“Music isn’t sports, no matter how much we want to rank and score it,” Grayson Haver Currin wrote late last year in a brilliant piece about how year-end lists might be losing their utility. And while I generally agree with this sentiment, lately I’ve been thinking about how music IS like sports, whether we like it or not. And it’s not just Billboard charts or Pitchfork scores that make it that way. It’s the constant competition for the public’s limited attention, where artists need to push themselves in relation to their peers to rise to the top, in hopes that quality and creativity reign, rather than being the loudest or best promoted.
In the recently omnipresent livestreaming space, it’s particularly tempting to compare efforts in relation to each other, and that makes the best music livestream moments stand out. On Friday, for example, YouTube was the place for a weekend dance party unlike any other. Producer extraordinaire Mark Ronson offered up his Love Lockdown: Video Mixtape, a 90-minute fundraiser for the World Health Organization that saw him spinning records from his past (or that he simply enjoys) with guest appearances from a number of the tunes’ contributors. A song like his latest (excellent) album’s title track, “Late Night Feelings,” found vocalist Lykke Li beaming in from her cell phone to give an intimate, psychedelic interpretation. There was a selfie-stick sporting “Dancing On My Own” rendition that saw Robyn rolling around on the floor, Dua Lipa presenting “Electricity” from what appeared to be her backyard, and even an Inception-style DJ set within a DJ set from A-Trak that would impress even Christopher Nolan.
Whether it was incorporating something as simple as the Kanye West music video from which the endeavor’s title was taken or something as batshit as Jurrasic Park‘s Sam Neill covering “Uptown Funk,” Ronson’s offering hit on elements missing from many of the livestreams that have populated the pandemic world. It demonstrated thinking outside the box. It sounded great. It used unprecedented times to create something that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise. It felt necessary and fun. It was worth sharing with friends, worth experiencing as a community, and provided lasting value that could stretch beyond this quarantined moment of human history.
If that sounds like a knock on the rest of music livestreams, it’s not meant to be. Since touring effectively ended in the middle of March, musicians big and small have been faced with their own unprecedented crisis. Fledging artists have seen a primary revenue stream disappear, while larger ones have rallied around their extensive teams suddenly facing financial uncertainty. And since then, many have been tirelessly offered up everything from solo acoustic performances and DJ sets to IG Live interviews and beat battles. Tegan And Sara started a project where they discuss Sara’s garden with fans. Erykah Badu is providing guided mediation. Even our own People’s Party debuted a live series, bringing the great interview style of Talib Kweli to an audience suddenly lacking for new content.
To criticize the livestream experiments that fall short feels both ungrateful and mean-spirited. Much of it looks to either serve fans or literally raise money for those in need. Most of the artists are offering up their time and creativity without expectations of personal monetary compensation. And while the most cynical lens can easily (and probably deservedly) mock Gal Gadot’s “Imagine” debacle or the recent UK-centric Foo Fighters cover that saw participants ranging from Sean Paul to Rag’n’Bone Man, doing so undercuts the environment that’s spawning such work. The world is frightening on levels that most have never experienced, and musicians are throwing everything they have against the wall to see what sticks.
There have been clear highlights over the last couple of months. Death Cab For Cutie leader Ben Gibbard has taken the time to give his catalog a close look for comforting home sets. The Verzuz series and Club Quarantine quickly captured social media’s attention by mixing viral moments with star-spotting in ways that feel as close to a real club experience as you can get without leaving your couch. Travis Scott’s next-level Fortnite appearance launched a now-No. 1 single. Virtual festival experiences like Warner’s PlayOn Fest or 100 Gecs’ Minecraft festival gave new meaning to communal moments. Coachella’s new documentary allowed for the world’s best music festival to own its usual weekend despite being postponed until fall. And though people like Mark Ronson are showing that artists are just scratching the surface with regards to what is possible in entertaining the socially isolated, Post Malone recently showed that innovation is only one way to capture the public’s attention and imagination.
On Friday, April 24, America’s favorite genre-defying teddy bear, Post Malone, unveiled his contribution to the livestream world: a Nirvana covers set. When it was announced earlier that week, there was quick brushback from rockists sure that Posty was not meant to hold a candle to the alt-rock titans. Even with Courtney Love giving her blessing for the charity event, plenty were skeptical as to what, if anything, Posty could offer the classic songs. But once the 90-minute performance commenced, it was clear that Post Malone wasn’t just taking up space for bored music fans to wade into the weekend. Instead, he delivered the definitive moment of the quarantine music experience.
Malone showed he meant business with a great backing band, anchored by Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker. He crafted a setlist that expanded beyond a few well-known Nirvana hits and showed the depth and breadth of their catalog. He pounded beers, smoked cigarettes, cracked jokes, and featured solid sound and camera work (those last two were particularly refreshing). He simply had a blast sharing the music that he loves, and likewise, people had a blast watching him. Word of mouth quickly spread on social media that this was a performance that had to be seen, with a level of enthusiasm that is rare for livestreams. Fans are surely grateful for all the content musicians had been giving up until that point, but Post Malone showed that the potential to bring people together was still unexplored.
Hello!!!!!! I love you all!!!! I am holding emotions back the whole show.
— Krist Novoselić (@KristNovoselic) April 24, 2020
Post Malone’s Nirvana set was unpretentious and filled with joy, enough so that Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic tweeted out his emotional response during the set. And, it ultimately achieved its goal in contributing more than 900K to the more than 4.3 million dollars YouTube has raised for the WHO so far. As someone that witnessed one of the rare Nirvana semi-reunion performances, I can honestly say that Post Malone held a candle to the real deal, giving the best interpretations of Nirvana songs that have been heard outside of the original band. Who would have thought that would be something we’d experience together during this genuinely terrible time? And along with Ronson’s inventive set a week later, these appearances argue that we’ve yet to see the limits of what can be achieved by musicians during this particularly dark and weird time. Creativity is the ultimate currency of the artist, and only after several weeks of testing the water and thinking on the fly are we seeing lasting, memorable moments. It’s possible that it won’t be viable to see live music in person for many more months, if even this year. And while the ramifications of that on everyone from the musicians to the extended members of the music industry is hard to overstate (in short: it’s bad), there is some solace in the fact that there will continue to be livestream creations that extend what we have thought is possible.
We’re about two weeks out from another quarantine milestone: Charli XCX is releasing a collaborative effort that she has crafted with her fans entirely during social isolation. Whereas the majority of new songs released in the past couple of months are holdovers from before the pandemic, Charli has very publicly been making an album that couldn’t have existed at any other time. It is to be seen whether the album will be more than just a timestamp from the months that people were confined to their homes, but the music has so far shown an eagerness to transcend that, created in the public eye on social media and with frequent livestreamed updates. Like Ronson and Posty, Charli is trying to take a big step in owning this particular moment, in setting the bar higher, in creating art meant to last and be remembered instead of providing a momentary distraction. It has always felt a bit vapid to look at times of political unrest or, as we are experiencing now, a health and financial crisis, only to ponder “the great art that will come out of it.” But in a time that feels like a content bombardment, there is comfort in knowing that the best is yet to come and that great artists are rising to the occasion. Sports might be generally on pause right now, but in the music world, winners are still emerging.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.