Identity, as Nitsuh Abebe writes in the intro to The New York Times Magazine’s “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going” feature, is at the center of nearly all conversations about music today. The gist of this theory is that the ethnicity, sexual preference, experience, and general “identity” of the artist should be a primary force in understanding the artistic object. And so the playlist of music curated for the Times’ article is an identity-based projection of where music is ostensibly going.
Yet, rather than envisioning an ideal future in which the divides between people are overcome, this list simply thrusts the social issues of today into tomorrow, reinforcing the status quo and prognosticating that, if this list comes true, future society will more or less face the same obstacles we have today. Music, like all art, is a function of its particular moment, therefore, this playlist raises an interesting question: How do we overcome the problems of society today to be able to create genuinely new art tomorrow?
In the Adele portion of this feature, the section’s author claims: “That’s the future of music: recognizing, in the present, that you’re permanently indentured to the past.” So, the way forward is to look backward. But what this theory ignores is that the duty of humanity (up to this point) is to overcome its past, not to cherish it. Understanding the history of popular song forms is not going to change the world; however, pursuing a meaningful critique of the society that produced these forms might.
For the most part, the socially oriented songs on this list seek to engage the present moment in content, but one must wonder whether it does in form. There is very little actual radical music on this list (except for possibly Kanye West). There’s little avant-garde, and basically no classical (which, historically, has grasped social change far better than popular music). There’s no instrumental jazz, there’s one metal track (plus a bonus slot for a Metallica song), and no electronic music. Punk? Don’t bet on it. World music? Nah. So the presumption that this list represents a diverse set of voices that we should use to point the way forward does not seem to hold water. This playlist is diverse in the same way that a Starbucks music endcap or the Billboard Top 40 is diverse. The actual marginalized voices and the actual radical music of today—the real stuff that could illuminate the politics necessary to create a better world tomorrow—are few and far between here.
That isn’t to say that this music is bad—some of it is among the very best mainstream pop music. Future’s “Mask Off” is one of the great self-negation anthems of the year; Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker” is a compelling artifact of truth and despair; Church of Misery’s “Make Them Die Slowly” is a pretty decent Japanese heavy metal track; Kanye West’s “Fade” is a masterpiece of production that brilliantly combines four unique samples; Charles Bradley’s “Changes” is an attractive cover of a Black Sabbath classic. But do they really critique the world we live in? Do these songs truly grasp the essence of social life today? And if so, do they point beyond themselves, showing a way forward? On a formal level, not really. Frankly, if this is the music of tomorrow, we should expect to remain living in the world of today.