There’s a lot of hand-wringing about how streaming is ruining music. Most modern artists have given up on The Album as a format, a concept, and especially, a physical object.
I feel like it’s fine. I mean, it’s worth mourning. But it can be easy to see how new technology for sharing and communicating waters down the value we’re used to. Instead, I want to highlight just a few examples of artists getting playful with neat possibilities afforded by music’s digital presentation.
1. Tierra Whack’s Whack World
In May of 2018, this Philadelphia MC premiered fifteen new songs on her Instagram. Not in snippets, but in their entirety—each song is exactly a minute, the length limit for Instagram videos. She called it her debut visual album. It flips what feels like a streaming gimmick into a maximally-concise variety show of lyricism across a broad fetch of styles. This review is everything I could want to say. Listening, I also just like the beat-math of cutting each song cleanly at exactly sixty seconds.
2. Eluvium’s Shuffle Drones
The best way to explain this one is just to list the titles of the collection’s twenty-two tracks in order:
- simply put
- the suggested manner
- of listening
- to this work
- is to isolate
- the collection
- and to randomize
- the play pattern
- on infinite repeat—
- thus creating
- a shuffling
- drone orchestration
- —the intent
- is to create
- a body
- of work
- specifically designed for
- and in disruption of
- modern listening habits
- and to suggest something
- peaceful, complex
- unique, and ever-changing
- thank you
Each half-minute of orchestral ambience has an identifying musical phrase, but there’s just enough of them to forget each one before it rolls around randomly again. It really feels expansive, though the collection is technically only twelve minutes “long.” When I set Spotify to crossfade tracks a bit, it’s a great way to both get lost and get focused indefinitely, in a way uniquely afforded by streaming functionality.
3. Hannah Montana
A lot of music performers find themselves acting at some point. I’ve loved when artists have taken the opportunity to play caricatures of themselves.
- In the 2018 remake of A Star Is Born, Lady Gaga plays pop star Ally, who gets a few original songs into scenes. As Ally, “Why Did You Do That?” and “Hair Body Face” sound like Gaga taking jabs at her own ARTPOP. I love them.
- In the most recent season of Black Mirror, Miley Cyrus plays pop star Ashley O, who’s held hostage by her own family/contract-holders. It plays like an on-screen working-out of a Disney Channel childhood, and the episode’s single is an upbeat, pop-machine-censored rewrite of Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole.” So infectious!
The songs each star contributes to their soundtrack (essentially as themselves with a neon wig) are both winking satire and legitimate fun. No one can better understand how performing is inherently both self-serious and silly.
4. “Inspired by” non-soundtracks
Even when I was doing a lot of theater, I never liked soundtracks. But I’m a sucker for worldbuilding, and I usually love any accompaniment that makes a movie’s vibe feel accessible outside just the story it contains.
I’m mostly thinking of the musical Spider-verse; Beyoncé’s Lion King Gift; and Kendrick Lamar, SZA & Friends’ Black Panther accompaniment. Though critics have addressed how the latter albums underrepresented swaths of land their films aimed to depict, musically, the artists delivered gorgeous stand alone albums, way more than they had to for a blockbuster-bankrolled companion project. Maybe this becomes an obligatory gimmick for every film trying to feel big, but I don’t know if that’s a problem.
5. I had to talk about this
Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” has broken the record for longest running No.1 Single for the first time in my lifetime. Textbooks have been written about the boy’s rise to success through social media, Tik Tok memes, the latent hypocrisy and racism of the single’s removal from country charts, the wider whitewashed history of the cowboy archetype, and the “yeehaw agenda” to reclaim it…
When the song broke, Lil Nas X dropped version after version just as the last lost steam to maximize his run, gaming how Billboard doesn’t count remixes as separate song entities. Indeed, each “remix” offered about as much reinterpretation as a new hat. At this year’s VMAs, he opened a performance with a corny skit, in on the joke of his approach, the night it was officially deemed Song of the Year. Again, much hath been thinkpieced.
I’m just so glad this catchy song made it to a shelf. The zeitgeist of virality-as-credibility has been quantified and enshrined so that we can show those who came before and don’t understand, or so we can inform whatever comes next. Lil Nas X represents for me a generation of internet-fluency, where irony is over and being an Influencer is a legitimate job. It’s the first thing that’s made me feel too old. But I think the kids are alright, even if I’m not still one.