I’m so happy to be back in the Music Club fold after a year’s absence. Last December I was in the weeds, dealing with the kinds of personal complications—work stuff, health stuff, family stuff—that I’m now realizing are not one-off disasters but the regular challenges of midlife. Such struggles are as inevitable (we are vulnerable beings, as GoFundMe’s ubiquitous presence on social media reminds me) as they are highly politicized (people are perishing while politicians fight over health care plans). Yes, 2016 has felt like a downward spiral since that January morning I awakened to a text reading, simply and horrifically, “David Bowie died.” But 2015 was also complicated and, at times, 2014 seemed like just too much. Then, artists were still struggling to figure out how they could address the crises at hand. “We are in the midst of hard times now,” A.O. Scott wrote in the New York Times in 2014, “and it feels as if art is failing us.”
He couldn’t write those words now. Art, especially music, has become a vehicle of protest again from the punk club to the awards-show stage. I agree with our fellow culture critic Jessica Hopper that celebrating good art in bad times is risky—I remember the plague days of the 1980s, and it wasn’t worth it, not even a little bit, not even for Angels in America. But protest has inflamed these voices, from the Knowles sisters on outward, in punk and hip-hop and Hall of Fame rock and avant-garde electronic music and Americana and yes, mildly, but give Eric Church a little credit, even in supposedly so-conservative country. This is the spirit of dissent, whether beautifully modulated or off the cuff. Whatever your politics, it’s the American way of free speech and rock ’n’ roll.
Lemonade made it clear that dissent could be pop, and as you say, Julianne, ushered in new leadership within our own ranks of cultural commentators (read the syllabus for details): Women of color are writing today’s most powerful culture criticism. Yet I think we also need to be honest about the voices still dominating pop’s mainstream. Those voices often belong to petulant men: Drake cursing out his girl for ruining his Cheesecake Factory memories, Drew Taggart of the Chainsmokers treating the ex he’s just picked up like a petty thief, Zayn offering pillow talk as cruel as it is intimate, Mike Posner revealing himself as a big-spending loser in “I Took a Pill in Ibiza.”
Justin Bieber topped the year-end Hot 100 with late 2015’s “Love Yourself,” a samba-ish thrust in the direction of romantic emancipation with a babyish obscenity at its core. He really means “F--- Yourself”: the phrase at the core of so many public exchanges this year, from candidate debates to your own meme-besmirched Facebook page. Civility is dead, apologies are for suckers, and as Bieber told one interviewer, owning your total boorishness is more important than learning from it. Bieber also whined his way through “Sorry,” another discouragingly enduring 2015 single that sounds like one side of a truly pointless lovers’ spat. He is not sorry; that would take too much work. “Sorry, not sorry” is everybody’s catchphrase now. At least Beyoncé found some freedom in it. Lesser mortals got stuck within the shrug it represents, its avoidance mechanisms and refusal of truth.
Am I being too dramatic? In these violent times, I crave music that admits the genuine mayhem anger can create. I found it in the indigenous shapeshifter Tanya Tagaq’s amazing battle cry, Retribution, and in Kanye West’s disordered, sometimes beautiful brain-dump, The Life of Pablo. It’s part of what ripples beneath the surface of Frank Ocean’s cool. It’s also the force behind my favorite rock song of the year: the Julie Ruin’s churning tirade “Be Nice.” That group’s Kathleen Hanna, who’s lived through a few culture wars, describes an encounter with a smug sexual harasser, taking on his voice and then distorting it, pulling out of its ugly tones great bloody handfuls of guts. “Be N-I-OI-EE-U-I-SSSS!” she howls, absolutely wrecking the premise of civil discourse. In her voice, I hear her revolution. Maybe that kind of noise is what’s going to get me through 2017.