Music

The Music Club, 2019

Entry 13: In which pop takes the “10-year challenge.”

Tyler, the Creator in a OFWGKTA T-shirt, and now in a neon boxy suit and blond bowl cut wig. Text in the corner says, "2019 Music Club."
Tyler, the Creator, then and now. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Michael Tullberg/Getty Images and Noam Galai/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.

24/7 Sylvia Plaths,

As we wind this thing down, it’s worth mentioning that we’re nearing the end of not just another year, but an entire decade—a fact made unavoidable by that ubiquitous “me in 2009 vs. me in 2019” meme that was flooding everybody’s social media feeds a few weeks ago. To conclude my contributions to Music Club ’19, I thought it might be fun to apply that kind of split screen to some of our favorite artists, or even larger dynamics within the music industry.

Since Chart Lord Chris Molanphy just shared his always-astute observations (I, too, welcome our amorphous, genre-agnostic future!), let’s start with the Hot 100 itself. In December 2009, the No. 1 song in the country was, for five weeks running, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind,” an aerodynamic, feel-good pop-rap anthem that even Liz Lemon could love (if not entirely understand). Stranger things were imminent. The turn of the decade brought with it an auspicious new No. 1 song: Kesha’s anarchic, YOLO-embracing rager “Tik Tok,” which topped the charts on Jan. 2, reigned for nine weeks, and eventually became the highest-performing chart hit of 2010.

Kesha surprise-performed “Tik Tok” last month at the American Music Awards, and it was presented as a kind of mass #tbt moment, prompting viewers to reflect on how far music had traveled in a decade, and how quickly yesterday’s new-fangled trifle can end up representing whatever the pop version of “classic rock” is. It’s only been 10 years, but Kesha’s world-beating hit is definitely not the first thing that springs to mind these days when most people hear the phrase “Tik Tok,” Lil Nas X included.

Hindsight may be 2020 (see what I did there), but in retrospect “Tik Tok” feels like an appropriate harbinger of so much of the good and ill that was on the horizon in the coming decade—from pop’s embrace of new, self-consciously “weird” personalities to its algorithmically precise forms of hit-making. There’s also an eerie tinge of #MeToo foreshadowing in the song’s creation story: It was co-written and co-produced by Dr. Luke, the onetime infallible hit engineer who, by the end of the decade, had become a persona non grata in the wake of Kesha’s accusations that he sexually assaulted her early in her career. Here’s hoping that the next decade will bring more humane alternatives to the tired old Svengali/pop star script that allowed plenty of misdeeds to go unchecked.

Another notable happening in the waning days of 2009: On Dec. 25, a practically unknown 18-year-old rapper who called himself Tyler, the Creator dropped his incendiary debut mixtape, Bastard. (Merry Christmas!) Tyler and his cohort in the L.A. hip-hop collective Odd Future (Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt, Syd) were the subject of roughly one bazillion thinkpieces the following year, with many critics accusing Tyler of homophobia and misogyny on the basis of his use of the word faggot and the violent rape fantasies he occasionally rapped about. I was most offended, at the time, by how tired it all felt: Was this music truly as insurgent and revolutionary as the breathless press was leading us to believe, or was it just another generation who’d learned all the wrong lessons from Eminem?

I wish I could time-travel back about 10 years to show my former self a quote from GQ’s recent cover story on Tyler, the Creator: “I like girls—I just end up fucking their brother every time.” (There are probably more important things for which I’d employ the power of time travel … I just can’t think of any of them right now.) Most of the highest profile provocateurs in OFWGKTA later identified as queer, or—as their generation was equally prone to doing—spoke about their same-sex relationships with a shrug, suggesting that being boxed into a specific orientation was as confining and passé as being boxed into a specific musical genre. There’s the clarity of hindsight again: The most off-putting parts of Tyler’s early rhymes now feel like a messy internal war with himself.

“Good kids make bad grown-ups,” goes one of the cleverest lines on Bastard. The inverse must be true, too, because Tyler makes a hell of a grown-up. His past two records have felt revelatory to me: 2017’s disarmingly tender Scum Fuck Flower Boy and, of course, 2019’s wildly inventive Igor, his most commercially successful album to date. As Carrie Battan noted in that GQ profile, Tyler hasn’t entirely abandoned his attraction to shock value, but he’s also evolved into one of music’s most purposeful and imaginative tastemakers, marrying the art-rock visuals of a David Bowie (his Igor image, all boxy jackets and Sia wigs, takes a cue from, as he put it, dressing like “a fucking white lady in Denmark”) with abrasive, forward-thinking, and slyly emotional hip-hop.

Was I too quick to judge Tyler 10 years ago, blinded by cheap outrage? Hard to say—the past few years have taught us anew why plenty of people have a right to feel queasy and triggered when artists indelicately invoke sexual assault. But I’m also glad I’ve been able to witness his artistic evolution. It’s been an unexpected treat, hearing him grow.

Same goes for an artist who makes a cameo on Igor, the patron saint of misunderstood younger sisters, Solange. This year she released When I Get Home, her second masterpiece, even if it didn’t reveal itself as immediately and directly as its predecessor, 2016’s A Seat at the Table. Ten years ago, the younger Knowles polymath was struggling to find the proper form for her artful ambitions. A decade later she’s helped carve out a space somewhere between the underground and the mainstream, where a more auteurist approach to pop can run wild—the same space that, in 2019, served as the playground for artists like FKA Twigs and Charli XCX. (I must confess that I am seemingly the only critic left cold by Twigs’ Magdalene, but I did enjoy most of Charli XCX’s cyberpunk odyssey Charli, even if it probably meant we’ll never get another “Boom Clap” from her again.) So much of When I Get Home focused on dreams, from its lyrics to the hypnagogic rhythm of its movements, and it was satisfying to witness Solange once again get to project hers onto such an epic canvas.

So many other dramatic arcs took place across this decade: Taylor Swift’s journey from Speak Now to the return-to-form Lover, Spotify’s calculated takeover of the world, Harry Styles’ voyage from X Factor hopeful to world’s most persuasive Steely Dan fan. Carl, Ann: I’m curious if there are any artists or musical phenomena you would like to analyze through the 2009 vs. 2019 lens.

I refrained from posting my own “me in 2009” photo on social media, because nobody needs to remember my Zooey Deschanel bangs, but if you’ll indulge me for a moment I’d like to take quick stock of my decade. In December 2009, I was a recent college graduate who’d had the prophetic sense to graduate into the most disillusioning year of the recession, and with an English degree, natch. So during the holidays 10 years ago, I was working full time at a nauseatingly pink boutique cupcake shop (oh, the 2010s!), strung along for the promise of a health insurance plan that was always going to kick in next month (but never did), using my lunch hour to scribble down notes for the album reviews I’d later post for free on my friends’ blog. I was also reading you guys studiously; Carl, I have a journal from that time period where I’d copied down countless lines from Let’s Talk About Love. Our industry has suffered its share of destruction in the 2010s, and in the past few years in particular, but I feel so lucky to say that I’ve found a way to survive and grow in its late capitalist ruins, and that I have somehow found a way to make a living writing about and listening to music—and of course, chatting about it ad nauseam with thoughtful people like you.

Same time, same place, 10 years from now?
Lindsay

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