Throughout the history of modern culture, New York has been the center of the most cutting edge trends in popular music. From Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” to the punk and avant-garde sounds of the 1980s, New York has been a Mecca for musicians who want to make new and interesting music. This past year was no different. With pop music in a funk, forward thinking New Yorkers are rethinking their approach to music, taking it in new directions and adding outside influences.
This past year in particular, Brooklyn emerged as home to the most innovative artists who made the strongest music of 2009. Artists who had built their reputations on the outskirts of the musical mainstream grabbed pop music by the horns and fused their existing sound to fit a more consumer friendly mold. Even the most popular indie bands have embraced this — with Vampire Weekend using Auto-Tune on their newest album and many well-known groups recording for the Twilight soundtrack. More so, traditionally underground bands are taking on the challenges of making pop music while keeping their original sensibilities. Brooklyn sweethearts Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear released two of the best albums of the year, as well as their best selling so far, by embracing pop song structures and using chamber music and choral influences. By doing this, they were able to introduce new listeners to their melodic and groundbreaking sounds, while keeping their old fans interested.
This trend is visible in mainstream music too. Lady Gaga, arguably the breakout artist of the year, was born and raised in New York, attending the Convent of the Sacred Heart and New York University. She first made her mark performing in the clubs of the Lower East Side, and the first record label she was signed to was Def Jam, perhaps the most definitive New York label in recent music. As an artist, Gaga’s sound is also telling of this new music experimentation, with two of her most popular songs featuring choruses with thinly veiled references to the penis (“I want to take a ride on your discostick”) and the new dancefloor battle cry “Rah-rah-ah-ah-ah/Roma-roma-mah/Gaga-ooh-là-là.” These new chart toppers provide a stark contrast to Gaga’s earlier work, specifically her first hit, “Just Dance.” This track is very far removed from the intense bad girl avant pop star image the artist now projects, instead focusing on the visceral pleasures of moving your body in a club. Her evolution has been towards adding fresh sexual energy to her work, stimulating commentary on and off the dancefloor.
However, these “new” trends may not actually be so new. Comparisons between Lady Gaga and another New York City icon, Madonna, are apt and have been around long before one of them showed up as a giant bloodied tampon to a major awards show. While Madonna had gained some popularity with her relatively tame first album, she entered the mainstream consciousness with her hypersexual hit single “Like A Virgin” and the accompanying music video, a medium Gaga has used increasingly well. Likewise, the new independent music coming out of Brooklyn recalls the post-punk music of the early 1980s, especially the world music stylings of bands like the Talking Heads. Instead of looking at 2009 as a new pop revolution, last year should be viewed as a return to the experimentation that shook music in the 1980s. While it may be recycled, this is a breath of fresh air in the world of pop music, something desperately needed.