YEAR IN MUSIC Hot blonde hits the spot when it comes to those super-chilled depression doldrums. Jean Harlow and Joan Blondell were the fair-haired girls during the 20th century's major downtown. As for 2010, it kicked off with the comic train wreck of party girl Ke$ha — plying us with tartly delivered, tarted-up hip-hop-ified electro and a bona fide pop classic in her chart-topping "Tik Tok." It ended with the entertainment press hanging on every syllable from rom-commie good girl Taylor Swift, the pretty prodigy with a country storyteller's set of close-for-comfort tales to tell.
In the meantime, that other over-saturated blonde, Lady Gaga, consolidated her grip on an enthralled mainstream, hammering out Monster's Ball performances and releasing little apart from her Pussywagon-fueled "Telephone" music video, delightfully overstuffed with killer-lesbionic antics and girlfriend-in-arms Beyonce. Shape-shifters and wig-changers like M.I.A. and Peaches worked the edges of pop, while Gwen and Britney sat out the year of the solo blonde. Plenty of other babes in Popland were fully prepared to serve up sensation, even as Swift worried for mothers everywhere (and perhaps herself), "Oh, darling, don't you ever grow up, don't you ever grow up/ It could stay this simple."
Nothing was ever quite as simple as that song, "Never Grow Up," in a game-changing yet politically conservative 2010. America's girls were riveted by Swift, the million-plus-selling teen queen who could sing (depending whether you liked her Grammy coupling with Stevie Nicks or chalked it up to an off night) and write, judging from her recent Speak Now (Big Machine). Swift's chief critic Kanye West may have put out a more musically exciting album, but in the battle to see who can artfully reveal the most and still remain compelling, Swift might be K-Whoa's match. You must love a high-profile 20-year-old who tells us how she really feels about, say, alleged ex John Mayer, singing, "Don't you think I was too young to be messed with?" and "I'll look back and regret how I ignored when they said, 'Run as fast as you can,'" in the appropriately soggy "Dear John."
Mocking rocker "Better Than Revenge" is better, despite the cheesy megaphone-like vocal effects, as Swift takes her poison pen to perceived romantic rival Camille Belle (for former flame Joe Jonas' affections) and cleverly, self-consciously complains, "She thinks I'm psycho/ Because I like to rhyme her name with things/ But sophistication isn't what you wear, or who you know/ Or pushing people down to get you where you wanna go."
Jonas ("Last Kiss"), West ("Innocent," yawn), Taylor Lautner ("Back to December"), and even industry insider-newsletter scribe Bob Lefsetz ("Mean") all supposedly enter Swift's sights. But the real tribute to her skills lie with infectious story songs like Speak Now's title track, and its opener, "Mine," songs that would be an asset on any country-pop performer's recording — and not at all beholding to Behind the Music speculation or tabloid gossip. Now if only she could hook up with one talented, directional producer with a musical opinion — when it comes to country-pop, Daniel Lanois comes to mind, but why not Rick Rubin or even Jack White? To be as memorable as country music's singer-songwriter greats, Swift needs to find challenging sounds to pair with her provocative lyrics.
Ke$ha lacks little in the provocation department. "Now that I'm famous/ You're up my anus/ Now I'm gonna eat you, fool!" she whinnies in the title track of her Cannibal EP (RCA), the disappointing rejoinder to her debut, Animal (RCA). It's as throwaway as a Mr. T punchline, but the rhymes also plug into the fear and loathing inspired by Kesha Sebert, who has gone from a hick-from-the-sticks, baby celeb-in-waiting to Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie in The Simple Life to an icon worthy of YouTube parodies and frothing hater commenting. Sure, she looks a hot mess, as personified by her trash-talkin', fall-outta-the-sack, smashed-dolly turns with "Tik Tok" and "Your Love Is My Drug." Her image seems to define "hot mess": picture hipster Barbie gone wild — and drunk on old Lil' Kim raps — and then dragged over miles of rough road. Yet the criticism Ke$ha catches — Rolling Stone described her debut as "repulsive, obnoxious, and ridiculously catchy" — reads more like easy misogyny, and at moments bourgie envy, of the type that's so often aimed at the highly visible village slut.
Streaming the archetypal ho to Swift's less-sullied like-a-virgin, Cannibal nevertheless feels like leftovers, doubtless culled from the hundreds of songs Ke$ha is said to have written in the years leading up to Animal. The girl isn't above slapping the glib "man-gina" tag on a dismissible male in "Grow a Pear." But even this brief EP has a few insinuating tracks: the jokey "Blow," with its silly-giggly allusions to — ooh, naughty — backdoor fun, crackin' hoedowns, and "letting the crazy out"; baby-house hit "We R Who We R," a going-out-hard anthem infinitely preferable to the Black-Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling"; and the sassy proclamation of slatternly white-trash, um, identity, "Sleazy." The latter two tunes' adenoidal raps are reminiscent of both Ke$ha's spiritual cool aunt, Peaches, and even her very remote agent-provocateur relation M.I.A.
"I was happy being the retarded cousin of rap," M.I.A. told Billboard this year. "Now I'm the retarded cousin of singing." Likewise, who isn't tired of complaints about Maya Arulpragasam's ragged performances and bumpy raps — she makes a virtue of the rugged and raw with Maya (Interscope/XL), easily the most musically compelling recording by any of the aforementioned divas (with production by Blaqstarr, Rusko, Switch, Diplo, and Sleigh Bells' Derek E. Miller, among others). The iPhone and Google shout-outs; dark, grating, and metallic samples; and a gory, not-altogether-successful Romaine Gavras video for the hardcore-inspired "Born Free" add up to what might be considered her most American album.
Maya is an intriguingly self-titled reassertion of identity, made amid growing fame and privilege — all things she was somewhat absurdly criticized for by Lynn Hirschberg in her "Trufflegate"-spurring cover story in the May 25 issue of The New York Times Magazine, a piece that takes M.I.A. to task for her frank — and ironic — comments, castigates her as both politically naive and artistically manipulative and offers up several head-scratching, what-year-is-this observations like "the record business in 2010 demands touring to ensure record sales" and "the oddity of using a garment linked to mercenaries to convey a very different message seemed to elude Maya."
If M.I.A. felt needlessly crucified by Hirschberg, then she should sign up for the latest great idea coming from another original, Peaches. On the heels of her unjustifiably neglected I Feel Cream (XL, 2009) — and a super trooper performance at the Regency during a major power outage — she reprises her one-woman take on Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Peaches Christ Superstar, in SF this week. Faith is blonde and semi-mohawked here, as Peaches performs the entire album — much as she did as a 15-year-old singing along with the record — with Chilly Gonzalez on piano. This after the production was first scuttled because it wasn't conventional — and a woman was playing all the roles.
Considering the steamy mess of projects in Peaches' recent past and future—a decade after her debut, The Teaches of Peaches, she's cowritten songs with Christina Aguilera for Bionic (RCA); appeared in the Flaming Lips' version of Dark Side of the Moon (Warner Bros., 2009); contributed to the upcoming R.E.M. album, Collapse Into Now (Warner Bros.); recently debuted a career-encompassing, mega-vagina-riddled opera, Peaches Does Herself ; and played laser harp with her band Sweet Machine — 2010's blondes can only hope to be as prolific as she is, 10 years along.
She's still dreaming, too. "I feel like quoting a Feist line," Peaches says by phone from New York City, referring to her ex-housemate's song, "Mushaboom." "Hopefully, 'my dreams will match up with my pay' so I can bring these productions to audiences. I get complaints from fans on Facebook and my blog, 'Why do you do everything in Berlin? Why don't you bring it to my town?' It's the dream of money."
PEACHES CHRIST SUPERSTAR
Sat/18, 8 p.m., $30
401 Van Ness, SF