It’s good to be back in your illuminating presence. Like everyone else, it seems, I had a confusing year, both personally (deaths in the family; the birth of a new book), and as just another red-eyed flicker addict desperately scrolling through my social feeds in search of that one link to hope—or at least for a distraction silly enough to momentarily obliterate panic. (That’s me in the corner, muttering “Gucci gang Gucci gang Gucci gang.”) Researching the last chapter of Good Booty, which is all about how our fusion with new technologies is altering our most intimate experiences, I discovered a term coined by the philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark that I can’t stop thinking about in 2017: the soft self. Clark defines soft selfhood as “a rough-and-tumble, control-sharing coalition of processes—some neural, some bodily, some technological”—not the cyborgian confusion of Westworld, but the screen-induced schizophrenia of Mr. Robot.
The slide into the posthuman accelerates every time we pick up our devices. Following this line of thought, some might say now we even have a posthuman president, Twitter-generated and meme-sustained. The soft self is what I hear speaking in Soundcloud rap, where the emo legacy Carl and Jack mention merges with gamer ADHD and an utter disinterest in authenticity reflective of a generation that grew up in a world already ruled by South Park and The Simpsons. I also see it manifested through Cardi B, who reps for what Julianne identifies as the glorious intersectionality of millennials, but also for their comfort with cyborgian frontiers. As Lindsay Zoladz has written, Cardi’s openness about her multiple cosmetic procedures “has defanged the real-vs.-fake conversation … and might make things slightly easier for some of the female artists who come up after her.” Cardi B also embodies the millennial attitude toward the creative process as ongoing and essentially collaborative. “Bodak Yellow” itself is a prime example, a reworking of Kodak Black’s “No Flockin’” that isn’t an answer song, but a freestyle that channels the Florida rapper’s phrasings and even his name through the wub machine of Cardi’s own brain.
As an aging member of the me generation, I’m sometimes overwhelmed by the pace of millennials’ instinctual, omnivorous life-remixing. And my own soft self sometimes goes a little haywire. One example might contribute to our conversation about Spotify. A few weeks ago, all my Facebook friends started posting those “your year in Spotify” lists, full of the cool stuff they streamed. I took a look at mine—and it was almost 100 percent pop-punk and nu-metal. “Nookie” by Limp Bizkit, a song I have actively despised for 15 years, was in my top 10! How did this happen? More like where: My daughter, a Hot Topic rewards card holder who went to her first Warped Tour this past summer, controls my phone in the car on the half-hour drive home from school. She’s taught herself the history of active rock via Spotify and studies up when we’re stuck in rush hour on I-40. My own use of the service tends toward discovery—playing new releases, which I’ll often download via a publicist if they stick—or archival research for various writing projects, which is why next to Neck Deep and Andy Black on my Spotify 2017 Wrapped list, Joan Baez appeared as my artist of the year.
I share this embarrassing anecdote to illustrate that, like any means of distribution, streaming services have enormous but not universal influence on listening practices. Liz Pelly’s work (readers: if you missed Carl’s links to it earlier, here you go) commendably expose the way these services, like virtual manifestations of late capitalism, promote an illusion of choice while mostly steering people to remain in consumerist lock step. I hope she further exposes the way payola works in this world, where independent curators with no workplace code of ethics can be highly influential, among other factors. But I do think active listening still happens, often among the young, and certainly in local scenes where live music matters, and artists are figuring out new ways to foster community. Not everything is becoming background. Beyond the dissolving mainstream, plenty of people still passionately foreground their favorite musical creators. Punk had a great year, for example, with bands like the ferocious Downtown Boys, the incessantly creative Priests, rowdy Sheer Mag, and the pop-smart Charly Bliss all making list-topping music for the mosh pit.
All of the bands I just mentioned also foreground the creative energies of women. Yes, folks, 2017 was yet another year of women in rock. Even the New York Times said so! I’ve said my piece elsewhere about why women taking over rock, specifically, is so important in 2017, as part of the sea change that itself began life as a meme: #MeToo. And while from one angle, the paradigm shift seems to be happening only within the scattered realm still somehow labeled “indie” (we could talk about that term, in a year when half the year’s top-ranked albums were issued on independent labels), that view all depends on how you define rock. I’d argue that Kesha’s glorious Rainbow, Lorde’s Joni Mitchell–indebted Melodrama, and St. Vincent’s bid for Bowiedom Masseduction are all rock albums, not only by some polemical definition but in a very classic sense.
My favorite pop example is Kesha, who, following Lady Gaga’s lead, took up the mantle of rock outsiderness to assert her power, dignity, and leadership of her familial fan base. “This is a hymn for the hymnless, kids with no religion/ Yeah, we keep on sinning, yeah, we keep on singing,” she sang in her album’s most tender anthem; in other eras, those lyrics might have been written by Bowie, or Eddie Vedder, or Pete Wentz. When she took the stage at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in September, Kesha turned the Mother Church of country music into an off-season Pride bash, the crowd’s sweat blending with glitter and staining rainbow flags. It was one of my two favorite shows of the year, along with Perfume Genius’ explosively emotional May set at the Exit/In. In that performance, that band’s inimitably dynamic leader, Mike Hadreas, burned rock’s weird legacy of homophobic peacockery to the ground and emerged as a new being, just as the album No Shape recreates rock as a new frontier, one in which the binary-eradicating crooner and the New Wave leatherboy stand alongside the guitar god as founding figures. A few months earlier, I’d seen Julien Baker on the same stage, remaking rock, too: just a young woman, an electric guitar, and an array of looping pedals, that humble set-up generating arena-sized emotion. The men who stood in front of me and beside me openly wept. It was a baptism, a cleansing of the crud that’s ossified around rock as a culture-dominating idea.
One person who cleared out the crud was Katie Crutchfield of the band Waxahatchee. Jack, I see you put her fantastic fourth album, Out in the Storm, on your best-of-year List. It’s one of my favorites, too. Crutchfield started her creative life making much rawer music; her early work exemplifies the “bedroom auteur” school of indie, in which a carefully cultivated amateurism promises revelations more craft can obscure. On Out in the Storm, though, Crutchfield is reclaiming her time. She’s become a powerful band leader, an incisive songwriter, a classic rock hero with revolution on her mind. Staring into the fissure of a romance that suppressed her spirit by dominating her life, Crutchfield confronts the way her lover used his masculine entitlement to make her feel marginal and how she accepted that position. Walking to the center of her own story, she rages, she cries, she flies. In the devastating, hymnlike “Recite Remorse,” Crutchfield remembers one of her worst moments during the breakup and how radical loneliness brought a revelation: She would survive. “For a moment I was not lost,” she sings. “I was waiting for permission to take off.” What she learned, as so many women remembered this year, is that she could grant that permission to herself.
Katie Crutchfield inspires me. Who inspired you this year? Is it corny to still want to be lifted up by songs? I await more brilliant insights.
Until then, I’ll slip away,