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.
Music Club, my letter to you:
I’ll begin with a riddle that might rile up a few of those Eric Clapton fans who got mad online at Phoebe Bridgers: In 2020, what did Bruce Springsteen and Taylor Swift have in common?
If you answered, “They both released stripped-down but moodily photographed black-and-white performance films exclusive to popular streaming services that featured them playing their latest material in cozy, cabinlike recording studios”—well, technically you would have been correct, but that’s not what I was thinking. (Carl, you’re so right that so much of our listening this year also had a visual, screen-based component.) The connection I had in mind was actually that both Springsteen and Swift spent some time this year in their own vaults, rerecording music they’d written many years and several artistic iterations ago.
Springsteen did so on Letter to You, his first record with the E Street Band in six years. I doubt he’d object to me calling the record fan service, given that, as he explains in the Apple TV+ documentary of the same name, he intended the titular “you” to be the faithful listener who’s been following him for decades. The people wanted an E Street Band record, and so he gave them one, with all the grit and glory and glockenspiel that implies. Some of my favorite songs on the album, though, were written before Springsteen had many fans’ eyes on him at all, back in 1972, when he made a demo for then-Columbia Records VP John Hammond ahead of the recording of his debut album. Springsteen was 22. These songs—“Janey Needs a Shooter,” “If I Was the Priest,” and “Song for Orphans”—have been floating around the Springsteen fan community for decades in live bootleg form, but after reencountering them when he was putting together a recent box set, Springsteen thought it might be fun to put them properly to tape while he had the E Street Band together at his home studio. And so we get the pleasure of hearing 71-year-old Bruce reintroduced to 22-year-old Bruce, in all his florid poetic majesty. (Famously, Bob Dylan said of Springsteen’s 1973 Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., “He’d better be careful or he might go through every word in the English language and run out of words.”) We also get to hear, in the mingling of new and old songs, how Springsteen’s use of language and melody has changed, and become more succinct, over time.
When I got to interview him earlier this year (a truly surreal bucket-list checkmark for this Jersey girl), I asked if he was tempted to go back and edit some of the wilder lyrics in these old songs. “No, I’m pretty good at going back and finding a voice I was connected to at any point in my recording career,” Springsteen told me. “I’ve done it for these box sets where there’s a missing piece of a vocal or lyric, and I just kind of put myself in the head of 1985 or 1978.” Something about that image really struck me, the Bruce of 2020 going back and inhabiting the mindset of, say, Nebraska Bruce or Tunnel of Love Bruce—offering his former self a missing rhyme across space and time.
It made me wonder how Taylor Swift is approaching the somewhat similar if more ambitious project of rerecording her first six albums, in an attempt to command control of her back catalog. Haters gonna hate, and so some people have scoffed at the notion of a 31-year-old woman reinhabiting, say, the naïveté of a song like “Fifteen” or “Tim McGraw.” But is it really that different from 71-year-old Bruce telling Janey, with the cocksureness of a 22-year-old, that she needs a shooter man like him? I’m more curious to see if Swift will agree with Springsteen that editing old lyrics is off-limits. I’ve heard some rumbles that she may be altering a few of them, and I do have to wonder how she’d approach a song like 2010’s “Better Than Revenge,” which heaps some harsh, sanctimonious scorn on the other woman (“she’s better known for the things she does on the mattress”) instead of her two-timing man. Swift’s sense of feminism has certainly evolved since then, but editing the past through the lens of one’s present politics can also be a slippery slope. (To be fair, she’s done it at least once before.) Regardless of where she lands, the ultimate power move will be in the act of rerecording itself, which will no doubt raise awareness of how many artists don’t own their masters and hopefully inspire future generations of young musicians to demand fairer recording contracts.
What I like best about Folklore is the way it finds Swift—who’s spent most of her public life being scrutinized as to whether or not she was “acting her age”—freely flitting between former selves and settings, often approaching them with the sharp perception that experience offers. It’s been many years since Swift has had a homeroom assignment, but that doesn’t prohibit her from inhabiting the emotional world of James or Inez as she does on arguably the best and most beloved song she released this year, “Betty.” Again, I’m reminded of Springsteen: Just as money and renown did not stop his ability or desire to give voice to anonymous, blue-collar folks in his songs, aging out of her teen years has, thankfully, not prevented Swift from crafting deeply felt songs about the potent emotional wisdom of youth, and girlhood in particular. The No. 1 hit “Cardigan” is not one of my favorite songs she released this year (to be fair, there were upwards of 30 to choose from), but I do love the spark of revelation that occurs between the lyrics, “When you are young they assume you know nothing” to, by the song’s end, “I knew everything when I was young.”
Kind of reminds me of a classic lyric from another septuagenarian who happened to put out a record this year: “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” Bob Dylan, of course, also had the fate of his recording catalog on his mind this year—how does $300 million feel like simultaneously way too much money for anything on this planet to cost, and also way too low a valuation of the entire catalog of Bob Dylan?—but not at the expense of reminding us he, too, is still a vital and prolific songwriter. In addition to boasting maybe the best title of the year, Rough and Rowdy Ways is a rich and rewarding listen, often more tender and elegiac than its moniker suggests (“I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” is achingly gorgeous), but also plenty rollicking, rib-tickling, and even ribald. (Bobby, if you need a title for a B-side collection, Rollicking, Rib-Tickling, and Ribald Ways is all yours.) Dylan has always had, to me, a rapper’s swagger, and something in the wry wordplay on this record reminds me of a cross between hip-hop and epic poetry. The great opener “I Contain Multitudes” finds him placing himself within a braggadociously lofty firmament—William Blake, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Indiana Jones, “and them British bad boys the Rolling Stones”—all while doing that inimitable scare quotes thing with his voice where it’s impossible to tell whether or not he’s messing with you. Flashing partial glimpses of contradictory selves across these new songs, Dylan wants you to know that he’s still a mirrorball.
Carl, I realize I didn’t get to any of your state-of-the-art-of-criticism questions, but I’ll save that for my final round. In the meantime, Ann, I always value your perspective and I’m sure you’ll have plenty to say about which artists you heard this year interacting with the idea of legacy. And Brittany, what did you think of Letter to You, or this year in Bruce? I know that ages ago, back when people used to go places and do things, we once shared a stage at an event where we both gave semi-inebriated Bruce Springsteen PowerPoint presentations. May things that weird and exciting one day happen again!
Greetings from (a few dozen miles north of) Asbury Park,