Omissions and Otherwise
Okay, so in my 2016 post, it would seem that I glossed over or outright left out a lot of important parts of the year in music. It’s as if I talked about the body, but not the heart. This was intentional, as I felt it gave me too much ground to cover, but there are some important bits and pieces that demand attention. So attention I will give.
The following is a still partial list of things I left out, in no particular order.
Talking about Beyonce begs comparison to anything else I’d bring up for discussion or review in 2016, and given her women-empowered, black-proud messaging, everything else feels a little superfluous.
I first read that Beyonce dropped a surprise album while I watched a public screening of Purple Rain in Minneapolis the weekend following Prince’s passing. That in itself would have been enough to set a fire throughout social media, but this release picked up a special kind of steam with references to a visual album, hot sauce, a girl named Becky, and Jay-Z in the mother of all dog houses. The web was rife with hype. After hearing the album…wait, scratch that. It took about three minutes for my eyes to well up in tears, and I cried at many subsequent parts of Lemonade. It was so much more powerful and meaningful and charged than her previous work.
The video for ‘Formation’ would have been statement enough. For reasons beyond my comprehension, a lot of people and talking heads interpreted her statement as a threat of violence and an affront to the police and even white people in general. These are the same people who completely missed the point with Black Lives Matter and, I suspect, in many other parts of their lives. I honestly don’t feel like it’s my place to write about the meaning behind the song or the video or the album as a whole. Damon Young of Very Smart Brothas confirmed this for me, so I’ll leave that kind of insight in his capable and more appropriate hands.
So I’ll just leave it at saying Beyonce dominated 2016, which made me happy and also cry.
He’s a complex guy, soft and sexy and emotional, not afraid to expose his fears and neuroses for anybody who cares to listen. And from the looks of the numbers of downloads, a lot of people fit in that category. Blonde takes patience, but it’s well worth the nominal amount of work for the payoff.
If you’re less patient and want something more accessible, go for Solange’s A Seat at the Table instead. Or in addition. Actually, yeah, just do both.
The Weeknd resurrected Daft Punk
Sure, there’s always rumors swirling around of out of costume secret shows or various appearances at Burning Man, but the two robots of Daft Punk seem content to operate in the background, only releasing toys, posters, and Christmas ornaments. It seems that wasn’t quite enough for Abel, aka The Weeknd, who enlisted their help for two tracks that would bookend his album, Starboy.
The album’s title track featured nearly everything I wanted from their collaboration. It was upbeat, their production married perfectly with his voice and his style, and their trademark vocoder was elating. The second track, ‘I Feel It Coming,’ felt like an uninteresting low point for Michael Jackson who ran out of ideas and decided to stop trying. Maybe I don’t get it, but I think I do. Still, it got them out from under whatever fashionable French countryside rock they were under. Maybe they’ll like the fresh air. Maybe they’ll want more.
You cannot talk about 2016 without addressing what we lost. It wasn’t until he passed away that I realized he and my mom were the same age. I’d just lost my mom to cancer two months earlier, so I hadn’t even gotten back on my feet before this came up and kicked while I was down.
I knew of David Bowie before I “discovered” him before I really listened to him in high school. I’d seen Labyrinth, and we had MTV, and that was enough to recognize him but not quite enough to seek out his music on my own. It wasn’t until I heard Nirvana: Unplugged that his music really resonated with me. Kurt Cobain’s squeaky crooning of “Man Who Sold the World” gave me enough reason to go and buy the album of the same name. I skipped class one day to buy the CD and then sat in my car in the school parking lot and cracked open the annoying plastic wrapper, slipped the disc into my Discman which fed into a tape adapter to my shitty Ford Tempo stereo, and I was stunned by what came out of it. I missed my next two classes because I wanted to hear the album all the way through, then hear it again.
That acquisition led to a lifelong obsession, of album and movie collecting, to biographies and wearing out my friends’ patience as I put yet another David Bowie album into rotation and eventually to a concert. He stopped in St. Paul to play the Roy Wilkins Auditorium on his tour for ‘Earthling,’ his surprisingly resilient foray into techno and drum n bass in 1997.
It was a difficult loss, no doubt, but the life that David Bowie led brought joy to so many people and played a key role in redefining sexuality, gender identity, and constantly challenging the norms and societal rules. While he may not have been perfect, he was absolutely a sum positive at the end of his life, and the outpouring of gratitude and stories made sure to prove it. One user on Twitter provided a beautiful and succinct message re-using another artist’s words and in a kind of disguise, which felt like a very Bowie tribute:
“If you’re ever sad, just remember the world is 4.543 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.” -@JSuisDean
Like David Bowie, Leonard Cohen lived a full life. In truth, the name order of that statement should be reversed. I first heard Leonard Cohen while out on a drive with no destination with my sister and a couple friends in high school. She played somebody’s mix tape that included “First We Take Manhatten,” and the gravel-covered-in-velvet quality of Cohen’s baritone against the cinematic instrumental backdrop and somewhat campy backup singers imparted this feeling of awe that I wanted back as soon as the song was over. It was a song I waited to hear each time we got in the car, hoping the drive would last long enough to hear it again.
Eventually, I sought out his music on my own, through a greatest hits disc, then an album, and so on. In my high school mind, I wondered how many women just threw themselves at him. He had to get so much tail, I thought. He was a romantic, he was sexual, though not always overtly, and he made me want to be a part of his songs.
Later, I focused more on the life experience, the humanity, and the spirituality of his music. Every few years I’d come back to Leonard Cohen’s music slightly to significantly changed since the last time, and I’d find there was more for me there. Certain songs or passages of lyrics rang true as I went through life and experienced love and loss and whatever laid between.
I imagine this will continue, that as life shapes me, that the music will accommodate and different bits and pieces will stand in significance for the duration of my life. For somebody close, the song “Angels of Mercy” helped quell the fear of death when it was coming near. And both Cohen and Bowie created their final albums as exactly that, the bookend closing their body of work as well as their lives.
As a Minnesotan, this was an exceptionally heavy kick in the pants. The news hit me rather hard while I was at work, and made the rest of the day rather difficult to concentrate. It was interesting to hear everybody process the loss. Some didn’t care, some made jokes, and others were openly crying. That night, I biked to First Ave for a show with performances, sing-a-longs, speeches, tears, and dancing. It was intense and beautiful and painful and cathartic.
I was lucky enough to catch Prince perform live in his studio, Paisley Park, at the kickoff of a run of shows at Paisley Park. He asked attendees not to bring their phones, not to swear, and there was no alcohol. It was already a surreal show, but it was also one without a single phone held up recording and nobody endlessly scrolling through whatever app. People were all there in the moment, and it taught me a lot about what changed over the course of my life in live performances.
I don’t know Donald Glover, and being from vastly different backgrounds, cultures, and opposite colors, my only confident assumption is that I have no safe assumptions. Despite that, I feel a kind of kinship with him. Sure, some of that could be from all those episodes of Community with Troy and Abed geeking out, but it really hit me when I read his series of notes on why he chose to leave the show. The things he wrote on hotel stationery and posted to Instagram were like echoes of thoughts I’ve had.
When I heard Awake, My Love for the first time, I was confused and charmed and impressed. It’s music from another era, brought up to date and injected with a little acid and whole shitload of internal conflict.
So that’s what I left out. It’s still all under-acknowledged, but it was important to me to get all of this out there.