My dear slow burners,
A kind suggestion, courtesy of 2018’s favorite grungily tragic rock hero: Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die. When Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine first sings his Jason Isbell–penned signature ballad in A Star Is Born: Gaga Edition, he offers it to a quietly swooning drag queen in the bar where he’s just met Ally, his soulmate and undoing, as he waits for her to take off her makeup and begin rearranging his life. For Maine, it’s long past time: His addictions to various chemicals, and to the toxic rock ’n’ roll mythologies that keep him on the road playing music he seems to despise, prove stronger than the sensuality and enthusiasm that Ally embodies. Yet, gazing into the eyes of the self-possessed queen Emerald, Cooper’s Maine clearly accepts the polymorphous, femme-driven future the drag bar represents; it’s one of the movie’s sharpest intertextual moments. It was Cooper’s exquisitely gentle rendition of the song that lingered in my mind after I left the theater, and it felt like a blessing: Official music culture ushering in a new era, one that’s grounded in gender equality, instead of old jokes about little schoolgirls and dirty whores, and in explorations of desire and identity that mirror the more fluid attitudes of Gen Z.
Adhering to an arc that over four remakes has always painted women’s power as a poison they themselves regret producing and men can’t help but drink, Gaga and Cooper’s Star inevitably undid the promise of that early scene. (Many others have written about the sexism baked into this remake’s suicide arc. I’ll just say I prefer the Stars that include frame-breaking performances—by Streisand and Kristofferson, or the GOAT Judy Garland—to this barrel-aged, artisanal take.) But let’s put that aside, along with the deeply homophobic elements of the year’s other major rock breakthrough—and now the biggest-grossing music biopic of all time—Bohemian Rhapsody. Let’s talk about how the old ways are dying—and how very good it feels to let them go.
2018 was a horrific year for disenfranchised people, from the high school hallways of Florida to the Texas border to the many states where women can no longer obtain safe abortions to the villages of Yemen, where millions are starving. Symbolic gestures can and should not distract our focus from real injustice. Yet music still creates spaces where people who otherwise cannot fully speak can shout and hit high notes and let us in on their whispers and move us to dance. It also allows for reflection and self-confrontation, for the internal work that feeds the fight to make a better world. For all the apparent incoherence and pain that you point out at the top of the charts, Carl, I also heard so much defiance and hope this year, though not often in the usual we-shall-overcome sense. The word my beloved NPR editor Jacob Ganz and I often used to talk about it was retreat. As I think about that word, I find its definition expanding away from an emphasis on escapism and toward what a retreat can offer: renewed inner resources; connections with close, beloved community; a world within the world.
Many of my favorite recordings of 2018 were made by perceived outsiders cultivating resistance by expressing themselves, challenging historical norms, and just being fierce. There’s a reason “Thank U, Next” became the year’s anthem the nanosecond it came out: With her resolute determination to thrive despite repeated encounters with tragedy, Ariana Grande is our divine messenger right now, and her message is love and patience and learning from pain. Think of all the artists who showed us how to grow from the drama this year. Topping many year-end lists are Brandi Carlile, Janelle Monáe, and Kacey Musgraves, three young veterans of a music industry that hasn’t always supported them as women and complex visionaries; each made albums wholly expressing their own points of view and found audiences who craved to live in the worlds they’ve built. (It’s particularly notable, I think, that Nashville’s cool rebel Musgraves has become a beacon for upstarts like Soccer Mommy and Harry Styles as they strive to claim their own independence.) Bubbling up as bold innovators are the gospel-soul firebird Serpentwithfeet, the hip-hop auteur Tierra Whack, and the undefinable Sophie, all offering work that realigns basic notions of what a voice can do and what a body with a voice can say. More seasoned artists took on history itself: With his Black Cowboys project, Carolina Chocolate Drops co-founder Dom Flemons reimagined the West in profound and necessary ways, while Angélique Kidjo repatriated the Talking Heads’ classic encounter with African “others,” Remain in Light, with love and unflagging insight. Perhaps the most profound act of rebirth through resistance came from Jeremy Dutcher, the First Nations singer and composer who incorporated the voices of his ancestors (obtained via wax cylinder recordings) into his own hauntingly gorgeous songs. Dutcher let the old ways of historical silencing die by resurrecting other ways that have been obscured. This was the key to so much powerful work this year: not burning things down, but nurturing alternatives in whatever cracks and alleys possible.
So let’s hear it for the astounding number of LGBTQ artists claiming space right now: to name a few, Troye Sivan, Christine and the Queens, King Princess, Hayley Kiyoko, and Sam Melo of Rainbow Kitten Surprise. And the artists of color refreshing genres like Americana and country: The War and Treaty, Kane Brown, Adia Victoria (catch her fiery second album early next year), William Prince, Jimmie Allen. And the young and older women (and woke dudes, like 77-year-old David Crosby, who surprised with a stunningly beautiful late-career album powered by a band that includes two young women) continuing to turn every genre on its head. As always, let’s celebrate those who remind us that the future rests on the work we do today.
Let me leave you with a request: Please spend some time with an album that did incredible work, Mary Gauthier’s Rifles & Rosary Beads, a collaboration with active soldiers and veterans that spoke more profoundly about resilience than anything else I heard this year. Longtime Americana music fixture Gauthier herself has lived through a lot; her empathy with men and women who’ve lost loved ones, limbs, and naïve hope—but who’ve found a new way to feel something like peace through this music—is endlessly moving. In the album’s most powerful song, a bittersweet account of a Veterans Day parade co-written with Navy vet Jamie Trent, ends with a startling image: “heaven shining down on us through bullet holes in the sky.” Whatever heaven you believe in (or not), look for that light. My favorite music this year said it’s coming from our own hearts.
On a similarly warm note, here’s the one list I published this solstice season—my favorite live shows of 2018. It’s Nashville-centric, but the sentiment behind it is universal: Music can be a balm even in the darkest hours.