Greetings critical brain trust.
So glad to be making a return appearance in the most satisfyingly freewheeling conversation of the year-end think piece season. Reading your eloquent efforts to make sense of this tumultuous year has been not only challenging but therapeutic. I’ve definitely craved musical visions of alternate futures too.
If it’s cool with you, I’d like to circle back to a few ideas that briefly surfaced in earlier rounds. Ann, you brought up your weariness with pop’s petulant men, Bieber et al. Like you, I heard songs like “Love Yourself” as something of an emotional dead end, stunted, self-absorbed, avoidant. I found the exact opposite qualities in the music of deliberately difficult women situated well outside the pop mainstream. One of my absolute favorites, Adia Victoria, stared down dehumanizing perspectives with steely imagination. Many others—Xenia Rubinos, Lucy Dacus, Mitski, Lisa LeBlanc, Lydia Loveless—employed playful prickliness to push against expectations of accommodation shouldered by young women and people of color. Jamila Woods deftly recalibrated schoolyard rhymes for that purpose. Even Solange clothed the tenaciousness of her boundary-drawing in supple sensuality. Their playfulness was never a matter of playing along; it was a sophisticated tool of confrontation, sometimes even of protest, always with an awareness of power imbalances and dominant narratives that discount their humanity.
Julianne, the way you described Anti as an occasion where Rihanna “asserted her own growth into adult womanhood by subverting every expectation for an album of easy hits,” to quote you directly, really resonates with me. Miranda Lambert accomplished a similar feat with The Weight of These Wings. Her album-making had grown increasingly complex, especially with her savvy exploration of women’s labors of self-maintenance on Platinum. But for her to reemerge on the other side of a celebrity marriage—when many might’ve expected her to unleash a string of strutting, amplified kiss-offs—with a double-album plunge into her own vacillating desires and evolving identity was the ultimate statement of self-directed artistry. Carl, you’ve brought up Lambert’s album in passing, and Ann, you penned a very fine essay on the subject. Either of you care to weigh in here?
Chris, in your role as chart-watcher in residence, you outlined worries over the downbeat trend in the pop format. I’m sure you’re aware that there was a parallel mini-shift in country toward slower tempos and more subdued sounds (see: here, here, here, here, and here). But I found it to be a welcome change, not least because it cleared the way for less restrictive, and less bullishly macho, expressions of masculinity during a year when so much of global politics took on a bullying tone.
Jason, you wrote of artists in various corners of the pop-music landscape claiming the space to own their intersectional identities this year. As dire as the political outlook may seem, I still can’t help but believe that musicians who embody a complex array of identities can help confront us with the less dismissive, less reductive notions of difference that we so badly need right now. It’s ironic that the very year that Charles Aaron pointed to the ongoing issue of Americana music’s heavy reliance on black American traditions in the service of contemporary white voices and audiences—something that’s troubled Ann and I for a while—was also the year that many of the new voices that I found the most compelling in the roots-music scene belonged to women of color. I was utterly captivated by Yola Carter’s self-constructed artistic identity and the persistence with which she pursued her vision, even when no one took it seriously. It was Carter who turned me on to Amythyst Kiah, whose intellect and verve are matched by Kaia Kater and Leyla McCalla. Muddy Magnolias, an interracial roots-pop duo that Ann and I have watched develop, emerged from the Nashville music industry with uniquely egalitarian sensibilities, and the musical/life partnership of Birds of Chicago accentuates the luminescent presence of Allison Russell. Most of these women have yet to gain the hearing they deserve, but their voices are potent.