the year in music
Disclaimer: some songs appearing below were originally released in 2019—mostly country songs. Due to the contingent nature of promotion and attention cycles, though, they ultimately became significant in 2020. So, they get the treatment.
Future Nostalgia, Dua Lipa
The Utah monolith was the first of its kind, as far as we know. Found on November 18, 2020, it is thought to have sat undiscovered in its original remote desert location for four years. Four years to discover the anonymous installation, but it only took a month for an additional 90+ monoliths to sprout up across the globe. It’s as if all the recently furloughed vocational school grads of the world had found their perfect unifying purpose—a sign from above telling them: “Weld." But really, the unity that allowed the monolith to propagate around the world was the source of its namesake. If we’re being serious, Kubrick’s tedious 2001 is probably remembered firstly for being quiet. But the loud parts, i.e. when the Monolith appears, are what haunt the cultural memory. This is because the Monolith, among other things, is a signal to tell the viewer “plot is about to happen, finally.”
And what happens is plot in its most grand form: a leap in human evolution. Of course, we ask if our real-world monolith approximates such a bell-tolling and what we see is a grim inversion of 2001’s message: If Fall 2016 when it was ostensibly installed, the imminent victory of prez #45; if four years later when it was found, thousands of COVID deaths and more to come. It’s impossible to see the worldwide quotation of the film and not witness the vast ideological lacuna spanning Kubrick’s 1968 to today. So if there’s no animating global force as seen through the space race or the threat of Soviet communism, what then? Perhaps our monolithers were driven by, to take a cue from Fredric Jameson’s wonderful analysis of The Shining, “a longing to believe and the nostalgia for an era when belief seemed possible.” This desiring for a past in which there was a future, you might call it future nostalgia.
Dua Lipa’s album is sort of this but mostly it’s not. She does mine the past in the form of Roger Troutmanesque talk boxes and basically everything that was big in Australia in the 80s, but there’s too much verve and attitude here—too much right-now-ness—to conflate these practices with some kind of teleological free fall. Whereas that other enormous hit of the year, Blinding Lights, might convey the bleakness of being lodged in the past—the lights are not their typical sign of passage but an endless occurrence in a song with no realized destination—Dua Lipa is simultaneously John Lautner and she is a female alpha and she is changing the game and she is so moved on, it’s scary. This is not a simple exercise in crafting a capsule of the past—“the sounds of Disco” or whatever—enhanced by new and fancy sound engineering technology; it’s a careful mix of past and present, aggression and tenderness, the extraterrestrial and the immediate physical body. It’s this ability to occupy contradiction that makes the music so irresistible, and it signals to listeners a set of characteristics that we long for through song but are just beyond the limits of daily life: To feel sexy while demanded to show up for mundane and degrading jobs; to be resilient amidst systems that actively dispose of the injured.
This is all to say that Dua Lipa’s album does what all great pop does; it situates us in the here-and-now. It feels immanently social and grounded not in spite of but because of its content. Sort of like with the Utah monolith, its retro significance matters but in no way tells the whole story. Another way to understand monoliths as a uniquely 2020 meme is to see them in sequence with events that occurred earlier in the year; the symmetry with all those felled statues of the summer, their uprightness a monument to slavery, colonialism, genocide. The monoliths are maybe the hollow echo of that real movement, or maybe they’re an attempt at a corrective. Mobility and ephemerality in contrast to state-imposed permanence; anonymity as opposed to identity of the worst and most racist kind; folk art instead of public art. I’m not saying I particularly want hillsides speckled in metal phalluses, but that they serve as a helpful experiment in finding a way out of the problematic conflation of artistic use-value and “History.”
This in part is what I think Future Nostalgia’s achievement is. In dangling that contradiction in front of us, tempting the backwhentheymadeREAL music critics into expecting some faithful reenactment of Motown and then saying fuck that to the stifling myth of an ideal artistic past. My hope is this gesture will mark a move away from the over-saccharine sides of Bruno Mars and sometimes-Pharrell which suggest a past where the sun always shone and everyone was a eunuch. Because that was never the case. The past they draw from was queer, full of sex and drugs—the kind that keep you dancing all night. Dua Lipa gave us something that honors and knows this. The daytime has passed, the sun is down. “All night, I’ll riot with you,” she says.
Since it was just such a good year for hating the cops, two songs get the award for exuding Big FTP Energy. “The Box” is likely to be remembered longer, partially because Roddy Ricch is the more musical rapper but mostly because of that fucking EEE ERR sound that got lodged in all our brains. However, DaBaby’s song had the magic of good timing, and it helped serve as part of the soundtrack to the riots. Both songs open with basically the same exact scene of driving a brand new car and saying “fuck the police.” The dual appearance of this opening as compared to NWA’s—the police chase and immediate sense of being on the run vs. the dramatic irony of the courtroom and all its procedural awfulness—says enough about the ongoing violent extension of policing and particularly its effect on racialized existence.
Of intrigue here is also DaBaby’s continued identity battle: is he a rockstar? a pop star? On a song from last year, “POP STAR,” he makes the cogent observation that people might say he “went pop” but what happens if somebody fucks with him and that somebody ends up dead? It’s a good criticism of pop stardom’s default whiteness and how, when that order gets violated, artists’ blackness is called into question, or used as a means to just be incredibly fucked up towards them—Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and Prince being the examples that immediately come to mind. Nevertheless, DaBaby continues to wade further into the murky waters of Pop, e.g. he considers himself a pop star in undeniable pop star company on his feature with Dua Lipa. He makes it clear he won’t be caught with a guitar, though.
The Bones, Maren Morris
Maren Morris is probably best known for the song that goes “Baby / Why don’t you just meet me in the middle,” a dance hit across most of the world. I apologize to everyone who I’ve ever been in the company of when this song came on and told them, like a child looking for a pat on the head, “But firstly she’s a country singer.” Perhaps this task won’t be as necessary after this song though, which managed to hang around the charts for a full year, 52 straight weeks.
To be real, I was never that in love with the song. I think Morris has songs that are far catchier and that show off her vocal talents better. However, I am struck by the central metaphor. “The house don’t fall when the bones are good.” Houses made from bones—kind of goth for such a triumphant tune. Presumably “foundation” or “rafters” felt too clunky, and besides she uses the former earlier in the chorus. Mostly though, it’s a construction that might as well be used in an intro to Marxism course, describing the base-superstructure model.
Examples of what the superstructure looks like when the bones are not good basically surrounded us this year, or at least became more apparent. QAnon, fascists “defending” the cities they live 100 miles outside of, the back to work protests, the stop the steal protests, every liberal media corporation scrambling to make its staff/content less white, inability to pass another relief bill, the police killing recently unemployed people: These are all expressions of an ongoing crisis of capital which COVID-19 only accelerated.
Maren Morris even contributed to this canon in one of the less cringe-y musical reactions to the uprisings of the summer, which includes a nice nod to the labor union song “Which Side Are You On?” However, the song is more contemplation and less provocation. In that way it presents the predicament of our era neatly; it evokes the specter of the labor movement amidst a movement with virtually no resemblance to the strategies of the classic labor struggle and its seeming clear path toward socialism. Yet the bones, the heart, the respiratory system, the soul of this house we inhabit; all bad. How to pass through our current state then? That’s a question that can only be answered through a fight, and it might mean burning the whole house down.
One Night Standards, Ashley McBryde
More evidence of Jay Joyce’s preeminence in a kind of lovely, hazy-but-in-your-face style of production that’s starting to really catch on around Nashville, and it sounds great with the pathos of McBryde’s mournful ‘ooo’s amidst the loveless hookup. I swear there’s a guitar lick in here that gets used somewhere on Miranda Lambert’s last album (also produced by Joyce) note-for-note.
The clever literary invention here—the laying out of standards as the procedural engine for a one night stand—is most likely due to co-writer and fellow member of the Nashville songwriter’s cabal Shane McAnally. He’s made himself known for his rich word play, and far under-appreciated in these faculties is his position as a gay man in a scene that is overwhelmingly straight.
Queerness and social abjection has always been the motor for aesthetic intensification in modern music, developing forms that always find their way into popular culture. There’s a satisfying congruousness, then, about McAnally serving a background role (which definitely doesn’t mean insignificant) to his songs, especially those as channelled through a woman’s voice, and especially this one, which might as well be the scene of someone cruising for sex.
That’s right parents, you heard it here—country music is turning your kids gay!
Tap In, Saweetie
Sampling “Blow the Whistle” doesn’t cheapen it, proof the Bay Area still has a vibrant hip-hop culture.
Hard to Forget, Sam Hunt
Bro Country was always a designation used to corral any and all scorn for country music into the tidy image of the dude in sleeveless flannel driving his absurd suspension lift truck, slamming back Natty Lights with girls in bikinis lining the rear bed—the nouveau cowboy. If you were a self-proclaimed “country purist” you could say O! they’ve let the guy who produced Nickelback make country records, the profanity! Or, if you never actually cared about the music, you’re just afraid of poor people who speak with a drawl you could see the Natties and the bikinis and say O! What a debauched lifestyle! Of course this was all anti-pop counterrevolution and Sam Hunt remained one of the most feared sans-culottes. Which makes this song’s chopped up Webb Pierce beat such a perfect slap in the face. He even lurches like Buck Owens in the chorus!
Basically the last great thing to happen pre-quarantine
Chasin’ You, Morgan Wallen
If there is someone who gets closest to the imago of the nouveau cowboy, though, it’s Morgan Wallen.
This song gets nowhere near the humid stupor of “Whiskey Glasses” but this verse alone has enough to make an OK song good: “You always used to talk about L.A / I heard you got as far as Santa Fe / Well you know I tried to track you down / I only got as far as guitarrrrrrrrr town / Singin’ bout a girl I used to know, used to know.”
Stick That In Your Country Song, Eric Church
There was a point during the summer where three songs were floating around country radio: “Stick That in Your Country Song,” “I Love My Country,” and “One Big Country Song.” Respectively, they were about what’s wrong with the country, what’s right with the country, and how whether you’re a city boy or a country boy we’re all just trying to survive so why don’t we just all try and get along. Hmm. Are you having country problems, son???
Naked ideological battles rarely show up in song but country music with its self-reflexive impulse is the exception. There’s a built in apparatus to country that may make it appear like there’s a hyperunity, like in the Florida Georgia Line song above, but that very self-consciousness is what allows for occasional ruptures. The same attempts at aesthetic totalization that establish the outlines of what is and isn’t country give an opening for a song like Church’s to provoke boundaries.
Church has fashioned himself as a Nashville outsider in the “outlaw” tradition, so it’s clear why he was a natural choice for the song. What he presents is a total vision not of good ole boys working the land but of all the symptoms of a lack of work. The opening lines, “Take me on up to Detroit city / Jails are full, the factories empty,” tell the entire story of the American surplus population in perfect concision. It’s notable that the only worker that shows up is a teacher, work that falls into the unproductive side of the productive/unproductive labor binary.
Manufacturing is never coming back, but country will endlessly sing its mythos as the anchor of the working class, just like rappers will endlessly call themselves rockstars. But when yet another crisis comes around, we can expect more moments of clarity like this.
I Could Never Imagine Myself Liking This Song More Than I Already Did
Dior, Pop Smoke
Whenever I’m feeling bummed out I just watch this. RIP
Somebody Like That, Tenille Arts
Not sure what’s going on with Canadian singers named Tenille but I’m too busy listening to this song to bother figuring it out
cowboy like me, Taylor Swift
Dare I say it, Taylor Swift’s “Pancho and Lefty.” Also, a riff that makes you think "when you think Tim McGraw".
Texas Man, The Chicks
Great divorce albums make for great free agent jams; to be honest though it’s just getting us hyped for Kacey Musgraves’s break-up album.
Circles, Megan Thee Stallion
We know what circles Megan is talking about but circles may also make you think of how you sing a pop song’s chorus over and over again or it may make you think of TikTok where everything is on a loop. The app has become a sort of organic marketing platform for musicians after gleaning the potential of viral dance videos set to hooky beats. Megan Thee Stallion probably caught onto this after “Savage” blew up, because then “WAP” got its own dance challenge and then same with “Body.”
I’ve started thinking of TikTok as an intensification device. Not only for its users, i.e. those who produce its content, but for music as well. Users develop forms that ensure you are instantaneously captivated and, in the case of dance videos, artists are then driven to make music that pushes “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus” into overdrive. Megan Thee Stallion is one of the model artists for this because the kind of musical intensification it asks of performers has already been achieved in her rapping. The simultaneous attitude, clarity, and heavy syncopation induces an all-at-once euphoria that’s perfect for hypercondensed videos. It’s also euphoric all on its own, though.
TikTok is one of the few Chinese technology companies that’s close to a household American name. That’s partially due to the president’s attempt to stir up more Sinophobia this year, by demanding ByteDance (TikTok’s parent corporation) to sell the American portion of its business because he suspected it “might take action that [could] impair the national security of the United States." All of Trump’s anti-China behavior is of course him ventriloquizing the national economy and all the insecurity that comes from the Chinese eclipsing of the U.S. as the global growth engine. The irony is China’s glut has itself come to a close, and there is no apparent new site of capital expansion, so we are left with nations fighting over scraps and meager market share. Our chaotic present ensues.
And all sorts of strange symptoms develop out of the chaos. TikTok is one of them. The videos, the colors, the sounds, they all grow in intensity even as it feels like nothing is happening outside; sometimes it’s overwhelmingly beautiful. Megan Thee Stallion is like this, insofar as we hear her and ask “Where could we possibly go from here?”