GUEST LIST WEEK
GLW 015: RYAN JOYCE
GLW 016: Drew Ginther
GLW 017: Mike Brand
GLW 018: Carl Anderson
Salvation is coming in the morning,
But now what we need,
Is a little rain on our face from you, sweet
— “Saint Honesty,” Sara Bareilles
Jonathan Franzen penned an essay for the New Yorker this September titled, “What If We Stopped Pretending?” It assesses the global response to climate change but doubles as a meditation on how the human fixation on salvation at the expense of honesty undermines us in times of crisis. (Aside one — swaths of popular media panned Franzen for promoting what they saw as inaction on climate change, which I think is, generously, a misreading of the argument.)
Franzen is unsparing in detailing the current state of play. (Aside two — Critics noted the facts aren’t all spot on, but maybe it’s telling that the novelist is reflecting the popular, not wholly inaccurate, understanding of the state (we think) the world is in.) There is no refuting at this point the scientific evidence that the world is warming fast this, he says, and though that evidence has been mounting for decades, we’ve made no meaningful inroads towards a solution. He asserts that everyone in their early 30s or younger is guaranteed to endure the seismic geopolitical consequences of fires, flooding, mass migration, and extreme economic instability. (That list, scarily, is neither prescriptive nor exhaustive.)
What bothers Franzen more than the impending devastation of the planet and our society, though, is how public debate frames the issue. (Final aside — this, too, got folks worked up.) He assails discussion of climate change that props up belief in a future in which the problem is not just mitigated, but solved. Instead, he proposes an alternative to the approach he deems insidious and disingenuous.
Some climate activists argue that if we publicly admit that the problem can’t be solved, it will discourage people from taking any ameliorative action at all. This seems to me not only a patronizing calculation but an ineffectual one, given how little progress we have to show for it to date. The activists who make it remind me of the religious leaders who fear that, without the promise of eternal salvation, people won’t bother to behave well. In my experience, nonbelievers are no less loving of their neighbors than believers. And so I wonder what might happen if, instead of denying reality, we told ourselves the truth. (emphasis mine)
Perpetuating the hope that as-yet unsolved problems can be solved at the drop of a hat, he goes on to argue, is, more than just ineffective, but also counterproductive, because it distorts your view on the types of actions that can mitigate the damage.
If you persist in believing that catastrophe can be averted, you commit yourself to tackling a problem so immense that it needs to be everyone’s overriding priority forever. One result, weirdly, is a kind of complacency: by voting for green candidates, riding a bicycle to work, avoiding air travel, you might feel that you’ve done everything you can for the only thing worth doing. Whereas, if you accept the reality that the planet will soon overheat to the point of threatening civilization, there’s a whole lot more you should be doing.
Franzen argues for something like an intersectional view of climate action, one that considers not only what we eat, what we wear, how we travel, and how we vote, but also the health of our institutions, the affordance of equal rights, the promotion of the rule of law, and the active resistance our most violent impulses. That work, he argues, serves to mediate the pain climate change inflicts while we sort out ways to manage the root cause.
So yes, Franzen’s essay is about climate change, but it got me thinking about the other ills that spent 2019 revolving around me at various removes:
What to do about the changing tactics of populists and nationalists, who find ever more nefarious ways undermine our institutions?
Or how to combat the corrupting influence of power on the leaders of even the most benevolent, mission-driven organizations, like my place of work? What’s the proper response when colleagues lose jobs unnecessarily, when micromanagers upend carefully crafted plans, or when leaders choose to intimidate and deflect, rather than to be held to account?
Is there a way to navigate family dynamics complicated by distance, money, politics, sex, and death? What’s the right stance to take towards friends who lie, partners who let you down? What school of epistemological thought teaches you to separate the real from the fake in social circles that thrive on irony-laced text messages, booze-fueled philosophizing, and drug-induced lovefests?
And worst of all, how to come to grips with the fact that you — just as much as anyone else — indulge your tendencies to pollute and be wasteful, to fret over budgets and set tight deadlines, to forget birthdays and anniversaries, to bail on plans last-minute, to play the caustic cynic over text or the loudmouth lightweight at the kiki?
I must have thought the equivalent of a few months’ worth of time listening to music would help. And upon looking back: sure, some patterns emerge.
Many of the songs that stuck with me in 2019 extolled the virtue of an honest assessment of one’s circumstances, viewing that as a precondition for change. Often, that message felt trivial or tangential to the song’s overarching message or purpose:
You don’t wanna talk about / You and I / We don’t ever talk about it
Said, “I’m fine,” / But it wasn’t true
If you don’t wanna see me dancing with somebody / Don’t show up
Occasionally, combating denial, confronting assumptions, and telling hard truths felt urgent or central to the message:
And I am just the shape I’m in / I’m in retrograde
I spent my whole life waiting patiently / Convinced it all would come to me
Hate casts a long shadow / I know that I lie in it / And let it rule my mind from time to time.
The music I listened to over and over emphasized the descriptive over the prescriptive, the declarative over the imperative. Solutions were hard to come by: few songs bothered to resolve their own internal tension, much less offer up any answers to problems beyond their fictive bounds.
Little in this music felt like a call to action, save for two simple, conservative, provocations. They echo the calls in Franzen’s essay, but you’d recognize them as simple instructions a parent and teacher would give a young child.
Which means they’re not unique, nuanced or overly insightful. Instead, their value stems from simplicity and broad applicability. And yet, set to the right music, framed by the right lyrics, like in the verse I quoted at the start of the essay, they transcend the cliché and approach something bold, courageous, or even powerful:
Be honest. Be ready to change. Do each as liberally as possible; your world might just depend on it.
24 songs from 2019, in eight categories. (Putative overall rankings are in parentheses.)
(5) Tim McGraw [Maggie Rogers]
An excellent cover reveals layers in both the original and cover versions; against that rubric, Maggie’s live version of “Tim McGraw” far exceeds expectations. It is mature and sensual; her delivery hints at experience far beyond her age. All the wilder, then, that the song was the product of Taylor’s teenage brain.
(7) Make You Feel My Love [Ben Platt and Kelly Clarkson, non-Spotify]
This “original arrangement” owes a great debt to Billy Joel’s underrated early 90s (cf. Greatest Hits, Volume 3), particularly in the melody of the first verse and the arrangement’s plodding quarter notes on the piano. While it bears all the faults of a Voice-era cover, there is a moment two minutes in, during a bridge purpose-built to make gays drop whatever they’re doing, in which Kelly Clarkson erupts into two sustained Cs and a D# that make you forget that she’s singing next to Evan Fucking Hansen. For fifteen seconds nothing else exists but Kelly Clarkson. And her voice. And love.
(17) Motivation [MUNA]
MUNA can have fun, too, folks. You listen and leave thankful the pop landscape is big enough for both MUNA and Normani. It also serves as proof that the folks behind songs like “Motivation” deserve every penny they earn.
(16) Leave (Get Out) [JoJo]
Once more, with feeling.
(20) Next Level Charli [Charli XCX]
A bold experiment in word painting that delivers the experiential range of a rave in under three minutes. Over a dozen verses, you get the wait, the come-up, time bleeding into itself, a sobering up, the second half of the pill kicking in, capped with a ketamine-laden slink to the finish and a ringing in your ears that lingers as you climb into bed.
(21) Shake It [Charli XCX, Big Freedia, cupcakKe, Brooke Candy, Pablo Vittar]
The queer “Monster” the world didn’t know it needed. Big Freedia wins for best verse, but there’s no topping cupcakKe’s, “I shake it like I’m tryin’ to get the oil off the bacon.”
THE ONES JUST FOR ME
(9) No Sudden Moves [Julia Nunes]
Exhibit A in the rebuttal to Aaron’s argument on Spotify algorithms.
(11) You and I [LÉON]
All gays have their own female pop star they stan despite her being utterly unknown to the rest of their friends. LÉON is that pop-star for me. (Sabrina Carpenter — we see you, Curt! — comes a close second for “Sue Me.”)
(19) Do With It [Betty Who]
Betty might have felt like an underwhelming album*, but the key change at the final chorus is how I know I’m gay. (*Or maybe it was just great?)
THE ONES I SAW LIVE
(2) Fallingwater [Maggie Rogers, live at Paradiso]
There were a few moments at concerts I caught this year in which otherwise rowdy audiences collectively keyed into the magic on stage. One such moment was the haunting final chorus of Kacey Musgraves “Merry Go Round,” which a Melkweg crowd of (mostly) middle-aged white folks joined with a monastic unease. An opposite, but equally powerful moment happened at the outro of “Fallingwater,” when all you could hear in the three-tiered venue was Maggie, and nothing else. It was a fitting end to a pitch-perfect performance that left several of the group I saw in tears, after which the crowd erupted into sustained cheers that seemed to go on forever. (She then topped that moment in the encore.) The best concert I saw this year by a mile.
(3) I Can Change [Lake Street Dive, live at Paradiso Noord]
Rachel Price displays virtuosic range during a Lake Street Dive show, and perhaps it’s the stunning musical and thematic simplicity of “I Can Change” that sets it in such stark relief from the layered arrangements and kitschy lyrics that the quintet is known for. Like “Saint Honesty,” this is an urgent, political song set in an intimate, personal frame. It shouldn’t lose its relevance anytime soon.
(8) ‘Cuz I Love You [Lizzo, live at Paradiso Noord]
This displays Lizzo the character at her most unhinged and Lizzo the singer at her most explosive and precise. (Nicki, take notes.) As a set-opener, this established the tone for a show so intimate and memorable I didn’t bother to buy tickets for her larger Amsterdam gig later in the year.
THE ONES THAT MAKE ME MOVE
(6) Cruel Summer [Taylor Swift]
Let’s focus on the magic of the final ninety seconds, which are potent pop alchemy; this bridge and chorus are her best work since “Out of the Woods” and “Style,” respectively. The song flashes its brilliance musically, structurally, and — least surprisingly for Taylor — lyrically. Listen for the tiny alterations to the harmonies in the chorus each time we hear it, the repetition of the frenetic bridge after the last chorus that propels us to the finish, and pithy, aphoristic flourishes throughout -- “I don’t wanna keep secrets just to keep you;” “‘I love you,’ ain’t that the worst thing you’ve ever heard;” “Devils roll the dice; angels roll their eyes” -- each of which deserves an award for excellence in pettiness.
(13) Do Me [Kim Petras]
(14) Post That [Leikeli47]
To quote Alex Kain on this blog from 2017, “I cannot listen to the first 30 seconds of this song without voguing like a freak.” The lyrics are next level: thots, take notice — this will be on the test:
My bitch will get on the ground / Just to make sure the light is found
The way she make them angles hit / She like Bill Cunnigham with that shit
I mean that shot, Richard Avedon / To make look like a don, I got
So many pieces, bitch why not / Have me a photoshoot right on the block
I put two lanes on gridlock / So I can sit in a deep squat...
THE ONES THAT MARK A MOMENT
(4) How Do You Sleep? [Sam Smith]
One could sense, perhaps, that Sam Smith was dipping their toes into new waters, waiting for a song and a vibe that best suited who they wanted to be musically in 2019 and beyond. (Forget, for a moment, the burden queer artists must feel to align their private personae with their commodotized musical identities.) While “Promises” only managed to fortify Calvin Harris as a serviceable producer of beats to clack to, and hindsight tells us “Dancing With a Stranger” was just a warm-up for Normani’s big moment, it was on “How Do You Sleep?” that Smith found the logical modulation from their earlier output. The staccato synths of the chorus — capitalized on to great effect in the video — make clear what we might have suspected all along: that even with a new way of doing things, some part of Sam still wants to give it to you old way.
(10) Don’t Start Now [Dua Lipa]
The white gays who sold short on Dua Lipa should be eating their humble pie about now, but for the fact that they’re exactly the type of people who never say, “I’m sorry; I was wrong.”
(12) imagine [Ariana Grande]
Contents of the first verse of the thank u, next era: tour busses, private cars, midnight pad thai, champagne, and bathtub photoshoots. Which begs the question:
Why can’t you / imagine a world like that?
THE ONES THAT MAKE ME FEEL MY AGE
(1) Saint Honesty [Sara Bareilles]
Armor, which racked up a string of above average reviews but no hit single, is a protest album cloaked as easy listening. It reaches its lyrical and musical pinnacle in this secular gospel to the powers of truth seeking (and telling).
Structurally, “Saint Honesty” adheres to the template of the wildly successful Waitress ballad, “She Used To Be Mine,” and uses a metaphor — water as cleansing truth — that is, to put it mildly, well-worn. (Remember Hillary Duff’s “Come Clean?”) Rather, it’s Bareilles’ execution of that metaphor that elevates this to the upper echelons of her output. The lyrics set up Old Testament-level stakes that sit in contrast to the major key, acknowledging that the salvation (promised in a morning the song never describes) will not arrive without collateral damage. The production amplifies the theme further, with Bareilles having recorded the track in a single, four-and-a-half minute take, her powerhouse vocals equally emotive at the bottom of her register as when she belts. Combined, this yields a piece of artistry that is ambitious without being flashy, a gem waiting to be found by those not looking for it. Far and away my favorite song of the year.
(15) When I Wasn’t Watching [Mandy Moore]
I described this to friends as, “Lisa Loeb meets Sara Bareilles meets ‘Gypsy’-era Stevie Nicks.” Ian Mathers at The Singles Jukebox did a better job:
Most people, if we live long enough, have a moment where we realize what we’ve become when we were doing something else, and it’s usually neither euphoria nor disaster; it’s more like this.
This song is the rare thing that makes me miss living in New York; philosophizing seems so much easier set to music, and while driving north along the Hudson River.
(18) Lingerie [Lizzo]
Lizzo knows how to end an album. “Lingerie” is a fun-riff on and amplification of the self-love message of the closing, eponymous track of her 2016 EP, Coconut Oil.
“Lingerie” works on its surface as a retelling of Lizzo’s getting prettied up before her man brings her, one key change at a time, towards climax. But it earns bonus points for operating several other levels: for the credible interpretation, based on the subdued final chorus, that it all took place in Lizzo’s head, and for the reading of the track as a comment on the dueling excitement and inconvenience that come with preparing for appointment sex. (To that end, “I wanna be prepared for you just in case,” will soon be the tagline for a Pure For Men ad campaign.)
BONUS: THE DUTCH ONES
Hij Is Van Mij [Kriss Kross Amsterdam, Tabitha, Maan]
Proof time is a flat circle: in 2019, Tabitha and Maan released a pop-R&B song called, literally, “The Boy Is Mine,” assisted by a hip hop artist named Kriss Kross.
Regen [Frenna feat. Bløf]
A Dutch “Started From The Bottom,” with a chorus repurposed from an old hit by the Dutch Phil Collins.
Arcade [Duncan Laurence]
Europe’s best pop song — officially. Let’s meet next year in Rotterdam!