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The Winners and Losers of the Summer of Ass

Nicki Minaj’s video for “Anaconda,” which came out Tuesday, instantly set a standard for asstrological, butterrific, callipygastic, back-door pop fetishism that might be daunting even to Sir Mix-a-Lot. It’s also rump-up and hands-down the funniest music clip of 2014, an achievement in a year in which “Weird Al” released eight videos in eight days.

“Anaconda” followed by just one day Taylor Swift’s new single and video “Shake It Off,” which among its cavalcade of cartoonish dance styles features rows of generous rear bumpers heaving and twerking in an obvious parody of Swift’s pop rival Miley Cyrus (unfortunately also imitating Cyrus in using black women’s bodies as props).

And both videos arrived at a moment when Nashville songwriter Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” a body-positive banger about “that boom-boom that all the boys chase,” was unexpectedly sitting pretty near the top of the Billboard charts, vindicating Trainor’s Timberlakeian proclamation that she’d be “bringing booty back.”

Just like sexy itself, booty never really has gone away in the club-centric chart pop of the past decade, but this week’s triumphant triumvirate has definitely raised higher the freak flag planted in pop music’s posterior. I’m pleased to declare it, ladies and germs: Welcome to the Summer of Ass.

I mean that in a complimentary way. While they have their faults, and we could and probably will spend months probing (sorry) their subtexts on gender and race, all three songs provide the kind of glittery, affirming, dare-I-say bouncy spirit that you really want from a beach-season sizzler. They’d all sound perfect undulating out of boomboxes and car speakers, visceral reminders that in the festively inverse and perverse democracy of pop, the bottom is often the top. I’d even venture to quibble with the (real) Clinton Doctrine and argue that liberating the ass can liberate the mind as much as the other way round. Follow the chocolate highway to freedom, because hips don’t lie.

Unfortunately, as cabooses sometimes do, these three tunes have appeared a tad late, at the tail of a season that’s sometimes made me wonder what a so-called “poptimist” like me is supposed to do in periods when pop goes flat. Before this rear-guard turnabout, I was getting prepared to name 2014 the Summer of Ass in a much more sour sense, as in it sucked it.

It’s been clear for a long while that the annual Powerball sweepstakes that is the hunt for “the song of summer” tends to get out of hand. The amount of cultural capital that critics and fans invest usually feels disconnected from any final payoff. The pursuit of the Song of Summer betrays culture mavens’ will to power, our drive to find homogeneity in diverse experiences, and to impose in advance the kind of unitary narrative that more honestly, as Maura Johnston discussed recently in The New York Times, can be assembled only in retrospect into montage-worthy memories. It’s one of those cases that reveal the subjectivity of taste precisely by trying to deny it: The song of your summer and the song of my summer are unlikely to be the same, because phenomenologically, even just meteorologically, there is no the summer. It depends exactly where you’re at.

For the past couple of years, however, it’s been relatively easy to overlook all that and embrace an illusion of consensus. The summer-song races have been unusually entertaining — full of surprises, with unknowns like Carly Rae Jepsen or Gotye, also-rans like Robin Thicke, and cult heroes like Daft Punk rallying to dominate their seasons with hooky concoctions that only the most ornery haters could hate. We were spoiled, lulled into the assumption that high temperatures naturally breed a lush foliage of colorful musical flora that eventually may wilt from over-exposure but definitely spruce up life and long drives in the meanwhile.

This summer has seemed designed to slap the complacent lite-lime-beer grins off our faces. First, there’s been the weather itself, from the drought in California to conditions closer to my home in Toronto that have been more often like a rainy October than beach-party balmy. And then of course there’s the news, from bloodshed in Gaza to the Islamic State in Iraq to Ebola in West Africa to the racial injustice in Missouri, not to mention a crashed plane or two. It all put me in the mindset of Angela Chase angsting about the high-school yearbook: If you made a song that showed what this summer was really like, it’d be a really upsetting song. (It was a bittersweet sort of comfort when that kind of song finally appeared last week, in the form of J. Cole’s “Be Free.”)

It’s rare that pop music can channel and process such dark public moods in any immediate way. It will usually absorb and transfigure them over time, but in the moment the best it can offer is usually relief and mental escape. But when I turned to the pop charts for succor for most of the past couple of months, they were a huge letdown.

The two tunes that have topped the charts most relentlessly are “Fancy” and “Problem.” Neither of them are total duds: “Fancy” has Charli XCX hooting out its chorus with saucy, strutty style, and “Problem” has that jittery sax hook, Big Sean whispering the robust kiss-off line “I’ve got one less problem without you” and Ariana Grande being, well, fine. But they also both have Iggy Azalea, the honky-in-every-sense Australian pseudo-rapper whose ubiquitous presence is as garish as the bright purple shrub she named herself for, and makes me want to take garden shears to my radio.

A few songs came along that gave me higher hopes, such as Sia’s “Chandelier,” or Jason Derulo’s own booty-centric “Wiggle,” but they rose and sank swiftly; I would have been bored but not bothered if we’d wound up with another Katy Perry summer, despite the weirdly clueless ethnic-stereotype humor of her video for “Birthday”; I could even persuade myself to cozy up to the don’t-worry-be-happy vibe of the Afro-Norwegian duo Nico & Vinz and their slow-simmering Euro crossover “Am I Wrong?” as long as I ignored how much its jazzy-funky-reggae-party groove could sound like rehydrated and reheated mid-period Sting. But nothing, it seemed, could vanquish the Iggy juggernaut and reverse the “Fancy”-fication of America.

Nothing, that is, until something far worse: The full-on Police-blotting atrocity that is the band Magic! (I see the exclamation point as a middle finger raised directly in my face) and its mystifyingly popular “Rude,” a light-reggae, business-school-skanking courtship anthem with “Leave It to Beaver”-era gender politics that finally replaced “Fancy” at No. 1. I can’t remember when I last hated the biggest song in North America so intensely.

My pain is much amplified by the fact that although the group, or let’s say the enterprise, is headquartered in Los Angeles, its main members actually come from my city, Toronto. It continues the sad pattern of the American pop industry and audiences taking up with Canada’s Caribbean-copying pretenders (when in fact we’ve got a lot of the real deal). But “Rude” makes Snow’s “Informer” sound comparatively good. Sorry I gotta be so rude, but it’s lazy, dopey, pushy, and self-satisfied — in short, total ass.

Magic! perform at 103.5 KTU's KTUphoria at IZOD Center, New Jersey on June 29, 2014. / Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images

The “Weird Al” Wave of midsummer (the first chart-topping album of his career) certainly offered comic relief, but it was predictably brief, and after that I found myself retreating to old habits — streaming ’60s soul albums, jazz, golden-age hip-hop like A Tribe Called Quest, and recent indie-ish albums by the likes of FKA Twigs as well as longtime favorites such as Wussy and Jenny Lewis. (Not so much the new Spoon album, which is enormously well-made but so straightforwardly self-characteristic that it feels like opening a jar of spices labeled “Spoon Album” and ladling it directly into my mouth.)

Anytime I feel myself disengaging that way from what’s happening in the broader pop field, however, I feel like I am letting the team down: Ever since I subjected my own tastes (and by extension everybody’s) to an extended deconstruction for my book Let’s Talk About Love, part of my lot in life has been to serve as an advocate (and sometimes punching bag) in the ongoing fight over the value of pop.

Like other pro-pop critics, I defend the mainstream in all its flashy, trashy, crafty, and sometimes daringly stupid glory as a place to find not only pleasure (which is already a lot) but meaningful encounters with otherness, the kinds of dialogues we need to have to salvage connection in a world that comes to us in broken pieces and without an instruction manual.

So it was kind of appropriate timing that this summer proved a challenge to my pro-pop convictions — a reminder that a determination not to take shelter in personal niches means not expecting to be catered to, but to take the irritations and occasional assy smells of popular culture as they come. Maybe it was even healthy to be pushed into temporary retreat, to take a little aesthetic vacation. In fact perhaps that’s the explanation for this summer’s music overall: After several cycles of fireworks, pop’s own vital energies were a little drained, and it needed to recharge before it could come bouncing back this week — before the Summer of Weak-Ass could give way, ideally, to an Autumn of Bad-Ass.

Like the weather, like the news, pop is a chaotic but patterned system, and when it is unpleasant all you have to do is watch and wait and something different will come along for better or worse. Meanwhile it’s always worth considering what’s currently missing or excluded — in recent summers, for example, the tops of the charts have mainly been absent black artists, even as African-American sounds and styles were being appropriated and recycled everywhere. Here’s hoping that Nicki’s “Anaconda” is wriggling up to swallow that syndrome, but one way or another pop’s repressed always returns, with its polymorphously pulsating rear end raised, defying us all to slap where we dare.


Note: This column marks my first as senior critic for SPIN, a position I take up this week following stints as the music critic for Slate, a senior features editor at The Globe and Mail in Toronto, and a freelancer for many other publications, as well as my past blogs Zoilus and Back to the World. I’m excited to become part of a publication that’s been key to so many chapters of pop history (whether pro-, anti-, or alt-), and which I read eagerly before I ever imagined getting into this racket. See you here at least weekly (and in between as @carlzoilus on Twitter) to talk about whatever happens next.