The Music Club, 2018

Entry 3: This year’s music was dominated by men, but at least two women found ways to cut through.

 Ariana Grande and Kacey Musgraves, with the Music Club logo.
Ariana Grande and Kacey Musgraves. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Coachella and Brad Barket/Getty Images for The New Yorker.

My broskis,

I’m so [bleep] grateful to be back with you for another year, sharing this moment to breathe and reflect on the music of 2018. Ann, I love how you articulated music’s power to inspire “the internal work that feeds the fight to make a better world,” and I do think that, in its own way, “Thank U, Next” was a fitting anthem for that kind of emotional introspection. Although the streaming charts were overwhelmingly male-dominated this year (data released this month show that, yet again, all of Spotify’s five most-streamed artists were men), it was exhilarating to see Ariana Grande grow into her power—and to reimagine what power looks like when it’s wielded with feminine flair. This month, Billboard published an interview with Grande after naming her its Woman of the Year, and I love the way she spoke about wanting to dismantle industry stereotypes about how female pop musicians release music. “My dream has always been to be—obviously not a rapper, but, like, to put out music in the way that a rapper does,” she said. “I feel like there are certain standards that pop women are held to that men aren’t. We have to do the teaser before the single, then do the single, and wait to do the preorder, and radio has to impact before the video, and we have to do the discount on this day, and all this shit. It’s just like, ‘Bruh, I just want to fucking talk to my fans and sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do. Why do they get to make records like that and I don’t?’ So I do and I did and I am, and I will continue to.”

She made good on this promise again earlier this month, dropping a sultry new song, “Imagine,” presumably completed more recently than her August record Sweetener. Unfortunately it happened to come out in the midst of yet another of Kanye West’s anti-Drake tweetstorms (capping off a year when West was much more present among trending topics than he was on the charts and, judging by his sole solo output, Ye, I’d say with good reason). But Grande handled it with aplomb, playfully tweeting, “guys, i know there are grown men arguing online rn but miley and i dropping our beautiful, new songs tonight so if y’all could please jus behave for just like a few hours so the girls can shine that’d be so sick thank u.” It was something of a humble flex, asserting that she deserves to be mentioned in the same conversation as Kanye and Drake—but of course she does, and she earned it. In 2018, armed with the lessons of love, patience, and pain, Grande made a pop art out of killing with kindness.

One of the best (and most frustrating) parts of year-end list-making is discovering great records that I somehow missed (and promptly kicking myself for not listening to them sooner). The album I most regret sleeping on until, oh, last week is Parquet Courts’ excellent sixth record Wide Awake!, which I somehow overlooked when it came out in May. The New York four piece has been so consistently and prolifically good for the past few years that I had come to take them for granted, but then I saw them live recently and was reminded that they’re one of the most vital rock bands working today. Carl, you used the phrase “danceable depression,” and I think that could be an alternate title for this record—perhaps that’s why I find it capturing my mood as I look back at this tumultuous yet oddly hopeful year. The title track (the closest PC have come to channeling late-era Talking Heads) is a deceptively upbeat groove about anxiety, insomnia, and the general malaise of a busy mind: “I’m wide awake!” lead singer Andrew Savage shouts, “Mind so woke ’cause my brain never pushes the breaks!” Ah, to be alive in the time of the endless scroll. “Normalization” sounds like a Minutemen song might in 2018. The hilariously titled “Freebird II” is actually a wrenching song about coming to terms with a deadbeat parent. But the one that really does it for me is “Tenderness,” an earnest ode to love, community, and spiritual renewal in these nihilistic times. “Like power turns to mold, like a junkie going cold,” Savage sings at the close of the record, “I need the fix of a little tenderness.” (That sentiment reminds me a little bit of “Sincerity Is Scary,” a single from perhaps this year’s most polarizing band, the 1975—but I’ll leave the debate about them for another Music Clubber to pick up.
Suffice to say, I’m in the pro camp.)

Carl, I share your surprise that nothing can seem to knock Drake off his perch on top of the world (or at the very least, the CN Tower). As I’m sure Chris will explain, Drake had an almost monopolistic hold on the Billboard chart this year; one Drake song or another held the top spot on the Hot 100 for 29 weeks this year—that’s more than half of the time. Elsewhere, though, it was a year for idol-killing—and for plenty of fans, grappling with that requires its own kind of internal reflection, too. Exhausted by the empty provocations of his MAGA hat and his offensive proclamations about slavery, plenty of listeners this year broke up with Kanye West, who only a few years ago seemed one of music’s most unimpeachable (pun intended) visionaries. Now he just seems to have lost the plot. Personally I had even more difficulty coming to terms with the failings of my onetime superwoman Nicki Minaj, whose petty feuds with everyone from Cardi B to a writer who dared gently criticize her on Twitter flew in the face of her old promise that she was “fighting for the girls who never thought they could win.” (Her relatively lackluster Queen didn’t make things easier, either.) But unchecked hero worship is neither healthy nor mature, and maybe these disappointments were the inevitable result of stan culture’s persistent YAS QUEEN! cheerleading.

My favorite record of the year, though, was made by an artist who was always quick to remind us that she ain’t Wonder Woman. About a billion spins later, I’m still not sick of Kacey Musgraves’ warm and inviting Golden Hour. Like Ariana Grande, Musgraves was another high-profile woman who cut her own path through still-male-dominated spaces this year: When she picked up a much-deserved Album of the Year Country Music Association Award last month, she was the only female artist nominated in the category. Golden Hour is a declaration of independence—“I’m gonna do it my way, it’ll be all right,” she sings on the tempo-setting “Slow Burn”—finding new life within relatively traditional song structures. (This has got to be the first CMA-winning record to so heavily feature a vocoder.) Musgraves’ songs are above all things human-scaled, full of intimate details, fleeting feelings, and idiosyncratic personality. “Bet all that gold gets heavy, weighing on her,” she sings on “Wonder Woman,” in one fell breath shrugging off the bombast of superhero worship, the hollow promises of empowerment feminism, and maybe even the whole DC Extended Universe. Kacey is content to travel lightly. It’s why her music sounds so fluid and free.

Hanif, I’m so excited to welcome you to the fold. What were some of your big musical revelations this year? Did you have to kill any idols in 2018?

Eternally in my feelings,

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