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.
A pleasure to be able to jump back in with all of you at the end of another year (and a whole decade, too). I thought I knew what I was going to write about for my entry this year, and then earlier this week I read this fantastic Alex Pappademas essay over at GEN about superhero movies that hit me so hard that I needed to scrap my initial topic and start anew. (I’ll pause to shake my fist in his direction.) To give a quick summary, Pappademas argues that this was the decade that the film industry successfully turned fan culture into, in his words, “a volunteer army of PR freelancers for the biggest media companies in the world.” It’s not enough that superhero movies are the most dominant force in film right now; they also need to be defended against anyone who would dare criticize them, whether that person is a freelance critic or Martin Scorsese. It’s a worldview that grants moral superiority to the likes of Disney and Time Warner simply because these entities make (and sell you) product that you like. This is a depressing and pretty dangerous way of thinking about art under capitalism, but Pappademas’ essay felt like a distillation of similar thoughts I’ve been having about music fandom in recent years, and in 2019 in particular. Allow me to explain.
Earlier this month Jay-Z, a literal billionaire who was once one of the best rappers on earth, released his entire discography on Spotify. The reason Jay-Z’s music has not previously been on Spotify is because Jay-Z owns a large stake in Tidal, a rival streaming service; the reason Jay-Z was now putting his music on Spotify, presumably, is because Tidal seems to not be doing all that well and Jay-Z would like the royalties that he’ll accrue from having his music on a far more popular platform. So far this all seems pretty straightforward, and running just underneath it is a potentially interesting story about the current position of Tidal, and the fact that the precarious economics of streaming would impact even an artist with such a diversified portfolio as Jay-Z.
But this wasn’t the story that was told. Jay-Z and Spotify just happened to make this announcement on Dec. 4—Jay’s 50th birthday, as you can now learn by listening to The Black Album on Spotify—and this transparently calculated coincidence was apparently too much to resist: For his own birthday, Jay-Z had given his fans a gift! This formulation appeared so many times I can’t begin to link to all of them (here are just a few), and was of course echoed all over Twitter. Just like that, a savvy and intriguingly complex business move became an easy PR win for a guy who’s sorely needed one recently.
This probably seems like a minor thing to be cranky about, but it is not, by any means, the first time lately that a hugely famous musician has released music and had it characterized as a gift, often by way of that word’s noxious verb form. This practice irritates me: It turns pop stars into humanitarians to whom we should be thankful, beatific entities who selflessly bring us joy. Jay-Z once notoriously declared that “my presence is charity.” Are we really out to prove him right?
The fact that the celebrations of Jay-Z’s “gift” came at the end of a year that saw more than one music writer (including current and former members of this Club) harassed by fans for the sin of failing to give uniformly positive reviews to albums that had been, up until then, pretty much uniformly positively reviewed, doesn’t strike me as a total coincidence. That this harassment seemed to come at the passive-aggressive, couldn’t-be-me behest of the stars in question made the episodes all the more dispiriting. Like the superhero films of Pappademas’ essay, to dissent on the work of hugely successful musicians becomes not a simple disagreement of taste or even a display of snobbery; rather, it becomes a sort of moral affront, a lack of respect, a deficiency of gratitude.
It’s certainly not new for fans or musicians to hate critics, but the ability of stars to cause their fans to swarm at someone, instantly, simply by gesturing to a piece of lukewarm press—or, in one recent instance, just an absence of press—feels like a distinctively 2010s feature. Lizzo has vastly more power and money and influence than a music critic, to say nothing of a Postmates delivery driver, and fans ignoring this for the pleasure of, at best, getting a like or a retweet is much worse than stupid. In less than two decades, the word stan has moved from referring to a murderous, obsessive psychopath to a proud term of self-identification and aspiration. What are we doing here?
I’ve seen some people lay this situation at the feet of poptimism, which seems wrong or at best incomplete. Poptimism, in its earliest and most coherent form (at least as I understood it), was about championing popular and widely beloved genres that had been historically neglected by rock-obsessed critics and publications; it was not the belief that everything popular was necessarily good. To echo something my Slate colleague Willa Paskin wrote over at the TV Club, maintaining a healthy skepticism of any mass cultural form is a good thing, which I think most music critics of any clique would still agree with.
And yet I fear we are at a moment where such skepticism has become, shall we say, disincentivized, in a way that’s made a generation of listeners proudly naïve about the relationship between art and capitalism and the way the music industry actually works. The fact that this has transpired in a decade when streaming services have increasingly shrouded from consumers the actual economic realities of said industry, and social media has offered the illusion that fans and stars are “closer” to one another than ever before, is crucial context that can’t be emphasized enough. The age-old, elitist critique of mass culture is that it’s just art for markets’ sake, rather than art for art’s sake; this is obviously a grossly simplistic idea, but I worry the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, where we now believe that pop stars aren’t just making art for art’s sake but making art for our sake.
As Adorno and Horkheimer might say, that’s pretty fucked up! It’s also a weird form of exaltation that diminishes what musicians actually do, and benefits bosses just as much as artists themselves. After all, the music industry wants you to think that it’s fundamentally benevolent, and it’s hard to imagine a more effective way of achieving that than willfully mischaracterizing a market economy as a gift economy. Jay-Z doesn’t give us presents, and Rihanna and Drake and Ariana and whoever else don’t make music solely out of the goodness of their hearts. Their motivations are more complicated than that, and that’s completely fine! Acknowledging that art is a profession does not, in fact, diminish either art or artists. If anything, it should do the opposite.
Great art always has an element of the new and unexpected, and correspondingly, it always has an element of risk. It’s someone taking a leap of faith by putting something different into the world. It’s not an answer to the question “What do you want for your birthday?” One of the reasons that made the historic success of “Old Town Road” so special was that “Old Town Road” was, well, special. It came out of nowhere, from an artist no one had heard of, prompting people to argue over whether it was gimmicky or visionary, as if those two things were mutually exclusive. (All qualities it shares with the second-catchiest country song I heard all year.)
All my favorite music this year (yeah, yeah, I’m finally getting around to this!) was defined by a certain sense of fearlessness, whether it was brain-melting art-pop experimentalism (FKA twigs’ Magdalene) or proudly underground artists making music for small but fiercely devoted audiences (Billy Woods and Kenny Segal’s phenomenal Hiding Places). There were Xennial rappers doing some of the best and most adventurous work of their careers alongside legendary Gen X producers (Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s Bandana, Danny Brown’s Q-Tip-produced uknowhatimsayin¿). The incomparable Earl Sweatshirt continued to establish himself as one of the finest musicians of his generation with Feet of Clay, and his fellow Odd Future graduate Tyler, the Creator reached a high-water mark with Igor. Jamila Woods made the year’s most conceptually ambitious R&B album with Legacy! Legacy!, while Bon Iver’s I, I managed to move me in ways that Justin Vernon’s music never really had previously.
Most of the music I loved this year came from artists who’ve been around the block a few times, a fact that, coupled with everything else in this post, probably makes me come off as more or less exactly as old as I actually am. But I want to end on talking about a couple of breakthroughs, the first of which being North Carolina rapper DaBaby, who’s actually 27 but broke into stardom this year with two studio albums and a heaping handful of show-stealing guest spots. In an era of mainstream hip-hop that’s been largely defined by various permutations of vocal experimentalism and an emphasis on elusive qualities like vibe and charisma, DaBaby is a technician of the highest order arriving at a time when such a thing was believed to be passé (Kendrick being the exception that proves the rule). Hearing someone this good at what he does is a joy in itself—his sense of time, his verbal dexterity, his ear, not just for rhymes but also cadences and sonorities. It’s beautiful mastery, and probably hard-won at that. (No one becomes a star at 27 without having spent an awful lot of time on music before that.) He’s great, and anyone of a certain age who complains that rappers don’t really rap anymore should check him out.
Finally there was Billie Eilish, who released what history will judge as 2019’s most consequential debut. It’s hard for me to remember the last time an artist’s major label debut received this much hype and actually managed to exceed it. Eilish is a marvel, the real deal and then some, that rare songwriter and performer who coolly wanders into the spotlight and is just better than almost everyone else. When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? has so much wit and beauty and confidence that it even made me forgive all the samples of The Office, a show I find incredibly annoying. (And contrary to widespread belief, there’s not a far superior British version of Eilish.) Seeing a track as great as “Bad Guy” become the chart-topping, zeitgeist-commandeering smash it deserved to be was a bright spot of the year for me. I’m even excited for the moody, winking cover of “Jamie’s Cryin’ ” that probably awaits us in the coming months. To deploy my favorite word, she’s gifted.
Runnin’ through the house with a pickle in my mouth,