This year, pop had the makings of a Broadway spectacle. Conflict, death, love woes and randy delight abounded, with the cast of characters bringing one of the more interesting blends of music and melodrama in recent years to a fever pitch.
And it was quite a ride.
The death of “King of Pop” Michael Jackson eclipsed all things in the realm of recorded music. Jackson’s untimely death at 50 spurred reflection on not only his musical legacy but just how much, for better or worse, the kingdom he ruled has changed. While the likes of Beyonce and Justin Timberlake are icons for today’s listeners, performers these days just don’t produce events that burst forth with the vibrancy of an “Off the Wall” or “Thriller.” And in an era of 24-hour cable news and gossip blogs, the joy that once made pop music what it was is no more. But Jackson’s magic is indeed working: The lavish concert film “This Is It” and its soundtrack album both went to No. 1, while the late singer collected a whopping four trophies at the 2009 American Music Awards. No matter what you think of him, he’s still the blueprint.
In a year replete with goodies for the children to savor, Beyonce was pegged by many to pick up Jackson’s mantle. It’s not likely she’ll reach those heights, but she could come close. Though “I Am … Sasha Fierce” hit shelves late last year, the album and its half dozen hit singles are still going strong, with “Single Ladies” and its video remaining staples at radio, YouTube and beyond. “Video Phone,” her latest outing, pairs her with aspiring gay icon Lady Gaga, whose blend of hooks and histrionics yielded four chart-topping singles and made her the year’s breakout star and a top concert attraction. Pop princess Britney Spears capped an amazing comeback with the catchy single “3,” a surprise No. 1 hit this past October that proves she can still make you move. And while not yet stars Stateside, U.K. duo La Roux offered up one of the best jams of the year with the synth-happy “Bulletproof,” a ditty that would make The Human League and Depeche Mode proud.
Whitney Houston proved the leader among the cornerstone gay divas, as her solid comeback effort “I Look to You” topped the charts and birthed hits in the title track and the ultra-glam disco throwback “Million Dollar Bill.” Critics were quick to point out that her pipes aren’t what they used to be, but writing her off may be premature. If time can do for Nippy what it did for Natalie Cole, we may get glimmers of the “You Give Good Love” gold in the future. For now, it’s just good to have her back.
Elsewhere, Madonna commemorated more than two decades of divadom with “Celebration,” a multi-format career retrospective. The single and video of the same name were frenzied and fresh, complete with Madonna getting her dance on like no other chick over 50.
Fellow icon Janet Jackson, who issued the outstanding compilation “Number Ones,” set things ablaze hot on the heels of her MTV VMA tribute to her late brother with “Make Me,” easily her best single in years and a No. 1 smash on the Billboard dance chart. As for Mariah Carey, her “Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel” proved a disappointment in comparison to “The Emancipation of Mimi” and “E=MC2.” However, Carey’s got another reason to sing: Her minimalist portrayal of a social worker in “Precious,” based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire, has earned the singer the strongest notices of her low-key acting career.
Pop and controversy go together like horse and carriage, and this year was no exception. There was Kanye West’s infamous interruption of Taylor Swift’s MTV VMAs acceptance speech, an outburst that’s proved a boon to the country upstart’s career. The comical part? West and Swift were Billboard’s top male and female artists for 2009. Then we had out power-pop divo Adam Lambert, who caused a collective gasp with his oral-sex simulating American Music Awards performance. Still, no two stars proved more polarizing than Chris Brown and Rihanna, whose sordid tale of domestic abuse still seems surreal. They’ve both spent plenty of time in the press opining about the lessons they’ve learned but their art doesn’t show it, as Brown’s “Graffiti” and Rihanna’s “Rated R,” while competent, are hardly career-defining achievements. A little time out of the spotlight would do them both some good.
Without a doubt, 2009 kept us dancing with feet planted in the past and the future. Considering that the start of a decade brings new icons, trends and good-old fashioned drama, this year just might have been a prelude to the best show yet.
It will be tough to top, that’s for sure.