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2012: The year that was
BENT NIGHTS: MUSIC Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Vern Hester

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This was the year when Mika finally came out as a butt pirate and everyone yawned.

It was also the year where a cutting edge hip-hop artist on the verge of mega-stardom (Frank Ocean) and a professional athlete in his prime (boxer Orlando Cruz) did likewise. And with all those closet doors being thrown open, it was also the year where some, including Sesame Street's Elmo (Kevin Clash), did everything they could to keep their own closet doors shut.

Unlike the last four years, the big LGBT entertainment news this year was not in the National Enquirer, on television or the radio, but at the polls: Not only did Obama grab a second term but there were major victories right down the line. Most important, of course, is that 2012 was the year where all those dreams and all that the community had been fighting for started to become a reality. And as Dan Savage said a week after the election, "We owned it."

Better still, with even more celebrities coming out (apart from Cruz, Mika and Ocean, cute boyish punk rocker Tom Gable transitioned into hot femme Laura Jane Grace and hit the road with her band Against Me! just as soon as she got done with that surgery), there was widespread support from straight allies on all levels. That the hot shiny new pop band fun., headlined the Reverb Campus Consciousness Tour, or that het couple Karmin deliberately cultivated a gay following speaks volumes of our acceptance.

As for the music itself, apart from Ocean and a sprinkling of queerness (Magnetic Fields' video for "Andy In Drag;" Perfume Genius' video "Hood," featuring gay-porn star Arpad Miklos), it hardly mattered that the only thing that could pass as a turning point for the community were the passings of disco royalty Donna Summer and Robin Gibb.

Although the shift in liberalism has affected the tone of thought in this country, the economy has yet to follow. With fewer artists releasing new music while touring constantly there was, believe it or not, one winner over all of the high ticket prices, hard sell media campaigns, overexposure, and crassness in the recording industry; the consumer. With less money to spend and a wider choice of selections the options literally overflowed all year round. It was the worst of times but really the best of times if you knew where to look. Below is my list of the recordings, books, concerts and even movies that made 2012 special.

1.) Event of the Year; Riotfest @ Humboldt Park. This year's festival went native for two solid sunny days of punk, garage, hard rock and old school avant-garde dressed in an appropriate carnival setting. Legends Elvis Costello, Iggy Pop and The Descendants headlined, but with a line-up that included The Mary and Jesus Chain, Rage Against, Dropkick Murphy, Faith No More, the Gaslight Anthem, Gwar, White Mystery and Gogol Bordello you couldn't deny that this festival had more bang for the buck and more fun for the entire family.

2.) Gossip @ The Bottom Lounge. Never mind Gossip's new pop-flavored confection A Joyful Noise (CBS Records)—the real news was this blowout show where front woman/punk chanteuse Beth Ditto stripped down to her undies and ripped through the queerest show of the year with a vengeance.

3.) Worst show of the year. It's a close one between Roberta Flack at The Venue (promoting the unnecessary Beatles tribute album Let It Be, Flack was equal parts lazy, pretentious, and disinterested making for a dull and limp affair) and Aerosmith's extravagant embarrassment at the United Center (where 64-year-old vocalist Steven Tyler humped the stage in a pool of flop sweat while making a nuisance of himself). Now that I've given it careful thought, Aerosmith wins by a nose.

4.) I Want My MTV by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks (Penguin Publishing). It's a mammoth, interview-studded book on the history of MTV crammed full of dish, snark and hard facts that reveals how popular music devolved into a corporate industry. With its Rashomon angle and minute capsule interviews, the book supports and debunks everything that supposedly went on off-camera, revealing the politics, racism, sexism, and homophobia that fueled a multi-billion dollar industry based on commercialism, image and subtext.

As sociology it's a treasure but as naked entertainment it's indispensible; you can finally get the low down on how Michael Jackson smashed the race barrier with "Billie Jean," how Kenny Ortega's fey choreography ruined het rocker Billy Squier's career on the "Rock Me Tonite" video, how George Michael carefully butched up his image when he went solo, how Van Halen nearly killed one of its fans and how Madonna outraged/titillated the world with her recorded antics. Juicy, funny, nasty, sincere, brutal, I Want My MTV is a poison-pen letter to the recording industry that reveals how it was all done with mirrors.

5.) Marvel's The Avengers (Disney Studios/Paramount Pictures). Apart from the inclusion of AC/DC's "Shoot to Thrill" on the soundtrack, Marvel's superhero jamboree had nothing to do with rock and roll except spirit. As an overhyped, multimillion-dollar actioner that more than lived up to expectations in blowing up lots of cool shit real real good, it managed to sate and convert cynics and fan boys and girls of every denomination while providing lots and lots of giggles. Plus there was something tasty for queers of all tastes: slabs of man hunk (Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner, Chris Hemsworth), prime macho daddies with attitude (Samuel A. Jackson and Robert Downey Jr.), ass-kicking empowered women (Scarlett Johansson, Cobie Smulders, Gwyneth Paltrow in Daisy Dukes), sweet-natured nerds (Clark Gregg and Mark Ruffalo), a deliciously nasty diva-villain (Tom Hiddleston) and a half-naked green rage monster for those who like the exotic (Ruffalo again). The Avengers put the fun back into going to the movies while reducing its audience to hyperactive 10-year-olds everywhere. A movie that only critics couldn't love.

6.) Mavis Staples @Bluesfest (Petrillo Bandshell). After a round-robin offering of searing blues by some of the best divas in Chicago (Chick Rogers, Jackie Scott and Nora Jean Brusco) in tribute to the late KoKo Taylor, Staples turned the fest into an explosive celebration of spirituality, harmony and life.

7.) New "it" acts fun., Alabama Shakes and Frank Ocean. There was so much new fresh music from so many new fresh artists that it didn't seem fair to give them all slots. For those who like overdesigned pop, New York's fun. not only landed one of the year's most irresistible singles ("We Are Young") but also rescued pop from the cloying clutches of Carly Rae Jepsen and Katy Perry by making it emotionally complicated and gnarly. If you prefer your rock hard, lean, and smothered in dirt, Alabama Shakes managed to meld components of delta blues, roots rock, hard rock and soul, and make them into something new. And if you prefer your soul haunted, delicate and intoxicating, Ocean's "Thinkin' bout You" and "Bad Religion" were this year's first trippy R&B classics.

8.) A Taste of Chicago @ Petrillo Bandshell. This year's version restored the 32-year-old annual festival went back to its former glory with a stellar line up at peak power: Chaka Khan (glorious), Mucca Pazza (deranged), Dierks Bentley (incendiary) and hometown girl Jennifer Hudson (stinging and sassy). The publicists in Chicago's Office of Special Events (Cindy Gatziolis, Mary May and Bruce Kellner) still throw the best party in town.

9.) Bobby Womack and Millie Jackson @ The Venue. It was an old-fashioned rotgut soul revival full of passion, lust, laughs and vulgarity. Never mind that Latimore's opening set was a bore—to hear Jackson's hard-knuckled attack on "If You're Not back in Love by Monday" and Womack's rip through "If You think You're Lonely Now" in this era of processed/manufactured Muzak was to overdose on pure soul.

10.) Northalsted Market Days @ Halsted and Belmont Ave. With a line-up liberally sprinkled with '80s megastars still at the top of their game (Sheena Easton, The Pointer Sisters and Olivia Newton-John) and more current offerings on the bill (queer favorites Karmin, The Handcuffs and Matt Zarley), Market Days took back its tiara as the biggest and best street festival in a town where summer street festivals are legion. It would be hard to deny that this version may have been the best ever.

11.) Harry Belafonte, My Song, A Memoir with Michael Shnayerson (Alfred A. Knoph publishing). It's not merely an autobiography in the ordinary sense, but the personal chronicle of a man privileged to find himself near the center of modern man's evolution. As a close friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Belafonte was at the epicenter of the civil-rights movement of the '60s; though his retelling of well-documented events is startling in its candor, his own inner revolution from an angry internalized performer into an influential advocate for human rights is the real story here. Anyone who has an interest in activism should spend some time with this book.

12.) Kelly Hogan @ The Vic. It was really nice of the Magnetic Fields to let Kelly Hogan open its two sold-out shows at the Vic so that Hogan could steal them while performing her brand-new I Love to Keep Myself in Pain (Anti-Records). Nobody does things to a love song like Hogan and the album, and shows were proof positive.

13.) Van Hunt @ Lincoln Hall. The second trippy soul event of the year was with Hunt, a masterful producer, composer and vocalist with the delicate warmth of Smokey Robinson in his voice, the production style of Curtis Mayfield in his heart and the frolic of the Magical Mystery Tour era Beatles in his head. Yes, you did miss something spectacular.

14.) Show(s) of the Year; Xina Xurner's farewell concerts ("She Came Inside Me" @ Gallery 400, UIC and Roxaboxen Gallery) En route to L.A. to start grad school, Pilsen's Young Joon Kwak and life partner Marvin Astorga (aka Xina Xurner) ripped through several farewell shows simultaneously, snatching back the power of homemade rock and roll while turning the notion of avant garde performance art into accessible entertainment. The first show at UIC resembled a theatrical production with Kwak in kabuki diva drag (we're talking geisha make-up and a 25-foot "wedding dress" made up entirely of rags), Astorga flooding the room with processed musical "noise" and the nearly nude Isaac Fosl-van Wyke "dancing" to all of it like an animal possessed. The rave-up in the basement of Roxaboxen was even wilder; with a bill that included Coffin Ships (Bart Winters' noise rock combo that has the romantic charm and kiss of dynamite), Kwak (in a clingy, fetching sun dress) and Astorga (in a catholic schoolboy summer uniform) closed out an era with furious style, queer rage and two hearts full of wicked fun. Chicago certainly hasen't been the same since...

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