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.
My dear disco ducks,
I’ll answer Brittany’s question about new and overlooked artists in my next post, but I want to respond to the sweet and yearning words most of you have written in this round about dancing. I certainly miss it, but it’s been many years since I’ve passed any time in that primal pop scene, the club, and it’s even fairly rare for me to cut a rug on my own carpet at home. One of the most popular virtual nightspots during the pandemic has been Club Quarantine, the queer Zoom-based event invented here in my hometown of Toronto, but I’d never be unselfconscious enough to join them in gyrating in front of my webcam. Most of my moves, to the degree I have any, get made at live concerts and, most of all, at house parties. It’s that kind of informal, spontaneous sacrament with friends that I long for, the way it can transform the conversation you just had, as well as the mundane space of a kitchen or living room, into something sensual and fantastical.
While we’ve been in conversation this week, I watched the most transporting representation of those sensations I could imagine, in the Lovers Rock episode of British filmmaker Steve McQueen’s recent Small Axe short-film anthology for Amazon and the BBC. The whole series is about West Indian communities in London in the 1960s and 1970s, and Lovers Rock is the music episode, centering on a “blues dance,” a boozecan party held in an apartment with the furniture cleared away to make a dance floor. A makeshift sound system is hauled up the stairs, a DJ toasts over and between the records in the style that helped give birth to rap, and drinks are sold cheaply (and illicitly) out of the kitchen. Dramatically, in its character work and close-up interpersonal storytelling, Lovers Rock reminds me of the exquisitely everyday short films that Mike Leigh used to make for the BBC in the 1970s and 1980s. But midway through its 68-minute runtime, I also knew I was watching one of the best movies about music I’ve ever seen—about music as social glue and lubricant, as passkey to community membership, as instigator of sex and romance, and as otherworldly wind that can lift you up and out of your ordinary life into some larger field of possibility.
The pulse of the smooth 1970s reggae subgenre that gives the film its title runs continuously through most of the movie—it’s a shock when the viewpoint character leaves the party near the end and returns to the harsh silence of the outside world, uncushioned by the comfort of bass and beats. The shifting dynamics and micro-negotiations of the dance floor constitute much of the plot. The action accelerates as the women begin drawing the guys onto the floor by pantomiming goofy but graceful martial-arts moves to Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting.” But the most unforgettable scene comes when the whole crowd continues singing Janet Kay’s then-fresh gem “Silly Games” a cappella after the record’s played out, celebrating pure pleasure and unity in this shelter from a city where their immigrant lives were not always welcome. (Think back again to Eric Clapton’s venomous “England is for white people” rant of the same period.) In a year when the overwhelm and exhaustion brought on by politics and the pandemic often made it hard for me to keep in touch with loving music for music’s sake, Lovers Rock literally brought me back to my senses.
It’s not incidental that it was achieved by a film I watched on my laptop, rather than a recording in my headphones. As James Poniewozik recently wrote in the New York Times, 2020 was the year when “nearly everything became TV”—including theater and concerts and any other formerly live event, and all the Netflix and other streaming series that we binged to while away lonely hours, but also, via Zoom and other platforms, our jobs and schools and workouts, our graduations and weddings and funerals, and our karaoke nights and heart-to-heart chats and cocktail parties. It’s not all healthy, but I do give thanks often that we’re going through this at a time when at least it’s possible for my laptop to be such a versatile window to the world. I mentioned a few reasons why in my opening post, but I’ll add that aside from group chats with far-flung friends, some of the most memorable times I’ve had staring glassily at my computer in 2020 were the Stephen Sondheim 90th birthday celebration on YouTube in April, the several John Prine tribute events, the Mekons playing a live online concert wearing surreal sci-fi monster outfits at the shuttered Hideout club in Chicago this summer, and so on.
Granted, many such events have been dogged by delays, disconnections, and frustrating sound and picture quality. But artists and producers are figuring it out. The Vancouver musician Veda Hille usually makes her living in theater as well as in her intricate and rapturous solo performances (full disclosure: We’ve become good friends over the years). Early in quarantine, she convinced a local cultural center to give her free rein in their empty space, and since then, she’s staged a series of Zoom concerts, a version of her one-woman show Little Volcano, and most recently an online revival of a decade-old ensemble show called Do You Want What I Have Got? in which the cast members performed isolated from one another in different parts of the theater, on separate live feeds that were edited together, virtuosically, in real time. The shows felt almost as warm and personal as if we’d all been seated there together. Audiences took advantage of Zoom’s chat function to foment a sociable buzz, and we were encouraged to keep our cameras on so we could see one another in the gallery. More famous acts should be taking notes.
My favorite cover of the year also arrived as an online video. Veteran U.K. socialist songwriter Billy Bragg surprised and delighted me by finding common political ground with Taylor Swift and reinventing her nonalbum track “Only the Young” in his singular electric-troubadour style.
I was so glad I finally got to see Hamilton in full as a streaming video, and David Byrne’s American Utopia performance film directed by Spike Lee, a real pick-me-up for any fan of his and the Talking Heads, though it’s much more a high-concept concert (like Stop Making Sense) than the work of theater it’s been billed as. Beyoncé made her presence felt with Black Is King, and there were the two revealing Taylor Swift auto-documentaries (for Lover and Folklore), longtime U.K. music-movie innovator Julien Temple’s sad but stirring Crock of Gold about Shane MacGowan of the Pogues, and Alison Ellwood’s absorbing film about the Go-Go’s—too often forgotten as the most successful all-woman rock group ever. I’m really looking forward to seeing Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, with Viola Davis as the great blueswoman and Chadwick Boseman in his (sigh) final performance as her trumpeter, in the Netflix movie based on August Wilson’s play.
I’ve also made discoveries from the soundtracks of streaming shows that weren’t ostensibly about music, like all the contemporary U.K. rap and R&B that textures the harrowing and brilliant series I May Destroy You—you can draw clear historical lines from the world of Lovers Rock to the one the characters there inhabit, and to the sensibilities of a group like Sault as well. And I vividly remember when I was watching Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit (perfectly described in a tweet by Phoebe Bridgers as “bisexual recovery chess Rocky”) and suddenly felt compelled to search out that striking credits song from one episode, which turned out to be “The Gift” by Storefront Church, aka L.A. singer-songwriter Lukas Frank.
Another online trend that rippled through the culture this summer was everybody sharing “reaction videos,” specifically from the “Twins the New Trend” YouTube channel of Black teens Tim and Fred Williams in Gary, Indiana, church kids and hip-hop heads who gained incredible traction with clips of themselves listening for the first time to the likes of Phil Collins and Dolly Parton and losing their young minds. As our colleague Jody Rosen wrote for the Times Magazine in August, white people’s adoration of the twins’ videos spoke to racial insecurities in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests: There was an affirmation that “we could all just get along” in the sight of them grooving to Aerosmith and the Carpenters—though you’ll note there are no corresponding popular YouTube channels depicting middle-aged white people losing their shit over Fivio Foreign or Rico Nasty. Beyond those dynamics, though, what strikes me about the Williams brothers is that there seems to be no room in their format for them to dislike anything. I’ve been told by friends who’ve dabbled in the reaction-video-sphere that negativity and even analysis just does not click. I found an alternative on the channel Lost in Vegas, where the vloggers are grown-ups and the responses are more balanced and measured, but even there they remain mostly positive. What role does actual criticism have in the emerging world of musical multimedia?
One possible answer came when the wonderful podcast Song Exploder was adapted as a Netflix series this fall. Host Hrishikesh Hirway gets hold of the stems (i.e., digital files of the various instrumental and vocal parts) of popular songs and talks to artists such as R.E.M. or Ty Dolla Sign to decode how the tracks were composed and constructed. It’s a nerdy and fannish pleasure (aside from the clunky animated videos the TV version has added for the full song “reveal”) that solves the often difficult critical problem of how to get into the technicalities without boring or losing readers. There are similar success stories in the musicological podcast Switched on Pop, and the New York Times’ “Diary of a Song” videos. These all offer behind-the-scenes explanations at a time when fewer artists are providing such access to journalists because they can talk to their fans directly on social media.
So we seem to have a split here, between pure unadulterated appreciation on the part of the twins and firsthand direct information with something like Song Exploder—while the traditional critical functions of interpretation and assessment have fewer popular homes. Certainly we can learn from these examples that there’s a hunger out there to hear more about exactly how music gets made—I know a lot of musicians wish we’d ask about that more often. But I think in a media landscape that’s become more polarized by partisan politics, polluted by disinformation, and slandered by invested interests on all sides when it doesn’t just act like a cheerleader, our reviews and analyses and essays risk being tarred as just another batch of hot takes. Certainly we’ve all experienced how easy it is for fan armies to gang up to harass and discredit us, especially on a signal from an affronted artist. Amid all this, I wonder what we need to do to claim and cultivate cultural spaces for more committed, reflective, and serious conversation.
Gathering with all of you each year in this (damn) season is certainly part of my solution. So too—to return to small-screen life—was my experience this year helping organize the Popular Music Books in Process series, a weekly Zoom session that brought writers and scholars and listeners together to talk about new books on music, in a year when book tours and conferences couldn’t happen in the usual way. It covered works about everything from Woody Guthrie to D’Angelo, twerking to boy bands, George Harrison to Jack White, and queerness in gospel music to Black women in rock history to the pop explosion of 1984. (Our archive of past sessions on video is here.) It helped me keep in touch with communities of thinkers who would make sure my mind didn’t totally atrophy. As the pandemic rages on, we decided to extend it at least till the summer, while we all wait for our vaccine shots. But it’s left me wondering what more I can do to propagate that spirit in the long run. What are we going to need to learn, Lindsay and Ann and everyone, whether in multimedia skills or in new attitudes, to keep music criticism relevant in the age of streaming and TikTok and whatever comes next? That’s what I want to know the most.