Dear Julianne, Ann, and all our guests here at Slate Music Club, the Winter White House of music criticism:
As we gather once again around the warmth of the flaming alleyway trash barrels to discuss the songs and sounds of 2017, would it be jinxy to sigh, “Whew, we made it?” If it’s not too recklessly presumptuous to say it, humankind appears to continue to exist as we near the end of the longest year ever measured by science. It has spanned several geological ages, each of them almost as packed with great albums and songs as with disasters, scandals, atrocities, two-minutes hates, and giddy billionaire robbery sprees in the guise of public policy.
In retrospect, the mood that comes most vividly to mind is white-knuckling it. So the musical question has been what your preferred accompaniment is to clenching your teeth, clutching the wheel, and going as walleyed as the fish on the cover of Vince Staples’ album. Have we been seeking furious ragers, utopian visions, anthems of solidarity, insightful solace, sweet escapist confections, or gently swaddling hygge music, for retreats to our denial bunkers? All of those, no doubt, in various proportions.
Personally, during the later epochs of 2017, I’ve found that I’m less hungry for slogan-on-sleeve political music than I was during this year’s first several millennia. While I haven’t entirely retreated to the musical equivalent of grilled cheese and mildly spiced chili (the domain of the myriad “chill” playlists on Spotify, which I’ll get back to in a minute), I have been feeling attracted, for instance, to songs that tell more personalized stories, as a way of reconnecting with the arc of human experience rather than being overwhelmed by the catastrophe du jour. I’m thinking of the songs of Adrianne Lenker and her Brooklyn rock band Big Thief, for example, which are full of specific details of place, time, events, and characters called by their names.
But I’ll save Big Thief and the rest of my year-end list for a later post, because I’d like to start our chat with a quick survey of some of the broad-brush pop trends of the year.
Our collective cultural shellshock is reflected in the downbeat affect that dominates the charts. As our colleague Craig Jenkins wrote on Vulture, there is a preponderance of midtempo music with mumbly, drawled vocals, acoustic guitars, layered synth hums, dull thudding bass, finger snaps, and Atlanta trap beats. Even Taylor Swift came back adhering to the formula. Craig partly blames it on the disproportionate sway of a handful of megaproducers and all the miniproducers who imitate them—with Jack Antonoff acclaimed by consensus as the alpha “influencer” (in gross tech-biz speak) this year. Which is a funny feeling, because for so long the automatic answer would have been Max Martin, or maybe Dr. Luke.
The reasons for Luke’s fall from favor are part of the great #MeToo tale of our times (and thankfully his accuser Kesha made a comeback album this year, Rainbow, that bears the gravity of her ordeal with not only grace but rock-star moxy). But while Martin remains active and unscandalized, for instance producing the half of Swift’s album that Antonoff didn’t, might his Midas touch be faltering?
In fact, I think the downtempo trend is partly because musicians and listeners alike are going out of their way to avoid the triumphalist diva-pop sound that ruled so much of the past decade, of which Martin was one of the prime architects. Those optimistic empowerment bangers have become relics of the Obama era. Consider all the bumpy landings lately from former queens of hegemonic pop, such as Lady Gaga late last year with Joanne, Katy Perry with Witness, and Swift with at least “Look What You Made Me Do”—it will take a couple of months more to judge the staying power of Reputation as a whole. Not to mention fine efforts from Pink and Kelly Clarkson that seemed to pass like pleasant, distant dreams this fall. (On the other hand, I’m sure Beyoncé—who was on a de facto maternity leave this year, letting her hubby have the floor—and Rihanna, who didn’t put out an album but did unleash a scorching rap on N.E.R.D.’s “Lemon,” are going to come through the transition fine.)
The pop torch has been passed to a more introverted, and perhaps justifiably sulkier generation, notably of meme rappers such as the great Migos and Cardi B (whose “Bodak Yellow” was one of the most delightful surprises), Future, and the somewhat more perplexing Post Malone (though I’ll admit to a soft spot for “Rockstar”). And then there are the baby-faced and tattoo-faced SoundCloud emo-rap hybridists, such as Lil Uzi Vert (whose “XO TOUR Llif3” stunningly ranks as the 13th biggest song of the year) and one of the most promising, Lil Peep, who tragically became one of this year’s music casualties, dying of an opioid overdose at only 21.
Immediately evident in this changing of the guard are shifts from melodic pop to hip-hop, and from gals to guys—only two of the 12 songs that hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 this year were by women (Swift and Cardi B). Both are epiphenomena of the ongoing streaming revolution in the music business. Last year we were discussing a seeming metamorphosis in the shape of the album, with Beyoncé’s and Frank Ocean’s visual albums, Kanye West making The Life of Pablo subject to constant revision, Kendrick Lamar putting out an album of outtakes, etc. This year, the always-prescient Drake tipped us off to where all those developments are headed—he released More Life not as an album, but as a “playlist.”
One of the year’s most significant projects in music journalism has been Liz Pelly’s ongoing investigation into the mechanics and implications of the playlistification of pop, beginning with her piece “The Secret Lives of Playlists” in June. (The other journalistic milestone has been the “Turning the Tables” project that Ann has spearheaded at NPR, a stupendous challenge to women’s underrepresentation in the canons of popular-music history, which I am sure we’ll talk more about.) Another writer, Craig Marks, has pointed out the outsize influence of Spotify’s “RapCaviar” playlist, for instance, which is affecting all these developments in hip-hop. And male artists tend to be streamed more than women, partly due to user demographics as well as some factors a bit more challenging to analyze.
Pelly’s larger point, fleshed out in her recent Baffler essay, is that services such as Spotify favor playlists over albums because it’s a format native to their platforms, one that they curate and control—so rather than radio programmers, for instance, Spotify staff become the gatekeepers. It affords them more leverage in their negotiations with record companies, and potentially could let them profit on giving certain songs a boost, without much transparency, like a new digital payola. (Though concrete evidence for this is scant so far.)
Aesthetically, it has the effect of downplaying the individual artist and emphasizing music’s function as mood-enhancing background music—with a playlist for every phase of your day, for every kind of activity (even sleeping), maximizing how much time you spend on the service and allowing for synergistic tie-ins with advertising and other kinds of cross-promotional opportunities. On Spotify, Pelly argues, all music aspires to the condition of monetized sonic wallpaper.
You don’t have to be quite that alarmist to be given pause by these developments, and some of Pelly’s closing questions are particularly apropos to our little confab of writer-nerds. I’ll leave you with those: “[What] will become of music criticism in a world without records? Will publications review discovery feeds and write profiles of playlists? What good will criticism be when all of music has coalesced into algorithmically preordained Muzak?”
Sorry to be such a downer right off the top, friends. It’s in the air we’re breathing. Please tell me about your musical reasons for hope this year, too.