What I Hope to See More Of in 2018
As a general rule, I try not to put too much pressure on the turning of the year to bring seismic change. I will wake up on Jan. 1, 2018, and nothing will have changed overnight: I will still be struggling with the same bad habits, the same bad president, the same questions about how to make a living atop the quicksand of the music industry. That said, the strange limbo week between Christmas and New Year’s Day always brings a stillness, a welcome opportunity to reflect and look ahead.
The music world in 2017 was, like the world in general, characterized by chaos and protest. I felt emboldened by how many of my fellow artists took the opportunity to directly respond, through their art and their public platforms, to the terror and absurdity in America this year. As I wrote in August, I believe this is not a time to put politics aside. As this year has unfolded, each headline more dystopian than the last, that has only felt more true. Music has the power to make life seem more real, emotions more keenly felt. That power takes on a new potency when directed toward social and political action. I, like all of us, am grappling with what form that action should take in order to effect the kind of change we need, but I know that artists have a vital role to play in keeping people engaged and motivated and aware of the world around them. It’s not our role to try to change minds, but to keep people’s eyes and hearts open. A friend of mine said recently that in hateful times like these, even playing love songs can sometimes feel like a radical act. It’s inspiring and enlivening to see so many artists reaching toward the radical.
It’s similarly inspiring to see how many artists this year threw genre out the window: bluegrass bands hired drummers, banjos and fiddles coexisted with horns and synths. (Sam Amidon! Valerie June! Rhiannon Giddens! I could go on – but let’s not talk about Dan Tyminski.) Folk purists may bristle at this trend, but to me it feels like a very exciting time to be making music in the Americana world. This also has felt somehow related to the spirit of protest that swept through the music world this year, but it took me a while to figure out why. I think both trends feel like a rejection of propriety, a refusal to stay within any arbitrary lines of genre or vocation. Also, this blending of musical styles more accurately portrays the breadth and depth of American music. Bluegrass developed from a uniquely American mélange of styles from Appalachia, the British Isles, and Africa, so why should today’s music be any different?
2017 seemed to be a year in which many artists decided, Screw it. I will say whatever I want to say, however I want to say it. Women spoke out against sexual violence and harassment, from the #MeToo movement to the stage. Musicians of color (women of color in particular) spoke truth to power by telling the stories of the oppressed. Southern artists gave voice to rural poverty. And they all did so with a more vivid musical palette, with collaborations both unconventional and inspired. This may be the silver lining in an otherwise dark year: 2017 produced some damn good music, the kind that has teeth and grit and heart. I can’t wait to see what 2018 will bring.