The Year in Memorable Musical Controversies


2012 has been a crazy year in many ways, and the music industry hasn’t exactly been immune to its air of pervading insanity. (In fairness, the music industry is rarely immune to any sort of insanity, but still, humor us here.) This year has given us a particularly rich vein of memorable controversies, conflicts, and contretemps, and as part of our ongoing end-of-year wrap-up, we’re looking back at some of the most significant. Some of these are hilarious, some of them depressing, some of them hilariously depressing, and some just plain old bewildering — but from the resurrection of dead rappers through homeless people functioning as wifi hotspots to a record company suing an entire country, all of them have been worth remembering.

Tupac vs. mortality

Natalie Cole doing a duet with her dead father was creepy enough, but 2012 saw the raising-dead-artists-from-the-grave idea taken a step further when a hologram of Tupac Shakur was projected onto the stage at Coachella. The bizarre spectacle inspired lots of Internet excitement about the idea that hologram Tupac might go on tour, pondering about other dead artists who might be brought out of permanent retirement, plentiful hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing about the idea’s ethical implications… and, of course, the inevitable fake Twitter account. All the speculation over whether we’d see more hologram artists, however, was brought to a rather abrupt close by the news that the company responsible for the Coachella spectacle had filed for bankruptcy.

Andy Falkous vs. Pitchfork

Musicians bitching about bad reviews is generally a pretty unedifying spectacle, but then most musicians aren’t Future of the Left frontman Andy Falkous, Flavorpill favorite and strong contender for the coveted title of Most Gloriously Acerbic Man in Music. Falkous took exception to Ian Cohen’s rather waffly Pitchfork review of FOTL’s new album The Plot Against Common Sense and took to his blog to reply. Hilarity ensued.

Amanda Palmer vs. common decency

We’ve resolved to speak of Amanda Palmer as little as possible going forward, so let’s just reiterate the facts here: she raised $1m on Kickstarter, put out a call for a volunteer horn section on her website (because she “couldn’t afford” to pay them), got roundly lambasted, fought with Steve Albini, eventually backed down on the idea, and then promised to never darken the Internet’s doorstep again. OK, so the last bit is wishful thinking. Sigh.

SXSW vs. Austin’s homeless

Also on the terrible publicity front, remember the advertising agency that decided it’d be an awesome idea to give Austin’s homeless population 4G hotspots during South by Southwest, along with T-shirts proclaiming “I am a 4G hotspot”? (If you missed the story the first time around, we swear we’re not making this up.)

Grimes vs. the Internet

According to Hype Machine, the most blogged-about artist of 2012 was one Claire Boucher, better known as Grimes. Most of these words were penned in the pursuit of defining what her existence and her success meant. It perhaps says more about Grimes’ critics than it does about the artist herself that so much copy needs to be devoted to “making sense of” a female singer who makes pop music but is neither a hypersexualized Ke$ha type nor an easily digestible, unthreatening ingenue. For the record, we’re of the opinion is that Grimes is neither as simple nor as complicated as the Internet wants her to be — she’s not a naïve waif (she speaks powerfully and perceptively about the infantilization of her image in this excellent interview with Spin), nor is she some sort of postmodern cultural phenomenon. She’s a singer who has interesting things to say, made a great album, and has a pretty strong aesthetic to go with it. Isn’t that enough?

Fiona Apple vs. a terrifying, misogynist policeman

And on a similar note, if in the unlikely event you ever find yourself short on evidence that double standards for women artists are pervasive as ever, you can amuse yourself with this comparison: Willie Nelson gets arrested for carrying weed in Texas? He gets a $100 fine and a jokey invitation from the presiding judge to sing in court. Fiona Apple gets arrested for the same thing while on tour in the same state this September? Well, obviously she’s insane. As if the whole silly spectacle of “busting” a grown woman for carrying a pissant amount of hashish wasn’t unedifying enough, the policeman responsible for this great breakthrough in the war on drugs took it upon himself to write an open letter to Apple after she complained about her treatment, telling her to “shut up and sing.” Classy. The worst part, though, were the people — including at least one prominent “celebrity news” outlet — who somehow decided that Deputy Dickhead was some sort of admirably straight-talkin’ Texas hero as opposed to a publicity-seeking asshole who should get on with doing his job. Or, ideally, y’know, not doing his job.

Lana Del Rey/No Doubt vs. Native American stereotypes

It was only a matter of time until a pop star type adopted the faux- Native American look that’s been annoying us at music festivals over the last couple of years, and so it transpired in 2012, with both No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani and Lana Del Rey aping Native American culture like crazy in recent music videos. No Doubt eventually apologized for and pulled their video; Del Rey wasn’t so forthcoming. (If you’re interested in a native American perspective on the whole thing, by the way, our own Paul Hiebert conducted a fascinating interview on the subject with Professor N. Bruce Duthu, Chair of the Native American Studies Program at Dartmouth College.)

Wayne Coyne vs. Erykah Badu

We went over the facts of this the other day in our annual NSFW music video feature, so let’s just say here that releasing an unapproved edit of a video featuring someone in a bath of fake semen is not generally a great way to make friends and influence people. Not even if you’re Wayne Coyne.

Death Grips vs. Epic Records

So, was this all a whopping great publicity stunt for Death Grips? Pretty much anyone could have predicted that a marriage between this band and Sony imprint Epic wasn’t going to end well — and sure enough, it really, really didn’t. Epic pushed the release date for the band’s second album, Death Grips responded by leaking the album in full (with a dick on the cover), Epic responded with a rather butthurt-sounding email to the band’s manager, Death Grips leaked that too… and, predictably enough, Epic decided enough was enough and fired them. Honestly, as far as we’re concerned, plentiful publicity or not, the band don’t come out of this looking great — it’s a rare talent to make a major label look like the good guys, but we do rather feel for Epic in all this.

EMI vs. an entire country

But, y’know, back to major labels being the bad guys: Never, ever underestimate the music industry’s ability to generate bad publicity and general ridicule in its pursuit of music “pirates.” Would EMI really try to sue Ireland — as in, the actual country of Ireland — for not “fulfilling its obligations” under EU law in enforcing site-blocking orders against Ireland-based ISP? Why, yes. Yes it would.