"Let's have a toast," sang Kanye West in September of this sometimes seemingly endless year, debuting a new song, "Runaway," on the MTV Video Music Awards. Over a glassy keyboard sample and an old-school breakbeat, West intoned a gentle melody. "Runaway," many expected, would offer apologies to Taylor Swift: This was the one-year anniversary of West's notorious interruption of an acceptance speech by the country-pop princess, which led to his brief retreat from the media spotlight.
Instead of a rose, though, West's outstretched hand held up a middle finger. Using obscene descriptives that the good girl he'd wronged would never utter in public, West saluted the jerks who just can't (or won't) help themselves, men too preoccupied with the pursuit of their own pleasure or power to be sensitive or even polite. Himself, most of all.
"Runaway's" cheeky pathos returned West to his hard-earned place at the center of pop's conversation. That the song — the opposite of an apology — was such a success says a lot about pop's current moral quandary, and the culture's.
Many major events this year were grounded in serious rifts about good manners; some went deeper, into the realm of morals. The midterm campaign season overflowed with poisonous rhetoric and scandalous accusations, like a teapot full of filth. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, our man in Afghanistan, lost his post for being rude. The rise of cyberbullying and the ongoing debate about the dangers of social networking made some fear for a generation's humanity.
Meanwhile, in pop music, Katy Perry shot whipped cream out of her bra. Cee-Lo Green's song of the year bouncily revolved around the f-word. Ke$ha sang about her anus and eating boys for lunch. West and Eminem, bona-fide rap geniuses, stayed fixated on pimping and porn. Rising star Jay Electronica peppered his sets with monologues on whether women enjoy being choked during intercourse.
Indie music also aggressively explored the outlands of offensiveness: In late fall, the blogosphere erupted with talk of the Compton rap collective Odd Future, whose teenage members revel in amoral tales of murder and myriad forms of sexual violation (and whose favorite symbol is the swastika), and in the spring the less impressive "witch house" noise-rock movement caused a stir when two female musicians described the music with the term "rape gaze."
Often — usually — this nasty stuff is played at least partly for laughs. One of the year's biggest viral videos was "Bed Intruder Song," which turned an angry rant by Antoine Dodson, a florid young man whose sister had been attacked in her home in Huntsville, Ala., into a goofy T-Pain-style slow jam. The South African weirdo rappers Die Antwoord (whose leaders are white) harkened back to minstrelsy in their cartoonish tirade about Cape Town ghetto life. Odd Future's members aim their bloody knives at the funny bone; leading member Tyler, the Creator recently crassly described the group's aesthetic as a union of Hitler and Dr. Seuss.
None of these troubling hijinks really go anywhere new artistically. Such grotesquery has a long lineage in hip-hop, from the Geto Boys to Ol' Dirty Bastard to multiple Grammy winner Eminem. The Top 40's bawdiness is also ultimately conventional, reflecting century-old vaudeville tricks, the shock rock of both the 1970s and the 1990s, and punk's lobbed spitballs.
Today's boundary-crashers seem to know that others have pushed these buttons. They mostly lack earnestness, seeking to accomplish little beyond a bit of fun. "I'm an idiot," sings San Diego noise punk Nathan Williams of the band Wavves. "I'd say I'm sorry, but it wouldn't mean...."
That lack of self-seriousness is part of this music's appeal in many cases. It complements the free-for-all feeling of the Internet age, when the ancient motto of "chaos magic" — "nothing is real, everything is permitted" — speaks to moral choices such as cybersex, illegal downloading or hacking websites and bringing them down with viruses. Odd Future, wrote Sean Fennessey on the indie music website Pitchfork, is "the perfect rap crew for our time: Where we all live on the Internet, alone. Where the darkest corners of desire are a Google search away." The same could be said of Ke$ha, whose raps read like text messages, or even West, whose fantasy life unfolds on Twitter as much as in his music.
West is, in fact, very earnest — he believes deeply in the value of his own art, and constantly pushes himself to create unheard sounds to convey unexpected thoughts. Like many great artists, he straddles more than one trend; in this case, he's as much part of the hungry crew of would-be world changers that includes Arcade Fire, M.I.A. and emerging talents such as Janelle Monae and Titus Andronicus.
These artists maintain a notion of music-making as a higher calling, even as they're constantly challenged by the prevailing mood of our disposable, up-in-the-air culture, where the trash talk flows from the lowliest blog to the halls of our legislature; where credit-card swipes mask financial disaster; where the deepest questions about relationships and right and wrong are discussed most widely not in shared houses of worship or serious secular debates, but on satirical news hours and realist shows.
Is it any surprise that, constantly battered by the rhetoric of lighthearted moral obliviousness, today's most fascinating pop musicians are experimenting with what it feels like to just not care about rules? Let's have a toast, indeed — in times like these, it often feels like getting wasted is the best route out.