Musicians Created In Intimacy And Isolation In 2020, And We Listened The Same Way

This essay is running as part of the 2020 Uproxx Music Critics Poll.

Think about all those great times you experienced music with people. Perhaps it was at a concert, or on a rooftop, or in a backyard. Speakers blasting “Waterloo” or something at the community pool, and for a brief second, hundreds of people singing ABBA on a hot summer day. Those moments didn’t exist this year, the absence of a collective joy we all derive from being around each other and celebrating a song come to life on a stage or being thrust into whatever setting we’re in, augmenting it instantly.

No, this year’s forced isolation was an unplanned retreat from those common joys that music has built up an entire industry around over the last twenty years. No more clubs or festivals or spontaneous gatherings to see some high school kids play outside a coffee shop because that’s what high school kids do to get their music heard, honing a craft in front of strangers wherever makes sense.

Some of the most profound music released this year reflected this new reality. It was born out of and into loneliness in either sound or with lyrics; sometimes both. The first real piece of music that struck me in this sense came in June, about 12 weeks in. In passing, I wound up on Chicago-based musician Tenci’s Bandcamp and was mesmerized by everything about her debut My Heart Is An Open Field. The music immediately felt raw and as if she was next to me, or I was watching her in a room recording in real-time. Guitar chord changes felt pronounced, and her voice seemed broken. Very broken, but not lacking confidence — a feeling that I think resonates with a lot of people this year.

This forced-upon-us intimacy came in bigger, more commercial releases as well. Fiona Apple’s fifth album, Fetch The Bolt Cutters, felt like a gift to music fans when it was released in April, as the unknown ravaged most of our collective consciousness.

Kick me under the table all you want. I won’t shut up. I won’t shut up.

This line. This… line. It’s perhaps the most intimate of pop music lyrics to come out this year, and was a stark reminder of things we shouldn’t be doing (going to dinner parties) and feelings we should be feeling (rage). How many times did you want to scream? How many times did you want to give up but you kept going? But you held back. Or you kept it inside. You kept it under the table, a private, and intimate moment with yourself, one that Fiona makes so relatable, all the time — but perhaps heightened this time around. Bolt Cuttersnwas cathartic in the sense that if not for nothing, we could finally relate to Fiona after all these years. Not fully. But maybe just a bit more than ever. Intimacy is kinda fucked up.

Taylor Swift’s Folklore did this, too. Working with Aaron Dessner of The National — in separate spaces, not together — Swift gave us some of the most intimate portraits of her humanity throughout this record, from the sparse (for her) arrangements to the imagery passed on.

But I knew you, dancin’ in your Levis, drunk under a street light
Just like a folk song, our love will be passed on.
And I can see us twisted in bedsheets.

Phoebe Bridgers’ celebrated Punisher is full of these intimate moments that helped remind me of what things were and could be, namely the freedom to go. The luxury of leaving became something to be put on pause. Bridgers’ sang about these moments not as things to celebrate, but necessary ways of escape. The complex emotions around maybe leaving someone on “Savior Complex.” Going to Memphis on “Graceland Too.” In Bridgers’ Punisher world, there’s a familiar wrestling with relationships that lines a lot of lovelorn pop music; her’s was mostly sparse and devoid of grandiose presentations. It was personal and up close, but that undercurrent of “going” is what stuck. I didn’t “go.” None of us did. But with this, we had a songs that allowed us to remember how important it really is.

Talk to enough musicians and they’ll tell you isolation is not a new concept for them. Records are written and made in private, in small numbers, often with painstaking methods of repetition. And when they’re finally released to us, in any other time, experiencing them is never mirroring the process itself. But I bet if you also talk to enough musicians they would say this experience now, of their music, would never be something they’d want. Seeing the collective joy around a song is also a reason to make a song. It’s something that comes to life, fully, with people.

I bet Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker realized this as she hunkered down in the pandemic’s early days to start recording what would become a new pair of solo albums, Songs and Instrumentals. Those titles are rather apt for the times. Just some songs. Oh, and a few instrumentals. Devoid of description, because maybe it would cloud the music in some unnecessary way. Or maybe its bluntness is just to mirror an experience of isolation, where she was just existing, like we all were.

When this is over, I’m sure we will flock to see Dua Lipa perform Future Nostalgia and Run The Jewels and Megan Thee Stallion and everything else we feel like we missed out on. But I don’t know if I missed out on anything. The albums that helped me through this — and we will all have them — connected in ways that it feels hard to do these days. You have a record and if you were lucky, a music video to go with it. For decades, that’s all music had. Fans connecting to it in bedrooms and basements, and perhaps some chatter about your private discoveries the next day IRL.

But hey, the year wasn’t completely free of that collective music experience. One moment really did feel like those old days of experiencing a song with everyone else at once, like we used to do, like we want to do. Thank you @420doggface208 for skateboarding to Fleetwood Mac and drinking Ocean Spray.