Pop Music’s Heroes, Villains, And In-Betweens In 2017

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A few weeks ago, I pitched my editor a story called “Which Musician Had The Most Definitive 2017?” It was one of those ideas where you have a headline in mind and not much else, but my editor nonetheless gave me the go-ahead on Slack. Almost immediately, however, I realized I was screwed. Which Musician Had The Most Definitive 2017? What does that even mean?

My initial thought (I think) was to gently satirize the whole “Person Of The Year” concept, in which a publication or website decides that a single human (or sometimes group of humans) signifies an essential truth about the past 12 months. Specifically, I wanted to vent my low-key annoyance over how the “Person Of The Year” always seems to represent something positive, even when the year in question was fraught with ugliness, fear, loathing, disgust, bigotry, greed, and … well, I think you can already tell I’m talking about the very year that we’re mercifully about to exit, 2017.

Why in the world would you pick an artist that you like to act as a figurehead for this godforsaken year? 2017 was, in terms of the overall culture, a smoking crater filled with rotten eggs, dirty diapers, and Chris Brown CDs. If we set out to determine which musician had the most definitive year — not the best or the most admirable but an accurate microcosm of all the significant events that occurred in 2017 — shouldn’t we assume that this person signifies the mess of mostly negative emotions that many of us associate with the current era?

Put another way: The “Person Of The Year” is probably a jerk, right?

Maybe. But maybe I’m also being a bit of a bummer here.

The truth is that people buy into the “Person Of The Year” idea because we need heroes, especially during times like these. You can see this in how the media obsessively set about defining musicians in terms of “heroes” and “villains” this year. Nobody wants to pin a medal on an a**hole. But figuring out who is good and who is bad is a full-time job, not to mention very messy. In 2017, this process sometimes seemed to be damn near impossible.

Like I said, my initial instinct was to pick the biggest a**hole I could think of, which made me think immediately of Kid Rock, who kinda sorta not really flirted with running for Senate this year as a way to troll the media, essentially utilizing #fakenews as a way to promote a new album, Sweet Southern Sugar, that thankfully bombed. While his Michigan homeboy Eminem made it a point to tell Trump voters not to listen to his music this year, Kid Rock utilized Trump’s tactics to shore up a fanbase that has largely been disinterested in his recent records, with good reason. (Sweet Southern Sugar includes both a reference to “Taylor Swift’s dick” and a corny modern-rock redux of the Four Tops’ “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch.” It, shall we say, royally sucks.) Now the only way Kid Rock can make anyone give a damn about his tired-ass shtick is by ownin’ them libs. Mission accomplished.

To be fair, right-wingers hardly had the market cornered on bad behavior in 2017. Remember PWR BTTM? In my review of the Brooklyn pop-punk duo’s second album, Pageant, last spring, I called them one of the best young rock bands in the world right now. Then, the very next day, news broke on social media that PWR BTTM’s Ben Hopkins had been accused by multiple people of abuse.

My review, like many reviews of Pageant, was animated by the sentimental belief that PWR BTTM was more than just a band, but an actual force for good in the world. The goodwill for a band that promoted tolerance for transgender/non-binary people inevitably influenced the media’s aesthetic judgments of PWR BTTM’s music. (The glowing reviews and band profiles that predate the abuse allegations can still be found online, like skyscrapers after a nuclear blast.)

Incredibly, this very same principle — the purity of an artist’s ideology and personal life should influence our perceptions of that person’s art — would quickly doom PWR BTTM to the dustbin of history, after it was revealed that the band members might not be as noble as believed. Within a week of the abuse allegations, PWR BTTM’s career was demolished, perhaps permanently, and all traces of Pageant were eradicated from streaming services and record stores. At the time, I was shocked by how an album I had written about just days earlier now appeared to no longer exist. But the shock soon wore off, as variations of this story played out in all areas of media in the ensuing months — Pageant presaged Louis C.K.’s I Love You, Daddy and Kevin Spacey’s appearance in All The Money In The World, among other art created by abusers that was wiped clean from our collective hard-drives. Immediate and all-encompassing cancellation as punishment for private crimes became the new normal in 2017.

It even happened again in the punk/emo world: In August, Brand New released a triumphant career-ending LP, Science Fiction, that subsequently debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard album chart. In my review of Science Fiction, I called it “one of 2017’s most unabashedly monumental rock records.” Then, two months later, the comeuppance arrived: Brand New singer Jesse Lacey was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women.

Was Science Fiction now a bad record? Not exactly. But no work of art exists in a vacuum — there is a context created by the artist, the listener, and the circumstances of the time and and place the artwork enters. While Science Fiction hadn’t changed, everything else had. The subsequent cancellation of Science Fiction wasn’t as abrupt or thorough as the swift removal of Pageant — you can still stream or buy the album if you wish — but it nonetheless made the Brand New LP feel like the opposite of monumental. Attempting to enjoy Science Fiction after reading so many stories about women feeling exploited and traumatized by the band’s frontman now seemed awfully small.

Even before the #MeToo Movement sparked a revolution in some of the highest-profile industries, including media, entertainment, and to a lesser extent politics, Kesha garnered the best reviews of her career for her third album, Rainbow. For anyone whose cultural memory extends all the way back to 2010, this seemed mildly shocking. Back when she was still under tutelage of super producer Dr. Luke, Kesha was critically reviled. (Her debut album, Animal, which went platinum and spawned four top 10 singles, has a Metacritic score of 54, nearly 30 points lower than the score for Rainbow.)

Even people who liked Kesha’s early work tended to qualify her, at best, as a guilty pleasure. But in the aftermath of her prolonged battle to free herself from Dr. Luke — whom she had accused of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse — Kesha was rebooted as a heroine, and Rainbow was viewed as a virtuous work of empowerment by an artist who once reveled in disreputable crassness.

Kesha’s artistic rebirth prompted a strange twist on the dilemma posed by PWR BTTM and Brand New: What if you prefer the old Dr. Luke hits like “TiK ToK” and “Your Love Is My Drug”? Is that … wrong, morally speaking? Or are those songs now also canceled, even though Kesha still performs them live? Does being a Kesha supporter require you to like the post-Dr. Luke stuff more? Because, as much as I admire Kesha the hero, I find myself missing Ke$ha the villain.

Less surprising was the unanimous praise heaped upon two other members of the “bulletproof” class, Kendrick Lamar and Lorde. At this point, Kendrick would have to make an album-length collaboration with Jake Paul and the Chainsmokers for music critics to even consider not putting his latest record at the top of their year-end lists. While there’s much to admire about the fierce economy of DAMN., it still felt like a comedown from the heights of Lamar’s previous record, 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly, one of the decade’s true masterpieces. Nevertheless, the major institutional lists moved in lockstep to honor DAMN. along with Melodrama, the excellent sophomore release by Lorde. Like Lamar, Lorde is adept at bridging the gap between a pop-obsessed intelligentsia and skeptical traditionalists who still put stock in old-fashioned concepts like cohesive “statement” albums and “personal” songwriting.

Another hero of 2017 was a bad boy-turned-martyr who died too soon: The buzz-y Soundcloud rapper Lil Peep, who passed away in November at age 21 from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. Not long after Lil Peep died, I traded DMs on Twitter with a prominent indie musician who scoffed at the number of middle-aged music critics rushing to pay tribute to an underground rapper whose audience is made up predominantly of teens and 20somethings who don’t read music websites. The musician wasn’t disparaging the young man who had just died tragically, but rather the writers who are part of a system that Lil Peep had successfully circumvented during his brief career.

I don’t agree with those sentiments 100 percent. But the anxiety of what Lil Peep represents — a world in which artists operate largely outside of the music industry, including the mainstream music media, which is increasingly irrelevant to people like Lil Peep’s core audience — is acute for music journalists. How do you pay tribute to an artist whose fans don’t care about you? (Or your moral judgements, as the popularity of Soundcloud sensation and card-carrying villain XXXTentacion suggests.) I suspect the best eulogies for Lil Peep will be written on the anniversary of his death in five or 10 years, when the Lil Peep stans who are now in high school are running (or perhaps burying) music websites instead of reading them.

When I look back at 2017, the artists who seem to best represent the year are those who were both reviled and praised for their willingness to be reviled. These are the people who, to me, just seemed to be muddling through, trying to make it through the year, their faults impossible to excuse or look away from, putting them outside the hero-villain binary that we imposed every place else in 2017. There was Jay Z, who admitted to cheating on Beyonce on his first pretty-good album in years, 4:44. There was Father John Misty, who made the year’s most beautiful mess, Pure Comedy, and provoked countless journalists during the album’s circus-like promotional cycle. There was Taylor Swift, formerly of the “bulletproof” pop-star class, who released the angriest and least refined album of her career, reputation, amid intense criticism that she wasn’t harnessing her social media power to fix the world’s problems.

But the winner of my made-up “most definitive artist of 2017” honor is a person who wisely sat out this horrible year, a guy who like Harry Lime in The Third Man seemed to tower over the narratives of 2017 in his absence, a pop star who diminished every award show, album cycle, and public beef that he wasn’t around to disrupt. Because maybe the most heroic act of 2017 was sitting this round out, in order to shore up strength for 2018 and beyond. I miss you, Kanye West. Please come home.