No Grammy nominations for Bob Dylan or Morrissey. Van Morrison gets ostracized, and Scotland’s health minister called his latest recordings “dangerous.” That’s the despotic liberal response to 2020 pop music; the music-loving conservative’s response should be ecstatic.
Finally, high-caliber pop artists have taken notice of the cultural drift toward repression and put their objections into meaningful, emotionally potent expression. It’s an unexpected advance in the culture wars that conservatives customarily lose.
In 2020, listeners could find edification in music that met their best standards and shared their ethical concerns, or else they endured Taylor Swift selling narcissism alongside political smugness. Pop stars who place their brand on progressive ideology make pop culture seem inseparable from hive-mind conformity, but Dylan, Morrissey, Morrison, and others launched a musical offensive by releasing the best pop music of the year.
Alphabetland, by X
The ’80s Los Angeles punk band reunited with a 30-minute album of songs judging the regrets of Late Adulthood with energy that absolves. It’s thrilling, and it cuts to the quick. Exene’s wry, soulful wails and John Doe’s laments assess the condition of pop fans who have seen their bohemian expectations failed by the ACLU and such political and apolitical parties. “We have all the time in the world until the limitless possibilities of youthful infinity turn into mortality,” Exene concedes. There will be more to say about this.
“Earth to God,” by John Rich
A political prayer from a long-time clever country artist who chooses the metaphor of thwarted communication to express his desperation at a moment when morality has been upended. Rich replaces pop dystopia with intimations of Armageddon, but he seeks revelation — and salvation. It sounds private but resonates like a church service being held remotely but that listeners feel deeply.
I Am Not a Dog on a Chain, by Morrissey
A call to arms, legs, the body parts in between, and, ultimately, a call for courage. The title track takes inspiration from ’60s Bob Dylan while the entire album speaks to the political ruses and personal evasions of the time — ours and Morrissey’s own, which he always teases. His electrifying duet with Thelma Houston calls out hypocrisy yet offers affection. Every track — each one about the adventure of living — is more than relevant; they feel immediate.
“No More Lockdown,” by Van Morrison
The key song that is part of a suite (“Born to Be Free,” “As I Walked Out,” and “Stand and Deliver”) that revives folk music as a necessary pop form. Van’s timely social observation reclaims pop music from the Left, giving it a rhythm-and-blues righteousness — the speech of a repressed populace that is still in touch with an innate sense of freedom. Van moaning the word “lockdown” is an inspiration.
Rough and Rowdy Ways, by Bob Dylan
Everything Dylan knows, and that his followers take on faith when convenient, applied to our era of dread. Through one self-mocking grand gesture after another, this album hints yet at the vitality gained from historical awareness. It starts quoting Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake, and Jimmy Reed, and then — impishly — channels Morrissey. It’s a prank for those music and political snobs who cannot hear or heed Morrissey and the necessity for a reassessed humane vision to surpass pop music’s conventions.
“There Was Jesus,” by Dolly Parton and Zach Williams
This pop-gospel duet shows two artists leaning on faith rather than ideology. While politicians profess religion yet behave profanely, Parton and Williams show spiritual harmony. They rhyme each other’s shared belief (“Every minute / Every moment / When I couldn’t see where I was goin’ . . .”), and the power of their singing reminds us that music is a cultural force.
Throughout 2020, pop artists tended to lean toward lockstep submission, twisting entertainment into activism. Instead of asking questions, most pushed political buttons. Pop-music reviewers bend over into PC postures. Criticism — the face of pop-music journalism — has changed so much that aesthetic standards no longer apply. Media consensus, being led by streaming data and social media, distorts the reality of a manufactured zeitgeist. The year’s various ten-best music lists display the absence of pop rebellion and salute the presence of self-absorption, narcissism, and solipsism.
If it seems as if the ghosts of Kurt Cobain and Ol’ Dirty Bastard have won — commanding the pop sensibility of the millennium into white anarchy and black degradation — that means the entire history of pop-music journalism and criticism has lost. So has a generation of music fans, followers who are consumers, not critical thinkers. Their pleasure has mutated into herd-mentality satisfaction.
That we no longer expect pop music to express the popular-personal mood is a crisis, so we tune out. The media perpetuate this, and only streaming subscribers stay loyal — the same problem that plagues film and TV.
One could say that this year, the music-culture victories of Morrissey, X, Dylan, and Morrison were simply a matter of wisdom triumphing over inanity. But they’re more than that: They represent the quiet part of the zeitgeist, rebelling against the dominant market culture. And you have to be courageous when you venture to hear them. Their music rings against the Jericho walls of fake news, enemies of the people, COVID conquest of public and private life, and suppression of thought by the media. Their music sounds good, feels good, and delivers goodness.