It’s easy to sum up 2016 as a year in popular music, easier than most years: it began on February 7, when Beyoncé sang “Formation” at the Super Bowl Halftime Show; it ended on early early morning November 9, with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” blaring from the public address system of the ballroom of the Hilton Midtown. Popular music and popular culture often peddle in fantasies of power and control, but in the end they are illusions meant to give you, the listener, a pep in your step as you do what you need to do and we all slouch toward the inevitable. Your thoughts are your own, your expression is free, and the results will be what they are no matter how much you scream and yell and cry. Music is a unifying force for the powerless because as a commodity it is atomized to the individual level; music soothes and drives us, but leaves us alone in our own private fantasy world, a membrane of sound separating us from the reality of the teeming throngs that surround us.
It was not always this way: sounds and songs used to unite us, as people, and give a commonality to our shared joys and plights. And there are still vestiges of this tradition, mostly buried within dance fads and musical memes aimed at the young; but most of what we think of as music culture is just sheer celebrity for fame’s sake. In 2016, it was clear that even the famous faces that fill our musical pantheon could barely even feign enthusiasm for their role as cheerleader for capitalism’s conveyor belt of planned obsolescence: take a listen to, say, “Work” by Rihanna and Drake (or any number of other enormously huge pop singles of this past year) and you can literally hear the resignation pouring out of your speakers, as everyone involved in the production shrugs their way toward a paycheck and a waiting limo. Music in 2016 was not merely joyless but perfunctory; the charitable explanation is the sheer powerlessness of the culture, as everyone from awards show performers to high-powered hit-makers knew that nobody gave a damn, that running on autopilot would work just as well as creating something for an actual purpose.
Celebrity, like any hero’s journey, is a long trail through madness; that it is done in public, for all to see, is merely part of the punishment. Musical celebrity is in many ways crueler than other types of show business because the product that the celebrity must continually flog is so inherently puerile and ephemeral. More importantly, music is infinitely malleable as a sellable product: an artist can conceive of a musical work intent on making a strong personal statement, only to be drastically misunderstood (or misrepresented by music business interlocutors). A musical act connecting with an audience via a strong message that actually resonates is a freak occurrence, with many interested parties often vested in frustrating said connection.
That an artist like Beyoncé would eventually rise to a prominence whereupon her communique of strength, feminism, and justice would strike a significant blow against her intended target is a rare and wonderful phenomenon that we may not truly see again for a long time. What made her Super Bowl Halftime Show performance so incendiary was not just the shock and awe of her nods to black power and raw feminism, but the way that it was all couched in communal expression. “Formation” may have been an admission of her personal experience and upbringing, but it ultimately wasn’t about her own individual mission against anything — it was, as the chorus goes, about getting in formation. This kind of call to arms is so very rare in our popular entertainment now — for not only does the marketplace tend to look unkindly on exhortations to an audience that might alienate key quadrants, but the overriding sentiment of popular music of the last 50 years has been a celebration of the individual at the expense of any shared action.
2016 saw the Nobel Prize in literature go to Bob Dylan, a man considered the poet laureate of his generation for his groundbreaking body of work in the popular music of the ’60s and ’70s. What tends to go underreported, however, in the history books of rock and roll, is that folk music was going gangbusters in 1960s America in the wake of the Civil Rights movement; Dylan’s song-poems were mesmerizing, insightful and clairvoyant, but they were also paeans to individual genius in the face of calls for group action to combat injustice. Dylan’s sideswiping of the movement that raised him from obscurity earned him branding as a Judas — this has been turned into a modern folk myth, of course, with Dylan Goes Electric standing aside Paul Bunyon and Washington Chops Down The Cherry Tree as a tale of grand American individualism. But Dylan, with his cynical skill and songwrangling genius, still made a mockery of earnestness while absolving the complacency of his rock and pop followers as they moved from folk to rock to making money in the straight world. The myth of Woodstock was right around the corner, and soon enough the entire boomer generation had turned its own spoiled teenhood into a righteous revolution in their own minds.
The result of this insanity has been that celebrity performers feel that they must justify their power and wealth with the eventual attainment of a similar mythological moment, which is hard to do just by writing songs and performing numbers; it is enough to drive any ambitious performer to the brink of insanity. For an artist like Beyoncé, performing “At Last” Etta James-style at the Obama inauguration eight years ago wasn’t the end of the myth-making journey, but rather just the start of a cycle of desperation for power and relevance that, at her nadir, saw her performing for a son of Muammar Ghaddafi on a New Year’s Eve yacht blowout in 2010 for a reported multi-million dollar payout. Her cultural redemption in the years that followed, leading to the rapturous power that was this year’s Lemonade song-cycle, revealed that a powerful voice at the disposal of a massive creative talent can be a weapon prized by many.
Beyoncé’s rise in the past eight years resembles, in so many ways, the pre-Ayatollah career of Faegheh Atashin, a woman born the child of Azerbaijani immigrants in Tehran who, with her father’s tireless assistance, became Googoosh, the most popular musical voice of 1970s Iran. Googoosh’s impeccable melodic prowess, coupled with her daring sartorial flair, saw her become, by the end of the 1970s, an international superstar; her dazzling showmanship and powerful performance style made her the worldwide face of modern Persian culture during the height of the rule of the Shah.
Like Beyonce during the Obama era, Googoosh was more than just a music star: she was a film icon, a fashion trendsetter, and most importantly, an emotional anchor for a celebrity-obsessed public. Her powerful and moving ballads, cataloging her loves and losses, resonated deeply with a mass audience basking in a new world of female expression and empowerment. It was a short-lived heyday, as the Revolution’s ban on female singing and performing banished Googoosh to 21 years of silence away the public eye (in addition to a month in prison in 1980). By the 2000s, Googoosh had become, for the Iranian diaspora movement, a beacon of hope after decades of loss and horror under authoritarian barbarity; but for those who can still fall under the spell of the breathtaking sway of the songs of her heyday, she will forever remain a cautionary tale of the fleeting joy of the music of the free in the face of an impending authoritarian crackdown.
Our conception of the purpose of popular music is one that was solidified long before many of us were born: that songs, singers, and performers are important for society, that paying attention to music and music culture is a worthwhile endeavor for the culturally informed individual, and that musical culture makes us stronger as a people by bringing us together over shared values and norms. This is, of course, nonsense: the music business is about as altruistic as the bacon industry, and even the most cursory investigation into the philosophy behind the popular music of the past half century reveals nothing so much as a conveyor belt drawing a never-ending stream of young people right into an Ayn Randian libertarian indoctrination session.
Again, it’s important to reiterate that this was not always the case with music and culture; but it is undeniable that, since the advent of recorded sound, what once was a way for a people to organically communicate without direct speech (i.e.: music) became a highly monetized conduit for broadcasting one’s innermost selfishness. This tendency was fairly innocuous at first, with early recorded music primarily resulting in dance crazes and romantic bromides that incensed the civilized order by mainstreaming the degenerate horniness and loneliness of vast swaths of the general population. But with the creation of rock, tied as it was to the advent of the teenager as a newly-recognized stage of life in the post-WWII era, the cult of libertarian amorality overtook a newly prosperous post-war landscape in America and parts of the West.
Recorded sound allowed the listener, for the first time in human history, to listen as a mass audience to a single human’s inner emotional yearnings in an intimate manner. Countless adolescents found themselves inexplicably in thrall to this phenomenon, as music spoke directly to the children without needing the permission of the parent — thus the global psychic explosions that were the Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1964, or Michael Jackson moonwalking at the Motown Awards in 1983. These events were wonderfully freeing for those living lives of desperate boredom and/or a glum lack of access to cultural excitement; but music media’s focus on individual performers, above the song, above the message, let everything about musical culture be drowned out by the one-to-many model of sheer celebrity worship. The boomer children of the ’60s, for one, were never the same, as they proceeded to systematically dismantle the bedrock institutions of their immediate predecessors once they were old enough to take the reigns of society, respecting the obsession with all things new, learned from a lifetime of ingesting pop music marketing, above all else. Like a new pop act’s single, everything in life could be judged by its ability to disrupt culture and sell more than a prior iteration; striving for relevancy amongst the judgment of one’s peers became the new way that human beings found dignity in socialized life.
Authoritarian rule is, of course, both the end result of this type of escalating insanity and a competing ideology that takes advantage of the discord sown by generational cycles of intentional disruption-as-incentive. The perceived wisdom is that righteous cultural flourishing is extinguished during authoritarianism, but in modern times this has not tended to be the case, as regimes from Argentina to Burma have seen fascinating rebellious musical movements thrive under the thumb of military dictatorships. Our rock-addled minds tend to see this as a powerful thing, what with the universality of musical resistance raising a fist in the air to brutal and stifling authority. And while this is part of the story, in many instances these Western-style movements also saw homegrown rebellion from native traditionalists averse to seeing imperialist tropes infiltrating their use of music as a unifying voice of dissent.
The way that most modern pop music mixes the sonic signifiers of ’80s and ’90s indie rock with modern EDM in the service of shameless brand-assimilated audio effluvium is of course a societal shame, a failure that all of us who claim to love music share blame in. One’s mind can be overtaken with seemingly pleasant daydreams of, say, the odious dopes who comprise Chainsmokers being the first in front of the firing squad upon our civilization’s descent into authoritarian madness. But we all know that this scenario just isn’t realistic: the authors of “Closer” and “All We Know” will have no trouble bridging the gap between those that celebrate our nation’s slide into fascism and those that will vow to rise against it. Their true foes will be those who will deem their music false, and history has always been kinder to the Chainsmokers of the world than those who would value ideological purity.
For example: four years on from the military takeover of Brazil in 1964, a movement called “tropicalia” found itself in the midst of controversy, as adversaries to the left and the right shamed its adherents. The situation came to a boil in September 1968, as a hotly contested song competition held at Rio’s Catholic University shined a spotlight on the gaudy Western-izations of Caetano Veloso and Os Mutantes. Their performance of a semi-improvised tune, “E Proibido Proibir” (“it is forbidden to forbid”) elicited a riotous reaction that resulted in performer and audience hurling insults amidst globs of psychedelic feedback, erotic gyrations, and a shower of produce hurled at the stage. It was all captured on tape, and the single wound up as a powerful artifact of the turmoil of the times for all who struggled to find a way through the madness and tragedy of a dark era for the country. Listening to this track now, one is struck by the furor of both performer and audience: the way that the vague Anglo tendencies of Os Mutantes whipped the audience into a frenzy is only equalled by the venom with which Veloso spews epithets back at the throngs before him.
The irony of the whole situation, of course, is the pithy misunderstanding that is at the heart of the song in question: “it is forbidden to forbid” is, itself meaningless, a slogan cribbed from a translation of a photo of a graffiti-tagged building in Paris amidst the madness of France’s May 1968 student riots. “Il est interdit d’interdire” was understood to be nonsensical parody, but once the context was shifted, the anger and rebellion found itself to be endlessly portable in a global context. So it will be under our new New World Order of 2017 and beyond: one might think that it will be the professional rebels that will find purchase in the cultural wastelands of the future — but the safe money is on those that are willing and able to play all sides against each other for maximum controversy and attention. The right rebellion can be the ur-clickbait of the coming apocalypse.
In a society still dominated by those over 70, like a perverse reverse Logan’s Run, it’s no great shock that the music of 40 and 50 years ago continues to dominate our every waking moment. Young people have already learned to concede that they will never have their own equivalent versions of the titans of the ’60s and ’70s rock world, and in 2016 they learned to mourn the passing of David Bowie and Prince Nelson Rogers as if they were their own beloved musical idols. Boomers grew up despising the icons of their parents’ generation, but those under 50 have never known a world not dominated by the Beatles and the Stones, and so have had to manage expectations accordingly.
The ubiquity of boomer anthems as political currency is not a novel occurrence, of course, but the use of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by America’s right wing junta during this year’s campaign goes beyond being an odd choice of song — it is, in so many ways, a staggeringly powerful reframing of the original source. Like Tarantino’s use of “Stuck in the Middle with You” in Reservoir Dogs, or U.S. interrogators using a loop of David Gray’s “Babylon” as audio torture in Abu Ghraib, the RNC appropriation of the Stones classic makes it hard to ever hear the original song the same way again. This is, in part, because the song is intentionally obtuse, lyrically promoting a vague apathy toward the unrest seen in the streets. Written as a reaction to the 1968 student riots that rocked nearly all Western metropolises, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is a song that strives to unite a dissatisfied cohort of young people, both radical and traditional, couching compromise as inevitable and, with the uplift of the coda’s choir rounds, ultimately desirable.
Mick Jagger, Stones frontman and the song’s author, is a complicated man; for a gentleman who has fronted the most popular and successful rock band of all time for more than half a century, he has always kept his distance from his adoring following, never really creating a convincing public figure of himself. He is a 73-year-old health fanatic who has been living a life of not just wealth but pure undiluted fame since he was a teenager; last week he had his eighth child with his 29 year old girlfriend. He was a confused 24-year-old when he penned “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, still a relative newcomer to the world of songwriting after having clawed his way to the top of the early ’60s UK pop world thanks to a scrappy ability to cover the raw bark of his American blues/R&B idols. A year after nearly being tossed into prison for life for possession of a joint in a police raid that had entrapment written all over it, Jagger looked around at the escalating pugilism of the left and the right and thought up this epic seven-minute shrug at the terrors of his generation.
The Stones threatened litigation at the repeated usage of their song by the RNC in the 2016 campaign, which seemed to have absolutely no effect. In an election season remarkable for an astounding lack of decency and an unending facility to shock the sensibilities of the electorate, the use of this song at the end of rallies and speeches just seemed to be one more affront to good taste. The song’s selection told anyone who was paying attention that the best one could hope for was a desultory compromise. The song’s lone verse that expresses any sort of populist rage is this one:
To get my fair share of abuse
Singing, “We’re gonna vent our frustration
If we don’t we’re gonna blow a 50-amp fuse”
Jagger, for his part, never expressed any public anger toward his song being used for a political purpose; when the song was played following the result of the election on November 9, here was his plangent tweet:
His band, for their part, put out a new album this winter, made up of blues covers, that is widely thought to be their intended final album. They remain titans of the music industry, hanging on at the uppermost rung of the business, able to generate millions upon millions of dollars for a dying infrastructure at the merest musical effort. It can be successfully argued, perhaps, that the use of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, here on the precipice of the end of civilization, will perhaps be the absolute crystalline pinnacle of the blues as an art form expressly specialized in the transmission of the ultimate sadness that is the human condition on Earth; despite the gnarly raunch that guitarist Keith Richards might have gotten on tape for the new record, he will probably never be able to top this musical moment for sheer situational pathos.
There is great speculation as to when we will begin seeing the end of the things that we have grown accustomed to in our lifetime — because, as the Stones have displayed, for instance, human beings can live a long, long time, long enough to convincingly persuade that what is known has always been, and thus will be for ever more. This is, of course, not the case, which is why we may not remember a year that didn’t end without a slew of “year in music” disquisitions, but nevertheless we may indeed see a year sooner rather than later where this is no longer something that people reasonably will dedicate time to. The current energy of the fanatical music follower is a precious commodity in the industry of music; the ability to refine and do commerce with the sheer collective fervor for music culture is what keeps the lights on within this music industry that keeps us all so eternally entertained. Perhaps we might all do well to begin the process of slowly forgetting the names of the celebrities who have provided us with this precious material, for in the end we don’t know them, they don’t know us, and the product that they hawk cannot help us, in the final analysis. It will, most likely, be up to us once again to make our own music in our own way, in harmony with the whirring churning spheres of our own meager existence.
Follow Daniel Brockman on Twitter @thebizhaslanded.