Bait Taken: The New York Times Magazine’s “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music is Going”

There are many building blocks of the internet, but the cornerstones are think pieces, offhand lists, and other hollow provocations meant to stir arguments and, therefore, briefly redirect web traffic. Engaging such material is utterly pointless. Then again, it’s not like I have anything better to do.



As I’m sure they secretly hoped, the outrage geysered up right away. The New York Times basically turned over the entirety of their most recent Sunday magazine to a feature entitled “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music is Going,” which was further billed as “A One-Time Spectacular.” Though positioned as an intricately considered survey of the sonic charges from the current music scene that might offer an inkling of how the state of the pop art will shimmer and shift in the years to come, in actuality the sluice of words is little more than twenty-five think pieces in search of a unifying purpose. I’ve no doubt that Kendrick Lamar is indeed one of the artists pointing the way to music’s future, just as assuredly as as the numbingly inane pop neediness of Coldplay’s “Hymn for the Weekend” represents a past that can’t disappear from the rearview quickly enough. There’s no cogent conclusion to be found, not in any of the individual essays and especially not in the feature as a whole. The songs may as well have been chosen by hitting the shuffle feature on a music critic’s iPod, and one in need of a good purging at that.

What’s really raised the ire of observers, though, is the overabundance of Y chromosomes on the list. Despite the real argument that can be made that female performers are more dominant (and, importantly, more in control of that dominance) that at any other point since “Rocket 88,” the Times twenty-five includes only four songs that can be viewed as primarily crafted by women. It’s a shortsightedness that verges on appalling, inspiring responses that take a gender-specific approach to celebrating the bounty of acts that are more deserving of a place in the “Spectacular” than, say, Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” For my own diatribe-in-the-form-of-a-counter-argument, I considered a similar “ladies night” tack, but that’s just another form of closed-mindedness. Besides, it’s overly reductive in a way that seems especially at odds with the likely future of the society, and the pop culture that reflects it.

Avoiding artists already cited by the Times and doing my best to take the “Where Music is Going” prompt seriously, here’s…

Ten Songs That Forecast the Future of Music Better Than Most of the Times Twenty-Five

1. Shamir, “On the Regular”

Infectious dance music flavor condensed down to a heavy sauce and swirled into a particularly soulful hip hop confection, “On the Regular” is confession without anguish and confidence without off-putting bravado. Shamir defies categorization in every way, including gender, making music that sparks with happy intent. The dazzling array of possibilities announced by the song are tidily encompassed by the lyric “While everyone is minus, you could call me multiply.”

2. FKA twigs, “Good to Love”

Intimate and sensual, “Good to Love” puts new contours to the familiar textures of R&B. It is music fully bent to the will of its artist, suggesting an almost impulsive urgency to share. FKA twigs first played it during a summer residency, in 2015, then released it in mid-February of this year, with little forewarning and no announcement about when there would be an accompanying album. It is music shared stealthily, and then suddenly, left to stand on its own as a crystalline piece of art.

3. Kacey Musgraves, “Pageant Material”

The title song to the spectacular album Musgraves released last year is decked out in twangy country music trappings, but it offers a refutation of all standard expectations that might be laid out for a songstress with cowboy boots and a gentle Southern accent. Without disparaging anyone else (the lines “God bless the girls who smile and hug/ When they’re called out as a runner-up on TV” seem more sincerely kind that the honey-dappled irony of the “Well, bless her heart” catch phrase, as it’s deployed below the Mason-Dixon), Musgraves asserts her own identity. The battle plan for the continued liberation of country music exists therein.

4. St. Vincent, “Digital Witness”

Propulsive, intoxicating, seductively robotic, and alive with an edginess that threatens to strike out at any point, “Digital Witness” feels like true post-pop.

5. Frank Ocean, “Pyramids”

Heavily informed by hip hop and soul, yet standing outside of both genres, Ocean’s epic track from Agent Orange is simultaneously vast and piercingly specific. It does the work of great fiction: expressing broader truths through individualized storytelling, and revealing the self through an empathetic creation of separate characters. Hip hop has long claimed authenticity through aggressively masculine posturing and the occasional pushback from fierce women. Ocean’s track suggests there’s finally a way to break free of that repetitive cycle to create a different sort of heart-rending musical reportage.

6. Grimes, “Kill V. Maim”

Arguably the most egregious artist omission from the Times list, Grimes demonstrates an utter mastery of pop music on her latest album, Art Angels, largely heard in the dazzling way she deconstructs a song only to spot weld into back together a new, consistently surprising and dazzling creation. I stand by what I wrote back in November: “It’s a state of the union address delivered from a superior pop landscape of the future.” “Kill V. Maim” epitomizes the album’s exhilarating innovation.

7 and 8. Beyoncé, “Formation” and Janelle Monáe, “Hell You Talmbout”

Because the immediacy of digital distribution completely changes how artists can contribute to the most heated discussions of the day. And those who are already announcing they will not be timid are going to lead the way.

9. M.I.A., “Matangi”

This is the song as an act of cultural exploration, not spurred by the sort of privileged appropriation that set Paul Simon traipsing around Africa a generation or two ago, but as a means of understanding the multiculturalism that resides in one’s self. As personal backgrounds become more and more beautifully intermingled, borderless music will be the new norm.

10. Adele, “Hello”

My own biases and preferences inform most of the other selections, but this is simply an acknowledgment that the English sensation who announces her age with every new album release isn’t going away any time soon. She will be an unyielding presence on the pop charts until the moment she opts for the duly designated pension track of all female music superstars, claiming her lucrative residency at some Las Vegas hotel. Of course, by that point, climate change will have rendered Las Vegas even more uninhabitable than it already is, meaning the westward mecca of pricey hedonism will have moved up to Carmen, Idaho, the entire terrain claimed utilizing eminent domain by President Trump during his fourth term, when he’ll take a hiatus to oversee construction of the biggest, classiest casino hotels that country has ever seen, leaving the business of running the nation to the winner of the Apple iBinge streaming series The Political Apprentice, as mandated by the Forty-third Amendment to the United States Constitution. Until then, though, we’re stuck with Adele.