Julianne’s nod to the revelatory What Happened, Miss Simone? and Chris’ to the studio scenes that enliven the middling Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy got me thinking about 2015 music crossovers, between not genres but media. For one thing, the pop-doc craze dating at least to Searching for Sugar Man in 2012 continued with Simone and, among many others, Kurt Cobain’s notebooks and tapes being animated in Montage of Heck, and Asif Kapadia’s painfully moving Amy, about Amy Winehouse.
Whatever their faults, each is careful to foreground its subjects’ creative musicianship ahead of their suffering, contrary to the trend towards pop voyeurism. And many of these directors are also finding superior alternatives to the clichéd music-doc format of talking heads and clips. Meanwhile we had the triple-play of 1990s–hip-hop nostalgia in the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton, Dope’s rap-nerd kids, and the fashion doc Fresh Dressed.
On TV, Empire and Nashville persisted in spinning soap opera out of music-biz lore. Off prime time, Stephen Colbert’s introduction of the young New Orleans band leader Jon Batiste and his Stay Human group to the Late Show was his answer to Jimmy Fallon’s use of the Roots (not to mention Fallon’s Lip Sync Battles, which, pardon my cheese, I adore) in refreshing the played-out late-night formula as variety show, a form so dusty it’s almost shiny again.
The BBC’s Doctor Who, usually for the sci-fi branch of geeks rather than the music division, decided in new star Peter Capaldi’s second season to draw on his early-1980s punk background (his band included fellow Scot and former Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson): It would outfit the Doctor with a knockoff Strat. Yes, it’s another sign that punk rock is now as much a commodified museum piece as Woodstock is, but then again, this is a time-travel show. For me, Capaldi in the season opener, shredding on top of a tank in a medieval Anglo-Saxon fighting ring, knocked the stupefied stare clean off the guitar warrior from the, sorry, moronic Mad Max movie.
I’d also tag as small-screen highlights the soundtrack of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None on Netflix, as smart and diverse as the series itself, and The Americans’ period-appropriate contribution to the ongoing ’80s-music fetish. But most of all there is the endlessly pleasurable Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW’s low-rated but wonderful weekly pseudo-Broadway musical. It cleverly updates the genre by admitting that if you find your life being interrupted by choreographed song-and-dance numbers, you might just be having a psychological breakdown—shades of All That Jazz or The Singing Detective.
Unusually for TV, much of the cast (also culturally diverse) is equally skilled in acting and music, and the score has proved the ideal assignment for composer Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne and Ivy, a brilliant craftsperson I always find more compelling on other people’s projects than with his own. The two women who created it, lead actor Rachel Bloom and screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) overestimated the audience’s sense of irony when they called it Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: The sexist-sounding title drives viewers away. (I guess most don’t associate it with Miranda Lambert’s identically titled country No. 1 revenge-fantasy album from 2007, newly relevant given this year’s wrenching gossip.)
But the series’ feminist core is obvious when you watch numbers like “The Sexy Getting Ready Song,” which portrays the beauty myth as torture and includes the for-the-ages hip-hop parody line, “You know what? I gotta go apologize to some bitches.”
Here’s a whole playlist of the musical numbers, including a couple that are even better, but you should see them in context. By which I mean, please help me save this show. There’s been no better musical comedy on TV since Flight of the Conchords, and this one has characters and a plot.
Wildly, I don’t have to make that kind of plea about the hit musical Hamilton—Lin-Manuel Miranda’s transposition of a rags-to-riches Founding Fathers tale into a hip-hop Broadway show that parallels Alexander Hamilton to contemporary immigrants as well as, implicitly, the likes of Tupac. History serves the purpose here that mental crisis does in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, as a framing device, but it’s more profound, in linking a past revolution to potential future social change via the racially flipped casting and vernacular. Its implicit, optimistic argument is that their America remains our America. I haven’t seen it on stage, but it was the music I turned to this year when I wanted to feel most alive and connected, and the cast album on its own communicates the story perfectly clearly.
I did well up repeatedly during the little-seen 2015 adaptation of The Last Five Years (which Broadway heads seemed to disdain, but the disappointed Pitch Perfect 2 fan in me appreciated it as a better venue for Anna Kendrick), but generally I’m not really a devotee of post-Sondheim musicals. Hamilton explains why: The form was waiting for this, for someone who is not insulated by stage culture to bring contemporary pop values to it. I can’t sum it up better than former Slate music critic Jody Rosen, who told me he thought it may be the 21st century’s most fully realized work of art so far, along with Christian Marclay’s The Clock. (By the way, Miranda also composed the cantina music for the new Star Wars movie—what twists will he bring to John Williams’ alien-cabaret template?)
Back on TV, the NBC live revival of The Wiz earlier this month brought street dance—watch them whip, watch them nae nae—to the land of Oz, even if the music itself was mostly a letdown. That turn for choreographer Fatima Robinson aligned with the surprising extended dance film Justin Bieber released for Purpose: The star himself is almost entirely physically absent—perhaps as one more act of self-effacing penance—while director Parris Goebel (“the creator of Polyswagg”) gathers prominent young stage dancers and choreographers to translate the songs into 13 vignettes of dramatic movement.
What are your favorite 2015 video dance moments, and do they include Drake’s arty drunk uncle in “Hotline Bling”—which gave some shine to another choreographer, Tanisha Scott? I agree with Chris that the long grip of the singer-songwriter auteur myth is slowly loosening, but choreographers and dancers should join the producers, top-line songwriters, and studio musicians among the collaborators getting new recognition. Hell, apparently they’re important enough for Taylor Swift and Katy Perry to beef about.
That point brings me back to something about watching musical stories in documentaries, in particular: Each one I mentioned up top is a tale of destruction. I am with you, Chris, in finding the phases and spaces of pop’s internal narrative compelling. But the demand for narrative as a marketing device can be excessive (figures such as Carly Rae Jepsen and Sia suffer for its lack), and it’s important to remember that those narratives are predatory, too. One of the worst pop stories of the year was the report about manager Kim Fowley’s alleged abuse of his teenage-girl charges in the Runaways, along with disappointing statements from older artists like Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde that perpetuated victim-blaming.
The default party culture that pop celebrates can be a space of freedom but also, too often, of the license to violate and dominate. This year artists sounded various kinds of ambivalence about it, from the Weeknd, Drake, Bieber, Alessia Cara (“Here”), Kendrick Lamar (especially, but not only, on “u” and “Mortal Man”), Micachu and the Shapes (“Thinking It”), and even Kacey Musgraves’ “Late to the Party.” Whereas Cara and Micachu are asserting the right to express their alienation and introversion, the men are often wrestling with both regret and resentment. (This may be one reason why we passive-aggressive Canadians have been doing unprecedentedly well on the charts.) Could this tone of wounded, defensive masculinity be in part a reaction to pop’s recently elevated levels of feminist assertion?
This brings me back to Chris’ notion of the return of the “monoculture”—to me that’s mostly an illusion we shouldn’t endorse. I’m disheartened to learn, for instance, that there are separate camps of black artists for the R&B and mainstream charts. Such commercial segregation makes me wonder—particularly about Fetty Wap, even though I also like him a lot—about the novelty factor, and possible condescension, involved when white listeners go in much harder on some black music than black listeners do. It’s too easy to avert our gaze from the lingering shadow of minstrelsy.
Similarly, while I’m happy that few critics anymore behave as though commercial populism is a shameful stain, we are also part of the online attention economy, and anything we write about Taylor Swift, Kanye, or Adele will draw thousands more views than a piece about a new discovery or an underappreciated veteran. I appreciate Julianne’s expertise on bass drops and Latin music (and I think Pitbull became one of this year’s VIPs, which I would never have guessed in 2013)—and I worry that I was often distracted by the momentum of the big pop narrative in 2015 and didn’t expend enough energy on seeking out microscale discoveries, non-English-language pop, and futuristic jazz and electronic music. I want to spend more time wandering the wilds of SoundCloud and Bandcamp in 2016.
The only jazz on most critics’ lists has been Kamasi Washington’s post-Coltrane-styled triple album The Epic—because he’s recognized for appearing on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. That’s a shortcoming, but I don’t think it’s exactly tokenism; instead it’s that Kendrick and Oneohtrix Point Never were deliberately calling to attention that thrilling Los Angeles scene, thrilling not only because of the talents of people like Washington and bassist Thundercat (whose own EP The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam is excellent, too) but because their aesthetic is meant to reach beyond jazz’s inner sanctum—even if that makes Washington’s moves seem too obvious for connoisseurs. Many years when I look at the jazz critics’ lists, I find the same names that have been there for decades (even the comparatively young Vijay Iyer, for example, has been drawing attention since the turn of the century). It was stirring to witness the response to Ornette Coleman’s death earlier this year, which was so widespread in part because Ornette would follow the new to any connection point.
Likewise, pro-pop criticism (or poptimism, in critics’ jargon) is meant to broaden our appreciation for the tastes of all kinds of audiences, across age groups and demographics, beyond the dominant consumerist “millennial male” that Condé Nast declared it would pursue when it bought Pitchfork this year. Addressing teen pop has been great, but it’s not enough: Though the boy-band story was certainly fascinating this year, I also want to read more about what’s going on in bachata or today’s regional gospel music—and even that old-folks’ format, rock ’n‘ roll.
On that note, it was sad to learn this year that the documentary on the making of Aretha Franklin’s monumental gospel album Amazing Grace might never come to light—because that’s a musical narrative not about excess and addiction but about solidarity and solace. And it would have dovetailed beautifully with one of the most unforgettable multimedia musical moments of 2015, with which I’ll close: President Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral for the victims of the racist shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, this summer. If you think we are not going to miss this guy, try imagining any remotely similar gesture from Hillary Clinton, the subject of one of the worst musical campaign ads of all time. Let alone Donald Trump, whose only musical distinction is that, whatever song he touches, the artist asks him to stop. #whitesagainstTrump
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