The New York Times Magazine has figured out that, when it comes to music, we live in the era of the song. Albums just aren’t as important as they used to be. Now, an artist drops a “Formation” or a “Bitch Better Have My Money” and the internet jumps all over itself to provide hot takes.
The Times has gathered 25 writers from around the country and tasked them with writing thoughtful pieces about current songs that mean something to them, and created an accompanying playlist, which includes everything from Mac DeMarco to Vybz Kartel to the Hamilton soundtrack. Along the way, the cast of scribes use the songs as jumping off points to talk about subjects as varied as the changing attitudes toward homosexuality in Bulgaria to Jamaican electoral politics.
Here are a few highlights:
You may think you’ve never heard “Marvin Gaye,” but it’s possible you just haven’t listened to it. It’s a song that tends to register via alternate senses, a clamminess on the nape of your neck or a cloying taste, like children’s cough syrup, in the back of your mouth. The platinum-selling doo-wop duet features the artist Meghan Trainor (who, like Puth, has thus far used her considerable songwriting talent to create songs so depthless they feel like waxworks).
Minya Oh, the hip-hop journalist who goes by Miss Info, thinks Bennett has benefited from upheaval in the industry. “I’m sure that on some level of the major-label and old-establishment industry, there are execs and agents who think homosexuality is a liability,” she says. On the other hand, she adds, “there are more and more handlers and mentors and facilitators who will see a new artist who is gay as either an opportunity to tap into a new market or, at worst, just a talking point.” But even more important than all that, Oh says, is that artists like Bennett may not even have to pander to the mainstream anymore: “As fragmented as music audiences are these days, it would be difficult to alienate fans who are already bunched into nomad tribes.”
When some people rave about Hamilton as a “hip-hop musical,” they’re applauding the expansion of their taste—of their artistic tolerance—and obscuring Miranda’s voracious catholicity. The show is a hip-hop-era musical. Not a wall of sound, but a sponge. The songs offer the illusion of lawlessness. In any number, anything appears to go, despite there being a formal rigor holding it all together. The composers begin with a keen awareness of show-tune mechanics, pop structure and rap flow. That awareness is then taken to the same garage that tricks out cars for “Fast & Furious” movies.
Like Phil Collins, Michael McDonald, Abba or any number of desperately unhip artists, their “image” will evaporate, while their songs will weather the years. In 2009, the Brooklyn band Grizzly Bear conscripted McDonald to sing a version of one of their singles, “While You Wait for the Others,” at the peak of their own rarified cool. Chris Martin might be asked to fill a similar role for tomorrow’s Grizzly Bear. Imagine it: Sincerity will once again be on its way out of music, only for a familiar and tender voice to ring throughout the future blogosphere. Because when it’s no longer certain what’s cool, what will be more comforting than an elder statesman who never worried about it to begin with?
That’s just a small sampling. This could well be your reading for the rest of the week, and that would be a reasonable use of your time.
You could also just spend the rest of your week reading Jezebel deputy editor Jia Tolentino’s sick burns on Charlie Puth, and that would also be a reasonable use of your time.