In Slate’s annual Music Club, Slate music critic Carl Wilson emails with fellow critics—this year, Rolling Stone staff writer Brittany Spanos, New York Times contributor Lindsay Zoladz, and four special guests—about the year in music.
Dear Club kids,
It’s fascinating, Chris, to hear that the population’s collective shattered nerves were so plainly reflected by the Billboard chart stats. It’s unusually immediate evidence for pop culture as a seismograph of broader social shifts; often cultural historians have to wait years to track those patterns in retrospect. Of course, the other way the arts reflect social change in real time is by explicitly addressing it. So it’s time to talk about 2020 as a year of musical protest, as I noted in my year-end list. It’s been building for the past half-decade, of course, but it really culminated this year.
It’s hard now to recapture the electricity of the Black Lives Matter uprisings this spring and summer, following the murder of George Floyd. Politicians have twisted the record for their own purposes. But the transformative potential that was in the air in those weeks is very rare. America briefly seemed to be waking up to systemic racism and police abuse. Debate the drawbacks of “defund the police” as a slogan all you want, but that proposal wouldn’t even have gotten a hearing a year ago. Major companies and institutions suddenly felt obliged to do internal racial-justice audits, or at least make superficial statements of solidarity.
That included the music industry, which saw two young women who’d worked in the business, Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas, organize #TheShowMustBePaused, an initiative that grew into “Blackout Tuesday.” It became an occasion for a lot of empty symbolism, but there was more to it, too—most importantly, questions about the whiteness of the boardrooms and executive ranks where decisions are made. The Black Music Action Coalition was formed to try to hold the industry to account on its supposed good intentions. So far I haven’t seen a lot of follow-up reporting on the results, and that’s a responsibility for us in the media in 2021.
And in the actual music, protest was everywhere. Thankfully not much of it was along the lines of Van Morrison and Eric Clapton’s asinine anti-lockdown duet last month. That came as an unexpected sequel to the first round of social media Clapton Follies that happened in August, when some classic-rock fans took offense at Phoebe Bridgers’ line in “Moon Song”—“We hate ‘Tears in Heaven’/ But it’s sad that his baby died”—and she and everyone with the remotest knowledge of rock history had to point out Clapton’s horrendous track record of racist nativism, which in the 1970s was the initial spur for the U.K.’s vital Rock Against Racism movement. “I challenge all dads to a duel to the death,” Bridgers tweeted, “because I am correct.”
There was so much political music that it’s grist for a quick comparative taxonomy. There were all the songs released around May and June that responded directly to events, whether from reliable spokespeople such as Public Enemy and Run the Jewels or from younger artists not particularly known for their activism, like Lil Baby, who released “The Bigger Picture.” A special category is the songs that started as or became street chants themselves, as in the remixes of the South Carolina woman sing-chanting at a rent-a-cop type, “You About to Lose Your Job”—the catchier substitute for “defund the police” that we’d all been searching for—and YG’s foully forthright “FTP.”
There were also songs by white artists in the process of scouring their own consciences. A standout there for me was Kentucky fiddler Tyler Childers’ “Long Violent History,” the closing track on an otherwise instrumental old-time-music album. In his broad drawl, Childers outlines the distinction between the white and Black working-class South in stark terms:
Now, what would you give if you heard my opinion,
Conjecturin’ on matters that I ain’t never dreamed
In all my born days as a white boy from Hickman,
Based on the way that the world’s been to mе?
It’s called me belligеrent, it’s took me for ignorant,
But it ain’t never once made me scared just to be—
Could you imagine just constantly worryin’
Kickin’ and fightin’, beggin’ to breathe?
Childers takes the risk of alienating his own listeners in acknowledging that the style of music he plays is bound up with a legacy of white supremacy. But as the song itself intimates, that’s a minor hazard compared with the way the Black country singer Mickey Guyton, for instance, puts herself on the line on her June single, “Black Like Me.” She’s revealing truths here that her predecessor, Charley Pride—the first modern Black country star, who died last weekend of COVID-19 complications at 86—was never fully able to tell. If Pride is ever proved to have contracted the virus due to the inadequate precautions at November’s Country Music Association Awards, it will be one last time Nashville failed to take care of Pride the way that he took care of Nashville.
I’d also mention the continuing revival of liberation-music themes in contemporary jazz, from young British collectives such as Shabaka and the Ancestors on We Are Sent Here by History, but also on records by less programmatically activist American artists, such as Jeff Parker’s Suite for Max Brown or Ambrose Akinmusire’s On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment—the closing instrumental there, “Hooded Procession (Read the Names Outloud)” is a prompt for listeners themselves to fill in the unheard “names,” meaning of course the grim roster of police violence victims.
But hearing politics in music shouldn’t be restricted to the literally topical. That was the mistake people made for decades when they asked “where have all the protest songs gone?” under the long shadow of 1960s nostalgia. I hear protest just as much in the raunchy self-assertion that many female rappers brought to the table in 2020, including City Girls, CupcakKe, Flo Milli, Rico Nasty, PPCocaine, and most of all Megan Thee Stallion, with “Savage” (the Beyoncé remix, natch) and of course “WAP” with Cardi B, the song that provoked the most biggest moral panic in music in 2020—from the usual conservative suspects, yes, but more recently from that paragon of chastity and virtue, Snoop Dogg. These songs proclaim Black women’s right to express their libidos as noisily as dudes do, and Snoop’s handkerchief-fluttering concern about young ladies’ precious “jewels” proves that right remains far from uncontested. It’s similar to the right-wing kerfuffle around the French twerking movie Cuties on Netflix: In puritan-rooted America (and most other places too), to talk about sex is also to talk about power. Megan and Beyoncé declaring themselves “savage” is also about power, a reclamation and inversion of old racist archetypes of Black “primitivism” and “savagery.”
Likewise, what distinguishes Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters from her music in years past isn’t just that she pushes away the piano bench and starts beating on the walls and floors (a transition already underway on her last album in 2012) but that so many of her lyrics are about people trying to silence her and about openly strategizing to push back, almost in conspiracy with her listeners. From the title down, it’s an album about trying to get free. The same goes for the divorce story that Natalie Maines is telling on the Chicks’ Gaslighter album, and dozens of other works we could name where, to borrow a term from postcolonial theory, the subaltern is able to speak. I also think of the sadly posthumous albums of Pop Smoke, Mac Miller, Juice Wrld, and others this year—they’re not just monuments to lost talents but testimonies to the social ills that make such losses so horrifically common, a kind of protest by haunting.
Indeed, the more sidelong forms of protest may be the most effective ones, at least when it comes to aesthetics. Like you, Chris, I put both of the impressive London collective Sault’s two 2020 albums on my list side by side, but the different reasons are significant: Untitled (Black Is), which came out in June, drew its urgency and vividness from its moment, setting to supple music the things that needed to be said and indeed were being said in the streets—some tracks are practically rally speeches in themselves. But its follow-up from September, Untitled (Rise), is more lastingly incandescent to me. It includes a few similarly literal moments, but it makes its points most loudly by weaving sounds and styles from across the diaspora and the history of Black music—from African chant to funk grooves to disco shimmer to hip-hop punch and beyond—into a path for the ear that leads to a sense of collective consciousness. The lyrical statements undulate within and punctuate places in the music, creating a soundtrack to help sustain all of the desires and refusals a movement assembles to realize. That’s something politically conscious music does that a speech, a tweet, or an op-ed can’t replicate. That, more than any rhetoric that can be overlaid upon it, is music as an organizing force.
Lindsay, Brittany, Julyssa, and everyone, what protest sounds from this year are still ringing in your ears?