The Ugly Truth Behind The New York Times’ ‘Where Music Is Going’ Story

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Lil Yachty made more money than you this year, and may be the most unlistenable rapper in a generation. He’s also No. 7 on The New York Times’ list “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going.” Facebook

There’s a common rule among fellow journalists: no media bashing. We’ve all seen enough of it coming from Washington lately, and we all know which outlets and publications follow the sound ethical considerations of sourcing everything they report and holding themselves to a transparent, fact-based process of verification before presenting their reporting as objective fact.

We can also agree that demonstrating this transparency is the best defense against autocrats, conspiracy theorists and reptilians alike. We shouldn’t have to show our work; sound reporting speaks for itself. But it’s not talking down or pandering to an audience when we fully color in the narratives and contexts surrounding the information we parlay as news—it’s our job.

Narratives are really all we’re talking about when we discuss a publication’s potential bias. The narratives embraced by a network like Fox, for example, are demonstrated just as equally in its prime-time programming as in their news. Consider 24, The X Files, and its bevy of other supernatural shows like Lucifer and Sleepy Hollow, trafficking in paranoia and nationalism, demons and deities, absolute good and absolute evil.

All media networks are an accumulation of narratives and trajectories of thought that the higher-ups have a vested interest in maintaining, be they financial, ideological, or both.

The truth lies in the accumulation of these narratives, in the spaces where they all meet and the facts they all acknowledge as indisputable before the Op-Eds, here-say and partisan perspectives pervade. 

And that’s where I run into trouble with my media bashing.

Working as an arts journalist shows you firsthand how transforming models of content distribution like mobile video, graphics and story forms like lists work in concert with shrinking numbers of staff jobs to create a landscape of preordained narratives, force fed through press releases and branded content alliances. Say what you will about how the quality of Pitchfork’s reportage changed after being purchased by Condé Nast, but make sure to note that its sponsored content now occupies the same space as its other stories, as is the case with this Soundcloud Go promotional piece currently gracing Pitchfork’s home page.

Elsewhere, the copy I see informing the background of reviews and features reads as if pulled almost verbatim from the same press releases sent to me in advance of that artist’s release. So when we wonder why ad sales are declining, when we wonder why The New York Times killed its regional arts coverage last year with no notice or eulogy, we must also consider that the cynicism at play when an arts publication doesn’t hold itself to the same standards as other journalistic beats turns us all into publicists, mere vessels of dissemination, and not reporters.

Narratives come into play here, too, because they’re ultimately what fascinates us about music. Music is an accumulation of narratives—the story surrounding the artist, the personal history of the listener, the social and cultural milieus surrounding the time and place of its release, and so on. When we listen to a song, be it as an ephemeral soundtrack to a workout, a distraction on a commute or a dedicated, focused experience on a home stereo, all narratives factor into our decision of whether or not we enjoy the song. Sometimes the less we know, the better. 

The narratives that an arts publication embraces will also tell you a lot about its intentions, as is the case with The New York Times“25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going” from this week’s Sunday Magazine.

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Adele winning Album of the Year at the Grammys. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

While the headline implies a deep dive into new sounds, new trends or some future projection based on past reportage, story editor Nitsuh Abebe makes it clear in his intro that music is headed in the direction of identity-based popularity. He explains how, from Vaudeville to the ethnicity-focused novelty hits of the ’50s, “this was how we reckoned with our melting pot: crudely, obliviously, maybe with a nice tune and a beat you could dance to.”

Abebe extends this observation to look at modern music as more focused on identity than ethnicity. “That vexed thing we call ‘identity’ leans its considerable weight on all kinds of questions: which sounds comfort us or excite us; where and how we listen to them; how we move our bodies as they play,” he writes. “Watch a mere silhouette of a human being dancing to music, and you can immediately guess things about who they are and where they came from.”

While reading this I was transported back to a Pro Publica-sponsored podcast at WNYC called “Breaking the Black Box” from earlier this year. In partnership with Mozilla’s newly published “Internet Health Report,” the guests gave their pleas for transparency and and open internet, explaining how closed systems of information not only collude to take our data and lay our a phony narrative of incentivized purchases and fixed interests out in front of us, but how they do so based on our identity, too.

The most alarming revelation, hidden in Facebook’s Ad Manager, includes the option to target advertisements based on demographics like income, net worth, home ownership, likelihood to engage in partisan politics, and a “Multicultural Affinity” drop-down menu that lets advertisers target people of a certain ethnic background.

So my own understanding, my narrative of understanding why an industry might predict a future of identity-based engagement has nothing to do with creating a diverse panoply of cultures or a chorus of multicultural voices—it’s all about advertising sales.

A look at the list that follows Abebe’s thoughtful intro—in which, to be fair, he says that identity-based music plays out for better or worse—suggests a New York Times that’s more interested in appealing to as many demographics as possible, rather than a list that carries home or challenges Abebe’s point about the proliferation of such identity-based affinities in music.

As a lifelong Leonard Cohen fan, the essay about his song “You Want It Darker” seemed the most profane. Aside from the obvious fact that the recently deceased icon is included on a list of “Where Music Is Going,” the focus on Cohen’s Jewish identity ignores his universal appeal.

Of course Judaism permeated Cohen’s deep theological and philosophical perspectives, but so did Buddhism, and so did Henry Miller. Religion or culture aside, Cohen’s work crossed multiple genres and identities—that’s why everyone from folk musicians to psych dudes to goths still sing his songs, ponder his Zen koans and quote his poetry. Cohen subverted the “International Jew” stereotype with intention and forethought, while his songs examined the body and the spirit to arrive at an elemental place beyond color or religion, when identity falls away and we’re all the same. He wasn’t thinking about a “network of identity,” at least not in the interest of an industry direction as Abebe suggests.

Sandwiched between a piece about Adele’s “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” wherein the writer mainly talks about her Grammys speech and a piece about the strip-mall futurism of Missy Elliott’s “I’m Better,” the intention behind Cohen’s inclusion seems more about checking every “identity” box of readers rather than making a salient point or following through on the thesis suggested in the intro.

Then the list focuses on the rapper Future, best known for his opiate-loving persona, with a 1,600-word puffy narrative written by a senior editor at The Fader (who still sends me marketing materials ad-nauseam despite my repeated messages that we won’t promote another magazine’s branded exclusives) who spends far too many words trying to meet Future. The writer acknowledges Future’s association with drug abuse, explaining how the chosen track, “Mask Off,” is a come-up and a come-down over and over again.

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Future. YouTube

But the writer also asks if its unfair to typecast the rapper, writing that “It feels reductive to try to pin an artist down on the sins of his persona.” By the time you make it to the No. 4 slot, any saliency of point about the pros or cons of an artist’s popularity being based on identity are lost to the fact that this writer fashions himself into someone who both acknowledge’s Future’s novelty and wants desperately for there to be something more behind it.

You see where this is going, so I’ll spare you my thoughts on the Pitchfork writer’s piece about a-capella group Pentatonix or the part where Kanye West’s “Fade” is called “the penultimate track on Kanye West’s living work of art, The Life of Pablo,” despite the narratives we all saw play out in public surrounding its gonzo, unmeditated boastful public conception.

There are some great ideas buried in here—the A Tribe Called Quest piece talks about black identity and protest in the age of police brutality and Black Lives Matter, while the Solange piece addresses the otherness that comes through the white gaze, and a profile on the long-venerated but still underground Brownsville rapper and firefighter Ka effectively engages the precise points about the perceived duplicity of real identity that Abebe makes in the intro (the mention of that NY Post story seeking to defame Ka, for example, contains one of the piece’s only mentions on how identity can be weaponized.)

But to read those insights you’ll have to endure a slog like through a profile of walking billboard Lil Yachty, wherein the writer admits, “Somewhere along the way we get busy with work, or prioritize movies, or decide to have kids and look up to find we’ve lost the thread. We emerge from our hiatus and turn on the radio only to wonder, ‘How did pop get here?’ We have no idea. It is then that we begin to study pop trends by rote—by reading reviews and listening to podcasts, by looking up songs on Shazam in the drugstore, by turning to Google to ask it: ‘Who is Lil Yachty?’ “

As collaborative efforts, readers expect a certain lack of cohesion from lists. And Abebe’s intro is full of enough wide-angled vagaries to include the multitude of different perspectives and identities that follow. But this collection seems more focused on the nebulous concept of “identity” than on actually exploring why music has fractured off into so many subcultures and communities, a worthwhile question that still remains unanswered at the end.

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Yes, it’s 2017 and we’re still discussing Rufus Wainwright. John Parra/WireImage

Music was always about the places where identities fuse and blend together, where people from different identities and backgrounds come together, creating a new community for the freaks, the weirdos, and the people who don’t comfortably fit into any box. That’s why this list makes me feel uneasy.

The New York Times seems to have hedged its bets with this piece, including the likes of Yachty or Ariana Grande to engage the same readers who dig their still-expansive print coverage of nightlife and party scenes, while also including the likes of Leonard Cohen, Rufus Wainwright and James McMurtry to keep their older, traditional readership engaged.

The list is a shamelessly bureaucratic editorial, outsourced to other publications with dedicated music readerships and stitched together in the interest of checking every identity box. Maybe a headline that more effectively captured the identity-based focus of this list might have been more sincere, but more likely, Abebe’s intro should have been written first, in communication with the writers who contributed, to make sure they were all on the same page.

As is, I’m reminded of Facebook’s Ad Manager and its “Multicultural Affinity” option—it’s just a tool for advertisers who want to make sure they’re marketing their content directly to the audiences that will respond to it.