Hear Us Out: August Gave Us the Song of the Summer, Whether You Like It or Not
Plus: Neil Young takes on Trump, and RIP JTE
This is Hear Us Out, a column charting the storylines and releases that mattered — to us, and hopefully you — in the world of music over the past month.
To say this month was heavy on politics is an understatement. Democrats and Republicans both held their conventions, and once again the country was forced to grapple with racism and police brutality when Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officers in front of his children, paralyzing him and sparking nationwide protests. As they did back in June following the horrific killing of George Floyd, many artists used their platforms to speak out, whether it was The Weeknd demanding justice for Blake and Breonna Taylor in his acceptance speech for “Video of the Year” at last night’s VMAs or Neil Young calling out Donald Trump’s “ignorance and hate” and suing him over the unauthorized use of his songs.
But the personal is also political, and even something like a campy song in which two female rappers seize control of their sexualities raised questions about who gets to be “empowered” and who faces heavy scrutiny for explicit lyrics. With that in mind, these are the biggest storylines and most notable releases from the past month.
Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B Made Us Blush with “WAP”
Remember back in May, when we wondered whether coronavirus would kill the song of the summer? It turns out we had nothing to worry about. In early August, Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B teamed up and released a no-doubter, the dirty-as-hell and delightfully over-the-top “WAP.” (If you can’t figure out what that stands for — or how “macaroni in a pot” comes into play — the video below should clue you in.)
The raunchy track naturally climbed its way to No. 1 on the charts, and to absolutely no one’s surprise, it resulted in a lot of pearl-clutching from conservatives like Ben Shapiro who were shocked and disgusted by its graphic content despite dismissing Trump’s infamous “grab them by the pussy” comment as simple “locker room talk.”
The reaction to the song highlighted the double standard female artists face: men are allowed to be vulgar — encouraged to even — but “locker room talk” from a woman is seen as unconscionable. As Vox pointed out, “Women are usually the subject of sexual fantasies, not in control of them. That’s what makes the song so radical.” Men have rapped about their sexual prowess in explicit terms for decades now; “WAP” simply attempts to even the playing field. Perhaps Teen Vogue‘s Brittney McNamara said it best: “The criticism against Cardi and Megan doesn’t seem to be rooted in feminist theory about language and power structures. Instead, it’s about what it is and isn’t OK for women to say and do. It’s about who wields sexual power, and what happens when they realize they aren’t the only ones who have it.”
Neil Young Sues Trump
Neil Young has never shied away from speaking out about politics and letting his fans know where he stands, which is why it’s baffling that Republican politicians continue to try to use the famously liberal musician’s music at their rallies. The Trump campaign has been especially bad about this, using Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Devil’s Sidewalk” repeatedly at rallies against his wishes. (Side note: “Rockin’ in the Free World” sort of makes sense if you ignore its criticisms of Reagan and George H. W. Bush and go with the classic misinterpretation of its lyrics, but 2003 deep cut “Devil’s Sidewalk” is a downright weird choice for a political rally. “When the red light shines/On the streets of hate/Where the devil dines/Who knows what he ate,” Young sings.)
Young has been sending Trump cease-and-desists and publicly objecting to his use of his songs since June 16, 2015, when the then-candidate played “Rockin’ in the Free World” at his campaign announcement. On Aug. 4, he finally took legal action, suing Trump’s reelection campaign for copyright infringement.
“This complaint is not intended to disrespect the rights and opinions of American citizens, who are free to support the candidate of their choosing,” the lawsuit reads. “However, Plaintiff in good conscience cannot allow his music to be used as a ‘theme song’ for a divisive, un-American campaign of ignorance and hate.”
Young may not be the only artist to sue the Trump campaign, either. Back in June, the Rolling Stones threatened to sue Trump over his repeated use of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” (“The BMI have notified the Trump campaign on behalf of the Stones that the unauthorized use of their songs will constitute a breach of its licensing agreement,” a representative for the Rolling Stones said in a statement. “If Donald Trump disregards the exclusion and persists then he would face a lawsuit for breaking the embargo and playing music that has not been licensed.”) And just last week, the estate of Leonard Cohen and Sony ATV Music Publishing announced they are “exploring legal options” after “Hallelujah” was played twice without permission at the Republican National Convention.
“We are surprised and dismayed that the RNC would proceed knowing that the Cohen Estate had specifically declined the RNC’s use request, and their rather brazen attempt to politicize and exploit in such an egregious manner ‘Hallelujah’, one of the most important songs in the Cohen song catalogue,” the estate wrote in a statement.
RIP to Justin Townes Earle
So many of our finest musicians have struggled with substance abuse over the years, and sadly, we lost another one this month when Justin Townes Earle — the son of Steve Earle and an extremely talented songwriter in his own right — passed away at the age of 38.
The family revealed the news on Earle’s social media channels, but they didn’t offer a cause of death, instead writing simply, ““It is with tremendous sadness that we inform you of the passing of our son, husband, father and friend Justin. So many of you have relied on his music and lyrics over the years and we hope that his music will continue to guide you on your journeys. You will be missed dearly Justin.” But eventually the Nashville police revealed what fans suspected: the musician, who openly struggled with addiction for years, died of a “probable drug overdose.”
It’s a tragic end for a remarkable talent who never shied away from letting us in, whether he was tackling his family history on “Mama’s Eyes” or plotting suicide on the deceptively upbeat “Harlem River Blues.” But, as Pete Wells pointed out on Twitter, perhaps there’s a silver lining: “Somebody, somewhere is just learning about Justin Townes Earle tonight, and that person is going to look up his songs, and those songs will become part of that person’s life.”
This month at InsideHook, we caught up with The Kills’ Alison Mosshart to talk about her new book Car Ma, chatted with Fontaines D.C. about their unexpected sophomore album and examined why Charlie Parker’s “Summertime” is the ultimate late-summer anthem. (Beyond that, you can check out all of our music coverage here.)
Outside of our own work, there were plenty of other fascinating pieces to digest this month: Rob Sheffield celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ breakup with a must-read Rolling Stone cover story that looks at Peter Jackson’s upcoming documentary and dives deep into rock’s most notorious split; Josh Terry caught up with independent record-store owners for Vice to look at how they’re persevering through the pandemic; and Jody Rosen examined “The Racial Anxiety Lurking Behind Reaction Videos” for the New York Times.
Key Album Releases
Angel Olsen, Whole New Mess
Angel Olsen’s new album isn’t exactly new, per se. Nine of its 11 tracks previously appeared on her masterful 2019 album All Mirrors. The versions we hear on Whole New Mess however were recorded prior to that, with sparse arrangements that really highlight Olsen’s gorgeous vocals and impressive lyricism. This isn’t a collection of demos; it’s a completely different version of All Mirrors, and new songs “Waving, Smiling” and the title track are both stunners. (You can read more about Angel Olsen’s Whole New Mess here.)
Orville Peck, Show Pony EP
The mysterious masked cowboy follows up his critically acclaimed debut album Pony with the six-track EP Show Pony, and the name is apt: these songs are undoubtedly a little flashier than what we’re used to hearing from him, with more of a pop sheen — especially on “Legends Never Die,” his collaboration with Shania Twain and his cover of Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy.” But the moody, atmospheric Orville Peck we know and love is still here as well, spinning tales of burnt rubber and the open road on “Drive Me, Crazy” and reminding us that there’s “No Glory in the West.”
Bright Eyes, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
Conor Oberst and company obviously had no idea when they reunited for their first album in nine years that it would be released in the middle of a pandemic, but in many ways it’s fitting for these strange times. “What’s it like to live with me here every fucking day?” Oberst asks on “To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts),” something we’ve all probably wondered at some point in the last six months of being stuck at home in quarantine. Elsewhere on the record, Oberst alludes to his divorce, the death of his brother and the existential crisis that comes with turning 40. “There’s no escaping the housework, or the bank clerk, or the priest,” he sings on “Forced Convalescence.” “They’re waiting for me in my Egyptian sheets.”
Songs You Need to Hear
Andrew Bird reunites with Squirrel Nut Zippers for the first time in over 20 years; Black Thought teams up with Killer Mike and Pusha T on the first single from his forthcoming EP; CHAI and HINDS join forces for the trilingual “UNITED GIRLS ROCK ‘N ROLL CLUB”; Orville Peck covers a country classic; Bon Iver enlists the help of none other than Bruce Springsteen; Mariah Carey samples Lauryn Hill on a previously unreleased rarity; Father John Misty drops a pair of cryptically named singles; St. Vincent teams up with Yoshiki for a remix of “New York.”
You can listen to all those and more in the playlist below.
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