The YEAR The Music Died

David Bowie. Leonard Cohen. Sharon Jones.

Three pop musicians who died this year, offering proof to the truism that “bad things happen in threes,” and serving as three points in the ellipsis offering a coda to what is at once a political and a cultural age.

All three of those artists have pride of place in any self-respecting hipster’s music collection.

Bowie’s myriad eras have something for everyone. The postmodernist reinventions range from the iconic Ziggy Stardust era to Kraftwerkian flourishes on Low. From the blue-eyed soul of the Nile Rodgers “Let’s Dance” period to the Tin Machine metal moment, and through the couple of decades afterward, with a coda in the free-jazz inflections of Lazarus — the deathbed album, and one of the most essential of Bowie’s career.

Then there was Cohen, a more acquired taste for many. To the end — “You Want It Darker,” Cohen’s own deathbed cycle — the singer/poet/songwriter had a feel for a trenchant lyric in a love song (“Suzanne,” “Lover, Lover, Lover”) or a political ballad (“The Partisan,” “Everybody Knows,” “Democracy,” “First We Take Manhattan”).

Cohen’s production was always uneven: His most high-profile producer, Phil Spector, led him to the flawed Death of a Ladies’ Man album in the late 1970s. And Cohen, from the ’80s on, could have benefited from working with the kinds of producers who were producing relevant tracks then.

But the lyrics were enough. Like Bowie’s, they came from an exalted place, the spirit of the outsider, the prophet.

Sharon Jones, meanwhile, was a singular performer, an interpreter of songs. She and her band, the Dap Kings, offered percussive, driving renditions of songs ranging from Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” And the band had its own classics: “I Learned the Hard Way” and “The Game Gets Old” are two of my favorites.

Jones’ death could be blamed on Donald Trump. In reaction to his election, she had a stroke. (She was already fighting cancer.)

The common thread among these artists ultimately is subjective: In existing, they offered smarter alternatives to some of the dumber crevices of pop culture. Bowie, Cohen and Jones — all were alternatives to the bowdlerized pop music used in commercials, heard in grocery stores and piped in elevators.

Or so it seemed. Realistically, it’s only a matter of time before “I’m Afraid of Americans” is used in an ad for Expedia, or “Famous Blue Raincoat” becomes part of a Men’s Wearhouse spot. It’s the way of the same world that got Nick Drake into a Volkswagen ad, or the Joy Division “Unknown Pleasures” cover art interpolated with a Mickey Mouse T-shirt.

These artists, these songs, these moments that offered singular meaning — sooner or later, all are grist for the maw of pop culture, where the only constant is a newly elected Republican president using “Proud to be
an American” as theme music.

At this point in my life, I’ve been an active consumer — as in, putting my money into the system of production — of roughly three decades of pop music. In that time, the expectation has shifted from the life-changing new single or album, to the hope that Artist X finally returns to form after a bad album or three, to the excitement about new versions (demos, remixes, whatever) being on the retrospective box set. And then, the fin de siècle psych-out: realizing that an artist has died, and then pulling the appropriate video off YouTube and sharing it on social media.

It’s a way of mourning the artist, sure. But it’s really more about mourning the irrevocable loss of youth and the ultimately false set of expectations that pop music’s perpetual reinvention of itself always creates.

Reinventions come with increasingly diminished returns: ask Madonna about that, or ask the person who bought the 11th new remix of “Blue Monday” or “West End Girls.” Each new iteration becomes a bit more cynical. And eventually, the consumer realizes — always the last to know — that no matter what remixer touches an old property, it’s still played out.

Meanwhile, the escapist sphere of pop music doesn’t really blot out the reality outside the speaker box: that insistent realization that the country’s getting poorer, that you’re getting older, that there’s more crime on the streets for increasingly inexplicable reasons, and that the president-elect of the United States is taking time out of his transition for absolute bullshit, like Twitter beefs with the cast of “Hamilton.”

After Pence got booed and lectured in NYC, Trump said that “The Theater” should always be a safe space. But there are no safe spaces for most of us. We live in a world of mounting uncertainty. And pop culture ultimately has been a fleeting distraction, ultimately irrelevant to where the future will take us, with those who bought in being the biggest marks of all.