Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Ten Greatest Pop Music Moments of 2009

10. The First Five Seconds of Susan Boyle's Big Coup

While I've recently made clear my overall opinion of the phenomenon that is Susan Boyle, how could anyone deny the power of that knockout punch moment the ugly duckling opened her mouth and proved everyone within sight and earshot an utter ass? The Grimm Brothers could have hired Shakespeare, Aesop, Hans Christian Anderson, J.K. Rowling, and ten thousand trained monkeys with typewriters and would never have dreamed up a more perfect fairy tale. Of course, five seconds into that dreadful Les Miz cliche - about the moment the entire population of England apparently relapsed into infancy and offered the most inflated (and decibel-intensive) mea culpa that five million plus albums later shows no sign of ebbing, is about where the fairy tale ended for this apparently more discerning Scrooge.

9. Beyoncé Croons the Obamas Into the White House

In easily the most touching performance of the then-27 year old superstar's landmark career, the not yet oversaturated Beyoncé outsang even Etta James (whom she had recently portrayed in the film Cadillac Records, with the singer's supposed blessing) at the Neighborhood Ball on the thrilling inauguration day of the first black American president when she provided a heartfelt, soulful rendition of "At Last" as the beautiful new First Couple shared a dance that mirrored the passionate romance Americans had at the time for the new Commander in Chief. Aside from Queen Latifah's tear-jerking performance of "I'll Be Seeing You" during the Look Who's Dead segment of this year's Oscars, it was probably the most moving musical moment of 2009, if not the decade. What a shame that Etta later painted her legacy an ugly color when she told an audience that the almost unanimously beloved young singer "gonna get her ass whupped....I can't stand Beyoncé." Heart wrapped up in clover, indeed.

8. The Lonely Island Gets On a Motherfucking Boat

After you've put your Dick in a Box and Jizzed in Your Pants, what better way to follow up by getting on a boat with T-Pain? That's what the gorgeous Andy Samberg and Lonely Island bandmate/fellow Saturday Night Live cast member Akiva Schaffer did in the February 7 episode of the revitalized weekend comedy haven, and goodness if they didn't make sure we knew about it. With hilariously hyperbolic profanity interlaced with the fantastically mundane ("I got my swim trunks, and my flippie-floppies!"), not only was the new Digital Short an unqualified success, it recently garnered the fictional trio (with Jorma Taccone, who was humorously passed up for the third fortuitous admission ticket for the dreadlocked Auto-Tune champion T-Pain) a Grammy nomination for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. Oh shit, get your towels ready!

7. Lady Gaga's Tits Explode

On June 21 Lady Gaga was still months away from blowing our minds with her bad romances, which is one reason we were so unprepared for the fiery new lingirie she unleashed upon an astonished world at the MuchMusic Awards (the what? Yeah, exactly) during a performance of her then-biggest hits "Poker Face" and "Paparazzi." Sure, we've seen Janet Jackson's boobies, and seen Britney dance with a giant snake and swap spit with Madonna, but I'm pretty sure no one had previously experienced the sight of someone's breasts spewing out fire mid-song. Although I admit I missed Courtney Love's last tour, so I can't be sure.

6. Pink Demonstrably NOT Safe Up High

The 2009 MTV Video Music Awards will always be remembered for an entirely different jaw-dropping moment (more on that in a moment), but easily the most thrilling live performance of that far too intense evening came by way ofthe ever-fantastic rocker Pink, who performed her great single "Sober" while swinging from the ceiling of Radio City Music Hall. The legitimately hardcore acrobatics were as intense and riveting as the powerful ballad she gamely sang - live - as her aerialist partner (who was barely her size, even) held her by one ankle as the trapeze swung wildly.

5. Britney Spears Actually Sings Something

Many many months into her grueling and spellbinding comeback tour, famed lip-synch burlesque artist Britney Spears nearly caused pop culture bloggers to have simultaneous nationwide aneurysms when at the September 5 show in Greensboro, North Carolina (of all places) she deviated from her set list - without the aid of a prerecorded vocal track! - to unleash a howling cover of Alanis Morissette's timeless thrasher "You Oughta Know." Sure, she sounded pretty awful, and no one still can explain the song choice, but really, who gives a crap: Britney was SINGING. BRITNEY. Though the semi-spontaneous karaoke session was repeated in several subsequent North American stops, it's too bad Brit didn't bring the act on her Australian leg, where a mild to-do was made when apparently some high-paying "fans" in Perth walked out after expectations of live singing were of course unmet (apparently they forgot they were going to see Britney Spears).

After noticing my rapturous Facebook chatter following the initial incident, a friend of mine who was to see a Detroit date several days later, was kind enough to take some video of the Michigan version (scores of amateur videos of this phenomenon from audience members abound on YouTube) so the incredulous among you can witness the moment for yourselves.

4. Lady Gaga's Claws Heroically Rescue Flaming Piano

By the time the American Music Awards rolled around November 22 at the NOKIA Theater in Los Angeles, the world had had two weeks to recover from the tsunami of greatness that hit when the video for Bad Romance caused heads to explode worldwide earlier that month. So in a way, we were somewhat more at ease as the blonde performance artist/pop icon traipsed around the stage wrapped in an ACE bandage, hair like a banshee. But when "Bad Romance" segued into her upcoming power ballad "Speechless" and the Gaga began to smash the glass box that enslaved the black piano that subsequently caught fire as she pounded away and sang her explosive boobs off, we were reminded never to underestimate the baffling power of Lady Gaga.

3. M.I.A. Manages Not to Give Birth at Grammys (Barely)

Being as enamored of Catherine Zeta-Jones as I am, I adored seeing her looking stunning at nine months pregnant as she accepted her Oscar for Chicago in 2003. Sure, she looked fantastic, but all she had to do was waddle up and talk for half a minute; British-Indian pop empress M.I.A. made that feat look like a foot massage when she brought down the packed Staples Center with her Record of the Year-nominated behemoth "Paper Planes" with an infant practically halfway out of her uterus. Though "Paper Planes" failed to bring home the Grammy, as her nominated contribution to the soundtrack of Slumdog Millionaire also fell short of the Oscar, M.I.A. emerged that night a bonafide winner simply for not going into labor mid-performance (and easily takes the prize for most kickass awards show stint of the year). Instead, she popped out her first son two days later in the comfort of a hospital birthing ward.

2. Kanye West Momentarily Stops the Madness (But Starts a Lot More)

I alluded earlier to the real jaw-dropping event for which the 2009 VMAs will always be known, and of course by that I refer to the farcically mad moment Kanye West leapt onto the stage at Radio City Music Hall (drunk? high? truly that self-important?) and stripped the microphone from the hand of throw rug-clad country bumpkin Taylor Swift in the middle of her acceptance speech for Top Female Video and essentially announce that the wrong lady was standing on the stage holding a Moonman. The incident instantly caused a majority of the shocked audience members and the millions more viewing the fiasco on television to side with the dissed 19-year-old and vehemently react against West with more than just angry tweets: the ill-timed announcement days afterward of a planned partnership tour with the far more beloved Lady Gaga was hastily followed shortly thereafter by a major change in plans that amounted to Gaga touring solo while West was reduced to apologizing on the new (and much maligned) Jay Leno show before retreating from public appearances for a spell.

So why does this well-publicized tempest land at the penultimate spot on this list of great moments? Well, because while the man may be an egomaniacal ass (or "jackass," as the President famously called him following the incident), he was for the most part absolutely RIGHT. Swift had no more business winning that rather meaningless award than she does receiving the number of top Grammy nominations she did this month for her charming yet juvenile and simplistic schlockfest "You Belong With Me;" and that Swift's video bested Beyoncé's for Top Female Video only to lose to the latter in the "Video of the Year" race exceeds basic logic, never mind opinion. As Entertainment Weekly shrewdly pointed out in its analysis of the aftermath, West, who has always had his nose bent out of shape about awards, may well be right when he bemoans injustices such as the one that fateful night, but what he really ought to do is stop expecting peer-voted awards (or worse, niche group-voted a la the VMAs or the Golden Globes) to bear any resemblance to actual fact. That's the only reason I can still watch the Oscars.

But in any case, enough time has now passed that I feel completely comfortable applauding Kanye West for even momentarily managing what no one else has seemed to do this year: make Taylor Swift go away.

1. Lady Gaga Releases Video for "Bad Romance"

Sure, we loved "Just Dance," even if it took us the better part of a year to figure that out; we dug the dark beat and the "bluffin' with my muffin" of "Poker Face;" everyone wanted a ride on a disco stick, and soon there were many who were Lady Gaga's biggest fans, willing to follow her until she loved them like papa... paparazzi. In fact, when the release of the eagerly-awaited new single and video "Bad Romance" suffered a last-minute, one-day delay, fans nearly panicked.

A day later, though, no one could even remember how things had been; such was the impressively giant leap Gaga had managed from exciting if not quite groundbreaking new dance-pop maven to dominant, trend-setting and -smashing force who was no longer succeeding on existing terms but rather defining the terms herself. Such a feat is hardly unprecedented: Madonna, Missy Elliot, Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake, and perhaps Beyonce have all managed to go from trend product to trendsetter at some tangible point in their respective careers. But rarely has such a bold and yet almost universally praised artistic statement been at the same time so much damn FUN: everything from the giant dilated alien eyes to the fantastic choreography (fantastic in the "what the crap did she just do?" way) to the ultra couture designs by Alexander McQueen to the fact that the singer is, for the first time, both eminently watchable and yet also accessible.

In her previous videos (several of which were shot long before anyone knew who she was) Lady Gaga maintains a good deal of distance, but in "Bad Romance" the closeup shots of her lightly made-up face, eyes uncovered by the sunglasses she loves so much, for the first time she seems almost to look back at us as we inevitably look at her. By all evidence, it was a connection that solidified the old fans and won over plenty new ones as well, but regardless of one's personal taste for Lady Gaga, it would be hard to deny that the release of "Bad Romance" wasn't one of the big events of the relatively lackluster year in music. Fortunately, with Gaga it seems there is infinitely more still to come.

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