Way More Important Things to Worry About

How politics changed how we thought about music, if we thought about music at all

As Tom Ewing has pointed out, popism never convinced most writers to accept the aesthetic interests of pop, just the authenticity of producers as artisans. And so that's what we got this year: No Age and Fleet Foxes, all sound and no personality, carefully controlled even when they seemed to be rocking out. The albums that let it hang out this year, like Kanye's and Alphabeat's and Of Montreal's, get mocked instead. But hey, maybe we were in the mood for control this year. Maybe because Democrats couldn't believe that they were actually going to win, and because 2008's crop of amateur pundits didn't actually know enough about politics to know how certain a thing this was as soon as Lehman went under, we wanted music that echoed the kind of steely-eyed resolve we thought was necessary in our political candidates, too. Maybe we thought that this was not a year for the extravagance of passion and fun. But music is not politics. It is always time in music for passion and fun, for playfulness and vulnerability, for sex and love, for wine and women and actual songs, not just pretty harmonies and the catnip of a '90s kinda "scene." This generally gets forgotten, of course, but that's fine, too. Even as we elected a Democrat, we all seemed more conservative in our taste. So it goes.

Michael Barthel
Syracuse, NY

In 10 years, the practice of putting a performer's country of origin in parentheses after their name will be considered quaint, if not a little racist. This year saw, more than ever, the rise of artists whose music was atypical given the music associated with their residence or birthplace. Is M.I.A. a purveyor of Sri Lankan music? Is Rupa an Indian musician? French? Californian? Is Lila Downs Mexican, American, or neither? In the era of Obama, Americans may have a tough time holding on to their prejudices.

Marty Lipp
New York, NY

In 2000, we had George W. Bush as a president-elect and Blu Cantrell's "Hit 'Em Up Style (Oops)" as a cuckquean's anthem. In 2008, their counterparts were Barack Obama and Riskay's "Smell Yo Dick." You win some, you lose some?

Camille Dodero
Brooklyn, NY

Re: Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)": Last Friday at about 2 a.m., just before last call, I was in a room full of the whole gay rainbow—bears and butches, drag queens and skinny club kids—and we all danced, and not only did we dance, but we knew every move, just like all of those dozens of fan videos on YouTube knew all the moves. Plus my sister and my mother love it, and for the first time in a while, this might be a genuinely universal single. Which is kind of worrisome, because no matter how fun it is to dance to (and it is incredibly, brilliantly entertaining to dance to), it seems to be so retrograde—sort of like Obama winning and Prop. 8 passing on the same night.

Anthony Easton
Ontario, Canada

Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" is very fine musically—I'm a sucker for the vocal harmonies—but who the fuck wants to dance to a song about one's duty to get married? What is this, ancient Greece? Especially, the passage of California's Proposition 8 (enthusiastically sponsored by Pastor Rick "New Bronze Age" Warren) deprived me of any fun I might have had hearing it in gay clubs.

Oliver Hall
Lawrence, KS

How do we know that Obama has changed everything? There have been at least three songs by black male performers this year about fucking coked-up white chicks in club bathrooms. So far, there have been NO repercussions . . .

Darrell M. McNeil
Brooklyn, NY

How appropriate that the last year of the Bush presidency coincides with the apex of DJ Khaled's career. Both are unlikely, overachieving knuckleheads whose tendency to wave flags ("Mission Accomplished") and proclaim their own questionable supremacy ("We the Best!") repels the casual observer and overshadows all other talent in their entourage. If the start of '09 is the last I hear from both of them, I'll sleep that much more soundly.

John Seroff
New York, NY

"I was born in 1941. That was the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. I've been living in darkness ever since. It looks like things are going to change now." (Rare banter from Bob Dylan at a November 4 concert at the University of Minnesota.)

Andy Dubbin
New York, NY

Nas, "Black President": Although his controversial comeback album was decidedly a mixed bag, Nas did give us a song that caught the national zeitgeist like no other rap single of 2008. Before the election, it haunted our hopes with the "We ain't ready to have a black president" 2Pac sample; afterward, it was "America surprises us and let a black man guide us" that stayed with you.

Lee Zimmerman
Miami, FL

There were smarter songs about Barack Obama this year, and more nuanced songs, and songs that bore the weight of history more comfortably, but the song I put on at midnight-ish EST that Tuesday night was "My President," by a rapper I sort of hate (and featuring the author of one of the smarter songs). A girl sitting on my windowsill, a little damp-faced, listened for a moment and said quietly, "Good choice." She didn't say why, but here are some guesses: because we were nine the last time a guy we vaguely perceived as Good won the Presidency, because our entire politically conscious life had been lived under George W. Bush, and because the very notion of that emancipating steamroller—WINNIN' IN TENNESSEE, HANDS DOWN ATLANTA, LANDSLIDE ALABAMA, ON MY WAY TO SAVANNAH—was 1) a totally alien one, beyond cinematic, only understood by Young Jeezy's John Williams strings and monotone Superman croak; and 2) one with no room, that night, for nuance or weight. Afterward, we walked to a bar, and strangers put the thing on the jukebox over and over again—just "My President," looped, for half an hour of Buck Hunter. We didn't say a lot. Wednesday morning, I was hung over and worried about corporate compromise. But for a few hours on November 4, 2008, I loved Young Jeezy.

Theon Weber
Portland, OR

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