Love Music to Surprise You? Jon Caramanica Recommends TikTok Dives

As the editor of the Culture department at The New York Times, Gilbert Cruz relies on critics, reporters and editors in every field of the arts for their expertise. Now we’re bringing his personal questions — and our writers’ answers — to you. Currently on his mind: how to open himself up to new music, and tangle with the beast known as TikTok, which he posed to Jon Caramanica, a pop music critic.

Gilbert asks: We’re approaching the tail-end of one of my favorite times of year — Top 10 list time! The holidays have passed, but I’m still catching up on stuff. I love reading ours, I love reading those from other publications. It really allows me to feel both superior (“Yeah, I saw that”) and inferior (“Damn, I didn’t even hear about that”) at the same time. Last year, after seeing your No. 1 album, I distinctly recall asking myself, “What is 100 gecs?” putting on the song “Money Machine” while my 5-year old was in the room and immediately regretting it. This is one of the reasons I appreciate you.

This year, I played it so safe as a music listener. In March, it felt as if I would have time to explore so much of the new — and instead I just played my favorite albums over and over again. Did I do it wrong? Can your year-end list (and Jon Pareles’s and Lindsay Zoladz’s) redeem me and those like me?

Jon answers: First off, please enumerate all of the other reasons you appreciate me. If we have any space left, I’ll …

I’m really glad that I hit my target demographic, which is to say your child, which is to say someone who remains open to all of the wacky, unexpected possibilities of music. I’d guess that by the time we are, I dunno, 13, we already begin to understand music as something that defines us socially, and about which we can become tribal. That is, of course, a shame. I wish child’s ears for everyone.

Look, you’ll find great, revelatory things on my album and song lists — for your little one, try Rina Sawayama and Flo Milli — but I’m not sure there’s much on there that will snap me or you or anyone else out of [madly waves hands around] all of this. Fiona Apple probably came closest for me — it was nice to hear someone with such a direct line to both their resentments and their creative impulses.

I think the artists who suffered this year — critically, at least — were those who stayed the course. In a different year, say, Gunna might have gotten more critical attention. But his 2020 album wasn’t much different than his 2019 album, and I found that I didn’t have much to say about him that I hadn’t already said. In a year where it sometimes felt onerous just to extract the energy to even absorb a work of art, albums like that felt easy to nod at and move past.

Gilbert asks: It’s a big part of your job to constantly experience the new — but is there older stuff that you find yourself returning to for comfort?

Jon answers: I do think that discomfort is my beat, to a certain extent. I generally find myself allergic to familiar pleasures. That said, for the last couple of years, few things have been more calming than the music of the Griselda Records crew, from Buffalo, which is grounded in the 1990s New York rap that makes up around 85 percent of my DNA. The way the syllables have sturdy corners, but there’s still a liquidity between them — it’s as reassuring as my mother’s voice.

Also, I know it might sound odd to say that I found comfort in TikTok, the centerless, directionless app that grabs you by the neck and clings tight for as long as you’ll let it, but I found its relentless, crossed-up rhythms soothing. There are endless rabbit holes to fall down, myriad subcultures to peek in on, countless around-the-way superstars who have finally found their dream milieu.

Gilbert asks: Yeah, I heard you say something similar on a recent episode of Popcast where you talked about how you “struggled this year to listen to albums” and wondered about the “utility of the album.” Do you think that’s a function of quarantine, or is it just an extension of the playlist-ification of music? Honestly, almost every new song I discovered this year I discovered through some Spotify playlist. (No free ads.)

Jon answers: As awful as it sounds, an album is simply a data dump now. That doesn’t mean that some artists won’t continue to aim to be auteurs of the form — say, Taylor Swift or Adele — but the minute albums hit streaming services, they are sliced and diced and the songs are relegated to playlist slots, and everything after that is a crap shoot. The truth is that albums worked as a medium only because everyone was a captive. When you look back at your favorite older albums now, I’m sure you see the weak spots that you’d happily have programmed out if you had the technology then. Now you do. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next generation of pop stars finds ways to never release an “album” again — they’ll just drip music out, one automated-brain-chip-download at a time.

Gilbert asks: OK, I have to come back to something, though. It’s embarrassing.

Here it is — I’m just not on TikTok much. (Insert grimace emoji.) I know I should be because it’s a major part of the culture, but there are only so many ways I can direct my time. This Robert Caro book isn’t going to finish itself, Jon! What are some of the best things you’ve seen there this year?

Jon answers: It’s cool, man — you get paid to run the department, and I get paid to do … this.

#FrogTikTok. Teens talking about reading political theory, both as means to revolution and to flirtation. @funkbeezly’s taxonomy of boyfriends. The debunking of Noah Beck’s Yale soccer scholarship. The House Nobody Asked For. Jordan Scott. (Sorry.) (Someone help him with his merch, though.) The joy in the comments when Charli D’Amelio finally danced to ppcocaine’s “3 Musketeers.” High fashion satirist guys who’ll soon be in need of chiropractors. Jeremy O. Harris’s “WAP” dance at Pompeii. @cyberexboyfriend. The very long, very specific memory of @nfbroleelove. “Who’s the drunkest?” Dances to Phoebe Bridgers and Soccer Mommy. @karchill and his Mentos. The many flavors of Pop Smoke and Lil Tjay’s “Mood Swings.” Kids in Zoom classrooms telling their teachers how much they appreciate them. Jasmine Orlando. “Where? Bunny? Surplus? Labor? Value?” And of course, Larry Scott, who always had a “nice” ready when I needed one.

Gilbert asks: What’s the longest you’ve ever spent scrolling through TikTok?

Jon answers: Ummmmmmm … three hours? So, not nearly long enough.

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