This post is a cheat: I could link to it in What Else? but I want to give it its own space. It deserves its own space but also…it’s so perfect all by itself – the choices, the writing, the layout, all of it – that it doesn’t need me writing on top of it. So I’m cheating it by lifting a point out of the package that isn’t actually the highlight of the package at all. It just lines up with something I’ve been getting at here for months, only much more effectively: what I objected to the most in A Star is Born.
Today The New York Times Magazine released The Music Issue 2019 with a great feature, I mean a f-cking GREAT feature, “The 25 Songs That Matter Right Now”. This is first class, top shelf, best of the best content from first class, top shelf, best of the best writers. It’s the kind of writing that makes you feel like you’re floating because the experience of reading it has made you lighter, levitational. The piece on Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” by Hanif Abdurraqib alone, which kicks off the list, is worth the price of admission – not that there is one but I would have paid to experience this work. I cried by the end and then everything else that followed, all the other songs and the tributes (and in some cases takedowns) sustained the mood.
As a whole, the thesis of this collection is to ratify once and for all, the value of pop music. And here’s where we come back to Ally and Jackson Maine in A Star is Born. You remember “The Butt Song”? You know the whole debate about whether or not it was meant as a joke. You know that Jackson was disgusted by it and that the song, “Why Did You Do That”, was a proxy for being real as an artist – and he judged it as less-than, as a sign that she’d sold out, a plot point that underscored one of the central themes of the film: “creative authenticity” and who gets to claim it. Certainly Sean Penn’s read on that situation – and he’s the film’s biggest fan, and the best judge of art, right? – would be that Jackson was right and Ally was being compromised, and only Jackson’s ultimate sacrifice could save her from artistic corruption and preserve the true talent that he groomed.
Sure, Jackson and Sean, but here’s Wesley Morris arguing that “Why Did You Do That”, aka “The Butt Song”, is the ONLY song from A Star is Born, not “Shallow”, not anything else, that belongs on the list of Songs That Matter Now. Not only because there is work and skill in creating a catchy pop chorus but because of how polarising that hook became, both internally, within the film, and externally as the audience engaged with it. What “matters” is the conversation that came out of that debate about art itself and who gets to judge it. And I haven’t even gotten to the part where Wesley brilliantly draws a comparison between Jackson Maine and IKE TURNER in What’s Love Got To Do With It, OH MY GOD. Because judging art – and gatekeeping it – for far too long has been the domain of, yep, men. Straight men, more specifically. “The Butt Song” has been vindicated. How do you think Sean Penn feels about that?
So there, there’s my cheat. A cheat because Wesley’s section on “Why Did You Do That” is just part of an excellent, exhilarating, breathtaking whole. There is so much more. There’s Jenna Wortham on The Carters’ “Apesh-t”, about the true intention behind Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s decadent flaunt. Also Jonah Weiner’s fascinating analysis of Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” with its 30 credited writers, which not too long ago used to be a criticism “purists” would use to discredit an artist. Now, more and more, we are recognising that new music can be produced by paying homage to its “ancient genetic material” without losing credibility. And then there’s Lydia Kiesling on Weezer’s “Can’t Knock the Hustle” – an essay about how, sometimes, “growing up means seeing heroes age, rudely, at the same pace as you”. And isn’t that the f-cking truth? Especially this week?
Set aside some time if you haven’t already. This is something you’ll want to savour. When you’re ready, click here for “The 25 Songs That Matter Right Now”.