Pazz & Jop: A Promise Realized

I like to think about all 45 (or 46) years the Pazz & Jop poll results have been tallied. I like to think about all the different iterations of editors who’ve done the tallying, and the luminaries who’ve done the voting, and the assorted grimy nooks and crannies throughout New York that have become littered with coffee cups and cigarette butts and half-eaten donuts and god knows what else in an effort to get the thing done. I like to think about all those Wednesdays, just before dawn — the only semi-quiet time in New York City — when delivery trucks made their way through empty streets depositing bound bundles next to telltale cherry-red Voice boxes. If you stayed out late enough, you could grab a freshly baked copy on your way home. I like to think about how, in this four decade–plus span of Pazz & Jop, there have been six times that all top five albums happened to be by male artists, and, until this year, zero times that all top five albums happened to be by female artists. I like to think about how that happened.

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The Pazz & Jop poll has been a mainstay of a certain kind of New Yorker’s winter ever since its inception in 1971. I am that kind of New Yorker. In 2002, the first year I lived in the city, well before I had any hope of actually getting paid to write about music, I would grab the Voice on my way to the subway, then devour it on the F train during the long journey from the LES to the UES, where I was teaching second grade at an all-boys private school. That year was a good one: The top five albums included Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Beck’s Sea Change, and Sleater-Kinney’s One Beat. By 2006, when I’d started working at Rolling Stone, and was still brimming with enthusiasm about following in the footsteps of Lester Bangs and Ellen Willis, the top album of the year was Modern Times by Bob Dylan (great record). But TV on the Radio and the Hold Steady, two bands I would go on to write about, made the top five, too. My people were coming up! By the end of the decade, my optimism about my future as a music writer had deteriorated considerably. I’d been told by one real live boss that I was best used not as a writer but as a talking head (but also that I was too chubby for TV — he bought me a gym membership), and by another that I was not talented enough to handle assignments longer than 800 words. By decade’s end, as the recession was cresting, I was freelancing, broke, and spending a lot of time watching Alias, imagining life as a ninja spy — when I wasn’t quietly berating myself for not having gone to law school like a good girl. I was also listening to Pazz & Jop’s top album of 2010, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which felt appropriate.

I spent the first decade of my career trying to be taken seriously enough to be allowed to get better as a writer. I’ve spent these last years feeling grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had — the remarkable editors (two of whom, both men, incidentally, are behind this essay you are currently reading) and the remarkable subjects — all while simultaneously trying to avoid the tractor-beam pull of being a Woman in Music. When I first started out, I was often treated as the Girl in the Room, which both hindered and helped my career at times. Later, once I became more established, I was often treated as the Female Rock Writer. This still happens. In the #MeToo era, you would be staggered (or not) by the number of offers I’ve gotten to write a hot take (“We’d need it in two weeks!”) on this zeitgeisty new subject called sexual harassment in the music industry. Could I get some fellow ladies to speak real quick about the worst experiences of their lives? It’s of course offensive that the subject would be treated as a trend, but it’s also understandable why editors trying to cover that trend would sound so desperate when reaching out for help; the relative lack of music journalists with the background needed to write an exposé on institutional misogyny in the music business is a symptom of the very scourge that story attempts to uncover.

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You notice, as a female music writer, that even the best-intentioned attempts to make up for the chasm that stands between women and their male counterparts can wind up feeling unintentionally marginalizing. The Women in Rock package, where we showcase this rare creature called the “female musician” and often bring temporarily to the fore her companion the “woman rock writer” to document her, mean well but feel terrible. For a while, I rebelled against this request by holding kind of pathetically firm to one rule: I will not, ever, no matter who requests it (and it’s female editors as often as male) ask a woman artist the dreaded question: How does it feel to be a woman in this business? I will also not say or type “this business.” Ever. You can see how that’s worked out.

This is all to say that for me the most remarkable thing about this year’s results is how unremarkable they are. For the first time ever, the critical establishment and the Recording Academy were in agreement, with Kacey Musgraves and Childish Gambino topping Pazz & Jop’s albums and singles lists while also taking home Grammys for Album and Record of the Year, respectively. Further, in this year’s poll, five artists made the top five albums, and those artists were female. It’s just what happened. It’s not the result of a deliberate attempt to recognize art by women, it’s a result of the fact that art made by women was, according to P&J voters, this year’s best. And for all kinds of reasons. Take Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer and Musgraves’s Golden Hour, the top two vote-getters for Album of the Year. The former is an explicitly activist piece of art as cultural analysis and joyful revolution, and the latter is a trippy pop-country record about falling in love in hypercolored slow motion. One has been called “feminist” because it’s overtly political (a favorite lyric of many: “Hundred men telling me cover up my areolas/While they blocking equal pay, sippin’ on they Coca-Colas”), but both are works of resistance against the patriarchy, because they are albums made by women that say what they came here to say and refuse to be held to any other standard of success. What’s promising is to see both recognized as such, as good purely because they are good, not because they are good for a girl or good because they were made by a girl, which are both, of course, just different framings of the same prejudice.

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When I was a dirty city kid, going to Strokes shows by night and teaching boys in blazers by day, dreaming of one day getting to be sent somewhere, anywhere, on assignment — or, you know, being able to expense a sandwich — I didn’t read the Pazz & Jop poll as a female rock fan, I read it as a rock fan. Like all good local rock fans, I then went to the Library with my other rock-obsessed friends and played the Gun Club on the jukebox, drank too many vodka sodas, and debated the rightness or wrongness of the results. I didn’t notice until later, until I was experiencing the limitations of sexism in my own professional life, how comparably few women there were around the office. And on the charts. And in those bars with me in the first place. I assumed, when I fell in love with the world that made it, this poll was a result of some of the best critical minds in music, spending reverential time reflecting on that years’ best noise, and rendering a verdict. I thought the whole process, and the realm it served as a portal to, was sacrosanct, beyond the petty limits of bias, beholden to the bigger, better, purer metrics of rock and roll, of New York City, this place where you can go to get free. This year, it feels like that promise was realized.


Pazz & Jop: Fighting a Sense of Stuckness

Early on Twin Fantasy, the most recent album from the Seattle rock band Car Seat Headrest, singer Will Toledo recalls the time he came out to his friends. He then immediately contradicts himself: “I never came out to my friends.” Later in the same song, the thirteen-minute “Beach Life-in-Death,” he continues: “It’s been a year since we first met/I don’t know if we’re boyfriends yet.” He sings the lines nonchalantly, like he doesn’t know how upset he’s supposed to be over the ambiguity of his romantic attachment, like he’s afraid of giving too much away.

The song is the second track on the second version of Twin Fantasy Toledo has released as Car Seat Headrest. The first came out seven years beforehand, a sketchy home recording thick with tape hiss. Toledo recut the whole thing, keeping each song’s structure intact but polishing up the production values. Paying such a visit to old material seems like an almost unbearable kindness to a former self. Instead of burying his teenage squalls, Toledo re-enacts them. The two versions of Twin Fantasy came out with the same cover art and the same track list, lending the effect of time folding in on itself, an illusion that suits the record’s recurring themes of queer anguish and adolescent frustration. Then there’s one of the several refrains running through “Beach Life-in-Death”: “We said we hated humans/We wanted to be humans.” The wanting suggests a passage into the future, toward an unclaimed goal; the hating cuts off that trajectory. Toledo moves forward and gets stuck, moves forward and gets stuck, over and over.

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If Twin Fantasy articulates the stifling conundrum of being nineteen, miserable, and queer, it also speaks to a larger sense of stuckness among LGBTQ Americans as a whole. Toledo’s refurbished blast from the past joined a host of records last year that promised hope while granting space to the sinking feeling around this country’s uncertain future. In 2018, the United States moved both backward and forward on its muddied track to queer liberation. The Trump administration made motions to effectively outlaw trans people by fixing the sex on one’s birth certificate as an irrefutable legal fact. At the same time, a handful of states began issuing driver’s licenses with an “X” printed in the sex field, as opposed to M or F. Gavin Grimm, the trans high school student who had been fighting for the right to use the boy’s bathroom since he was fifteen, saw a district court rule in his favor, a development that will likely make life easier for trans kids in years to come. We saw progress, and we saw its opposite; we saw a way forward, and we saw it barred by malicious actors.

In music, we heard queer artists dare to shoot for the moon with their boots stuck in the mud. Sophie, the experimental electronic producer known for snappy singles built on rubbery sounds synthesized from scratch, released her debut full-length LP, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides (tied for 33 on the Pazz & Jop albums list). It boasted some of her tightest and most aggressive work to date, while hinting at an extended narrative through the murk and uncertainty of transition — from one’s assigned gender to one’s true gender, from hesitation to action, from silence to scream. The record moves from a chain of singles — “It’s Okay to Cry,” “Ponyboy,” “Faceshopping” — into an impressionistic reverie. It feels as if we have been submerged, and then, with the utopian climax of the album’s closing tracks, like we’ve come up for air. Choruses of voices demand a “whole new world,” declare themselves “immaterial girls” and “immaterial boys,” a nod to Madonna that cries out against the gender-determinist fantasy of materiality-as-destiny, marrying transgender experience to transhumanist ethos.

Janelle Monáe, with Dirty Computer (number two album), similarly adopts the language and imagery of science fiction to trace a vision of queer survival. She sets the musical film in a bleak future where androids must maintain untarnished fealty to their corporate creators. Any androids that abandon their servile post to, say, form a queer biker gang in the outskirts of town are recaptured, their memories wiped. Monáe plays one of these “dirty computers,” and each song’s music video is a memory, or a dream, that the corporation must delete. Its standout clip, for the single “Pynk,” includes a dance routine performed by women wearing bright-pink “pussy pants,” and served as a kind of preemptive coming-out party for Monáe, who told Rolling Stone she identifies as pansexual two weeks after the video’s release. In the album’s larger narrative, Monáe’s character is restored to factory conditions, having forgotten her girlfriend and the group of outlaws she calls friends. Only she hasn’t; somehow, Monáe and her girlfriend evade the digital lobotomy, and together with a fellow rebel, they escape the processing compound. A colorful, elastic album accompanied by playful visions of queer utopia within dystopia, Dirty Computer posits the idea that even under the most dire of circumstances, queers can find each other and make our own paradise.

Other queer and gender-nonconforming artists last year worked toward a similar vision: Elysia Crampton, the trans Aymara producer whose self-titled record unstitches colonial conceptions of time; Yves Tumor, who paired crystalline pop melodies with tumultuous noise on the stunning and thorny Safe in the Hands of Love (number 49 album); Christine and the Queens, whose drag persona Chris (tied for number 19 album) playfully dipped into gleaming masculine bravado; King Princess, whose breakthrough single “1950” (number 66 single) epitomized the uncertain territory of the lesbian crush with a wobbly electronic bassline and the ragged contours of an electric guitar. Troye Sivan, who appears on six singles that earned votes in Pazz & Jop, delivered an ode to bottoming called “Bloom” that came with a stylish video of the young gay singer adorned in lipstick and florals. Robyn, one of the gay club’s patron saints, returned with Honey (number 5 album), a simmering collection whose title track teetered on the edge of unfulfilled need and painful desire. A darkness chased all this music, and the music acknowledged the darkness, then found a way to glint all the same.

The debut EP from Boygenius (number 26 album), the indie-rock power trio of Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, and Phoebe Bridgers, encapsulated the uneasy truce that marked life in 2018. As solo artists, all three women make powerful music about deep loneliness, about navigating a world that feels like it was not made for you. As Boygenius, they sing lyrics that despair similarly to those of their solo work. “I wanna be emaciated,” goes a striking line on “Me and My Dog.” “I wanna hear one song without thinking of you/I wish I was on a spaceship/Just me and my dog and an impossible view.” They sing of an alienation so powerful it threatens to launch them into space, and yet there are three voices singing these words. A full band rings out around them. The members of Boygenius are not alone. Their lonelinesses braid together, and while they still bear that name — loneliness — their shape has suddenly changed. They are not desolate, not a cell without light, but something else.

At one point during Car Seat Headrest’s “Beach Life-in-Death,” which sounds like half a dozen songs stitched together with steel wire, bleeding at the seams, Will Toledo’s voice breaks like a fever. “It’s not enough to love the unreal,” he shrieks, “I am inseparable from the impossible.” He welds together negatives like he’s trying to disappear beneath them, like he’s trying to assert, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, that he is not here, that he’s not singing this song, that the song does not and cannot exist. He sings and despairs and tantrums, and the more he vocalizes the feeling of his own absence, the more his presence is felt. “We wanted to be humans,” he sings, his voice multitracked as though there are many of him. Like Sophie, Boygenius, and Monáe, he sings in his own chorus; he is not alone.


Pazz & Jop: This Is Black Genius?

It’s hard to hate on what the mainstreamiest skinfolk were diggin’ into in 2018. On its face, it seems they’ve been getting into each other. If scrolling through this year’s Pazz & Jop rankings tells us anything, it’s that the collapsing of technological, aesthetic, and networking barriers between the music industry and Hollywood resulted in a celebration of seamless branding. The Black Brunches at the tippy-top are paying off. In a time where conscious consumption and demands for Black entertainment hit threat-level orange, everybody Black seemed to be rooting for everybody Black. And for better or worse, it’s working. Donald Glover — whose virtuosity played transistor through which this year’s charged Black music (as Childish Gambino) and Black visuals (with Atlanta) often ionized — tops this year’s singles list off the strength of the interweaving gloss and shock on “This Is America.” Following recent big-screen appearances in Hidden Figures and Moonlight, Janelle Monáe coded Dirty Computer, effectively kicking through the ceiling and high-stepping up out the closet and clocking in with the number two album and number two single; Kendrick Lamar, meanwhile, didn’t even release a proper album this year (his last two both topped P&J) yet makes the singles list after banking off the Cali conneck with Ryan Coogler and helping soundtrack the year’s most spectacularized Black product, Black Panther.

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Each of these aforementioned artists has been labeled a Black Genius™ in one way or another. Glover as the “solitary male genius” in the mold of Kanye West, hailed for his mind and malleability. Monáe as the revved-up engine of Black femme grace and queer womanhood attempting to redefine what genius looks and sounds like. And Lamar as the Pulitzer Prize–winner, celebrated for his brilliant wordplay, multitudinous performance, and ferocious rhyme-scheming. Each has the ear and consideration of Black and white audiences alike, crafting a vision of Blackness and Black “transgression” that is legible and hugely profitable to a largely white industry. In today’s culture, as Long Beach rapper Vince Staples quips, “You ain’t crackin’ right now if you ain’t got no black something.” These days, the separation between the wheat and the chaff comes down to the genius label. 

The 2010s have presented the transmissive and transgressive modes of Black musical genius on multiple points along a spectrum: in Lamar’s chaotic free-flow rap-witnessing and defiant live performances; in Beyoncé’s unabashed appeal to down-home Blackness and poignantly subversive feminism at this year’s Coachella; in Kanye West’s self-sustaining engine of aesthetic and musical output (through which he became this decade’s Black genius du jour); in Glover’s banally provocative “This Is America” and Monáe’s Afrofuturist posturing on Dirty Computer. If the multiplicity of approaches suggests a progression in accepting the various and overlapping realities of Black life, the critical response (read: who we as an audience deem “genius”) still represents a simplistic, gendered, and classed view of virtuosity and artistic autonomy. Who is considered a Black genius is wrapped within the presentation of Blackness as attractive, abrasive, “unapologetic,” or abject.

Genius, especially of the artistic flavor, infers both signifying and self-fashioning. Ingenuity implies innovation — a glimpse into the future of form using the materials available in the present. Before the Black voice was beloved, Louis Armstrong’s horn could at once skew soteriological and shambolic. Satchmo reimagined the standard, and set new ones for Duke Ellington and the rest of those heads at the Cotton Club. Miles Davis blew till he was blue in the face, and sinewed Black America to its mainland African cousins in what Amiri Baraka terms America’s musical “rhythm bed.” These cultural icons elicited huge praise from white jazz critics who, in the late Fifties, mirrored the ethos of New Criticism in literature. White audiences buzzed off those jazz cats, and as the form was subsumed, new Black faces covered in sheeny sweat took over: The Stevies, JBs, Princes, and MJs soundtracked the new virtuosity, which had to include the sweaty, somatic, hip- and head-rolling vibe of the time. Prince’s and Stevie’s multi-instrumentalist, know-it-all, do-it-all mode provided the frame that that middle-class, Midwest producer-kid Kanye West filled for the majority of his career.

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It’s no coincidence that every genius who sees glory in their own time is a straight man. Consider that the progenitor and generator of the rhythm and blues form, Big Mama Thornton, didn’t receive her flowers till she was decades under the grave. Aretha got her roses a generation too late, the genius of her voice and autodidactic instrumentalism only truly celebrated after she passed. Alice Coltrane, it can be argued, was the one pushing John to do all that weird shit that ended up becoming his most lasting contribution.

In 2018, the contours of major success were formed around presenting an understanding of the sonics and images that “start a conversation” without having to necessarily add anything new or refreshing to that conversation. The most blatant examples of this are two singles that dominated streaming services off the strength of punchy videos that spoke to a growing awareness of “feminist aesthetic” and self-involved philanthropy: Drake’s “Nice for What” and “God’s Plan,” the latter a looping mess of quick quippy rhymes, with a video that’s an easily read publicity stunt if watched more than once. But no one this year won off stunting quite like Donald Glover.

Glover’s upbringing in Stone Mountain, Georgia, subsequent matriculation to NYU, early white-’n’-nerdy humor and music shtick, as well as his role on NBC’s Communitysituated him as a Black-whisperer amongst white friends. It wasn’t until 2016’s Parliament-inspired Awaken, My Love! and the “unapologetically Black” FX show Atlanta that Glover began to be viewed by Black audiences as someone potentially approaching the visionary stratosphere of Kendrick, Beyoncé, and Janelle. But unlike those artists, Glover-as-Gambino hadn’t made a concerted appeal to Black audiences specifically. His work seemed concerned with boosting his status as the multihyphenate artist-of-the-day. Glover, as Jordan Peele quipped to the New Yorker, is attempting to make “elevated Black shit,” though there is hardly anything innovative about “This Is America.” Craig Jenkins, writing for Vulture, opined that compared to Atlanta and Awaken, My Love!, “This Is America” is fascinating yet facile: “Glover is smarter than this. Atlanta is smarter than this. Most arch black art flourishing now under the ever-present white American gaze is more careful than this.”

The video’s overt symbolism has been the subject of a torrent of deep reads and “stories behind stories speaking to the “necessity” of the work in today’s racial climate. For whom the video is necessary is subjective. The video’s most widely discussed images — Glover summoning a pistol to murder a hooded Black man and an assault rifle to mow down a Black church choir — is deemed genius by some and conveniently cynical by others.

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Because the song itself is a disarray of punchy lyrics and chaotic sound, it’s fair to ask how “This Is America” would fare if the video wasn’t so lustrously traumatic. Shot beautifully by Atlanta director Hiro Murai, the video captures the sweaty viscerality of “unapologetic” Blackness in Glover’s warping facial expressions and dance steps, as well as the sudden synchronicity of Black death. Glover’s playing of both sides is undermined, however, by a lack of consideration and mourning for those lost. Maybe that’s the point. But it’s worth asking whether that point was worth the psychic trauma. I talked to costume designer, stylist, and Columbia, South Carolina, native Clark DeBarry about the video — which she could only watch once because of its triggering nature — who said that she felt Glover didn’t really sit with the terror South Carolinians lived through after the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. “It didn’t feel like Black people were being put in the forefront to receive whatever message he was trying to put out,” said DeBarry. “The public was very quick to label it iconic.… I was very confused about him being labeled a genius.”  

The video dips an entire leg into a kind of Black exploitation that profits from the “performative wokeness” that’s swallowed public discourse this year. Glover has been noticeably quiet about the discussions surrounding the video, electing to allow his audience to interpret it however they see fit. He’s fully in his right as an artist to do so, but as someone trying to show an investment in Black people’s experiences, killing a bunch of unnamed Blacks without warning and without mourning seems more hurtful than poignant.

The genius label suggests an interplay between artist, critic, and audience that Black artists navigate with various levels of consciousness. During her promo run ahead of Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe spoke about her sexual evolution — coming out as pansexual in a Rolling Stone cover story, no less. As such, Dirty Computer has been hailed as Monáe’s first true masterpiece. It’s a curious distinction, as her earlier work not only features the multilayered sonics and storytelling of previous “geniuses” but the ideological depth that should’ve catapulted her into the stratosphere. Maybe all she was waiting for was the blessing of the reigning Black genius. Before his death in 2016, Prince lent his guitar to Monáe’s “Make Me Feel,” tied for the number two single on P&J this year. Like Kendrick’s posthumous détente with Tupac on To Pimp a Butterfly, Monáe is speaking across time to other geniuses — namely Stevie Wonder on “Stevie’s Dream”— and placing herself along that continuum generally works to her benefit. She largely lets her work do the talking, but who she’s talking to matters just as much as the content itself.

Monáe revealing the mystery of her sexuality by publicly coming out is at once an act of self-fulfillment and clever marketing on her part. Following her roles on Moonlight and Hidden Figures, Monáe’s star has never shone brighter. Answering the questions regarding her queerness through Dirty Computers pre-release videos — and the companion sci-fi film of the same name — only generated more buzz among fans and newcomers alike. Still, trying to represent and celebrate the fullness of her identity is a political tightrope. The video for her breezy, gumdrop song “Pynk” came under scrutiny online for what seemed like a narrow construction of womanhood: Monáe and her backup dancers sporting what’s been facetiously termed “pussy pants” garnered a healthy backlash. After all, the critics carped, not all women have vaginas, or necessarily pink ones, at that. Reading a work solely for what it doesn’t do, who it doesn’t see, without contextualizing how it fits within a larger industry is a rather deficient way of critiquing art, however. “Pynk” is refreshing in an art scene full of men we consider geniuses who hardly ever celebrate women and the parts that make up women — physical, spiritual, or otherwise — in any meaningful way.

Glover’s and Monáe’s work — the particular criticisms that follow, and their respective responses — highlight how artistic demands dovetail with our feedback. Glover wants to be taken seriously, so he positions himself and his crew beyond reproach, beyond his audience’s touch. As such, the mystique and ethic he’s cultivated is praised and tabbed “genius.” Monáe tried that with her earlier work and failed to receive the same respect — the ArchAndroid suite still conjures emotional responses from her listeners; there is hardly any working artist who portrays falling in love in the midst of the apocalypse so remarkably. Of course, genius, mystique, and autonomy are warped by a patriarchal order that undervalues Black women, queer and non-binary folks, and poor people’s work at every turn. Monáe shows a propensity to listen to her audience. She repeatedly expressed concern with what her “early fans and very religious and very Southern family” would think about her sexuality during an interview with the New York Times’ Jenna Wortham last month. “Right now I’m escaping the gravity of the labels that people have tried to place on me that have stopped my evolution,” she said.

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But both the music industry and the social conditions surrounding it are changing, and that means we’re defining genius differently than we have in the past. Genius, even if it’s socially constructed, is a nonlinear evolution — Kanye West is a prime example of the progression and regression that can happen over time. It’s close, but the Louis Vuitton Don is perhaps the most successful artist in the history of Pazz & Jop. Much like that of Glover, Monáe, and Lamar, Kanye’s art was so obviously concerned with Blackness — one circumscribed by its male-dominated, middle-class demographic, but Blackness nonetheless. Some things haven’t changed since 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: Ye’s still a hardcore soul samplephile, albeit with a few postpunk interpolations tossed into the mix as well. But the furious circus surrounding his Trumpism and ahistorical imaginings of African oppression has turned everyone off. Whether it’s from the prescription drug dosage or the reality-TV teachings of his in-laws, West’s work is completely vapid these days: As loud as he is on Twitter and IRL, his incoherent music has remarkably little to say. And he isn’t alone. Drake’s Scorpion, which featured a couple of cute singles drowned out by a thick layer of throwaway tracks, came and went. And Kanye played roulette with the most prominent figures in the G.O.O.D. Music stable, electing to release weekly seven-song tapes in lieu of focusing on an album or a posse cut that could’ve showcased its members’ talents together more seamlessly. The two most influential male rappers of the decade seemed to finally overextend themselves. But this year, more promising names took the stage and exclaimed a self-assuredness that is part and parcel to ingenuity.

Artists like Tierra Whack, whose 29th-ranked, 15-minute Whack World adds another wrinkle to the “album” model. Most of her songs feature a one-minute running time, and were melded together for a long-form music video that introduced her as a wunderkind who’s not only securely in her bag, but also interested in the ethic of cohesion that “contemporary genius” implies. The singularity of her ideas and her self-created world portend a curious and promising future. Her sound is weird, full of guts and approachable, while her visuals — for which she has been nominated for a Grammy — suggest a mind that’s fun, frazzled, and colorful. It feels like Whack can sing or spit on anything from a trap beat to a meandering acoustic guitar with no trouble at all. And unlike previous virtuosic artists, Philly’s resident surrealist doesn’t lay the shit on thick. Where others opted for boasting singularity, Whack displayed a brilliance that is less a barrage than an unraveling tapestry that seems satisfied with just playing around in our heads for a little while.

Expanding the parameters of Black genius means emphasizing the contributions of artists leading long-lasting cultural shifts. That means, necessarily — sometimes retroactively — honoring the dual-headed dance-punk femmes Santigold and Kelis, who cracked the sonic door in Europe, allowing future artists like Azealia Banks and Monáe to walk on through. It requires that we parse out the classed notions of genius as well, highlighting artists like Chicago rapper Chief Keef, who laid the groundwork for drill’s mainstream upheaval; like Memphis, Tennessee’s 3 Six Mafia, who popularized the triplet rhyme scheme dominating radio play and streaming playlists today; or like Odd Future, a bunch of excitable kids who captured the pathos of drug-addled, disillusioned adolescence through shock music, and then followed it up a decade later with thoughtful renderings of queerness both in music and fashion. Like Noname, whose Room 25 compounds the strong cohesion she put on display on her previous work, 2016’s Telefone. In the past, understanding these artists through social contexts of “violent” or “nontraditional” upbringings worked against the communities that bred them. Their uniqueness proved harmful.

The jury is still out on whether unglossy ingenuity will elicit praise from this generation of listeners. History proves that any determination of Black genius requires an interrogation of its function — who the term celebrates and the protections it provides beloved but potentially harmful figures. Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement is helpful in this analysis. As are the volume of writers, critics, and thinkers who are problematizing celebrity culture, working to resist the dangerous ego-boosting, critical consensus that strengthens exceptionalism and reinforces existing inequalities within and without Black communities. So far, the “Black excellence” of the day is largely Middle Class Problems™, and while that speaks to a certain kind of progress, it also suggests a severing. Nowhere, not on OWN, not on BET, not on HBO, not on FX, not on the radio nor the playlist — nowhere are the stories of Black poor and working-class folks receiving glory. Works like Moonlight and DAMN are exceptions that prove the rule. And that is not simply a massive oversight but a detriment to those living those lives. Which is, actually, the majority of Black people.

Donald, Janelle, and Kendrick are informed by Black artistic communities of the past — the Nikki Giovannis, Maya Angelous, Amiri Barakas, James Baldwins, and W.E.B. Du Boises of the world — but, in their own ways and to their own degrees, they have partitioned themselves from the audiences those cultural giants aimed to encourage. Indeed, they’re winning. Our trust in their contemporary-funk voices has yet to really wane, and rightfully so. They haven’t swerved onto the Ye-route. They’ll be all over our television screens during this Sunday’s Grammy Awards; their nominations will be held as a sign of progress in the white mainstream, as such nominations have for the last fifty years. But in the past, following the commandments to secure thine bag has cut off the top performing artists from the people they are said to speak for. We felt that in droves in 2018. Now comes the reckoning.


Pazz & Jop: So, Are Women Here Yet?

This year, I spent more time listening to the radio than I have since high school, when the college station was still my primary method of music discovery outside of singles bins. I sensed that the tyranny of streaming services’ endless options was deadening my connection, so, here amid the hissing exurban lawns of Chicago, I kept the radio on. I drank deep from the bygone pleasure of no choice — the options being either “listen patiently and trust the DJ” or “turn it off.” WLUW (Loyola’s student/community station) and Vocalo (Chicago Public Radio’s urban alternative station) were my primary waves, occasionally supplemented by the low-wattage high school station near me for its mix of Soundcloud ultra-now and a previous generation’s Slint carts. It was a direct signal, literally and metaphorically: There was no mediating digital platform capitalizing on my listening habits — what I liked and didn’t was kept to the confines of my nucleus accumbens, and the confidences of whoever was riding shotgun in my car. I routinely found myself patiently parked at my destination awaiting a giddy, too-quiet back announcement of a six-song set, in hopes the DJ would sate my curiosity (most recent discoveries being Serengeti’s “West of Western,” Jean Deaux’s “Energy,” Pill’s “Midtown,” and KGB’s 1995 gem “Bless Ya Life”). While some of the comfort of this routine was fundamentally one of nostalgia, the sense of moderation it offered — wherein algorithmic personalization was impossible, wherein the contract of the music experience was without exploitation — was as thrillingly novel as it was revivifying. It was a world away.

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Many of the records crowded atop this year’s Pazz & Jop poll offer a similar feeling; they are albums that built discrete new worlds, or at least felt blessedly different from this one. They are albums that drafted liminal space. They transported. They immersed the listener deep in the maker’s vision. They gave us songs that recognize sexual, social, racial realities, and also imagined what might lie beyond chaos, strife, and dysfunction; these are albums that beckon their listeners forward. They mourn what is lost but they survive it. More than a collective “Thank U, Next,” the eight women-made albums of the Top 10 — Golden Hour, Dirty Computer, Invasion of Privacy, Be the Cowboy, Honey, Room 25, Historian, and the Mimi-murmurs within Low’s Double Negative — imbued potentiality into a year that felt bereft of it; we could trust their vision. These records asserted power that was nutritive, power that was symbiotic and psychically sustentative, amid a year defined by grievous abuses of power.

Perhaps this is part of the reason Golden Hour triumphed like it did this year. With the breezy dissolve of “Lonely Weekend” and the sweet, disco-y kiss-off of “High Horse,” it was a languorous album that offered a space to arrest your very necessary cynicism. In a different but similarly masterful way to Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy, Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer, and especially Robyn’s Honey, Golden Hour was a balm of transcendence and possibility. Perhaps, as Marissa Moss suggested, Golden Hour “presents a different breed of protest song: one where there’s protest in kindness, in the appreciation of beauty and a sense of being grateful about the world.” While no one is imagining a praxis of posi vibes in the face of the whipsaw horrors of America’s foreign and domestic policy, Golden Hour was 46 minutes of stony connection and the earth spinning at a reasonable pace. This year’s top three albums, most particularly, felt life-affirming: Monáe’s earthbound resistance-funk was brought into high relief for me as I watched young people holler, dance, and wipe away tears in the aisles of a Dirty Computer screening in Atlanta. And the pure joy of Cardi B, like Sylvia Plath’s imagined Lady Lazarus, rising elegant and powerful from the ash of the earth and eating men like air — may her reign never end.

This year is unprecedented in the history of the Pazz & Jop Critics Poll in the number of women that populate the Top 10, the fact that women make up the Top 5, and that they positively dominate the Top 35 — and, yet, they are hardly a uniform bloc. You don’t even start hitting clumps of cis-het white dudes until the bottom fifty. In the past few years, the Top 10 has crept toward this trend — notably, in 2015, the Top 5 was women-plus-Kendrick, the best showing since the high-water mark of a few PJ/Hole/Phair/Breeders triumphs in the mid-Nineties. It’s hard not to take this year’s results as a sure sign that Music Culture Has Changed, or that the paradigm has shifted and women have rushed the gates. While these are artists making ambitious albums too bold and exciting to be ignored, this momentous occasion cannot and should not be framed as folks being suddenly exceptional. To suggest women have arrived erases the fact that they have, in fact, always been here. As with any group marginalized within music culture, their being continually situated as breaking through has reinforced their exteriority to structural power, framing their successes as an illegitimate seizure of that power. Women have been making ambitious music too bold to be ignored as long as women have been making music (Hildegard of Bingen dropped Ordo Virtutum in 1151!), but that didn’t help them from being ignored and woefully misunderstood anyway. Apologies to L.L., but you can’t call it a comeback when they’ve been here for millennia.

As one of the writers who regularly gets called up when some jeremiad or pronouncement about women in music is needed (a living (sorta, still) that I am goddamned grateful for), I’m keen to note it is year 24, for me, of pounding my shoe on the table yelling, The time is now! In his 1993 P&J missive, Robert Christgau notes it’s the fifth (or sixth) “Year of the Woman” in the poll’s history, and that was a quarter-century ago. This summer, amid some research, I stumbled onto Women in Rock trend pieces and Women Finally Have Arrived pronouncements from as early as 1968. That’s a long-ass insurgency. Fifty years of perpetual arrival. If this was the Old Testament, we woulda been back in Canaan a decade ago. So, are women here yet?

If the poll’s results have any relationship to #MeToo, perhaps it is that they evidence a wizened deliberative body (lord, hear my prayer). The toll of music’s Great Men is known, and just who has been obscured by their long shadows is no longer going unexamined; all that has been ignored in the name of a Great Man, all that has been justified by saying the music industry is by nature a tough business (note: that was Kim Fowley’s wretched excuse) — it’s a weight the culture can no longer bear. All this reckoning, overdue and exhausting and triggering and enraging as it is, presents a challenge to anyone who truly gives a shit about music, and presumably, the nearly 400 folks (85 percent male respondents) that voted this year. For every Pazz & Jop poll, there is surely a shadow Top 10, comprising othered artists whose work didn’t fit the image prescribed, whose albums were the wrong kind of confrontational, or flamboyant, albums that were created to speak to or uphold a community which those critics were not part of, or that threatened their critical agenda. From #MeToo’s rupture of music’s mythologies, a phantom canon emerges.

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The other obvious factor, as my friend and colleague Laura Snapes suggested, is that “#MeToo has made it suspect to undyingly praise the male auteurs who would otherwise have populated the upper reaches of these charts.” Plus, in 2018 a bunch of revered dudes released albums that were vestigial at best. Despite claiming the top slot twice since 2010, and being tied with Bob Dylan for the most number ones in the poll’s history, Kanye only tied for 273rd place this year, with just three measly votes for Ye total. Drake’s at 82, Jeff Tweedy at 84, Jack White a squeaker, tied for 95th; the poll’s historically lauded artists David Byrne (tied at 69), Elvis Costello (at 45), and Paul McCartney (tied for 120) are left behind. The failure of male genius is often written off, and even celebrated as evidence of a calculated experiment from a risk-taking visionary, so, I am sure they all will be just fine despite their collective paucity of resonant ideas in 2018.

Robert Christgau rather keenly diagnosed the dominance of women in the 1993 poll, writing of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville and its distaff cohort, “The big story in 1993 was girls learning to play a boys’ game by boys’ rules, and play it to win,” and suggested that the critical body of voters were a bunch of rockists (true then, less true now, but c’mon, Parquet Courts?) who were just waiting, rather prescriptively, for women to “come on strong.” Later in the essay he shuts down some racist grousing in the critical ranks about certain artists not being black enough, but even so it’s another grim fucking reminder of the havoc that whiteness and patriarchal mores have wrought on both the canon and individual artist’s careers. What is the white heteropatriarchy if not the biggest algorithm of ’em all? 

Yet, what is “girls learning to play a boys’ game by boys’ rules” if not the game itself. Was there ever a time in the music industry and music journalism when those weren’t the terms? Music’s cruelest lie has always been the assertion that it’s a meritocracy. The idea that if you play by their rules, and are exceptional enough, the rules might change in order to allow you in; it’s an awful paradox, one that keeps people jumping and performing like trick poodles. And it’s a lie I certainly believed for, well, too long. When I was all of 22, I wished, in my Punk Planet column, for something like an all-girl Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, which perhaps we have right now in the form of Boygenius (at 26) or Pistol Annies (at 15), but at the time I was hoping for an equalizer and not an analogue. What I wanted, really, was not liberation in the form a femme David Crosby, but something to remediate the sad ache I felt as a young woman at shows, or reading music history books and reviews sections. It was the feeling that the bands, big ideas, and people I valued in music were without consequence to those men. I thought that it was a matter of women being inscrutable, that it was on women to puncture and petition the boys’ club. It was a faulty reasoning that disregarded any hierarchy but theirs, disregarded the fact that women had been putting out works of virtuosic genius since the dawn of recorded music.

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It contorted my opinions and writing about music, warped my experience of it, my goals and allegiances, where I believed I belonged and what I had sanction to do. I was just looking for some magic key that would fit the lock. I spent a decade as a Sherpa for patriarchal bullshit before I realized that in playing a “boys’ game by boys’ rules,” there is no way to ever actually “win.” As Sasha Geffen writes in the forthcoming Glitter Up the Dark, “Patriarchy relies on the illusion of its own inevitability to survive.”

The first time I voted in this poll I was 18 years old. I am 42 now. As scholar Mary Beard writes in Women & Power, the cultural mechanisms that silence women are deeply embedded. Even in ourselves. Too often Pazz & Jop’s findings legitimated women’s exclusion in music, they gendered and racialized genius, designated music’s mythopoetics as white and male. The poll served many purposes and helped legitimize music criticism as a crucial form of cultural dialogue, but it also served to reinscribe patriarchy, prescribe heteronormativity, and center whiteness. Early on, Pazz & Jop celebrated work that reflected the identity of its voters — predominantly white, heterosexual, and male, the deliberative body was basically 25 guys and Ellen Willis. Typically, between two and five of the thirty slots went to women artists or bands with frontwomen, with Joni’s Court and Spark (1974) being the lone album by a woman to claim number one that decade; the total doesn’t crack double-digits until it hits 11 of 40 in 1981, though 1979 is a solid showing with Donna Summer, the Roches, and the Slits. (Also, how the actual fuck did Labelle escape making a single P&J appearance for the whole of the Seventies?) The results stay pretty seriously white until 1980, and diversify significantly after 1986 as hip-hop’s presence grows. This deliberative body, incomplete as it may be in 2019, are heirs to such malignancy.

The 45th (or 46th) Pazz & Jop poll — with its Top 35 that celebrates queer, nonbinary, and trans voices, womanist work, multiple albums steeped in Afrofuturism, one sung entirely in Spanish, an album by a teenage girl as well as two by women over 40, women delivering third-person character studies — might signal less a paradigm shift than, forgive me, conscious uncoupling. It’s an unmooring from some of music criticism’s faultiest frameworks and conventions, and its most painful omissions and enshrinements. It is a necessary move in order for music journalism to have any argument that it is (still) crucial to music’s community.

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There’s unquestionably been a progressive shift within music journalism in recent years, owing in part to a host of writers whose work is incandescent, and has drawn even more new talent in. Notably, there’s Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, which has beckoned folks in with open arms, and the exceptional work of Doreen St. Félix, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, Hazel Cills, Lindsay Zoladz, Jia Tolentino, Hua Hsu, Sasha Geffen, Carvell Wallace, the Pellys. Others have risen up through Remezcla, She Shreds, Bandcamp, or Rookie (RIP), drawn in by what those sites mirrored back to them. Some have arrived via the mentorship of Ann Powers, Greg Tate, Charles Aaron, Jeff Weiss, Kim Kelly; others through their professors Amanda Petrusich, Karen Tongson, Josh Kun, and more. In this moment, wherein music journalism feels strikingly akin to the final verse of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” it’s hard to get a handle on how music journalism sustains itself long enough to hand a generation of bright and enterprising young writers the reins. Music journalism has no bulwarks; unlike poetry, fiction, and investigative reporting, it has no formal institutions; there are no stalwart journals to endow-into-eternity like Ruth Lilly did Poetry magazine, no Sunday special sections dedicated to album reviews; unlike book critics, we do not have prestigious awards to honor the artists we revere. There are no dedicated grants or residencies for music journalism, no cash-prize honors. It’s glory-free, operates on net 90-day terms, and there’s hardly a toehold to be had. The upside: At least there’s plenty of room to build something.

And what could be next? So many music freelancers are subsidizing low word-rate assignments by doing un-bylined bios and blurbs for Big Algorithm or corpo #content; only a handful of paying, music-focused publications and sections still exist. Will the next Greg Tate get a come-up when there is no Village Voice? Does the Eve Babitz of 2019 miss her East Village Other stepping stone and just detour into teaching hot yoga instead? A decade ago, when shit went sideways for print and digital media, some folks that didn’t or couldn’t break into books or academia got by on in-flight magazine bylines, lifestyle pubs, B2B gigs, the ever-nebulous “editorial consulting.” Doing the scammy side hustle you have to in order to keep on doing the meaningful work elsewhere is old hat for many freelancers, but for that equation to work, there has to be an elsewhere. It all calls to mind Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell“To whom shall I hire myself out? What beast must I adore?” What happens when the only career opportunity left is entry-level Beast Adoration?

Journalism is one of many industries gripped in the gnashing maw of surveillance capitalism (call social media’s con by its true name), but there has to be a future beyond servitude to merciless info-mining Goliaths, one seemingly sustained only by the heroic enterprise of billionaires, and, uh, the wild ideas of the dude from Bustle. It’s grim, to be sure. Yet, still, there are folks in our midst who remember how to build a thing and tend a flame. I am heartened by the publication of the LAnd, the passion project of a bunch of former LA Weekly staffers. There’s also the incredible turnaround of my old country home, the Chicago Reader, despite just barely surviving successive perilous changes in ownership. The newsroom successfully unionized, and the paper has been righted by a dynamic consortium of four women who are veterans of local independent publishing; they are expanding and diversifying the paper’s coverage and reach to better serve the city, and they brought back comics. So maybe it’s time to pivot back to fanzine. Pivot to local underground newspaper. Pivot to supermarket circular. Pivot back to listservs and anonymous blogspots. Pivot to a publication for teenage girls that doesn’t die because it refused to be an app and a vehicle for selling things to an elusive and valuable market. Pivot to a publisher who doesn’t nuke the newsroom for unionizing. Pivot to a music journalism where the fate of young freelancers of color doesn’t depend on one white editor staying employed at a dying publication. Pivot to bartending or shifts at California Pizza Kitchen because weeklies still only pay 9 cents a word but at least they let you go off when a record sucks and you gotta make rent somehow. What the hell can you do but keep on swinging?


Pazz & Jop: The Top 50 Singles of 2018

America’s critical establishment has spoken, naming Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” the top single of the yearAll told, this year’s Pazz & Jop Music Critics Poll featured nearly 400  voters and over 1,400 songs. Listen to the Top 50 Singles on Spotify, and check out the year’s top albums HERE.

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Pazz & Jop: The Top 100 Albums of 2018

For the 45th (or 46th) time since 1971, America’s critical establishment has spoken, with Kacey Musgraves’s Golden Hour narrowly beating out Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer for the number one spotAll told, this year’s Pazz & Jop Music Critics Poll featured nearly 400 voters and over 1,200 albums, with all five top spots taken by female artists for the first time ever. Check out the year’s top 50 singles HERE.

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For Colored Girls When the Rainbow Flag Is Not Enough

In his 1985 essay exploring the meaning of being Black and queer, “Here Be Dragons,” James Baldwin wrote that “the American ideal of sexuality appears to be rooted in the American idea of masculinity.” Good guys and bad guys, tough guys and softies, cowboys and Indians, black and white — all are viewed through a lens of what it means to be male.

Baldwin’s observation explains to me, in part, how the majority of well-funded Pride celebrations can be near the half-century mark and remain, at least on the surface, so white and male. Pride month is purported each June to be a global assertion of the most inclusive celebration of love possible, symbolized by that beacon of hope that says it all, the rainbow flag. But beyond all the flag-waving, parades, and parties, one of the most deserving symbols of inclusivity — Black LGBTQ women — are still largely hidden figures.

Most media continue to cover Pride Month as they always have, focusing on parades, gay men (typically white), rainbows, and rainbow-themed products (like the Facebook stickers and augmented-reality filters that will now be available year-round, because inclusion), and the shocking fact that Trump will not recognize Pride Month for the second year in a row. A scroll through the Twitter moments curated by the company from June 1, for example, gives no indication that women of color were at the forefront of the infamous Stonewall uprising.

But because people of color remain the primary users of most social media, they also share stories traditional media continue to overlook. For instance, somehow these tweets weren’t included in the Twitter moments, but there were some reminders online that two Black women — Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender woman, and Stormé DeLarverie, a butch male impersonator (language she preferred over drag performer), were part of the vanguard of women of color who helped launch the June 28, 1969, uprising sparked by a police raid at the Stonewall Inn.

The omission of Johnson and DeLarverie from stories about Pride history is most ironic this year, as Black queer women are having an incredible moment in popular culture. “It is time we remind the world who we are,” Elektra proclaims in Ryan Murphy’s splendid new FX show, Pose, which explores both the joys and pains experienced by the transgender community in late 1980s New York City through the lens of the oft-imitated but hardly duplicated ball culture. (There are, it must be said, some white male characters in the show, including, unfortunately, a 1980s-era Trump, but they are ancillary characters. Thankfully.)

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In entertainment, at least, it feels like there’s been some long overdue celebration of Black women along a refreshingly broad spectrum of sexuality. Lena Waithe, who rose to prominence for writing a beautiful coming-out episode for Master of None, as well as creating and producing the Showtime series The Chi, not only rocked a rainbow-colored iconic cape at the Met Gala, she also graced the cover of Vanity Fair — the first Black lesbian in history to do so. Her cover story was written by the award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson — who lives with her partner, Juliet Widoff, in Brooklyn — in what is a particularly nuanced piece about Black female intimacy that one usually doesn’t find in glossy magazines.

Janelle Monáe, ahead of the release of her brilliant, Prince-inspired Dirty Computer, squashed speculation about her sexuality by declaring herself pansexual. “Being a queer black woman in America, someone who has been in relationships with both men and women — I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker,” Monáe told Rolling Stone.

This August, queer activist Charlene Carruthers will release her book, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, just after the five-year anniversary of the founding of Black Lives Matter by three women, including Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors, both of whom identify as Black queer leaders. For Carruthers, Pride is “about more than rainbows,” as she told USA Today for its Faces of Pride project.

Yes, it is. Because as welcome as it is to see Black LGBTQ women gain visibility in some areas, it doesn’t mean the rest of their lives — their full humanity — don’t deserve attention, too.

In 2017, the National Coalition on Anti-Violence Programs reported “the highest number of anti-LGBTQ homicides in our twenty-year history of tracking this information,” especially for people of color; 37 killed in 2017, up from 22 in 2016. The combination of media silence around this trend and an administration considered hostile to the queer community seems likely only to make things worse. This week’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple because it was at odds with his religious faith, suggests that a climate of continued homophobia from the highest echelons of government is likely to be tolerated in the foreseeable future. While decisions such as these may not lead directly to violence, they still send a message that the legal infrastructure meant to protect queer people and relationships is likely, instead, to rule against them.

Still, all hope is not lost. Next year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising that Johnson and DeLarverie and many others whose names are not yet synonymous with Stonewall history — in traditional media, anyway — sparked. Though Johnson died in 1992, at the age of 46, largely unknown outside of her community for her tireless advocacy and organizing, her community has continued her work. And in 2015, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute was established by Elle Hearns, a Black trans co-founder of the Black Lives Matter network. The institute is scheduled to open at the end of this summer.

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Back when Baldwin wrote “Here Be Dragons,” it was probably true that most people only thought of how to express one’s sexual and romantic desire in relation to American manhood. I certainly considered myself just a quirky heterosexual Catholic girl from the Bronx when I first encountered this essay in seventh grade. But then I read this part, and it changed the way I thought about how fluid sexuality is, how much possibility I felt that I had to express my love for whomever I wanted:

We are all androgynous, not only because we are all born of a woman impregnated by the seed of a man but because each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other — male in female, female in male, white in black, and black in white. We are a part of each other. Many of my countrymen appear to find this fact exceedingly inconvenient and even unfair, and so, very often, do I. But none of us can do anything about it.

When I first came out, in 2014, I understood exactly what Baldwin meant about this inconvenience, because I declared myself sexually fluid, along a questioning continuum, instead of according to an acronym, based largely on this necessarily complex definition of sexuality. It feels easier to put yourself in a box, compartmentalized away from the experiences of others. Every June, though, segregated Pride celebrations and histories remind us of how counterproductive this is when we’re still fighting, all these years later, very similar battles. It’s our shared experiences, after all, that makes Pride so valuable — that however we define our people, we find our resilience and belonging through celebrating those who see us and accept us for all of who we are, and we keep rising up.


Janelle Monáe Is Coming for the Throne

Spring is a season of blooming flowers and new beginnings. Or, if you’re Janelle Monáe, spring can be a time to don Georgia O’Keeffe–esque vagina flower pants. In the video for her newest single, “Pynk,” Monáe hops around in these pants — the head of her rumored girlfriend Tessa Thompson poking through the layers of pink, labial fabric — and sings, “Pink like the tongue that goes down…maybe/Pink like the paradise found.”

The single, released on April 10, is a barely tongue in…um…cheek ode to the female body and female sensuality. All four of the songs (“I Like That,” “Make Me Feel,” “Django Jane”) released so far from Monáe’s upcoming album, Dirty Computer, which drops April 27, are undeniably, hip-gyratingly sexy. But they also demonstrate that Monáe has significantly evolved as an artist since her 2013 album, Electric Lady. Monáe, in an album full of musical references, is staking a claim to the pop throne with her idols by her side.

The four new singles show more maturity than her 2015 release “Yoga,” which was sexy, fun even, but wasn’t layered — it had the same swagger as the new songs, but none of the depth. “This is the first time that I released something with a lot of emotion. The people I love feel threatened. I’ve always understood the responsibility of an artist — but I feel it even greater now,” Monáe recently told the New York Times.

Monáe’s earlier work discussed sexuality but didn’t explore it. The songs were eye-winking, surface-level pop hits. On Dirty Computer, Monáe treats sexuality with the nuance it deserves, which situates her work alongside other seminal sexual pop artists such as Prince, Madonna, even Beyoncé.

For example, the most prominent sound on “Make Me Feel,” released in February, is the tongue click, a playful, sexual, silly sound — the sonic equivalent of a wink. But for Monáe it is so clearly more than that.

That tongue click connects her to Miriam Makeba, who recorded the traditional South African wedding song “Qongqothwane,” whose title translated to English means “knock-knock beetle” and refers to a dark beetle making a clicking sound by slamming its belly against the ground. Westerners refer to the song as the “clicking song” as a result of the clicking in the lyrics and in the background.

Clicks are not sounds that have been adopted into the English language, but rather, these sounds have originated, been kept alive, and are used today in African language and in African-inspired diasporic art. A click is certainly not a sound found in the white pop that has dominated the Top 40 in the 2010s. 

In addition to its historical importance, the clicking tongue sound is undeniably seductive.

For example, the sound popped up in Beyoncé’s 2014 self-titled album B side “Blow,” a song clearly about cunniligus. In the song, Beyoncé sings: “I’m-a lean back/Don’t worry it’s nothing major/Make sure you clean that/It’s the only way to get the/[click] Flavor.” There’s very little subtlety in incorporating a sound that can only be made with the tongue in a song so explicitly about oral sex. It’s sexy.

Monáe seems to reference that same idea in “Make Me Feel.” She uses the tongue click directly after lines like “Baby, don’t make me spell it out for you” and “Should know by the way I use my compression.” That’s anything but subtle.

Monáe’s four recent singles are stacked with references, too. The bassline on “Make Me Feel” aligns closely to the bassline on Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s “Blurred Lines.” “Pynk” recalls the funkiness of the Go-Go’s. “I Like That” is an R&B anthem with elements of Nina Simone and Tammi Terrell. All share the spirit of Prince’s warbling synthesizers and production.

“Prince actually was working on the album with me before he passed on to another frequency, and helped me come up with sounds,” Monáe told Annie Mac of BBC’s Radio 1. Prince’s DJ Lenka Paris noted in a now-deleted Facebook post that Prince provided the bouncy synth line that traces through the clicking in the background of “Make Me Feel.” The obvious love story, and the use of magenta and deep blue light (coined “bisexual lighting”) in the video of that song aligns with Prince and the Revolution’s 1986 single “Kiss.”

No sound on “Make Me Feel” appears accidental. A great musician pays tribute to their heroes by showing admiration in a song. Any creator aims to reach a level of maturation where they can integrate all of their inspirations into one harmonious concept, where one sound doesn’t dominate the other. Monáe has done it. “Make Me Feel” is its own song, with its own catchy hook that has its own fun. Even if you miss one of the dozen or so historical references in the song, “Make Me Feel” is a certified banger nonetheless.

Each of the four new singles has an element that unites it with “Make Me Feel.” “Pynk” has the same background bubbly synth line. “Django Jane” has the same swagger. “I Like That” is just as buoyant, with a Prince-inspired rap squeezed in. These songs of self-empowerment and self-confidence are perhaps an indication that Monáe is about to truly, fully come into her own.

On “I Like That,” she compares herself to “the random minor note you hear in major songs.” But in 2018, America might finally be primed for Monáe’s queer, well-deserved major breakthrough into mainstream pop.


The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.



There sure will be a whole lot of rhythm going ‘round when George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic come to town. Fronted by the eccentric and wild Clinton, the music collective comprised of his two legendary funk bands, Parliament and Funkadelic, which released multiple classics like Mothership Connection and Maggot Brain, respectively. He’s inspired generations of artists to get a little extra funky and maybe to do so with a colorful wig. His focus on Afrofuturism may be the bands’ most enduring contribution to music and has influenced everything from Beyonce’s robot hand to Janelle Monae’s Electric Lady motifs. Though we’re not getting any new music from Clinton & Co., all of his classics still hold up, especially with the party people.

Thu., Aug. 21, 7 p.m., 2014



What could possibly draw a crowd to this year’s Governors Ball after the rainy, muddy mess that was last year’s fest? Maybe it’s masochism, but most likely it’s the line­up, which is arguably one of the best this season. Featuring headliners OutKast, Jack White, festival darlings Vampire Weekend, and local heroes The Strokes, the shortlist doesn’t sound too diverse, but read deeper and you’ll find an array of excellent up-­and­-comers performing alongside festival vets over the course of the hopefully sunny weekend. We’re talking Grimes, Janelle Monáe, Lucius, La Roux, Tyler, the Creator, Skrillex, and Interpol, among others. Grab your cutest waterproof poncho and your sturdiest pair of boots, because even a little rain won’t stop this three-day party.

Fridays-Sundays, 11 a.m. Starts: June 6. Continues through June 8, 2014