Music

The Music Club, 2019

Entry 1: Pop is getting sunnier again, but much of the old guard is still in hiding.

Photo collage of Rihanna, Drake, and Adele.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images, Frazer Harrison/Getty Images, and Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for September Management.

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.

Dear Lindsay, Ann, and all of this year’s guest Music Clubbers,

So here we stand, on the verge of getting it on into a new decade. How optimistic that makes you feel may depend on whether you choose to see the glass as almost empty of Trumpism or nearly full of catastrophic atmospheric carbon. (At least some people in the music industry are starting to own up to their share in the latter problem by trying to make their touring practices more sustainable, though the fact that digital distribution seems to have heavier climate effects than any previous medium shows how far there is to go.)

It’s tempting to make grand pronouncements about the music of the 2010s, but frankly I think we’ll be doing well if we manage to cast our minds all the way back to January. By the end of that month, the two rival Fyre Festival documentaries had just debuted, as had the R. Kelly exposé by dream hampton. Still ahead of us was the disgraced R&B star’s notorious interview with Gayle King, as well as our agonizing over the Michael Jackson Leaving Neverland doc. Most grown-ups still didn’t know what TikTok was. Billy Ray Cyrus had not yet hitched up his horse to Lil Nas X’s, and Billboard hadn’t yet ruled that “Old Town Road” didn’t qualify as country music. 21 Savage had not yet been arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, nor ASAP Rocky by police in Sweden. Billie Eilish hadn’t yet taken out her Invisalign—or she probably had, but we were a couple of months away from squinting in discomfort at hearing it. Janet Weiss was still the drummer for Sleater-Kinney.

So it was a year when it was hard to feel that music stood at any safe remove from the messiness of misbehavior and politics and exploitation in the rest of society. Not that it ever actually does, but the illusion is sometimes more effective than it is in a period when, for instance, young music stars seem perpetually to be getting imprisoned or dying of overdoses, most recently the rapper Juice WRLD. Music has no exclusive corner on the opioid crisis, nor any special exemption. Our colleague and sometime Music Club participant Craig Jenkins wrote incisively last week in Vulture about where we often go wrong thinking about these tragedies—for instance, stopping short at the observation that the kids aren’t all right, without going on to ask who should have been watching out for them. Parents and managers and labels, for certain, but I’m willing to carry the blame much higher up the societal food chain too.

On the other hand, a lot of the young artists who have claimed the center of pop in the past year are kindred spirits of Greta Thunberg (Time’s Person of the Year)—what Ann called in her year-end NPR essay “weird achievers,” the drama kids (Eilish) and extremely online nerds (Lil Nas X) matching energies with the precocious activists. In different times, they might have inclined to the bohemian subcultural dropout route. But under the pressures of the contemporary world, you either succeed on a large scale or fail hard, and if you want to say something culturally, do it now before we’re all too busy scrambling out of the way of the rising tides. In trying times, be a trier.

Pressure. That’s definitely one factor that’s felt like it ran through the year. It felt like a lot of the bigger names in pop hesitated to release albums into this volatile atmosphere. Ariana Grande started the year strong, and Taylor Swift certainly made her presence felt. Her nemesis Kanye West raised his head too, if a gospel-rap album running less than a half-hour counts. But as I write, that much-anticipated Rihanna album never materialized. And while Beyoncé did put out her interestingly muddled pan-Africanist companion album to The Lion King, as well as the live Homecoming album (a document of arguably the single most significant concert of the decade), neither is the true successor to Lemonade that fans have now been awaiting for nearly four years. Kendrick Lamar likewise hasn’t put out a follow-up to 2017’s Damn, and while rumors abound, there still hasn’t been a new Adele album since 2015. (I am dying to find out if her reported relationship with U.K. grime star Skepta might have any influence on her sound.) Are some artists saving up their firepower to make a statement in the upcoming election year? Or is it really that the roster of major stars that’s familiar from the 2010s is being torn up and replaced with unusual speed, in a moment that seems to be post- everything except Malone?

It does feel as if the dour, downbeat sonics that tended to pervade through the past few years began to turn around, as Slate chart watcher Chris Molanphy, who will join us later, has pointed out. The ebullience of Lizzo, for instance, was the sun around which the planets of pop orbited through much of the year. Though she’s a fresh, uncompromising presence in many ways, first and foremost she’s an old-school crowd-pleasing entertainer. On a similar note, Swift’s comeback with Lover from the black-and-white look and snake-infested mood of Reputation was almost too insistently rainbow bright (hues she appropriated from the pride flag, some might say). Lil Nas X might share some minimalist production methods with the face-tattooed SoundCloud rappers of his generation, but the sensation he projects is a big warm embrace—which is why a lot of little kids in 2019 took to “Old Town Road” like it was “Baby Shark, Part 2.” And on the less G-rated side of the spectrum, rappers such as DaBaby and Megan Thee Stallion led a counterforce against the hazy, passive-aggressive sound favored by Spotify’s influential Rap Caviar playlist, back toward snappily articulated bars full of filthy, boastful wordplay.

But then perhaps I’m just seeing what I want to see. When I published my annual list of favorite albums and songs last week, I noted that my album list in particular hinted that I was gravitating back toward the kinds of music that have been my lifelong staples—left-field singer-songwriters of all stripes, art-minded rockers, and avant-jazzbos—compared with the amount of my focus pop and hip-hop have taken for much of the decade.

The reasons could all be personal, for instance that I was evicted from my apartment midway through the year, so that in my listening life I may have been pining for a sense of home. But I also wondered if I was feeling some fatigue with the musical omnivorism that’s been so associated with the streaming era, when genre preferences and loyalties have been supposed to be almost outmoded. I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m not alone. Perhaps it became a choice whether you mainly followed that aforementioned, mainly masculine Rap Caviar strain or you didn’t, and if you didn’t follow that strain, you asked yourself what, specifically, you liked better.

This is a hunch, not a theory. I have no hard evidence, and maybe it’s just my imagination coming under the sway of the impending election, when the mood will swing even further than before to choosing your camp and defending it. Or maybe there is something to it. I’d love to hear what you all think, as well as your own most cockamamie theories and your own Top 10 lists and any other ridiculous music nerdery you care to plunge into. That’s what Music Club friends are for.

Call the doctor, dig me outta this mess,
Carl

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