Everyone's a Critic — and That's a Good Thing

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2015: The Year of the Call-Out

This week, Westword music contributors took a moment to call out and shout out the standouts of their year in music, whether their concerns skewed local or national, niche or general, personal or quantifiable. In this week's print edition and on the web, you can find reflections on jazz and experimental music, Denver's embattled yet flourishing DIY scene, and more.

In 2015, everybody had a microphone, and everybody had something to say, from Donald Trump to your cousin Nancy, who remembers when that Hannah Montana was such a nice girl. (Cousin Nancy doesn’t know that Miley Cyrus is so 2014.) Social-media pulpits are readily accessible, and the popular sense is that if we have an opinion (oh, we have opinions), then we are engaged. This year saw the rise of call-out culture and backlash-on-backlash, and some of the highest-profile hullabaloos happened within pop music. From Meek Mill and Drake to Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift, no one seemed unfuckwitable.

And that’s a good thing.

While the public takeaway from these squabbles is often rolled eyes, the call-out fallout can also be influential and positive. In an open letter in June, Taylor Swift called out Apple Music for not paying artists during its trial period — and Apple promptly changed its policy. On stage and on Instagram, Taylor Swift calls out her famous female friends, trotting them around for a strutty celebration of supportive community among high-achieving women. Sure, Swift’s on-brand everything can make these girl-power declarations feel superficial, but her PR juggernaut can also actually make these ideas — about sincere gratitude, and about women being treated equally, celebrated for individual strengths and collective efforts — catch on among the youths. #SquadGoals forever.

The best call-out, by the way, was not done by Swift, but aimed at her. When Nicki Minaj called out bias and gross underrepresentation in major industry awards, Swift’s reaction exposed her nearsighted privilege. But the important part was that the exchange provided a platform for actual discussion about the experience of female artists of color and people who aren’t as powerful as Minaj (basically everyone).

The thing is, even in 2015, everybody most certainly does not have a microphone. Which is why the call-out can be essential — not when it’s used for personal promotion, but for a redirection of public conversation. It's easy to drown in the details of he said/she said/they said, and for thoughtful discussion and action to be lost in the gossip. Yet if we clear away the excess, pop music, in the most serious way in recent memory, is providing a platform to examine systems and society — rather than just sparkle. (Okay, there's still plenty of sparkle.)

On that tip, the best call-out of 2015 is the song “Hell You Talmbout,” by Janelle Monáe and Wondaland, the verses of which are spoken names of people who were killed by police — TAMIR RICE, FREDDIE GRAY, SANDRA BLAND — followed by “Say his/her name!” The title and chorus, Monáe explained, refers to conversation centered on “what I got on, or who’s dating who,” to which the only appropriate response in 2016 is:

“Hell you talkin’ ’bout?”

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