My favorite scene in the film The Prestige is the one where Hugh Jackman’s magician goes to see Nikola Tesla, played by the dearly departed David Bowie. The reason for the visit is because the magician is in search of a singular machine—one that would help him complete the trick of vanishing and reappearing in a way that no one before him had. When using the machine, there was a catch: The magician would be duplicated and transported from somewhere other than the stage, and the duplicated version of himself would fall through a trap door and drown. The idea was that to pull off the impossible, one may have to be comfortable with killing a part of themselves. When the time comes to purchase this machine, Tesla asks the magician, “Have you considered the cost of such a machine?” And the magician, distracted by standing at the feet of life-altering power, shoots back, “Price is not an object.” Tesla, calmly, responds, “Perhaps not. But have you considered the cost?”
I’m glad that we’re talking about pop music with a broad stroke, because it feels like this year was the one where pop music (a construct anyway) finally leaned into its idea of vanishing and reappearing everywhere, taking on as many different forms as the people behind it. The Parquet Courts album is outstanding, but it does make even sadness bouncy and easy to move to. Even the artists who allowed for people to become deeply entrenched in their feelings were making songs that were unmistakeably pulling from pop music of some era before this one, or carving out a new era of their own. Much is made of the weight and sadness of artists like Mitski or Lucy Dacus, but less made out of their ear for infectious melody and hooks, or the way a listener shows up for one thing but, perhaps, stays for something else. Arrive to feel, stay to feel better.
There’s something about the simplicity in this type of musical journey that I fell in love with again this year. I loved Ann diving headfirst into talking about how music sat in the larger scheme of the world this year—or how it has been sitting for the past handful of disastrous and immensely long years. I felt like this was the year where I found so much music that allowed me to depart briefly from the world and return to it renewed. Not because of the music’s messages, but because the escape in albums I loved really gave a roadmap out of my frustrations, and there were so many different roadmaps, it didn’t feel like the music was all leading me to the same, expected, short reprieve. I finally got Shawn Mendes. I listened to Joy as an Act of Resistance by Idles once a week. The Wonder Years, one of my favorite bands, found a way to mature and bring their aging fans along with them—something that is difficult and often fumbled through by bands in the pop punk genre.
I’m happy to see Ann and Lindsay talking about women and queer artists leading the way not just in sonics and messaging, but also very simply in drowning out the noise of male theatrics. I write this on the day after another Drake-involved dust-up, and I find myself exhausted by the idea of men fighting with each other. It doesn’t yield anything new, and even when the male-driven rap feud was at its most exciting this year (with Drake and Pusha T), it was anti-climactic, and when the smoke cleared, it left me wondering if all of the collateral damage was worthwhile.
A thing I wanna touch on real quick is that what I loved seeing continue to flourish was black artists acting as reporters on the front lines of a complete black experience. This is an old and long tradition, one I first fell in love with revisiting N.W.A. from the late ’80s, pulling a national eye to their underserved environments. It became clear again, around the summer of Ferguson, that on-the-ground reporting would have to be led by the people on the ground. Activists tweeting, poets writing, musicians making songs. Black people couldn’t rely on a country that didn’t love them to accurately represent them. But what this country has been shown to love is black creation and creativity. And so I’m thrilled with the artists who are reporting on the full aspects of their black lives, and not just pain, or violence.
I’m thinking about MNEK stitching together the perils of love and longing on Language, or Vince Staples with FM, a particular ode to a particular type of summer in a particular type of place. I’m thinking of Meek Mill’s Championships, picking apart the treachery of the prison system and the joy once a person is removed from it. Cardi B, of course, who released an album that is, to me, mostly about understanding and coming to fame on one’s own terms. The list goes on. So much of this reportage is done in the name of black people normalizing an emotional landscape in a time where so many people are looking for black artists to “say something” that might make sense of a country they didn’t drag to the hell it is currently in. The mundanity of love, or wealth, or the warmth of a season with all your friends in it. I’m with this, more than anything else.
If there is a cost to this musical experience, where even music that is not popular by the definition of the charts angles itself towards the construct of pop music, it’s that I found myself feeling like everything was trying to get into the same handful of doors, sonically. Even when I was surprised by something, I didn’t stay surprised long. I don’t think this is necessarily bad, but if the question posed of even the most spectacular magic is “Have you considered the cost?” then I simply think that cost is worth considering.