Category Archives: Uncategorized

50 good albums from the first half of 2017

jlinAlphabetization is the mark of a lazy critic, I know, I know. Go ahead and cancel your subscription. Anyway, here are 50 albums I’ve enjoyed so far this year. What did I miss?

Les Amazones D’Afrique: Republique Amazone
Chuck Berry: Chuck
Big Thief: Capacity
Mary J. Blige: Strength of a Woman
Mary Bue: The Majesty of Beasts
Charly Bliss: Guppy
Cloud Nothings: Life Without Sound
Amber Coffman: City of No Reply
Daddy Issues: Deep Dream
Steve Earle: So You Wannabe an Outlaw
Craig Finn: We All Want the Same Things
Forged Artifacts: The Greatest of All-Time Vol. 2
Girlpool: Powerplant
Granddaddy: Last Place
Mariem Hassan: La Voz Indómita
Ibibio Sound Machine: Uyai
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit: The Nashville Sound
Jlin: Black Origami
Jidenna: The Chief
Kehlani: SweetSexySavage
Kendrick Lamar: Damn
Jens Lekman: Life Will See You Now
Arto Lindsay: Cuidado Madame
Lorde: Melodrama
Spoek Mathambo: Mzansi Beat Code
John Mayer: The Search for Everything
Migos: Culture
The Mountain Goats: Goths
Orchestra Baobab: Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng
Angeleena Presley: Wrangled
Oumou Sangare: Mogoyo
Sheer Mag: Compilation
Omar Souleyman: To Syria, With Love
Vince Staples: Big Fish Theory
Starlito/Don Trip: Stepbrothers 3
Stef Chura: Messes
St. Etienne: Home Counties
Sunny Sweeney: Trophy
Syd: Fin
Palberta: Bye Bye Berta
Palehound: A Place I’ll Always Go
The Shins: Heartworms
Colin Stetson: All This I Do For Glory
Swet Shop Boys: Sufi La
SZA: Ctrl
Tamikrest: Kidal
Thundercat: Drunk
Tinariwen: Elwan
Wall: Untltled
The xx: I See You

Alone but not lonely

This is an odd attempt at a personal essay from last fall that didn’t quite gel. A lot has changed for me since then, and this reads to me like it was written years, not months ago. But inspired by Alfred Soto’s terrific piece about what it means to live alone, I figured I’d salvage what I’d abandoned.

This summer I was often alone but I was not often lonely. I would write in the morning and bike later that afternoon to one lake or another with some book or another. Not a bad life.

This summer I was often alone but I was not often by myself. I worked in coffee shops, where prolonged conversation might be rare but the regular bustle simulated companionship, and I read on lakeside benches, welcoming the distraction of people strolling continuously past me.

Being alone is hardly a condition of absolute isolation, but simply an awareness that you walk into a situation unaccompanied and remain a solitary presence even when you interact with others.

I am 46 years old and I form no integral strand of any social web. I never married and I have no children—not by choice, except in the sense that everything in our lives results from the accrual of small choices. I have no family in Minnesota: My parents are both dead, and my only brother lives in New Jersey.

I do have friends, and good ones too. I have dates and I have lovers. I have acquaintances I’m excited to bump into, and I probably socialize more regularly and more widely than most people my age.

And yet, what a gregarious person would call a tolerance for being alone I feel as a hunger. And so my loneliness, when it sets in—and eventually it does—is a kind of spiritual indigestion, a hangover from whenever I overindulge my ravenous appetite for solitude.

Loneliness isn’t depression, or anxiety, though all three nurture each other. (I know firsthand, trust me.) Depression, anxiety—these are deeply tangled emotional responses, significantly out of scale to whatever slight stimulus aggravates them. Loneliness, at least when it first sprouts, feels temperamentally proportionate, and (like boredom, say) potentially fixable, a mere need for human connection that I refuse to seek out, like shivering stubbornly on the couch instead of grabbing a blanket.

But loneliness persists, metastasizes into alienation, until no amount of human interaction lessens that sense of being alone. When you don’t interact regularly with your closest friends or family you lose the habit of easy intimacy. And when you’re already lonely, the social shorthand of shared memories or in-jokes or small talk that you fall back can feel especially hollow.

The lonelier I am, the more likely I am to idealize possible social interactions, to develop unrealistic expectations of friendship itself, and the less likely my contact with others will measure up to my fantasies. Or the opposite occurs: My imagination falters and I can’t envision future social situations that will decrease my loneliness.

As I write this, I’m constantly resisting the urge to offer the sort of explanations that lonely people feel implicitly demanded of them. (Even if few people really wonder “Why did you come alone?” the lonely can imagine hints of that question in your subtext or tone.) And I’m already dreading the possible responses—pity or, worse still, well-meaning advice. I don’t want a roommate or a pet or a church, really I don’t.

Like television and even the book before it, “the internet” is now fingered as the culprit for our collective loneliness. And yes, when I’m already lonely, social media can isolate me further—an

ill-considered self-pitying Facebook post elicits comments I don’t want to read from people I don’t want to hear from. An online conversation between friends about a topic I find stupid drives me deeper into myself. And though social media can connect me to friends hundreds of miles away, it can keep me from hanging out with friends just a few blocks away.

But the perpetual connectedness of online life can also be my last defense against loneliness. In September, I drove up to Duluth for two days. (Alone, yes.) I gorged on bison pastrami and lost myself on wooded hikes and pestered locals for insights about their city. But at moments loneliness tapped me on the shoulder, reminding me that to be alone is to have no companion to confirm my experience. If no one shares my meal, or sees the same sunset, or gives me reason to express what I think, how do I hang on to that experience? Our relationships function as an external hard drive for our memories, and one reason breakups hurt is because we lose access to shared swathes of our past.

So I’d pull out my phone, and tap a few words into Facebook or Twitter, sometimes with a photo attached, and take the opportunity to narrate my life. This is what writing has always been for me: a way to communicate while remaining alone, to risk the vulnerability of exposing my thoughts to others from a position of comfortable solitude. And in those moments, I was again alone but not lonely.

Fuck a title: The best music of 2016

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Better late than early. Now that it’s 2017, here’s the best music released in 2016 that I heard. “Albums” are self-explanatory, with the version noted when alternates exist. I define “singles” pretty loosely these days to include any song that takes on a life of its own outside of its album of origin–though I believe, with one Kanye-sized exception, each of these was released as a “single,” whatever that still means.

Albums

1. Rihanna: Anti- (Deluxe)
2. A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service
3. Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book
4. Britney Spears: Glory (Deluxe)
5. Lori McKenna: The Bird and the Rifle
6. 75 Dollar Bill: Wood/Metal/Plastic/Pattern/Rhythm/Rock
7. Maren Morris: Hero
8. Mannequin Pussy: Romantic
9. Kevin Gates: Islah (Deluxe)
10. King: We are King

11. Thao & the Get Down Stay Down: A Man Alive
12. Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition
13. Brothers Osborne: Pawn Shop
14. Elza Soares: The Woman at the End of the World
15. Fantasia: The Definition of …
16. Bonnie Raitt: Dig In Deep
17. Beyoncé: Lemonade
18. Paul Burch: Meridian Rising
19. Wall: Wall
20. Homeboy Sandman: Kindness for Weakness

21. Solange: A Seat at the Table
22. The Avalanches: Wildflower
23. Parquet Courts: Human Performance
24. Ka: Honor Killed the Samurai
25. Haley Bonar: Impossible Dream
26. Anderson .Paak: Malibu
27. Swet Shop Boys: Cashmere
28. Vince Staples: Prima Donna
29. Jamila Woods: HEAVN
30. Drive-By Truckers: American Band

31. Azealia Banks: Slay-Z
32. Vic Mensa: There’s Alot Going On
33. Bombino: Azel
34. Tanya Tagaq: Retribution
35. Flume: Skin
36. Blood Orange: Freetown Sound
37. Kitten Forever: 7 Hearts
38. Aesop Rock: The Impossible Kid
39. Bettie Serveert: Damaged Good
40. Alicia Keys: Here

41. Young Thug: Jeffery
42. Bent Shapes: Wolves of Want
43. Arca: Entranas
44. DJ Katapila: Trotro
45. Kendrick Lamar: untitled unmastered
46. Soul Sok Séga
47. MIA: AIM
48. Miranda Lambert: The Weight of These Wings
49. Wussy: Forever Sounds
50. Esperanza Spalding: Emily’s D+Evolution

Singles

1. “Humble and Kind,” Tim McGraw
2. “Body,” Dreezy feat. Jeremih
3. “Ultralight Beam,” Kanye West feat. Chance the Rapper, The-Dream, Kelly Price, and Kirk Franklin
4. “Pick Up the Phone,” Young Thug and Travis Scott featuring Quavo
5. “Kill v. Maim,” Grimes
6. “Can’t Stop Fighting,” Sheer Mag
7. “We the People,” A Tribe Called Quest
8. “Vice,” Miranda Lambert
9. “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump),” YG feat. Nipsey Hussle
10. “Cranes in the Sky,” Solange

11. “Never Be Like You,” Flume Featuring Kai
12. “The Big Big Beat,” Azealia Banks
13. “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore,” Lucy Dacus
14. “Into You,” Ariana Grande
15. “The Pop Kids,” Pet Shop Boys
16. “Frankie Sinatra,” Avalanches
17. “Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” Adele
18. “Good as Hell,” Lizzo
19. “Black Beatles,” Rae Sremmurd feat. Gucci Mane
20. “Boyfriend,” Tegan and Sara

21. “Work,” Rihanna Featuring Drake
22. “Really Doe,” Danny Brown feat. Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and Earl Sweatshirt
23. “You Want It Darker,” Leonard Cohen
24. “Crying In Public,” Chairlift
25. “Girls @,” Joey Purp feat. Chance the Rapper
26. “Trill Friends,” Erykah Badu
27. “Formation,” Beyoncé
28. “Love as a Weapon,” Little Scream
29. “F Cancer,” Young Thug feat. Quavo
30. “History, ”One Direction

2016: The Year in Keith (Prince-less Edition)

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I wrote a few things in 2016 that had little or even nothing to do with Prince. Here are some of the good ones, including–

The best thing I wrote all year

“In defense of ‘Thong Song,’ inexplicable winner of PiPress’ Worst Song Ever contest,” City Pages, April 1

Concert reviews

“Lizzo slays headlining debut at First Ave,” City Pages, February 8

“Carly Rae Jepsen immerses Minneapolis fans in smart, G-rated pop escapism,” City Pages, March 10

“Adele pays tribute to Prince as U.S. tour kicks off with dazzling Minnesota concert,” Billboard, July 6

“Good-timin’ Luke Bryan christens U.S. Bank Stadium with asstastic country party,” City Pages, August 22

“KDWB’s Jingle Ball shows us why 2016 pop music sucks,” City Pages, December 6

Legal analysis

“Public outcry may help free Kesha from contract with Dr Luke’s label,” the Guardian, February 23

“Why the Hulk Hogan sex tape verdict matters,” Rolling Stone, March 22

“What happens If Led Zeppelin lose the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ trial?,” Rolling Stone, June 22

“Can Taylor Swift sue Kanye West over ‘Famous’ video?,” Rolling Stone, June 29

Obituaries

“Muhammad Ali, boxing legend, dead at 74,” Rolling Stone, June 4

“George Michael dead at 53,” Rolling Stone, December 25

And finally…

“Accidental post-racism in a southern voice: What country music did and didn’t say as the age of Obama began,” EMP Pop Conference paper

2016: The Year in (Stuff I Wrote About) Prince

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This time every year, I try to gather up my best work here in case anyone’s interested in catching up. But I had so much to say about Prince in 2016 I decided to gather that stuff up in a separate post. I’ll follow this up today or tomorrow with links to my other favorite stories.

I knew I’d written a bunch about the little guy this year, but I didn’t realize just how much till I sifted back through the archives. I was lucky enough to catch his final Minnesota show in January, and also lucky to have the opportunity to write two very different stories about his relationship with Minneapolis, for Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, the night after his death. It was a strange, emotional year in my town, and I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else in 2016.

“Prince Stuns at Emotional ‘Piano and a Microphone’ Solo Show,” Rolling Stone, January 22

“How Prince Changed Minneapolis,” Pitchfork, April 22

“Minneapolis in Mourning: A City Celebrates Prince,” Rolling Stone, April 22

“Hang Tough, Children: Life After Prince,” blog post, April 25

“Why Media Law Experts Have Some Serious Problems with the Legislature’s PRINCE bill,” MinnPost, May 16

“New Power Generation: The Story of Prince’s ’90s band,” The Current, June 3.

“Prince’s Revolution Reunites for Tribute on ‘Purple Rain’ Stage,” Rolling Stone, September 2

“Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan Shine at Messy Prince Tribute,” Rolling Stone, October 14

“Tours of Prince’s Paisley Park: What to Expect in All 13 Rooms,” City Pages, November 3

“The New Power Generation 2.0: Prince’s Influence on Local Music Lives on, but—Like the Artist Himself—It’s Complicated,” Mpls St. Paul, December 5

 

I also did a little reporting on Prince’s probate case for Billboard. Here’s everything I had to say about 10-PR-16-46 In re the Estate of Prince Rogers Nelson, Deceased.

“Prince’s Heirs Apparent: A Look at the Siblings who Stand to Inherit His Fortune,” May 11

“Two Claim Share of Prince’s Estate Through Half Brother,” May 18

“How to Prove You’re Related to Prince and How His Estate May Be Sliced Up,” June 3

“Prince’s Estate Is Open for Business, Following Judge’s Ruling,” June 8

“Prince Estate: Judge Sets Two-Week Deadline for Genetic Protocol Decision,” June 27

“Judge Denies Estate Claims of 29 Would-Be Prince Heirs,” July 6

“Family of Prince’s ‘Brother’ Duane Nelson Sr. Fights for Piece of $300M Estate,” October 21

“Judge Rejects Claim to Prince Estate From Family of Late Pop Star’s ‘Brother,'” October 26

When will they b paid?: The latest on the Prince estate

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As I mentioned yesterday, I attended a hearing in Prince’s probate case, and as promised, here’s my write-up on Judge Kevin Eide’s order for Billboard. I’m no expert in estate law, business law, or entertainment law, but it strikes me as a judicious balancing of interests, allowing Bremer Trust to capitalize on Prince’s IP assets without straitjacketing his heirs (whoever they may be) into long-term contractual arrangements. There’s something in the judge’s order to disappoint every party to the case, and that seems like a good sign. (Also, I’m curious what they have in mind for Paisley Park this summer.)

This is the fourth story on the Prince estate I’ve written for Billboard in the past month. If you’re interested in reading more, here’s the full saga (or at least as much of it as I’ve been the one to tell).

“Prince’s Heirs Apparent: A Look At The Siblings Who Stand To Inherit His Fortune,” May 11.

“Two Claim Share of Prince’s Estate Through Half Brother,” May 18.

“How to Prove You’re Related to Prince and How His Estate May Be Sliced Up,” June 3.

Prince: There ain’t nothing, nothing left to say

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Today would have been Prince’s 58th birthday. It’s officially “Prince Day” here in Minnesota, much as it has been, unofficially, for 46 days now, and will be every day this summer, at least. Me, I’m going roller-skating. It’s what he’d have wanted.

The day itself  I spent in the Carver County District Court in Chaska, attending a hearing in Prince’s ongoing probate case, which I’ve been reporting on for Billboard. (When the judge issues his order on Thursday, I’ll link to my story, and to my previous coverage.)

So yes, most of what I have to say these days has less to do with the man and the art, and concerns the legal aftermath of his death. A couple weeks back, for MinnPost, I covered the gruesome “PRINCE Act,” a proposed right of publicity statute that fortunately stalled in our dysfunctional state legislature.

On the other hand, I did get an opportunity to write as encyclopedic a history of the New Power Generation as I could squish into 1000 words for The Current. (Though I didn’t get a chance to attend any of the NPG’s quickly sold-out tribute shows.)

Finally, apropos of zip, other than avatars of African-American excellence dying, here’s an obituary of Muhammad Ali I wrote for Rolling Stone last week. I’m not the kind of guy who says “this fuckin’ year.” But really, this fuckin’ year.

 

Survivor Tactics: Beyoncé and Ashanti

So far, so what? Nothing new here — she’s a survivor, her body’s too bootylicious, shoes on her feet, she bought ’em, say her name, say her name, say her name. But as Beyoncé officially goes solo, she trades in the faux autonomy of Destiny’s Child for something more freakazoidal. With the Disney Channel market clearly subleased to baby sis Solange, Beyoncé fills the first half of Dangerously in Love (Columbia), her first solo album, with some of the funkiest heavy breathing in recent memory. As a kind of parental advisory, she cribs from “Love to Love You Baby” on the second track, “Naughty Girl”; next she’s drooling over a “Hip Hop Star,” asking, “Do I blow you away?” and chanting “Undress me” as OutKast’s Big Boi cheers her on with a lip-smacking, “Take off that tank top and pull off them drawers.” And Bey kicks it all off with “Crazy in Love,” an admission that she’s been hypnotized by some hot thang’s magic stick and can’t make her own decisions anymore. Maybe there is something missing — something about independent women.

The real question isn’t why Beyoncé’s now a hung-up boy toy — it’s how such a malleable lump of multiplatinum plastic put off being cast in this mold for so long. After all, such male-identified quandaries are stock in trade for an R&B princess like Ashanti. As blank a slate as has ever topped the charts, Ashanti was Murder Inc. CEO Irv Gotti’s protégé, making her name by purring sweet nothings to hip-pop’s ickiest best sellers, allowing Fat Joe to straddle her on “What’s Luv?” and cooing, “I love it when you thug me, baby,” to Ja Rule. “Foolish,” the first single from her self-titled debut album, is the closest many of us will ever come to hearing a starlet talk in her sleep. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but that sure hasn’t held Ashanti back.

Working up a detailed critique of Ashanti’s Stepford diva persona might seem as pointedly pointless as, oh, holding a celebrity roast to lampoon Carson Daly. But in fact, on the new Chapter II (Murder Inc.), Ashanti emerges as her own woman. You can tell, because Ja Rule doesn’t show up even once. Actually, “emerges” is probably the wrong word — she drifts through “Rock With U (Aww Baby)” like her own underpaid backup singer. But by murmuring to herself, she seems to create a safe, private space where beautified anonymity provides a defense against thug sexuality. A pretty girl with an ability to ingratiate herself with famous and powerful men, all Ashanti asks in return is to protect a tiny corner of her psyche, to retreat inside herself, into what guest interlocutors keep referring to as “Shanty’s World.”

Beyoncé, on the other hand, leaps into the battle of the sexes crotch first, flaying (for instance) the title ballad so viciously you never even think to ask what love’s got to do with it. Her attitude toward romance here is best summed up in a single line: “Love is so blind, it feels right when it’s wrong”from the tellingly titled “Me, Myself and I,” the one track where she winds up on her own after the jerk walks out on her. “That’s all I got in the end,” she states of those three first-person pronouns. “From now on, I’m gon’ be my own best friend.”

Except it isn’t all she ever had. You remember her old group, which projected a female solidarity that was obviously a pretense long before LaToya and Latavia were pink-slipped — there’s a reason Matthew Knowles never called his baby girl’s combo Destiny’s Children. But the pop-feminist euphemisms that DC faked — sisterhood, girl power — still provided a welcome counterbalance to no-good machismo, a corrective that’s in notably short supply these days. “Crazy in Love” is Beyoncé’s equivalent of “Back in My Arms Again,” the Supremes song on which Diana Ross rejects “her friends’ advice”and a long, vital girl-group tradition — because her heart knows better. But when Bey’s friends wonder, “Who he think he is?” of the lust object who runs their girl’s life, she offers none of Ross’ I’m-my-own-woman rationalization here — she just has no choice.

Which means that video image of Beyoncé’s violently exerted self-control is essentially as a show of limitation. Beyoncé can’t afford to lose herself in the music when she feigns sexual obsession, because she’s moved beyond the girl-group ethos, and there’s no one left to catch her when she falls. And because no other female has got her back, Ashanti can’t risk allowing whatever personality she might be developing to burble up through the music. The most touching moment on Chapter II is a skit, where Ashanti’s sister drops by to sing along. For once, all too briefly, we hear two female voices in harmony. There are worse ideas.

Artist of the Year: Beyoncé G. Knowles

Say her name: Beyoncé. The pivotal diva (pictured, front left) of Destiny’s Child would have been one ingenious starlet to choose that stage name for herself, given its playful echoes of fiancée and beyond and bounce. In fact, she was christened Beyoncé at birth by her father (who, not coincidentally, doubles as her manager). Like so many of Beyoncé’s business dealings and artistic decisions, her name is outside her control. Then again, Elvis didn’t get to name himself either. But could an Ernest Presley ever have been the king of rock ‘n’ roll? Sometimes events outside of an artist’s control are crucial to her artistry. I mean, Elvis didn’t write his own songs, right?

Neither does Knowles–she’s fourth on the list of the seven folks who share songwriting cred for “Say My Name,” the most intense pop ballad in many a year, though who’s to say how much input this truly amounted to. It matters much more that the lead name in that list is producer Rodney Jerkins. The limp Timbaland remix shows how much “Say My Name” owes to the expert rhythmic pacing Jerkins devised on the original release. And whether you see Jerkins as an old-school studio Svengali or you don’t, it was hard not to appreciate the delicious irony of Destiny’s Child contributing “Independent Women, Part 1” to the Charlie’s Angels soundtrack, since Beyoncé and her cohorts are exactly as independent as the Angels–three forceful photo-genies who require a shadowy father figure to free them from their bottle.

But who ever said artistry was about independence? Too often, we approach art with a demanding juridical scrutiny, as if the work in question was a premeditated homicide and we had to pin the responsibility on someone. When it comes to girl-group pop, whether ancient or modern, our desperation to find an auteur leads us to anoint the producer. But all beats aside, “Say My Name” could have been an insecure whine if placed in the wrong larynx. Instead Knowles’s prepossessed but pained wail echoes the claustrophobic paranoia that underlays every desperate Motown ballad. Like “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “Say My Name” is a tale of identity being dissolved in a crucible of infidelity, the song’s emotion seemingly too big for the cozy confines of the pop-radio format. And that takes some kind of singer. Say her name.

Singles round-up: Sulking into Spring

April showers bring pop downers. If you don’t have enough to mope about lately — well, you do, yes, but regardless, here are five moody tunes to immiserate you, in ways both good and bad.

Chairlift
“Crying in Public”

The lyrics sketch an urban panopticon, but really, doesn’t the title describe what we do on social media all day long? Typically too glib when hit-hungry (“Romeo”) and too subtle when woodshedding (the rest of Moth) here Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly serve up just-right spoonfuls of Everything But the Girl’s porridge. Polachek overdoes neither stoic verse nor sniffly chorus, and little touches like the way the Wimberly’s guitar quietly but inexactly foreshadows the vocal melody to come are hardly irrelevant. I would buy so many Gap t-shirts to this song.

 

Demi Lovato
“Stone Cold”

There’s an art to tasteless oversinging. OK, maybe “art” isn’t exactly the right word. OK, maybe “art” is exactly the wrong word. Whatever. Lovato grabs this garbage tune by its ears and slams it against the floor with relentless, shameless, pitiless gusto, like the colicky lustchild of Steven and Bonnie Tyler. The climactic high note is both unforgiving and unforgivable and could only be delivered by a cyborg with a t-shirt cannon where her heart should be. I love it.

 

The Chainsmokers feat. Daya
“Don’t Let Me Down”

The production duo that should rename itself Jamie PG-13 churns out the spiritual descendant of ‘90s hair-salon/wine-bar trip-hop, updated stylistically for contemporary easy-listening consumption, with queasy electrogulps standing in for domesticated breakbeats. I don’t want to call this progress. But I don’t want to remember Olive either.

 

Sia feat. Sean Paul
“Cheap Thrills”

Rihanna would have scuffed mournful depth into this party trifle as surely as Adele would launched “Alive” into orbit. But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason neither didn’t.

 

FKA Twigs
“Good to Love”

Sade Bush has had her moments (the candidly cautious “Lights On,” the nastily gasped “Two Weeks”) but I can’t even hypothesize what’s relatable or attractive about this sullen, overworked plea.

Accidental post-racism in a southern voice: What country music did and didn’t say as the Age of Obama began

The following paper was delivered at the 2016 EMP Pop Conference.

Sometime around 2008 it occurred to certain segments of the country music industry that African-Americans existed. An alert country music listener could occasionally hear what we might call reverse dog whistles – lyrical clues indicating that the singer wished to be perceived as not racist. Several country singers, in small but perceptible ways, challenged modern country radio’s implicit understanding that the Southern man is also a white man.

Mainstream country music has an uncanny knack for refracting cultural trends — or at least perceived cultural trends — through its hits, its stars, its representation of itself as an industry, operating at a point where market research feels, at times, practically indistinguishable from a kind of intuitive mass empathy. 2008 was one such time. The candidacy and eventual election of Barack Obama was clearly one impetus for Nashville’s new racial cognizance, but it was not the only one.

In August 2006, 93.9 KZLA in Los Angeles segued from Keith Urban’s “Tonight I Wanna Cry” to the Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get it Started.” With L.A’s sole remaining country station making the switch to “rhythmic pop contemporary,” you could now no longer hear country music in three of the four largest markets in the U.S. New York hadn’t had a country station since 1996; San Francisco had been country-free since 2001.

Changing demographics in the U.S. had already stoked corporate anxieties in Nashville. The percentage of Americans who were white was expected to steadily decline, a fact of particular importance to country radio because its listeners are almost exclusively white – a 2006 Arbitron report estimated that only 2.3% of country radio’s audience was black.

Radio remains an important part of breaking country stars and nurturing their careers. Gary Overton, the head of Sony Music Nashville, frequently says of country music: “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.” Sometime around 2008 it occurred to certain segments of the country music industry that, in a significant portion of urban America, country music superstars did not exist.

 


In March 2009 Darius Rucker’s “It Won’t Be Like This For Long” became the first #1 country song by an African-American singer since Charley Pride’s final chart topper, “Night Games,” in 1983. This chart statistic became instantly totemic, indicative either of how resistant Nashville was to change or a signal of potential transformation to come, depending on your perspective. Rucker’s third country single, “It Won’t Be Like This For Long” first charted in November, the week of the 2008 election. Sometimes Nashville’s timing is so on the nose it’s embarrassing.

When Rucker who signed to Capitol Records Nashville in 2008, he was, of course, a known quantity. As the lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish, he’d been one of the biggest rock stars of the ’90s and one of the least hip. If the trajectory from aging rocker to country star was an increasingly common one, few followed it as gracefully the Charleston, South Carolina, native Rucker. He released his debut country album, Learn to Live, in September 2008 to widespread acceptance from country fans.

As a performer and as a star, Rucker was worlds different than country music’s last black hopeful.

The most recent African-American country performer to achieve any commercial success had been Cowboy Troy, a “family member” of the wild, garish Big & Rich MuzikMafia that attempted to remake Nashville in its own image in the early aughts. Troy’s debut, Loco Motive, hit #2 country in 2005, but two years later, his follow-up, Back in the Saddle, stalled in the 20s. With its heavy guitars and goofy demeanor, “I Play Chicken with the Train” announced itself as a novelty hit, hardly a way to successfully integrate country radio. Rucker, in contrast, was a southern everyman, a guy who maybe drank a little too much but loved his kids and worried about the state of the world in measured cliches on songs like “If I Had Wings.”

And yet, that track, with the anodyne line “Why do we hate?” significant recalls Rucker’s query “Why must we hate one another?” from an older, more explicitly topical song.

Hootie and the Blowfish’s 1994 song “Drowning,” was almost certainly only single by a platinum rock band of the decade to complain that the state of Carolina still flew the Confederate flag. When, in the wake of a mass shooting at black South Carolina church twenty years later, the display of that symbol became was more widely and publicly challenged, Rucker did not explicitly address the controversy. Nor was he any more obligated to do so than any other country music star. In fact, he may have been less obligated to – his new career itself was a kind of political stance.

 


When he rose to fame in the early ’90s, Tim McGraw did not always display a keen sensitivity to the complex and often tragic role race played in American history.

 

“Indian Outlaw” was, we can hope, the closest we’ll ever come to hearing a 12-inch dance remix of the Atlanta Braves’ tomahawk chop on the radio. Lyrically, its redsploitation cliches are made more offensive by a last-minute bid for liberal redemption: For a coda, it tacks on the chorus of John D. Loudermilk’s “Indian Reservation,” a pop cry against the mistreatment of native Americans, best known as a hit for Paul Revere and the Raiders.

But McGraw’s position, as they say, evolved. He duetted with Nelly in 2004 on “Over and Over.” (“It ain’t nothin’ country about this song,” McGraw half-apologized to fans at the time.) By that point McGraw had became one of country music’s most prominent Democrats. A longtime Bill Clinton fan, he voiced his support for Obama in People in September 2008, identifying as a “Blue Dog Democrat” and saying he liked “the statement he would make for our country to the world.” At that time, McGraw also had an album in the can, Southern Voice, that, to his vocal consternation, would be delayed for a year because Curb Records chose to release McGraw’s compilation, Greatest Hits 3.

Nearly a year later, McGraw released the title track from that album as a single. Written by Bob DiPiero‎ and ‎Tom Douglas, “Southern Voice” lists prominent historical figures who in some way typify a regional ideal – hardly a groundbreaking lyrical conceit. Yet the list is racially integrated in a manner that no country hit would achieve by accident.

Six of the sixteen southern voices named in the verses are African-American, though the overall racial percentage of the song is skewed slightly more toward the Caucasian side of the ledger by the mention of Allman Brothers and Charlie Daniels t-shirts in the chorus, and passing mentions in the bridge to Jerry Lee Lewis. (The bridge also mentions Jesus but, this paper will assume that He is invoked in his non-corporeal form so as to avoid speculation on his racial identity.) (Also appearing is Pocahontas, who I suppose technically lived in what would become the American “south,” but, I mean, still, come on.)

The song’s insistence on a racially composite southern heritage would be more exciting if the writing was a little better. But though a bit hacky, the writers create interesting comparisons almost in spite of themselves.

The first line pairs off Hank Williams and Dale Earnhart – gotta get them out of the way, right? But then it gets interesting: Linguistic innovators Chuck Berry and “Will” Faulkner are set beside one another, followed by powerhouse vocalists Aretha Franklin and Dolly Parton. Then, weirdly and with no audible irony, Rosa Parks and Scarlett O’Hara. I do like how Martin Luther King and Billy Graham are nearly side by side the second verse.

Through representation and inclusion, the song insists everyone mentioned is a southerner despite his or her skin color. That makes for glib history and thin politics, maybe, but there’s something redeeming about the focus on the voice – that though divided by their appearance, there is nonetheless, through voice, a material manifestation of self that all these figures share.

 


The writer Choire Sicha once suggested that every mayor of New York City gets the Yankee superstar he deserves, and the same could be said of U.S. Presidents and country music stars. Sometimes the correlation is one-to-one: Garth Brooks’ frank commercial triangulation made him a Clintonian country singer just as Bill Clinton’s gargantuan offer to feel our pain made him a Garthian president. George W. Bush, an aging frat boy called upon to talk tough, was a Toby Keith who wished he could be a Kenny Chesney, or maybe vice versa.

The shadow president of Nashville in Barack Obama’s first term was not fellow color-bar-breaker Rucker, but a singer who displayed the theoretical strengths and stark limitations of white America’s good intentions: Brad Paisley. At the time Obama was elected, each of Paisley’s last nine singles had been number one country hits, and in 2009, the savvy West Virginian set a new record with his tenth chart topper, “Then.” But the album that launched that single, American Saturday Night, suggested that Paisley was ready to gamble with his commercial capital and nudge listeners into a new era post-racial country music cosmopolitanism.

The title track is a blithe ode to globalization that explicitly rejects golden age traditionalism. But it was “Welcome to the Future,” written as an immediate response to Obama’s election, that made Paisley catnip to northern urban liberals like myself,many of whom had already been impressed by Paisley’s songwriting wit and fluent guitar, and who now sought reassurance that they had weren’t wholly alienated from their fellow Americans.

The song’s final verse in particular encapsulated the mood of hope for the future of race relations in the U.S. that was widespread following Obama’s election:

I had a friend in school

Running back on the football team

They burned a cross in his front yard

For asking out the homecoming queen

I thought about him today

And everybody who’d seen what he’d seen

From a woman on a bus

To a man with a dream

Paisley would go on to perform at the White House. Still, as he told Country Aircheck in 2009: “I caught a little bit of flack from some people that didn’t quite understand, that thought for a second that maybe I was getting political with this song.” Then something terrible happened.

“Accidental Racist” is what happens when you let two professional awards show hosts try to sort out America’s tangled racial history together. You know the story: Paisley’s narrator wears a flag with the Confederate flag on, L.L. Cool J is the offended black barista he encounters. But though it’s Paisley’s character who’s in need of education, it’s L.L. who supposedly learns a lesson: “If you don’t judge my do-rag/ I won’t judge your red flag.”

Paisley’s knack for embodying the southern naif who hopes to decipher the changing world has never tripped him up so disastrously as that again. But even on “Southern Comfort Zone,” which argues that travel broadens a southern man’s mind, Paisley assays a presumptuous: “I know what it’s like to be the only one like me/ To take a good hard look around and be a minority.” Paisley has endeavored to nudge his audience forward, but the process often pulled him backward artistically. “Welcome to the Future” culminated with a “glory, glory hallelujah”; at the climax of “Southern Comfort Zone,” a chorus launches into “Dixie.”

Anyway, by 2013, country music had already expanded far beyond any southern comfort zone.

 


 

That’s Nelly again. (Why always Nelly?) In 2012 Florida-Georgia Line, the straw that breaks the poptimist back, released a new version of their crossover hit “Cruise,” featuring an appearance by the previously misplaced St. Louis rapper, and it went top ten.

The wooshy synthesizers of Paisley’s “Welcome to Future” suggested a kitschy, wide-eyed ’70s kid’s dream of Tomorrowland. Glossy, rhythmic, slick, impossible to imagine without contemporary non-country pop music, “Cruise” was what the actual future sounded like, the culmination of a reworking of mainstream country that had begun with Jason Aldean’s 2010 version of the Colt Ford/Brantley Gilbert song “Dirt Road Anthem,” which featured a straight-up rap break.

Rucker, McGraw, Paisley – each wondered, or allowed listeners to wonder, who or what a Southerner was. As rap and pop began to inflect country production and singing, a different question arose, and not for the first time: whether these new-fanged sounds were “country.” “You know, nobody grew up more countrier than me,” Luke Bryan would say when defending the sound of his music.

When Bryan sings that he bumps “A little Conway, a little T-Pain,” on “That’s My Kinda Night” or Florida Georgia Line pull out a mixtape on “This Is How We Roll” that’s “got a little Hank, little Drake,” it’s superficially similar to what McGraw and Paisley were up to. But the racially integrated consumption celebrated in these new songs-that-I’m-trying-really-hard-not-to-call-bro-country leapfrog over Paisley’s concerns about the modern south. They’re not explicitly re-imagining a regional heritage the way “Southern Voice” had. And, of course, the singers are not black like Darius Rucker.

Country returned quickly to Los Angeles with KKGO Go Country 105 in 2007. By 2013, New York even City had a country music station again – the Cumulus-owned Nash FM. A 2014 New York Times story noted that country “has displaced Top 40 as America’s most popular musical format with an audience that has grown stronger, wider and younger.”

No less white, of course. In 2008, country radio faced a test. Within a few years it had found a way, at least in the short term, to dodge the questions that racial identity posed – simply by peeking over and copying pop music’s answers.