Music

The Music Club, 2019

Entry 8: I, for one, welcome music’s new robot overlords.

FKA Twigs holds a microphone. Text in the corner says, "2019 Music Club."
FKA Twigs in Oakland, California, on Nov. 6 Steve Jennings/Getty Images

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.

Oh man, Ann,

I really appreciate your care to note that #MeToo is generally relegated to women’s work even as we are those most affected by harassment, misconduct, and inequity. I’ve thought a lot about that fact this year, particularly as this new iteration of the culture wars rages on. To note a word Lindsay invoked, for a certain subsect of people, cancellation (read: consequences for bad behavior) is the worst thing that could possibly occur, some ephemeral signifier of Social Justice Gone Wild. (Spoiler: Rarely is anyone actually canceled—or demoted from power, really, which seems to be the larger fear—even in music, as my colleague Rich Juzwiak recently pointed out.) The work often seems devastatingly, disproportionately on our shoulders to solve, and we still need more institutional support across industries—particularly the music industry—than is currently available.

Amid the despair (and sometimes hope) I’ve felt over the political and cultural chasms of the past year, I’ve found the most solace in music by people who are trying to untangle what they can with the understanding that some things are intangible. The phrase “women’s work” automatically switches on the Kate Bush in my brain, and I appreciated this year how FKA Twigs’ magnificent Magdalene worked both in conversation with Bush, Twigs’ admitted antecedent, and poked at the tropes and expectations of women who find ways to flourish under a kind of constant surveillance. Solange’s When I Get Home eased into a warm Baduist bath of the everyday, giving herself space to stretch out and honor her internal narrative, like a slow-motion Super 8 film preserving the way she experiences her own black womanhood. On Swervvvvv.5, British rapper and singer IAMDDB’s mesmerizingly syrupy flow made throwing dat azz in a circle as self-actualizing as falling in love over a spliff. Nigerian vocalist Burna Boy’s breakout African Giant, which threaded Afrobeats across the Atlantic and through the Caribbean and back, tied dancehall to U.S. rap in a sumptuous and thoughtful project about the diaspora and colonialism. And the electronic producer and intellectual Holly Herndon, a perennial favorite of mine, addressed a different kind of being watched on her transcendent and challenging opus Proto, created in part with an artificial intelligence program she wrote with collaborator Mat Dryhurst. Its eerily magical vocalizations countered the prevailing dystopian fear of A.I. replacing humanity, reframing technology as a kind of collectivist tool. As she wrote on Twitter in November, “I’m not worried about robot overlords. I’m worried about democratically unaccountable transnational companies training us all to understand culture like a robot or narrow AI.”

The streaming era and the ever-encroaching worry over groupthink—or “poptimism,” I guess—has been a central concern for me, too, though I am far more anxious about how technology might affect our political systems and fair elections than whether Spotify’s algorithm is going to recommend to me a bunch of artists I already know, as it inevitably does. I’m interested in the ways musicians are navigating the idea of “transnationality” or, perhaps more specifically, the centrism of the West, especially as music from the global South inevitably takes up more space on the English-language pop airwaves. J. Balvin and Bad Bunny’s Oasis certainly wasn’t my favorite release of the year—I liked it fine, but more than anything it proved to me that el Conejo is the superior artist and underscored my skepticism toward J. Balvin’s musicianship. (Make reggaetón dirty again! FREE PERREO!) But it was fascinating to see the way English language audiences are acclimating to their presences at awards shows and events not prefaced by “Latin,” though I also feel complicated about who “gets chose,” so to speak. (FREE PERREO!)

In Latinx communities, the efforts to parse and unfurl the monolithic notion of Latinidad was inextricable from the erasure of Afro-Latinx people, and no conversation in music reflected this better than the one around Rosalía, the exceptionally talented Spanish singer accused of borrowing ideas and samples from marginalized Andalusians before reinventing her gorgeous bass flamenco into comparatively bland pop reggaetón. (The crux of the conversation centered around the mistaken narrative that Rosalía is a Latina artist simply because she speaks Spanish, which made for some very funny running jokes in my WhatsApp chats.) This is not to say that “authenticity” is the goal or even all that desirable as a flat concept, but when Rosalía is better known by mainstream English publications than Anitta or Natti Natasha or Amara La Negra or Karol G or even Becky G, the system has either gone wonky or is doing exactly what it was meant to.

One option, I suppose, is to just remove yourself from it. In a late entry for closest album to my heart, this December the longtime grime stalwart Jme chose to eschew digital altogether, releasing Grime MC, his fourth full-length, exclusively on CD and vinyl. (At first, this was personally stressful to me, as it was initially only available via HMV, which doesn’t ship outside of the U.K. It was later available to non-Brits via Boy Better Know and maybe will be again one day.) Unlike Stormzy’s hip-hop indebted Heavy Is the Head, or even the bashment aspirations of Wiley’s ebullient song of the summer “Boasty,” Jme’s album was firmly rooted in his early ’00s grime roots, almost to the point of being catholic. Though he hilariously rapped, “You’re acting weird, the internet age has fucked your brain, fam,” on “You Watch Me,” the larger point seemed less an abnegation of online culture than a point about how easily it could be subverted. We don’t have to stream anything if we don’t want to, and the best way we can avoid becoming cultural robots is to refuse to buy into any of it. Remember how fun crate-digging used to be, before the algorithms infected our brains?

I should be crying, but I just can’t let it show,

Julianne

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