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The Songs That Taught Us to Fight Back

“Formation,” “Black Beatles,” and the other best singles of 2016 showed us what music can do — and what it can’t

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

She upstaged the Super Bowl. The day before. It was disrespectful, unsportsmanlike, spectacular. No wet-noodle Peyton Manning heave, no ill-timed Cam Newton implosion, and certainly no anodyne Coldplay lullaby could compete.

Beyoncé’s “Formation” premiered on Saturday, February 6, on YouTube and (LOL) Tidal, a terse, hypnotic cascade of pop-infused New Orleans bounce, resilient and defiant and galactically regal. “Y’all haters corny with that Illuminati mess,” she growls by way of introduction — that’s exactly what someone in the Illuminati would say. There are shout-outs to Givenchy, baby hair, Jackson 5 nostrils, hot sauce, Jose Cuervo, Red Lobster. “You just might be a black Bill Gates in the making” amended, immediately and accurately, to “I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making.”

And finally, the chorus, 11 staccato syllables: O / KAY / LA / DIES / NOW / LET’S / GET / IN / FOR / MA / TION.” An earworm and a battle cry and a campaign slogan and an epitaph for all who’d dare oppose you. It was a battleship then and a lifeboat now. For many Americans — oh, let’s say roughly 65 million of them — the year 2016 peaked a week before Valentine’s Day. Even the NFL itself started collapsing soon thereafter.

As Beyoncé detractors never tire of reminding you, Beyoncé does not write her songs alone; the initial spark of the “Formation” chorus was provided, however improbably, by one Swae Lee, half of the young Atlanta-via-Mississippi rap duo Rae Sremmurd. “That could be a hard song for the ladies,” producer Mike Will Made-It recalled thinking as their impromptu Coachella-desert writing session progressed. “Some woman-empowerment shit.”

Rae Sremmurd are the kind of bratty, yelpy, hit-making disruptors who drive Real Hip-Hop guys nuts. But they know what they’re doing, what needs to be done. In August they put out their sophomore album, SremmLife 2, packed with shout-along knucklehead anthems that evoke both a strip-club brawl and a 6-year-old’s Chuck E. Cheese’s birthday party. But lurking there was “Black Beatles,” a denser, eerier, more striking affair, with Swae Lee laconic and melancholy, all those hooks now turned inward, pressing against his own scrawny chest. “Young bull livin’ like an old geezer / Quick release the cash, watch it fall slowly / Frat girls still tryna get even / Haters mad for whatever reason.” It’s a Drake-certified sad-hedonist pose, sure, but the genuine, bizarrely infectious gloom still permeated.

This song illustrates, as well as anything released in 2016, how arcane and confusing and useless the term “single” has become. What makes a song a single, and a single a hit? A deliberate PR rollout? A music video? A certain YouTube-plays threshold? Inclusion on a high-profile streaming playlist like Rap Caviar? A meme? “Black Beatles” started off as a critic-bait deep cut (guilty), before its deployment as a promising but somewhat desperate official radio single for an underperforming album. And then, in November, it suddenly became the soundtrack to the Mannequin Challenge, a surrealist tidal wave that carried it all the way to the top of the Hot 100, where it reigns at this very moment.

A happy ending; a bizarre, wonderful, totally organic-seeming fluke that was, of course, meticulously orchestrated behind the scenes. (An internet-branding concern called PizzaSlime is involved.) However it happened, by the second week of November everyone was in on it. Everyone.

Hillary Clinton! That other powerful lady with hot sauce in her bag! The morning of Election Day! With Jon Bon Jovi! Isn’t that great? Isn’t that terrible? “Formation” and “Black Beatles” tower over the 2016 singles field, however you define the term, and however you define success, or happiness. Two transcendent, bulletproof songs that show us what great music can do. And also what it couldn’t.

The best (and certainly the most relevant) singles of 2016 tended to emerge from the realms of celebrity-tier rap and pop, it’s true. Here is one possible defense. Another is that those genres rely most prominently on blockbuster hits. (Nashville does, too, but this was a lousy year for country singles.) Plenty of this year’s blockbuster Hot 100 hits were pleasant enough but colossally vapid: Think DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean” or Mike Posner’s “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” or Sia’s self-explanatory “Cheap Thrills” or (bleagh) Lukas Graham’s “7 Years.” No problem (usually). You need chaff, you need empty calories, you need fizzy mindlessness. Not all big singles are important. But the most important singles tend to be pretty goddamn big. And as with 2016’s best albums, the weirdest, nerviest, and boldest songs this year often came from boldface names.

Cultural saturation matters, up to a point. It is churlish to deny Drake’s influence or ubiquity this year, though it’s also fun to try. His breezy and mellow and global-domination-minded “One Dance” was this year’s Song of Summer by some margin, our collective admiration grudging but not “Fancy”-in-2014-level grudging. He has reached Too Big to Fail heights, moping from the penthouse, and given that the next step after Too Big to Fail is, inevitably, Spectacular Failure, it’s impressive how he managed to glumly cling to power as other once-unassailable megastars, from Justin Timberlake to Lady Gaga, came up short. Like his mopey frenemy the Weeknd, he’s still huge in spite of himself, but his work, at least this year, wasn’t quite great in spite of its hugeness.

Indeed, of the top-tier pop stars, he had the biggest and yet least adventurous year. Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem” was a buoyantly confrontational delight, fraught with industry implications, plus the loony version he did on Ellen doubles as the best musical talk-show moment of 2016. (Rap music!) Rihanna’s Anti was a mess, but the effervescence of “Work” is undeniable, rendering even Drake far more thoughtful and tolerable. Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo was, of course, a huge mess, and “Ultralight Beam” was not officially a single from a perpetual clusterfuck of a record that refused to be officially anything, including “complete.” But Chance’s fantastic guest spot rolled the song, and possibly the whole album, to the top of the mountain anyway.

To the extent that Pablo had an official single, that’d be “Famous,” which was a total nightmare, for some of us more than others, but for everyone, really. But another hilarious quirk is that the record’s true breakout track wasn’t even Kanye’s. It peaked a little too early to properly challenge Drake over the summer, but Desiigner’s “Panda” was a monster hit whether you took it as a joke or a revelation, capable of making you feel both hopelessly old and somehow young again. Just don’t sit next to this guy on an airplane.

Even if “Panda” goes down as a novelty fluke, it’s worth cherishing simply for how weird and unexpected and volatile a phenomenon it became, a throwaway trifle from a loopy rando that somehow became inescapable and indispensable anyway. As with “Black Beatles,” the industry back-channel machinations were fearsome, no doubt, but Desiigner’s rise at least felt organic and unforeseeable, and sometimes the illusion of mass-culture free will is preferable to the real thing. We learned that lesson a couple of different ways this year.

YG, on the other hand, sought to alienate, if not infuriate, roughly half the country with “FDT,” which, should you still be unfamiliar, stands for exactly what you think it stands for. Consequently, it didn’t exactly top the charts, but it might be remembered, 10 or five or even two years hence, as the only 2016 rap song that truly mattered, in that it towers above the precious few to directly address, and valiantly repudiate, what will go down historically as the only event of 2016 that truly mattered. A portent of the hopefully robust and ferocious and impactful protest-song industry to come. By early November, though, you’re forgiven if you were curled up in the fetal position, not much fight left in you for the nonce, desperate for anything that might qualify as soothing. Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky” is the only way. It still works now. Honest.

If pop and rap will never, ever do it for you, maybe you flipped instead for Radiohead’s neurotic and doomy “Burn the Witch,” which is functionally “FDT” with ominous runes instead of letters and has aged pretty well, unfortunately. Or maybe you’re an unapologetic indie-rock diehard still in thrall to Car Seat Headrest’s “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” frontman/mastermind Will Toledo’s most anthemic and masterful performance as a 24-year-old impersonating a 42-year-old. It’s the chorus that really puts that one over, exuberant and infectious, the lyrical sentiment swinging wildly from the straightforward (“It doesn’t have to be like this! / It doesn’t have to be like this! / It doesn’t have to be like this!”) to the charmingly nonsensical (“Killer whales! / Killer whales!”). It’s a great song that keeps getting better, and keeps making more sense.

But if you truly need guitars, be your tastes underground or Bud Light mainstream, the clear choice is Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl,” a furious (and very American) song with a bonkers sunburst of a chorus, 8,000 distortion pedals wailing in awesome, terrifying unison. “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me,” that chorus starts. “But I do / I think I do.” Amended, eventually and gloriously, to “I do / I finally do.” A nervous and pulverizing ode to the joys of getting in formation, or refusing to.

Cultural saturation takes you only so far, after all. Skimming the year’s biggest singles in Billboard’s estimation alone, you bump into the usual suspects, with fine careers and reliable constituencies, from Ariana Grande to Bruno Mars to Twenty One Pilots’ wild ascent as, very arguably, the biggest rock band in America, “rock band” being another term it’s way tougher to define now than a decade ago.

But the two songs that trip you up on that Billboard list are the Chainsmokers’ “Closer” and “Don’t Let Me Down,” both monsters of near-Drake proportions from two randos who’ve made EDM great again despite (or maybe as a result of) their being such incredible buttheads. Their hits point to the existence of a shadow Top 40, where EDM has been robust this whole time, unwilling to die just because the bewildered, doddering old MSM insisted it had. The Flume/Kai joint “Never Be Like You” was huge; “Starving,” which not at all awkwardly combines the talents of Hailee Steinfeld, Grey, and Zedd, is climbing the charts as we speak. You’re still old. And a few young people, at least, are still young.

That resilience is impressive, and songs like these are far closer to 2016’s apolitical zeitgeist than EDM’s premature eulogizers will admit. They’re a little too fizzy and anonymous to crack most critical top-10 lists, but they’re not just cheap thrills and empty calories, either. And that anonymity can be a feature, not a bug — we need more boldface pop that doesn’t necessarily come from boldface names.

Choose your own adventure. It’s always been this way, singles-wise, but this year we got extra everything. The U.K.’s own Song of Summer, in case you were curious, was apparently Calum Scott’s dippy cover of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.” It is tempting to declare that one the most important and culturally relevant song of 2016 overall, in that 2016 totally sucked. It was a hard year. It’s hard to talk about. “When Doves Cry” and “Purple Rain” both cracked the top 10, too, for the worst possible reason. But the best songs of the year taught us how to fight back, how to retreat with dignity, how to take our mind off things, how to put our minds back on things. How to fall apart, and how to reassemble.