Between Sorrow and Hope: The Year 2009 in Music

Between Sorrow and Hope: The Year 2009 in Music

Make no mistake. When the ball drops this December 31st, there will be no shortage of music fans who will look back at this past year and say "damn, I'm glad that's over." Frankly put, 2009 was a rough year for music, a year simultaneously characterized by frustration and impatience. 

To be sure, the sense of hope and belief that characterized 2009's opening was reflected by a wave of music rooted in the optimism that people felt. It was no coincidence that many of the previous year's most interesting artists were ones that cheered the defeat of Bush-part-two and the ushering in the Obama presidency. 

If that's true, though, then it has to be admitted that the new administration has given us more of the same--in everything from the economy to healthcare to the war in Afghanistan. And as people's sense of hope has been eroded, then so has music come to embody a collective sense of limbo... a feeling of being stuck between things ended and things begun. 

Plenty of amazing events came to pass in 2009, and none are to be discounted. On the heels of the outpouring of solidarity provoked by Israel's bombardment of Gaza, we saw the Iranian people rise against its own tyrannical government, a popular movement against the illegal coup in Honduras. 

There was no shortage of underground artists and musicians inspired by these events. Iranian hip-hop, for example, with its firebrand hatred of Ahmedinajad's regime, became known to a wider swathe of American fans that it might have had the mass protests against his government not have taken place. But while the uprisings in Iran and Honduras continue as this year draws to a close, neither have come to capture the imaginations of folks here in the US on a grand scale, even as "business as usual" becomes more and more a frustrating hindrance on working people.

Trouble in the Industry

There's really no arguing that it's a hindrance either. While the banks and insurance companies are rightfully taking the brunt of our anger, the music industry's own hubris continued to put them in the same league as the banksters at Goldman Sachs. The RIAA seemed to acknowledge this at the beginning of the year when they announced that they would be ceasing their campaign of lawsuits against accused file-sharers.

As always, though, actions spoke louder than words. The RIAA's "new tactic" of requiring internet service providers to monitor their users had meant that the lawsuits have more or less continued (albeit at a slower pace). The icing on this sour cake came in June when a Minnesota court ordered single mom and well-known file-sharer Jammie Thomas-Rasset to pay the hefty sum of $1.9 million to the RIAA for downloading 24 songs.

The only difference between these guys and the banking industry is they don't bother to go through to government when they rob people.

In keeping with this rather embarrassing theme, 2009 also provided a couple figureheads for the crisis in the pop music establishment. In April, Phil Spector, one of the most important record producers of the 20th century, was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to nineteen years in prison. Spector's previous trial had ended in 2007 in mistrial, but this time he obviously wasn't so lucky.

While Spector's case might have been an especially brutal example (the producer has a long history of violence that until now hasn't been widely acknowledged), the bad fortune suffered by the upper echelons of the music industry didn't end with him. U2 seemed poised to make 2009 a red letter year when they released their new album No Line On the Horizon in February. Despite a relentless publicity campaign and built up hype, sales were disappointing. This by itself would be unremarkable if the group's 360 tour in support of Horizon hadn't been similarly wracked with controversy. The overblown stage set and expensive price-tag--$750,000 per show--meant that though the tour was the largest in history, it didn't even break even until the end of the year.

Indeed, U2's increasing arrogance has in recent years replaced the former admiration they enjoyed with a very real resentment among former fans. Signs carried on anti-austerity marches in the group's native Ireland have been burnished with slogans like "Make Bono Pay Taxes." This kind of anger gained such a pitch this past year that even the band themselves haven't been able to ignore it. Drummer Larry Mullen noted in July that even travel isn't quite as pleasurable for the band as it once was:

"We have experienced [a situation] where coming in and out of the country at certain times is made more difficult than it should be--not only for us, but for a lot of wealthy people ... The better-off (are) being sort of humiliated."

U2's troubles aren't just a vague hatred of the band itself. They are representative of the very real and palpable mood that has developed on this planet against the global elite who are still making out like bandits even as working people scramble to survive under the weight of the recession. True to form, Bono and company have been left scratching their heads under the weight of their own arrogance. This can easily be said about the music industry in general--in fact, it has been for years. The difference now is that it's blatantly obvious to more folks than ever before.

Farewell to the King

And then, of course, there was the death of Michael Jackson. When the King of Pop went in late June, it sent shockwaves around the planet. Never before had a single artist's music affected so many people across the globe. Never before has an artist's classic albums occupied nine of the ten top spots on the Billboard charts in the wake of his death. 

Jackson's passing was as shocking as it was tragic. Many expected his big "comeback" from the string of performances that had been slated for him in London in July. The same shows were also supposed to pull Jackson out of the massive debt he and his estate had accrued. We'll never know whether he would have succeeded, but the tragedy of his death was only compounded in the months following. Revelations of major prescription drug abuse and the cadre of yes-man doctors that he had surrounded himself with only further confirmed the fragile isolation he had become known for in the last decades of his life.

As the video clips of his life were played side-by-side, his transformation from a young and charismatic artist into a bizarre, Peter Pan-esque media sideshow became all the more striking. 

In many ways, Jackson represented both the best and worst elements of pop music. He was a man whose immense musical talent revolutionized pop, expanding its horizons and legitimizing it as an art-form. None of today's music would exist without the influence of Michael Jackson. 

Not only did he revolutionize music and help mold it in the last quarter of the twentieth century, he did so as a black man. MTV was almost lily-white before his videos became a staple on the channel. Even as he was beset by scandal and his behavior took ever more eccentric turns, he remained regarded by most as a trailblazer in making modern pop a more multicultural forum. 

And yet, even as he blazed trails--perhaps because he blazed them so successfully--Jackson's notorious eccentricity came to represent the worst excesses of the music industry. True, the unprecedented album sales helped him build a fortune most of us could never achieve in our wildest dreams, but as his life became more and more of a media circus, it was obvious that he was also a profoundly dysfunctional human being. In some ways, he became the poster boy for modern alienation. 

In the weeks after his death, Jay Smooth of the Ill Doctrine video blog pointed out that Jackson was himself an embodiment of the contradictions in modern pop culture:

"To me, more than anything, Michael's life is a parable of this right here--this limitless opportunity for liberation and imprisonment that the camera and the microphone provide. The paradox of trying to reconcile this human connection we make between artist and audience and the dehumanizing connection these tools create between consumer and mass media products. It's the struggle that every artist faces nowadays more than ever--figuring out how to balance these two opposing forces and keep yourself whole."

It is not a saccharine overstatement to say that there will never be another Michael Jackson. Twenty years ago the music industry had the overbearing control to take someone of such incredible talent and turn them into a commodity. Now, however, it's doubtful that they have the same hegemony. None of this alleviates the tragedy of his death. On the contrary, it makes it all the more prescient.

Gaga, Lambert and the Double Standard

If there was one area ordinary folks whose confidence was on the ascendancy in '09, then it was most definitely that of the LGBT community. Here is a movement that has defiantly proclaimed that they're just not having it anymore (despite some very real defeats in Maine and New York). The grassroots upsurge demanding not only same-sex marriage but social equality in general has been a keystone of inspiration for hundreds of thousands, if not millions in the midst of a full-on assault on our very lives.

So it's no surprise that countless artists stood shoulder to shoulder with this rising movement in '09. This might be best personified by the high-profile outspokenness of Lady Gaga, who is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating and artistically daring stars to capture the pop mainstream in quite some time. 

When Gaga spoke at the historic National Equality March this past October, it represented a coming together of popular culture and popular movements the way that hasn't been seen since the outbreak of the Iraq war. It's been a long time since a musician on Gaga's level of fame has sworn to a crowd of 200,000 that she would do everything she can to fight against sexism and homophobia in the music industry.

When Gaga was included on Barbara Walters "Ten Most Fascinating People of 2009" program, producers seemed to have no problem showing the artist kissing another woman. Gaga has been open about her own bisexuality, which is yet another thing that had made her outlandish presence so refreshing this past year. When Adam Lambert was included on the list, though, it was a different story. Citing Lambert's risque performance at the American Music Awards, Walters mentioned footage that "we won't show you here."

She was, of course, referencing the infamous moment when Lambert kissed a male keyboardist. This came right on the heels of ABC pulling the plug on Lambert's "Good Morning America" appearance mere days after the AMAs. The network may have been amazingly short-sighted in its belief that its audience wouldn't catch onto the double standard, but all condescension aside, Lambert's insistence to simply perform as himself is actually more in touch with young America's attitude in the here and now. The kind of blatant censorship he encountered in the last months of 2009 was just another example of how much this struggle still has to take on.

Anything Goes?

This same feeling of "anything goes" was, unsurprisingly, most pronounced in the indie scene, which has come over the past few years to be recognized as more than just a subculture of skinny-jeaned kids listening to lo-fi rock, but a veritable movement encompassing countless musical genres. Pitchfork's Nitsuh Abebe, in his much referenced article on "The Decade In Indie," played at this theme by pointing out how many diverse sounds have been lumped under the "indie umbrella." And as Abebe points out, the past decade has been one where the cool-as-fuck, broadly inclusive and independent spirit of indie has become damn-near hegemonic among young people:

"Just try selling iPods or straight-leg jeans without knowing what fresh-faced guitar band is the hip new thing; just try telegraphing to audiences that a character on your television show is quite special and interesting... And it's not like charts mean what they used to, but still: they're home to the Shins (#2 record), Wilco (three records in the top 10), Arcade Fire (17 weeks), Interpol (24 weeks), and Death Cab for Cutie, who went to #1-- as in, knocking off Neil Diamond and being replaced at the top by 3 Doors Down, that #1-- without even much changing their sound from a decade ago." 

In other words, the notion that courses through the veins of indie music--that there's still plenty that needs to be renewed from the bottom-up--is more or less a given for most young folks. And though that spirit has yet to really break through the glass ceiling, it could be found in many of this year's best releases.

Animal Collective's experimental post-pop deconstruction Merriweather Post Pavilion became one of the year's most talked-about albums--to the point where some especially snarky columnists felt they could rip on it as a tangent and expect people to know what their talking about. Other acts like Passion Pit brought a fresh and unique sound that the mainstream has taken to surprisingly well.

The same could be said of indie in relation to hip-hop. What two years ago was being written off as "hipster rap" now appears to be the next big thing. Acts like U-N-I, with their bare-bones beat aesthetic and fun-loving attitude continued to make waves in 2009. Kid Cudi's playful road show found itself opening for Lady Gaga this year. 

The affect that indie has had even seems to have cleared the way for some new and dynamic female artists to rise within a male dominated genre. Kid Sister's Ultraviolet, one of the most anticipated albums of '09 showed the space that existed for a confident, down-to-earth femcee in rap's new era.

If all of this seems mind-boggling, then it's simply because there's that much brewing just beneath music's surface. It's an exciting prospect considering the frustration the so many have felt this past year. Even as the bottom has continued to drop out from under our feet, there has been precious little to hold onto. Scary? Absolutely. But no worthwhile change--in music or the world at large--ever took place without staring into the abyss.

Sure, the old way of doing things in music is becoming ever more outmoded. That can be pretty much assumed by now. All the contradictions seemed to be on full display this year--the cracks wide enough to drive a movement through. Just as the discredited "business as usual" has given us a few glances at what might pop up in its place, so has the old and stale sounds of radio and the big labels given a strong subculture the opportunity to jump to the front. So while it was no doubt frustrating to see so much disappear in 2009 with nothing to take its place, it's certainly worth remembering that history abhors a vacuum.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the blog Rebel Frequencies ( and is a columnist for the Society of Cinema and Arts and  His articles have also appeared in Socialist Worker, Z Magazine,, CounterPunch and Razorcake.

He can be reached at