IN­DI­VID­UAL EX­PRES­SION, UN­CER­TAIN TIMES

In a decade of me­dia frag­men­ta­tion, new dis­tri­bu­tion plat­forms and the rise of niche fan­dom, there were many pe­cu­liar and won­der­ful bursts of cre­ative ge­nius

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - DECADE IN MUSIC - UNA MUL­LALLY

It may be hard to de­ter­mine what this decade was about straight away. Per­spec­tive doesn’t func­tion so well up close, es­pe­cially be­cause so many of us missed the decade, star­ing at our phones. But as it draws to a close, and the fre­netic en­ergy gath­ers in­ter­nally and ex­ter­nally, the clos­ing mo­ments of 2019 feel less like a con­clu­sion than a precipice.

It is, as ever, artists who ex­plain our in­tan­gi­ble feel­ings to us, if not ex­actly show us the way. As rev­enue evap­o­rated from the old-school in­dus­try and stream­ing gi­ants took over, the ma­chin­ery of ma­jor record la­bels looked in­creas­ingly creaky. Mu­si­cians had al­ready taken over the means of pro­duc­tion, and left to con­sider its pur­pose, the le­gacy in­dus­try of me­dia con­glom­er­ates, A&R, PR, mar­ket­ing, dis­tri­bu­tion and mu­sic me­dia is some­what side­lined and evolv­ing.

We now ex­ist in an mu­sic land­scape where the dom­i­nance of a star is not typ­i­fied by how om­nipresent they are in me­dia, but

by their ab­sence. The big­gest artists rarely give in­ter­views. En­tire gen­res bub­bled and dif­fused on Sound­cloud and YouTube. Stream­ing data was gath­ered and or­gan­ised by al­go­rithms driven by moods. Ev­ery­one danced on TikTok. The frogspawn-like co­ag­u­la­tion of phone screens con­tin­ued to ruin con­certs, set­ting au­di­ences like jelly, too busy doc­u­ment­ing to move. The gig econ­omy no longer meant fes­ti­vals. The fes­ti­val econ­omy in­creas­ingly meant brands.

The mu­sic in­dus­try is not im­mune to broader so­cial and eco­nomic pat­terns, and so the be­he­moths got big­ger, the small fry strug­gled, and the mid­dle was squeezed.

The cam­eras are front-fac­ing in the mu­sic in­dus­try too, but while this in­tro­spec­tion, nar­cis­sism, self-ag­gran­dis­ing, over­shar­ing, con­stant doc­u­men­ta­tion, per­for­ma­tive em­pa­thy, tribal fan­dom, so­cial-me­dia s**tshow that we call dis­course and iden­tity caused drama and storms in teacups, the dis­in­te­gra­tion of in­dus­try struc­ture, frag­men­ta­tion of me­dia, growth of new dis­tri­bu­tion plat­forms and com­mu­ni­ties of niche fan­dom has also given rise to a pe­cu­liar and won­der­ful artis­tic burst. Fac­sim­ile bands and cookie-cut­ter croon­ers were to a large ex­tent found to be cre­atively ir­rel­e­vant, and the weirdos came out to play.

The first year of the 2010s gave us the record of the decade, Kanye West’s My Beau­ti­ful Dark Twisted Fan­tasy (if you haven’t al­ready lis­tened to sea­son two of the Dis­sect pod­cast which dives into the al­bum over 16 episodes, then that’s your Christ­mas alone-time sorted). But as the years rolled by, max­i­mal­ism gave way to chaos. Anohni an­tic­i­pated the ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis that typ­i­fied the sec­ond half of the 2010s, by re­leas­ing Hope­less­ness, one of the finest al­bums of the decade, in May 2016. It’s an al­bum that be­gins with the lyric “drone bomb me”, a sen­ti­ment that doesn’t ex­actly let up. In or­der to cut through the abun­dance of sound, the 2010s gave birth to a vi­brant strain of cre­ativ­ity in mu­sic. The pur­suit of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, dif­fer­ence and ex­er­cises in in­di­vid­u­al­ism have in­vig­o­rated the al­bum as an art form, and those on the cut­ting edge of live mu­sic ap­pear to be in­creas­ingly fram­ing their con­certs as the­atre. On stage, Es Devlin’s in­flu­ence

Mu­si­cal the­atre re­turned with a vengeance on screen and on stage, with the new wave led by the ap­par­ently un­likely smash hit HAMIL­TON, a hip-hop mu­si­cal about Amer­ica’s first trea­sury sec­re­tary. Since it opened off-Broad­way in it has taken in hun­dreds of mil­lions at box of­fices around the world and made a su­per­star of its cre­ator, Lin-Manuel Mi­randa.

looms large, but so too does the pur­suit of the “event” and the “mo­ment”, the lust for viril­ity and rel­e­vance to “the cul­ture”, to break the in­ter­net, just for one day.

In the fi­nal 18 months of the decade, I’ve found my­self wit­ness­ing some of the most com­pelling, cre­atively com­plex, avant­garde and emo­tion­ally af­fect­ing gigs I’ve ever seen. There are no di­min­ish­ing re­turns with art, but some­thing is hap­pen­ing.

A dizzy­ing en­ergy

Nat­u­rally, artists have a lot to talk about right now. We are in a height­ened po­lit­i­cal, so­cial, tech­no­log­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tal at­mos­phere, flooded with the dizzy­ing en­ergy of end-of-decade jit­ters, end-stage cap­i­tal­ism, the rup­tur­ing and frac­tur­ing of so­ci­eties and democ­ra­cies, the hope, the de­spair, the racism, the fem­i­nism, the protests, the move­ments, the gen­der flu­id­ity, the gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, the unity and the di­vi­sion.

The live mu­sic event of the decade was un­doubt­edly Bey­chella. But there’s also Bruce Spring­steen and David Byrne re-con­tex­tu­al­is­ing their sto­ries in ac­tual the­atres, Amanda Palmer – who has for some­time now been at the van­guard of what in­die looks like in the 21st cen­tury – de­liv­er­ing three-and-a-half-hour shows, Kate Tem­pest ask­ing peo­ple to put their phones down and im­merse them­selves in what she’s say­ing, Chris­tine and the Queens cre­at­ing not so much a gig as a dance piece, Stormzy host­ing his own open­ing cer­e­mony at Glas­ton­bury, St Vin­cent rev­el­ling in block-colour beauty, Lorde sus­pended in a per­spex box and Vince

Sta­ples em­brac­ing the min­i­mal­ism of light and shadow.

There is a sense that artists at the fore­front are ful­fill­ing their cre­ative de­sires on stage. It’s not just about pro­duc­tion size or cost – al­though that plays a large role in ful­fill­ing cer­tain artists’ am­bi­tions – it’s about the value of ex­pres­sion; half-show, half-feel­ing. For every

Drake pro­duc­tion with jaw-drop­ping Insta-bait­ing stage de­sign, there’s the vis­ceral col­lec­tive sweat and scream of Idles.

Of course, many of the en­su­ing and evolv­ing ec­cen­tric­i­ties and things de­signed to stand out – the face tat­toos, the out­ra­geous styling, and the mag­pie ap­proaches to genre – then cre­ated their own sort of ho­mogeny. Nostalgia, rep­e­ti­tion, bor­row­ing, and how quickly a sound sur­faces and goes out of date has, in a cyn­i­cal sense, forced pop artists to pig­gy­back very quickly on hot pro­duc­tion, but equally it al­lows for those with truly some­thing to say or play to gain at­ten­tion. Then as clubs closed and kids re­treated to the glow of phones, the bed­room pop and down­tempo hip-hop brought the speed of mu­sic some­times to a crawl­ing, drawl­ing min­i­mal­ism.

The mod­ern clas­sics of Robyn, Jamie xx, Ken­drick La­mar, Adele, Lizzo, Solange, Blood Or­ange, Janelle Monae co­in­cided with the genre si­los burst­ing, el­e­vat­ing Ka­masi Wash­ing­ton, Ros­alía and Lankum, re­leased in fol­low­ing Dis­ney’s ac­qui­si­tion of Marvel Stu­dios, her­alded the dom­i­nance of the Marvel Cin­e­matic Uni­verse (since ab­bre­vi­ated to MCU), a place where span­dex-clad archetypes bashed each other and the box of­fice for the rest of the decade, killing cinema in the process, ac­cord­ing to Martin Scors­ese along­side the quiet tri­umphs of Sharon Van Et­ten, An­gel Olsen and Al­dous Harding. Back home, just as we thought guitar bands were over, Fon­taines DC, The Mur­der Cap­i­tal and Pil­low Queens came to the fore, even though the lat­ter half of the decade will be re­mem­bered in Ir­ish terms for the bril­liant, bur­geon­ing home­grown hip-hop that keeps striv­ing and mul­ti­ply­ing.

The tri­fecta of Bey­oncé, Kanye and Ken­drick are the artists of the decade. But as West con­cludes the 2010s ask­ing the Fa­ther Ted ques­tion of whether there’s any­thing to be said for a Mass, and Tay­lor Swift’s bat­tle to claw back her masters now feels like a relic from another age when Prince scrawled “slave” on his cheek, the

In OC­TO­BER the true-crime pod­cast came into its own in as a genre in the form of SE­RIAL, Sara Koenig’s grip­ping in­ves­ti­ga­tion into whether Bal­ti­more high school stu­dent Ad­nan Syed (left) was re­ally guilty of the 1999 mur­der of class­mate Hae Lin Lee. Mil­lions of lis­ten­ers be­came ob­sessed with the story, re­veal­ing the un­ex­pected power of au­dio sto­ry­telling in the dig­i­tal age.

dom­i­nance of artists with some­thing to say, speak­ing to the broader cul­ture about iden­tity and per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, is to be cel­e­brated.

The per­sonal, po­lit­i­cal and cre­ative have merged, of­ten with beau­ti­ful con­se­quences. So much has changed even in the main­stream, where artis­tic and per­sonal queer­ness, for ex­am­ple, is now of­ten an as­set, rather than a se­cret to be breached by tabloid pruri­ence.

If Hope­less­ness an­tic­i­pated the Brexit-Trump-Thun­berg-hell-in-a-hand­bas­ket cy­cle, it’s a strange hope that book­ends at least part of this mo­ment. Kate Tem­pest’s late call this year, The Books of Traps and Lessons, cen­tres em­pa­thy among the malaise. “It’s com­ing to pass. My coun­try’s com­ing apart. The whole thing is be­com­ing such a bum­bling farce. Was that a piv­otal his­tor­i­cal mo­ment we just went stum­bling past?” be­gins the clos­ing track, Lessons, and then, “Here we are, danc­ing in the rum­bling dark. So, come a lit­tle closer. Give me some­thing to grasp. Give me your beau­ti­ful, crum­bling, heart.”

En­ter­tain­ment is of­ten typ­i­fied by su­per­fi­cial­ity, but in the art of mu­sic, it’s love and truth that will guide us towards what­ever hap­pens next.

Clock­wise from left: Bey­oncé, Kanye West, Ken­drick La­mar and Kate Tem­pest

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