Giving thanks for the music that (almost) redeemed 2017
Given the nonstop turmoil of the past 11 months — from political upheaval to accusations of sexual harassment to gun violence to natural disasters — perhaps the thing to be grateful for as we celebrate Thanksgiving is that 2017 is almost over.
Yet as tough as this year has been for so many, it can’t be described as a total loss, and that’s thanks in part to some happy developments in the music world.
Whether it was the quick ascent of a deserving rapper or the heartening endurance of a singer for whom hard times are nothing new, 2017 managed to offer up a few moments and trends worth remembering with appreciation.
Here are a few of them.
1. Not long ago, New York’s Cardi B was best known as a vivid presence on Instagram, where she documented the life of a “regular degular shmegular girl from the Bronx,” as she described herself in her A-plus phrase.
Now, though, this 25-year-old former stripper is an honest-to-goodness pop star whose smash “Bodak Yellow” — in which she brags about the red-bottomed Louboutins she calls “bloody shoes” — bumped a mega-hyped Taylor Swift single from the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 in September.
Titled in a nod to the rapper Kodak Black, whose flow Cardi B borrows without apology, “Bodak Yellow” is an irresistible musical achievement; the beat is mesmerizing, the lyrics as tenacious as they are witty. You’d like to think it would’ve found an audience 10 or 20 or even 50 years ago.
But the No. 1 tune owes much of its chart success to the way digital streaming helped empower certain kinds of songs in 2017.
As a hit on platforms like Spotify and YouTube, where it’s racked up hundreds of millions of spins, “Bodak Yellow” benefited from those services’ detailed accounting of what folks are actually listening to (as opposed to what they’re hearing on the radio or what they’re downloading and then playing only once or twice).
That democratization of the charts cleared a path to the top for other worthy tracks this year, including Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” and the Justin Bieber-equipped remix of Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito,” which spent 16 weeks at No. 1.
Yet the effect may be short-lived: Billboard says that in 2018 it plans to change the way it compiles the Hot 100, giving more weight to paid streams (on Apple Music, for instance) than to the free, ad-supported streams (on services such as YouTube) favored by many young people.
Something to actually miss from 2017? Go figure.
2. Though the show’s female-dominated lineup offered a welcome respite from the year’s toxic masculinity, Sunday’s American Music Awards mostly disappointed in its individual performances.
One exception was a very strong showing by the Korean boy band BTS, which brought impressive precision and serious attitude to its rendition of its single “DNA.” Singing and rapping (in Korean) over the track’s whistled hook and pulsing beat, the group’s seven members were performing as though they might not get another chance before such a large audience.
Which probably would’ve been the case if BTS hadn’t instantly lighted up social media with the type of raw excitement that pop inspires at its best. Now you can bet we’ll be seeing more of the group in the months to come — a sign that, five years after “Gangnam Style,” a real door may finally be opening for K-pop in the United States.
3. Chuck Berry. Tom Petty. Fats Domino. As was the case in 2016, a remarkable number of important pop and rock veterans died this year.
But 2017 also saw some impressive work by old-timers who are hanging in there, including 82-year-old Johnny Mathis (whose “Great New American Songbook” offers striking renditions of modern hits by Adele and Pharrell Williams) and 78-year-old Mavis Staples (who takes up the scourge of police violence against African American men on “If All I Was Was Black”).
As they age, these artists aren’t just making great music that proudly reflects their maturity; they’re also looking back over their lives and telling stories about what they’ve experienced — stories we should savor in an age defined by comparatively useless information.
When I sat down with Staples recently to discuss her album, the Chicago-born gospel legend ended up talking at one point about summers she spent as a kid with her grandmother in Mississippi — “where I got my worst whupping,” as she put it with a rueful laugh.
One day when she was around 8 or 9, Staples was “pushed onstage” by some other kids at a local variety show; once in the spotlight, she sang the song she’d inevitably learned from having heard it on jukeboxes all over town: Buddy Johnson’s blues ballad “Since I Fell for You.”
“After I finished, I seen my uncle coming around — I thought he was coming to congratulate me,” Staples remembered. “But he snatched me off that stage, didn’t say nothing to me, just pushed me out the door and walked me home to my grandmother.
“She said, ‘Oh, you were singing the blues, huh?’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ I wasn’t nothing but a kid! Nobody ever told me what to sing. And so Grandma, she said, ‘You get out there in that yard and get me some switches.’
“Well, I knew what that meant. So I got out there and then came back in the house and said, ‘Grandma, I can’t find no switches.’” Staples chuckled and said her grandmother, whose name was Mary Ware, told her, “‘You don’t want me to go out there and find some.’
“I ain’t have no better sense — I went back out and got the little skinny ones, not knowing those ones hurt the most. And my grandma got my legs!
“‘You! Don’t! Sing! No! Blues! In! This! Family!’” Staples recalled her grandmother saying, punctuating each word with a fierce whipping motion. “You! Sing! Church! Songs!’ And she sent me back to school with all these little pink marks on my legs.
“I started writing letters home to my mama, said, ‘I want to come home!’”
As she spoke, Staples seemed almost to disappear into the memory; she leaned back in her seat and paused for a moment before picking up the tale again.
“Some years later, my grandma had come to live with us in Chicago,” she said, adding that she called her grandmother Ware. By this time, Staples had recorded “Since I Fell for You” for her excellent 1970 album “Only for the Lonely.”
“I said, ‘Hey, Ware,’ and she said, ‘Yeah, baby?’ I said, ‘Come on in the living room — I want to show you something.’ She came in there and I put that needle on: ‘You made me leave my happy home…,’” Staples sang, starting into the song.
“And Ware, she got me. She smiled and said, ‘You didn’t forget that, did you?’
“I said, ‘No, ma’am. I didn’t forget that at all. No way.’”
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