Reflections on the lost summer of 2011

Photo: Flickr user ultraBobban

Where did the summer go?

I know that’s not exactly a novel question; we experience time relative to our ability to enjoy it, so it’s no wonder that we complain about winter’s drag and lament summer’s all-too speedy departure. When the warm weather doesn’t really kick in until July, and the back-to-school commercials start at the first of August, it’s understandable that summer seems more like a yearly blip than a season sometimes.

But I can’t help but shake the sense that there was something different about this summer – that even more than usual, the past three months were lost time, chewed up and abandoned without any progress or purpose. Stagnant and idle, they lacked both thrill and tension, and the only narrative that stuck out was that of narrative stall.

Much of this is personal, I admit. I kicked off summer by breaking my collar bone in a softball game, rendering the next two or three weeks a wasteland of activity. But it never picked up from there: the weather stayed cool and rainy well until mid-July, work commitments left me without holidays, and a newfound affection for reading in pubs and coffee shops kept me hidden from sight, when I could hide, on the weekends. Time with friends was valuable, but quiet, modest. If you’d ask me what my strongest memory from this summer, it would be that it began with shattered bone and never really recovered from there.

But that personal experience was paired with a broader cultural season that also didn’t seem to go anywhere. The multiplex was occasionally entertaining, but it says something that its most rewarding popcorn flick—Rise of the Planet of the Apes—involved rooting against our own species. Meanwhile, its one artistic bright spot, Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life, was greeted with regular walkouts, and no wonder: though substantial, its substance required great patience and insight to begin to unlock, and even I found the work to enjoy it somewhat tedious.

But it’s on the radio where the lost season felt truly the most lost. More than just boring, the season’s pop hits simply sounded bored. At their best, they were echoes – reminders of artists’ better material (or better artists). Does anyone really think that Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night,” fun though it is, ranks equal to “Teenage Dream” or “I Kissed a Girl”? Is “Till The World Ends” in the same league as “Baby One More Time”? “Moves Like Jagger” the new “This Love”?

Other huge songs were cookie cutter concoctions, formula that appeased on a primal, vacant level that, even when they entertained, proved almost wholly unmemorable. Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything”…LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem”…David Guetta’s “Where Them Girls At”…all with their charms, but there’s something achingly inhuman about each of them.

Of course, complaining about the charts is old hat. But even one step below the surface, there was something unsatisfying about this summer. Bon Iver’s self-titled second album is worthy of the praise it’s earned, and its highlights (“Perth,” “Holocene” and, what the hell, “Beth/Rest”) are wonderful, but then you hear Justin Vernon’s cover of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and they just don’t shape up. Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life remains a favourite, but it had to achieve its place in my life through sheer undeniable force. Mostly, the albums I kept returning to this summer were all from the spring—the latest from PJ Harvey, EMA, Destroyer. And the summer’s one breakthrough song, Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks,” not only reeks of ‘one hit wonder’ but feels more like a familiar echo of my music collection than a worthy addition.

If I were to sum up the summer, it would be in three broad musical strokes:

  • Noble failures from Lady Gaga and Beyonce, both releasing albums that have much to admire but, both artistically and commercially, come up wanting. The former is a particular disappointment for me: flawed though it is, Born this Way’s best moments feel like Gaga’s attempt to shove rock and roll back into our culture, and I‘m tempted to interpret the failure of both “The Edge of Glory” and “You and I” as further evidence of the form’s rigor mortis stasis. This summer, America’s biggest pop stars couldn’t get heard.
  • Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch the Throne arriving not as conquerer, but merely competent. Every effort was made to hype this record as an event, and essays on wealth and black status were rolled out by nearly every pop culture writer (sometimes when they’d barely heard the album) At their best (Blueprint, Reasonable Doubt, Late Registration, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) Hov and ‘Ye not only flirted with extraordinary but, sometimes, just outright flaunted it. This summer, rap’s biggest icons felt ordinary.*

*Lil’ Wayne fans can add Weezy’s Tha Carter IV to this line of thought, if so inclined.

  • The continued success of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and 21, which deceptively feels like a victory for quality. But rather than excellent, both are just ‘good enough.’ The power of “Rolling” is undeniable, but its incredible run on the charts—like that of 21—reflects a lack of competition more than anything. It’s just that the warmer months didn’t throw any other quality pop unifiers our way. This summer, Adele had to do.*

*Aside #1 – What frustrates me most about the Adele phenomenon is that it interprets authenticity as autobiography: her songs are understood as more ‘real’ than other artists because she writes about her own life. I’ve always felt this to be a frustratingly narrow view of realness. (I have the same issue with Taylor Swift.) Then again, maybe that’s apt: in our time, perhaps people feel like autobiography is the last island of ‘realness’ that’s left.

And so, I suppose it’s somewhat appropriate that the summer wound down with the completely-forgettable VMAs, which was way more fun to snark about on blogs and Twitter than it was to, you know, watch. Nitush Abebe might be onto something when, in his Vulture column this week, he flagged that pop is becoming something of an empty performance for the sake of giving us all something to talk about.* I was reminded of his thoughts yesterday when the hilarious news broke that Jack White had recorded a song with the Insane Clown Posse – the actual song, forgettable, pales in importance to the fact that, well, it actually exists. The headline is more valuable, culturally, than the work of ‘art’ itself.

*Aside #2: Abebe’s description of Young the Giant’s VMAs performance is spot-on, telling and worth sharing: “Young the Giant are the kind of band that seems to have been based on someone reading a book about indie rock but not really liking the music involved, and their segment was shot as if someone made a bad movie about that band, and then the movie was made into a musical, and then a high school somewhere coaxed some guitar players to join the drama club so they could produce it.”

So maybe that’s what’s wrong this summer: the play is not just the thing, but the only thing and, it seems, an unfulfilling thing. But given that pop music has always been about spectacle, that alone seems unsatisfying as an explanation. Maybe it’s the stagnancy, not the emptiness, of pop culture that’s at issue. Fittingly, one of the summer’s most popular books for culture geeks—Simon Reynolds’ Retromania—is a treatise on our obsession with recycling sounds/images/fashions, and a book which, at many points, asks candidly if our obsession with the past may limit our ability for futurist thought.

It makes sense that retroism dominated the 2000s: it was the decade when the full possibility of the Internet began to be unlocked, when scarcity of knowledge, media, culture was obliterated, seemingly overnight. It’s no wonder that our primary drive was to mash it all together, to recontextualize it and, in some cases, just rediscover it altogether. But at what point does the need for something original kick in? How long can we sustain a once, twice, a hundred times removed culture?

Maybe I’ve reached that point, coinciding with the slow, hazy days of the year. So as a forgotten summer dies and the more solemn, cooling feel of fall sets in, I feel like I have little, if anything, to show for the days that just passed. So I turn my attention, instead, to the days to come: after all, why wait until spring for something new and alive?

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