I. Short Circuiting
On the first day of December in the year of our collective dread 2020, my editor called me to have the annual conversation. How, Jacob wanted to know, do you plan to write about this year in music? Our back-and-forth fluctuated between the general — NPR Music was about to publish its lists of 2020’s best songs and albums — and the personal. He talked about listening to sad disco while taking long summer runs in upstate New York. I confessed that while I’d marveled at the women rappers, Black country singers and pop-star androgynes who’d made social media fun, all I’d wanted to do most nights in Nashville was put on headphones and listen to a folkie whisper in my ear. Our talk of bests, our generalizations and volleyed opinions, felt heartwarmingly familiar. But then he asked me a question that jarred me out of that comfort zone.
“When you look back later, what will this year’s music mean to you?” he asked. “Assuming there will be a later. And apart from, you know, everything.” Everything: the pandemic, the political crisis, the crashing economy, the fact that since the first week of March I hadn’t seen a concert or shouted to a friend above the blaring music in a bar, or caught the eye of a stranger humming a Perfume Genius song in the coffee shop, or sung along to anything with anyone besides, when she’d let me, my teenage daughter blasting the Ramones in the kitchen. Jacob was asking me to make the imaginative leap out of 2020’s crushing confusion into a clearer atmosphere, where hierarchical terms like “Number One” and “most influential” alight. Up there I could do the critic’s usual job of determining what in my particular field will have lasting significance. I realized in that moment that I couldn’t ascend into that space, didn’t want to try.
Significance. The word comes from the Latin — favorite subject of my daughter, doing virtual high school downstairs in the den. It means “meaning,” but also “energy,” the spark that runs through the universe. As a critic, I try to determine how that energy moves from artists to listeners and sometimes, renewing itself, onward through time. Prince or the philosopher Roland Barthes might have said that a critic is fundamentally a sign reader, though more like a Tarot card interpreter or a translator than a traffic cop. I strive to respect all the different ways sound can signify while making a case for my own interpretations.
This year, though, the signs sputtered and buzzed, short-circuiting. 2020 was the year of fake news, of an invisible plague, of economic spirals and looming natural disasters. Some people fell heavy beneath these dissembling challenges; many experienced them from a looming distance, warnings coming through garbled lines. COVID-19 claimed hundreds of thousands of victims hidden behind closed doors. Unemployment left millions idle, yet the stock market still rose, fueled by the continued success of corporations profiting even as so many suffered. Fires raged on the West Coast and floods sunk whole towns in the South, yet these cataclysms rarely registered on the news, shut out by frantic reactions to the President’s latest Twitter tirade. The nation’s leaders claimed to be underdogs, acted like interlopers, called for trust and offered lies. The citizenry spat and swore across electrical-fence divides.
Musicians have suffered in specific and drastic ways. In the air, the virus rendered live concerts a menace, canceled tours, made even gathering in recording studios risky business. Yet they continue to work, some fighting writers’ block and others hysterically prolific. Reports have come from music fans, too, about emotional swings, dry periods and surprising impulses. I know people who’ve only listened to songs from 20 years ago and others who’ve devoted weeks to learning whole new genres or the catalogs of greats. Myself? I went through every phase, rapid-fire — two weeks of almost nothing but Stevie Wonder; distracted hours spent jumping among weirdly named playlists on various streaming platforms; immersing myself in new albums by old favorites and feeling saved, but then putting them aside, unable to concentrate on anything longer than the latest pop song. Time keeps stretching and collapsing. The other day I pulled out my favorite album from freshman year in high school. Hello, Andy Gibb. Tomorrow I might decide the only thing worth thinking about is TikToks of teenagers dancing to Bad Bunny. My listening patterns form no coherent storyline.
Communication has become so difficult anyway. My mask covers my face as I try to be friendly at the grocery store. Online, freezing screens and overloaded circuits fuzz my words. I miss being close to open mouths. Music makes me yearn for what feels lost: a whisper pushing breath onto my neck, a voice singing loud into a crowd yelling back at it. In my solitude, though, recordings become a lifeline. Spending time with music has never felt more private, a way of both sheltering from and mediating the noise from outside. At the same time, the sound always takes me somewhere; it’s often the only way I hear a stranger’s voice on any given day. See what I’m getting at? Nothing’s got just one meaning. In a year crowded with contradictions, music’s way of enhancing emotion can feel clarifying, or it can overwhelm. Like every other form of information, music is reaching people through static-filled channels, distorted, muffled, feeding back. The only reasonable thing a critic can do right now is recognize that reality and consider how it’s affected her own ears, her own thinking process.
Don’t ask me for answers, I thought, when Jacob brought up the future. I’m just one sign reader among many. Every day is a mess of unknowns. “We take the staff’s temperature every morning,” the dentist-office receptionist says to me right before I cancel my appointment, deciding that’s not enough for me to take a chance. The health anxiety I’ve fought against for years now envelops the nation; everybody’s wondering about that little tickle in the throat, the unthinking behavioral slip-up. Attempts to understand what’s happening have become more like tics, like games. People count the cars in each others’ driveways to determine the safety of their neighborhoods, consult risk-assessment charts whose grid lines jump like never-ending heart attacks. To relax, people turn to astrology or gesture at each other using the semaphore of memes.
So, generalizations, opinions, what’s the point? Trying to write about music as it’s reached me in 2020, I need to put aside these critics’ comforts. I’m hanging out with my garbled self, within the self-generated distortions and feedback loops shaping any insight I might claim. Fred Moten, the philosopher, poet and music head who became a Macarthur Fellow this year, has written about how consciousness can be both internal and interstitial, invaded by the world around it, the “uncontainable outside.” I can’t claim to be part of the Black American experience at the heart of Moten’s thinking, but his words echo as I’ve sought a way to write from unresolved experience instead of reaching for something more solid. I think this might also be a way to live now: to refuse any fixed conclusions, remaining, to paraphrase jazz-head Moten, “in the break,” the slippery space in which comprehension falls apart, reconstitutes itself, becomes its own improvisation.
What I offer here is an account of such attempts. Call it the diary of a plague year. Or, as Jacob called it after our melancholic conversation, of a fugue year. In a psychological fugue state, a person loses herself to the noise of the outside world. In a musical fugue, disparate melodic lines interweave to form a whole that never settles. Both definitions suit my 2020, my life of seeking signs.
II. A FRIEND TO LEND A GUIDING HAND
I have a photograph of a sign in my camera roll from the day the pandemic unofficially hit home – March 11, when the NBA postponed its season, America’s sweetheart Tom Hanks reported he’d contracted the virus and people in Nashville started talking about a shutdown. The sign just said, PRAY. No bigger than a handbill, it was tacked to a utility pole in North Nashville, where I’d gone to try to buy toilet paper, which was already illogically flying off every grocery store’s shelves. I pulled over and snapped a shot. Never even posted it anywhere. I’d just look at it from time to time.
A sign saying PRAY is hardly novel in the Jesus-loving South, but this one struck me. Usually I’d see the word either in 10-foot-tall letters and surrounded by Bible quotes heralding the apocalypse or in front of one of East Nashville’s new non-denominational churches, part of a dumb joke. You know, Jesus fed the multitudes, we have Taco Tuesdays. Eat carnitas and PRAY! But this little missive didn’t have any frame. Just the word, hand-stenciled and filled with what looked like tempera paint. PRAY. When I looked at the picture later I could see a little airbrushed cross, but at the time the word seemed unfettered by creed, dogma or other directives. The sign took me into myself.
When I think of the word PRAY, unadorned, I think of my father. Growing up in the Depression in a huge Irish Catholic family, he learned to pray under the hands of his stern mother and the nuns of St. Anne’s Parish in Seattle. There are photos of him and his brothers, shirt tails halfway out of their trousers, leaning against each other in front of my grandmother’s clapboard house. When he was cute and curly-mopped, I imagine, my father approached praying as a family obligation, head down stifling a laugh in the church pew. My dad learned to pray again, though, when he was eighteen. He’d been shoved into a troop carrier, then walked across most of France, ending up in a village quickly becoming rubble, where he faced soldiers who resembled all those brothers of his and was wounded while delivering his own lethal blows. He returned to Seattle with a rosary in his pocket. He never spoke of the war. For the rest of his life, he dealt with chronic pain from the shrapnel in his leg; he drank. Prayer became the way he could speak, only to himself, about what had happened.
My father loved music. He had a solid Irish voice you could almost call a tenor, and he’d take my brother and me in his arms and sing his favorites, songs that made us, cheap dates, giggle and sob. One was called “The Whiffenpoof Song.” We are poor little lambs who have lost our way, baaa baaa baaa. Like prayers, songs like these also spoke the unspeakable, the tender side of a man who sometimes lost it, sometimes seemed transported back to the fields where he had faced others’ guns and had to wield his own. Every week at Mass I would see him turn his head down to stave off the deep fatalism always with him on a low hum, closing his eyes as he listened to the words offered the Virgin: Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. And often in the evenings as we all watched the singer brightly standing in the spotlight on the Lawrence Welk or Carol Burnett show, I’d also feel him getting quieter, calming down. Tiny Bubbles. In the wine, make me happy… make me feel fine. From glancing at my father I learned that to pray is to listen; his love of music taught me that to listen is to pray.
I don’t remember what was on the radio on March 11, when I pulled over and took that photograph of the little sign. I do know that in the early days before anybody knew a goddamn thing, I turned to old songs like litanies. Find a handwashing song, the experts said, one you can sing for 20 seconds while you scrub. Mine was Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” — a rock chestnut completely inappropriate in 2020, with its macho swagger and casual attitude about emotional abandonment. I’ve always loved it, though, and now I knew why: Singing to a lover about how he’s sure to leave as soon as he gets up the energy, Stewart is completely certain about his uncertainty, comfortable in radical ambiguity. That’s a lesson for living with an unknown threat. No church in that song, sorry Dad, I thought as I squirted Softsoap onto my palms. There wouldn’t be any praying in my 2020, it turned out, as the antipathy religion motivated in others made me wonder where God really was. But I had an invocation at least. “All I needed was a friend to lend a guiding hand,” Rod sang. The bubbles swirled in the sink.
Everybody has a before story. Less than a month after the pandemic officially changed things, I noticed people starting to perfect their remembrances of recent dinners out or trips taken, using airy brushstrokes to capture the familiar as it faded into the rear view. A strange nostalgia descended, more like an anxious attempt to grasp the meaning of loss. I miss hugs. My dog’s the only one who’s seen me in five weeks. All I want is a dry martini served by a good-looking bartender. Before stories offered a way to pay tribute to the pleasures of the disrupted everyday.
My friends, mostly music fiends, set their before stories at concerts, dance parties, and karaoke hangs. Mine fit right in. Five days before lockdown I’d driven the 15 minutes from my house to the Ryman Auditorium to see Ruston Kelly. A headlining gig at the Ryman is an ultimate marker of arrival for Nashville musicians, especially singer-songwriters with any kind of country lean; for Kelly, a much-loved Music Row songwriter whose bumpy recovery from addiction coincided with his emergence as an artist in his own right, it played even sweeter than for most. He had a great new album almost ready to release and was ending a long tour in his hometown with the fans who treasured him most. With his dad on pedal steel and his sister singing backup, Kelly sang his laconic heart out. Friends came out and briefly joined the band, including his wife Kacey Musgraves, whose star had ascended a little faster than his but who modulated her presence that night to let him shine. “I never took for granted all the love in my life,” Kelly sang in his weeper “Brave,” and a feeling pinged through the crowd: gratitude.
We grabbed onto that feeling not because of the future we couldn’t anticipate on that first Friday in March, but because of what Nashville had just endured. A few days earlier a tornado had ripped across the city with the typical mercilessness of Southern weather. Hundreds lost their homes and businesses. The morning after that terrifying night, thousands more walked out into the neighborhoods to pick up rubble, distribute food and make sure people were safe. The hugs exchanged in the Ryman lobby before Kelly played his set communicated the vulnerability and fellow feeling Nashville relied on right then. The phrase “mutual aid,” in the air after the storm, would change meaning in the months to come as GoFundMe pages became ubiquitous among the musicians’ community and the free store the punk rockers opened on Dickerson distributed winter squash and paper goods to those in need, but one could know that then.
Kelly’s show was one for the books, a special evening. It felt like that at the time, but also like just another night out in a town where music is atmosphere. Prayer of remembrance: For months afterward, I left my Ryman ticket stub from on my Mazda dashboard as the car got grimier, rarely leaving the driveway. It reminded me of that night, the edifying pleasure of watching someone stroll into their dream’s high point. By midsummer Kelly’s album Shape and Destroy would be out, his marriage to Musgraves entering the separation phase. The fading stub was my signpost from the land of the taken for granted. It allowed me entry into a memory I never imagined would matter so much.
IV. ON I GO
In April I started to notice signs around my neighborhood. My daughter’s March spring break had never ended; she sat at home, her plans for a New York vacation and a summer job dashed. As a diversion she turned back to the video games she’d last loved when she was in middle school. Minecraft. The Sims. Build a world not wrecked like this one.
Nashville’s honky-tonks went quiet as residents sheltered under a “safer at home” order. Music festivals that would have taken me across the country fell by the wayside one by one. My husband and I walked our little dog through northern East Nashville every morning and evening, our route around the block expanding into miles-long treks. We cultivated neighborliness with other walkers a street’s-width apart, a wave and a smile, our only connection to others that wasn’t mediated by a screen. Our family members who lived in the early hot zones of Seattle and Long Island managed their movements even more carefully. We canceled our reunions and learned how to Zoom with them, negotiating a feeling of impending doom.
Spring got hotter, headed toward summer. Graduation announcements dotted yards everywhere — Home To a Proud Dan Mills Fourth Grader! Congratulations Jacobi, Hume-Fogg Class of 2020! These signs didn’t harbor memories; they were surrogates. They delivered the first emotional fruits of what everyone was starting to call the new normal.
Music people made their own substitutions. The album release calendar shriveled up, becoming a list of maybe-laters. Early experiments with live-streaming felt awkward and poignant, especially those dedicated to keeping alive the cultural meccas no one ever had imagined would be imperiled. Legendary clubs face the prospect of permanent closure. WWOZ in New Orleans hosted a virtual Jazzfest featuring archived sets, including some from legends no longer living; folks who hadn’t missed that fest in 20 years tuned in worldwide and posted pictures of the gumbo simmering in their kitchens. The Metropolitan Opera’s gala featured divas and divos recording themselves at home on phones attached to shaky tripods; fans sat rapt, straining to see what books Bryn Terfel in Wales or Renee Fleming in Virginia had on their shelves. Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday felt like one of those family Zoom calls that starts out shaky — host Raul Esparza couldn’t get the tech to work — but ended up with everybody laughing and crying and wishing it could last all night. I chatted about it online with pals from my high school drama club days. Meryl sang with Audra and Christine! Bernadette did “No One is Alone!”
Isolation still felt poignant then. Not yet sunk into its own chasm of skyrocketing COVID cases and denialism, America saw this crisis as something it shared with the rest of the world. The biggest virtual concert of that spring was One World: Together At Home, co-organized by Lady Gaga to benefit the World Health Organization. I dipped in and out of such livestreams, noticing how the weird flat openness of unfamiliar platforms allowed for fans to feel they could suddenly interact with their favorites on a first-name basis, even though Gaga and Elton and Macca were farther away than ever, protected much more than the average person by invisible walls of wealth.
The vital exchange between musicians and fans that can only happen in person was one of the pandemic’s first casualties. Listening took on the feeling of a séance. Is this what it’s like, I wondered, to live in a haunted place? As Nick Tosches once wrote, recorded music always opens a portal to the places where dead voices gather. In the quarantine spring, living people became apparitions to each other and it increasingly felt like there’d never be a chance to solidify connections again. The loss tilted my equilibrium.
Then, into this morphing environment came Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple’s first album in eight years. What a blast of life! Everyone was so ready. The elusive, beloved singer-songwriter fingerspelled “my album is done” in a Tumblr post in March; a couple weeks later, a video of one of her dogs playing in the Venice surf near her home served as a happy warning that new tunes would arrive soon. Then came April 17, and everyone I knew dropped everything — as if we had anything to drop — to listen to this clattering, clamoring, recklessly immediate set. “Kick me under the table if you want!” Apple sang. “I won’t shut up!” Her voice reached me as if it were cutting through a crowd — a feeling I hadn’t realized I’d missed so much. Hardly the hermit her long absence from the stage had made her out to be, in these songs Apple showed the improvisatory confidence of a motormouth, freely versing tough words for old lovers and guffaws for friends and lighting bolts of insight. Three core musicians matched and helped organize her racket, with each song growing up from rhythms that felt, as I listened, like they might be coming from my own body. This record made me remember bodies! Her pups barked in the background. Joy.
Prayer of communion: Apple, the notorious semi-recluse, had created Fetch the Bolt Cutters at home, turning her sanctuary into not just a recording studio but an instrument. For months she and her collaborators marched around chanting and banging on the walls, tapped out code on wastebaskets. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a record of four people forgetting their separate identities in favor of something unique to their interaction. A pandemic pod from before the term existed. Apple is a strong individualist, but I think people went mad for this music because it was communal and it came from inside the house. Here was relative isolation transmogrified into a big world. The clamor of a family dancing with its high school graduate in the living room. It put flesh on the bones of ghosts.
V. I REMEMBER EVERYTHING
This disease was real and soon touched nearby. Just days after the Ruston Kelly concert that was my last, nearly 2,000 people crammed into the Marathon Music Works nightclub to raise tornado relief funds and be rewarded by a show featuring more than a dozen of Nashville’s favorite artists — Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Yola, Sheryl Crow. I almost went myself, but for some reason my usually incautious husband urged me to stay home. Four friends, maybe five, who did attend started having COVID symptoms not long after that show. This was frightening.
Only a few weeks later came the first COVID fatality to shake my extended circle of music lovers. Adam Schlesinger, one of the most admired members of the indie rock-raised singer-songwriter crowd I’d lived around in New York in the ’90s, was in a coma, the rumors said. Then he was gone. Had a day passed? The sudden death of an acquaintance over 50 (Schlesinger was 52) is not unusual; many musicians and writers live hard, without a safety net. But the fear was rising. Was this one departure a signal of a coming deluge? Others were already testing positive.
One reported positive test worried people around me more than most. John Prine was Nashville music’s favorite uncle: a mentor, a delightfully acerbic voice, a genius who’d drink vodka and ginger ale with any young songwriter seeking his counsel. And still making great music at 73. With two cancer bouts in his past, he was in the PROTECT AT ALL COSTS category. But COVID, everyone quickly learned, did not care about our feelings. On April 7, two weeks after he entered Vanderbilt Hospital unable to breathe well, he died. The city reeled. The mural within which he still gazed out at us, affixed to the wall of Grimey’s Records — became a shrine, covered in flowers.
Prine’s death felt like a turning point, marking a new level of endangerment and of bereavement. Yet COVID’S toll on American music didn’t unfold the way people thought it would. While the virus has no morals, its trajectory further exposed the fault lines in a system deeply deteriorating. We lost elders, but not the superstars for whom I and many other music writers hastily wrote advance obituaries. Instead, the players who often operated at the center of American’s music history but not its economy — elders and a significant number of younger people who’d never gained fame’s privileges but were treasured within their communities — suffered alongside the thousands of essential workers whose stories define the pandemic’s history on the ground. Jazz was gutted. New Orleans music suffered irreparable blows. House DJs and cult-favorite rappers left the earth. It became inarguably clear that the lineages less valued within popular music’s money-making sectors would be the most affected by this scourge, just as Black and brown Americans in general were suffering more than their better-insured and sequestered white counterparts.
Musicians themselves were the ones who carried the souls of these elders and peers beyond death. Prayers of lamentation: These offerings served as a kind of kaddish for their own working lives, too. Live performance sustained them, money-wise and heart-wise, and suddenly it had become impossible. So they did what mourners do, creating rituals that called toward spirits lost.
In New Orleans, the city that for me most vividly embodies American music, friends noted the strange silence: the raucous, street-packing jazz funerals that cleansed the dead with revelry and sent them onward, were banned. But musicians found ways. When beloved pianist and scene father Ellis Marsalis died, the calliope player Debbie Fagano filled the Mississippi river with the elder’s favorite tunes, playing them on her lonely floating keyboard. After the deaths in his close circle mounted into the double digits, trombone player Winston Turner told a few members of his band the Brass-A-Holics to put on their dark suits and gather six feet apart in City Park to play the African-American national anthem, “I’ll Fly Away.” Unannounced and fleeting, such acts elegized people, but also the familiar ways of music-making itself. “While we were out there, people understood what we were doing,” Turner said in one account I read. “There were a number of people gathered and just crying.”
Nashville’s singer-songwriters, meanwhile, lovingly constructed a new virtual songbook of John Prine covers. I’ve noticed, as the months of mourning build upon themselves, that Prine’s songs have become a vehicle for those of us who loved his music to process ongoing loss. His sad songs serve one purpose, dwelling on the importance of really seeing others’ suffering clearly; his funny ones, another, modeling resilience. Prine always told jokes with a melancholy streak and broke hearts in a way that could include a laugh; that’s why, months later, musicians are still grieving inside that songbook. “That’s the way that the world goes round, one minute you’re up the next you’re down,” Miranda Lambert sang, playing Prine’s own custom-made guitar during a benefit for the financially flagging Country Music Hall of Fame in October, a season after he departed. Prine’s will was this goodwill, I thought as I watched Lambert on YouTube, the smile crossing her face in conversation with the trace of a tear. Over the months it had become clear that the music world’s pain would be just like every other corner’s: inestimable, ongoing, hard to track. But there were these melodies and words to repeat. Hold on to a memory, preserve yourself.
VI. MY FEET CAN’T TOUCH THE BOTTOM OF YOU
As time went on, people tried to reach out to each other in any way. We wore out the quarantime’s new favorite sign of affection, thumbs on phones: virtual hug. One friend confided that she’d taken to late-night Tinder assignations. The kids down the block stained the sidewalk with overly cheery chalk drawings of rainbows, flowers, slightly desperate expressions of the failing truism every little thing is going to be all right.
What was happening to us, more hyperconnected than ever within a global disaster, yet so divided, not only by necessity but by our responses to the crisis? Nashville is a tourist town, where the embrace of strangers represents not only the community’s best open-hearted intentions but the economy’s hungry need. When viral videos appeared showing downtown honky-tonks packed to the brim with revelers, my friends became the NIMBY’s we never thought we would be. THIS IS SHOCKING, I yelled through my laptop keyboard in the mayor’s vague direction. MAKE IT STOP. Meanwhile, so many of those people I love, their incomes tied to live music production, sat waiting for their unemployment checks. I have always believed that music is one of the most powerful forces available for collapsing social distance, and that when that happens, miracles abound: slow dances and mosh pits, 10,000 out of tune fans massacring a pop anthem blares or roomful of ears leaning in close to hear a jazz pianist brush the keys. Those moments unite as surely as any kiss. Now, with the virus everywhere, it felt like music was inciting violence.
People thrived as much as they could, interpersonally. My small family walked around inside the house, laughing over the same dumb in-jokes and arguing over the chores list as we did before each other was all we had. I engaged in these familiar practices unthinkingly, then sometimes purposefully. Random embraces in the hallway became a reminder of how lucky we were.
Into this suspension and transformation of intimacy came some music, sometimes, that recreated the feeling of opening up to someone new. I found myself crying quietly into my dishtowel as I cleaned up after dinner, listening to singer-songwriters making offerings of their heartache. Jess Cornelius: “When we met I used to make you laugh. Then we lost the baby and it broke my heart.” Lucinda Williams: “Down past bottom rolling harder than a stone, I can’t remember any good times I’ve known.” Ashley Ray, singing to her mother after her father’s death: “Can’t take it up to heaven, mama, can’t you see that it’s just a house.” Arlo Parks, to a friend on the edge: “Just take your medicine and eat some food, I’d do anything to get you out of your room.” Taylor Swift, to a childhood love she’ll never see again: “Please picture me in the weeds, before I learned civility.” These songs sounded like intercessions, prayers to household saints.
“I hate living by the hospital, the sirens go all night,” sang Phoebe Bridgers on her album Punisher, the album to which I kept returning as the blue evenings grew longer. More than any other voice on the sad-song playlist that I built, I was drawn to hers, to its catch, that I’m-just-gonna-say-this flow. Bridgers writes as if she’s telling somebody she loves a dream she had about them, trying to make her subconscious yearning and disturbing impulses clear. In a dream, she recalls, you touch my leg, and I insist, but I wake up before we do it. Trying to reach somebody has always felt like a big risk. A hand on a knee. Remember? I will wait for the next time you want me like a dog with a bird at your door, Bridgers sings. The animal is still within me, within all of us. Virtual hug.
VII. I NEED YOU TO
In May, the signs in my neighborhood started proliferating differently. Those marking personal achievements and simply trying to be friendly remained — one popped up in a yard at the edge of my daily walk, offering a free “clean” queen bed to anyone who’d call this number — but next to them were ones reflecting loyalties and concerns extending beyond our three-mile radius. “Support Essential Workers,” said one decorated with cartoon images of doctors and nurses; another, hand-drawn with the magic-marker outline of a guitar in the corner, pleaded, “Save Live Music.” Here and there I’d run across a political marker whose presence predated the pandemic: a dark rectangle cut horizontally by a white stripe and holding the neatly stacked words “Black Lives Matter.” After May 26, the day 17-year-old Darnella Frazier’s phone video recording of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police officers broke across social media and people took to the streets in rage, those signs, like the protests, multiplied.
I live in north Inglewood on the east side of Gallatin Avenue, a quiet corner of the eternally gentrifying East Nashville. My block is mostly, though not entirely, occupied by white families ranging in age from baby-boomer to millennial. Here the Black Lives Matter signs multiplied quickly, often in the more liberal-universalist version that expands or dilutes the message, depending on your viewpoint. LOVE IS LOVE, EVERY WOMAN IS A FEMINIST, SCIENCE IS REAL and so forth. Some neighbors hand-lettered placards with more individualized messages — closer to the stately Riverside Drive, one read, “Complacency Keeps Racists In Power,” while at the block’s other edge, where duplexes dominate, the messages were blunter: “Defund the Police,” “Racism Kills.”
We put one of those namby-pamby, all-inclusive signs in our own front yard, letting it do the talking for us while others we knew marched. The strictures of my mainstream-journalist job required avoiding partisan stances. Inside, at my desk, I wondered how to act. At first I tried to continue my usual work, looking to history for context as the cries of protest built into a reckoning that encompassed every corner of American culture. Soon, I began thinking I should just step back. Sometimes only your silence can make space for others, I told myself. But this was tough. Every critic loves the sound of her own voice – that’s a swimmer loving water – and an ego wrestling with a conscience makes for a downright ugly match.
I mostly stopped writing. My dad reappeared in my daydreams as I tried to face down my own defensiveness and despondency, reminding me that pride is the seed of all sins. I looked up what others have said about that human flaw and wrote one sermonizer’s words my notebook: “Pride slides its arm around our neck every time we place ourselves above someone else in an attitude of judgement or condemnation, a violation of our rightful place, side-by-side with all our fellow men.” This image of pride as a choke-hold struck me, echoing the voices of protestors chanting George Floyd’s final words: “I can’t breathe.” Inequity spiritually strangles us all. But not literally. Black pain is something I have no right to appropriate, even metaphorically.
My self-absorption, heightened by isolation, was spinning me in circles. If pride, self-elevation, was the problem, why did I feel so low? That’s when I remembered that pride has an inverse, a shadowy twin: shame. Feeling low can be as much a signal of excessive self-importance as feeling high. Prayer of contrition: I needed to get it together and find some humility instead.
The only thing that helped, with summer getting hotter and the signs on fire everywhere, was being quiet, reading and listening. The universe — really, their writers’ years of hard work — gave me a gift: I started getting galleys of new books in the mail by Black women scholars telling American music’s stories in ways that knocked out my own unexamined assumptions. Maureen Mahon’s Black Diamond Queens showed me how to rethink the history of classic rock; Kim Mack’s Fictional Blues gave me a new framework for understanding the bluesman and woman’s very ways of speaking. Shana Redmond put pioneering blacktivist Paul Robeson back into the heart of the conversation with Nothing Man. As autumn entered, I got my hands on an advance copy of Daphne Brooks’s epic Liner Notes For a Revolution, which demands a wholly new approach to music history, guided by the spirits of Zora Neale Hurston and Lorraine Hansberry. Every one of them made me feel less lost, more able to think about what music writing needs to be.
In this paradoxical time of lies and revelations, what did music itself need to be? I heard so many voices trying to figure that out. A new wave of protest songs began to form immediately after George Floyd’s death and continues to build to this day. As at the marches and other protests that inspired them, the best of these new anthems rejected universals for particulars. Black Lives Matter is a movement that makes its arguments through exhaustive attention to detail — the bloody specifics captured in videos like Frazier’s, the counts of shots fired at or blows sustained by particular victims of police violence, and more than anything, the names of those victims, which become emblems precisely because they draw attention to the way racism destroys people one by one. There is no more detail-oriented music than hip-hop, and rappers have built a whole new canon of protest music in just a few months by applying their gifts for connecting reference points to the stories of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and many others whose lives have been lost. Songs like Dinner Party’s “Freeze Tag” and the Late Ones’ “The Noose” built upon the legacy of Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit,” avoiding niceties in favor of the tangible image, rubber bullets fired into a crowd.
The way these new anthems didn’t really offer comfort, demanding more difficult emotional responses, felt right to me. I sought the clarity of direct statements. I gravitated toward the YouTube channel of the rapper and singer Tobe Nwigwe, who enlisted his friends and family to mount gorgeous tableaus from within his pristine, quarantined apartment. The directness of his words and meditative quality of his voice has a powerful resonance. His ultimate statement was only 44 seconds long. “I Need You To (Breonna Taylor)” unfolds over a stark drum beat, the lyrics going not very far beyond the song’s title. “I need you to,” Nwigwe sings as if he’s about to croon a seduction. Instead, his voice turns harder as he demands justice for Taylor, the Louisville woman killed by police in her own home, and McClain, the young Coloradoan who died after police injected him with ketamine to tranquilize him. Nwigwe says what he has to say — their names — with little embellishment. “You catch my vibe?” he asks. “Now get off my page.” In the video he gazes into the eyes of whoever’s watching, no smile, no tears, no outstretched hand, no nonsense.
I found the same clarity in a very different musical response to violence, the four-and-a-half minute suite “Mary Turner: An American Tradition” by the jazz saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and his quartet. In 1918, the pregnant Turner was lynched by a white mob in Valdosta, Ga. after publicly demanding accountability for the murder of her husband in the same lynching rampage. Wilkins, pianist Micah Thomas and bassist Daryl Johns make the spirit of the long-lost Turner vivid — vulnerable, defiant, terrified — as drummer Kweky Sumbry conjures the ground she walked on, African in ancestry. This music, so subtle and yet somehow so explicit, cannot give Mary Turner her life back. But it can demand that listeners witness it, alongside her death.
I started collecting songs like these, though many were not an easy listen. Shemekia Copeland’s “Clotilda’s on Fire,” pays witness to the arrival of the last slave ship to come to America. Sault’s “Little Boy” places the listener inside the kind of conversation Black parents have with their children when it comes time to warn them about the dangers the police may pose to them. Historical passages made personal, personal ones revealed as historic — through these amalgamations, these songs educated me. And when an artist challenged me — “American silence is a crime,” the folk singer Chris Pierce declared; “You should be ashamed that nothing’s really changed,” the keyboardist and composer PJ Morton crooned, in a collaboration with Nwigwe – I took that in. Still working through my own place in this struggle, I felt grateful for these artists holding the line. Not easy. But like Nwigwe said: I need you to.
VIII. EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED
By autumn, the neighborhood signs turned partisan. As it came into focus, the Presidential election felt more like an ongoing brawl than an orderly argument about our nation’s best future. My immediate area’s election placards leaned uniformly to the left, with Biden/Harris troths mounted next to those rainbow-hued social justice emblems from weeks earlier. Yet the membrane was weak. “I was walking down McGavock, and there’s one house that’s just a shrine to Trump!” another mom on the block declared one evening when I ran into her on her daily baby-buggy perambulations. This distressed her because, on that day, the election was a week gone but plenty of people in Tennessee, and throughout the country, were still debating who had won. We were in a loop. It felt like a horror movie. Our neighbors knew this would happen, apparently; many had integrated their campaign placards into Halloween displays, as if to say to passersby, no hellscape haunts the way our own precarious daily surroundings do right now.
I laughed, I cried, I felt sick. The election provided an outlet for the anger that often overtakes people when they don’t know how to protect themselves, and then, instead of the resolution voting was supposed to bring, contention froze the air. We were not moving forward. Abhorrence and horror have the same Latin root, meaning “a chill.” America’s endemic inequities and instabilities turned people against each other ever more dramatically. Fear became rage and intensified into personal confrontations, invasions of space. In Nashville there were anti-mask rallies and a “worship protest,” part of a nationwide tour by Christian rocker Sean Feucht, in which people sing together and testify that their breath remains pure of the virus no one can see. Elsewhere, the newspapers reported, people gathered in throngs to ride motorcycles, danced at raves, attended weddings that left 90 per cent of the guests sick. The virus got worse and people’s defiance grew more obstinate.
In the yard signs I saw evidence of tampering with this cruel mood, in the form of jokes. My favorite example involved a Bernie Sanders sign someone had doctored until it said “Biden,” using fine-point pens and masking tape, an “e” turned into and “I” and so forth, but with the old name showing through. I liked the way the Bernie fan embedded an old loyalty into compromise. And I related to the messy way they did it, this crude emblem of a season in which nothing solidified.
I couldn’t focus on books so I turned to elaborate puzzle games that led me from one decaying castle room to the next. Scandinavian mystery shows and classic horror movies aestheticized dread and made it approachable. Doomscrolling was my bad habit, leading out into the abhorrent chill again. Around midnight I’d inevitably delete all the social media platforms from my phone and turn to a soothing voice on a self-help podcast, whispering reassurances, gently holding my anxieties in check.
Sometimes I’d click on a music video. The live-streaming universe of concerts and other theatrical experiences continued to expand exponentially but I rarely felt drawn into it. Maybe this was my form of Zoom fatigue, a loss of interest in the screen-mediated intimacy most online performances offered, because without the possibility of swapping actual breath the effort too often made me feel sad, tuned in to my own solitude. Prayer for asylum: I wanted to flee, into other realities altogether.
Wandering YouTube around midnight, I’d gravitate toward artists whose ambitions were more cosmic than intimate. Often these cosmic realms did away with the very divisions that people were fighting about IRL — borders, genders, sexuality. Bodies came together within them and identities broke apart. In the video for “Yo Perreo Sola,” the year’s breakthrough category-basher Bad Bunny morphed from summer-sundress chic caliente to mustachioed stud to vinyl-sporting dominatrix, capping off these transformations by rubbing up against his own masculine/feminine ass. Harry Styles beamed at me from his Quarantine Island in “Watermelon Sugar,” a clip “dedicated to touching” and featuring the lissome boy androgyne pop star innocently wrapping himself in the caresses of a dozen gorgeous friends, male, female, either, both. Repeated viewings of Harry’s paradise opened up an algorithmic path that led me to Isaac Dunbar, a teenager schooled in the wisdom of Lady Gaga and whose imagination crawled with glitter and sparkled with the wings of moths. Most satisfying was the exploded domestic sphere Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion ruled over in “WAP” — Sappho’s island reimagined as the ultimate Playgirl club, where tigers and snakes wandered without endangering anyone and all of the pair’s famous friends danced in separate perfect mistress-bedrooms. I watched “WAP” five times in a row when it dropped in early August and every day for a month after that. These utopian chimeras welcomed me and I fell into them, their opulence my ethereal balm.
These video binges could quickly devolve into risky behavior, though — another form of scrolling, minus the doom that news-focused platforms imparted, but still producing that nervous feeling brought on by endless choice. I needed to close my laptop and my eyes and have a sustained experience. Like a child, I needed someone to tell me a story — to take me back to my earliest experiences of others building worlds where I could rest.
It’s a funny thing when you’re a kid – if you’re lucky the little circle of your family contains you, but you need a different kind of reassurance, the promise that there’s more beyond the rectangular confines of your own house. At the same time, you need to be reassured that going outside will be safe. Stories fill this need. They combat loneliness in ways a loved one’s hug does not. I knew that, as weird autumn wore on, others were craving stories too. Friends shared delirious accounts of Netflix binges and deep dives into old books. Many fell asleep each night to the “bedtime” monologues on meditation apps, revenant experiences of Mom reading Anne of Green Gables or Bless Me, Ultima under dim bedside light. I found my stories in albums that transported me that way, into a different world, connected to my own but, in this season, more comprehensible. I sought music strongly grounded in their makers to say I am here, and to show me all the details of what here meant to them.
Zara McFarlane was here in East London; her Songs of An Unknown Tongue encircled the territory that linked the Jamaica of her family’s past to her own present as a jazz singer and rendered it new through samples and loops and her own clear current of a voice. For Moses Sumney, here was Asheville, N.C., where he’d moved from California to make grae and transform into some kind of latter-day Romantic building a new vision of the pastoral from gospel swoons, soul shouts and psychedelic jams. On Aguita, Gabriel Garzon-Montano brought me here to a Brooklyn where reggaeton blasted in the streets and bedroom curtains fluttered with art-jazz beats and Brazilian whispers. This universe started to feel infinite. The Puerto Rican here of Buscabulla’s Regresa, streaked sunset pink, complemented the astral here of Inner Song, in which Kelly Lee Owens seemed to project herself into a Welsh night sky.
It feels wrong to say these albums took me away, the way a tourist might go to a Sandals resort and think she knew something about the island where she’d landed. They challenge that touristic impulse, in fact, because of the strong personalities at their center — whole beings who resist being exoticized by being insistently, idiosyncratically themselves. Sumney’s desire to defy a singular identity bore the marks of stretching past how his own Black masculinity, and others’ assumptions about it, could confine him. Garzon-Montano, a delicate auteur trying on swagger, confronted the problems of machismo even as he flirted with it. I think these albums felt comforting to me because their beauty emerged through discomfort, that tender feeling of unrest that takes over when some kind of metamorphosis must occur. Tell me a story. Zara McFarlane’s words: Everything is connected, although you cannot see the roots that hold us. In a lifelong web, trapped by hope.
As the calendar turned toward December, a music movie showed up on Amazon Prime that built a world so joyously and meticulously, it hit me like a prayer at least partially answered. Director Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock, part of his Small Axe suite of films that lovingly reveal the daily life of Black London, dwells almost entirely within a cramped row house where Caribbean immigrants have gathered for a sound system party. Most of its 70 minutes places the viewer within just a few rooms were goat stew bubbles on the kitchen stove, a DJ/selector crams his setup into a corner and people steadily gather, pass in hallways, cluster against walls, clinch in corners, bantering, almost fighting and turning aways, flirting and surreptitiously making love. At the film’s center is a scene set to singer Janet Kay and producer Dennis Bovell’s yearning anthem “Silly Games” — three minutes of absolute, enveloping yearning capped by some of the highest vocal notes in pop history. On McQueen’s dance floor the selector stretches out the song’s ending, and then the crowd takes over, voices melding and melting, simmering all the way up to Kay’s impossible high notes.
The scene goes on and on, every sway of the dancers’ hips another precious moment to dwell in. Watching it, falling into it, on an early December night, I realized how rarely cinema grants this gift that music routinely delivers: the distillation of time itself into something evoking a world. Caught up in “Silly Games,” McQueen’s dancers break free of the uncertainties of their regular lives, where racism violates their days and curtails most of their nights. They’re not in a nightmare loop; they know the song will end. But they also understand that within its warm confines they are safe.
IX. Starting Over
When I was a kid, my dad whistled incessantly. Sitting at the kitchen table after dinner with the piles of papers he’d brought home from his accounting job, or puttering around the house, or waiting to pick up my brother at his soccer game, he’d punctuate the air with his Irish trill. Whistling in public was an incognito way of self-soothing, not that he would have ever used a therapeutic word like that. He couldn’t sing in public; unless something really bad was happening he couldn’t pray. So he whistled.
Snatches of arias he’d learned from Mario Lanza records melded with Bing Crosby favorites and hymns in his repertoires. Mostly, though, it was just this one melody. Up and down the scale, up and down — I could never tell what song it came from. And I never asked him. Fourteen years after his death, the precise notes have faded from my ear. I’m sad about that. And I’ll never know where he got them. All I know is that they helped him get through things somehow.
Ten days after the election, a week after the slow counting of absentee ballots made it clear, if not acceptable to naysayers, who had won, the signs in my neighborhood gave way to holiday lights. My dad loved Christmas; he’d get on the roof and string lights all around our house and stuff the space under the tree with presents from Sears and J.C. Penney. I’m glad my dad is dead in 2020, miss him still but am relieved he’s not lying in some old folks’ home bed as the virus wafts through the hallways or hiding in our old house in Seattle, afraid to do the thing he loved to do most on a weekend morning, which was go to the grocery store. To be honest, what little relief I’ve felt about the state of the world the past four years has taken the form of gratitude that both of my parents passed before this cursed era fell upon America. I tell my friends my dad would have cried to see the country he fought for, the one that took his youthful health from him, devolve into bitter ignominy. To hear the name of fascism, the political plague he fought against raised and recognized on the horizon. I don’t tell people that I’m also glad he’s gone because who knows what ideas spewing out of the television in the retirement home dining room might have taken him over and made him my enemy.
Sometimes lately I think I can hear my dad’s whistling. It’s just my heart looking for reassurance, something quotidian. I can’t take the constant alarm bells announcing new variations on crisis, even though I know they have to be heeded. There’s reason to hope, but so much peril still on the path. In Nashville I see many people going about their business and their fun, many working to accept a new reality requiring distance but many still pulling their masks off their noses as soon as they can get far enough from the signs telling them to follow health codes outside every shop. The holiday lights shine and I hate to admit it, I hope no one’s coming home for Christmas.
In mid-November a song that’s been hanging around for a few months wends its way into my brain, replicating my dad’s whistling in the yard. “Starting Over” was the first single to drop from my country music favorite Chris Stapleton’s new album, and its title track. I listened once in August and thought, this is corny. Moved on to my daytime protest songs and nighttime fantasy reels. But with the whole album in my ears, its misty ballads and muscular rock songs as solidly and comfortingly proficient as I needed, “Starting Over” became something I reached for like a painkiller. Prayers work best when revisited daily. “Starting Over” opens with a chord change from some other folk-rock chestnut, I still can’t figure out which, just like with that tune of my dad’s I never identified. Chris’s voice comes in, sturdy, hardly reaching, joined in harmony as always by his wife Morgane’s. The lyrics propose a change of scenery. “I got friends out on the coast, let’s jump in the water and see what floats.” I haven’t seen the coast where I grew up in more than a year now. I try on this daydream; it feels fine.
But what gets me, keeps me, is the hook that felt so corny to me when I first heard it. “I can be your lucky penny, you can be my four leaf clover,” Chris and Morgane sing to each other. It’s the kind of thing a parent says to a kid when the day is getting long and everybody’s tired, or when some tough little battle looms and nerves have got the better of everybody. I recognize, listening to this chorus, that “Starting Over” isn’t really about what the title says. Instead, it’s about just floating the possibility of change, putting a little hope in your step even as everything else pulls you downward.
The best songs about change, about a better tomorrow, always have some sadness in them, because there’s still that gap between what the future offers and whatever mess you’re in right now. Chris and Morgane’s harmonies circle back on themselves; starting over will come some time. In the meantime, sing to each other, the song said. Listen to your own faltering survivor’s spirit. A song can mark the time that goes around and around. It tells me that I can live another day. Starting over.