It should not be as hard as it has been to see the next sunrise. We made it through 2020, but a month after the calendar turned, I’m still not sure how we did it. There were many days when no betting man would have taken odds on our survival. Often, I assumed that our problems were greater and more intractable than those of my neighbors. Perhaps they were. But if there’s a single thing that 2020 taught us, it’s that there are wolves at every door. We’re all beset, and there’s nowhere to run.
There are those among us who didn’t experience a feeling of constant existential threat in 2020. They didn’t feel jeopardized by poor leadership, or by the police, or the proliferation of guns, or by the growing sense of entitlement among those who prefer violent solutions to everyday problems. Perhaps they convinced themselves that the virus was a network news exaggeration or a political ploy. They had no crippling psychological or physical problems to contend with. We all know people like that. But chances are, you don’t count them among your pals. They’re certainly not voting in this annual Poll, brought back from oblivion, by me, to help ease the chill of a treacherous winter: one where we’re busily binding up wounds, warily looking out our windows at days we’re not permitting ourselves to enjoy, and girding ourselves against what’s to come.
Fifty-three voters submitted Poll ballots. Almost all of them came from regular respondents. It was a tough year to make new friends, and this exercise has always been, at its essence, a roundup of friends’ opinions. Because I know you, I can say with some authority that you’re part of an anxious tribe. Even during sunnier days, we’ve tended to pick stormy soundtracks: St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy in 2011, Of Montreal’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? in 2007, The Loud Family’s Days For Days in 1998. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is not your number one jam. In 2020, there was always very little chance that this resurrected Poll would be topped by anything other than a ghost story.
Phoebe Bridgers put a scribbled apparition on the cover of her debut album. For Punisher, she’s dressed in a skeleton suit, and she poses, bent backward under the weight of night, contemplating a vast and starry sky. She wears the same suit in the video for “Kyoto”, and surfs through a green-screened Japan like an animate memento mori. But a spirit in the material world she is not — she’s a flesh-and-blood woman, grappling with cosmic forces, cracking jokes as her stride quickens near the gates of the cemetery. “A slaughterhouse/an outlet mall/slot machines/fear of God”: this is her ten-word State of the Nation report on “I Know The End”. Once older listeners (and we voters are now more than three decades older than we were when we began this tradition on placemats in a Jersey sit-down deli) might have found her fatalism premature. Times have changed. These days, the ghosts rattle their chains in earshot of everybody. Phoebe Bridgers was the reporter who gave it to us straight, and with no small amount of gratitude for her candor and courage, we’ve put her second album atop the thirty-first edition of our Poll.
The music on Punisher is not extraordinary. The arrangements are straightforward. Melodies don’t take unusual turns. It’s stark and spectral West Coast folk-pop, aligned with that of college rock practitioners, and it is descended in spirit from the ’70s records of the songwriter who Phoebe Bridgers reminds me of the most: Jackson Browne, another generational spokesperson with one eye on his deteriorating interpersonal relationships and another on doomsday. The words, however, are uncompromising, and, at times, downright scary. Her narrators live too close to the hospital; they’re hearing ambulances and getting spooked. One love song is called “ICU”, another chronicles an affair with a married man who “might be dying”. A character stalks the songwriter Elliott Smith, even though he killed himself two decades ago. Romantic metaphors are delivered with an undercurrent of terror: a lover is a “work of art”, but she stands too close and “sees the brushstrokes”, another pulls her in so deep that her feet “can’t touch the bottom”, and there’s a strong intimation of death by drowning. She thinks of the things she’d do for love, and when her mind flashes to the Brian Stow killing in the Dodger Stadium parking lot, it somehow makes perfect sense. Characters duck ontological anxiety by picking fights: a pointless quarrel about John Lennon, invective about “Tears In Heaven”, condemnation of a boyfriend’s mother who is probably neck-deep in QAnon propaganda. In one pivotal sequence, a character gets into a shouting match with Westboro Baptists, only to admit to herself, in the solitude of her room, that she envies their certainty that the soul will transmigrate. She tries to hear the ghosts in the walls, but is confronted by the limits of her own materialism: that’s impossible, she concludes, to her dismay. All things are sliding inexorably to the same finish line, and when she passes the “End Is Near” sign on the highway, she stands up straight and confronts its blank back side. The world Phoebe Bridgers is describing is not a pretty one, or a particularly survivable one. But it’s most certainly our world, and if we must live in it, it’s nice to know we’ve got company.
Punisher finishes, comfortably but not thumping-ly, ahead of 2012 Poll winner Tame Impala. I chalked up the popularity of Lonerism among our voters to Kevin Parker’s occasional vocal resemblance to John Lennon, and the enduring popularity of pop-psychedelia. I now acknowledge it’s more complicated than that. Tame Impala lyrics are candid and incisive, and although Kevin Parker often makes you fight through the machine processing to get to them, they’re always worth riddling out. Many of the respondents who voted for The Slow Rush mentioned the album’s themes: the inexorable passage of time, romantic disillusionment, the awful inevitability of growing up. Sorry about that; it happens to us all, if we’re lucky. Fiona Apple’s celebrated Bolt Cutters wears its theme more boldly, and that figures, since outspokenness as a means toward self-definition is one of the things she’s angling for. The Canadian-Colombian Lido Pimienta makes many of the same points, only en Español, which, given the emotional clarity and pure vehemence of her performances, ought to be no obstacle to appreciation of her music. I’ve been waving the flag for Miss Colombia since its release this spring, so if its appearance at #5 seems a little high to you, you might blame the Pollmaster for that. It’s the highest finish for any Spanish-language album in the history of our Poll.
I’ll have a lot to say about T. A. Swift over the next few days, and I don’t want to start the engine roaring just yet. For now, I’ll just point out that over the last fifteen months, she’s released fifty-two songs and three albums. I believe that’s unprecedented. Even if you don’t like what she’s written, it’s hard to knock the productivity. I’m reminded of the crazy streak that Roger Waters was on in the late ’70s, but Pros And Cons Of Hitchhiking — which was apparently written at the same time as The Wall and The Final Cut — didn’t come out until 1984.
Those who voted for Punisher and Fetch The Bolt Cutters tended to place those albums at the very tops of their lists. Nobody had Football Money very high, but it appeared on many of your ballots: 15 of the 53 submitted. Because I hadn’t even heard of Kiwi Jr. until December, this surprises me. Maybe it shouldn’t. Many of the voters in this Poll are veterans of power pop and indiepop bands, and Football Money has the verities in place: sardonic lead singer as mentally restless as early Joe Jackson, plenty of guitar textures, jangle and snap, copious chord changes and hooks delivered at high velocity, brevity, wisecracks, references to being broke. Indie musicians can relate. Kiwi Jr. finishes in a flatfooted tie with perennial Poll favorite Of Montreal, and The Beths, whose Jump Rope Gazers is moody and lovelorn but never less than tuneful. Several Jump Rope voters made it clear that they don’t like this one as much as Future Me Hates Me, the Beths debut, and an unadulterated exercise in New Zealand power pop. I know ’em both, and I’m pretty sure the new one is better. It’s certainly less frantic.
You might assume that this is friendly territory for Springsteen: we’ve got lots of Jersey voters, and I’m a Jersey guy. But the truth is that the Boss has usually taken a beating on our Poll. Some of our most reliable voters are passionate E Street detractors, and he’s been a landslide winner in certain negative categories in the very recent past. The embrace of Letter To You isn’t even a restoration, because he’s never finished in the Top Ten before. Our voters just liked this one. Most of those who tapped Letter To You had never submitted a ballot with a Springsteen album on it before.
Hip-hop arrives in the early teens. None of that kid stuff: these rappers are skills-heavy veterans with loud mouths and personal agendas to push. The Alchemist provides Freddie Gibbs with a silky backdrop for his pleasantly vicious storytelling, Quelle Chris matches spy music and weird, off-balance beats to Homeboy Sandman’s latest clever/curmudgeonly verses, and Jaime Meline fires up the RTJ machine for another trip to the barricades with co-pilot Killer Mike delivering broadsides from the shotgun seat. Superficially, Andy Shauf couldn’t be more different: on The Neon Skyline, he’s a mumbling barfly who, through his own romantic inaction, has allowed the girl he wants slip through his fingers. But even though he isn’t as assertive as the rappers are, his dilemma — which is elaborated in some detail on a concept set that features the sort of linear storytelling that our voters always like — isn’t too different from theirs. He’s dealing with thirtysomething desperation, and the creeping feeling that he’s about to enter a period of irrelevance. Mike blames the government, Homeboy Sandman blames his girlfriend, and Freddie blames his rivals on the street. Andy blames himself. By the end of The Neon Skyline, you might feel that he deserves a good scapegoat.
Juice WRLD was less than half Killer Mike’s age when he died of a drug overdose a little over twelve months ago. We’ve lost too many promising rappers over the last few years: Pop Smoke, whose posthumous release Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon narrowly missed this Top 40, was shot to death in February. Stepa J. Groggs of the excellent Arizona group Injury Reserve — Rookie of the Year candidates in 2018 and 2019 — died this summer. Emcees with the potential to make it through their twenties and deliver solid music, Homeboy Sandman-style, well into their forties are getting waylaid by a combination of violence and self-destructive compulsions. It’s another horrible American phenomenon, and one that ought to concern everybody who loves music.
A few interesting names in this section, and at least one that’s become a genuine hot potato. Even as his venomous statements have pushed him past the periphery of pop music and into the netherzone of the non-personed, many of our voters have not turned on Morrissey. I couldn’t agree less with the political positions he’s taken — I don’t even want to dignify them by calling them a coherent ideology — but as an appreciator of pop records, I find his recent ones aesthetically successful. I’m not sure he’s ever sung more passionately or more communicatively than he has on his last three albums, including the covers set California Son. Morrissey was adamant that I Am Not A Dog On A Chain was his best work, and he complained, Curt Schilling-like, that critics were intentionally withholding the approbation he deserved. That’s probably true. If we can agree that he did it to himself, and if we can further agree not to feel bad for him when he whines (I sure don’t feel bad for Schilling), I think we ought to be able to approach his records and appreciate them for what they are: very solid pop-rock recordings from a talented but deeply unpleasant practitioner of the style. He’s always been highly misanthropic. If you remember him differently from his days with the Smiths, well, I think you were missing the essence of the man.
Moz comes in three places and three points after a musical hero of mine: the Berkshire folk-rock singer Laura Marling, who, if we’d held this Poll in 2017, would’ve likely won it. Our voters were less enthusiastic about Song For Our Daughter. She hasn’t finished in the twenties since Alas, I Cannot Swim, her debut, in 2008. Going in the other direction: Nada Surf is a group that has always gotten votes here and there, but has never finished in the Top 30 before; their (early) association with Ric Ocasek and the talkiness of Matthew Caws’s approach and the er, power in their pop are all hallmarks of groups that do well in this Poll. Finally, it’s always gratifying to see Sparks on a year-end list. It takes a certain type of person to appreciate that group, and yes, if you’ve read this far, I reckon you’re that type.
In 1996, our swaggering Poll winner made a memorable boast on his own behalf. “No one writes them like they used to”, sang Stuart Murdoch, “so it may as well be me.” He then demonstrated what he meant. “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” runs on a sturdy chord progression – one in which the chords don’t fall exactly where you’re expecting them to fall. More importantly, the song’s melody isn’t tethered to those changes. Instead, it develops. It keeps on dancing and spinning and twirling across the chords until it reaches a logical and satisfying peak, and then the tune pushes you over the top and you slide, sled-like, down the mountain. Whee. Because it’s a pop song, there’s some repetition, but there isn’t much of it. The melody leads the accompaniment – and Stuart stays in firm control of the melody throughout.
But is he right? Is this the way they used to write them? There have always been composers who’ve done it like that: Duke Ellington, Richard Rodgers, Carole King, and Elvis Costello, who showed us that there’s no contradiction between melodic development and rocking like your pants are on fire. Critics have always rewarded this skill. If you can develop your melodies in a clever fashion within the strict confines of the three-minute pop song, you stand a pretty good chance of winning this Poll, and many others, too. Yet even during the heyday of the Beatles, there were plenty of songs – great songs – that weren’t composed with an emphasis on novel melodic trajectory. Instead, there’d be a standard chord progression, usually a basic blues, and the melody would stick pretty close to the roots of those chords. Often, the rhythmic pattern of the melody wouldn’t change even when the chords did: it would be the same thing, only a little higher, or a little lower. That’s because the world, or trad., was suppling the progression, and the band was simply singing on top of something that already existed. They were toplining, even though they wouldn’t have called it that then.
We barely call it that now. Most music listeners aren’t familiar with the concept of toplining; given how infrequently it’s mentioned in reviews in which it would be salient to mention, I’m forced to the conclusion that many critics aren’t aware of it, either. But in 2021, toplining is standard music industry practice, widely discussed by the people who assemble the hits that score our lives, and in order to understand modern pop, it’s essential to know what it is and how it works. Most modern pop songs are assembled through a topline process: the producer creates the backing track first, and then somebody else writes a lead melody (there may be secondary melodies implied by the track) and lyric, and the two halves are steam-pressed together by mixers and mastering engineers. Sometimes, I’m sure, the producer and the topliner are in the studio together, giggling and experimenting and having a great time, as Carly Rae Jepsen and Jack Antonoff are depicted doing in the video for “This Love Isn’t Crazy”. More often – especially during quarantine conditions – the producer and the singer will be on opposite sides of the country, or the world, exchanging data files and working in isolation. In electronic dance music, the producer will often send the same beat out to many different topliners at once, and the writer who welds the catchiest and most commercially compelling melody and hook to the beat gets the gig, and the glory.
It probably sounds to you like I’m deriding toplining. I’m not. I think it is a perfectly valid way to work. It might not sound as fun as the traditional rock band dynamic does, but it has its advantages: it’s quick, it all happens in the box, everybody gets to concentrate on what he or she does best, and nobody passes out drunk or gets into fistfights in the practice space. There are some who believe that those fistfights are essential to pop; as a shy and retiring sort hunched over my computer, I avoid that crowd. Hip-hop has always run on a topline model: the RZA would make the music and cut the bars, carpenter-like, into the shapes he wanted, and then he’d ask the other members of the Wu-Tang Clan to compete for the space he’d created. The ascendancy of the topline model in pop means that most hitmaking producers are treating singers the way rap auteurs have always treated their emcees and hook writers. Get in the booth and vocalize over this sick beat, and keep doing it until you come up with a keeper.
I have absolutely no doubt that Beyoncé Knowles could sit down at a piano and write really good songs from scratch if she wanted to. Superfan that I am, I could point you to places in her deep discography where it’s pretty clear to me that she did just that. Nevertheless, she prefers to topline, and it’s not hard to understand why. She’s getting the wildest, catchiest beats from the most creative producers on the planet, and as a superstar with immense clout, she’s got the capacity to insist on amendments to whatever it is she’s opted to sing over. If Beyoncé feels a bridge coming on, you can be sure that Boots, or whoever else she’s hired, is going to back into the ProTools and switch around the beat to accommodate her request. Yet few artists have the clout that Beyoncé does. As the monoculture continues to agglomerate all music on all levels into a single glossy post-genre pop style, it’s becoming increasingly apparent to me that many “indie” artists (whatever that means in 2021) are toplining, too. They’re singing over pre-made loops. Sometimes they’ve created those loops themselves and tailored them to their peculiar tastes, as Kali Uchis did on her Drunken Babble mixtape. More often, the loops are fixed by somebody else, and they’re working within a producer’s super-tight parameters.
Again, this is just another way of composing, and every year, thousands of wonderful songs are made like this. But in order to understand why modern pop (and modern “indie”, too) sounds like it does, it’s necessary to be honest about the aesthetic limitations of toplining and the effects of its widespread adoption. Think back to the Belle & Sebastian song that I opened this essay with – it’s probably still stuck in your head – and notice how everything is designed to advance the melody through time. The tune leads the composition: it comes first, and the accompaniment follows. Because there’s a single songwriter, in this case likely sitting on a chair in a church basement, it may have come a split-second first. But it was certainly guiding Stuart as he strummed away on his acoustic guitar. He is at liberty to extend that melody as far as his chord progression will allow him, and if he feels like modifying that progression, it’s as simple as moving his hand from one fret to the next. The topliner does not have that ability. She’s forced to operate after the fact of writing, and wholly within somebody else’s vision. She might coin a delightful melody, but no matter how it sparkles, it’s not driving the composition. It’s the hood ornament. The producer supplies the engine.
This means that it’s impossible to mint a melody like “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” through toplining. That thrill ride – the dips and drops and crests and turns, and that sense that the tune has gathered its own irresistible momentum and is carrying you along with it – can only happen if the melody is leading the accompaniment. In order to compensate for the lack of forward motion that developmental melody naturally provides, the vocalist must generate the kinetic effects on her own. If you’ve ever wondered why modern pop so often sounds like a sing-off, loaded with melisma, vibrato, feats of strength and ear-shredding FX, that’s because the topliner has few compositional options to generate excitement, and the star at the microphone must take up the slack. I’m a fan of showy vocalists, but even I’ll admit that the glee club model gets tiresome after a while. There are other, better ways to keep the listener interested.
Which brings us to an irony of modern music: even as the vocalist (who is often the topliner), is forced to work harder than ever before, her influence over the direction of the song has been attenuated. The producer has wrested power away from the singer. Advances in processor speed and connectivity has made this possible, and it’s inevitable that composing musicians would avail themselves of all the file-transfer tech they can get their hands on. It makes their jobs easier.
Nevertheless, that’s not the whole story. The consolidation of producer power and the proliferation of toplining is, I believe, also a reaction to the spike in female autonomy and authorship that occurred during the end period of the twentieth century. Pop producers are overwhelmingly male. Their stars – their topliners – tend to be women. When their contribution to the composition is reactive by design, the male author feels more comfortable, especially since he holds the eraser and, therefore, the final word. In the 21stcentury, the woman with the guitar, operating as Stuart Murdoch did on If You’re Feeling Sinister, has virtually been expunged from pop, and she’s lost a lot of altitude in independent music, too. The best we can hope for is that the man working the mouse is sensitive to her desire for artistic expression, and is willing to treat her topline as part of a dialogue, rather than a commercially necessary but ultimately frivolous decoration. Many of the best producer-topliner relationships do feel respectful and symbiotic, and demonstrate that intra-sex cooperation didn’t go away after the disbandment of Fleetwood Mac. One of the reasons that audiences found Billie Eilish so endearing was because we all knew her brother handled the production. Regardless of the nature of the relationship, it was easy to imagine that Finneas was her male doppelganger, and he couldn’t be too controlling or it would ruin Thanksgiving dinner at the Eilish house.
Then there’s the artist who Billie Eilish reminds me of: Fiona Apple, another irritable theater kid whose latest album was received as an instant classic. The doomed-feminist arguments on Fetch The Bolt Cutters are powerfully underscored by Fiona’s complete refusal to enter into a modern toplining relationship with her producers. Kick her under the table all you want, she won’t tailor her melodies, or her bars, to rhythms or progressions generated by somebody else. Tempting as it is to see her production and composition choices as atavistic – the acts of a hermetic auteur holding out for an old way of doing things – there’s actually no reason why other artists couldn’t follow her lead. Fiona Apple, for better and for worse, is wedded to the compositional logic of the mid-20thcentury masters, and that just doesn’t fit very well in a quantizer. If we’re going to call her old-fashioned, maybe it’s best to see her as a throwback to the false dawn when Nina Simone, and Sandy Denny, and Carole King, and Joan Armatrading, and Phoebe Snow, and Joni Mitchell, and Kate Bush, and Laura Nyro sketched the outlines of a new type of pop authorship. Pissed off, funny, and warm, all of them. Good men in a storm. And when the fall is torrential… well, you know the rest.
“Because you’re a Springsteen fan, I think you’re missing the point of why so many of us are so taken by Letter To You. I hadn’t liked an album of his since Born in the U.S.A., and even there, the repetitiousness of the arrangements made those songs less than the words and tunes deserved. Letter To You is him noticing ‘Wait a second: our music was much more interesting in the 1970s, when I let my very talented band run loose. What if we tried to sound like that again?’ Of course, it’s a great idea! An easy idea, but we didn’t think they would ever have it! Abandoning the terrible ideas of the Reagan and post-Reagan era: if only the world would catch up in more areas than Springsteen records.”
Brian’s objection to my assessment of Letter To You reminds me that I was always miscast as a Springsteen correspondent. Although I count the Boss among my favorite recording artists, my view of his catalog is idiosyncratic: I prefer his ‘80s albums to his ‘70s albums. Not by a little, either. Springsteen in the ‘70s was a great bandleader and a wonderful live attraction, but he hadn’t eluded the long shadows cast by his influences: Dylan, certainly, but also the Stones and the Animals, and a bunch of other man-rock bands. His solution to every aesthetic problem he faced was to go over the top, as far as he could, and assert his own virility and lean hard on what we now call masculine imperatives.
Springsteen in the ‘80s was incomparable. Through the traditional language of rock he delivered a critique of Middle American consciousness and the institutions at the dark heart of the country — the factory, the dysfunctional family, the prison, the church — that’s still resounding in Nashville, Los Angeles, and every college town in the country. The conceptual work he began on The River took the shape of a desperado’s diary on Nebraska, a recidivist’s confession on the even more desolate Born In The U.S.A., and a husband’s exhausted prayer on Tunnel Of Love. To listen to those albums in the proper spirit is to confront America.
In order to become the songwriter he was always meant to be, he needed to redefine his relationship with his band. The Boss had to stop thinking about what he was doing as a form of theater, and begin imagining himself as a correspondent instead — a kind of emotional journalist, transmuting national pain into poetry for the masses. That meant using the band as an instrument, which, when you think about it like that, isn’t a very nice way to treat some of the greatest instrumentalists in rock history. But it had to be done, and do it he did. He bypassed arena rock and Dylanesque fever-dreams altogether (at least in the studio) and went all the way back to Chuck Berry and the rock take on the American Dream. He turned over some of those rotting planks, and took a good long look at what struggled out of the mud.
This is not a popular take on Bruce Springsteen, and I still have the disgruntled letters from readers to prove it. The far more common line on the Boss is that the ‘70s records were life-giving, the wildly exciting, cathartic, optimistic, interminable concerts were the point, and he only stumbled when he matched his songs with synthetic ‘80s production. I find those ‘80s arrangements a much better match for the stark, distraught subject matter of his best songs, and wish only that some of the better tracks on Darkness could have been recorded in the style of his ‘80s albums. And I think that in spite of the ecstatic reception of Springsteen’s nostalgia move on Letter To You, 2020 did quite a bit more to advance my argument than it did to disprove it. This was a big year for Springsteen, but not for the reasons that the fist-pumpers in General Admission at the Izod Center think. Other, far younger artists cemented the legacy of the Boss by recording insta-classics indebted to his ‘80s records. 2020 showed why Springsteen still matters deeply: not because of “Born To Run”, which will always belong to 1975, but because of the music he made that remains salient to the ugly present.
Consider, for instance, our Poll winner. Phoebe Bridgers’s two most visible influences are Elliott Smith, who she sings about on “Punisher”, and Conor Oberst, who she actually recorded an album with. But the actual writing on Punisher (and Stranger In The Alps) reminds me more of ‘80s Springsteen: the recursive symbolism in the lyrics, the sturdy folk melodies warped by the metamorphic pressure of contemporary pop, the stark-eyed view of America as a place of constant conflict, the pad-like synthesizers and occasional lonesome electronic sounds meant to connote vast, wide-open spaces and a backdrop for emotional desolation. After my first listen to Punisher, I told Hilary that I’d just heard the best Springsteen album since Devils & Dust.
That was before the surprise release of the Folklore/Evermore monster, which wasn’t greeted with copious references to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘80s records, and I wish I knew why. Jack Antonoff, Taylor Swift’s most prominent collaborator for the past few cycles, is a Springsteen fanatic who drags all of his pop productions into the swamps of Jersey; check out that outro on “Paper Rings” if you’re hungry for a nice helping of Turnpike grease. Steel Train, his old band, was an attempt to harmonize his Boss obsessions with the prevailing style on the Warped Tour; eventually he gave up on that and just imitated Springsteen. Justin Vernon has always made his affection for ‘80s man-rock apparent (and what was For Emma if not an Upper Midwest stab at Nebraska-like insularity?) Then there are the dudes from the National, who’ve been pinching from Springsteen for two decades, and hiding what they’d stolen in the bushes behind the conservatory. I see you, dudes from the National. You can’t fool me.
This was the crew that made the music for Folklore and Evermore; a bunch of Springsteen nuts. Actually, that’s to sell it short. It’s more accurate to say that these are contemporary popular musicians who learned basic skills via osmosis from Springsteen records, and whose own records ooze essence of Boss. Then there’s the principal herself, who has always been vocal about her profound admiration for Bruce Springsteen (he’s returned the favor). Taylor Swift has switched genres, but even as she has, she’s never made anything more than small modifications in her basic approach: harmonically and melodically, she’s still very much the same songwriter who gave us “Picture To Burn” and “I’m Only Me When I’m With You”. Her frame of reference from her emergence has always been ‘80s mainstream radio. Which is funny, since she was born in ’89, but there it is.
I may be a little older than Taylor Swift. I remember purchasing Bruce Springsteen cassettes upon their release in the mid-‘80s. The thing that struck me the most about those albums – even more than the sound, which was evocative, and the performances, which were thunderously intense – was the Boss’s use of intertextuality. This was what distinguished him from his peers, even those who, like Paul Simon, were very good at writing lyrics. On his ‘80s albums, Springsteen made hay out of recurring lines and patterns of discourse, and called across the years from one set to another. One narrator says “I’ve got debts no honest man can pay”; a few songs later, another narrator in a completely different circumstance says the same thing, and you’re meant to feel the resonance between the two stories. People in one song may or may not be physically related to people in the next, but they’re conceptually related – they’re inhabitants of the same sociopolitical universe, linked by Springsteen’s masterful use of motif. On Born In The U.S.A., character after character is detained, arrested, incarcerated, handcuffed to the bumper of the state trooper’s Ford. The repetition and association is how the Boss makes his points. He pulls you into a world of echoes.
Since Tunnel Of Love, many other songwriters and album-makers have tried their hands at Bruce-style intertextuality. Some have even done it well. But no major commercial artist has ever dedicated themselves to callbacks and mirrors and echoes and lyrical shadows with the assiduousness, or effectiveness, of Taylor Swift in 2020. What’s more, she (and her producers) did it exactly like Springsteen did it in ‘80s: emphasizing certain lines, subtly underscoring elements of repetition, abridging the story here and there for dramatic effect, introducing dopplegangers, inviting the listener to imagine relationships between her characters, investing the stories with specificity via scene-setting detail, playing evenly on the heartstrings and the puzzle-solving impulse among listeners who she knew damn well were hanging on every syllable. Like Springsteen once did, Taylor Swift made the most of the attention she knew she commanded. She had different arguments to make. Nevertheless, she could not have run the ‘80s Springsteen playbook any better than she did, and when she did, she generated many effects familiar to me: a glimpse of a haunted universe, filled with figures who’d been rendered spectral by the mistakes they’d made. Scary stories suitable for scary times, brought to life by artists of acute sensitivity and formidable expressive power.
Punisher was one of the year’s best-reviewed albums. Folklore and Evermore were chart-toppers. These albums extend Springsteen’s influence and signature songwriting techniques into the second decade of the new millennium, just as Springsteen extended the techniques of Chuck Berry and Woody Guthrie into the final decades of the last one. That’s the great relay race, and he’s still right in the middle of it, with his hand on the trailing half of the baton, and Taylor Swift’s hand on the leading half. Yet we’ve been missing this – and part of that, I’m afraid, is the Boss’s own fault. Because he can’t let go of the ‘70s (and because he can’t break the arena-rock habit) he continues to be identified with the music he made before he reached full artistic maturity.
Many of those early albums are fantastic, particularly The Wild, The Innocent, And The E Street Shuffle, and they deserve to be celebrated. Nevertheless they aren’t the ones that establish Springsteen’s centrality to the present moment and the many moments to come, and I think a comparison to Tom Petty might be helpful. Everybody knows and loves the music that Tom Petty made in the late 1970s with the Heartbreakers. But nobody would ever try to argue that those singles are as tightly-knit into the story of pop as the ones he made once he shook free of the confines of his band, and the theatrical demands of arena-rock in general, and defined who he could be on his own terms. I believe that Springsteen did his legacy no favors by releasing Letter To You, even as I acknowledge that he’s setting us up for a heck of a nostalgia tour. And if in thirty years, Taylor Swift chooses to align herself and her artistic identity with “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me” rather than the material on Folklore, she’ll have made the same mistake.
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Whew, that took awhile. Okay – let’s move through the miscellaneous categories quickly, and then I’ll drop in some of the observations and predictions you sent me. Not everybody who contributes a ballot contributes commentary, but I appreciate those of you who do. The essay questions on the exam are always the tricky ones.
For the first time ever, Taylor Swift picked up significant support in the Best Singing category. I remember when it wasn’t just the dude from “Mean” who said she was no good in the booth. I always thought that was a silly position to take, and I’m glad I never hear it anymore. Brad Luen put it like this: “It’s grossly unfair that on top of everything else, she’s become the best indie rock singer since Jenny Lewis, but it turns out that savvy plus near-unlimited money does in fact make your dreams come true.” Anyway, the winner by plurality was Fiona Apple, who also won in 2012 for her performances on Idler Wheel. Awards season; the season of awards.
Some votes for Juice WRLD and Open Mike Eagle, but this was the year that Freddie Gibbs finally outpaced Killer Mike and Run The Jewels in the Best Rapping category. Freddie becomes the first straight-up gangsta rapper to take the top prize in our Poll. I’m glad to see that you all recognize that violent imagery and murderous rage is just another part of showbiz. I think.
Laura Marling skidded to 22nd place on the Poll, and didn’t place any singles on the list, either. But five voters did tap her for Best Songwriting, and I reckon she’d be happy to make that exchange. Interestingly, only one of those five Marling voters gave any points to Song For Our Daughter. Seems like you were more impressed with Laura Marling’s writing than you were with her execution, which is a complete reversal from the MySpace days when listeners were losing their minds over her vocal resemblance to Sandy Denny and Linda Thompson, but were justifiably leery of such stuff as “You Crawled Out Of The Sea.”
Phoebe Bridgers took the Best Lyrics category handily. I have never seen older rock guys embrace a young female artist more firmly, or immediately, than they’ve embraced Phoebe. That includes reactions to Liz Phair and Joanna Newsom, and it goes way, way beyond this Poll. Phoebe Bridgers seems designed to speak directly to the unconscious fears of the ‘70s soft-rock audience: that unnerving sense that Los Angeles represents the end of a long road westward for European civilization, and life in laid-back California is just an easygoing prelude to global cataclysm. This isn’t meant to be a damning criticism in any way; I dig Jackson Browne, too.
Most respondents didn’t bother to vote in the Best Album Cover category, which is a shame, because there were some very good ones this year. Given all the votes for The Slow Rush elsewhere on ballots, I’d have thought that Tame Impala would win this category by a, er, sandslide. The cover image is an actual photograph, by the way: they actually flew to a remote part of Namibia to get a shot of an interior half-eaten by the desert. That’s exactly the sort of thing that Pink Floyd would have done in their heyday. Roger Waters wouldn’t have been satisfied with an artist’s rendition; to make his point about inexorable deterioration, he would have insisted on documentary realism. I appreciate the effort.
For Best Album Title, D.P.K. voted for Chris Crack’s White People Love Algorithms. But do they? Guess I’ll have to see what Google tells me about that. Anyway, the winner, by a nose over Fetch The Bolt Cutters, was Poppy’s I Disagree. Not finished being disagreeable, she followed that up with an EP called I Disagree (More); this pre-dated Evermore by at least a month. Phoebe Bridgers would later tweet her intention to release Punishermore (it was a joke). It’s all derived from Pottermore, I imagine. One day we’re going to add up all the cues we’ve taken from J.K. Rowling over the past two and a half decades, and it’s going to be enough to fill up a Room of Requirement.
Here’s Tom Snow on Elizabeth Cook, his nominee for Most Welcome Surprise: “Evidently this woman has been singing at the Opry for two decades, but this is closer to Kula Shaker than Roseanne Cash. Overdriven vox, tight-but-not-uptight backing band, and lyrics that sound like they’ve been written by someone with some actual Life Experiences.” In addition to traditionalist country-rocking, she’s a radio host, and she does a fishing show called Upstream on something called The Circle Network. Yeah, I’m not tuning in to that, either. I’m all for breaching cultural divides, but there are limits to how far into the Kentucky hills I’m willing to go. But the Aftermath album is worthy of your attention, and you don’t even have to mine any coal to get it.
I was a little surprised to see votes for Lady Gaga in the Biggest Disappointment category. I thought she made a sure-footed return to the disco on Chromatica, but I can see how it might have struck some of you as safe, or automatic, or exhausting in its predictability. She was never a pioneer – she always looked a hundred times weirder than she sounded. Almost a decade after “Born This Way”, should she still be ripping off Madonna?
Fiona Apple won Most Overrated by a landslide, garnering some votes from Poll respondents who put Fetch The Bolt Cutters in their Top Tens anyway. I get it, but it’s not her fault. She didn’t ask for 10 out of 10; it’s pretty clear she wasn’t even shooting for a perfect score. The album is, among other things, a passionate argument against the very notion of flawlessness. To accuse it of perfection was the meanest thing the critics could have done.
A couple of you breezed through Purple Noon, the latest by Washed Out, and you probably didn’t realize that there was music playing. But your Crummy Album You Listened To A Bunch Anyway was None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive, the Streets comeback. You’re Mike Skinner loyalists; if he’s got something to say, you’ll let him say it, and that includes sexist cracks and soused pub humor. Anna Howe even evinced disappointment in the verb tense error in the album title. I don’t think that was pedantic. Mike’s a word man. He ought to know better.
Opinion was sharply divided on The Strokes: same as it ever was, right? It’s still 2000, coke-binge sunglasses and hoop earrings are in, and there are twin towers casting shadows on Vesey Street. Some of you wanted them to stop bugging you, and some of you evinced surprise about how much you enjoyed The New Abnormal. The former whipping boys of the Manhattan garage-rock revival took Thing You Feel Cheapest About Liking and Album That Turned Out To Be A Hell Of A Lot BetterThan You Initially Thought It Was. Interestingly, Julian Casablancas thematizes this on the record: “I want new friends, but they don’t want me,” he sings on “Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus,” articulating the lament of every aging white guy who feels socially stuck. Maybe he’s wrong. Maybe we’re all wrong. Maybe a pandemic is no time to find out.
Now, what sort of monster would vote for McCartney III for Album That Felt Most Like An Obligation To Get Through And Enjoy? I’m not going to name names, but I’m ashamed of you people. After all Paul has done for you, the least you can do is rock out to “Lavatory Lil” a time or two.
There was no consensus in the Artist You Respect, But Don’t Like category, but I count a few votes for Moses Sumney and Yves Tumor. They’re both making daring music, but it isn’t exactly user-friendly stuff. Funky as he is, Yves Tumor can be awfully abrasive. Moses Sumney seems disinclined to hammer his sonic and formal experiments into the recognizable shapes of pop songs. Maybe he never will. That’s his prerogative, but it’s worth remembering that the artists whose experiments reshaped the sound of modern music – Kanye, Prince, Joni Mitchell, James Brown George Clinton – started out earthbound, and pushed into the stratosphere from there. The wilderness is an inhospitable place to begin.
Everybody votes in the Worst Song Of The Year category. It’s a neat place to vent; about “Death Bed”, for instance (“the second-worst thing to go viral in 2020,” that’s Brad Luen again), or Asher Angel’s “Do U Wanna?” Justin Bieber put out about forty chart toppers in 2020, and quarantine meant that you didn’t have to hear any of them. Or maybe you did: he certainly took his lumps here. But you didn’t hate anything more than you hated Eric Clapton and Van Morrison for making awkward interventions in the global discussion by singing clumsy protest songs about lockdowns and masking. Regardless of their past glories, neither of those guys have ever been able to read a room.
There isn’t usually consensus about the Song That Would Drive You Craziest On Infinite Repeat. This year, there was, and it goes like this: body ody ody ody ody ody ody ody ody ody ody. Body ody ody ody ody ody ody ody ody ody ody. And so on. I can’t really disagree, but perversely, irritation just makes my admiration for Megan Thee Stallion increase. The entire Good News was a throwback to the glory days when hip-hop beats were made from cheap drum machines and airhorns and car alarms, and the producers and rhymers didn’t care at all if they annoyed the fuck out of you. In fact, they rather wanted to. In this era of artfully muffled kick drums and every song sounding like Drake featuring Drake, it was refreshing to find a rapper who cared enough to pester me.
On this Poll, Bob Dylan gets the praise, and his acolyte Bruce Springsteen is generally relegated to the negative categories. This year, their roles were reversed. Unless I’m miscounting, the Boss didn’t get a single vote in the Hoary Old Bastard Who Should Spare Us All And Retire, which is a first for him. Dylan, on the other hand, was subjected to a thorough examination of his expiration date. That, too, is a first. Oh, and Oliver Lyons bucked the Morrissey-apologetic trend I wrote about two days ago. He voted for Moz in this category, and wrote with such vehemence that I feel the need to quote him here: “Like, come ON! My man has been trash for the better part of two decades now and has destroyed almost all the goodwill his early work endeared to sensitive white men. I can barely describe his most recent songs as even ‘phoning it in’. Even the cover art for his last several albums look like made them himself in a cracked version of Photoshop. Stop singing and go join whatever the British equivalent of Fox News is until you die of Covid. Fucking asshole.”
Jack Harlow is this year’s Young Upstart Who Should Be Sent Down To The Minors For More Seasoning. I rather liked “What’s Poppin’”, but I didn’t bother to check out anything else he did, so I guess I concur that he’s inessential.
Finally, and somewhat grudgingly, you’ve decided that Taylor Swift is the artist who Will Still Be Making Good Records In 2030. You’re resigned to reality: she’s just going to keep coming at you, relentlessly, like the Space Invaders. At this point, I’m not even sure what tectonic event would be sufficient to slow her down. The financial crisis and the fights with her label didn’t stop her. Scandal didn’t lay a glove on her. Global catastrophe only seems to have quickened her pace. I guess it’s always possible that she could lose interest, but anybody who has seen her in concert knows that she loves pop too much to give it up for long. When she sings along to the other nominees’s performances during awards shows, that’s no bullshit – she really does know all the words. One of the main things that separates a star from a flash in the pan is the star’s true belief in the enduring value of what she’s doing, no matter how frivolous it may seem in the moment: she came to rock, and rock and roll is here to stay. In this context, the title of Evermore is a kind of promise. The road stretches farther than what we can see. No matter how uncertain the future, no matter how dark the forest gets, she’ll be there to hang some fairy lights for us.
OK, allow me to turn the floor over to you. Thank you, friends.
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Ben Krieger: The Killers were the only band that mattered to me in a year that felt like something out of the Book of Job. I needed a record that swung for the fences, and they delivered. AC/DC delivered as well, as did Carl Stone in his own way. I know I missed out on a lot of great records, or gave others (Fetch the Bolt Cutters) a lazy pass and then was done with them. I just didn’t care about music this year. I listened to my own projects, pain-numbing ambient albums, and the Killers and that’s pretty much all I remember. I threw myself into marches and bike protests and taking over the Williamsburg Bridge. For me, pop music failed to rise to the challenge of 2020. And if to drive the point home, Prince came back from the dead with a gazillion bonus discs of Sign of the Times material that put everyone to shame. I blasted that from my bike, and Beethoven on the way to work and Curtis Mayfield on the way home. I don’t even care enough about 2020 music to complain at the whole “locked-in-my-apartment” shtick. I just want to rise from the ashes of this year and forget it.
Adam Copeland: I spent almost all of 2020 inside my house, trying to calm my anxious mind. Familiar music became a great comfort, and I found it really difficult to muster up enough courage to confront the reality of the moment. Some things backslid.
Mike C: I listened to more music in 2020 than any other year of my life. By probably a decent margin. But it was the year that I returned to passive curation as my dominant form of consumption for the first time since I was 12 or 13. Back then it was MTV and the radio. Now it’s DJ livestreams, which began in March-July as mostly Questlove, D-Nice and others on YouTube Live and Instagram. Since August it’s been almost exclusively on Twitch. And it’s changing my life. After 21 years of grinding it out locally, I’m actually beginning, in some corners, to “enter the chat” of the global DJ world. This is Chevy Chase in the motel pool with Christie Brinkley kind of stuff. A blindingly bright silver lining that’s been overwhelming all the darkness outside the walls of my one-bedroom with study.
Jonathan Andrew: In 2020, I leaned on music like never before. (And I am someone who cares about little other than music.) I bought new releases by my contemporary faves (as well as lots of live stuff on Bandcamp). I watched livestreams by music-making friends. I remote-recorded with collaborators. I made mixes on Spotify and shared them with my life mates. I rediscovered forgotten gems (hola, first Crash Test Dummies album!) and nestled in the bosom of all-time favorites (Forever Changes and Aqualung on repeat). I was reminded that Pavement’s Steve West is a heckuva drummer and that Peter Gabriel might have the best voice out of anyone. I remembered how much I love ‘80s Metallica. And I finally found a way to enjoy a record by Sonic Youth (Dirty, for those keeping score.) Music was a distraction, a thing to do, a way to connect, a balm. I am ever grateful that, through some cosmic accident, I found the thing I am about at a young age and have had the privilege to devote so much time and mental bandwidth to it, as both listener and music maker.
Enrique Lavin: There is too much fucking good music and I don’t have time to properly digest it. So for last couple of years, I’ve been leaping from decade to decade, genre to genre, continent to continent. An addict looking for the next hit, no matter the place or time. I probably heard more Fatboy Slim this year than I’ve heard since 1999. (He did a series of DJ sessions for Apple Music that I devoured – and then replayed.) Such a traumatic year. I bet I wasn’t alone digging into the mental catalogue looking for comfort music. For me, Beck, Manu Chao, Bob Marley, Bjork, Cafe Tacuba, Aterciopelados, Juana Molina, Flaming Lips, Lana Del Rey, late Beatles, all Jack White projects, Radiohead, Amon Tobin, Aphex Twin. I even revisited my high school sweethearts Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Pink Floyd. Nicola Cruz and Lido Pimienta and other ZZKs were playing on regular rotation. Lots of J.S. Bach, Mozart, Telemann. But I also took in a lot of hip-hop radio; found myself dipping into these on a regular basis: Clipping, Run The Jewels, Jurassic 5 and Chali2na – I remember playing Midnight Marauders for my kids more than twice last summer. Speaking of radio: I give plenty of money to KEXP. I think of my contributions as tips. If I need a fix, they’re there to satisfy the itch. For music discovery, KEXP is my go-to.
George Pasles: I can’t explain how reassuring it was when the Rolling Stones song “Living In A Ghost Town” was released in April. Sure, everything since Some Girls has been pretty much the same, but 1.) it represented a shared global experience of fear and loss, and 2.) showed life, even in some constrained form, was still continuing.
Michael Flannery: We’re going to hear more records that focus on making live shows into parties. Lady Gaga was prescient making a stadium record.
Oliver Lyons (on the Worst Song Of The Year): Do I jump on the Bieber bandwagon and pick any number of the awful songs he put out this year? I honestly kind of respect that one song where in the video he dresses up as a coal mining man of the people and tries to get the MAGA chuds’ money by kinda doing a country song. I’m all for draining those monsters of what little material wealth they have.
Belinda Portman (Least Believable Perspective): The guy from the National on “Coney Island”, just because he sounds like he has no idea what he’s singing, why he’s singing it, where he is, who Taylor Swift is…etc.
Tom Snow (Album That Should Have Been Shorter): Everything that was longer than 39 minutes. If 2020 taught us nothing else, it was that many artists were capable of delivering a perfectly satisfying, fully realized LP that could still easily fit on one side of a 90-minute cassette.
Brian Block (in defense of Sufjan): I take Sufjan Stevens at face value, as an ambitious, sincere, geeky dilettante who’s making the music he genuinely wants to make. I loved Illinois. I mostly loved Age Of Adz even though it was willfully defying us to do so. Planetarium was soothing and my kids are happy to sleep to it and that’s worth appreciating. This year he gave us The Ascension, and there’s an incredible amount going on there; so many layers, so many creative choices, songs that evolve as they go. My kind of record! And I just keep wishing he’d thrown 3/4 of the layers out and figured out which parts were the good parts. Based on Carrie & Lowell, I have to admit he might have chosen dead wrong (by my lights). I keep wishing anyway.
Brad Luen (song that would drive you craziest on infinite repeat): “Toosie Slide”. At least the “Cupid Shuffle” gives clear instructions.
Marisol Fuentes (song that would drive you craziest on infinite repeat): You must not have children! Otherwise you would know the answer is “Baby Shark”, and you would retire this question out of mercy.
Hilary Jane Englert (song that would drive you craziest on infinite repeat): “WAP”. I will be making no further comment at this time. I ask only that you respect my privacy and that of my family during this painful and difficult period.
Brian Block: How the hell did 1970s Laurel Canyon/ Fleetwood Mac soft rock become dominant again? I was discussing this with my friend Miles: he said it’s one of those twenty-year-cycle things. I said no it wasn’t. In the 1990s, there were major songwriters who *could* have gone that direction, but instead let punk shape their work into alternative rock (Alanis Morissette, Belly, Soul Asylum) or let Kate Bush inspire them to something a little weirder (Tori Amos, Paula Cole, even Sarah McLaughlin a little). Miles said, wait, but what about Elliott Smith, and the High Llamas, and Cardinal? And I was like “What about them?”. Eventually I realized we’d been talking past each other. He was saying “You could find this stuff in the ‘90s if you looked”. I was saying “For most of my time on earth, it had been incredibly easy to avoid the damn stuff, and suddenly it’s everywhere”. Major stars. Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift, Phoebe Bridgers, Adrienne Lenker, now even Billie Eilish: they all have skill and talent, but they’re all infected. Why are these kids making this bloodless non-racket?
Brad Luen (major trends of 2020): Young women working out their identities through pop, which was kind of always what pop was for except the young women are writing the songs now.
Anna Howe (major trends of 2020): Songs that restore to the listener her best adolescent self, that return her to the kind of pure, hopeful, pained but unjaded erotic desire, that yearning for the kind of love and sex and freedom and play that the summer brings to a kid whose life is still organized around the school and the school year—(Taylor Swift, Front Bottoms, Troye Sivan, 2nd Grade, The Beths, Tyson Motsenbocker, the list goes on, as Nancy Pelosi might say). There’s always lots of nostalgia in pop music, but these songs felt somehow special to me last year, in their dramatization of not just youthful longing but excitement, expectation, faith. Maybe it was the quarantine and the social isolation, but so many of these representations of desire felt so real and powerful and joyful to me that I never found myself dismissing them (as I often do with nostalgia numbers) as just older people’s distorted memories. Among the responses to the Covid crisis (the empty houses, the Tik-Tok and social distancing jokes, the disaffection and loneliness stuff), this one was by far the most life-affirming, at least for me.
Brad Krumholz (major trends of 2020): Looking back on abusive relationships.
Dave Willis (major trends of 2020): Musicians and venues directly asking for financial support. And me giving.
Oliver Lyons (major trends of 2020): I no longer hear from self-righteous musicians about things like Patreon being “e-begging.” Curious, no?
Enrique Lavin (major trends of 2020): Sofa and garage YouTube concerts. Elevated NPR’s Tiny Desk format. Some of them worked. Mostly made one ache for live music in person.
Belinda Portman: I think we’ll be surprised at how many small and mid-sized venues re-open in NYC and the environs (obviously a good thing) and attempt to resume business as usual with very little innovation, new ideas, or changes to their business models (not so good).
Paula Carino: It is tragic what happened to live music venues this year, and at the same time, I do hope it puts an end, forever, to the “bar scene,” to shows at 1 AM on a Tuesday that I will never go to, to overpriced tickets, etc., and transform into something better, more egalitarian, more accessible to all.
Eugene Valdez: Not everybody practicing at home is posting progress reports on YouTube, but everybody who is practicing is getting better. Just wait. The shows to come are going to be great.
Kevin Dailey (on Ariana Grande and Positions): No one sings better than she does. The album crescendos beautifully into the title track, and her production team has been cranking out so many great hits over the years. I can honestly say I loved her 2018 “No Tears Left to Cry” without knowing she wrote it. Same was true for “Into You” from the year before. Along the way, she employs humor, honesty, and a deep longing and fragility. “Trippin’, fallin’ with no safety net” – hits me right in the gut. When the album finally peaks with “Positions”, I am absolutely hers. I never in a million years thought I would state emphatically: Ariana Grande’s songs own my heart. I don’t think I’m emotionally regressed. I think I just feel young again.
Tom Snow (On Folklore): A convincing Liz Phair impersonation, from the laid-back throatiness of her delivery to the carefully placed f-bombs. This being Taylor Swift, I’m not sure if the casual act is convincing, but the songs are certainly good enough. Oh, look, she just dropped another album this year as well. I suppose one can only make so much sourdough.
Hilary Jane Englert: (On Evermore): There’s quite a bit of Taylor Swift signature sophomoric diction and a painful number of mixed metaphors on Evermore. For some reason it all bugs me way more than the empty, nonsensical romantic poetry allusions on “The Lakes” (though that drove me nuts at first). She’s got a spell over me, that one. Eventually I forgive her everything.
Tom Snow (On Poppy’s I Disagree): Like the demonic love child of Mr. Bungle and Girls’ Generation, which, at first glance, might seem like she’s trying to ride in the slipstream of the latest Harley Quinn major motion picture release. But the songs are really good, and the backing band is really, really good. Not something I’d spin on a quiet, rainy Sunday afternoon, but this demands attention.
Tom Snow (On Good News): It’s “of a piece” with “W.A.P.,” though the album doesn’t quite reach the raunchy glory of the single, and a full-length becomes extremely tiring. Her producer’s incessant employment of her vocal quirk of saying “aaah” like there’s a tongue depressor (or, um, something) jammed into her throat becomes anxiety-triggering after a while.
Tom Snow (On Football Money): You listen to this and you realize that Pavement didn’t need to themselves so seriously.
George Pasles: (predictions for 2021): Terrible people twisting themselves in knots trying to describe liking Ariel Pink’s music.
Adam Copeland (predictions for 2021): I really hope the Wrens’ next record comes out. In 2021, we’re back to the heyday of JT and Britney with Disney stars feuding. Lin-Manuel Miranda will make something awful and aggressively neoliberal, and everyone will eat it up. Nu-metal makes a strong comeback on the heels of the success of Parler. TikTok charts begin to influence numbers to a point where all major artists begin to put parts in their songs that are exactly the right length and pattern to loop only 8 bars, perfectly, forever. I put out a song and it is a single byte of data, revolutionizing the record industry.
Brian Block (predictions for 2021): Might as well bring back analog synthesizers from 1968, treating every adjusted knob and switch as a leap into the sonic unknown. Its return would make just as much sense as all these girl James Taylors, but it also would be awesome.
Oliver Lyons (predictions for 2021):I know we’re going to be awash in Covid-19 metaphors for the better part of the next decade (or until the next plague comes along) but, can we maybe not? Can we all agree now that’s not going to be something that anyone will enjoy? Thanks.
Enrique Lavin (predictions for 2021): There just might be another Latin boom. With Biden signaling that Dreamers can dream again, there may be a rush of celebratory music coming from the U.S. Latino scene. Another trend could be that we’re all so fucking happy that we’ll return to some notion of normalcy under Biden that pop music gorges itself with escapist boy bands.
DPK (predictions for 2021): A banner year for hip-hop and rap (especially production)… an outpouring of a quiet year’s worth of exploration and deep crate digging. Dare I dream? A return of boom bap at the top of the game?
Jim Testa (predictions for 2021): Punk rock will have a big comeback as cities return to hosting live music.
Mister Guch (predictions for 2021): There will be a hybrid of pop and metal, with easy to digest lyrics and adorable metalheads. Additionally, Devo will go on tour again, as will the Go-Go’s.
Brad Krumholz (predictions for 2021): Pared-back lo-fi guitar rock.
Tom Snow: (predictions for 2021): More quality songs per capita coming out of New Zealand.
Steven Matrick (predictions for 2021): Songs about being alone.
Ben Krieger: I do wish The Weeknd would retire, but he should have done that after his first record.
Brad Luen: I suspect mushrock (and mushrap) may have peaked—there are plenty of recent models for clear messaging and decent enunciation, plus two minutes a song is about optimal for streaming revenue.
George Pasles: The best songs I find every year are always decades old, but of course they’re new to me. So this year, my favorite new songs are simple bubblegum pop numbers written for a late ‘60s cartoon called Cattanooga Cats:
Paula Carino: Music saved lives and sanity this year, so go easy on it.
Brad Krumholz (Best Live Show You Saw In 2020): ALAS.
All my life, I’ve been an enthusiastic book-reader. I’ve covered most of the classic kids’ stuff and plenty of the longer (but certainly no better) novels designed for grown-ups. While there are some famous movies I’ve missed, I think I’ve watched most of the celebrated ones. I never got into superhero comics, but I’ve been attentive to most of the other exercises in sequential art that have penetrated mass consciousness.
Yet the stories I remember best are always from records. The ones that are right there for me, the ones that I keep, perpetually, at the forefront of my mind, are the tales that have been told to me through the medium of the 45+ minute album. I don’t have to rummage through the mental stacks to retrieve The Final Cut; that’s part of my bloodstream now. De La Soul Is Dead, Arthur, Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, Whip-Smart, Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood and Clutching At Straws, Scarlet’s Walk: these are the tales I know best. If you want me to remember something – details and themes, colors and character voices – the surest way to make an impression is by singing it at me.
Maybe this seems wrong to you. Instinctively, it seems wrong to me. Randy Newman’s Land Of Dreams contains only a tiny fraction of the words, voices, and characters in Gravitys Rainbow. Why is Randy’s story so much more present to my thoughts? Why did it penetrate my consciousness and become part of the frame through which I see the world? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Why can I “see” the characters and scenarios elaborated on the first Rickie Lee Jones album so much clearer than those in The Deer Hunter, especially given that I never saw them at all?
After more than four decades of this, I’m forced to conclude that this is simply how my noggin works. There are millions of music listeners – including many who live for the rock – who aren’t particularly concerned about the relationship between Randy’s side-one observations of New Orleans and his side-two examination of Los Angeles. If they want a tale of two cities, they’ll break out the Dickens. The fate of Rael Imperial Aerosol Kid and the Prince Among Thieves doesn’t trouble them. Music is to dance to, to sing along to, to feel inspired by; pop, with its strict formal rules, its metered verses repetitive choruses, might seem like an awkward carrier of plot and setting.
Yet it does occur to me that the man who broke the ground we all stand on – I mean the master, progenitor, and universal teacher Chuck Berry – was also pop’s greatest storyteller. Chuck brought his narrative imagination to life in fast, gutsy, broad-stroke sketches that, in their execution, evoked the roar of the internal combustion engine and acceleration of the automobile on the open road. He introduced figures in two-minute songs that remain as vivid to listeners now as they were when he wrote them. The mythology with which he invested his 45s is our heritage – our folklore, as a certain descendent might say. Storytelling may not be the point of the pop-rock project, but it was there at the inception, and it has always been its animating spirit.
But three acts of visionary storytelling stood out for me. The first one I’ll mention isn’t on the list below, and that’s because even though it was made by a pop star, it isn’t a pop record. Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grasswas marketed (and just barely that) as an anthology of Lana Del Rey’s poetry, and if that’s all it was, it would likely have been every bit as dreadful as you’ve heard it is. But that’s not what it is. She calls it poetry because Lana Del Rey is the sort of person who refers to her writing as “my poetry”, and Elizabeth Grant never breaks character. Violet is actually a collection of interrelated short stories set in a specific place at a dangerous time: Southern California, during the worst of the wildfires, Since it’s all narrated by Lana Del Rey, it’s mystical, absurdly sincere, busy with name-drops, and obsessive about romantic autonomy and artistic integrity. Yet as airy as the protagonist makes it seem, Lana Del Rey is as determined as a detective to get the details right. She sticks pins into the map and reads local landmarks into the record, and she’s always careful to contextualize her personal struggles within the larger story of a “paradise” (greater L.A.) that’s in genuine peril. When she tells herself to “check date” about a photograph of Jim Morrison, you know she will. The specifics matter; names are important; the flames threaten to wipe out the capital of the dream industry, and with it, the most creative, compassionate part of the American mind. There’s a reason why Violet plays like a whisper in your ear. Lana Del Rey knows you’re dreaming. She wants you to wake up, gently, and remember.
The rigorousness of Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass – so easy to miss on first listen! – is worth celebrating. But what impresses me most about the album is the way in which Elizabeth Grant uses an established character to explore ideas and feelings that don’t always fit comfortably in her pop songwriting. In order to tell the story of Violet, Elizabeth has to detach Lana from her defining device: melody. Although I learned long ago never to underestimate this writer, I’m astonished by the skill with which she performed this extraction. The application of a character who was originally dismissed as two-dimensional to subject matter as deep as this reminds me of the development of Philip Marlowe, who began as an archetypical tough guy, and who, by the time of The Long Goodbye, had become a vehicle for the author’s reflections about Los Angeles and American Dream-making. Lana Del Rey, another archetype, has some not-dissimilar observations to make about the state of Californian consciousness and the steady worsening of the national predicament. Raymond Chandler had the luxury to retreat to a private life once the writing day was done. We don’t afford our contemporary pop stars the same sort of detachment. Lana Del Rey is who Elizabeth Grant must be, 24/7, or we’ll stop hearing the voice on her records as authentic. She’s responded by making Lana’s face, and voice, a conduit to a different kind of story. The more you concentrate on Violet, the more it all coalesces – the more you feel the heat and hear the crackle of the flames as they consume the houses in the Malibu hills.
* * * * * * *
Serengeti uses spoken-word elements on Ajai, too: there are moments when the rap cadences stops, and the emcee begins talking to you like a sportscaster, giving play-by-play accounts of the characters’ actions. Luckily, he’s matched throughout with music from producer Kenny Segal, who provides moment-to-moment reinforcement of the storytelling with every beat he can manipulate and every sample he can pull out of the crate. That makes Ajai an underground hip-hop instaclassic in spite of itself – one with dazzling rapping by Serengeti, no matter what guise he’s wearing at any given moment, and vibrant, ever-shifting soundscaping by Segal, who somehow improves on the astonishing work he did on Hiding Places, his collaboration with Billy Woods. Segal provides the punctuation that Serengeti, who is famous for run-on sentences, has never quite had on his prior releases. His intimate understanding of the story, and his acute sensitivity to its emotional resonance, means that there’s never a moment that this complicated story lacks a sonic motor.
On prior sets, Serengeti has rapped as Kenny Dennis, a washed-up, working-class, bratwurst-and-onion-loving Midwestern emcee who missed his shot at the big time, but still harbors dreams of participation in the hip-hop conversation. Kenny narrates the back half of Ajai, which follows a slight uptick in his fortunes prompted by the accidental receipt and resale of an expensive set of designer sneakers. Those shoes were originally bought by the title character, an Indian immigrant and “super-fly guy” obsessed with product drops, and delivered to the wrong address. Ajai is married to an upwardly-mobile medical professional (Serengeti raps, convincingly, in her voice, too) whose exasperation with her husband’s fixations ultimately dooms the relationship. Much of what Ajai does is embarrassing – he messes up the company softball game, he tries to get an epidemiologist interested in a shoe lottery, he leaves his wife at a bistro and searches Paris for a stain remover – but it is all completely, utterly purpose-driven, and Serengeti’s rendering of a mind defined by fashion, exclusivity, social-media verification, and outward appearances is airtight. The story flies by with such dizzying velocity that it’s not immediately clear how deep it goes, or how tightly constructed it is. Once the narrative clicks into place, the Herculean storytelling becomes apparent, and you’re able to fully appreciate this portrait of an entire society going over the cliff in a landslide of collaborations, drops, Balenciaga frames, and other expensive junk.
* * * * * * *
In any other year, Ajai would be my example of outstanding story art and storytelling innovation. But 2020 was the year of Folklore, and Folklore is the best application of intertextuality I’ve ever encountered on a pop album. That’s a big claim, but I don’t believe it’s a particularly controversial one. At the risk of boring Swifties, to whom all of this will be old hat, I want to take a few moments to explain how Folklore works to those who, for some reason or another, still can’t see Taylor Swift as a master storyteller.
The storytelling on Folklore has three components:
There’s a narrative frame. This is narrated by “Taylor Swift”, a woman in love who is, nonetheless, having trouble opening herself up fully to her boyfriend, and wants to understand her own hesitation, and maybe melt some of the autumnal frost around her heart.
There’s a narrative spine. This is the “teen love triangle”, a series of old-fashioned, Costello-worthy cheatin’ songs sung by the three characters involved: James, who has a summer affair with an unnamed girl who we’ll call August, and then asks his old girlfriend Betty for forgiveness. The song “August” is sung by August, “Betty” is sung by James, and then there’s “Cardigan”, which is Betty looking back, ruefully, on the whole sorry thing.
There are side-stories — snapshots and vignettes meant to resonate with the themes of the album and, through the writer’s steady use of motif and recurring imagery, deepen and sometimes complicate our understanding of the four main characters. For instance, early in the album, Taylor Swift tells the story of her summer mansion its prior owner, on “The Last Great American Dynasty”. Rebekah Harkness is described as a mad woman, unruly and presumptuous, and insulated from consequences (but not male disapproval) by her assumed class position. Taylor Swift identifies herself, and her frame-narrator, with Rebekah, and also calls forward to “Mad Woman”, a song designed to underscore the frustration of the two female characters in the teen love triangle.
A particularly cool thing about the design of Folklore: each subsequent listen blurs the line further between categories two and three. Recurring symbols in the side-stories — the closed door atop the doorway, the movie reel, the parked car inviting the cheater to get in for a ride — links the vignettes with the story of betrayal at the heart of the record. Is that James in “This Is Me Trying”, still on Betty’s front step, still begging for absolution? Is this a glimpse into his mind, or are we just meant to understand how common this gesture is? What about “Illicit Affairs” — is that August repeating a self-destructive dynamic with another man who’ll never be hers? Or is this just the story of a hundred thousand Augusts, in a hundred thousand relationships, each one banging their heart against a stone wall, each one rendered abject by our collective assumptions about the motivations of “other women”, each man’s bad habits forgiven?
I’m a male human, as far as I can tell (more on that in a subsequent essay); I’ve heard Folklore and, alas, I do feel seen. There have certainly been times when I’ve acted like James does: jealous of Betty’s innate sexual power, acting out stupidly in order to remind myself that I might be have some power of my own, on my knees, begging for another chance, eager to separate my lover from all her “stupid friends” in order to better control the circumstances of our relationship. One of the strengths of Folklore is that Taylor Swift manages to make James sympathetic and identifiable, even as she’s raking him over the coals, and making it clear, once you’ve put the story together, that there are terrible and destructive consequences to his casual actions. August, too, is given some of the record’s most rapturous moments, and we’re invited to understand that her desire, however illicit, is worthy of respect and maybe even celebration.
But insofar as Betty is a proxy for the frame narrator, this is her story, and it turns on the central question of the set: does she relent and open the door? Does she let James back in? Stopped at a streetlight, do they kiss in the car again? Or is Betty left with the stupid sweater and a reputation for iciness? Diabolically, Taylor Swift renders “Betty” in the style of her early records: James is meant to sound humble and ingratiating, and all the world loves a love story. But innocence, she’s implying, is just another strategy. James tells her he’s only seventeen and doesn’t know anything; Betty replies that when you’re young, it’s assumed that you know nothing. Betty knows better, and so do you. By the end of the record, when the frame narrator lets her boyfriend through the door, it’s neither a moment of triumph nor surrender. It’s a small victory, but a significant one, won over corrosive forces, with implications for everybody who’d like to fall, and stay, in love.
This is not an idiosyncratic reading of the text. The artist, you may have noticed, has a few fans, and they put all of this together with impressive speed. Those who mourn the death of close reading have never been to a Taylor Swift concert. Her words matter deeply to her listeners, and that should give hope to all fans of all writing, across all disciplines. Great players make great plays, the sage Jeff Van Gundy once said, and what he meant by that was that the viewer should never be surprised when Michael Jordan wins the game with a miracle shot. Taylor Swift, I hope we can all see by now, is one for the ages, and would have been a Hall of Famer even if she hadn’t pivoted back to linear storytelling on Lover and completed that pivot with her pair of titanic folk-rock albums in 2020. There are those who’ll tell you that Evermore is the better set, and I’m not going to fight them, because Evermore is fantastic, and it contains plenty of great narrative tricks of its own. It doesn’t have the fearsome coherence of Folklore, though. Given a choice, I’m always going to ask for the bedtime story — even when the bedtime story was written, explicitly, to give me some restless sleep.
Unless you’re a Nashville country fanatic, Taylor Swift introduced herself to you with a song about an older woman remembering what it was like to be a teenager. This act of imaginative exertion was made when she was, herself, a teen: she voiced an older woman giving love advice to someone not unlike the girl she then was. Even then, it was apparent that she was interested in playing with time, looking through telescopes and mirrors and making up characters, examining how romance might persist in a dangerous world. She set out to write love stories, and if her latest ones can’t be resolved as easily as Juliet just saying yes, she’s no less compelled by the prospect of romantic attraction now than she ever was. She’s now twice times fifteen, but the proposition is still the same: when someone tells you they love you, you’re gonna believe them. What you do with that belief is up to you. And what matters most is whatever happens next.
Traditionally, I use this space to write something political. It’s part of my brand, and I’ve been assured by several editors that personal branding is indispensable to the modern writer. I’ve got to admit, though, that I’m not really feeling it this year. I thought the Capitol rioters were a bunch of yahoos, and therefore no more interesting than the next gang of hooligans. They had an opportunity to do something really destructive, and therefore scarily consequential, and they blew it; as far as I’m concerned, that’s the entirety of the story. They’re never going to get a wide-open shot like that again, thank goodness. QAnon is incredibly stupid, and its proliferation has ruined conspiracy theory, which used to be shadowy and spy-like, and now just feels like empty calories for bored senior citizens. Trump’s board position has been deteriorating from the moment he caught the coronavirus, and I see no reason why that will change. There’s a very good chance that American politics will go back to being dull, a niche interest for nerds, and this, I believe, would be a welcome development.
But I do have one politics-adjacent thing I’d like to get off my chest, and I’m going to do it right here. Every time a newscaster, or even a peer, places an American politician on a left-right spectrum, I throw up a little in my mouth. It’s not that I oppose the ordinal classification of human beings who are straining to be two-dimensional; that’s fine, honestly. But as people who take discourse and syntax seriously, I think we have to be more scrupulous about the terms we use and their accidental effects.
For starters, think about the hand you’re favoring right now, for the serious business of scrolling through this message or paging through your phone. If you’re like ninety per cent of humanity, you’re a righty. Outside of championship bullpens, those who favor their left hand are pretty rare. When we call ourselves leftists, on some unconscious level, we’re drawing on this association: we’re already accepting that we’re a minority, and that we’ll always be outnumbered and outvoted by those boxers who lead with their right. Then there are the dictionary definitions of the words: right is synonymous with correct, or proper, or squared away. We also talk about rights, and these are good things, natural things we’ve all fought for and like to defend. The right has pleasant connotations.
By contrast, there’s the left behind, warmed-over leftovers, the left hand of darkness, garbage left in the gutter after the street sweeper comes by. As every beginning etymologist knows, sinister is Latin for left. Gauche is French for left. You catch my drift. Left equals bad, and always has. It bugs the heck out of me that people who generally argue for a fair and egalitarian distribution of power (not that this has ever exactly described me, but I do have my sympathies) have embraced this particular bit of anti-marketing.
Mostly, I hate the imposition of European nomenclature on an American society where it has never fit. Many so-called European leftists have a misty vision of the French Revolution and the Left Bank and the revolutions of 1848; it’s all hooey and less than half understood, but it’s part of their heritage, so you can’t begrudge them their terminology. The vast majority of Americans couldn’t tell you much about any of that. There are enough empty terms in American public life; we don’t need to muddy the waters with additional meaningless descriptors. Our politics aren’t rocket science. In America, we have Democrats and we have Republicans. If you can’t figure out what that means by now, you probably shouldn’t be talking about politics at all.
Kacy Hill’s Is It Selfish If We Talk About Me Again. I also want to acknowledge the accidental relevance of Hotspot. The Pet Shop Boys could be referring to a trendy nightclub, an erogenous zone, or a placed where armed conflict or infectious disease is breaking out. Tennant and Lowe always know where we’re headed.
Best Album Cover
Check out Dua Lipa in the car above, eyes down, big moon egging her on. You know it’s a summer night, because he shirt is unbuttoned and provocatively tied, and the convertible top is down. She’s put some thought into the ensemble: the lipstick, the big earrings, the white gloves with the rings over the covered fingers. But what’s she thinking? She’s probably heading out – she’s a little too smartly attired and unsmudged to be returning from the club. It’s pretty clear that she’s looking for adventure, but there’s something hesitant and contemplative about her expression, too. Superficially, she’s driving a signifier of the past (the vintage auto) into the future, symbolized by the road ahead. Her determination is clear, but she doesn’t exactly look unswervable. Is she really the “female Alpha” she tells us she is? Or do we just have a tricky time recognizing what that might look like?
Best Liner Notes And Packaging
Straight across Folklore and Evermore: the photos, the clothing, the layout, the now-customary from-me-to-you notes from the star, the woodsy, throwback font choice. Cabins in the woods are pretty dull places. There’s nothing to do in there but sweat the details, and whittle away.
Most Welcome Surprise
Because his imagination is vast and insular, and his capacity for self-amusement is enormous, Paul McCartney was a good quarantine companion. But I didn’t expect him me with a new release that’s better than anything he’s done since Chaos And Creation In The Backyard. At 80, his voice is shot, but he still knows how to use it to generate some beauty and mystery. “Deep Deep Feeling” was one of the year’s weirdest and most profound songs, and it came from a guy who is far weirder and more profound than his jovial public image might lead the uninitiated to believe.
Ice Cube. That hurt a thousand times more than Kanye, and a million times more than Lil Wayne, who was clearly just sniffing out a pardon. I don’t care how much money he lost on that stupid basketball league; there’s no excuse for cozying up to wannabe oligarchs. By getting in bed with the authorities, Cube blew a hole in the greatest dis track ever recorded, which turned on the line that emcee felt the need to reiterate for emphasis: I never have dinner with the President. Remember: he wasn’t just running down Eazy-E. He was making a declaration of autonomy meant to apply to all artists and all independents. It doesn’t matter what people in power promise you; you don’t need it, and you certainly don’t need them. You stand on your own and you never compromise. And yes, it’s pathetic that a weenie like me has to explain what it means to be gangsta, but we can’t depend on Cube to do it anymore. He abdicated that responsibility entirely. If I look stupid doing so, blame him: he drove me to it. Oh, and I never have dinner with the President. No matter who that President might be.
I Disagree covers about nine thousand genres in its first eight minutes. Poppy, who didn’t demonstrate much flexibility on the microphone on her prior albums, never makes an errant step. Touring is an incredible thing. It’s still the quickest way to turn a lump of coal into a diamond.
Album That Closes Most Strongly
Hit To Hit, by 2nd Grade. In accordance with college rock tradition, the final fifth of the album contains the wistful reflections, the eager anticipations of summers to come, and some casual (but genuine) observational poetry. The members of Camper Van Beethoven would nod in recognition.
Megan Thee Stallion. This was the easiest question on the Poll for me. I continue to be astonished by the number of rhyme styles and flows she’s able to yoke together on Good News: Dirty Southern, Golden Age NYC, quick-spitting Midwestern, classic Southern Californian, even a little hyphy for good measure. But no matter how deep into the crates she digs, she remains identifiably Houstonian, and thoroughly contemporary, too. Her broad record collection, her deep connection to history, her tart tongue, her charisma, her battle-of-the-sexes subject matter, and her taste for violence all remind me of another favorite Texan vocalist of mine: Miranda Lambert. Country and hip-hop remain the two faces of the same golden American coin.
Best vocal harmonies
“Marjorie,” from Evermore.
Best bass playing
Robert Earl Thomas of Widowspeak, and the cast of thousands who cut those tremendous, disco-ready bass parts on Future Nostalgia.
Best live drumming
I want to vote for Mighty Max, but I can’t front: the answer is Matt Uychich of The Front Bottoms. At least I’m keeping it Jersey.
Best drum and instrument programming
Kelly Lee Owens
Best synth playing/programming
Kevin McDowell of the Australian prog-jazz group Mildlife. Everybody in that band is a genuine virtuoso.
Best piano, organ, or electric piano playing
Roy Bittan, over all the imitators.
Best guitar playing
Charlie Hunter on Lo Sagrado, with special recognition given to Devon Williams for his gorgeous textures on A Tear In The Fabric. That would have been a good answer for Best Album Title and Best Album Cover, too. It’s just so understated that it rarely comes to mind, but when it’s on, it’s a delight.
Best instrumental solo
Poppy’s guitarist on “Don’t Go Outside” and “Bloodmoney”. No instrumental credits in the liner notes, alas.
Andy Shauf played everything on The Neon Skyline, including more clarinet than I’ve heard on a record since the heyday of chamber pop.
Kenny Segal. See yesterday’s essay for further discussion. My single favorite production of the year was “Tis The Damn Season”, from Evermore. That’s the one where the icicle-dripping sound that the National dudes developed for Taylor Swift meets the storytelling in the most satisfying, totalizing, vision-generating way. I can see the frost clouding the windows, and the white steeple of the Presbyterian Church across the street, and smell the wood smoke. Just thinking about that song makes me reach for a blanket. Job well done, dudes from the National.
Sevdaliza’s Shabrang. When I wrote in the Abstract that Phil Collins had invented trip-hop with “In The Air Tonight”, I was just kidding. Sorta.
I’m not sure anybody moved melodies across chords with the grace and majesty of Maria McKee. You probably didn’t notice, and that’s because that record is so bombastic that you blushed. Yes, you blushed so hard that it was audible, and palpable, and your burning cheeks set the piano ablaze. If you can fight through that initial embarrassment, songwriting riches await. I promise.
P.F. Rizzuto award for best lyrics over the course of an album
I’ve come to see Lupe Fiasco’s House as a magnificent tightrope walk: a quick but oh-so-potent album about how artists might possibly navigate capitalism and oppression and keep their creative spirits intact. Lupe neither indulges in the upwardly mobile materialism that defines so much of g-rap, nor does he cast stones at it the way, say, Homeboy Sandman does on Don’t Feed The Monster. Instead he looks to carve out spaces within consumer culture for people with creative spirits to operate. It’s the same affirmative impulse that’s always prompted him to write in a laudatory fashion about various subcultures – i.e., “Kick Push” – and upon reflection, I think it’s kinda beautiful, and very, very hip-hop. He’s not stupid about it – he knows how predatory the world is. He sees all the dangers. But his advice to the aspiring model on “SLEDOM” is sincere, and his examination of the dynamics of the sneaker-drop line on “SHOES” is an inspiring and necessary counterpoint to Ajai. Thanks, Lupe, for reminding me again that it’s all one big and continuous argument, and the only really irresponsible thing you can do is stop speaking.
A word about the amazing clip for the “Toosie Slide”
First we’re shown Toronto, deserted. Drake lets us know that it’s 10:20 p.m.; under normal conditions, these streets would be choked with cars and pedestrians. For a moment, you think it’s a special effect. Then the moment passes, and you remember. This isn’t sci-fi: this is a real life disaster we’re living through, one that’s still unfolding all around us, outcome indeterminate. Then Drake takes you inside his mansion. He’s masked, dressed in a hood and a camouflage jacket, and the contrast between his attire and the sterile nouveau riche opulence of the interior of his house is striking. Everything looks fragile, smash-and-grab-able – bottles of expensive whiskey, designer lightbulbs in gaudy chandeliers, trophies behind glass cases. You know Drake; you know he’s won all of those awards; you may have even watched him receive them. Furthermore, you know why he’s masked – it’s the same reason why you’re masked. Nevertheless, you can’t shake the sense that you’re watching a home invasion. He’s daring you to imaginatively dispossess him – challenging you to accept him as the rightful owner of all of this grotesque and conspicuous wealth. He asks you: why do you see me as an interloper? Have I not done enough for you to prove to you that I belong? Is that not my profile on that platinum disc of Nothing Was The Same on the wall? When he does the ridiculous TikTok dance between two KAWS statues, on the marble floor of his foyer, decked out with LEDs and the alarm system flashing in the distance, it’s all so incongruous that the pathos of the present moment comes crashing in on you like a battering ram. Even the fireworks display in the backyard is no release, because he’s got no one to share it with. Lonesome cousin Drake, thematizing his solitude and ostracism once again, chilling you to the bone with an ice cold clip, shot on a cold night in a cold city, in the midst of a cold, cold time.
I Disagree still shows up in my nightmares, “Bite Your Own Teeth” in particular. Poppy’s entire body of work — with and without Titanic Sinclair — is one ongoing horror movie. True, sometimes it’s funny as hell. Good horror movies often are.
I was going to give this one to Morrissey, since he sees no point in being nice, and boy howdy does he ever act out those words. But Of Montreal‘s “Don’t Let Me Die In America” is such an unrelenting sneer directed at the unfashionable quadrants of the country that it’s liable to kick off another Capitol riot. Not that I don’t agree with Kevin, and rather deeply at that. But then I’m an elitist scumbag, too.
Homeboy Sandman’s “Alone Again” and Open Mike Eagle’s “The Black Mirror Episode,” and for the same damn reason, because they’re the same damn song. Neil Sedaka said it in ’62: breaking up is hard to do.
I’m impressed by Taylor Swift’s ability to squeeze value out of all of her dicy collaborators. She managed to get two semi-coherent verses out of Justin Vernon, which something I didn’t think was possible once. I thought he was completely committed to the garbled robot act. It helps that they’re all Springsteen fans/imitators to one degree or another: they have that appreciation of “Two Faces Have I” and “Tougher Than The Rest” in common. They knew what they were shooting for. But mostly I just think that the presence of an intelligent and talented woman tends to make guys get their shit together. I know it’s the only thing that ever works for me.
Honestly, it’s the Hot Country Knights. It’s a parody act, but they really do nail the sound and feel of ’90s country.
Crummy album you listened to a lot anyway
Khruangbin‘s Mordechai. That bass player is really good. It’s empty calories otherwise: junk food in the international terminal at JFK.
Album that felt the most like an obligation to get through and enjoy
Caroline Rose‘s new one. I loved Loner so much – it was #5 for me in 2018 – and I kept searching, hard, for the through-story on Superstar that I was told was there. I got lost in the synthesizer overdubs every time. It didn’t seem like Caroline was the sort of artist who’d fall into the mushrock trap, but fall she did, and there’s only so much fighting the listener can do to pull a past favorite out of the tar pit.
I don’t even know what language Idd Aziz is singing in on Umoja, but I definitely comprehend that organ sound.
Most consistent album
Mission Bells by the Proper Ornaments. Forty minutes of pure, uninterrupted lite-psychedelic swirl.
Most inconsistent album
Hey Clockface. After a pair of late career triumphs, Elvis gets scattershot: a few spoken word pieces, a couple of scruffy rave-ups, some old-man jazz, and a couple of killer ballads (“We Are All Cowards Now”, “The Whirlwind”) that are worth the price of the album. Also, I love “Hetty O’Hara Confidential”, a story about the demise of a gossip columnist that could only have been written by Elvis, and which reminds us that an aging king still beats the heck out of a callow knave.
Troye Sivan‘s In A Dream. It works well as a brief encounter, but Troye is in the zone throughout, and it’s hard not to wish that he’d extended that studio stay and knocked out a few more tracks.
Album that turned out to be a hell of a lot better that you initially thought it was
Sin Miedo (Del Amor Y Otros Demonios). I wanted reggaeton fire from Kali Uchis, and was a little bummed out to get a bunch of zoned-out Bond themes instead. What I have come to realize is that they’re really good Bond themes. Impeccably sung, too. I’m going to be listening to this one all year, I’m sure.
Album that was the most fun to listen to
How could it be anything but Future Nostalgia?
Thing you feel cheapest about liking
American Love Story. Butch Walker, I love you forever, but everything about this rock opera of yours is beneath you – including the conciliatory politics. You don’t live in Rome, Georgia anymore for a good reason. You wanted to get the heck away from those people, and you were right to. You knew it then, and you still know it now: they’re not going to come to their senses.
Morrissey on I Am Not A Dog On A Chain, which isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate the album. I found some of those Smiths albums pretty alienating, too, wonderful as they are. I’m pretty sure I would’ve been in that disco he wanted to burn down.
Most sympathetic or likable perspective over an album
Peter Oren‘s The Greener Pasture. Peter understands that if you’re going to do a critique of social media, half-measures won’t do. You’ve got to go all the way with it.
Album you learned the words or music to most quickly
In Sickness & In Flames
Album you regret giving the time of day to
Every time I listen to Grimes, I feel gross for days afterward. I warned you all years ago, people. Moreover, I warned you about Ariel Pink. Pay attention to me, and save yourself embarrassment down the line.
Young upstart who should be sent down to the minors for more seasoning
That falsetto outro on “House Of A Thousand Guitars” is pretty deadly. Sorry, Boss.
Worst rapping and Worst lyrics by a good lyricist who should have known better
Will Toledo on “Hollywood Makes Me Want To Puke”.
Worst lyrics, period
“Wine, Beer, Whisky” by Little Big Town. I call a moratorium on country artists directly addressing the corporate logos on alcohol bottles. It’s embarrassing for everybody. Jose Cuervo is not your friend, Ms. Fairchild.
Most unsexy person in pop music
Tekashi 6ix9ine has been trying very hard to win this category. I’m going to be a sport and give it to him.
There are many reasons you might be jealous of Chile: six hundred miles of coastline, mariscos and avocados, swell Mediterranean climate, a great pop scene in Santiago, etcetera. Me, I am jealous of Chileans because of what they managed to accomplish last week. By a landslide – more than three quarters of votes cast – Chile voted to revisit their constitution. They’ll have a new convention, and they’ll write fresh rules for the governance of their country.
This was overdue. Chile’s constitution was written in the 1970s during the reign of General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet has apologists in the United States and elsewhere – mainly because he was open to the advice and influence of American monaterist economists. But he attained power after a CIA-backed coup, ruled as a military dictator, interned tens of thousands of dissidents, and left office in the late ‘80s as a globally recognized violator of human rights. The Chilean constitution reflected his personality. It entrenched and fully ratified the inequality that his policies exacerbated.
The men who wrote the United States Constitution were better people than Augusto Pinochet. But they were – as we all are – prisoners of their own time. Most of them were active slaveholders. They held views that we’d now find abhorrent. No women were invited to the jam session. No Latin Americans were in on the composition of the Constitution, nor were Asians, or Native Americans, or anybody who wasn’t a wealthy landowner. You might expect that a Constitution written under these conditions would clash with the realities of the polyglot and protean society that America has grown up to be, and over time, it has. It’s a testament to the creative powers of the drafters, and the egalitarian spirit that animated their writing, that the constitution has held a fractious country together for more than two centuries.
Yet distortions in the Constitution, and a profound disjunction between the way its writers lived and the way we do, have begun to cause serious dissonances – and it’s not disrespectful to the document, or to American history, to say that a reassessment is in order. The U.S. Constitution is something like a well-made suit that has been handed down through generations, and it’s fraying from hard use, and it probably doesn’t fit you as well as it might have fit your great-grandfather. If we don’t take this thing to the tailor for alterations soon, it’s going to rip to shreds.
Eventually, all political systems are judged by the results they produce. Lately, our electoral democracy hasn’t been doing very well. We keep returning people to power who are, by any standard of assessment, dim bulbs. This has not been good for the country. It’s not the fault of the drafters of the Constitution that we’ve chosen for a leader a lowlife who owes hundreds of millions of dollars to international gangsters; that’s absolutely on us. But regardless of our habitual inattention to reality, that outcome could not have been realized if the Constitution wasn’t coming unstitched around us. Problems with the way we assign and apportion power were exploited by unscrupulous people, and if we don’t fix those issues, those same people are going to keep us over a barrel. The Constitution has become an obstruction to representative democracy. And if representative democracy is what we want, we’re going to have to make like Chile and demand some alterations.
By now, even those who flunked civics know that the Electoral College is unfair. During this millennium, the Republicans have only won a national majority once. Nevertheless, they’ve held administrative power for twelve years and counting, and established the direction of the country and the composition of the court system. The current Republican president isn’t even trying to win a majority of votes: instead, he and his allies are relying on the Electoral College to entrench a permanent-minority government, composed of people from certain parts of the country, and run at the expense of those from other parts. California is the most populous state in America. Nevertheless, Californians will have no say in the selection of the next Presidential administration. The Electoral College has rendered the votes of Californians virtually worthless.
For some reason, even those affected by this soft disenfranchisement underestimate the damage it’s done to national cohesion. For one thing, it has forced those who’ve depended on the Electoral College to resort to all manner of bullshit to justify its existence, and it’s caused the rest of us to lose all respect for the bullshitters. The more rational actors who defend the Electoral College argue that without it, politicians would never pay any attention to smaller states. That’s a legitimate concern that ought to be addressed. Inherent in that complaint, though, is an acknowledgement that it is only by the grace of the Electoral College that those states have any political relevance at all. Representatives of those states have overcompensated by governing as if they’ve got a massive mandate, rather than a loophole to exploit: they pretend that they’re the real Americans, and Californians and New Yorkers, and Jersey people like you and me, are wayward Moroccans visiting the hemisphere for the weekend.
After decades of this nonsense, it’s apparent to me that the federal cardhouse is about to fall. What’s going to happen – and it may happen very soon, no matter who wins on Tuesday – is that people from California are going to decide that this arrangement isn’t in their interest to maintain. They’re going to say, hey, we’ve got wildfires eating up Sonoma, coasts eroding away, and sun and saltwater drying up our crops, and a science-denying government we didn’t elect is indifferent to our predicament. They’re going to count the money they’re contributing to the commonwealth, and they’re going to demand more leverage – and if they don’t get that leverage, they’re going to start pledging allegiance to the Golden Bear rather than Old Glory. I’m using California as the example here, because they’re the ones who are really getting screwed by the Electoral College, and they’re sufficiently far from Capitol Hill that they’ve established their own centers of political gravity. But it’s easy for me to imagine a nullification crisis beginning in Sacramento and spreading to Albany, and Olympia, and Annapolis, and Trenton, too.
This would be a disaster. It would make the last four years of turbulence look like a field day. Yet it’s clearly the direction we’re heading, and the irony is that the drafters of the Constitution would understand exactly why: the same old problem of taxation without representation that prompted the American Revolution in the first place. There are sixteen times as many people in the Los Angeles metropolitan area than there are in the state of North Dakota, yet North Dakota elects two senators, and Los Angeles must share its senators with the rest of California. The population of Washington, D.C. exceeds that of the state of Wyoming. Wyoming is allotted two senators; Washington gets no representation at all.
This would be unfair but vaguely tolerable if the senators from Wyoming, and North Dakota, and Idaho, and other regions gifted by the Constitution with disproportionate power would govern with sensitivity to the needs of places like D.C. They haven’t done anything of the sort. Under the leadership of the senior Senator from Kentucky, they’ve banded together to obstruct and deny everything that the representatives of more populous states want for the country. If they had the will, or capacity, to compromise, it might not be as bad as it’s been. Yet those in the permanent minority have cultivated a self-righteous refusal to acknowledge that it’s only by a trick of the Constitution that they’ve got the power they do. This is a defense mechanism. That’s understandable, I guess, but it’s no excuse.
Kentucky is more than 90% white. There are more African-Americans in the Springfield-Belmont neighborhood of Newark than there are in the entire state of Idaho. Less than one per cent of Wyoming is black. You get the picture. Shielded by the Constitution, representatives of ethnically homogenous states are making all the decisions for a multi-ethnic country. This isn’t merely unfair. It’s racist, and it’s worth taking a moment to understand what that loaded word actually means. Racism isn’t a gaffe, or a funny vibe from a stranger, or digital hillbillies throwing around the n-word on an Internet forum. It isn’t Archie Bunker looking askance at the Jeffersons next door, or Pino Frangione in Do The Right Thing sneering at the moulinyan. All of that stuff is bigotry. Bigotry sucks, and it’s an inevitable consequence of a racist society. But even if everybody in the country were to scrupulously monitor their language and behavior and avoid outward displays of discrimination (unlikely), it still wouldn’t lay a glove on American racism. Racism is systemic. It’s the deliberate disempowering of one group of people at the expense of another. Some expressions of racism are illegal, but most, sad to say, are legal. In modern America, racism is a gang of white Senators staffing the court system with white judges. Racism is the assignation of the first and most decisive Presidential primaries to states dominated by white people. Racism is police officers busting into the houses of black people, shooting to kill – and getting away with it, because that’s how the deck is stacked.
How long can a racist government stand? Way too long, I’m afraid. Apartheid in South Africa lasted for fifty years. Chattel slavery was the law of much of the land in America for centuries, and other forms of legal discrimination persisted for years after emancipation. Americans all over the country are waking up to the realization that the Civil War never really ended. Yet as the demographic realities of North America shift, there’s good evidence that the system is weakening. Over the last few years, American racism has been overt in a way that wouldn’t happen if things were running smoothly. People invested in the perpetuation of a racist system have felt the need to operate blatantly, right out in public for everybody to see. While certain white yokels waving Confederate battle flags applaud this, it reeks of desperation to me. It the sort of behavior you’d expect to see right before the tower crashes. The outright panic demonstrated by old white guys at the presence of a few outspoken Latinas and Muslims in the House of Representatives tells you all you need to know about the siege mentality that’s gripping the permanent-minority government. They’re digging in fiercely because they know they can’t hold on forever. They’re playing a very dangerous game, risking insurrection, emboldening well-armed people who are itching for confrontation.
Nobody wants a fight less than I do. I can’t take a punch, and I cry when I step on a bug. If you’re like me, I hope you’ll agree that constitutional reform is the best bet for peaceful resolution. We can sweep aside many of the rules that have been used to maintain an unfair distribution of political power, and replace them with healthier ones written to accommodate the realities of life in the 21st Century. This is something that the original writers of the Constitution expected us to do. Many of them were deeply invested in a racist system, and every one of them was what we’d now call sexist, but it’s obvious to me that if they were to return to life today and see how certain members of the Republican Party were using the civic machinery of the Constitution to prop themselves up at the expense of their fellows, they’d vomit. They most certainly didn’t intend Supreme Court justices to be wheeled out of the chambers on their gurneys. They did not mean to create a super-legion of infallible, un-malleable judicial gods. (And if you don’t believe that, just read some of the then-contemporary discussion around the Marbury vs. Madison case that effectively established the Court’s function and personality.)
We need reasonable term limits on all Presidental appointees. We require a legislature that accurately reflects the composition of the country. We need to un-gerrymander districts, and overwrite lines that a child could recognize as exploitative. We need to acknowledge that the Electoral College is making us mean, and polarized, and terrible listeners, and we need to replace it with something more survivable. We need to stop our own institutions from eating away at the Union. Chileans did what they needed to do. They’re trying to save their country, just like we ought to be trying to save ours. I believe we still can, and I believe that if reform is possible in Santiago, it’s possible in America, too. It beats the hell out of disunion, or fistfights in the streets, or a shooting war.
I wasn’t going to write anything else about the election. I felt like that last post said all I needed to say. But as I’ve learned, sometimes, circumstances move faster than type; sometimes they’re faster than thought.
As you know, the President has tested positive and is now in the hospital. Given the way he was behaving, this was inevitable. It shouldn’t be surprising that he is neither being treated with hydroxychloroquine nor bleach. Miracle cures always seem terrific when you’re feeling bulletproof, running your mouth about things you don’t understand. Once you get sick, you tend to listen to the doctor.
The President’s infection has prompted many different reactions: sympathy, fear, schadenfreude, outright glee, self-righteousness, a renewed sense of order in the universe. A debate has opened about the ethics of wishing misfortune on people who are engaged in active harm. I am a notorious other-cheek-turner, but I don’t think it’s controversial to say that it is a good thing for the country that a proven superspreader is temporarily sidelined. We’ve seen the President and his circle act with absolute disregard for public health: that’s what made me write that last post in the first place. The White House was planning rallies in Wisconsin and Florida — two places that don’t need any more pathogens than they’ve already got. He was about to accelerate transmission of the virus. With Trump parked at Walter Reed for the time being, those events are now off the calendar, which ought to be a relief for anybody who understands the first thing about communicable disease. We don’t have to pray to speed the recovery. I’m sure he’ll be out of the hospital and back on his irresponsible behavior soon enough.
If we allow him to, I mean. I’d like to see him banned from the state of New Jersey. I really don’t see why we wouldn’t. We don’t allow out of staters to bring in loaded firearms or toxic waste, and we shouldn’t make excuses for Trump’s recklessness and outright contempt for science and probability. To recap: on Wednesday, he knew that Hope Hicks, one of his closest handlers, was positive for the coronavirus. Any moral or rational actor would have gone into quarantine at once. Instead, shedding virus, he headed to Bedminster to meet with donors. That event was, at least partially, held indoors. We don’t know what went on in there, because we don’t hang out with miscreants. But the Amy Coney Barrett disaster in Rose Garden is a good indication of how powerful Republicans behave when they get together: they act like reality doesn’t apply to them. Alas, reality bites. When it does, it’s a problem, and not just for them. It’s a problem for everybody caught in the wake of their terrible, amoral decisions.
For instance, my parents live twelve minutes from Bedminster. I’d like to know, very, very, very much, whether any of the people who’ll cross their path today in Morris County were in contact with the President. Right on brand, the GOP has been reluctant to engage in contact tracing, and since they’ve never believed that they were susceptible to the virus, I’d wager that they wouldn’t know how to do it even if they tried. I also imagine that many of the attendees at that event don’t want to be outed as Trump donors, which complicates things further, especially as the President continues to disgrace himself.
Because every bit of news out of the White House press corps this morning is, indeed, disgraceful; for instance, we now know that Trump and his entourage showed up late (deliberately, I’m sure) to the debate on Tuesday, skipped testing, refused to wear masks, and endangered both Biden and the moderator. They didn’t even have the courtesy or humanity to call Biden and tell him that Trump was positive for the coronavirus — he had to find out from the news. Lest you think these people are any better to their “friends”, it now seems that Chris Christie, who was handling the President’s debate preparations, found out the same way. That’s not to mention all of the journalists, cooks, chauffeurs, stylists, policemen and Secret Service agents, and others who are forced to attend to this callous buffoon for professional reasons, and whose immediate futures have been jeopardized by his monstrous arrogance and aggressive idiocy. So I’ll say it again, a little louder this time: if you support this regime, in any way, you are dumb as a rock and you don’t possess the intelligence or judgment necessary to be a citizen in a republic. That’s brutal, but it’s true. This is no time for tact. I am trying to stay alive. I want you to stay alive, too. Please act wisely, and be careful.
Chances are, you’re exhausted, too. You don’t want to talk about the election, or civil society, or anything of the sort. Airtight arguments haven’t gotten you anywhere, and those moral and emotional appeals haven’t done much, either. You know this is the state that powerful people want you in: too wiped out to put up a fight, distrustful of your neighbors, despairing, sure of nothing other than your own feelings of powerlessness. I was going to write a longish piece on accelerationism in which I attempted to clarify the concept a bit, and hazard some guesses about why it has become the default political position for millions of Americans. I made it to the halfway point of that piece. I intended to finish it today. But I keep returning to the image of the President of the United States in Tulsa and Henderson, Nevada, fulminating at the podium, hosting superspreader events in the middle of a pandemic, encouraging people in the crowd to engage in behavior that anyone with a rudimentary understanding of communicable disease would recognize as dangerous, and mocking people who’ve chosen to mask themselves against a respiratory illness. In a sane society, this could never happen, but we all know we passed the border of sanity years ago. If we can’t expect the head of state to engage in intelligent activity, what chance, really, do we have with the guy on the corner?
Maybe we were clueless at the beginning of the year. At the end of September 2020, all excuses are gone. We now know quite a lot about the coronavirus. We know it spreads best inside. We know it’s highly communicable through respiratory droplets, and you’re most likely to get it from somebody shouting or chanting in your vicinity. We further know that crowding people into spaces like arenas encourages transmission. This is why we haven’t been able to have rock shows. The reprobates who run Bowery Presents and South By Southwest got the message. The juggalos got the message. It is apparently too much to ask of the Chief Executive that he be as responsible as Insane Clown Posse.
You’ve spent a lot of time wondering how and why we got here. Me, too, pal. Today, though, I find myself uninterested in pattern tracing, or diagnosis, or plumbing nefarious motivations. I care only that it’s happening, and that it’s clearly going to continue to happen, no matter what Dr. Fauci says, no matter what the test-positive percentage is, no matter what common decency and morality dictates. Just this morning, the Washington Post reported that the re-election campaign is planning events in places in Wisconsin where cases are on the rise. Maybe it’s deliberate and maybe it isn’t; I’m not going to waste any more time trying to riddle it out. What matters is that a ten-ton truck is coming through a tight tunnel, right at us, and we refuse to swerve. The chief executive is, personally, jeopardizing public health — he’s been brazen about it, and it’s clear that he’s going to continue to do it, and nobody is going to stop him. That this isn’t front page news, every day, lets you know how far gone we are.
Many of you take it as a given that you won’t survive another four years of this. I’m just hoping to make it through this one somehow. Self-preservation instinct kicks in, and when it does, it speaks in simple sentences. The more hosts there are, the more virus there’s going to be, and the better chance we all have of catching it. Global caseloads are increasing again. The rapids are tugging at the life raft.
I try to be honest with myself, and when I am, I can’t say I’m loving my odds. The Chief Executive spends time at his rallies vilifying journalists and condoning police violence against them. I’m a journalist. In my experience as a journalist, and on the playground, too, I’ve learned that when bullies threaten you and the people closest to you with physical harm, it’s wise to take their word for it. My understanding is that the President shouted out the Proud Boys on national television last night, which doesn’t surprise me at all, and ought to tell you all you need to know about his values and his taste for revanchist violence. I wrote a pessimistic piece two weeks ago (it’s right under this one) explaining why I’m worried about an impending legitimacy crisis. Nothing that’s happened since has settled my nerves. It’s been clear to me for months that the White House has no plan for the pandemic other than intelligence-insulting fights with their own CDC, and no intention to act in any meaningful way to avert or ameliorate the crisis. The federal policy, if you even want to call it that, appears to revolve around herd immunity, faith in expedited vaccines, miracle drugs, various quack medicines and titrations of snake oil. We’re heading back into the storm with no pilot, no clothes, no class, and no clue.
It’s likely you recognize the White House’s affection for herd immunity as good old American sink-or-swim cruelty. It certainly is that. But it’s also the umpteenth expression of the monumental intellectual laziness and idiot’s arrogance that infests everything this non-administration does. They’re resigned to let the virus burn through the population because they can’t be bothered to come up with a solution, or even a helpful recommendation. I don’t particularly like being roped into a herd. Whenever I am, I usually brace myself for my inevitable relegation to the culling line: I’m nobody’s idea of a prime specimen, and I’ll wager you wouldn’t make the cut, either. It’s worth remembering that no public health fight in the modern history of America has been won via reliance on herd immunity alone, and this coronavirus isn’t going to be the first. Most estimates done by real scientists suggest that even after all we’ve been through, only about 10% of the population has acquired antibodies. We’ve got a long way to go before a meaningful threshold is reached, and if we insist on going that way, I’m not going to make it. Neither are any of the people who matter to me.
So tonight, I’m saying something that’s hard for me to say — something that I don’t want to say, and that I’m only saying because these are desperate hours, and circumstances beyond my control have compelled me to speak. If you are making apologies for these charlatans, if you are, in any way, entrenching their position or furthering the advance of their propaganda, if you are, God forbid, even considering the possibility of returning these people to power, I am forced to view you — yes, you — as an existential threat. And if any of that describes you, I want you to understand that I have given you the benefit of every doubt. I have scoured the recesses of my mind to find ways to defend you, and forgive you, for privileging the well-being of your imaginary friends in the White House over my health and security, and the health and security of the people around me. I don’t want to hate you for what you’re doing. But I’m no longer going to pretend that you have my best interests in mind. You’ve shown me otherwise.
One last thing, and I feel the need to give this to you in numbers as hard as a bar of iron to the belly. Here in Hudson County, we’ve lost 1,355 people to the virus. This is a conservative estimate — there were probably many other uncounted deaths, but that’s the number that the state has supplied, so until it’s revised, that’s what we’re going with. We further know that about twenty thousand people have tested positive for the coronavirus; there’ve been approximately twenty thousand cases here. Thirteen hundred into twenty thousand is six and a half per cent. More than one in twenty of cases turned out to be fatal. Then there were all of the cases that merely sent people gasping to the hospital, cases that sickened our neighbors who still haven’t shaken their symptoms, cases that seemed to go away before roaring back, cases that destabilized families and shut down small businesses and interrupted educations and canceled weddings and ruined a summer for thousands. Those who minimize the virus insult every one of us. We got sick; then we got disrespected. We won’t forget. Strategic denialism from powerful people won’t erase the memory of ambulances on this block, every night, straight through March and April and deep into May. They seem intent on making us call those ambulances again. Maybe it’ll be me in the ambulance this time. There may be no way to avert that outcome. But my best bet for survival is you. If you care, at all, you’ll act accordingly.
Election Day is two months away. I don’t think we’re prepared for it. There are going to be arguments and hot air, there’ll be disbelief, there’ll be conspiracy theories, charges and counter-charges, accusations, psychological breakdowns, horror shows on the nightly news, psy-ops in broad daylight. Will there be violence? I sure hope not. But the trend lines aren’t too promising.
The last election season was vexed. This one is already beyond belief. With each news cycle, fresh obstacles to fairness, clarity, and calm resolution arise. No prior hazard is ever removed. We’re heading down the rapids toward an unprecedented national disaster, and nobody can do anything about it but gawk.
I hate writing pessimistic stuff. I feel like I’m gloomy enough as it is without reinforcing that for my reader — even if that reader is me. But I’ve looked at our predicament from every angle I can think of, and I have to admit that I don’t see how we’re getting out of this one. We’ve lived through hard years before, and we’ve always been able to rebuild what’s broken. This time seems different. In the hope that I’m wrong, and that I can look back on this in March 2021 and chide myself for my alarmism, I’m going to go ahead and lay it out:
An ongoing pandemic has killed 186,000 Americans, and put many more in the hospital. We don’t know the precise number, because state and national governments have gotten parsimonious about official communications. Yet we do know that the pathogen is highly contagious, and we fear there’ll be another wave of illness in the fall — right in time for the election.
A reasonable response to a respiratory illness that threatens to suppress voter turnout: mail-in ballots. Yet the President has done what he can do to discourage voting by post. He’s made it clear that he’d like to torpedo the USPS altogether, and he’s taken steps to do just that. People who don’t want to run the risk of catching the coronavirus are absolutely going to try to vote by mail. How long will it take to count these ballots? Can the post office be trusted?
The White House claims (with no evidence) that mail balloting will lead to fraud. This is apparent attempt at delegitimating mail-in votes, and, by extension, preemptively delegitimating the results of the election.
The campaign to re-elect the President isn’t even attempting to win an outright majority. Instead, they’re looking to massage the Electoral College, which, they hope, will deliver the Republican Party its third minority victory of this millennium.
After the prior minority victory, the President claimed, with no substantiation, that millions of votes had been cast illegally for his opponent. He has been using the same inflammatory rhetoric against his challenger’s campaign, talking openly about fraud, dirty tricks, and election-stealing. Should the former Vice President win the election outright — not impossible — many, many supporters of the President will view the election result as a criminal act of usurpation engineered by a shady cabal of fixers.
Millions of Americans already believe that the President came to office illegitimately. They’ve concluded that he cheated his way to the Oval Office with a helping hand from international crime syndicates backed by the Kremlin. None of these Americans think that the President is running an honest campaign. Should he win — and incumbents usually do — they’re not going to accept the results of the election.
Although ample evidence exists that those international syndicates are planing further election interference and should be countered, the President is instead focusing on an internal enemy: American cities run by Democratic mayors. He’s explicitly running an American vs. American campaign: he receives dissent as a personal insult, and reflexively takes the side of police departments against protesters. By now, it should be clear that mediation is well beyond his abilities, and he gives no sign he’s interested in it, anyway.
Just yesterday, the White House threatened to withhold money from those cities. The governor of New York responded that the President had better have an army with him if ever comes to Manhattan. This is straight-up civil war talk, saber-rattling right out in the public sphere at a time when accelerationism is on the ascent.
Those of us who live here recognize the President’s characterization of New York City as “anarchist” as the height of absurdist theatre. But not everybody is familiar with New York. It’s frighteningly clear that many of those who don’t are taking this rhetoric seriously and are actively engaging in, and furthering, a ridiculous misapprehension about American cities.
America is armed to the teeth.
No, really. There are at least 350 million guns in the United States. That’s more than 40% of all the guns in the entire world. Those weapons are concentrated in places that don’t have restrictive gun control laws. That means that a whole lot of firepower is in the hands of people who don’t live in American cities, and urbanites, by contrast, are relatively unarmed, depending as we do on police forces to protect us from violence.
Last week, a seventeen-year-old crossed the Wisconsin state line, arrived in Kenosha with an automatic weapon and appointed himself executioner. He brought a loaded firearm to a town that wasn’t his, and used it to kill two protesters.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, but deeply problematically, many influential Americans refused to denounce the shooter. That included the President. Millions of dollars have been donated to his legal defense fund.
In Portland, another man shot and killed a supporter of the President who’d come to town as part of a caravan of counter-protesters.
These street confrontations are taking place against the backdrop of nationwide protests against the police killings of unarmed black men. Many of those who support the police (and, perhaps, the police executions, too) see the Black Lives Matter movement as a socialist insurgency that needs to be stamped out. Yesterday, in shades of Charlottesville, a car slammed into a BLM march in Times Square.
The Department of Homeland Security has dispatched armed squads in unmarked vans to cities where protests are taking place. Anonymous DHS agents dressed in camouflage have pulled protesters off of the street and detained them without explanation.
Lots of people — way more than you think — believe wholeheartedly in a theory that identifies prominent politicians and celebrities as members of a Satanic cult of child abductors, sex criminals, and cannibals. For more than four years, they have salivated over the perceived imminent arrest of the Clintons, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, and other critics of the White House.
The President has consistently signaled unwillingness to transfer power to the opposition. Perhaps he truly believes that he is the victim of an international conspiracy, and perhaps he fears losing the immunity to prosecution that the office confers.
Because of the distortions created by the Electoral College, American Presidential elections tend to go down to the wire. It is possible that the outcome will be made clear by the voters on November 4. But it’s also possible that it won’t. There’ll be mail-in ballots to count, pathogens to avoid, and, inevitably, vote-suppression controversies to resolve. Long lines at polling stations during primaries did not augur well for the night of the general election.
If there are recounts, or even slow counts, we could be looking at days, or even weeks, of indeterminacy. Based on everything we’ve seen so far in 2020, how do you think those days are likely to go?
I am not a fighter. I don’t own a weapon, and I’m not going to go get one. Words have always been my defense, and they’ve held me in good stead so far, so I’m going to keep on using them. Yet I know that the battle hasn’t reached its highest pitch yet, and we may all be marching to a field where words are useless. Honestly, we might be there already, and people are just too polite, or too cagey, to tell me.
Because what I’ve learned over the past two weeks is this: I am a sitting duck, and the hunters are well-armed and well provisioned. I am effectively defenseless in my own nation. This is something I’ve always believed (and it’s something that black Americans always feel) but rarely has the point been driven home so authoritatively. If an angry teenaged vigilante from the sticks comes to my city with an AR-15 and shoots me, I understand that powerful people are going to excuse his actions. If I am loaded into an unmarked van and driven god knows where by a goon squad from out of town, those same people are going to say that I had it coming. All illusions are shattered: millions of countrymen aren’t my friends, and never will be. They’re not people with whom a peaceable conversation can be engineered. They don’t want to sit down at a table and break bread. They want to see me hurt.
As we all wake up, however groggily, to an internal conflict that started awhile ago, we’re coming to the realization that there’s nowhere to hide. The time to learn Norwegian and move to Oslo has passed — and they wouldn’t want us there, anyway. As a non-combatant by nature, my utility to the cause is minimal, and my desire to fight is less than zero. But to those authorities who are lighting the matches and pouring the kerosene, and engaging in calumny against the place where I live, I would like you to know: I see you. I know what you’re doing. You don’t want an election, and you certainly don’t want a discussion. You want a brawl. You want to use that arsenal you’ve amassed. You may just get your wish. I can’t say I’m ready, because I never will be. But I will not be taken by surprise.
I consider it a thing of monstrous arrogance to support a political candidate because he or she agrees with me. For starters, my judgment is compromised in dozens of ways. I take it for granted that I’m misinformed, and woefully ill-equipped to untangle the sort of knotty problems that leaders face. John McCain stands out as a political figure whose positions on things I hardly ever agreed with, but what would it mean if I did? Our frames of reference couldn’t have been more different. He was a hothead warrior who went on combat missions in Vietnam. I’m a writer, musician, and aesthete from Northern New Jersey. Instinctively, I didn’t think his disposition was very well suited to the jobs he wanted. I’m sure he would say the same thing about me, only with much greater vehemence. Maybe we’d both be right.
So I am not eager for a replica of myself to attain ultimate political power. I feel that would be a disaster for everyone. My positions on the issues, such as they are, are pretty much what you’d expect them to be given my temperament and my geopositioning. No big surprises there, and not too illuminating. Some of my friends who identify as socialists have periodically expressed frustration and disappointment with my willingness to cast votes for corporate-party candidates — they see that as an unacceptable compromise with a value system that I don’t share. I get that, and I do understand why they can’t find it in themselves to abet the rise of whichever Clinton or Clinton-like individual is asking for their support. It hurts their souls, and I don’t like to see my friends accrue soul bruises.
That said, when it comes to elections, I am 100% realist, preferring to save my flights of fancy for the recording studio or boardgames or story hour. I am not going to pretend that there aren’t but three possible outcomes to the national election in November. Either the incumbent will win himself a second administration, or Joe Biden will win himself the opportunity to set up a new one, or, because of the public health crisis and related disasters, electoral democracy will crater and there won’t be a vote at all. Honestly, I doubt that the third thing is even a possibility, and I spent some time in my last dispatch explaining why we shouldn’t want that to happen anyway. Utopia is not dawning in that direction. Trump and Biden are the only two people with a shot at winning Election 2020, and the chance to make an intervention in that binary choice passed us by months ago. It’s going to be one or the other, so you’ll either have to pick the one you believe will be a better steward, or, if you think they’re both equally bad, you might cast a vote for a protest candidate with no shot at winning, or just sit this one out.
But… if you’re taking that position in 2020, I have to admit that I don’t believe you; not entirely, anyway. American politics is not a math problem, politicians are not integers, and no two possibilities are ever equally bad. Even if we can agree that our system is no longer delivering us palatable options, the way in which those options are bad will still differ, and as citizens invested in the health of the republic, we ought to be able to discern which of the unappetizing choices we’ve been served is more digestible. It’s actually our responsibility to do just that. If the nation is poised to travel down one of two paths, it really doesn’t do us much good to insist on the merits of a path that we’re not going to take, or stand at the crossroads and throw a tantrum because neither road is lit with fairy lights.
In November 2016, I voted for Hillary Clinton. I didn’t do that because I believed we shared the same quadrant of the Nolan Chart, or even because I wanted to see history made. I did it because I didn’t think her opponent could do the job. New Jerseyans had been privy to a view of Donald Trump that other Americans weren’t; we had a good idea of his limitations and a strong sense that he lacked the crisis management skills that are mandatory for a chief executive to possess. Many of the intuitions I have about famous people, mediated as they are through publicists and prejudices, turn out to be wrong. In this case I was right, and then some. My sense is that some of those whose image of the President was formed by game shows and television appearances are waking up to his incapacity. Maybe they aren’t. Regardless, it seems that the reelection effort is determined to make an issue of Biden’s age and mental frailty, which seems awfully strange to me, given that the President is neither young nor sharp. He appears to be inviting a comparison that flatters nobody. And it occurs to me today, on the Fourth of July of the twentieth year of the twenty-first century, that that might be the exact plan: discredit the Presidency, make it all seem like a pointless joke, further depoliticize people, shake their faith in the process and get them to sideline themselves. Democracy dies by attrition. Those who don’t want you to exercise your rights will celebrate your discouragement.
Eventually, systems are judged by the results they produce. By that standard, our electoral democracy isn’t doing well. It keeps empowering people with iffy ethics, deep tribal allegiances, and very little interest in unity. But even among unappetizing options, gradations still exist, and it is always worth remembering that the name on top of the ticket isn’t all you’re voting for. You’re also voting for the many people who’ll attend to the President, and have the President’s ear, and will determine the direction of the President’s policies. Republicans didn’t vote for Stephen Miller directly, but Stephen Miller is what we got, and it’s certainly what we’ll continue to get should they return Trump to office in November.
Certain wishcasters have revived the theory that Trump will stand down. Polls haven’t been wonderful lately, and he doesn’t enjoy the grind of the Presidency, so why wouldn’t he spare himself the aggravation? I don’t doubt that the President is having a lousy time, but I do think it’s a huge stretch to imagine he’d ever let go of power voluntarily. It’s clear that he recognizes that he’s been saved from prosecution by the immunity conferred to him through his office. The moment he returns to private life, he’s going to fly straight into a spiderweb of court cases — and he’s not going to have a subservient attorney general at his disposal. But no special counsel or Congressional investigation or, God forbid, military or police coup was ever going to oust the President. The only one with the power to do that is you, and me, and everybody else with a vote. They’re going to do everything they can to make you believe that vote is irrelevant. But it is relevant. Its relevance exceeds that of any other tool we’ve got at our disposal. If it didn’t, they wouldn’t be trying as hard as they are to discourage us from using it.