The New York Times Magazine is put to bed a week before it’s delivered with the Sunday paper, so this article now landing with a thud on doorsteps this morning has already been the subject of some discussion. The magazine’s annual music issue features something called “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music is Going.” Once you review this list, go to the full article for their full justifications. It begins like this:
A strange thing you learn about American popular music, if you look back far enough, is that for a long time it didn’t much have “genres” — it had ethnicities. Vaudeville acts, for instance, had tunes for just about every major immigrant group: the Italian number, the Yiddish number, the Irish one, the Chinese. Some were sung in a spirit of abuse; others were written or performed by members of those groups themselves. And of course there were the minstrel shows, in which people with mocking, cork-painted faces sang what they pretended were the songs of Southern former slaves. This was how we reckoned with our melting pot: crudely, obliviously, maybe with a nice tune and a beat you could dance to.
Sometime in the 1950s, the mainstream saw its last great gasp of this habit. A nation that considered itself very space-age and worldly enjoyed quaint spins on sentimental Italian music (“That’s Amore” and its pizza pies) and Trinidadian calypso songs about hard, simple labor (“Day-O” and its bananas). You had your “Latin” numbers, your Hawaiian ones, your “Asian” songs — light ethnic pastiches laid out cheerily, like an international buffet that serves falafel one day and schnitzel the next, never too bothered about how accurate the recipes are.
There was a simple notion behind all this stuff, and it was the belief that music, like food, came from someplace, and from some people. Even when it was played in a condescending ethnic-joke burlesque of who those people actually were — even when it was pretty aggressively racist — the notion remained: Different styles sprang from different people. Then all of this changed, and we decided to start thinking of pop music not as a folk tradition but as an art; we started to picture musicians as people who invented sounds and styles, making intellectual decisions about their work.
But music is still, pretty obviously, tied to people.
Keep reading about these 25 songs. The Times has also embedded files to which you can listen.
- Adele, “Send My Love (to Your New Lover)”
- Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker”
- Missy Elliot, “I’m Better”
- Future, “Mask Off”
- Pentatonix, “Jolene”
- A Tribe Called Quest: “We the People…”
- Lil Yachty, “One Night”
- Kelela, “Rewind”
- Kungs vs. Cookin’ On 3 Burgers, “This Girl”
- Church of Misery, “Make Them Die Slowly (John George Haigh)”
- Mica Levi & Oliver Coates, “Barok Main”
- Ka, “Mourn at Night”
- Shirley Caesar, “Hold My Mule”
- Rufus Wainwright, “A Woman’s Face – Reprise (Sonnet 20)”
- James McMurtry, Copper Canteen
- Solange, “F.U.B.U.”
- Ariana Grande, “Side to Side”
- Kanye West, “Fade”
- Cecile McLorin Salvant, “Trolley Song”
- Lady Gaga, “Grigio Girls”
- Young M.A., “Ooouuu”
- Charles Bradley, “Changes”
- Frank Ocean, “Seigfried”
- Mitski, “Your Best American Girl”
- Migos, “Bad and Boujee”