Music

The Music Club, 2018

Entry 12: The boundaries between fame and music have never been more porous.

Cardi B, 6ix9ine, Bradley Cooper, and Childish Gambino.
Cardi B, 6ix9ine, Bradley Cooper, and Childish Gambino.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images; Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Power 105.1; Warner Bros.; Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartMedia

Hey there, everyone,

Thanks so much for having me back once more for what’s invariably a highlight of my musical calendar, and as always it’s a real privilege to be here taking stock of another year with you all. (Jason, your great post has me absolutely kicking myself for leaving Piano and a Microphone 1983 off my Top 10, which now goes to 11.) Since I’m the last guest entrant and I’m pretty sure everyone’s probably already packing up their blankets and lawn chairs, I thought I’d get a little weird and maybe a little cranky (what better way to head home for the holidays?) and ramble for a bit about a quartet of folks who’ve made unusually impressive marks on our musical landscape in 2018. I speak, of course, of Cardi B, Tekashi 6ix9ine, Donald Glover, and Bradley Cooper, four drastically different cultural figures who speak to the far-flung and often downright weird ways that pop music is made, consumed, and processed (in a number of senses) in our current moment.

Forgive me if I don my academic cap for a moment—blame the final exam that I’m proctoring while writing this—but a number of years back the media theorist Henry Jenkins coined the term “convergence culture” to describe the ever-increasing flow of cultural content between platforms, industries, and audiences in our current moment. In Jenkins’ telling, much of this has to do with massive corporations and media conglomerates imposing themselves onto popular culture, but it also brings more grassroots possibilities for audiences to influence and interact with the culture they consume in newly immediate and powerful ways. Jenkins mostly wrote about this in terms of entertainment franchises—Harry Potter, Star Wars, Survivor—but Cardi, 6ix9ine, Glover, and Cooper all strike me as musical exemplars of a moment in which the boundaries between entertainment media, old and new, have never seemed more porous, for better or worse.

Let’s start with the best. Cardi B’s origin story has been recounted many times by now (here’s a link to Lindsay’s terrific piece from last year): how the regular(-degular-shmegular) girl from the Bronx rose to fame via social media and reality TV before breaking through with 2017’s monster hit “Bodak Yellow,” the best song of last year. She followed it up by making one of the best albums of 2018, Invasion of Privacy, establishing herself as (arguably) rap’s most vital mix of talent and blockbuster star power to emerge since Kendrick Lamar. In a year that saw other stars releasing works that were either imposingly sprawling (Migos, Drake) or blindingly concise (Pusha T, Earl Sweatshirt), Invasion of Privacy almost felt like a throwback to everything we used to think an album ought to be: mature, substantive, well-crafted, fun, big in all of the good ways. It was an event album that delivered on its promise and then some, and there’s no better musical torch-bearer for the bottom-up potential of our cross-platform musical world than Cardi, an artist who grew her career in unconventional ways and then had the talent and smarts to maximize what she’d cultivated once the world was finally ready.

On the flip side of Cardi’s axis is Tekashi 6ix9ine, who also used the cachet of social media to break into hip-hop and has lately suffered one of the more spectacular falls in recent memory. From his earliest days of Instagram fame, the rainbow-haired, copiously tatted 6ix9ine presented himself as a sort of Sid Vicious for Generation Z, a deliberately repellent anti-fashion plate whose blunt and bludgeoning musical stylings seemed like a direct extension of the online persona he’d crafted. His fans were rabidly devoted, at times troublingly so: News that he’d pleaded guilty to a felony charge of use of a child in a sexual performance back in 2015 did little to slow his rapid ascent, and the hits kept on coming, including “Fefe,” his collaboration with Nicki Minaj that reached No. 3 on the Hot 100 this summer. Then, last month, it all came crashing down when 6ix9ine and several associates were arrested on federal racketeering charges. His lawyer claims it was all an act, a kid who got in over his head with the wrong people after setting in motion a fantasy life that he didn’t know how to stop, and no matter your opinion of 6ix9ine as a person or performer—mine is pretty low on both counts—it’s hard not to find his defense somewhat credible. After all, in 2018 what sounds more believable to you: a 22-year-old who rises from Instagram posts to become a criminal mastermind, or a 22-year-old who’s so Extremely Online that the endorphin rush of followers and viral fame leads him to make a series of spectacularly ill-advised and self-destructive decisions?

Speaking of virality, one of the most talked-about and frequently watched songs of 2018 was Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” While I’m an admirer of Donald Glover the actor and screenwriter, I’ve never much warmed to Childish Gambino’s music. Early works like Camp and Because the Internet felt like topiary with nothing behind it, elaborate hedges of winks and smirks for people who like rap to be good for a laugh. With “Awaken, My Love!” in 2016, Gambino seemed to put away childish things and declare that the joke was over, but just because you’ve decided to take music seriously doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve gotten better at it, and I found “Awaken, My Love!” to be a lavishly produced exercise in paint-by-numbers re-creationism by a guy who still couldn’t sing or write songs.

And then this year came “This Is America,” which used a stunning music video to pull a characteristically underwhelming song to the top of the Billboard charts this past spring. (Pace Chris, with whom I rarely disagree, but in this case the best explanation for the song’s underperformance on radio may be the most obvious: To my ears, it’s just not very good.) “This Is America” was widely touted as a career pinnacle for Childish Gambino but almost always with the insistence that song and video were inherently inseparable, which felt like a bunch of people besotted with Glover’s work on Atlanta moving the goal posts on his musical alter ego’s behalf. Making a great television show doesn’t make you a great musician, and hiring Hiro Murai to direct your music video—a terrific filmmaker long before he started working with Glover—doesn’t necessarily prove you’re a poly-artistic visionary, it just proves you’re well-connected and, it must be said, rich. (For a sharper and far more eloquent rebuttal to the “This Is America” hype than mine here, see this great essay by Israel Daramola in Spin that Chris mentioned as well, one of the finest pieces of cultural criticism I read this year.)

Well-connected and rich brings me to my final subject, and brings us all back to the beginning of Ann’s entry at the start of this year’s club: Bradley Cooper, who at the time of this writing has spent the past 11 weeks as 2018’s most seemingly unlikely mainstay of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Watching A Star Is Born, I found myself totally enraptured by Lady Gaga’s magnificent performance as Ally but frustrated by the movie’s steadfast refusal to actually be about its most interesting character: you know, the one in its goddamn title. Cooper’s Jackson Maine, on the other hand, felt maddeningly empty to me, a mumbling jumble of mannerisms and stereotypes. What’s more, the movie’s complete disinterest in establishing what discernible skills made him famous in the first place, apart from a voice that sounds like Grampa Simpson doing Eddie Vedder and songs that sound like someone who’s into the wrong Black Crowes albums, struck me as pretty insulting. (Although not as insulting as its cringe-inducing insinuations that there’s just no place in this modern world for good-looking, guitar-slinging, fortysomething white guys, when in fact, as Jessica Hopper and Hazel Cills have both covered brilliantly as of late and Jewly’s own post alludes to, there’s a whole genre-industrial complex out there with its thumb firmly on the scale for said population.)

But what bothered me the most, and will continue to as this movie sweeps its way to an armful of Oscars, was the breathtakingly credulous coverage of how much work Cooper put into becoming a Real Musician. “He learned how to play the guitar. He learned how to play the piano. Not just enough to be convincing onstage—enough to be a professional musician,” declared the New York Times Magazine in a story titled “Bradley Cooper Is Not Really Into This Profile.” “Bradley Cooper took extreme measures to become Jackson Maine for his directorial debut, ‘A Star Is Born,’ setting up a musical bootcamp in his home for six whole months,” wrote the Wrap. Six whole months! Congratulations to professional-grade musician Bradley Cooper for joining the elite ranks of American men who’ve taken the “extreme measures” of six months of guitar lessons. Reading this stuff feels like being swallowed by some authenticity Ouroboros spawned from the most self-satisfied corner of our convergence culture, the Hollywood A-lister whose performance as a Real Musician in a movie about Real Music is praised online and in print on the grounds that he has in fact become a Real Musician in Real Life, which you’ll know by reading the fawning coverage that he’s “not really into,” being a Real Director and all. It’s enough to make me want to wrap myself in barbed wire to the strains of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

Sorry, I’m verging into Silky Johnson territory here. But give me music made by people who are actually good at it, dammit! Not just people who are good at being famous. Luckily 2018 offered no shortage of the former; to my ears, here are 10 albums’ worth, in alphabetical order:

Armand Hammer, Paraffin
Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy
Earl Sweatshirt, Some Rap Songs
Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer
J.I.D, DiCaprio 2
Lucy Dacus, Historian
Mitski, Be the Cowboy
Noname, Room 25
Pusha T, Daytona
Rico Nasty, Nasty
Special deluxe edition bonus cut: Prince, Piano and a Microphone 1983

Excelsior,

Jack

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