Music

The Music Club, 2019

Entry 12: Is genre really dead, or have the boundaries just moved?

Post Malone, Billie Eilish, and Lil Nas X with text in the corner that says, "2019 Music Club."
Post Malone, Billie Eilish, and Lil Nas X.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Bud Light Super Bowl Music Fest, Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Stagecoach, and Suzanne Cordeiro/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.

My friends in the salon chairs:

Like Lindsay, I’m leading off with a “Truth Hurts” allusion, because back in September when it went to No. 1, my esteemed but abstemious editor Forrest Wickman told me I could have a maximum of two Lizzo quotes in my piece, and I had to limit myself to “Why men great … ?” and, natch, the line about Melissa Viviane Jefferson’s adventures in genetic verification. Maybe we should raise a toast to 2019 by each picking a favorite “Truth Hurts” lyric. Surely we could each get a great line, or even two, with no overlap. (I call “I put the siiiiiiing in single.” Yes, even though I got married this year.)

So many things are weird and wonderful about that 2017 flop single that became a 2019 world conqueror, but here’s just one: It’s an ebullient pop song in downbeat-trap clothing: the minor-key piano, the in-my-feelings self-care. It’s sort of rap, sort of R&B, essentially pop—like so much music now, its genre is itself. Two to three years ago, Lizzo was Ms. Up With People, all “Good as Hell” in an era of “Bad and Boujee,” your parents’ favorite rapper. “Truth Hurts” didn’t connect in 2017, I would argue, because it was still too upbeat and triumphal for the year of opioid hip-hop. It had to wait until 2019, when being triumphal was an asset. Even though, ironically, in a year dominated by the fanfare of “High Hopes” and the percolation of “Sucker”—even Post Malone cheered the fuck up this year—“Truth Hurts” now sounds stripped-down and ascetic.

Yes, as Carl pointed out in his leadoff post, for a while now I’ve been calling 2019 the year centrist pop struck back. My half-decades-of-pop Grand Unified Theory holds that the pendulum swings at least once in the middle, and often again at the end, of a decade. Here in 2019, we might be a year or two ahead of schedule to swing back from bummer trap to centrist pop, but then, things move so much faster now.

Speaking of things that move fast, I was moved by Lindsay’s spin through Lil Nas X’s dizzying year to consider, one last time, what the undisputed, official No. 1 song of the year really meant. (It appears all seven of us have a take on what “Old Town Road” meant.) I have written and talked plenty about Lil Nas X this year—about the memes, about the remixes, about how he ultimately surpassed Mariah’s Hot 100 longevity record. (Boy, did she have a festive way to fight her way back into the Billboard record books, though, didn’t she?) But without question, the elephant in the room when it came to “Old Town Road” was genre and everything that comes with it—from radio formatting to race and identity. Moreover, the song’s outsize success inspired more than one pundit to call for the death of genre, which I resisted viscerally in every conversation I got into about Lil Nas X.

But what if the genre killers are right? What if it doesn’t matter whether they’re right, but it’s happening anyway? Start to finish, 2019 gave us plenty of evidence even beyond Lil Nas X.

I mean, look at my top 10 list of favorite 2019 albums at the bottom of this post. Just what are these albums? There are a couple of fairly easy categorizers, like the Highwomen’s spiky take on country vocal harmony or Jamila Woods’ righteously R&B-centered celebration of black American cultural heroes. But … Sturgill Simpson? A country refugee who decided 2019 was his year to make a delightfully trashy reboot of MTV-era, electro-fried ZZ Top? (I’m convinced he was as inspired by that I, Tonya skating scene as I was—“Sleeping Bag” has since emerged as my ’80s sleeper jam.) Or FKA Twigs—have we settled yet on whether she is rock, R&B, electro, or Kate Bush? Does it matter, when Magdalene is so meticulously crafted and inspired? And, of course, we call Tyler, the Creator a “rapper,” but dating back to the Odd Future era, he’s been doing more sprechgesang and sonic collage than bar dropping. And what of Brittany Howard, creator of my favorite 2019 album? I join Jewly, Carl, and Ann in heaping praise upon Jaime, which Ann rightly calls “the border where jazz meets funk meets soul”—I even hear shadows of hip-hop in her mashed-up compositions—but to the industry, its genre tag is still just “rock.” (That or “alternative” is how it’s tagged on streaming services.) I suppose I just should be happy the industry is enlightened enough to give her the rock tag considering her mixed heritage.

I am as guilty as anyone of placing artists in boxes—or trying to pretend a box isn’t a box. In my chart analysis, the very term I keep throwing around to describe this year, “centrist pop,” makes dubious musical, cultural, and racial assumptions. It implies that there is a kind of identity-neutral form of music that is about delivering pure pleasure with no subcultural baggage—or worse, it takes for granted a formulation of default whiteness. Again, to be fair to my terminology, this is how the music industry categorizes things: When Billboard says something in a headline like, “Pop’s Comeback Continues … but Hip-Hop Still Rules Streaming,” the implied contrast is meant to suggest that hip-hop isn’t pop when, for at least the bulk of the 21st century, it has been the sun around which popular music orbits. Songs like “Truth Hurts” and “Old Town Road,” both indebted to hip-hop culture and authored by black artists, are clearly forms of “pop” that, I think we all agree, made 2019 sunnier than 2017 was. And yet, Billboard classifies both songs as R&B/hip-hop, and they appear on both the Hot 100 and the genre chart. Meanwhile, Billie Eilish, who is referencing many of the same hip-hop signifiers as Lizzo and Lil Nas X, is classified as alternative and appears on that chart.

Clearly, artists don’t want to be limited by genre. There are Stevie Wonder quotes dating back to the ’70s about his loathing of music-industry formats, and Prince’s entire career was one long rebellion against the very idea of genre. Today we have Post “not a rapper” Malone. It hurts to admit that Malone was right, but maybe his glomming onto hip-hop was not just white privilege and opportunism but also a logical assessment of where the audience was.

It has been well chronicled that Gen Z doesn’t appear to care about either genre definitions or questions of highbrow and lowbrow taste as they compile their endless Spotify playlists. My stepson has a playlist he’s been banging in the car for months that veers from Panic! at the Disco to Broadway showtunes (which, honestly, have a lot in common). In Jack’s and Carl’s formulations about what poptimism should mean, we take it as given that mass culture pop “won” this decade. But what if that mass culture now includes everything?

And yet, the last thing I said seems wrong on its face. Call me outmoded, but I cling to the idea of genre, because clearly subcultures still exist, and the music they prefer is still worth tracking. All decade long, I have griped over and over about the way Billboard’s R&B/hip-hop, country, and Latin charts work—culminating in this year’s “Old Town Road” dust-up, which prompted me to say their genre charts were broken. My problem with these charts is not so much the hits on them as the fact that they don’t measure the genre’s “core audience” (my words—but they used to be Billboard’s) or pry apart how that audience receives and consumes music in that genre and defines its boundaries. As critics, we take it as our mission to dissect these movements. That’s the premise of so much of Jewly’s writing, of Julianne’s writing, of Jack’s writing. And in a decade where so much musical fandom turned tribal, to Jack’s point, clearly these cohorts have not been erased. Or maybe the audience in the 2010s has just traded in their identities as R&B enthusiasts, hip-hop heads, or country lifers for membership in the Beyhive, the Barbz, or the Care Bears.

Carl mentioned Ken Burns’ epic documentary series Country Music, which everyone seems to agree is overly rosy-colored but nonetheless full of delights. My greatest pleasure with the series may have come in the very first episode, wherein Burns’ army of talking heads establishes that, from its inception, country music was never a well-defined thing—since its days as “hillbilly music” it has been eternally policing its borders, ousting performers and even instruments seen as antithetical to “tradition.” Perversely, I took heart at this perennial civil war, because it reinforced for me the perhaps obvious point that genres are living things that don’t have to be made obsolete. Fighting over what country means indicates that it’s meaningful.

Will genre become meaningless in the 2020s as members of Gen Z age into their late 20s and 30s—the very age when preferences become hard-wired? I certainly don’t want Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X, FKA Twigs, or relative elder stateswoman Lizzo to start limiting themselves. Whenever Rihanna comes back, I want her to continue to be a shapeshifter. But I wouldn’t mind if these artists still implicitly knew what the outer limits were, so that, as it has always been for our cultural rebels, they knew what they were rebelling against.

I’ma hit you back in a minute,
Chris

Top 10 Albums

1. Brittany Howard, Jaime
2. Sturgill Simpson, Sound & Fury
3. Ariana Grande, Thank U, Next
4. FKA Twigs, Magdalene
5. Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
6. Tyler, the Creator, Igor
7. Carly Rae Jepsen, Dedicated
8. The Highwomen, The Highwomen
9. Jamila Woods, Legacy! Legacy!
10. 100 Gecs, 1000 Gecs

Top 20 Singles

1. Lizzo, “Truth Hurts
2. Lil Nas X, featuring Billy Ray Cyrus, “Old Town Road (remix)
3. Jonas Brothers, “Sucker
4. Vampire Weekend, “Harmony Hall
5. Taylor Swift, “Cornelia Street
6. Marshmello, featuring Chvrches, “Here With Me
7. Rosalía and J Balvin, featuring El Guincho, “Con Altura
8. Benny Blanco, featuring Halsey and Khalid, “Eastside
9. Ava Max, “Sweet but Psycho
10. Panic! at the Disco, “Hey Look Ma, I Made It
11. Beyoncé, “Before I Let Go
12. DaBaby, “Suge (Yea Yea)
13. Shawn Mendes, “If I Can’t Have You
14. Maggie Rogers, “Light On
15. Lizzo, “Juice
16. The Head and the Heart, “Missed Connection”
17. Megan Thee Stallion, featuring Nicki Minaj and Ty Dolla Sign, “Hot Girl Summer
18. Blanco Brown, “The Git Up
19. Jonathan Groff as Kristoff but really Peter Cetera, “Lost in the Woods” (from Frozen 2)
20. Post Malone [all right, fine ], “Circles

BONUS: Ariana Grande, “7 Rings,” not the song so much as her Apple Memoji ad which … I may have clicked on two dozen times this year when procrastinating and needed a pick-me-up. (Without the Memoji, the song is just OK.)

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