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 special guests Ann Powers, Jack Hamilton, Chris Molanphy, and Julyssa Lopez—about the year in music.
Brittany, I too enjoyed your look at the TikTok-induced echo of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”—whether by witchcraft or just the power of timeless songwriting, Stevie Nicks always seems to get the last laugh. It reminds me a bit of the long-delayed appreciation of “Silver Springs,” perhaps Stevie’s greatest songwriting achievement, which was cut from the final Rumours track list for space reasons but became a hit two decades later when a smoldering performance of it was included on the 1997 concert album The Dance. Time cast a spell indeed. (Also shoutout to the best new Fleetwood Mac song of 2020, Haim’s dreamy “Leaning On You.”)
Of course, as you pointed out, the skateboarding-to-“Dreams” craze afforded us a complete look at the rapid TikTok-era life cycle of a meme: From genuine expression of weirdness and mass enjoyment to—in the blink of an eye—clueless bandwagon-hopping and corporate commodification. Within a month of Nathan Apodaca posting that video of himself breezily enjoying some Stevie vibes and cranberry juice, TikTok had already created a feel-good commercial capitalizing on, and sucking every last bit of life from, that viral moment. It was an especially clear depiction of the ouroboros that is life on social media, wherein the most successful content ultimately becomes little more than free advertising for the monolithic and often ethically suspect tech platforms that host it. Liz Pelly made a similar point recently in her incisive piece about Spotify’s annual, made-for-sharing “Wrapped” graphics, a year-end music tradition that has always made me a bit queasy.
Here is a sentence that really resonated with me, from Ann’s post: “I often asked myself, in this year of so much fire and other damage, what is worth pulling out of the wreck?” Times of upheaval remind us what we value most elementally. Collapse asks us to consider how we rebuild. Systemic failures can be opportunities to imagine and act upon alternative ways of living.
One record I held close to me like a talisman this year, because it seemed deeply aware of all those truths, was the Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards’ Total Freedom. After putting out a string of emotionally rugged records that I adored, ending with 2012’s Voyager, Edwards surprised her fans and peers by completely walking away from the music industry and opening a small-town café called, sardonically, Quitters. It was a change of pace that allowed her to take control of her mental health and reconsider what was important to her. After years away from her guitar, songs finally started coming again, but this time without as much pressure to “top” her last record or fit into a prescribed narrative. Eventually, she had a whole album—put out in a moment where she suddenly couldn’t tour as she’d envisioned but, at least, she could provide curbside service at her café, which had by then become a community beacon. When I interviewed her over the summer (my Zoom Personal Meeting Room had a high-occupancy year, to say the least), she gave off the confidence of someone who had figured out what mattered to her, stopped caring too much what other people thought, and learned not to fear the sometimes necessary act of burning everything down and starting from scratch.
That spirit is in this record, too, which is perhaps why I found something about its tarnished wisdom so comforting this year. To me, the most poignant song is the opener “Glenfern,” which takes stock of Edwards’ past with a snapshot intimacy and a tone that is never regretful or overly nostalgic, but instead so forgivingly warm:
Now when I find myself looking back
I think of all the cool shit that happened
Like, we had a tour bus with a bed in the back
We bought a rock and roll dream, it was total crap
We toured the world and we played on TV
We met some of our heroes
It almost killed me
And I, I will always be thankful for it
Though written in Edwards’ own wonderfully chatty vernacular, something about these lines remind me of Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, particularly the title track—another song about a woman looking back at her “rock and roll dream” and juxtaposing it with the wider perspective of her current reality. “I thought being blacklisted would be grist for the mill,” Apple sings, of the time right before she burned it all down. Then, she has a realization: “I’m still here.”
Total Freedom and Fetch the Bolt Cutters each chart a course of an artist’s becoming—specifically a female artist’s becoming, which, as Apple suggests in her sketch of the ingenue-like “PYTs and VIPs,” can often take more time than the average mortal woman is allotted in the fickle spotlight. But there have been plenty of self-determined forebears carving other paths: The aforementioned Stevie and Dolly come to mind, as does Kate Bush, who Apple references on that song. Ann and Carl, like you, I was quite enchanted this year with the first offering from Joni Mitchell’s archives, The Early Years, which quite literally makes audible the gradual process of Joan Anderson becoming Joni Mitchell. On the first disc of the box set, she’s reinterpreting traditional material and other people’s songs—Ann, I’m sure you’d have a lot to say about her covers—and by its end, only a few years later, she’s working through the early compositions only she could write, like “The Circle Game” and “Both Sides, Now.”
Carl, I was moved by your evoking Joni and Neil Young’s respective childhood bouts of polio, which were of course traumatic but also formative periods of clarity for both of them. I’m also reminded of Brian Eno famously “inventing” ambient music during—and essentially because of—a period of convalescence following a car accident, when sound drifted into his passive consciousness. Crises can accelerate our process of becoming (artistic or otherwise), and they can help us see familiar objects in new lights. This doesn’t mean crises don’t also totally suck. Again I think of Edwards’ refrain in “Glenfern”: “It almost killed me/ And I will always be thankful for it.”
A few weeks ago, when—of all things—the Grammy nominations were announced, I felt a strange pang of disappointment. As we look ahead to early 2021, those familiar cultural markers by which we mark time are set to go on, albeit in slightly altered forms: the Grammys, the Oscars, the Super Bowl. It was that clinging to projected normalcy that disappointed me: Had we failed so completely to imagine new alternatives that we couldn’t even put these cultural institutions on pause for a year, let alone rethink them altogether? Of course that was never going to happen; 2020 has also reminded us how stubborn our systems of power are, how entrenched corporate greed is in nearly every aspect of American life, and how culture, at its worst and most numbing, can lull us into a sense of ignorance and denial.
If streaming the latest zeitgeist-y binge watch or drowning out the silence with the incessant chatter of podcast hosts helped a painful time pass more quickly, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I also found a lot of peace in the moments when I took myself out of the algorithmic rat race and followed my cultural curiosities down some paths that weren’t exactly trending. Or even in that state of receptive silence that I described earlier.
I’ll play myself out with another great song from Kathleen Edwards’ Total Freedom. “Birds on a Feeder” seems to be about the time when she took herself out of the business of music-industry life for a while and figured out what she really wanted. Seasons pass throughout the verses, but the chorus perfectly captures a moment of content solitude and quiet:
I got birds on the feeder
I got dogs and they’re sleeping
I got total freedom
No one to need
When you put it like that, at least for the duration of a song, it doesn’t seem so bad. So here’s to 2020. It almost killed me, and I will always be thankful for it.