Music

The Music Club, 2019

Entry 2: Pop’s new guard is here, and they’re obsessed with the climate.

Billie Eilish performs in a shirt that says NO MUSIC ON A DEAD PLANET in sparkly letters. Text in the corner says 2019 Music Club.
Billie Eilish at the American Music Awards. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for dcp.

The 2019 Music Club features critics Carl Wilson, Lindsay Zoladz, and Ann Powers, with additional entries from Jack Hamilton, Julianne Escobedo-Shepherd, Jewly Hight, and Chris Molanphy.

Carl, Ann, and 98 other assorted gecs,

I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100 percent doing Music Club again this year. I’m honored, as always, to be in your company and excited to connect some dots across what felt, to me at least, like a pretty transformative 12 months in music. The past few years have struck me as a bit transitional, but 2019 crashed the gates like the arrival of something new. We got to witness the ascension of some revolutionary next-generation stars, the kind that wouldn’t have been fathomable five years ago: the benevolent human incarnation of the “I’m the sheriff of” meme, Lil Nas X; the brashly cross-cultural reggaeton fashion plate Bad Bunny; and of course, the stunningly precocious goth-ASMR maven Billie Eilish, a 17-year-old so singularly cool that she almost makes me wish I were a teenager again. (Almost.) Eilish’s unavoidable “Bad Guy” was not only one of the year’s biggest hits, but, thanks to co-production from her brother Finneas, one of the most original-sounding pop confections in recent years, as well as evidence of the age-old truth that, to anyone over the age of 25, there’s nothing more mortally terrifying than a teenager saying “duh” and meaning it.

But before we go too deep into pop’s freshman class (and we should!), I want to first tug on a particular thread that connected a lot of the music I heard this year, across generations and genres. 2019 was the first year I felt artists, en masse, grappling with the particular and pervasive anxieties of living on a warming planet (and, at least for American artists, being governed by an administration in deep, dangerous denial about that fact). Carl, you mentioned Megan Thee Stallion, who released the excellent, attention-grabbing mixtape Fever in May, effectively kicking off what she dubbed Hot Girl Summer. (It being 2019, “Hot Girl Summer” had, by August, been coopted by both brands and white people on the internet. Tale as old as time.) But Megan knew that temps were rising this summer in more ways than one. The 24-year-old rapper frequently took to her popular Instagram Live feed to soliloquize about her attempts to cut down on her use of disposable plastic and, later, to organize a “Hottie Beach Clean Up” in Santa Monica, California. “If you’re already an eco friendly hottie please comment more ways to help,” she wrote in one tweet that stands as a strong contender for “most 2019 sentence of all time.”

Some other artists sought actionable solutions and gestures of protest. Coldplay made headlines last month for pulling a Greta Thunberg and announcing that they wouldn’t be touring again until they could find a way to do so sustainably. Billie Eilish, too, made a strong statement when she performed at the American Music Awards in a bedazzled T-shirt that warned, “NO MUSIC ON A DEAD PLANET.” The stylistically shape-shifting rock band the 1975 released a single, said to be the opening track on its forthcoming album, that featured not Matty Healy’s yelping vocals but a no-bullshit monologue from the teenage activist Thunberg: “We are right now at the beginning of a climate and ecological crisis,” she states, “and we need to call it what it is: an emergency.”

She’s right, of course, but an inconvenient part of being alive in 2019 is that it’s difficult and draining to maintain that level of alarm 24/7. The world may be burning, but most of us still have to shop for lightbulbs and put dinner on the table and participate in all other sorts of banalities while occasionally granting ourselves permission to have a good time. And so a lot of the music I found most moving this year dealt with apocalypses big and small, personal and communal, yes, but also in figuring out how we continue to live meaningful lives in the face of possibly imminent destruction.

Enter Weyes Blood’s Titanic Rising, a record I all but wore out this year. Natalie Mering has this haunted, aqueous croon—simultaneously unsettling and deeply comforting. “A lot’s gonna change in your lifetime,” she sings on the opening track, ostensibly to her younger self. The lyric, like so much of the album, works on a macro and micro level: It can easily be read as an observation about our rapidly transforming planet, but it’s also about the continuous tectonic tumult of growing up. (Same goes for Titanic Rising’s striking album cover: Mering floating in an exact replica of her childhood bedroom, subsumed in water.) In a great interview with Pitchfork’s Sam Sodomsky, the 31-year-old Mering said that accepting the reality of climate change has meant letting go of “the comfort of my childhood in the 90s, just assuming the coral reefs were going to be there for my children—or even the fact that I should have kids—that whole foundation was rocked. It was almost this loss of innocence, like getting kicked out of the garden of Eden.” Still, in her music, I hear the balm of a clear-eyed optimism, too, which is probably why I keep returning to it. “I’m speaking to anybody who feels overwhelmed by the sheer mass of all these problems,” she went on. “I hope you could have a smile during the apocalypse and be grateful for whatever conditions exist, because life is a beautiful thing.”

I hear a lot of those tensions, too, on Vampire Weekend’s adventurous and unpredictable comeback record, Father of the Bride. It’s their first release without the studio whiz Rostam Batmanglij (who, it should be noted, had a great year as a producer, bringing out a softer side of Clairo on her wonderful bedroom-pop album Immunity and collaborating on Maggie Rogers’ best song, “Fallingwater”), and it certainly has an airier, more spacious sound than their 2013 triumph Modern Vampires of the City. But Ezra Koenig’s searching lyrics are still full of rising tides and mortal dread. “No time to discuss it, can’t speak when the waves reach our house upon the dunes,” he sings on the anxious lullaby “Bambina.” Another song, “Big Blue,” feels like a humbled hymn to the planet itself, while the doomsday clock ticks steadily on songs like “2021” (“I could wait a year but I couldn’t wait three”) and “How Long?” (“How long ’til we sink to the bottom of the sea?”). These songs are not all about climate apocalypse in a literal sense, but it feels notable how often rising waters served, in the music of 2019, as metaphors for all other forms of unease.

And as with so many other things this year, nobody did it better than Lana Fucking Del Rey. Her era-defining fifth album unfurled slowly and ceremoniously throughout the year, like a redesigned American flag. Yes, there was a weirdly excellent Sublime cover and a 9½-minute song called “Venice Bitch” (! I’m still not over it), but the song that seemed to briefly stop the world on its axis when it came out in the waning days of Hot Girl Summer was “The Greatest,” an acceptance of the end of the world as stirringly beautiful as the final shots of Melancholia. “The culture is lit, and if this is it, then I had a ball,” she sighs, giving the 2010s the exact epitaph they deserve. “I guess that I’m burned out after all.”

In the first week of 2019, the writer Anne Helen Petersen struck a chord with an essay she wrote for BuzzFeed about “millennial burnout,” a concept that seemed to click into clearer focus for a lot of people this year. Ann, as I hand the baton over to you, I’m curious if you heard any artists grappling with some of the other grand themes of our era, like the changing definitions of work, the false promises of late capitalism, and the associated mainstreaming of therapy speak like “boundaries” and “self-care.” The song I think best captured all of that this year was the Brooklyn sugar-rock band Charly Bliss’ anthemic single “Capacity,” which found frontwoman Eva Hendricks searching for healthier alternatives in both work and love. “I’m at capacity, I’m spilling out of me,” she sang, capturing what you, in your great year-end essay, appropriately dubbed “the overwhelm.” But then, the saving grace of some wisdom: “It’s got nothing to do with me.”

And with that, I think this post is at capacity. Take it away, Ann.
LZ

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