Two years after the election, artists have not responded with biting political attacks, but music that slows things down to find comfort in the chaos
In a 2017 interview, experimental musician Yves Tumor offered a bleak prognosis of the state of the world. “We’re doomed. That’s it. The world is over,” Tumor said, before laughing, apologising for laughing, and then continuing: “But I don’t want people to be happy or sad when they listen. I just want them to be hopeful.” The interviewer asked the artist what there was to hope for, given the world being over. “A happy ending,” replied Tumor. “And when I say happy ending, I mean that if there is a meteor that’s going to destroy the earth, at least there’s the most beautiful sunset the world has ever seen right before it crushes us. Maybe my album is that sunset.”
Since the 2016 election, the timbre of both fringe and popular music has loosened. The rash of ferocious punk songs that certain commentators anticipated under the present administration never surfaced. There have been protest songs, and songs sold to benefit political causes: reproductive rights, hurricane recovery, anti-racism, and other urgent efforts financially neglected by the elected representatives of the United States. Much of the music released for charitable purposes only obliquely addresses contemporary American crises, if it speaks to it at all. Certain songs predate Trump’s election. The 7-inches for Planned Parenthood box set includes an unreleased live recording by Elliott Smith, who died in 2003.
Redistributing funds to assist the marginalised will always be important work, and yet the music that accompanies this work feels incidental. The past two years have not given rise to many biting political attacks in song form. There is more for artists to metabolise than an oppressive presidency, though the presidency looms large. The current moment’s dominant music tends to slow things down and allow space for reflection, rather than snap back at a single emergent evil. The threat of impending collapse saturates culture more and more thickly: collapse of the United States and perhaps of capitalism, but also collapse of the global ecosystem, human civilisation, the world.
The most resonant music of the past two years orbits the thought that everything that can be seen right now is almost gone. The sense of imminent loss tends to show itself not in lyrics, but in the sound of contemporary music and the way it moves through time. Songs sound as if they’re vanishing. Listen to a Twenty One Pilots song from 2015, then listen to one from this year. The former sounds packed, abundant, spilling over with texture; the latter desolate, threadbare, and hugely spacious. The same exercise works with Lady Gaga or Kesha, two artists who once performed shrink-wrapped glitter pop, and since have begun to process trauma on a broad stage. Yves Tumor’s 2018 record, Safe in the Hands of Love, offers pop songs thrown into chaos, like “Noid”, alongside churns of noise and sparse acoustic loops. Many of the album’s songs chase predictable structures – choruses follow verses follow choruses – while their production sounds full of holes. A track like “Lifetime” forces the listener to search in vain for the bass, while the languid piano and scattering drums sound as if they were recorded in different hemispheres. The only thing gluing the song together is Tumor’s ragged voice, which begs the world to congeal for just a few more minutes: “I cannot breathe / I swear to you / It’s torture.”
If there is a decade from which to look back on music made between 2016 and 2020, we will likely hear these four years as empty, hollow, full of echo and uncertainty. “Now I am insane / Demons in my brain,” sings Juice WRLD on “All Girls Are the Same” from the 2018 album Goodbye & Good Riddance. A toy piano tinkles behind him distantly, and he sounds like he’s drowning in ozone. “I just need a way out / Of my head / I’ll do anything for a way out / Of my head,” sings Mac Miller on “Come Back to Earth”, a track from the last album he released before his death of an overdose, Swimming. On the cover, Miller sits barefoot and suited in a slice of airplane. After he died, it began to look more like a coffin he was sinking into. The last song on the album is called “So It Goes”, a refrain from Slaughterhouse-Five that’s repeated whenever someone dies. As in, here comes the inevitable. Everything ends.
“The most resonant music of the past two years orbits the thought that everything that can be seen right now is almost gone”
A lot of music nods to Vonnegut this year: Miller, Moby’s new album Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt, Spiritualized with their truncated version of the same title. A soft science fiction novel disguised as a war story, Slaughterhouse-Five presumes the existence of aliens who live outside of time, who do not see events sequentially but all at once, if there were such a thing to them as ‘once’. At what might be the end of history, there is comfort in such a concept: that whatever we’re rolling towards already exists, and we’re just the ones who happen to be alive to experience it.
Music happens sequentially, tone unspooling over time, but it can also supply an escape from the relentless chronology of living. The five minutes contained in a pop song can feel more real than the months and years that make up history. Frank Ocean exploited this mechanism on Blonde, released three months before the 2016 election, where he excavated his past and made an album that plays like a movie. The looseness of that record, its willingness to jostle from genre to genre and memory to memory, later spread out to music writ large. It supplied a model of keeping time that became invaluable after the election dented sequentiality. History shied away from the progress it was supposed to uphold, ditching the possibility of the first woman president for the old squalls of white male reactionaries. It felt wrong, impossible, a black swan event, but America loves a curveball; it’s good TV.
Ocean’s temporal manipulation has deep roots in black gay musics. In the 1980s, under Reagan, house music flourished in urban gay communities at the same time AIDS was ravaging them. DJs responded to death’s proximity by elongating time, looping the beat for another few minutes, threading in voices of physically absent singers. Music became a way to enlarge the moment.
Under a president who exacerbates Reagan’s legacy, the same strategy proliferates. So much music grows more spacious and also warmer. This year, Julia Holter released a gorgeous, echoing 90-minute album about the onslaught of history, and the moments of shelter that emerge within the present. Ariana Grande put out a loose, slippery record that toyed readily with mood, genre, and tempo. Experimental producer Oneohtrix Point Never ditched his typical formalism and released an album patched with strangled folk songs, a bizarre, drowning album about the end of the world. SOPHIE, an avant-pop artist known for her taut, impeccable drum patterns, closed her debut LP with a track that, in its first half, uses no percussion at all.
Think of Honey, and how Robyn carves out caverns of sound with a single synthesiser tone; how the title track sounds big enough for all of us. How her pronunciation of the word “honey”, and the echo of it, implies a place with all the oxygen you could ever hope to breathe. The great size of the space where this song seems to be playing brings with it a freedom of movement, just as it insinuates the process of loss: there is so much room because someone who is supposed to be here isn’t here anymore.
“The best songs of the past two years aren’t protest anthems; they’re palliative works, music that seeks to comfort its listeners and make the time we have left softer, freer, more bearable”
There’s a scientist in the Haruki Murakami book Hard Boiled Wonderland & the End of the World who claims he has empirically discovered heaven. It’s not a place, and there’s no such thing as a soul that leaves the body for the afterlife. Instead, the human brain, which cannot accept death, stretches out the final moments of a person’s life to, effectively, infinity. Time slows to a crawl, and consciousness lingers indefinitely in a dream.
Amid the death throes of the world, musicians perform a similar function. They empty out their songs so that each song might hold more time within however many minutes it lasts. The best songs of the past two years aren’t protest anthems; they’re palliative works, music that seeks to comfort its listeners and make the time we have left softer, freer, more bearable. Apocalypse is claustrophobic. In 2018, music injects breathing room into an era dominated by anxiety, opening a window for a pocket eternity in what feels like the end of time. If there’s no way forward, at least we can take care of each other in whatever’s left of the now.