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.
Time for me to step into the light again, friends!
Hi, it’s the elephant in your room. One you have already recognized—thanks, Jack and Carl, for the kind words about the long essay that Lana Del Rey didn’t relate to back in September. While I recognize the urgency of the conversation it’s fed about criticism’s mutating role, my only desire is that people actually read the piece and judge for themselves. I don’t think it’s perfect; in a way, it was an experiment. I wanted to evoke the complicated feelings her music prompts while also exploring what, in LDR’s music and in the culture, might have contributed to such feelings. I didn’t intend to pass judgment in the ways reviews often do. But do you like it? The ambitious music writer’s least favorite taunt.
Since I’ve never fully addressed the kerfuffle and people are still eager to discuss it (LDR’s comments still hit my timeline every day, retweeted by some stranger), I’ll just say a couple of things. One: I’m totally OK. It was pretty wild to see my feed under viral strain, but not that difficult to just take the app off my phone and walk away for a while. Many, many friends, colleagues, readers, and even LDR stans leapt to support me. (That weekend, I walked into my local coffee shop and the manager handed me my usual ginger soy latte free of charge, saying, “You’ve had a rough few days, I know.”) Frankly, I was more roughed-up on social media after I wrote about Michael Jackson’s legacy when the damning documentary about his alleged sexual transgressions, Leaving Neverland, aired in March—MJ loyalists are intense, LDR stans more snarky-sweet. And after all, I’m not new to people telling me I’m full of shit.
Over decades of doing this job, I’ve absorbed incalculable comments about my shallowness or ignorance or political correctness or political insensitivity or overly studious nerdery or mannish unattractiveness (this year: that I look like Austin Powers, haha). I’ve received letters to my editors begging that they fire me and obscenity-laced notes and voicemails from folk icons and punk elders. I’ve endured the world’s longest-held cold shoulder from a rock star who didn’t like a review I wrote for the New York Times six months before 9/11, though I’ve published two mea culpas since realizing I underestimated him. I’ve been told that my success is all due to being a token woman, suspected of romancing artists I admire and editors who’ve championed me, and, bizarrely, accused of loving Tori Amos’ music because I have red hair. To which I say (quoting Michael in The Good Place) well, you’re glue.
I’m also often on the other end of a dubious compliment: People tell me they like my writing because I’m a “real fan.” That always makes me feel weird. I’ve never indiscriminately supported any artist—even my ultimate, Prince. (Here’s a pan I wrote of his Irving Plaza show in 1998!) Carl, I actually agree with LDR that I used the word fan carelessly in my essay; I should have used a more provisional phrase, like avid listener. That said, I believe in writing passionately about music in ways that inspire others to do deep listening. I want to preserve my right to openly and fully love music, including Norman Fucking Rockwell.
As the musicologist William Cheng writes in his captivating new book Loving Music Till It Hurts, critics and other experts often avoid saying they love music because the word comes across as too obvious and too abstract. So let me be specific: I love Norman Fucking Rockwell because it makes me laugh. It sometimes puzzles me. It’s great for singing along and for diving into the lyrics, getting the references. It relaxes me, gives me a thrill, brings up memories, feels like a new adventure. It’s just a record, but it keeps unfolding for me.
In the controversy’s wake, I never stopped advocating for the album. Some have wondered if I was simply giving in to LDR’s bullying. Not at all. Continuing to speak up for LDR’s artistry is my way of defying what the controversy—not LDR herself, necessarily, but the conversation that arose around the two of us—demanded. As a critic, I never want to be an artist’s enemy, any more than I can only be a friend. I’ve always felt the idea of the critic as an oppositional force, clearing space for some set idea of quality or truth, is no more accurate than the notion that we are primarily champions. A critic is a person who encounters music, examines her responses, considers the context, and articulates whatever comes up during this process, whether it’s desire, joy, anger, even repulsion. It’s not a thumbs-up-or-down game.
I’d call what I try to do cultivating empathy. But empathy seems like a dirty word these days, at best a chimera. As Lilliana Mason’s extremely frightening 2018 book on the rise of “mega-identities” argues, the very structure of our cultural spheres increasingly feeds the human desire for one group to “win” against another, no matter the cost to the ideal of a pluralistic society. (Stan culture fits in here. So do most political subcultures, left or right.) She notes that in such a fractured environment, people can only transcend factionalism by actively trying to inhabit others’ points of view, if only momentarily. I think this is right, and I believe that music can help us do this partly because musicians themselves do it.
Listening to Lana Del Rey’s music, I hear someone reaching through a dreamscape, partly built from the ghost materials of pop’s own past, to make connections. That’s a project in which many artists engage right now. I think it’s indicative of a major generational shift away from “OK boomer”–style, rock- and soul-based assumptions about what’s real and good in music and toward more fluid, open definitions. It’s what makes Lana Del Rey hip-hop, and Solange the new standard for singer-songwriterly authenticity, and Lizzo both a real rapper and a comic trickster upending the genre.
I also know that it’s crucial to recognize that the long-held implicit biases of many cis, white men and women connected to the music industry, including critics, fed an illusion that music could heal wounds far deeper than the groove on an Aretha Franklin record. Music makes connections but, to quote the most memorable line from Watchmen, “Wounds need air.” As others have noted, the marketplace has weaponized opinion. But that cost is worth the much bigger benefit of hearing from voices previously minimized within culture’s legitimizing conversations, whether they’re newly crowned critical voices, top artists celebrating identities the mainstream has rarely applauded, or coalitions strategizing ways to change those conversations, permanently this time. (Shoutout to the 1619 Project and to the women of the pioneering ensemble Our Native Daughters showing us all how deep these shifts have to go.)
Lindsay, you asked me to comment on #MeToo, that seismic conversation-changer among women that has transformed into an ongoing mandate for everyone in the music sphere. This year, charges of sexual harassment and abuse continued to topple major figures, especially in the classical world, where superstar tenor Placido Domingo was just the biggest star to face myriad accusations. And television showed its power as a medium for telling the tangled stories of how the music industry itself—and, yes, both fan culture and the critical community—sometimes abets abusers, even allowing them to maintain their own self-delusions of innocence.
(This is where I insert the legal term “alleged” as I encourage anyone who hasn’t watched Leaving Neverland, about Michael Jackson’s relationships with a small group of young male proteges and their families, and Surviving R. Kelly, about the virtual industry built around maintaining the stardom of that multiply-accused victimizer, to do so—and add, full disclosure, that I was honored to serve as a commentator on the latter series.) It was clear from the beginning, but it’s undeniable now that #MeToo only works as a permanent revolution, redefining every aspect of popular music culture. This includes listening hard to the legacies of artists like Jackson, who fundamentally shaped pop as we know it. I grappled with that task in one of the essays I’m most proud of writing this year.
Beyond these widely viewed reckonings, the biggest impact of #MeToo in 2019 is apparent in the spaces it’s left for women to simply do their best work. Carl mentioned the heroic efforts of Brandi Carlile, whose advocacy on behalf of other women has been remarkable and tireless—I can’t recall another star who’s shared her (long-deserved) moment in the spotlight with such strategic brilliance. My hometown of Nashville was more than ready for the emergence of the Highwomen: At the album listening party I attended for the group in June, the foursome received multiple standing ovations just for sitting there and sharing a few tracks. As I’m sure Jewly will elaborate on in her upcoming post, the group’s emergence was the crest of a wave of women’s empowerment that’s been building for several years, one which hasn’t yet reached a peak. (Shoutout to “fifth Highwoman” Yola, breaking down multiple barriers at once while radiating joy.) Women’s activism in country was matched in other genres, especially jazz, where so many of the year’s most exciting developments highlighted a passion for social progress, from the music of women-led collectives such as Artemis and Nerija to the continued growth of Terri Lyne Carrington’s Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice.
Plainly said, women made most of the year’s most beloved and most critically acclaimed music. Throughout 2019 I continually marveled at the magnitude of women’s achievements—on any given month, three or four releases presented themselves as potential albums of the year. We’ve already discussed FKA Twigs, Julia Jacklin, Rapsody, and Jamila Woods. Let’s also hear it for Angel Olsen’s skyward-reaching All Mirrors and Sharon Van Etten’s Remind Me Tomorrow, which to my ears completely reworked the definition of Springsteen-esque. Megan Thee Stallion’s Fever and Ari Lennox’s Shea Butter Baby, suffusing the atmosphere with erotic pleasure in rhymes and beats; Adia Victoria challenging the boundaries of the blues on Silences; Terri Lyne Carrington and Matana Roberts rewriting the terminology of jazz with Waiting Game and Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis.
Some of these achievements felt grand; others made more delicate but equally indelible impressions. One favorite of mine came from New Zealand poet-musician Aldous Harding. Her third album, Designer, offered songs that made no insistent claims on meaning, instead showing how a person’s consciousness grows and shifts, geometrically circumscribed and dynamically defiant of gender. (Shoutout to the muse I hear in Harding’s music, British Modernist poet Mina Loy.) “Can you make a space on the seat?” Harding sings on “Damn” in her quiet alto, which a person might hear as the voice of a librarian, secretly a witch. “A box-like shape for a silly woman?” Harding’s music doesn’t dictate interpretation; it makes room for any kind of fellow feeling you might bring to it. A woman’s work? Not only, but never not, either. This is one way to define the project of feminism.
Julianne, what kind of work did you see music doing in 2019? And what avenues did it grant you for serious play?