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.
While Music Club has been discussing mental health and #MeToo in the music industry, and implicit and explicit protest in music, there’s been an international story developing with a song against sexual abuse at its core. This week in the Turkish legislature, female members of parliament sang a version of the Chilean protest song “Un Violador en Tu Camino” (“A Rapist in Your Path”) to express their outrage about civilian women being arrested over the weekend for performing it in public. (The legislators are protected by parliamentary immunity.)
The song—really more of an anti-rape rap, with accompanying dance moves—was popularized by this extraordinary Nov. 25 demonstration by the Chilean feminist performance collective Las Tesis in Valparaíso, which was a response to the use of sexual assault by police in suppressing the current Chilean uprising against inequality. It calls out cops, judges, politicians, and other agents of the patriarchal state and accuses, “The rapist is you!” Since then it’s become a sensation, a living meme enacted in streets around the world. Next time someone asks you where all the protest songs have gone, you can answer that this one’s gone from Chile to Mexico, Colombia, France, Spain, the United Kingdom, Lebanon, and the United States.
You can see from the video why the song has caught on so quickly, with its punchy lines and exhilarating switches in rhythm, and its blunt sounding of truths that seem to be depressingly universal. But it’s also the rare spectacle of women unleashing their voices en masse—although, as Ann and Julianne have been saying, that vision simultaneously underlines the assumption that battling patriarchy is purely women’s work.
Last year I did some research about songs about sexual inequality and violence written by male musicians. Most of them tended either to displace all the blame to those other men, the unenlightened brutes and boors, or else—when the song’s protagonist was the one at fault—to be less about coming clean than about pleading for absolution from the wronged partner. As (cis heterosexual) men, we seem to lack a language to acknowledge our inevitable complicity in sexist structures, let alone times when we’re individually and actively a part of the problem, without getting either defensive or self-righteous.
Consider a decent try at a #MeToo song this year from a versatile Americana singer-songwriter I’ve long admired, Hayes Carll: “Fragile Men,” on his album What It Is. It sardonically diagnoses the issue with the chorus, “The whole world is exploding, and I know it feels so strange/ It must make you so damn angry they’re expecting you to change.” But that second-person stance places Carll at a superior remove. Given all the drinking, partying, and twisted romance songs in his catalog, has his own life really been so squeaky clean? I wish he’d been as reflective there as he is in another song on the album, when he sings, “My wild pointy finger’s never pointin’ back at me.”
In tunes like “Times Like These,” Carll also succumbs to what Jonathan Bernstein recently wrote about in Rolling Stone as country music’s stock response to contemporary political division, which he calls “ ‘let’s get along’ songs.” These often arise from fairly liberal singers and songwriters trying to talk about social issues to an audience with a vocal conservative wing, including a lot of country radio programmers. The fear runs deep of getting “Dixie Chick–ed” (blacklisted the way Natalie Maines and her group were in the mid-2000s for criticizing the Iraq war). So when they want to express support for LGBTQ rights, for instance, country songs end up saying things like, “Love is love.” Bernstein rhymed off instance after instance of the cliché, to ripples of laughter, at a Pop Conference panel I was moderating this year. That version of his piece was titled, “Most People Are Good: Country Music and the ‘Death of Civility’ in the Age of Trump,” drawing on the 2017 Luke Bryan hit that begins with the bold opinions, “I believe most people are good/ And most mamas oughta qualify for sainthood.”
Those cautious Nashville reflexes are the root of why it took Taylor Swift so long to express political views in her music, or outside of it, and why the steps she’s now taking in that direction are often so awkward (Lover’s “You Need to Calm Down,” and, for Chrissakes, “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince”), although “Man” lands for me. She’s a lot sharper when fighting her ex-management over rights to her catalog, which is also a worthwhile cause, whatever you think of her tactics. Consider her concern about her master tapes in the light of our colleague Jody Rosen’s landmark investigation this year into the loss of many irretrievable parts of music history in the covered-up Universal Music Group warehouse fire.
And remember Prince’s all-out war against Warner Bros. over related issues in the 1990s, which was the reason he temporarily changed his name to a glyph and wrote “slave” across his face? Prince’s lifelong focus on artistic control—which always had a racial element—was part of why I was dubious about the cobbled-together version of his unfinished “memoir” that came out this fall, as well as the material beginning to flood out of his storied vault, including last month’s new, nearly six-hour “super deluxe” version of the 1999 album. Of course I want to hear all the Prince that I can, but given the mess his estate is in, I can’t help feeling queasy about who’s calling the shots and where they’ll draw the line.
Returning to country, though, it’s too easy to make fun of Nashville’s habits. Personally, I’m also agitated about deepening political tribalism and all common ground turning to quicksand, but is there a way to sing about that without sounding like a wishy-washy fence-sitter who’s blind to the real harm being done to real people? I don’t know, but I know a lot of the chattering classes can’t be bothered with country music except when it serves up political bait. Absolutely, Billboard’s ouster of “Old Town Road” from the country charts, no doubt urged on by some Music Row bigwigs, was implicitly racist, ahistorical, and plain wrong about the song’s sound, since there have been trap beats on country radio for years. Nashville straight-up six-gunned itself in the boot there. But they were right about one thing: In the big picture, Lil Nas X isn’t a country artist. He’s an impresario in the making who stumbled on one serendipitous yeehaw moment and then rode with it.
Meanwhile, black Nashville artists such as Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen, Darius Rucker, and Mickey Guyton have spent whole careers pushing against the genre’s segregationist biases (which were too whitewashed in Ken Burns’ powerful but party-line Country Music documentary series). If more of the backlash against the Billboard decision had come from listeners and journalists who seemed to have any stake in those other country stories, my ample pleasure over this year’s shiniest pop phenomenon would be more complete. Thankfully, Jewly Hight’s Music Club entry is coming up; I hope we’ll get her perspective as a Nashville-based country specialist on the aftermath of the whole fracas.
One fun side effect is that it’s been a very good year to be Trent Reznor. What a delicious pop-culture turn that the menacing industrial maestro from Nine Inch Nails turns out to have supplied the source code for this infectiously juvenile smash. (Of course, Reznor has had one major country moment before, via Johnny Cash’s iconic cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.”) But I was also taken with the soundtrack music by Reznor and Atticus Ross for Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen series on HBO, which they populate with rolling burrs and buzzes that recall the great electronic soundtrack of Twin Peaks: The Return. Lindelof’s limited (I hope) series occupied a lot of my imagination the past couple of months, probably like some of the rest of you; I know Jack was paying closing attention, and Ann, you already referenced the finale. The way the middle episodes of the series, in particular, brought sci-fi and superpowers to bear on both the richness and the trauma of America’s racial matrix, immersing in a mixture of fiction and reality in a spirit of serious play, reminded me of nothing so much as jazz.
While it’s frustrating that jazz in the broadest sense isn’t granted the mainstream coverage and mental bandwidth of other genres, in many ways that renders it a kind of liberated zone within American—and global—culture. Its musicians scrabble to assemble a sustainable livelihood, with little hope of attaining celebrity. But they’re also privileged to stand on an expansive and deep foundation, a tradition that its performers and audiences can to some degree take as mutually understood. It’s also an area where there’s a lot of free play for political opinions, as well as the emotional fallout of racial and sexual and economic marginalization, and alternative systems of thought and spiritual belief—esotericisms that not coincidentally mirror the complexity of jazz’s rhythmic and harmonic structures.
It’s also a musical culture that is essentially and undeniably African American, despite the significant diversity of its evolution and its many creators. It’s on a continuum that way with hip-hop, rock, blues, and every other kind of American pop—the trumpeter and composer Nicholas Payton has been advocating for a while now for ditching the word “jazz” in favor of “Black American Music.” But it thrives as an autonomous sphere, and as I age, it’s increasingly the one that succors, enlarges, and enlightens me most, when I have the energy and presence to bring to it.
And after too long in apparent isolation, it’s building new young audiences—from the dance-friendly progressive jazz scene that’s grown up in London and elsewhere in Europe, for instance, as well as in the intersections with hip-hop that have been nurtured by the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, and Thundercat. That’s been going on for half a decade, but the sense I got this year was of a flowering of more and more sounds and records breathing in and respirating out into that renewed environment.
I’m thinking of New York’s Kassa Overall, who’s been described as “living in the cut between jazz and hip-hop,” as you can hear immediately in his drumming, rapping, and production on the adorably titled Go Get Ice Cream and Listen to Jazz. Or South African rapper Yugen Blakrok, a favorite of Lamar’s and vice-versa, who synthesizes all manner of sound and vision on her 2019 album Anima Mysterium. Lots of nonspecialist jazz critics have picked up on the two 2019 albums by Britain’s the Comet Is Coming and (as Ann mentioned, too) the latest installment of Matana Roberts’ Coin Coin series, a thematic cousin to Jamila Woods and Rapsody’s R&B-oriented black-culture–survey albums this year—except through jazz’s more cosmic lens. But may I also direct you to Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise by my paramount 2019 musical crush, Jaimie Branch, a pint-size trumpet-blowing human hurricane who I swear would have a besotted fan army the size of that Pied Piper Lizzo’s, if only more people were able to witness the magnetism and no-fucks-yielded freedom of her live performances.
I should wind this up, but before I go let me also wise you up to former Chicago indie-rocker Damon Locks (ex-leader of Trenchmouth, the band Portlandia’s Fred Armisen once drummed in) and his Black Monument Ensemble, whose 2019 album Where Future Unfolds summoned up the 1960s and 1970s group-chanted, percussion-and-chimes sound of the Black Arts Movement, reinvented for a new century. And New York drummer Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom ensemble record, Glitter Wolf, which I discovered through a tip from John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, and which is maybe just some of the (as the title hints) most sparkling and bristlingly precise arranging and performing I’ve heard in any music this year. And finally I must recommend, from the fearsome squalling German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, an unexpectedly sweet, tender solo record of unaccompanied standards and studies, I Surrender Dear. And I could go on, dear clubbers, but I will surrender the floor to Lindsay.