By PAUL BLANK
I’ve been working on a theory that the best American music tends to come out when Democrats are in power. Not necessarily because liberal music is good music, but because — let’s be honest — most musicians are liberal, and the music industry being just as much a part of society’s Superstructure as anything else, tends to work best when it and the political establishment are in tandem. This is why the ’60s are generally regarded as a better decade for music than the ’70s, the ’90s better than the ’80s and, with each passing year, the ’10s better than the ’00s. As we move farther from it, it gets harder to grasp just what statement American music was trying to make in the 2000s, because the U.S. itself was experiencing an identity crisis — starting two wars based on questionable pretenses and violating international law on an unprecedented scale while only doubling down on American exceptionalism. For optimal cultural relevance, lighten up and release music faster. Also, vote Hillary in 2016. Just kidding, do what you want.
I don’t know, maybe it’s a dumb theory. The point is that, for whatever reason, the aughts were a decade of stagnation and the 2010s seem to get it. We as a society understand what issues are worth addressing, and the best albums produced so far have reacted to them and have then fed back into the culture. The issue is technology: Its ability to make our voices more pervasive than ever before but to also isolate and reinforce our own little bubbles. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, good kid m.A.A.d. city, Modern Vampires of the City, these albums all comment on this, but they also have another thing in common: They don’t name names. When we hear Kanye West openly describe his romantic travails, or Ezra Koenig rattle off disparate references, we know what products facilitated this: Twitter and Wikipedia. But with the exception of references to Instagram in West’s “Blood on the Leaves” and Boost Mobile in Kendrick Lamar’s “The Art of Peer Pressure,” this decade’s classics never call out the elephants in the room that almost all music consumers would recognize. Why is this?
One might suspect this is because the music industry’s collusion with technology companies subtly deters artists from directly criticizing them, or that artists just dislike product placement. I think, however, that the reason is simpler: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the like are really silly words. You see, sites like Twitter and Tumblr are named as cutesy as they are to target an adolescent audience. A product name like Foursquare conjures images of recess and harmless play, which implicitly tells the public that it is not to be taken too seriously and subtly protects it from criticism. That’s why many artists need to take a roundabout approach to social commentary to not sound hokey. Arcade Fire’s Reflektor does a fantastic job of turning criticism of technology into art, but does so using the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a metaphor, mapping Orpheus’ struggle not to look at Eurydice while leading her out of the Underworld onto our fight to quell our need for instant gratification. Butler doesn’t reference a single company over the entire album, nor should he have. I doubt any flowery language could turn words like “Kickstarter” or “Tinder” into remotely credible messages.
The Future’s Void, the newest album by singer-songwriter EMA, is an example of how naming names can undercut the commentary. The album overall is good enough, but its tracks that attempt to comment on Internet culture fall particularly flat. “Making a living off taking selfies / Is that the way you want to be,” she sings on “Neuromancer.” “It’s such a narcissistic baby / It’s such a millennial baby.” When I first heard that line, I cringed immediately, taking me out of the song. The phenomenon of the selfie is undoubtedly a reflection of the narcissism EMA describes, but “selfie” is such a stupid word, it’s hard to take anything after its utterance seriously. It’s like how it’s an unspoken rule not to talk about Facebook posts in person; it feels so inconsequential, yet it’s undoubtedly having an impact on society as a whole.
Music that uses Internet lingo seems to be best when the artist acknowledges the triviality of it all and has fun with it, and no genre does this better than hip-hop. This is probably why hip-hop has become the genre with the most cultural cache this decade; its explicit references to social media connect to our generation better than any long-winded metaphor could. Take for example, Strange Journey Volume Three, the newest album from Kentucky hip-hop trio Cunninlynguists. It has the opposite problem of The Future’s Void in that its best tracks are the ones that feel most timely. “Drunk Dial”’s playful subject matter is pretty clear from its title, but the group owns it by doubling down, rapper Grieves telling a story of accidentally sending a dick pic to his male friend. “I hope you black out before you do anymore damage,” Murs, the friend, responds. “I checked your Timeline, homie why you tweeting in Spanish?” On paper, this exchange doesn’t look too natural, but in the song, with loping tubas leading the beat, name dropping the social media terms only enhances the comedy of errors.
The high frequency of hip-hop releases also complements the swift development of Internet culture well, so that could be a reason why the genre has a leg up on the competition. An artist like Lil B, who releases over ten albums a year on average, can afford to take glee in sounding dated, because his music’s more about the journey of his career rather than any one specific work. The thing is Lil B has never released a definitive album, nor will he probably ever given the nature of his work ethic. And Arcade Fire nurses albums for over three years at a time, and a lot of shit can fall in and out of fashion in that time to risk singling out any one specific product. Maybe the right middle ground is something akin to early-00’s Eminem, whose screeds against Chris Kirkpatrick and Moby sound downright ancient now, but are so ridiculous they’re enjoyable for some realm beyond timelessness. I don’t see Arcade Fire writing five-minute diss tracks anytime soon, but heretofore unheard of artists of the second half of the decade may want to take note: For optimal cultural relevance, lighten up and release music faster. Also, vote Hillary in 2016. Just kidding, do what you want.