All Alone With a Microphone

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In 2020, pop learned how much simple physical proximity affects music, and how to cope with isolation.

The last time I applauded live music with a roomful of strangers was sometime back in February. Applauding was an unremarkable reflex: the punctuation between one song and the next, a wordless expression of approval, clearing the air for the next organized vibrations. In decades of concertgoing I had often heard applause as a distraction, just noise that interrupted the musical experience. But during these long pandemic months I’ve realized that applause is really a bond: listeners communicating with performers, listeners communicating with one another and sometimes musicians applauding what they have just done together, with the audience as both witness and co-conspirator.

I took it for granted. But in 2020, so much of what listeners and musicians had taken for granted disappeared — including, for touring musicians and all the people who worked for and because of them, their entire livelihoods. Theaters went dark; historic clubs closed, some forever. Musicians, well-known and unknown, lost their lives to Covid-19.

There were no more (safe) concerts, no more physical communities, no more offline connections, no more random encounters with fellow fans. For those who took public health guidelines seriously, making music together at all was harshly curtailed; indoor rehearsals, studio hangouts, jam sessions, dance parties and in-person collaborations disappeared. At best, they re-emerged with all the old acoustic cues disrupted: musicians performing spaced apart, or outdoors, or hooked up online.

It wasn’t just the applause that went silent. All of music’s real-time feedback loops did. The instinctive, intuitive things that musicians learn nonverbally as they practice or improvise together, and the signals they pick up from a concert audience, were shut down. No amount of videoconferencing, chat scrolling or drive-in-concert horn honking could compensate. When it vanished, we learned how much simple physical proximity affects music.

Justin Vernon and Taylor Swift performed together (but not in the same space) for her “Long Pond Studio Sessions.”

Artists, as they do, coped. They weren’t going anywhere during lockdown either. Since tour dates evaporated, many made music at home. Some — Norah Jones, Phoebe Bridgers, Jorma Kaukonen — appeared often online, keeping their voices and fingers limber, seeking connections with the fans they could no longer see. Some sequestered themselves to work on their own, then revealed unexpected projects that were recorded at home(s) and completed via file-sharing: like Charli XCX’s candid, self-recorded and frantically meta-poppy “How I’m Feeling Now” and two full albums by Taylor Swift, “Folklore” and “Evermore,” along with a pristine sequestered living-room performance, “The Long Pond Studio Sessions,” that physically united Swift and her main collaborators for the first time.

Long before 2020, musicians had been constructing tracks virtually and long-distance rather than through face-to-face interaction, particularly in hip-hop, electronic dance music and what’s loosely termed bedroom pop. But the pandemic made working in isolation — alone, perhaps as a family unit, or via the internet — closer to universal. (There was a considerable learning curve as musicians became their own recording engineers.) Musicians were also processing their upended routines and the same emotions as everyone else in 2020: anxiety, loneliness, boredom, claustrophobia, agoraphobia, doubt, distrust and, at the same time, the political furies of the 2020 election and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.

Music’s social expectations unraveled and atomized. The immediate responses of musical collaborators working together — a raised eyebrow, a bobbing head, an involuntary grin — gave way to video latency at best and obliviousness at worst. The mere presence of an audience provides subliminal editing cues, but audiences were far away and, more likely than not, distracted. Musicians who imagine real-world spaces for their music — arena, dance floor, rock club, car — could no longer count on an obvious physical destination for their work beyond the computer screens that had become everyone’s main connection.

Lifelong reflexes had to change. That wasn’t all bad. Musical collaborations can be spontaneous and synergistic, but they can also lead to a committee mind-set of second-guessing and convention. The necessity of working on their own allowed musicians to be quirkier, less inhibited, more whimsical and daring. Many of my favorite albums from 2020 — by Sufjan Stevens, Moses Sumney, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Swift and that pre-pandemic recluse, Fiona Apple — share a spirit of daredevil introspection, making the most of enforced separation by pushing deep into personal obsessions.

Lockdowns and working from home also deeply affected everyone’s sense of time — and time, as much as sound, is music’s raw material. While musicians had unexpected and unwanted off-road time to write, record and practice, listeners who were turning to streams for entertainment could find themselves streaming whole albums, taking in structures that were more expansive than one song amid a playlist. Isolation offered a chance at contemplation. In turn, that encouraged musicians to try larger statements.

Agence France-Presse, American Broadcasting Companies, via Getty Images

Meanwhile, performers’ urge to perform — which runs far deeper than trying to maintain a revenue stream — generated months of experimentation and new forms of self-revelation, while it accelerated the pressure on musicians to master social media. Online, there were unfiltered visits to homes and home studios, opening the doors to formerly private spaces — sometimes entertaining, sometimes awkward.

As the months wore on, performers found more venues and variations: virtual backdrops, multitracked videos, studios, parks, and even their familiar clubs and concert halls. They were empty but briefly reopened, for a wistful glimpse of what normal used to be.

But 2020 may have changed normal forever. It drove musicians apart, inward and online; it made some rethink how to make and present music. Bilal, a songwriter and vocalist from Philadelphia who worked with D’Angelo’s Soulquarians, set up a virtual songwriting/jamming session for three days in August: a 54-hour livestream with 30 guest musicians checking in online, among them Erykah Badu and Robert Glasper, overseen by the producer Tariq Khan. The livestream was mostly the numbingly boring yet essential work of a recording session. But it created a pulsating, mutable, jazz-R&B-soul-electronic three-song EP that is an essential document of the days of quarantine and street protests: “Six feet between us or there’ll be six feet between us,” goes one rap.

A few musicians — promising adequate testing and precautions — gathered flesh-and-blood-and-sweat ensembles for worldwide streams. Dua Lipa’s album “Future Nostalgia,” recorded before the pandemic but released in March, was a disco and house-loving collection of songs clearly intended for dancing crowds. Those couldn’t happen in 2020.

Long into the quarantine, in October, Lipa staged “Studio 2054,” a livestream with a band, a D.J. and dancers. Perfectly poised and apparently working live to the cameras, she romped through a neon-lit simulated disco on a soundstage along with guests — Kylie Minogue, FKA twigs, the Blessed Madonna — braving actual proximity. A year ago, “Studio 2054” would have been a tease for an arena tour; now, it played as a fantasy of an alternate reality, where people could mingle freely and feel the beat together. It claimed 5 million viewers.

With any luck, 2020 will be a distant outlier: a single year of devastation and separation. Yet amid all the sorrow, anger, ugliness and loss, it also showed us possibilities worth remembering.

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NYT > Arts > Music

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