Music

The Music Club, 2019

Entry 5: Critics can be fans, but they don’t owe artists their fealty.

Ariana Grande with her head cocked to the side. Text in the corner reads "2019 Music Club."
Ariana Grande in New York in 2018.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Angela Weiss/AFP via 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.

Dear sunflowers,

I hear a question rattling among us about how our roles need to change with the past decade’s shifts in medium and message in both music and criticism, not to mention the shifts in the outside world. It’s in Lindsay’s centering of the climate threat, Ann’s thread about labor and the “gig” economy, and Jack’s concerns about how fandoms are being manipulated and deployed.

In the first decade of the 21st century, so-called poptimism (a term we all kinda lived to regret) tried to revive the spirit of listening attentively to all of the culture rather than just to “people like us” (whatever that might mean). There also was a lot of optimism about fan cultures as autonomously inventive, bottom-up ways for ordinary and, especially, marginalized people to seize the imaginative levers of top-down entertainment. Cosplay-heavy fan conventions weren’t yet major events on the calendars of multinational conglomerates. Getting your paws dirty with culture under capitalism means successes are always going to be half-defeats. Sometimes you can’t be sure if your last idea ever really was fresh and subversive, or if it was just the cultural economy beaming its next dictate into your head. But you can’t avoid that unless you swear off engaging with the most influential and consequential spheres and specialize instead in Japanese noise or electroacoustic soundscapes or progressive jazz. (That last one, as I’ll get to, might be my refuge if I had to choose, and also if I won the lottery.)

Back when most online music discussion seemed to be overrun with Brooklyn indie bands, redirecting the conversation to the music that most affected more people’s everyday lives felt urgent. (It turned out a lot of the bands felt the same way, and eventually moved to bring more pop, R&B, and hip-hop influences to bear in their work.) And this project remains unfinished. This year, conscious of Kanye West but not mostly focusing on him, I wrote a long piece about contemporary gospel music, trying to widen my own awareness of sounds crucial to demographics I’m not a member of. I’m always wanting to learn more about the K-pop revolution, and more recently about how Afrobeats—the syncretic combination of West African sounds with trap and digital music by artists like Wizkid and Burna Boy—are becoming pivotal in the United Kingdom and increasingly influential here. And then of course there’s the explosion of Latinx music into the mainstream, a pattern that continued in 2019 and that I’m sure Julianne will analyze more sharply than I could.

The misunderstood element of poptimism was that it always was meant to encompass such investigations. But it didn’t anticipate the massive effects of social media and the attention economy, which left the remaining cultural media click-dependent. One result, as Jack discussed, is that criticism can appear to blur with fan culture in ways that aren’t entirely healthy. Along with the genuflections he skewered, I’m troubled by the tendency to throw around artists’ first names or insidery nicknames, especially with women and artists of color, e.g., “Ariana” instead of “Grande” or “Drizzy” instead of “Drake.” I’ve done it myself, but I’m swearing off it. It might sound a bit stuffier—I’m not saying we have to call him “Mr. Graham”—but using surnames or the standard versions of stage names can be a small signal that we’re not writing tweets (render unto Twitter what is Twitter’s) or fan letters. The verbal coziness makes it more difficult to be heard in a critical mode.

Like all of us, I’m sure, I was furious when Lana Del Rey unloaded on Ann after she wrote a mostly positive but galvanically inquisitive review, thereby unleashing her stans to do the same. But I noticed myself flinching especially when Del Rey said, “Don’t call yourself a fan.” As critics, our love of music is a huge part of our motivations and our makeup, and criticism is always an exercise in reflective subjectivity. But I was alarmed to think Del Rey took Ann’s sidelong reference to fandom to dictate her job description. I’m often a partisan of artists I write about, but I think of that as a conflict to disclose to the readers I’m writing for. We’re not musicians’ enemies, but we also aren’t part of their staffs or fan armies.

All of this feels worth dwelling on because of the mystifications that Ann’s and Jack’s posts raise, about the ways all of us participate in an economy that feels little reciprocal responsibility to us. When someone refers to artists and critics and others who do cultural work as “creatives” and, as Ann said, “influencers”—terms that deliberately flatten the distinction between art and advertising—the jargon has a price. The market values of recorded music and the written word have plummeted while endorsements, marketing, and “curation” have peaked. These things have human costs. Insecurity around career sustainability and what work counts seems like a plausible factor in some of the deaths by overdoses and suicides I’ve encountered this year, both in the culture at large and in my local Toronto arts community. As rising mortality statistics show, this isn’t unique to people in the arts. So many communities are under a range of threats. But the artists within them can be high-profile and sensitive bellwethers. There was another awful addition to the list of casualties this week, the talented Los Angeles critic Scott Timberg, who a few years ago wrote a book about exactly this crisis, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. It would be simplistic and wrong to reduce Timberg’s own extremely sad act to those cultural circumstances—he was open about his hardships after being laid off from the Los Angeles Times in 2008, but what happened this month is not ours to know. Still, the correlation has symbolic force.

Thus, although explicit protest music may not have seemed rife in 2019, implicit protest ran through it constantly. Lindsay addressed Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride, the band’s first work to almost make one of my top-10 lists, because I felt like Ezra Koenig’s coy insularity finally matured into canniness about both the world’s situation and his privileged place in it, so that all of that magpie’s musical references finally really meant something. The feral sound of much of emo rap absolutely has an undercurrent of protest you seldom find from, for instance, its once-removed progenitor Drake. I nodded along with this BBC article about how much the abrasiveness of Jpegmafia, Rico Nasty, the current grime cohort, and others recalls that of punk rock. Whatever else you might want to fault her for, Ariana Grande’s presence early in the year retained an edge due to her experiences of tragedies both personal (Mac Miller) and much larger-scale (the Manchester attack), going far beyond her former kid star brattiness. Although, as I said during the Michael Jackson debates this year, we don’t interrogate enough whether there should be child and teen stars at all, our affection for Billie Eilish notwithstanding.

Like Ann, I was taken not only with Rapsody’s and Jamila Woods’ deep excavations of black cultural history but with the Irish punk band Fontaines D.C. I was also (apologies, Jack) grateful that artists such as radicals for life the Mekons and even Bruce Springsteen—in his most subdued, working-class-elegiac mode on Western Stars—made themselves heard in 2019. At the furthest edge, there was Caligula, a bracing metal-noise-funereal album about sexual exploitation and domestic violence by Kristin Hayter, who goes by the name Lingua Ignota (“unknown language” in Latin), a record that reminded me of the avant-diva howl of Diamanda Galás in reaction to the AIDS crisis in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the new album by too-often-overlooked country veteran Tanya Tucker (co-produced and co-written by Brandi Carlile, who also stood up for Joni Mitchell’s legacy and spearheaded the Nashville women’s front with the Highwomen) as well as this banner year for Dolly Parton (as Lindsay documented in a recent New York Times piece) testified for senior women’s perspectives under the heading of “nevertheless, she persisted.”

But then there was my sentimental favorite song of the year, “Dylan Thomas,” an early 2019 entry from the May-September duo of Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst, dubbed the Better Oblivion Community Center. On the surface, it’s an anxiously wordy rock rave-up, but it actually made a thorough case for the impeachment of the president for the sake of the national psyche, long before Nancy Pelosi made the call. I think of the year as bookended by that song and Bridgers’ cover of Tom Waits’ “Georgia Lee” on the new Come On Up to the House: Women Sing Waits, in tribute to the 70th birthday of one of American music’s great artful dodgers. There are other powerful covers on the album, including Patty Griffin’s version of “Ruby’s Arms” and Rosanne Cash’s of “Time,” both favorites of mine since I was a teen. But when Bridgers sings it, Waits’ Walker Evans–like portrait of a young homeless woman’s death becomes twice as wrenching, because Bridgers’ voice seems to incarnate the dispossessed girl herself. “Why wasn’t God watching?” she pleads, and I crumple, because why wasn’t I watching, or more crucially what was I doing, when all of those who were betrayed, abandoned, and lost this year met their unjust fates?

All that, and I haven’t gotten to that progressive jazz I mentioned. Next time.

Taking a shower at the Bates Motel,
Carl

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