For four and a half decades, I’ve been watching American society, closely and warily. Though I’ve sometimes written hard words about my country, I try not to be hyperbolic about it. So when I say that I believe that America is, in February 2018, more susceptible to fascism than it ever has been in my lifetime, I hope you don’t think I’m ringing alarm bells for the hell of it.
I also hope you won’t think that I’m saying that fascism is about to be imposed from above on an unwilling nation by the current government. Our leaders are amoral and brutal and prone to authoritarian action, but they are, like all governments in the West, expressions of desire, both conscious and unconscious, by citizens. The government is a symptom – and though symptoms can kill, I think the incoherence of our present regime is, ironically, one of the best safeguards against fascism we have left.
The other safeguards are crumbling away. Day by day, story by story, post by social media post, they face constant pressure from a public desperate for retribution. Americans want to see forceful action taken against their perceived enemies. Since those enemies in this cold civil war are other Americans, the justice system has become the designated instrument of vengeance. For the past few months, American politicians and bureaucrats have been wrangling over control of the FBI: all the combatants want to use the bureau as a cudgel to beat their adversaries, and to my dismay, the whole nation seems united in cheering on the fight. Lock them up, throw away the key, raid the DNC, raid the RNC, hooray for the special counsel, the special counsel is crooked; the circle gets more vicious by the week. If you’re part of this chorus – if you spend any part of your day fantasizing about your political opponents behind bars – you may be more fascist than you think you are.
I have made my extreme distaste for the President and his henchmen plain. That said, one of the very last things on earth I would like to see is anybody led away from the White House in handcuffs. That might appeal to some primitive lizard-being inside me that wants to punish those I believe are up to no good, but it would be a disaster for this democracy, or whatever is left of it. It would set a precedent from which there’s no coming back. It is illuminating to me that many, many people who consider themselves liberal and broad-minded would applaud this outcome, just as Trump’s popular stump line about jailing the Clintons made me realize we were descending farther into a tribal hellscape than I thought Americans would ever voluntarily go. Cheering on the cops and throwing them handfuls of investigatory powers like Halloween candy used to be a Republican pastime, but now everybody does it, and that’s exactly why we’re in the trouble we’re in. No matter what superficial allegiance you claim, if you’re hungry to have the police solve your political problems, you’re in the ideal state of mind for a fascist ascendancy.
If and when it comes, it won’t look like what you think it will look like. Those dumbos in Charlottesville with the jackboots and their chants about Jews?; that’s not the vanguard, that’s the ass end. Fascism for the twenty-first century will be a polite, algorithm-driven thing, a crowd-pleasing thing, attenuation of privacy rights and erasure of personal boundaries by police organizations that have unprecedented invasive authority. Your life will be transparent to law enforcement, but law enforcement will be opaque to you. The searchlight that shines on the nation will become more searing than we can imagine.
Fascism will come with a blank face and a closed fist. It’ll speak, when it does, in the language of legal procedure. Obstruction, misconduct, conspiracy, transparency: interfering with the police will be the worst crime. Every hard-drive will be digitally seized, every cache will be snooped through, every sheaf of correspondence will be subjected to inspection, and it’ll all be done in the name of truth and justice. It’s happening already. So desperate are Americans to see their enemies jailed — because that is, they’re convinced, the inevitable outcome of all this police action — that they are acquiescing to general surveillance as a way of life and a means of retribution. When it all comes out, they say, then we’ll really nail the bastards; godspeed to the investigators, go faster and harder, bring the boot down. If you’ve been hungry to see memos released, and classified documents aired, and tax returns made public, and personal e-mails stolen and posted to a leak website, you’re exactly where they want you.
Once in the whirlpool, it’s oh so difficult to swim free. Whole institutions — education, tech, broadcast media — become part of the law enforcement apparatus, bound up in the task of social supervision, theoretically independent but forever ready to jump to the rhythm of the police baton. Journalism was, once, a kind of direct, to-the-moment division of storytelling; it still is in part, but that’s not what we’re demanding of our reporters. Instead we want them to expose, dig up dirt, investigate; we want their pieces to assist the downfall of powerful people we believe to be wrongdoers. We want them, in other words, to do police work. We want columnists who cheer on that police work, and who argue for its necessity in weaponized language we can reuse (and retweet).
America is an experiment in civilian control. Through our regular elections, we’re asked to send ordinary representatives of Joe Schmoe to Washington to execute the general will. Never mind whether it actually functions that way or how imperfectly we’ve realized the aspirations of the Athenian philosophers; stop to think for a second how crazy it was, and is, to even dream of giving that kind of power to the public. That any version of this has ever been allowed to happen is astonishing. Yet we did it, and because of our success (and probably no other reason) we’ve been emulated by other wealthy nations. As Americans we reserve the right to elect the very worst citizens in the land to represent us. We may have done just that. But when we fuck up, we cannot and should not call the cops to kick down the door and put things straight. For one thing, they’re very unlikely to put things straight, not in the way we want them to: they’re cops, that’s not what they do. More saliently, they will trample on the rug and wreck the furniture and break all the windows while they’re at it. This is our house, dammit, not theirs, and we will have opportunities in 2018 and again in 2020 to atone for our mistakes in the way that grown-up citizens do, secure in the knowledge that police-assisted regime change has never worked in the developing world and it sure as heck won’t work here. Our current leaders aren’t going to help us out: through laws and executive orders and the language they use, they’ve made their preference for ruthlessly expeditious governance manifest. Luckily — and despite it all — it’s not up to them. We can still keep the republic if we want to. Boy, I hope we want to.
Rookie Of The Year
Perverse old 2017 — the year a YouTube satirist out-popped Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Haim, and Lorde. Poppy’s album really isn’t half as mesmerizing or trenchant as her fifty second spots, but if it was, it would be Top 10 material. As it is, it’s pretty promising, and with “Pop Music”, she came up with a statement of purpose that ought to carry her along until the next album, or the next video, or whatever Satanic Pee Wee’s Playhouse she chooses to inhabit next. I’m glad she’s around. Pop needs great characters, and she’s arrived fully formed.
Best Guest Appearance
2 Chainz on Drake’s “Sacrifices”.
2017 Album You Listened To The Most
Marika Hackman’s I’m Not Your Man. I kept waking up with those songs in my head. What can I say?, I guess I like being taunted for not being a girl.
2017 Album That Wore Out Most Quickly
Most Notable Cover Version
Phoebe Bridgers’s gorgeous, weirdly empathetic run through the murder/rape ballad “You Missed My Heart” made me re-evaluate Mark Kozelek a little. Maybe he’s good for something other than throwing dirtbombs at The War On Drugs.
Most Romantic Song
Brad Paisley’s “Go To Bed Early”. Much of Love And War was too corny for me, even, which is saying something. But if you like numbers about irresistible attraction to your wife (I do), Brad’s got you covered.
Partner’s “Everybody Knows”. The best number ever written about getting stoned in the grocery store and in front of your professor. College humor, to be sure, but still pretty amusing.
Most Frightening Song
The horrors of A Crow Looked At Me aside (and best left undiscussed), I admit I found the “numbers on your phone of the dead that you cannot delete” section of “Emotional Haircut” pretty terrifying. Because I got ’em. I bet you do, too. It’s something about the unsettling collision between physical mortality and a machine-world that has trouble letting our identities go.
Most Moving Song
Natalie Hemby’s “Cairo, Illinois”. Ghost towns give me the chills.
“Soledad Y El Mar” by Natalia Lafourcade. The mariachi version of “Mexicana Hermosa” qualifies, too.
Marika Hackman’s “Boyfriend”. The target probably deserves to have his girlfriend pinched, but she didn’t have to sound so gleeful about it, did she? Guess she felt she was proving a point.
Randy Newman’s “Wandering Boy”. First he introduces the character — an aging sad sack who can’t even get the rest of the family to come to the annual party. Then he wades into the reason they’re despondent: they’re crushed by the plight of their youngest son, who has crashed through all safety nets and is now lost on the streets. “I hope that he’ll come home”, Randy sings, and in his voice, you can hear that the hedge-maze between the wandering boy and his broken-hearted father is high and thick and dark and impossible to navigate. When he pauses before delivering the last line and tells the crowd to search him out and push him toward the light, the delivery is so distraught that I choke up every time; hell, I am tearing up just writing this. I don’t know why those barriers exist between us and those who love us, and I don’t know why people fall into addiction. Randy doesn’t either. His compassion is equalled only by his despair. This is one of the greatest songs in a catalog loaded with greatness, and demonstrates that at 74, his singular vision hasn’t blurred a bit.
Best Historical Re-creation
Guess this can’t really go to Liam Gallagher, now, can it? That’s not fair. How about White Reaper and their album-equivalent of an ’80s Camaro doing donuts in the Sam Goody parking lot?
Best Sequenced Album
At What Cost
Crappy Album You Listened To A Lot Anyway
Artist You Don’t Know, But You Know You Should
King Krule, again. Should I?
Album That Felt Most Like An Obligation To Get Through And Enjoy
Crack-Up by Fleet Foxes.
Album That Sounded Like It Was The Most Enjoyable To Make
2 Chainz is at that great point in his career where he doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody, and he can relax and settle into a set of beats like a big man in a rocking chair on an Atlanta porch. Pretty Girls Like Trap Music wasn’t the best rap album of 2017, but it might have been the most assured; he knew the audience was there, and he knew he had exactly what they wanted. No pressure, no sweat, no straining to impress, no energy wasted, nothing but tight rhymes from an elder statesman who learned long ago how to present a verse and tell a story.
Album That Sounded Like A Chore To Make
Eisley’s I’m Only Dreaming. Sherri DuPree did her best, but she couldn’t compensate for the departure of both of her sisters — or the loss of the signature vocal harmonies they provided. Those must have been some strange and strained sessions.
Man, I Wish I Knew What This Song, Or Album, Was About
I admit I could use a hand with some of the new Dutch Uncles stuff. I had a good sense of what the songs on O Shudder were getting at, or at least I thought I did. Big Balloon just mystified me.
Most Consistent Album
Near To The Wild Heart Of Life. I don’t think that album ever ends, technically; somewhere down that magic highway, the Japandroids are still humping away on that same rudimentary chord progression. Good thing it’s a nifty one. The Who sure liked it.
Most Inconsistent Album
Pacific Daydream was, among other things, a weird stab at pop relevance from a bunch of guys who are far too long in the tooth to pull such stunts. When Rivers Cuomo and Butch Walker tried, instead, to forge some bizarre mecha-hybrid of the Beach Boys and Weezer on some of the less mersh tracks, the results were magnificent — and the rest has grown on me. I can’t hang with the crowd that claims Weezer is back to the bad old days of Raditude, no matter how much Pat has pruned his drum parts. The recent songwriting is simply too tuneful, and those tunes are developed too nicely. Cuomo has, in his old age, become one of the best bridge-builders since Roebling.
Album That Should Have Been Shorter
More Life, though I do love it. I could have used a little less rakalakabakalaka and Batman jokes from the goofy British emcees, though. Steven Wilson’s To The Bone could have been tightened up, too.
Album That Should Have Been Longer
Puxico. Nine songs is just not enough from the most prolific pen in Music City. Throw in some of that Kelly Pickler filler, why don’t you, Hemby?
Album That Turned Out To Be A Hell Of A Lot Better Than You Originally Thought It Was
After Laughter. What can I say?, I missed Jeremy Davis. Those kids ought to call off the lawyers. I promise, they’ll be much happier without them.
Album That Was The Most Fun To Listen To
Scratch & Sniff by the Jazz Spastiks. Lotsa jokes about bananas, popcorn, oranges, toothpaste, marijuana, kids from old ’50s commercials spliced in with audio from Wall Street and a sexy health-food nut going on about her marshmallow elixir. Forget what I said about Partner; this was the real funniest stuff of the year.
Thing You Feel Cheapest About Liking
I was all set to answer PWR BTTM, but I didn’t get the opportunity.
Least Believable Perspective Over An Album
No, I don’t believe that Drake is going to kill me.
Most Alienating Perspective Over An Album
Sylvan Esso. God, I hate when would-be pop stars complain about the starmaker machinery. You’ll get no sympathy from me — not when scores of your more talented peers can’t even get slapped on a lousy Spotify playlist. And while I’m at it, I can’t say I really care if Andrew McMahon is a family man. If he’s doing it all to bring home the bacon for his wife and child?, good for him, I’m sure he’ll make a fine Republican congressman someday. Seriously, pal, go on and party if you want to party. In pop-rock, the business which you have chosen, there’s a long tradition of this exact thing. You’ll fit right in.
Most Sympathetic Perspective Over An Album
Artist You Respect, But Don’t Like
John Dwyer of OCS.
Album You Learned The Words To Most Quickly
Album You Regret Giving The Time Of Day To
Lotta Sea Lice. Ruins Courtney Barnett for me, a little.
Young Upstart Who Should Be Sent Down To The Minors For More Seasoning
Hoary Old Bastard Who Should Spare Us All And Retire
Worst Song Of The Year
“Believer” by Imagine Dragons. It’s got everything I hate: an umalabumarumalabumala verse, an “inspiring” message, big, screechy falsetto vocals and martial drums that sound like they’re scoring a military demonstration in Pyongyang, and if that wasn’t bad enough, a video with Dolph Lundgren hitting people. Mercy.
Chris Tomson of Dams Of The West. Youngish American actually has good, funny lyrics, but he sings in such an artless monotone that you’ll never make them out. He has no idea how to set up or deliver a joke, he doesn’t know when to shout or when to whisper, and he completely garbles the emotional climax of “Polo Grounds”, a song that’s so neatly written that it shouldn’t be possible for it to fail to connect. “Will I Be Known To Her?”, indeed; probably not, sad to say.
This really ought to go to Taylor Swift, but I’m afraid she’s spared the indignity by Vic Mensa, who is an excellent rapper when he gets going and gets good guidance. Unfortunately, somebody let him put an uplifting spoken-word disaster on the end of his album in a bid for, I dunno, Def Poetry Jam cred, and it’s probably the most excruciating four minutes of 2017. “Everybody wanna get free shit/but nobody wanna get free/Shit!” Ugggggggh.
Ed Sheeran, “Supermarket Flowers”. It manages, simultaneously, to be pulverizingly mawkish and make no sense at all.
Worst Lyrics By A Good Lyricist Who Should Have Known Better
Reputation, especially “Gorgeous”. “I can’t say anything to yo face/coz look at yo face”. Maybe go easy on the Stella Artois next time, Taylor.
Most Unsexy Person In Pop Music
Neil Portnow. How do you get that gig, anyway?
Migos. Not to rehash what I wrote in the Abstract, but… aw, hell, let me go ahead and reprint it. At least Lil Yachty has stupid hair and an unfashionably sunny outlook; these stylish ciphers won’t even give you that much. If you ever want to understand the political bankruptcy of music sites such as Pitchfork and etcetera, just cross-reference the rhetoric in their social-justice editorials with their assessments of the Migos. These folks who are oh-so super sensitive about gender nomenclature and the fragility of queer identity and the creation of safe space are awfully quick to rave about a group that never misses an opportunity to put on a sexual objectification clinic, and whose homophobia is very much on the record (and on their records.) And this exception, like many other exceptions of a similar complexion, is made because… well, why? Because the Migos are poor and underprivileged and therefore deserve Whitey’s sympathy? They’re from Gwinnett County in the Atlanta suburbs. Because Whitey lacks the positionality to lodge a moral objection against this particular expression of black culture? Lame, and chickenshit, too. Because Negroes are zany? Hey, I could give a fuck about the things Migos say, but then I’m a loudmouth and it’s hard to offend me. All I ever ask is that they come up with some original, or at least unusual, content. Because right now all they’ve got is catchy singles, and that’s just not enough. The Motley Crue of hip-hop.
Worst Song On A Good Album
Angaleena Presley’s “Country”. I get what she was trying to do there, and I understand her frustration. But she’s not anywhere near the vocalist she’d need to be to pull that off.
Song That Would Drive You Craziest On Infinite Repeat
Good Artist Most In Need Of Some Fresh Ideas
Alisdair MacLean could stand to vary his songwriting approach a bit. Twenty years on, we’re still on that same rain-washed London side street, and there’s still eeriness approaching. You’d figure the phantom would have gotten him by now.
Most Thoroughly Botched Production Job
I’ve come to see Jack Antonoff as a menace — not because he’s a “good guy” around girls, as a lengthy but irrelevant hit piece recently suggested, but because he’s got one musical idea and he insists on sticking all of his clients with it. Or maybe they’re more than happy to take it on; regardless, he’s the guy in the producer’s chair, so he gets the blame. Anyway, go over to your guitar. Strum a major chord — a C will do. Now, sing a cliche, something like “are we out of the woods are we out of the woods”, or anything from that crummy Lorde album, or just make one up, since it doesn’t really matter what you’re saying. Repeat it a few times. Now, on the third measure, without changing the melody of the phrase you’re singing, switch over to the relative minor (Am) while keeping the bass note the same. You’ll still be singing “are we out of the woods are we out of the woods”, but it will somehow sound more dramatic. On the fourth bar, resolve the phrase. Congratulations, you have made a Jack Antonoff production. Pick up your Grammy from Neil Portnow on your way out.
Will Kanye Be Back?
Yes, but I expect a quality drop.
Is Taylor Swift In Premature Decline?
She’s got one more great album to give us, but it probably won’t be for awhile.
How Much Longer Does Drake’s Hitting Streak Continue?
Two more albums, or until he decides to start making movies in earnest.
Next Artist To Come Back From The (Metaphorical) Dead
Green Gartside. I hope.
Place The Next Pop Music Boom Will Come From
Canadian wave — Montreal in particular. Canada-Caribbean collaborations, cutting the U.S. out.
Will Still Be Making Good Records In 2027
We’re all betting on Laura Marling.
Will Be A 1-Hit Wonder
Portugal. The Man, which is sad, but there you go.
Biggest Pop Music Trend Of 2018
Pop stars hopping on remixes of Latin hits. Let’s call it the Despacito Effect.
Best Album Of 2018
Okay, friends, I’ve got a Last Word, but I might not get around to it until Friday. Good night.