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.
Ann, I want to circle back to something you said at the end of your last post: I, too, was struck this year by the heights and above all things the plurality of women’s musical achievements this year. On any given year in music—at least if you know where to look—nonmale artists put out excellent, challenging, AOTY-worthy releases, but in 2019 that belief finally seemed to transcend the margins and move toward a kind of critical consensus.
It took long enough. Pitchfork has been publishing its closely watched year-end lists since 1998, but 2019 was the first year that its No. 1 album (Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell) and No. 1 song (FKA Twigs’ “Cellophane”) were both by women; the site’s Top 5 albums, too, were for the first time all by female artists or female-fronted bands. The nominees for the forthcoming Album of the Year Grammy are also more female than male (with Del Rey, Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande, H.E.R., and Lizzo all receiving deserved nods). For what it’s worth, I don’t think any of this had to do with—in the infamously blundering 2018 words of former Recording Academy president Neil Portnow—women “step[ping] up” so much as it did with a larger cultural shift in valuing women’s work, reexamining past prejudices, and conducting conversations out in the open about why art made by women is not perceived as “universal” nearly as often as is art made by men. It’s about time.
One of my favorite pieces of music journalism from this year was Jessica Hopper, Sasha Geffen, and Jenn Pelly’s ambitious Vanity Fair oral history of Lilith Fair—that late-’90s cultural-juggernaut-turned-tampon-joke-punchline that was in dire need of some reassessment. That brief, wide-open space between, say, Jagged Little Pill and … Baby One More Time was one of pop and alternative rock’s most female-friendly eras, but the slick millennium pop and alienatingly macho rap rock that immediately followed all but purged its memory from the collective consciousness.
What I heard in 2019, though, was a new generation plumbing the many sonic riches of that forgotten, unfairly maligned time, whether it was Taylor Swift’s heartbreaking “Soon You’ll Get Better” (the Lover ballad for which she recruited Lilith Fair vets the Dixie Chicks), Caroline Polachek’s beautiful synth-pop confessional Pang (she called one of its best songs, “Look at Me Now,” “an umbilical connection to the Lilith-Fair-era artists I grew up listening to”), my favorite Beto O’Rourke doppelgänger (Sandy) Alex G’s poignantly earnest cover of Shania Twain’s “You’re Still the One,” Maggie Rogers’ open-hearted reveries on Heard It in a Past Life, or Haim’s light and infectious bop “Summer Girl”—to say nothing of their live cover of Paula Cole’s “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?,” which for a few minutes this July transformed the 2019 Pitchfork Music Festival into a sold-out stop on the 1997 Lilith Fair.
Many Lilith Fair vets got some long-overdue props this year, too. Missy Elliott (who played the tour in 1998, and in her “Supa Dupa Fly” outfit at that!) was honored with the Video Vanguard Award at this year’s VMAs, delivering a career-spanning performance that showed us not only that (wanna feel old?) the little girl from the “Work It” video is now a young adult but that her wild, gender-bending, zero-gravity pop vision was light-years ahead of its time. For a few days after that performance, the entire world seemed to be paying respect to Missy—which should really be a year-round activity. Lilith-adjacent icon Alanis Morissette has been back in the public consciousness lately, since her songbook is the basis of a new, Diablo Cody–penned musical Jagged Little Pill. This fall, too, Liz Phair reclaimed her story when she released her lively, appropriately-titled Horror Stories: A Memoir, a book so incisive that it prompted Matt LeMay, the Pitchfork writer who once gave her self-titled album a dreaded 0.0, to write a thoughtful, belated apology. (Phair accepted it with a shrug that some of her stan-supported descendants might do well to consider: “I’ve always enjoyed criticism well-rendered and the 0.0 had some humor to it - enjoyed it more than others I can tell you.”) Coinciding with Sheryl Crow’s swaggering victory lap of a record, Threads, Jenn Pelly profiled Crow and traced her notable influence in a new generation of punk and indie artists like Snail Mail and Lisa Prank. “Sheryl didn’t fit in with the cool kids of the ’90s,” said the latter’s Robin Edwards, “and she was writing lyrics that were pretty outwardly subversive, and they snuck onto commercial radio.”
Maybe the cool kids table was just another boys’ club, anyway. What struck me most while reading the Lilith Fair oral history was how often plurality was seen as a threat to the status quo. “ ‘You can’t put two women on the same bill.’ It was an unspoken thing,” the tour’s co-founder recalled, and musicians from Phair to Aimee Mann to Lisa Loeb agreed with this assessment: “You can’t play two women back-to-back on the radio,” Jewel recalled hearing. Perhaps it has taken not just a few high-achieving female artists, but a proliferation of them, to finally look back at these truisms with the witheringly critical eye they always deserved. You could see this superstition breaking down at all levels in 2019: Of course you could hear, say, Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande back-to-back on the radio, but you could also see Solange and Angel Olsen rubbing elbows near the top of Pitchfork’s albums list. Megan Thee Stallion and Lizzo both got to shine at the same time—and still in the reigning age of Cardi B, at that—taking some wind out of the enduring idea that there can only be one dominant female rapper at a time. (The glorious Hustlers proved as much on the silver screen, uniting Lizzo and Cardi with a whole posse of other schemers, and bestowed upon J. Lo some long-due reappraisal as well.)
Given the recent conversations about Greta Gerwig’s Golden Globe snub in the Best Director category—not to mention Marielle Heller’s, or Joanna Hogg’s, or Mati Diop’s … I could go on—I’ve been thinking quite a bit these days about Little Women. The story of the March sisters is so engrained in my mind that I can’t even remember the first time I encountered it; it’s as though it’s always just been there. But I’ve started asking the men in my life whether they’ve read it, and I’ve been astonished by how few of them have. These double standards are reinforced subtly, from an early age. As A.N. Devers writes in a recent Elle essay, the book is taught in schools much less often than, say, the Catcher in the Rye or Huckleberry Finn: Books with male protagonists are seen to have something larger and more “universal” to say about the experience of adolescence; unfortunately, films and music made by women have suffered the same fate. “Books by women about domestic concerns are often reviewed by male critics as ‘quiet’ and ‘small’—code words for ‘not a great big American novel,’ ” Devers writes. “Though it shouldn’t matter if it were, Little Women is neither quiet nor small.”
I’d say the same of so much of the music I loved this year, so much of which was made by interesting, complicated people who happened to identify as female. Sharon Van Etten swung for the fences on her career high Remind Me Tomorrow, and I’d defy anyone who’s ever been a teenager of any gender not to relate to “Seventeen,” her ode to the tough-love hindsight of adulthood. Olsen’s All Mirrors, too, was defiantly bombastic and emotionally operatic, taking up more sonic space than any of her records so far. The electrifying British singer-songwriter Nilüfer Yanya’s Miss Universe is an epic journey through various genres with a searching female protagonist at its center. But many of the year’s best records reveled in a kind of soft power, too. Ariana Grande reworked the pop album into something more immediate and intimate on Thank U, Next. The pulsating, trancelike tracks on Jenny Hval’s The Practice of Love opened her up to some of the most fruitful explorations of taboo subjects in her always-provocative career. The muted, late-night self-reflections of Clairo’s Immunity felt a bit like Liz Phair’s Girly-Sound tapes updated for the GarageBand and FaceTime generation.
Who needs Guyville, anyway? The exiles always seemed to be having all the fun.
Jewly, looking forward to hearing from you—I know you’ve got plenty of fronteirswomen to talk about.
I belong a long way from here,