How do you know when you really like a song? Is it because of how it makes you feel or move? Do you normally find out about songs through friends, social media or by following the artists you love? How much do you care about the lyrics of a song or the biography and identity of the musician?
In “25 Songs That Matter Now,” writers and critics for The New York Times selected and analyzed the songs, and the artists behind them, that they believe are significant to our current moment. The songs include “Prophet” by King Princess, Taylor Swift’s “The Man,” “Dangote” by Burna Boy, Lana Del Rey’s “Doin’ Time” and “Truth Hurts” by Lizzo, among many others. While the essays each center on one song, they expand to analyze lyrics and reflect on the larger cultural significance of the musicians and their work.
The Times contributing writer Jody Rosen focuses on the intersection of musical arrangement and voice in “El Beso Que No Le Di” by Romeo Santos featuring Kiko Rodriguez:
Over a typically sensuous bachata arrangement — floating melody, jittery guitar line, chattering bongos and guiro — the singers take turns, but it is Santos who commands center stage: His voice, a falsetto pitched somewhere between Aaron Neville and a chirruping bluebird, is one of pop’s great sounds.
Carvell Wallace, a Times contributing writer and podcaster, writes about Tyler the Creator’s song “Earfquake,” his evolution as a musician and his most recent album, “IGOR.”
All this was brought into vivid relief on the album’s first and only single, “Earfquake,” anchored by a pop-friendly three-chord progression, vocals by the Gap Band legend Charlie Wilson and a verse from the rapper Playboi Carti delivered so breezily as to almost be a parody of a Playboi Carti verse. Tyler later admitted that he originally wrote it for Justin Bieber or Rihanna, both of whom passed before he took it himself. The Gap Band influence is strong: You can easily superimpose Tyler’s chorus over the verse chords from one of its biggest hits, “Outstanding” (1982), and Wilson’s influential voice technique — later imitated by the likes of Keith Sweat and Aaron Hall of Guy — is present here, in a telescopic callback to the late ’80s New Jack Swing he helped inspire.
For me though, what hits hardest about “Earfquake” is that Tyler presents a version of himself with no room to spare. The song, like much of the album, finds him at a loss. He has ditched the safety of youthful disaffection to seek love and some version of earnestness — but, surprise, it hurts. Such is the cost of genuinely trying to care. “Don’t leave,” he begs, “it’s my fault.” This is a Tyler without an answer. The certainty is gone, replaced with pleading. He is refreshingly, if painfully, not in control. We’ve already heard angry Tyler, swaggering Tyler, depressive and violent Tyler, double-middle-finger Tyler and I’m-too-smart-for-all-this Tyler. “Earfquake” is the first time we hear a Tyler in need of someone else. The ground beneath his feet has indeed been shaken.
In “Brittany Howard Gets Her Revenge In a Song,” Zandria F. Robinson, a writer, professor and cultural critic, writes about Brittany Howard as the South’s “radically reconstructed blues woman, its weird, funky rock savior and an emblem of a South that might finally see promiscuity and difference — racial, sexual, sonic — as a liberal good.”
“Goat Head” recounts an incident Howard learns of long after it happened: In retaliation for her very presence, her birth to an interracial couple, her father’s tires are slashed, the severed head of a goat placed in the back seat of his car and blood spread around the vehicle. This anti-black hate crime is the grotesque kind for which the South is infamous, made more egregious by the silence that surrounds it, the culprits unrevealed and unpunished. The song is both a memoir of this moment and the preface to a retribution ritual.
The beat runs for over a minute before Howard’s voice arrives, and when it does, it provides neither immediate clarity nor relief. The opening of the song, a poem, squats down to America’s level to explain race to the South, and the nation, as if they were children:
Tomatoes are green
And cotton is white
My heroes are Black
So why God got blue eyes?
There is an innocuousness here in the words that Howard’s voice, syrupy Southern with a side of ominousness, belies. The beat drops after the fourth line, and the poem continues, her staccato articulation of syllables reflecting the restraint and patience it takes to explain something to willful adults who feign childlike ignorance:
My Dad-dy, he stayed
My grand-mama’s a maid
My ma-ma was brave
To take me outsi-ii-de
Cuz ma-ma is why-ii-ite
And Dad-dy is Bla-eh-ack
When I first got made
Guess I made these folks mad
In “How Billie Eilish Rode Teenage Weirdness to Stardom,” Jonah Weiner, a contributing Times Magazine writer, writes about time spent with Billie over the years as her stardom and music career have grown, and about Billie’s relationship with her brother as both a sibling and a collaborator:
Billie, 18, and Finneas, 22, have an easy, unabashed intimacy. They were home-schooled, and Billie likes to joke that had they ever attended public schools, Finneas — eccentric and sweet-natured — would have been bullied, whereas Billie — coolly charismatic and sharp-tongued — would have been a bully. In conversation, though, they’re more likely to pay each other compliments, plainly and earnestly, than to reroute their affection through the kinds of sarcastic needling siblings often engage in. Finneas, leaning over the couch in an extremely L.A. ensemble — multicolored camp shirt, skinny trousers, perforated brown loafers with no socks — gave Billie a hug. “Missed you,” he said, to which she replied, “You smell good.” He took a seat on a coffee table facing her, and she stretched out a leg so that her right foot rested on his left inside thigh.
In “How Megan Thee Stallion Turned ‘Hot’ Into a State of Mind,” Jenna Wortham, a staff writer for the magazine, interviews Megan Thee Stallion about her music, identity, internet presence and legacy:
Jenna Wortham: I think the duality that you possess — a person who can be seen in a string bikini, drinking Hennessy on a yacht one day and host a beach cleanup the next — empowered a lot of women to realize they can also be multiple selves online and off. “Hot Girl Summer” isn’t about being reckless; it’s about leaning into all of the parts of yourself. It has been a whole two seasons since the song came out last August. How do you reflect on that period?
Meghan Thee Stallion: I don’t think you could think about summer without thinking about “Hot Girl Summer.” The whole Hot Girl aesthetic — I think people felt comfortable seeing someone doing whatever they wanted to do. That’s why a lot of women appreciated it. This year, I’m working to show people what being a hot girl really is like. Do you know what a candy striper is? Eventually, I want to open an assisted-living facility in Houston, but before that, I want to get girls together to go to different homes or hospitals. Those people don’t have anybody, and I think it’d be really cute to have a Hot Girl come visit you and volunteer.
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 and the song you listened to? Had you heard the song before? What did you think of the writer’s analysis of and reflection about the song? Did you agree or disagree with what they said? What other thoughts or feelings do you have about the song?
What is your favorite song right now? Was it included in the 25 songs list? How did you first hear that song? Did someone share it with you or is it from an artist you follow? What do you love about the song? Are there certain lyrics that you find powerful or moving? Is there something about the beat that you like dancing to? Does the musician’s personality or identity resonate with who you are or how you identify?
Many of the articles in the collection analyze the lyrics of songs. How closely do you listen to song lyrics? Do you ever feel moved by what artists are saying, or want to know more about who they are because of the words in their songs? What do you think makes lyrics good or powerful? If lyrics are not important to you, what else about a song do you listen for?
Several of the profiles discuss the artists’ personal lives and their presence on social media. Megan Thee Stallion said of her social media presence, “I don’t like my Instagram to look like it’s a commercial. I want you to come to my page and feel like I’m still your classmate. I do post when I’m taking a quiz because I want my Hotties to know I’m still going to school. I want people to look at my page and think, This is real life.” What role does social media or online presence play in how you interact with, or think about, the musicians you love? Do you feel more connected to them because of what they post online? Do you ever feel that musicians share too much about who they are online? How do you know what that line or boundary is?
While “25 Songs That Matter Now” was published before the coronavirus pandemic reached many communities in the United States, we imagine you might be thinking about how this current moment has changed how you interact with music. What do you think? Have the ways that your community has been affected by the pandemic changed the music that you are seeking out and listening to? What kind of music do you find yourself gravitating toward or sharing now? How do you think music can affect how we experience painful or difficult moments in life?
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