a minute, but when five members of the young, all-female Russian collective Pussy Riot rushed up onto the altar at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral for a guerrilla performance, they became instant punk icons – and a human-rights cause célèbre around the globe.

Wearing bright neon balaclavas, they punched and kicked at the air, kneeling and prostrating and fervently crossing themselves. In a video released soon after, those visuals accompanied some very pointed lyrical shots at what Pussy Riot saw as the wholly unholy alliance between church and state in Russia, with a chorus that went: "Virgin Mary, Mother of God, chase Putin out."

The well-oiled relationship between the government and the Russian Orthodox church has long been abhorrent to Vladimir Putin's critics. But by staging an "action" in front of the cathedral's most sacred space, Pussy Riot, who were inspired as much by Bikini Kill and riot grrrl as the then-recent Arab Spring, were staking a psychic — and physical — claim on a space closed to women.

Support comes from

The Russian Orthodox church does not allow women to be priests, as is the case with its sister churches across the Eastern world and the Roman Catholic church. But moreover, even the physical structure of an Orthodox church is strictly divided by gender: Women are not allowed to be on the solea, the elevated platform in front of the iconostasis, the icon screen that separates the actual sanctuary from the rest of the church. And that is exactly where the members of Pussy Riot positioned themselves: joyfully, albeit briefly, occupying a place where they had been told, in both Holy Tradition and political reality, they weren't welcome. There's nothing more punk than that. --Anastasia Tsioulcas

MARCH 1, 2012

Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" video starts a parody avalanche

The cast of The Big Bang Theory, some mustachioed dude on Chatroulette dressed in a bikini, the U.S. Marine Corps, even NPR took on Carly Rae Jepsen's first hit, making sure that you never forgot this outrageously sunshiney earworm.

March 15, 2012

Bruce Springsteen delivers the SXSW Keynote

Declaring himself "an average guy with a slightly above-average gift," the Boss took the South By Southwest conference by storm with a funny, warm, deeply insightful keynote speech launching the retrospective phase of his career, which would eventually include a best-selling memoir and a much-lauded solo Broadway show.

April 15, 2012

A Tupac hologram takes the Coachella stage

The future of live entertainment, or the worst weed-inspired idea ever? Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg summon a hologram of fallen comrade Tupac Shakur during their set at Coachella and the world goes, "Cool, I guess, but ... huh?"

May 1, 2012

Perturbator reignites the synth scene with the release of Terror 404

Not the genesis of synthwave, but certainly its most dynamic catalyst, Terror 404 took the dark and sleek sound of John Carpenter and Vangelis' synth soundtracks and started a Bandcamp tag movement.

May 4, 2012

Adam Yauch (1964-2012)

So many hip-hop fans grew up with the Beastie Boys, watching the three members mature from high-school punks to rabble-rousing young adults to midlife seekers of balance and wisdom. Few artists accomplish as much as Adam Yauch, who not only spun great rhymes under the name MCA, but was a film producer, activist and organizer of the most successful charity shows of the late 1990s, the Tibetan Freedom Concerts. When he died of salivary gland cancer at 47, a generation reeled. But his peaceful legacy lives on.

May 8, 2012

Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! comes out as transgender

In May 2012, the lead singer of punk band Against Me! announced, in a Rolling Stone interview, that she was transgender and would begin to live openly as a woman. Laura Jane Grace — known before then as Tom Gabel — had already fronted the band for over a decade, through countless tours and five studio albums (including two on a major label), all while dealing with drug addiction, a divorce and unrelenting (though secret) gender dysphoria. Since coming out, Grace has remained the tough-as-nails frontwoman for Against Me!, releasing acclaimed music that now expresses uncloaked tenderness about her struggles and her transition. She has also become an unprecedentedly punk face of transgender visibility, a reminder of the brokenness of both our gender binaries and our expectations about who can embody the outsider nature of punk.

The announcement was a powerful moment at the dawn of the transgender rights movement's foray into mainstream conversation. This was still years before what Time magazine called the "transgender tipping point," before Caitlin Jenner graced the cover of Vanity Fair and before Netflix cast Laverne Cox in her breakout Orange Is The New Black role. The prototypical rock fan who grew up in the early aughts listening to Against Me! likely did not wittingly know a single transgender person — in fact, in 2008, only 8% of people said they did. Today, that number is closer to 30% — and much of that growth has to do with figures like Grace, who enable a feedback loop between visibility, coming out and civil rights. --Marissa Lorusso

May 13, 2012

Everybody has a camera, and nobody knows what to do about it

Every concertgoer is now a photographer, capable not only of capturing and sharing images, but also livestreaming video (was that even a word 10 years ago?). With smartphones came controversy, a love/hate relationship that pits the artist's desire for an audience to stay in the moment against fans' desire to capture and share. I remember getting my hand stamped to see M. Ward at the 9:30 Club in May 2012 when the door person said, "Tonight, no photography or videos. Including cell phones." I tweeted this:

"A ban on cell phone pictures and video @9:30Club for Lee Renaldo & M. Ward Seriously? Let's see how we all do with that."

Not too far into the concert, I got this from @NekoCase:

"@allsongs @9 Just put the phone away and watch the show. That IS why he is traveling THOUSANDS of miles to play."

Personally, I find photo bans by artists and venues to be annoying — though I also find holding up a bright screen for entire songs to be inconsiderate. I don't mind telling a jerk who constantly holds up their phone to put it down. But I suggest staying cool if, for, a few moments of a 75-minute show your neighbor delights in getting a keepsake, something to jog a memory of a magic evening later on. Heaven knows what 2027 will bring; maybe we'll all be playing music along with our favorite artists on some new handheld device. --Bob Boilen

May 31, 2012

Amanda Palmer sets a crowdfunding record

After raising over $1.2 million to make her album Theatre Is Evil, Amanda Palmer appeared on the front page of Kickstarter with a sign that read, "This is the future of music." It was certainly a success story, though hardly a business model for the industry as a whole.

June 2012

SFX brings big money to electronic dance music

EDM would have broken in a huge way without the input of Robert F.X. Sillerman, a longtime promoter who was behind the company that would eventually become Live Nation. But Sillerman's hungry pursuit of partnership or acquisition deals with players across the dance music world — from radio to countless global festivals to the beloved electronic music online store Beatport — made sure that when his company was overextended and the market fell apart, the collapse would be that much more dramatic.

June 19, 2012

Fiona Apple releases The Idler Wheel...

Seven years after seemingly dropping out of the Lilith Fair rat race, the most poetically disruptive singer-songwriter to emerge in the 1990s returned with a genius-level encapsulation of the ugly feelings and beautiful accidents that make up a woman's normal, messy life.

July 4, 2012

Frank Ocean comes out

Frank Ocean cemented his role as R&B's favorite reclusive glitter-boy over a week in July that began with an earnest coming-out letter (published, appropriately, on Independence Day) and climaxed with the sudden release of Channel Orange, a breathtaking, open-chested look into Ocean's life, love and identity, arguably ushering in a new era of vulnerable, iridescent storytelling.

July 18, 2012

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis release "Same Love" featuring Mary Lambert

Seattle rap duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis wrote this tender anthem inspired, in part, by Washington State's soon-to-be successful marriage equality campaign. It helped propel them toward a complicated moment of international fame.

September 10, 2012

Kacey Musgraves releases "Merry Go Round"

What caught me off guard about Kacey Musgraves' debut single, listening to an early version on my iPod, was its slyness. Many of country's contemporary hitmakers tended to celebrate the sturdiness of small-town life through plainspoken potency and amped-up showmanship, but here was a thoroughly low-key tune — all featherweight folk-country textures, conversational narration and barely perceptible eye-rolling — that voiced a distinctly millennial distrust of idealizing domesticity, yet made it to the top 10 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart.

Sure, Musgraves' track signaled the arrival of a savvy, compelling new voice, but there was more to it than that. The song's casual impatience with adhering to convention simply for the sake of keeping up appearances foreshadowed a generational shift in tone within the format. Rock critics would make Musgraves' third single, "Follow Your Arrow," out to be a progressive intervention in country conservatism, while it struck me more as a knowing, youthful update of a live-and-let-live attitude present in country music of the past. She would soon be surrounded by country peers who played it similarly cool in their deliveries and took nonchalant tolerance almost as a given.

From another angle, Musgraves' success quietly predicted a blurring of genre boundaries. She'd originally been signed to Lost Highway, home to such archetypal Americana works as the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and albums by Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williams, but when the imprint was shuttered in the midst of Musgraves making her first album, she was shuffled over to its mainstream country-focused parent label Mercury Nashville. She went on to rake in awards from the country music industry's two main awards shows, the CMAs and the ACMs, and win Grammys in country categories, but her musical inclinations — pitched between rootsy singer-songwriter-style intimacy, classic pop-country luster and retro western kitsch — also betrayed a kinship to Americana.

In the years to come, several other artists including Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price would simultaneously make an impact on both country and Americana sales charts and/or collect nominations for awards in both genres. Meanwhile, Musgraves all but gave up on country radio, which failed to play her subsequent singles, and, it seemed to me, settled into her version of having it both ways (i.e. putting a pleasing, campy gloss on her idiosyncrasies) from her mainstream perch. --Jewly Hight

October 22, 2012

Kendrick Lamar releases good kid, m.A.A.d city

On his major-label debut, the Compton-raised upstart narrated the everyday dangers of his drug-infested city through the lens of a teenager killing time by driving around in his parents' van.

November 24, 2012

"Gangnam Style" becomes the most-watched video on YouTube

Viral video reached giddy new musical heights when the clip for the 18th single by Korean pop star Psy, with its squiggly New Wave beat and bacterially infectious chorus, became the most-watched on YouTube — and, shortly thereafter, the platform's first video to reach a billion views.

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