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 Lindsay, Brittany, and 2020’s guest Music Clubbers,
Last year, the likes of Lil Nas X and Billie Eilish suggested a potential new musical dawn, from a new generation, and maybe a fresh matching energy in society, if it could hold on long enough. Then came 2020, and that light at the tunnel’s end turned out to be a freight train. It’s hard to cast a vast surveying gaze across the cultural landscape when for months you’ve dived down and flattened yourself against the tracks, holding your breath in hopes that the steel wheels on either side will pass you by and the undercarriage won’t snag you and drag you around the next bend. At best you can strain to detect more distant vibrations amid the general clatter and roar.
So what can we say about this strangest of years? I’ve already written at length on some of the albums and songs I liked most in a separate Slate roundup—though I’d still love all of you to share your own. For reference, here’s that album list, numbered 13 for a year of mostly bad luck.
1. Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher
2. Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl, Artlessly Falling
3. Jessie Ware, What’s Your Pleasure?
4. The Mountain Goats, Songs for Pierre Chuvin
5. Sault, Untitled (Rise) and Untitled (Black Is)
6. Dutchavelli, Dutch From the 5th
7. Ambrose Akinmusire, On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment
8. Brandy Clark, Your Life Is a Record
9. Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
10. Lil Baby, My Turn (Deluxe)
11. Taylor Swift, Folklore
12. Jyoti, Mama, You Can Bet!
13. Deerhoof, Love-Lore
But now let’s consider the year from some angles outside of official releases. Foremost, in music and the other performing arts, it’s been marked by the indefinite suspension of live performance, obviously a prime sustaining force financially but also, for a lot of musicians and fans, emotionally and spiritually. What were your last live concerts, everyone? Mine was a jam-packed show by Destroyer at the Opera House in Toronto on March 4, where I picked up some kind of bug and fell sick for a week before lockdown started (I’m tempted to fantasize it was mild COVID-19 but probably not). Now, whenever I hear “Foolssong,” the closing song from Destroyer’s, as usual, exquisitely brooding and absurdly noirish album Have We Met, which was also one of the last numbers that night, it sounds like a lullaby for the twilight of the Before Times: “Shall I cancel the play?/ What, three showings a day?/ It was shitty we couldn’t stay longer,” Dan Bejar sings. “I walked into the room/ And was made sick by the room.” Clearly the band had a similar feeling about the song—a couple of months later they made an elegiac quarantine-themed video for it.
Like a lot of people’s work lives, artists’ means of connection with their audience have had to migrate online, to often glitchy and mixed results. Even with vaccines on their way, it’s hard to say when concerts large and small will resume—and what all the new explorations in virtual performance will yield. When we were first confined to quarters last spring, I read Sarah Pinsker’s uncannily prescient 2019 speculative-fiction novel Song for a New Day: It envisions an America that’s been doubly hit by a wave of terrorist attacks and a plague called “the Pox” and gone into a permanent state of legally enforced social distancing. Everyone’s lives are managed through a form of corporate virtual-reality feudalism, the result of the kind of oligarchic opportunism that critics such as Naomi Klein have been warning of as a dystopian “Screen New Deal.” Part of that system is an entertainment conglomerate, StageHoloLive, that’s like a fictional Live Nation, having cornered the market on virtual concert events. The novel gradually becomes the story of how independent musicians bring live music back, first clandestinely and then in public. At moments its heroes felt uncomfortably reminiscent of the anti-mask mobs of 2020, but you have to remember that in the story, the actual pandemic has been over for years. Ultimately it’s an inspiring celebration of live music, with Pinsker (an indie musician herself) describing in goose bump–raising close-up the mind-and-body experience of being onstage or in the crowd during a transcendent show. Let’s hope the all-clear to return to those rooms sounds soon—before they all shut down, which has also been a grim 2020 pattern—and that we’re not too fearful to answer it when it comes.
While it’s useful to keep Pinsker’s cautionary tale in mind, I wouldn’t want to be so Luddite as to throw away what we’ve been discovering about the possibilities of online performance. So I’ll also ask you, what’s been memorable for you on that level this year? I might get into more examples in future posts, but just for example, one day this summer I happened to find out at the last minute that Rickie Lee Jones was doing a dinnertime Facebook live show from her living room in New Orleans. There were some of the typical technical glitches, but it really was magical to be suddenly seeing one of my lifelong favorite artists, late into her career, telling stories and singing some of her greatest songs from thousands of miles away, in a kind of loose and intimate setting. So many of the logistics that can prevent us from getting out to all the shows we want to see melt away in these media. As well, one of the reasons Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher became the album I loved most this year was that I got to know the songs better and better as she presented them across a long series of online appearances. Early on she delivered them with a kind of bashful hesitancy, playing acoustically at home in her pajamas, and then with growing sureness and sophistication in a set like her September NPR “Tiny Desk Concert,” which followed a narrative arc that ended up dismantling its own artifices, both symbolically and literally. But how easy and effective it is for artists to take advantage of these chances varies greatly by the phases of their careers, and by genre too—music meant for arenas is hard to translate meaningfully to phones and laptop screens.
So, while it’s been broadly true for decades now, more than ever the story of music in 2020 took place on the internet, whether through the influence of TikTok memes and dances on what lands on the charts and in listeners’ hearts, or in the heightened intensity this year of the debate about whether streaming services such as Spotify are saviors or slayers of musicians’ livelihoods. This year also brought one of the most cheering responses to that issue, with “Bandcamp Fridays,” the monthly occasion when that independent streaming-and-sales site lets musicians keep 100 percent of the revenues for whatever they sell that day. It’s wonderful to see people on social media sharing their recommendations and shopping lists with one another when those days come, in the spirit of giving a fair deal to the people who make the art they love.
But of course there’s also a tale to be told about how music and musicians took to the streets along with the masses of others who turned out for Black Lives Matter demonstrations against police violence and related issues of racial justice in the spring and summer. It was easy to be dismissive when people naïvely said in 2016 that Trump’s election would be “good for punk rock” and the like, but there’s no question that potent music of protest and dissent was everywhere you looked and listened in 2020. And then again on the flip side there was the phenomenon of the “quarantine album”—whether for housebound dance parties or for wistful meditation. And whether literally made under social distancing in home studios, like Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now, Bad Bunny’s El Último Tour del Mundo, and Taylor Swift’s twins Folklore and Evermore, or simply perfectly timed for lockdown, like Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters.
So, yes, a lot happened amid all the nothing that happened. This was the year that trends sort of took place, but tentatively and provisionally—especially compared to the sharp realities of hardships and losses so many people suffered, including the musicians who were taken from us. It’s hard not to feel that when this nightmare’s over, we could wake up into a whole other set of tendencies and counterreactions. How do you think the music of 2020 will add up a few years from now? What will prove to have mattered most, both to the culture at large and to you personally? Maybe it wasn’t new music at all, but sounds from years and decades past that you discovered or returned to and helped you get through? And what do you long to hear in the music of the hopefully coming post-pandemic and post-chicken-bucket-dictator times?
I’d love to hear about it all. Mostly I am just thankful to be talking to all of you again. It’s been lonely over here.