Music

The Music Club, 2018

Entry 9: The music has gotten drowned out by the “narratives.”

Photo illustration of Taylor Swift at a Nov. 2 performance in Sydney.
Taylor Swift.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images.

Dear Music Club boos,

Rawiya’s question about whether “stories” are more important than music now nudged up against a thought that I had several times over the course of 2018. While 2018 was a better year than 2017 for Taylor Swift, for instance—because of her nemesis Kanye’s fall from grace, and because of the emergence of “Delicate” as the true signature Reputation single, after last year’s misfires—it would be hard to deny that her most important release this cycle was her October election endorsements. She finally realized that trying to stay politically neutral (a policy Nashville would have drummed into her young) was costing her more than it gained, making her seem programmed and out of step with her generation.

Online videos were often much bigger events than albums or songs—personally I don’t think Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” stands up so well without the video, but that clip was an earthquake. I know middle-aged folks who hadn’t paid pop music any mind for years who got obsessed with it (one even went to a Gambino show, his first concert in years, as a result). Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s “Apeshit” video had a similar effect, as did Drake’s “Nice for What” video, and Janelle Monáe’s “Make Me Feel” and “Pynk” videos (less so the full-length “emotion picture” that went along with Dirty Computer), and Kendrick Lamar and Jay Rock and Future’s “King’s Dead,” and Cupcakke’s Rabelaisianly NSFW “Duck Duck Goose” clip—and of course, all of “Beychella.” Not to mention the music-oriented movies: A Star Is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Greatest Showman (whose soundtrack is the best-selling album of the year in the U.K. and no slouch in the U.S., but generally ignored by critics), and to some degree Black Panther, Sorry to Bother You, etc. This hierarchy of the visual over the aural is nothing new, but it’s another part of the dynamic.

To extend the question further, can we really still maintain the illusion that people like music better than they like Instagram? Or Fortnite, for that matter? Even the degree to which a year-end music discussion compels us into analysis of the details of streaming illustrates how much more energy tends to accrue to talking about platforms than to talking about music. I’m not raising this as a Luddite protest, because on a basic, Marxist level, debating those centers of economic power and social capital probably does deserve priority—it’s just less satisfying to the aesthete in me, which is a lot of me.

That inner aesthete also was instinctively in sympathy with Wesley Morris’ New York Times Magazine feature about criticism, activism, the dynamics of “cancel” culture, and what kinds of aesthetic reactions are expressible by whom nowadays. It’s been background chatter among critics for quite a while, and it was healthy for someone with the cred of Morris (who was writing politics-forward criticism long before it became prevalent) to take it public. But it also makes a lot of sense that some discomfort and even temporary intellectual skewing happens in the midst of a cultural and generational shift. For new voices and views to get power, older ones have to surrender it. And it’s almost always a mistake to get overalarmed about current trends, when in a few years the picture will have changed in ways we can’t anticipate. Despite my qualms about the hegemony of tabloid narrative and tech over the art itself, if I take a step further back, I realize that the present state of music is far more robust than I would have predicted a decade ago, and doubly so for the state of criticism. (As cultural activities, that is, not as business models.)

All of which might be a lead-up to my declaration that I’m one of the haters when it comes to the 1975. While the band checks all the boxes conceptually, having crossed over from emo-ish rock to engage with pop, making bricolage of current events and cultural tropes, etc., etc., I find myself simply unable to listen to them for more than five minutes at a time. Partly I suspect that at their core they have a ’90s Britpop sensibility dressed up in a lot of fashionable camouflage, and I’ve always been sour on ’90s Britpop (except of course Pulp). But when I listen to them I feel like I’m hearing calculated gestures. None of these are critically valid arguments, just accusations of bad faith. Hell, “hearing calculated gestures” would describe a lot of my favorite artists—let’s start with David Bowie, for instance. But that’s the way they make me feel. I suppose it’s karma that in a year when people got all excited about a has-been guitar band covering a chunk of ’80s meme-schlock (Weezer’s “Africa,” of course—don’t storm out of my dinner party), the song that’s topping tons of year-end lists would be a Twitter-era version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” the nadir of Billy Joel–ness. (I’m a Billy Joel fan, but c’mon).

On the other hand, it pleases me a lot that the consensus album winner among year-end lists appears like it could be Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, including among many of our Music Clubbers. While I’ve had misgivings in the past about Musgraves’ status as the kind of artisanal-country artist that critics and other listeners use to pretend they don’t have a bias against the genre, Golden Hour marks a necessary departure for her stylistically and an updated return of the kind of country-pop crossover that recalls the mid-’90s and the late 1970s/early 1980s. With its sunnily stoned disposition and disco-twang leanings, the name it calls to mind is Olivia Newton John, who was also the subject of a tribute album I really enjoyed this year by 1990s sad-indie-rock star and homeless-angel-ghost Juliana Hatfield. (I realize that’s my second My So-Called Life reference this Club. No regrets.)

Musgraves’ style shift is part of a general turn to lusher sounds on 2018 women’s country albums, a production choice that says to country radio, “If you’re not going to play us on the radio anyway, then we’ll just make it sound however we please.” But it’s also the vanguard of the country-pop crossover pattern I noted earlier, led by Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant to Be” and Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey’s “The Middle” (the two omnipresent hits) plus Kelsea Ballerini with the Chainsmokers, Camila Cabello with Kane Brown (the rare man worth celebrating in a dull year for mainstream country), Justin Timberlake with Chris Stapleton, and Keith Urban with pop riser Julie Michaels. Not to mention A Star Is Born—a movie whose most confusing aspects, I would contend, come out of the fact that it really wanted to be a Nashville story but was afraid it would limit its audience.

And that queues up my throw to you, Jewly: As one of the keenest observers of the subcurrents of the Nashville industry, what do you think this surge in pop crossover means? I’m eager to hear.

I just wanna be good as you,

Carl

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