2016 was a year full of unpleasant surprises and disappointment and hate and rage and loss and run-on sentences.
No good people got what they deserved, and no bad people did either. It sucked, and it's tempting to sit in the shadow of 365 days of bad memories, shut your eyes, and close your ears. Traumatic periods have the effect of seeping into even the cracks where the good moments hide, and drowning it all out until it all just seems awful.
But now we get to take some wobbly baby steps into 2017, and looking back on 2016 can help us find a little solid ground to stand on, to move forward. In spite of and because of the tumult that tumbled through every day of the past year, we got some great music in 2016, important music that refused to be ignored and offers ways that we can have a better 2017 as communities and individuals. Here are a few of those ways:
How to Deal With Loss
We all nearly drowned in a pile of Ls last year. Donald Trump's victory felt like a loss of safety, agency, and respect for millions of people. It stung even more when politically prominent artists like Prince, David Bowie, and George Michael passed away and/or floated into an alternate universe. On the way up, though, Bowie left us with the outstanding Blackstar, and the legendary Leonard Cohen dropped off You Want It Darker before he passed. Both are unsparing in their examinations of death. They face what is coming and make phenomenal music out of it. These great artists, until the end, didn't stop working.
The album in this vein that resonated with me most, however, was A Tribe Called Quest's We Got It From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service, the last Tribe record we'll have with the irrepressible Phife Dawg sharing the mic. It's messy but overflowing with talent, like old friends coming together to do what they've always done well together, which is exactly what it is. Flows weave in and out; bars are traded, and guests wander through like the studio's a side room at a party. And it isn't only about loss; the record is political, funny, and just kind of normal. Q-Tip says that Phife chose the album title, and he doesn't really know what it means. It seems like the title is Phife's way of saying how wants them all to deal with his passing-- by honouring him and by moving on together. Mourn the past while looking to the future. Thank you, we got it from here.
How to Articulate Identity Politics
In the aftermath of Hillary Clinton's loss to Donald Trump, many took to blaming the Democratic emphasis on identity politics as the downfall of the campaign. This is bad and wrong for a lot of reasons. Primarily, the Democratic focus on the identity politics of marginalised groups is a problem only if we live in a country so lacking in compassion that voters are unable to sympathise with the problems faced by these marginalised groups. If our country were compassionate towards marginalised groups, identity politics would be celebrated. If our country were not compassionate, identity politics would be criticised. Here we are, criticising identity politics, which points to a lack of compassion I would consider far more problematic than the political strategy of helping people in need.
In this process of identity politics bashing, the very concept of identity politics became misconstrued as a way of individualising politics at the expense of communal needs, of lacking a broad message in favour of specificity. Music, in itself, is an elegant and succinct rebuke to this false dichotomy. Assertion of one's own experience doesn't exempt it from affecting others, but often has quite the opposite effect. A lot of music's power and universality can often be due to the granular details that people latch onto.
Solange and Beyoncé both put forth widely acclaimed, intensely personal albums on black womanhood (as did Noname), Danny Brown crowed psychedelic and stark tales about his relationship with drugs, and Schoolboy Q gave unsparing accounts of growing up in gang life. All of these albums are imbued with personal experience, and that individuality gives the works their power.
Perhaps the universality of identity politics is best shown in Frank Ocean's Blond (or Blonde, idk). Few artists have become such powerful political voices by saying so little, but whether through the details that drift through his lyrics or the vignettes he paints in Tumblr posts, Frank has managed to become a sought-after voice for lots of people. And he's done it through detailed storytelling, which is what identity politics, really, is. Blonde is a journal whose pages are blown in the wind, scraps of vivid detail that cohere loosely. And it is the listener's job, often, to find that coherence.
And in that linking of details, the listener becomes a more sympathetic person. Oliver Sacks wrote, "To be ourselves we must have ourselves - possess, if need be re-possess, our life-stories." To be ourselves as a community, then, we must understand each other's stories, even the stories of people far different from we are. Blonde pushes us to do that work, to take in individual detail to make an individual story, and find the sympathy to fit that individual story with our collective one. That's kind of what identity politics is, and when it works, it sounds really good.
You could also ignore the politics and bask in the vibes of KAYTRANADA, Lil Yachty, Young Thug, Lil Uzi Vert, D.R.A.M, etc. Music is important because it's political, but it's also important because it's super fun. These guys are good reminders of that. There's certainly politics to a Young Thug song but mostly it just makes me want to sprint around and dance and jump through the moon, and that's a very okay thing.
If there is one album that encompasses what music can be in 2017, it's probably Chance the Rapper's Coloring Book, a kaleidoscopic mix of nostalgia, loss, perseverance, and overwhelming joy. It's wonderful in a lot of ways, but I'm most often struck by how beautifully it renders sincerity. A while ago, David Foster Wallace predicted a resurgence of sincerity in response to the saturation of irony in culture. America in 2017 may be the time for this sincerity to take root. The current political climate is exceptionally urgent and visceral, and sincerity, in its directness and honesty, simply may make the most sense.
But there are lots of directions music can, and will, go. It remains a remarkably democratic space, even if other spaces (such as all of America, yikes) become less so. 2017 is going to be a good year, and 2016 taught us how to make it happen.