What One Song Best Encapsulates This Era?

What One Song Best Encapsulates This Era?

What kind of music do you like to listen to? What have you been listening to recently? What are your favorite songs that are on the radio right now and why?

In “The Top 25 Songs That Matter Right Now,” Nitsuh Abebe writes about some of the most significant songs of the past year and what they say about this particular moment in history:

It usually takes a while — a decade or two — before we can look back at a particular era of American life and see it as something coherent, something whose every aspect is marked by one overarching mood. It takes a certain amount of hindsight to notice how all the wildly different reactions people had to the moment were still, in the end, reactions to the same thing; all the different poses they adopted were still being struck against the same backdrop.

But this era — this year, and the last one, and one or two before that — might be an exception. There’s an oddly strong in-the-moment consensus on how everyone is feeling these days, and it is not good. At some point it became a routine conversational tic for all sorts of people, of all sorts of persuasions, to express, with an incredulous gesture, that things feel a bit grueling and frantic lately, don’t they? Musicians are no exception. “Life is pretty tumultuous right now for all of us,” said the crossover country star Kacey Musgraves, while accepting a Grammy for the Album of the Year. The Swedish singer Robyn acknowledges that “pop at the moment is depressing” in an interview midway through this issue. “The music kids are listening to is heavy! Maybe it’s hard to be positive and optimistic at the moment.”

What’s amazing is that the musical expression of all this isn’t always some big swing toward darkness, or anger, or anxiety. (Though there is, in certain genres, plenty of all that as well.) Read through this list, and what you’ll often see instead is a very earnest, very serious desire to find the right reaction to a world that feels tense and high-stakes — an ambient conviction that music should be looking for ways to cope, ways to protect ourselves, moments of escape, hard reckonings with our collective responsibilities, ideas for how to make the world feel less brutal. The 25 songs and artists below include blockbuster hits, critical darlings and inescapable conversation pieces, but few of them take a direct route to the usual joys of pop — the songs about dancing and boasting and sex and love, the ones about what a fantastic night everyone’s about to have or what ecstasies they intend to find by the end of it. No, a lot of these songs seem focused on deeper challenges: How do we get to those joys in the first place? Who gets to have them, and who deserves them? And in one case: Which of them are worth the corresponding rise in sea levels?

The rest of the article includes 25 essays from writers for The Times about the one song they think encapsulates this era of American life.

For example, in her essay Amanda Hess writes about the meaning of Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next”:

Online, the phrase has bloomed into a deliciously ambiguous kiss-off, a usage modeled by Grande herself, directed toward anyone from a no-name rapper who covered the song to Piers Morgan, who criticized pop stars for appearing in revealing photo shoots. Like the Southern “bless your heart,” the passive-aggressive niceties that sustain the entire Midwest or the chill of the British stiff upper lip, the internet has found a discreet slight of its own in “thank u, next.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones interviews the rapper Meek Mill about how his song “Trauma” reflects his life and the lives of other black Americans today:

At the end of “Championships,” you say we had to beat the streets, beat racism, beat poverty. So much of what you write is sociological, a study of the neighborhood. Your being from Philadelphia made me think about W.E.B. Du Bois in 1899 — he did a study called “The Philadelphia Negro.” … This was known as the first sociological study of black Americans in the country. He was trying to understand why black folks lived the way they lived. And the social problems he identified — poverty, crime, illiteracy, white discrimination — are the exact same things you talk about 120 years later.

That was my life coming up, so it was normal. I always tell people, I’ve been living the life I’m living now for the last eight years, but I’ve been living in the ghetto for 23. Things we’ve been traumatized by our whole lives — we have a right to talk about it.

Jody Rosen explains how “Baby Shark” by Pinkfong exemplifies some of the most prominent features of 21st-century culture:

In other words, “Baby Shark” has completed two full transmigrations between folk and pop. It’s a folk song that became a pop song that filtered into social media to become a folk song again — a grass-roots phenomenon that propelled the pop recording to improbable heights of ubiquity. It exemplifies several features of 21st-century culture: the porous boundaries between the pop industrial complex and the amateur homespun; a globalized circulation of songs based as much on memes as on music; the popularity of unchallenging dance “challenges”; the hegemony of Drake.

Lizzy Goodman writes about the crossover country star Kacey Musgraves’s response to the current mood in her song “Slow Burn”:

What makes Musgraves such a resonant figure right now, in fact, is the way her response to a dark, anxious moment in human history is to move willfully closer to lightness, to stillness, toward the possibility of a world that comes in more colors than red or blue. When she talks about art thriving in this climate, she means it — just not in the same sense as, say, angry punks railing against the Reagan administration. What she means is that right now, the best rebellion involves turning off the hate and making space for hope. Or, as she puts it: “The [expletive] storm won’t last forever, and I want to make music that does.”

And Sam Anderson writes about how Post Malone and his song “Sunflower” perfectly encapsulate teenage life:

Post Malone, in other words, is a big roiling mess of contradictions. No wonder he is so popular with teenagers. He is the perfect avatar of adolescence: the excruciating ridiculousness of being a person caught between worlds, in transition, half-young and half-old, in possession of powers you don’t fully understand, blasting off into inscrutable realms in which mysterious things will be expected of you. This also makes Post Malone a perfect fit for Spider-Man, the canonical story of awkward adolescent empowerment. Posty’s latest No. 1 hit, “Sunflower,” is not merely featured on the soundtrack of the franchise’s newest iteration, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”: It is actually used, in the film, to introduce the hero. We meet the teenage Miles Morales in his bedroom, alone, doodling and bobbing his head to the bouncy hit about a dysfunctional relationship. (“Callin’ it quits now, baby, I’m a wreck,” his collaborator Swae Lee sings. “Crash at my place, baby, you’re a wreck.”) Miles sings along, straying off key, only to be interrupted by his father, who yells at him to get ready for school. The awkward teenager is called, awkwardly, out into the world. Amid all the cringiness, his unexpected superpowers will bloom. Adolescence, despite its obvious flaws, can still save the world.

Students, scroll through the 25 songs in this list and choose at least one of the essays to read in its entirety. Then tell us:

— What is your reaction to the essay you read? What struck you as interesting, challenging or particularly poignant in it? Do you agree with the author’s song choice and what he or she had to say about it? Why or why not?

— The artists and writers in this article describe the overarching mood in the United States and pop music as “tumultuous,” “heavy,” “depressing,” “a bit grueling and frantic” and “not good,” among other things. Do you agree? How would you describe the overall feeling in the country right now?

— Why do you think we are feeling this way? What circumstances — events, trends, attitudes, behaviors — are we reacting to?

— In your opinion, what one song best encapsulates the era we are in? How does it sum up or respond to the national mood? What does this song say about who we are, where we’ve come from and where we are headed as a society?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.