Feature: 2010s: Lips In The Streetlights

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I‘ve written about love before. I’m not going to write about love again. Maybe this is selfish, maybe it is foolish. But I hope it will lead to nuance.

I’ll write about not-love-yet, maybe, about into-love. I want to write through it, to remain porous.

Or: “I’ll write about the process of becoming other: vibration, selection, recombination, recomposition” (Franco “Bifo” Berardi). Maybe then I can return to love.

Or an older swearing-off: “No more ‘I love you’s’/ A language is leaving me” (Annie Lennox).

I want to write about pop music in the last 10 years (a seemingly fatalistic descriptor — these were the last 10 years to occur before…? And then…?). I suspect writing about love is inevitable when writing about pop music. Love isn’t an inevitable end for the human experiment, but it helps a great deal. Pop music isn’t an end either, just a term that retains its gleeful and combustible arbitrariness, as it heads into these next last 10 years. (And to this sticky arbitrariness we must return. Maybe, too, to love.) Pop is, after all, an architecture of surfaces and panes, of the veneers we pass through and the ones that reflect (us) back at us. Let’s believe (we must, we can’t) that the grandest reflecting/refracting surface in pop music is love. Let’s move past and through and into it in order to feel a future, to kiss it better.

Love isn’t the inevitable language of pop music, just its alphabet. Pop music is part of the love club: everything will glow for you. Just let me lo-o-o-o-o-o-o-love you, you gimmie love, gimmie love, gimmie love, gimmie love. Fall into me and then you put my love on top, top, top, top, top (I love it like I love you like Kanye loves Kanye). I got people showing fake love to me. I’ve loved and I’ve lost and I do: I blame it on your love. You can see it with the lights out; you are in love, you are in true love. Go get punched for the love club. Must be love on the brain that’s got me feeling this way. And I think about killing myself, and I love myself way more than I love you, so when you say you love me, know I love you more. Drunk in love. I want you. It’s a love story, baby; just say “yes.”

I’m already in love. I must move into. To choose a verb like “into” over “in” is to elect motion past over sitting still. To move through love is to note the ruptures and hug them as they pixelate and recombine in you. Let the language shift and sheer too; “l-o-v-e-l-e-s-s generation.” This is not a love song, but I’d love it if we made it.

Back to the future, back to Berardi, who thought through “the slow cancellation of the future [that] got underway in the 1970s and 1980s” and constructs 2017’s Futurability as a way toward shifting modes of anticipation and motivation toward nextness. He chronicles, as his subtitle suggests, “The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility.” He asks: “What is a form in relation to its content? And how does it happen that a new form can emerge? How do things generate things, and concepts generate concepts? And finally, more interesting: how do concepts generate things?”

Pop music in the time between 2010 and this day revealed itself as a double-parking mechanism (Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick: “kinda-hegemonic, kinda-subversive”), both the concept-generating things and the thing as a concept. Pop forms came under scrutiny from critical, commodifying, and revolutionary forces alike, the surfaces of those forms poked and prodded before they in turn began to poke and prod. Pop came alive like never before in its trajectory as a transformative plastic apparatus. It also saw itself bought and sold with such aplomb that you could be forgiven for not believing in love left of the dial.

What is pop music in relation to its content, love? How to preserve love’s ability to mutate us without leaving it open to the afflictions of this decade — clickbait critique, vampiric capitalism, diminuating realism? We must find a new utterance for love. We must borrow shapes from Berardi: “Possibility is content, potency is energy, and power is form” (my emphasis).

In Bluets, her 2009 volume of not-love perched at the beginning of this decade, Maggie Nelson writes: “But now you are talking as if love were a consolation. Simone Weil warned otherwise. ‘Love is not consolation,’ she wrote. ‘It is light.’”

I’d like to borrow those shapes, too. I hope I can earn them.

And how does it happen that a new pop music can emerge? A future of pop, a lightness of love must rip the surfaces and panes and navigate the in-between space fluidly and fluently. We have to let it vibrate. To get to next, we have to write ourselves beyond the inevitableness of inevitability.


I. POSSIBILITY
“It was a long night” by вєиנι ℓєвєαυтє α∂αм

“I call possibility a content inscribed in the present constitution of the world (that is, the immanence of possibilities).”

The present constitution of the world is impotence. Days begin too early, crusty with the crunch of paying impossibly escalating rents with depressing wages. We scroll into a news feed broadcasting a world so stuffed with vitriol and cruelty and climatic collapse that we’ve gorged ourselves on poison tea even before the commuter line pulls up. And then we go to work. Mark Fisher, a disciple of Berardi and futurability, of pop and the power of changing consciousness: “The thing about capitalism is that it provides things that nobody likes. When people talk about choice and capitalism — Microsoft, that sums up everything. Nobody wants it, everybody has to have it.”

Or, I was in a (corporate) movie theater this year juggling Skittles when the big angry purple man onscreen snapped his finger and said “I am inevitable.” I gasped (I had dropped my Skittles, you see).

“It isn’t much fun to analyze American pop culture anymore,” Maggie Nelson writes in The Art of Cruelty, another text from this decade, the one that turned me onto that Sedgwick quote above. “The cultural products now seem designed to analyze themselves, and to make a spectacle of their essentially consumable perversity. ‘They really let me showcase my creativity!’ the writers say, while churning out more crap.”

Certainly this essay is more crap. This decade had a lot of crap, some of it very good.

Certainly texts like Avengers: Endgame are such “consumably perverse” objects, worthy more of groans than rigorous critique. If, at the break of the last decade, Iron Man and The Dark Knight (both released in 2008) seemed separate from the customarily pasty entries into metroplexes and maybe even perverse in their elevation of the low (comics) to the maximal (blockbuster), it wouldn’t stay that way for long. In fact, if the Marvel Cinematic Universe began as an experiment in world-building — it didn’t, it was for a buck — it soon revealed itself as a Disney Inc.-backed lesson in monopolizing markets of commerce and interest; when Thanos makes his claim for inevitability, he may as well be cooing, brand barcode redacted, “mission accomplished.”

This decade saw pop cinema narrow its field of produceable possibilities and tie each infallible (unfailable seems more apt) property film to the purse string of a Disney or an Amazon. And so we tilted further toward the disappointing totality of inevitability, easier to imagine the end of cinema than the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What about pop music? We might point to pop cinema’s content-generating-content maw leaking half-chewed hunks into the soundstream: there’s the whiff of such conquered-world totality in Frozen’s “Let it Go” (2013), pre-ordained first filmically before opening on Broadway in 2017, a source of income that begat a source of income. The chart-ballasting success of The Greatest Showman (2017) soundtrack rode the success of another musical’s similar ode to exceptional white masculinity (albeit in confused and optimistic hues) in the blockbuster Hamilton (2015). We might also point to the rash of biopics grinding queer artists (Freddie Mercury, Elton John, constant whispers of a forthcoming installment on Bowie) into cardboard patties more palatable to Oscar’s khaki nostalgia than the kind of sounds prefiguring change.

Or, “Tell me somethin’, girl/ Are you happy in this modern world?/ Or do you need more?/ Is there somethin’ else you’re searchin’ for?” And is it just an infinity of A Star is Born reboots, each one denying the past one’s existence in order to be the most profitably consumable version of itself until the next opening weekend?

A breath. While distinctly part of that catchall cloud *popular culture*, pop music feels sometimes separate, due maybe to its elusive and eliding limbs that make it it. It also remains elastically able to exist both in and out of its own context; songs from Irving Berlin musicals are pop music, as is Weezer, as are YouTube covers of Weezer songs. “Baby Shark” is pop music (around the campfire, at Nationals Park, from speakers in subways) but so is Grimes and Janelle Monae. It’s got the ring of that old smutty Justice claiming, “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it.” And so we must narrow the immanence.

We might consult numbers, though that means embracing the notion that popularity could be bought and sold. This paradigm held true for at least a formidable stretch in this past decade and provides our first and most impotent definition: pop music was what was bought or streamed with the most vigor. Over these last 10 years, Rihanna holds the record with nine #1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, followed by Katy Perry with 8 and Bruno Mars with 7. The top 10 is rounded out by Drake (6), Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift (5), Adele (4), and Eminem, Kesha, The Weeknd, Maroon 5, Cardi B, and Post Malone (3). In the doe-eyes and dew of 2009, were these artists inevitably tied to our concept of what pop would sound like? More pressingly: are they what pop is and must be?

If interrogating Billboard Charts for data might seems treacherous, I supply two new arbitrary totems to hold to, both selfish and undependable measures each: pop music can’t accomplish transformation if it’s tied to (1) a commodity’s formula for success or (2) formal rehashings of what already was.

The latter stipulation is easier to act on: if pop’s progress is futurity endless (always a new song, a new form, a new thing in your head until you have a new head), then it must oppose nostalgia. This dispatches with Adele, Bruno, The Weeknd, and Maroon 5, largely aggressively inoffensive gestures in retromania. Whether the gesture is blue-eyed white-muscle shoals, scentless funk-lite, tremulous soul pastiche, or an impressively resilient belief that an ever FM-lighter version of Aerosmith is exemplary songwriting is inconsequential. Pop reminds us to leave the past where it belongs: where it is, or at best on a cassette tape to be consulted with small smiles in brief moments. We can also dismiss Eminem, whose appearances in this decade always quote his presence in the last. Possibility must look toward new possibilities, not old ones (Berardi: “Possibility is not one, it is always plural: the possibilities inscribed in the present composition of the world are not infinite, but many.”)

The former point, of discarding pop only interested in a buck, or the most bucks possible, is harder to parse. I’ll know it when I hear it: I hear it in the over-rendered production of Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream, the way the record tears through writing partners not as collaboration, but as consumption. I hear it in VIEWS’s dour rehashing of all Drake’s moods and modes into something like an easy-listening career retrospective. I hear it all over Taylor Swift’s Lover, which sports a single that barters actionless allyship for social/literal credit while also proposing that the rich and famous suffer just as much as victims of systemic, prejudiced violence, because, well, blogs and other famous people were mean to them.

The problem (???) is I like those three records. What’s like got to do with what what’s love got to do with it? I fell hard once (and literally!) at a bowling alley for a stranger two lanes over while “Teenage Dream” banged in the Cosmic Hour, thinking, “truly, this love is true” with my three fingers in a glowing ball. I bought two sweater turtlenecks the fall of “Hotline Bling” and thought there was nothing wrong with that. Then I lost one of them to a person I spent two years of my life with, who I thought I would spend my life with. Yesterday, I put a Lover song on a mix tape for a human being I have a crush on. I will give it to them as a way of saying, “I have a crush on you.” This language is still dooming. This decade had a lot of crap, some of it very good. I won’t know it when I hear it.

I wasn’t going to write about love. I knew I wouldn’t hold true to that, partially because I love pop music and partially because I have a crush. I am susceptible to swooning. We are susceptible to pop’s love because our cultural immunity is subject to highs that crave “I Love It” or “Tik Tok” and lows that rush for the cover of “Wrecking Ball” or “Sorry.” I set out to navigate beyond the inevitable and wound up — inevitably — entwined in it. It was stuck in my head.

And so an impasse in our immanence: any attempt at interrogating pop along maximal, capital lines (its draws and intakes, its appeal or grosses) measures pop in terms so foreign to its possibilities (a future, a thing we don’t know yet) that we must disregard this model. Or: Saying something is pop because it is popular ignores the possibility of the underground or weird to attach and change the world. You know that. I know that. It’s worth re-saying, like a melody that won’t dissipate. I don’t want to write about what the streams and Incs. tell me are inevitable. I don’t even know if I want to write about pop music anymore; maybe I just want to hear it, to move in not-pop-yet, into-pop. It occurs to me that I might be at my most impotent when I am writing about love instead of acting on it, or at least dancing about it.

And yet love is the antithesis of impotence. And so pop is the presence of the possible alongside the potential for reaching that new state, that newness. What if the problem isn’t in liking or loving, but in the writing?

To clarify all this churned crap, I crave a jester’s call to potency: “Beyond the truest, hey, teacher, teacher/ Tell me how do you respond to students?/ And refresh the page and restart the memory?/ Re-spark the soul and rebuild the energy?”


II. POTENCY
“Karaoke” by Ramona Forcella

“I call potency the subjective energy that deploys the possibilities and actualizes them. Potency is the energy that transforms the possibilities into the actualities.”

Except this was the decade the jesters abandoned us.

Pop’s great gift is its ability to graft itself to us in moments of need and navigate us toward a next thing. Consider how you were wretching up and feeling little, almost texting them even when you knew you didn’t want them and then suddenly: “thank u, next.” And then suddenly, you felt a thousand feet tall, capable. Consider how “Juice” feels whenever you walk into your depression, how it never mocks how you need it, but rather rocks you toward neon sweetness, fullness. If pop can truly do these things (it must, it can’t), what should our reaction be when it betrays us?

Because if earlier in the text we sought to liberate pop from its corporate strings and unloose it from its needless formal conscriptions, we were unprepared when it doubled back and leaned into the same impotence we were hoping to uncouple ourselves from. The problem with selling yourself at Target is that it endorses the notion that you can buy what made 1989 and Red on those same shelves. As if aching was discountable. As if wanting was a garment. And the problem with making a gospel record after claiming you’re a god isn’t only that it’s a conflict of interests, but rather that it’s actually kind of boring. Why provide an apparatus for wonder when you’ve already worked miracles, wonderfully? Idolatry, like inevitability, is no home for transformation.

A brief fable of two energies: Kanye West and Taylor Swift, married and marred forever that September night at the VMAs in 2009. And rather than let that psychic ugliness define them, they integrated it into their pop; if they seemed a little preoccupied with narrativizing that night, they still absorbed the world and then transformed.

In 2010, it was Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, not a gesture of apology, but a toast to surviving in spite of being damned, doomed — by your family, by your country, by yourself. It was Taylor’s Speak Now, the first measure of converting the written-for-her countryish odes into locomotive gummy pop; if at the beginning of the decade, Taylor Swift was a phenomenally successful country star, it still wasn’t inevitable that she would become a dominant author of pop music. That changed with Red (2012). “And I guess we fell apart in the usual way/ And the story’s got dust on every page,” she sings, prefiguring the dusty, grimy corridors that always-departure Kanye stalks in Yeezus (2013), as much a reaction to the breezy braggadocio of Watch the Throne (2011) as it was an aesthetic step toward full-bile Kanye. And then 1989 (2014), an instructive set for having a heart set to an unremembered 80s. And then The Life of Pablo (2016), not so much a release but a landscape, a million mission statements at once, a celebration of contradiction, of ultralight beam and projectile vomit. Growth has limits; continually amassing moreness isn’t the same as transformation. And Reputation (2017) and ye (2018) feel overstretched and shallow, attempts to sing of fame and mental health but really just reassertions of Taylor Swift’s Taylor Swiftness and Kanye West’s Kanye Westness. This year’s Lover and Jesus is King adopt love and faith, not as actionable philosophies capable of bettering a world, but as aesthetic, as garment, as promotion. These recent records (to paraphrase Fisher’s organizations) provide that which we do not like that we have to have.

You could write the decade almost solely in Taylor and Kanye releases, but they aren’t alone in their selling out and buying in: Grimes and Beyoncé and Miley and JAY-Z hurried into unions with anti-unionists and Disney films and renounced hip-hop as a personal dalliance and used hip-hop as a vehicle to conflate stupid wealth with love. “All that is solid melts into PR” (Mark Fisher again, still). Dominant forces of pop music sought to reassert dominant vehicles of expression (themselves) and cooed, “We appreciate power”

How do we still love that which hurts us? We decided to write an endless cipher detailing this stress. Where did our love go? We replaced its bops and bliss with a lusting after talking about talking about pop music. We thought, “Surely we must have a ghastly portmanteau to hang this from,” and we called it poptimism and lo, the crap was lobbed.

Such crap was emboldened in these last 10 years. Letters and sentences about music, like letters and sentences about everything, had both more homes, less time, and dollar signs on mind (Kanye and JAY-Z: “everything’s for saaale,” 2011) Some music writers leaned into their own venerated and barely subtextual prejudice: “Should gainfully employed adults whose job is to listen to music thoughtfully really agree so regularly with the taste of 13-year-olds? […] poptimism diminishes the glory of music by declaring, repeatedly and insistently, that this is all it can do” (Saul Austerlitz, 2014). Others found well-observed caution in the balance of intentions and results: “It [poptimism] treats megastars, despite their untold corporate resources, like underdogs. It grants immunity to a lot of dim music. Worst of all, it asks everyone to agree on the winners and then cheer louder” (Chris Richards, 2015).

Remember: “it isn’t much fun to analyze American pop culture anymore.” Remember, writing a piece defending The Life of Pablo as inspirational bile (I did that once) or damning Jesus Is King for its void pabulum (I’m DOING that now) is “like planting a flag on the moon after forty countries have landed there before you, or on a moon whose sole purpose is to host flags” (Maggie Nelson, 2011).

Poptimism’s cause always suggested the noble fight: attempts to turn attention to historically underrepresented forms of expression practiced and loved largely by underprivileged communities while actively opposing preexisting notions of cultural critique is still good work. Fighting for the 12-inch version of “Tainted Love / Where Did Our Love Go” is still divine. But treating poptimism as inevitable is just as defeating as ignoring pop because it’s on the radio. “Ideologies congeal,” Guardian music critic Michael Hann writes of the whole mess. “They cease to be alternatives and become hegemonies […] movements that were insurgent become establishment […] codified by their own set of rules about what and what was not acceptable.”

Or, “Is it wrong to wish 1989 didn’t sound so anonymous? Is it wrong to demand our leaders not make follower music? Is it wrong to feel disoriented and disheartened by the effusion of suck-uppy articles dutifully praising these unimaginative songs? Is it wrong to squirm knowing that these same songs will likely saturate our public spheres for years— or maybe even the rest of our lives?” (Chris Richards, 2014)

It isn’t wrong, surely, to see the machine at work. Attempts to render in words the appeal of extra-effable un-utterable sensations are doomed from the start. It defeats love’s licks and swerves to justify it too clearly, when all you want is to get next to it. So too, though, are attempts to defeat joy similarly doomed. 1989 brings joys, to me at least, but I suspect many others too. It encourages joys in small moments in small bodies, just as Yeezus is the sound this decade that most often settled me down, its restlessness mirroring mine, cooing it, letting me lounge among its spikes. I applaud Chris Richards’s navigations of Taylor’s Big Machine of squeaky-clean dominance. I applaud nuance. The reality of this world, the one drifting toward impotence, is one where Taylor’s songs serve greater masters than the feelings they detail.

The joys remain, though, and maybe they can be the result of nuance, not its opposite. Poptimism, or rather the endless click-cycle of vacillating provocations/reassurances in taste, is impotence not only devoid of energy but also fixated on depriving that same energy from where it could activate forms and instigate change. It’s why we hum songs and not criticism. I think we know that, naturally, when we react to “Bad Blood” and “Waves.” We know how to love what we love without justifying why we love it. We know if we’re inclined to analyze it, it might not be love. We know we’re better served catalyzing love instead of analyzing it, better served by smushing the flutter in our bellies and hearts to craft new artifacts, new things to love. This is how we might actualize new consciousnesses. We know how to synthesize the pop we love without endorsing, consuming, or idolizing it. Sometimes we need reminding, but mostly, we know how to collaborate with our love. It all just seems a matter of caring enough.

Poptimism is half optimism; if on one hand we’ve spent such words and time defending the former section of that construction, the work toward the latter half, toward a fully activated optimism, seems tougher. Still: it all just seems a matter of caring for the brightness.

And so we turn our immanence to light: “Light wave, 飛ぶ/ Skyway, 叶えて ほら/ Future Pop”


III. POWER
“Introspección 2” by Roudoudou Hirons

“I call power the selections (and the exclusions) that are implied in the structure of the present as a prescription: power is the selection and enforcement of one possibility among many, and simultaneously it is the exclusion (and invisibilization) of many other possibilities.”

When I say “writing about love is inevitable when writing about pop music,” I mean this: if we occasion ourselves to impotence in the face of reality, it can only be because a lifetime of days is battering. Our bodies are so chemically and mechanically unsteady that it’s easy to feel lost and drawn and brittle. To those stresses, we add the systems and governances that reject our bodies and their maladies. It is hard to believe in love as a transformative power when it is hard to get health insurance. It hurts to say I love you, when saying it might get you killed. It is impossible to preach sexual healing when black and brown and little bodies are shattered and bulleted every day. The planet is dying. We forget every day. Before we were asking how to actualize next, but this inquiry begs: how do we get through now?

This decade saw us brace for the brittling; we learned to see the light between the cracks and cling to it, add to it. We found our untapped potencies in changeable forms, a pop maudit. If the cocktail of renewable boredom and scrollable reality bred clickbait pomposity, the same sense of endlessness all the time fostered vaporwave, a movement running concurrent to poptimism’s empty manifestos. Vaporwave articulated many of pop’s nobler points: that we must remain plastic and moveable, that we thrive among the refuse because it wasn’t made to take from us, that we must invent new modes. It articulated them in more enthralling tones. “Vaporwave is one genre that problematizes the entire system of lazy critical evaluation, often just by remaining left out of publications altogether,” Grafton Tanner wrote in 2016’s Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts. “Its avoidance can be attributed to the genres’s skeptical and mocking relationship with history.” This too, is how future pop engages with history. “No more ‘I love you’s’/ Changes are shifting outside the world.”

A future pop must include in its index the zones that Ramona Xavier, Daniel Lopatin, Ryan DeRobertis, James Ferraro, et al. explored. The et al. is crucial. The et al. is us. In their 2014 mediation, The Trouble with Contemporary Music Criticism, James Parker and Nicholas Croggon wrote, “Vaporwave is democratic because, in principle, anyone could do it. At is most basic — which is to say at its most radical — vaporwave consists of nothing more than an act of reframing.” This reframing is the most vital power in our desire to establish a future pop, to set it free and hope it takes us with it.

By chopping and screwing pop’s tonalities and settings (and consequently, the ways in which we critically and personally engage with pop), vaporwave’s zones prepare us for nextnesses beyond rabid capital and senseless attentions. Such zones teach us how to return to the maximal bops we love and move through them on our terms, not the ones being sold to us. We knew what to do with the songs before they tried to pitch us on how to wear them. Vaporwave doesn’t teach irony, no: there is no room in love for irony, and I hear a great deal of love in vaporwave. It teaches us the affliction of affection, of moving out of it and falling back through it, a way into-love around realism. Its greatest lesson — that embracing the weird is just as effective at dismantling systemic impotence — is already being written into our pop, in the frontier camp of Lil Nas X and the skrunchy allness of 1000 gecs.

Into this future index we must also hurl the ambiences and electronics, the ever-mutating flays of Arca and the half-haunted time-skews of The Caretaker, the virtual transfigurations of Kara Lis Coverdale and the post-earth, sci-fi re-renderings of Elysia Crampton. Far from the digestible narrative that these wild experimentations exist as pop’s opposite, we find in them all of pop’s possibilities in still-moving actuality, joyful vibrations of in-between. They teach us to invent a future, and their impact is all over our first transmissions of future pop, of vibration (Charli XCX), selection (Carly Rae Jepsen), recombination (SOPHIE), recomposition (PC Music).

From these actions, we induce combustion; we breathe it in. Redefine what stick in heads: Everywhere at the end of time (2016-2019) is pop. Arca (2017) is pop, as is Klein’s Lifetime (2019) and Grouper’s Ruins (2014) and clipping.’s Splendor and Mercy (2016) and Oneohtrix Point Never’s Replica (2011) and Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me (2017) and D’Angelo’s Black Messiah (2014.) And Taylor Swift and Kanye West.

And if we call everything pop music, does our calling it mean anything at all? And if we allow our consciousness of pop to change, then won’t love re-render, too? Rob Sheffield wrote: “Sometimes you lie in a strange room, in a strange person’s home, and you feel yourself bending out of shape. Melting, touching something hot, something that warps you in drastic and probably irreversible ways you won’t get to take stock of until it’s too late.”

These are the strange hot things by which we make a future pop. It is too late. We must be grateful for that. This is the love pop music generates.

Once, a Tiny Mix Tapes writer (whose identity is unremembered by me now, but whose sentiment is so loved) suggested that maybe the best review of pop music would be a document with the single word “BOPS” written over and over and over again. This strikes me as a remarkably honest representation of what goes on in the space of those sounds.

In a matter of re-framing, in pursuit of writing about into-love and through it, these do too:

“Still in love: the frozen moment captured, the held gaze (Rowan Savage, 2013) & how is it possible to walk at a normal speed while coming undone? How is it possible to even breathe while falling in love? How is it possible to just fucking play it cool? (Caroline Rayner, 2017) Pop music is built on a history of love songs and becomings, of a desire to find oneself in another (Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli, 2018) & many of the artists I mentioned at the beginning of this review may have seemed like my entire world at one point, but pop fades like all things, and we seem to consume (and dispose of) music more ravenously now than before. Time shapes us and changes us, and we can’t always take the things we used to love with us as we step forward into the unknown (Sam Goldner, 2016) & the crystallization of a memory collapsing into the open expanse of the new. And this is the sound of this memory repeating, replete with an echo, a beat. In your ears and in your bones. Resounding, reverberating. Re-sounding, re-verberating (Evan Coral, 2019) & it’s a charged bleeding heart of sponsorship and exclusivity thrown into the throat of Yosemite. It’s a white horse galloping fiend-like across the continental divide, with a hoof-print-tire-tread that could pull the land apart (Nick James Scavo, 2016.)”

“Inasmuch as pop music means Carly Rae Jepsen, I believe it’s supposed to save our souls and reunite us with unity, not the ecstasy of forgetting or the ecstasy of remembering, but the act of singing (Pat Beane, 2019) & in the case of Dedicated, ‘love’ should be amended to ‘commitment’ Much of the album presupposes being in a relationship, but the emotional currents of each track find it either slipping out of sync or crystallizing into eternity (Harry Tafoya, 2019) & pop music doesn’t play by the same rules as other genres, and there is rarely, if ever, a purely artistic motivation or auteurist merit. And as far as pop music is concerned, Beyoncé is very nearly without peer; she sells the words and work of others, like it was the only thing that ever mattered to her. And maybe it is; stakes are high for Beyoncé, and as she gets older, they only get higher. (Embling, 2011) But sometimes you just have to let go. Sometimes it’s the best you can do (Max Power, 2013.)”

“In the context of our own narcissistic pretenses and the technologies that mediate our interactions — our constructed identities, our social media performances, our avatars and their simulations — the act of being brutally honest, of being uncomfortably direct through the highly flawed, imperfect thing we call language becomes an act of boldness and, for me, a source of inspiration (Marvin Lin, 2017) & a resonant theme is embracing other forms of love: particularly affection for community and independence from anyone at all (Elizabeth Newton, 2016) & something factual, but not necessarily real. A recollection of fiction and dream, or shared-moments. Whatever we can scrape together. It’s important at all times, sometimes (C Monster, 2018) & it should be danced, sung, knitted, and talked about, if not because it collapses these categorical distinctions itself so that its blood can run, then because keeping your head still and your voice silent is lying (Jazz Scott, 2014.)”

“Funny how sometimes we share the same memories, even if we weren’t there with each other in the first place (B. Levinson, 2016) & we do not enter and meet. We give up and begin. We stop and fade.” (Cookcook, 2019)

Those are just the ones I remember. There are so many more lights in the writing of love.

Our old notion of pop — divorced from arbitrary formal markers and set free to reform — is the song of engagement, with the problems and the hate, with the other bodies crashing on dancefloors and in darknesses, with other sets of lips and clits and dicks and every other thing, with an ear toward alternative bodies and an eye at the horizon. Engagement, then, is love by another name, a necessary inoculation against the constrictions of worldly realism. Future pop won’t inevitably save the world, but actionable love might shift it, warp it, screw it. Pop music is the process of becoming other, our only hope at a future where love surpasses inevitability and reaches realness.

This decade’s reckoning and rendering of pop registered according to reasonable expectations: pop music was a space for optimism and romance to make the best of what we already have. Our work toward a future pop, toward a future, must deny optimism and romance in pursuit of transformation and love. I want to (I will) write about a future pop that renders consciousness as something different than what we currently conceive. We must hear in future pop that which destabilizes as it constructs, that debilitates the inevitable, that refigures all our wild everything into something new.

Listening to the new Francis Quinlan single in the Shrewsbury library in rain because we must keep listening to new things. Because my crush likes it. Because I like: “I know there is love that/ Doesn’t have to do with/ Taking something from somebody.” She bends her voice around that word, “looOVve,” like all those myriad voices that comprise something like the light. I know there is pop music that doesn’t have to do with taking something from me. “I have to stop myself and admit: you make me happy.”

You do. You all do.

Lorde Got Pranked On Colbert

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Lorde has been in hibernation for most of this year down in her native New Zealand. But earlier this month she shared a note explaining how the death of her dog Pearl is going to effect the follow-up to Melodrama. And, as Pitchfork points out, she recently hung out … More »

Feature: 2010s: On Devastation

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“You love being devastated,” Max said as we drank gin and tonics at my dining room table the night we found out about Hugo’s closing for good. Hugo’s, the bar where Max and I yelled about listening to Moonface during the worst years of our lives, where I yelled about the time I saw Moonface play the entirety of Julia With Blue Jeans On and Spencer Krug sat down at his piano and told us that he’d be playing the songs according to their sadness. I yelled about accidentally sneaking into a bar in Austin where Waxahatchee was playing, then running into Katie Crutchfield in the bathroom and gushing, because when I heard her sing “The radio counts your thoughts,” I recognized the feeling of driving across the South with a lover I could not bear to leave, even though I knew better, the feeling of confusing music with meditation, the feeling of letting 20 or more hours blow through the car and graze my skin, the feeling of calling the whole thing healing. I yelled about Katie singing “You’re the only one I want watching me” the night I dragged my sister to see Waxahatchee with me in Harrisonburg, the first time I heard “La Loose” slowed way the hell down until I could no longer recognize it as a dance number and realized how the words expose a kind of love as doomed as a night with all the stars thrown from the sky.

Call 911, or call my mom, because someone has got to come collect me. This is what I scream to Jo on the phone while wandering the grocery store in velvet and cheetah print and smelling like pussy, or while walking home at two in the morning after thrashing on the floor like a demon at karaoke, or while waiting in the emergency room with a hand needing stitches. What Jo screams back is a promise to flip a table. I call Jo from the show while Lorde covers “New York,” so they can scream along with me all the way from Chicago, “You’re the only motherfucker in the city who can handle me,” then “You’re the only motherfucker in the city who can stand me,” then “You’re the only motherfucker in the city who’d forgive me,” until we disappear from each other’s screens, collapsing and heaving, because we love to mythologize the songs we hear while dancing at shows, or while riding the bus with headphones, or while waiting in line for coffee, because we love to create narrative, and destroy narrative, and because neither of us wants to be alone in the wreckage.

Ocean Vuong asks, “why can’t the language of creativity be the language of regeneration,” and I want to imagine how it would feel to say that a song I love, an album I love, blooms like a magnolia, to say that a song carries me to the river and washes the blood from my knees, to say that an album calls me in from the porch because dinner is hot and waiting on the table.

Would it feel like Titus Andronicus playing “Four Score and Seven” at Strange Matter, everyone in the crowd throwing their arms around each other and singing along with Patrick Stickles, “This is a war we can’t win, after ten thousand years, it’s still us against them,” and everyone proving him wrong by inviting everyone else into the moment, calling everyone else into the movement, making sure no one feels lonely, no one feels forgotten, and no one feels heartbroken, promising to look out for each other and check in on each other and give whatever we can, because the enemy is everywhere, and we will not retreat a single inch, and we will be heard?

Would it feel like Grouper playing in the chapel at the University of Virginia, crouched on the floor over her electronics with static projected in the background, like someone experimenting in their bedroom, recording and looping a cicada, or sharing transmissions from elsewhere in the cosmos, voicemails from beings we have no idea how to conceptualize, or recalling a dream involving a choir singing in the balcony of a church with its doors flung open in the snow? Would it feel like “(2nd Heart Tone) Mary, On the Wall” playing through computer speakers while lighting a candle for the full moon, learning to read the cards arranged on silk, learning a little about the magic, then more about the magic, as the seasons change, struck with a memory of a woman singing on the porch at the beach in the middle of the night? I remember and remember without seeing where to put it down.


Anne Carson writes, in Autobiography of Red, describing Geryon, the winged red monster and gay teen, reacting to a photograph taken by the grandmother of his lover, Herakles, of an erupting volcano, “Geryon did not know why / he kept going back to it. / It was not that he found it an especially pleasing photograph. / It was not that he / did not understand how such photographs are made. / He kept going back to it.” I mean, I would keep going back to it, like I keep going back to a video of Pharmakon performing at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Margaret Chardiet illuminated in red while beating a sheet of metal, then yelling, then howling, then moving into the crowd, like I keep going back the night I saw P.S. Eliot play at Market Hotel, the way they opened with “Broken Record” just like I guessed and played “Cry Uncle” directly into “Bear Named Otis,” the way Katie Crutchfield sings, “I write you letters all the time,” then, “Our parents met on the back seats of Datsuns,” and how it all feels so big and destined in a Southern fashion that I have no idea how to explain other than to describe a wedding on a humid night in September.

No one else worked in the dark room on Friday or Saturday nights, or at least not while I was taking a photo class in college, during fall, which meant I could pick the music. I developed pictures of trash, flyers drifting off a garage, televisions abandoned in the grass, rotten wood leaning against brick. I tried making everything about texture, but I could not compose, and I was shit at figuring out the light. I did what I could, soaking the prints in chemicals, watching the images materialize, listening to St. Vincent singing, then screaming, “Come cut me open,” or listening to Victoria LeGrand singing, “I’ll take care of you,” or listening to Angel Olsen singing, and asking, “Where is my harmony?”

Desire embarrasses me, but watch as I bend over backward until my hands touch the floor, then watch as I fold my legs behind my head. The shape I make, a rainbow cleaved to the ground, where someone could climb for shelter, or the shape I make, a knot to be untangled with both hands.


I bought red pants with a high waist and wide legs to match New Mexico. I mean the desert, terracotta shattering, rose blooming, the mesa jagged against the sky. I mean Patricia Charbonneau in Desert Hearts (dir. Donna Deitch), revving backward down the highway in her black convertible, then opening her porch door until it creaked, looking Helen Shaver up and down as though to say “have mercy.”

Denim on denim, tied and revealing, not giving a shit.

While driving across the desert between Albuquerque and Jemez Springs, I put on One Direction, because the piano in “Steal My Girl” could shred the sky like an angel and crush me. “I don’t exist if I don’t have her. The sun doesn’t shine. The world doesn’t turn.” I want to have a problem with such possessiveness, and I want to have a problem with such patriarchal desire, but I hear the song as cosmic and embarrassing devotion, a feeling that gathers in my throat until I fucking weep. Or, until Chris rolls down the windows, and I yell the song into the air.

Carrie Lorig writes, “I try to put my devastation on the ground. I try to put it on the ground and pay it. My devastation, I pay it.” What I want to know is how. My devastation, pitchers being emptied into a river. My devastation, a window spilling light into the background of a photograph. My devastation, a pit made of weathering steel. I have no idea how to even begin to hold it. I have no idea what I could possibly owe it. Maybe the lavender I found growing everywhere in Albuquerque, or maybe the turquoise rings scattered on the street. Liz Bowen writes, responding to Carrie Lorig, “i want to stop owing my devastation i / think it should pay me / my devastation should make an offer of me / don’t you think my devastation should put me / on the table.” What if my devastation has embodied me. What if my devastation has swallowed me. What if my devastation has emptied me. I have no idea how to tell the difference.

All I can think to do is dive into the river as Craig Finn playing Walt Whitman says, “I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket, and buried him where he fell,” as Sufjan Stevens sings, “Bury the dead where they’re found.”


Ella Longpre writes, “In an act of forgiveness she excuses herself from the table. You remove the table (throw it against the wall), the table is now what you have done and she has disappeared.” The truth is that Caroline and I pulled the dill, squash, fennel, kale, marigolds, and the garden became what we had done. The truth is that the kitchen became what we had done, the road became what we had done, but what about the marsh in Florida where we saw anhingas darting through the water like snakes and roseate spoonbills probing the reeds, birds we could not have dreamed and colors we could not believe, and what about the stereo playing serpentwithfeet singing, “With you, I can empty myself of all my rivers and become a remarkable sky”?

Hauled ass down the mountain in a Ford Super Duty, closest to a monster truck I will ever drive, while light from the afternoon disintegrated until the world seemed lunar except for the road that I want to remember being red as hell. Found a snake jacket on the trail that Chris wanted, but Elizabeth and I said absolutely not, because you never know what kind of curse might follow you home. I carried one bottle for drinking, one for gathering water from the river, the hot spring, plus grasses and blossoms. Chris and Elizabeth called it a spell bottle. I called it a witch bottle. Magic turned to sludge either way, but it still lives on my dresser with a bottle shaped like a grinning crescent moon. I could say that we were listening to Hop Along, because Chris and I talked about Hop Along the first time we walked his dog along the river, but the truth is that I switched the radio to silence to keep an eye on the mountain.

I look up whether it is legal to shoot a dog. I have to know after hearing Frances Quinlan sing, “Honey, you know I had to shoot that dog you loved so much. You know I had to do it,” and then, reversing, “I know you had to shoot that dog I loved so much. I know you had to do it.” I have to know whether this is business as usual or an emergency. I have to know which is more heartbreaking, or which is more gracious, and whether either can be forgiven.

The 200 Best Songs Of The 2010s

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When this decade began, MP3s still reigned supreme. Now, at the end of it, a song is no longer even a file — it’s ephemera, on every streaming service and available to hear in myriad ways. For better and worse, the song (and the single) have become the norm for the general public’s music consumption. More »

The 100 Best Albums Of The 2010s

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The 100 Best Albums Of The 2010sA decade is an arbitrary measurement. They seem confined, these neat little symmetrical 10-year runs, but it’s only in hindsight that we define them, that their signifiers and trends and shorthand become codified. In reality, there are bleeds, the timbre and events of one chunk of time sliding over the border into another. If you’re … More »

Lorde Shares How Her Dog’s Death Will Affect New Album Plans

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LordeWe haven’t heard much from Lorde since she wrapped up her tour in support of 2017’s Melodrama. But now she’s offered a rare update to her newsletter subscribers in a heartfelt note about the status of her third album and how it has been affected by the recent death of her … More »

Watch Lorde & Marlon Williams Cover Simon & Garfunkel At Christchurch Mosque Benefit

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LordeLorde made a rare off-cycle appearance to perform at a benefit concert to raise funds for the victims of the Christchurch mosque attacks that took place last month. The You Are Us/Aroha Nui benefit was held at Christchurch Stadium in New Zealand last night, and Lorde performed a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound Of … More »

Billie Eilish’s Time Is Now

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Billie Eilish - When We All Go To Sleep, Where Do We Go?“I have taken out my Invisalign, and this is the album!” Billie Eilish announces at the outset of her debut album. The 17-year-old singer then collapses into hysterical laughter with a male cohort — presumably her older brother, a fellow musician named Finneas O’Connell who’s been her close collaborator ever since … More »

A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships: 27 Memorable Music Tweets From 2018

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TwitterA lot happened in the year of our lord 2018, and a lot of it happened on Twitter. Beefs were had: Ariana Grande and Piers Morgan, Lana Del Rey and Azealia Banks, Lisa Prank and Elon Musk. Love stories began: Grimes and Elon Musk, Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson, Kanye and … More »

Alessia Cara May Not Be The Best New Artist, But She’s Also Not Half Bad

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Alessia CaraWhen the world met Alessia Caracciolo three years ago, she was the awkward teenager enduring a house party where she did not belong: “Somewhere in the corner under clouds of marijuana/ With this boy who’s hollering, I can hardly hear/ Over this music I don’t listen to.” Over the same Bond-worthy Isaac HayesMore »