The President (such as he is) of the United States is a liar. It’s no wonder the music and TV that mattered most to me in 2019 was all about the search for what’s true and real. All of my most-played and most-pondered favorites featured some variation of authentic selves breaking free from suppression, performers grappling with the limits of persona and the soul-truths that can sometimes only be revealed through the act of striking a pose.
The Highwomen: A seat at the table
The name is a pun on and a tribute to the Cash-Kristofferson-Haggard-Jennings Mount Rushmore of country supergroups. But The Highwomen — Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby — see their project as more of a collective than a supergroup. And that’s exactly what this debut record sounds like. Their group singing conveys a whole, a sense of sisterhood and community to which all are welcome and all belong. In a genre where women artists have to fight for airplay (a 2019 study showed that women artists comprised only 11.3 percent of the country radio airplay on 2018 year-end industry charts), “The Highwomen” feels as much like a movement as it does a musical happening.
The title track is a rewrite of Jimmy Webb’s “Highwayman,” in which the male archetypes of rugged adventurers (outlaw, seafarer, dam builder, astronaut) are replaced by women protectors, activists and healers. The Salem witch, the migrant mother trying to cross the Southern border, the civil rights Freedom Rider (sung by Yola, an Americana/soul artist from the U.K.) are all portrayed as a threat to the patriarchal, misogynistic societies in which they live. In the migrant and Freedom Rider verses, the women are doubly persecuted for race as well as gender. Sung in unison, the final chorus — “and we’ll come back again and again and again and again and again” — conjures women as a resilient force through time, determined to right wrongs and speak truth in a world that underestimates and fears us. If that sounds corny, think of Christine Blasey Ford, Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill testifying before Congress at personal and professional risk. Highwomen, all.
The two other statement songs on “The Highwomen” are similarly lifted by the sisterly blend of the group’s voices. “Redesigning Women” is a sparky country-pop homage to the way Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Reba McEntire made “women’s lib” acceptable for their fans in past decades.The women in the song go to work, race home to breastfeed the baby, take on their families’ emotional burdens and drink a lot of wine. “How do we do it? /How do we do it? /Make it up as we go along,” goes the bridge. The message here is that there is no “right” way to be a woman, so we need to stop beating ourselves up trying to be perfect.
“Crowded Table” glows with a similar generosity. It’s a song of hope at a time when hope is defiance: “I want a house with a crowded table/And a place by the fire for everyone/Let us take on the world while we’re young and able/And bring us back together when the day is done.” The hearth and home imagery both calls to mind and undermines the traditional notion of “a woman’s place.” Women are doing most of the labor of resisting the Trump regime — working in groups, organizing protests, sitting at kitchen tables calling elected officials and writing postcards to voters. The “house” of “Crowded Table” is America. And while the song’s warm folk-rock vibe reminds me of “Our House,” by Crosby, Stills and Nash, it conjures no cozy retreat from the world. It welcomes the world in.
The smaller, more personal songs on “The Highwomen” pack an emotional wallop as well. “If She Ever Leaves Me” was written by Shires and her partner Jason Isbell (who plays on the record) for Carlile to sing. And Carlile’s vulnerable, full-hearted wobble on the declaration “I’ve loved her in secret/I’ve loved her out loud” tells you all you need to know about the cost of loving in secret and the liberation of loving who you’re meant to love.
One song that’s not on the record but should have been is The Highwomen’s version of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” (it’s on the soundtrack to the film “The Kitchen”). It’s a faithful cover, but with a crisper beat than the original. The song is an incantation, a curse ex-lovers level at one another. But when “The Chain” is liberated from the sexual merry-go-round that was the Mac and sung by four women joined together in righteous anger, it becomes something more dangerous and thrilling. As part of Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks’s crystal-vision sorcery was often misinterpreted as air-headedness by the male rock critic establishment. On “The Chain,” the Highwomen sound like a whole coven assembled to avenge Stevie Nicks and how she gave voice to the power of women’s love and rage. They are the daughters of the witch the male-driven music industry couldn’t burn.
The category is “realness”: “Pose,” Lizzo and “Schitt’s Creek”
“If you feel like a girl, then you real like a girl,” Lizzo sings in “Like a Girl” from her unstoppable 2019 album “Cuz I Love You.” Her body positivity and self-actualization anthem “Juice” is the dance song of the year, but every track on the record slams, makes you move. And on the album’s other giant hit, “Truth Hurts,” she asks the question that’s been on a lot of people’s minds since the circus came to town on Election Day 2016: “Why men great till they gotta be great?”
Lizzo is the definition of exuberance, from her rich, sunny voice (reminiscent sometimes of Chaka Khan’s) to her boasts (“I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m a hundred per-cent that bitch“). Taking her stage cues from Queen Bey’s swagger, Lizzo commands you to respect her as she is, a self-made woman who has no time for your body-shaming. Lizzo is not too much, she is everything. Her odes to “self-partnering” like “Soulmate” (“They used to say to get a man you had to know how to look/They used to say to keep a man you had to know how to cook/But I’m solo in Soho, sippin’ Soju in Malibu/ It’s a me, myself kinda attitude”) alternate with songs reading unworthy men the riot act. “Cuz I Love You” could be titled “Cuz I Love Me,” a message she puts across in every performance, every glam shot, every pep talk about knowing your own worth. If it’s a pose, it’s a great and a joyous one, because it pulls her listeners into a place of celebration for the messy realness and the shining possibilities inside all of us.
Affluent jet-setting poseurs lose their fortune and are reduced to living in the hinterlands among their plaid-clad inferiors — that’s the premise of the Canadian sitcom “Schitt’s Creek.” It’s a seam that “Green Acres” and “Newhart” mined well (except that the urban sophisticates of those shows willingly relocated to small town USA in search of “real” folk). What “Schitt’s Creek” brings to the genre is a big-hearted view of humanity at a time when political tribes are actively avoiding each other. On “Schitt’s Creek,” the spoiled Rose family — video-store magnate Johnny Rose, his soap opera actress wife Moira and their pampered adult children Alexis and David — gradually develop humility and empathy as they discover their true selves.
Created by comedic treasure Eugene Levy (who plays Johnny) and his son Dan Levy (who plays David and is also a writer and producer on the show), “Schitt’s Creek” began life on Canada’s CBC and on the mid-tier cable network Pop in the U.S. It broke big when Netflix picked up existing seasons. I was slow to take notice, but once I did, I blasted through it with increasing astonishment and delight. It was my antidote to Twitter this year, and I wish I had had the will power to morsel out the 2019 season when it hit Netflix in October. But I didn’t, and now I have to wait for its sixth (and final season) to hit next year. That’s OK, it gives me more time to re-watch season five, which culminates in an amateur theater production of “Cabaret” for reasons unknown (but it totally works).
“Schitt’s Creek” is often burstingly funny. That magnificent, elegant clown, Catherine O’Hara has the role of a lifetime here and she slays it; her Moira is a bewigged, bedazzled fish out of water, clad in black-and-white haute couture and accentuating her lines in a bewildering speech pattern somewhere between pretentious thespian and Jiminy Glick. As for her longtime comedy partner Eugene Levy, I could write a thesis on his expressive eyebrows through the years, from “SCTV” to “Best in Show” to “Schitt’s Creek,” but for now, I’ll just say that his Johnny is a master class in comedic reacting as the optimist amid his family’s chaos.
What makes “Schitt’s Creek” perfect escapist viewing is it’s relentlessly positive depiction of people’s capacity for change; the longer the Roses stay in Schitt’s Creek — they bought the town as a joke when they were wealthy, and it’s their only remaining asset — the closer they become as a family. And as we get to know them and their neighbors, we’re constantly being surprised by every character’s slowly revealed strengths, kinks and aspirations, the depth of their emotional lives.
If this sounds treacly, it’s not. Every grandly sarcastic line from the mouth of bitchy fashionista David lands as invigoratingly as a cold dip after a hot sauna. And as Alexis, Annie Murphy has created an entire language out of variations on the exclamation, “Eww!” The most singular and wondrous thing about “Schitt’s Creek,” though, is its treatment of David’s queerness (Dan Levy is himself gay). Take the following exchange between Johnny and the town’s mayor, Roland Schitt (Chris Elliot). Roland is a passive-aggressive weirdo, but in keeping with the show’s theme that you should never assume you know what’s going on with people, he completely gets it:
Johnny: My son is pansexual.
Roland: Uh huh. I’ve heard of that. That’s, uh, that cookware fetish.
Johnny: No. No, no. He loves everyone. Men, women, women who become men, men who become women. I’m his father and I always wanted his life to be easy. But just… pick one gender and maybe everything would have been less confusing?
Roland: Well, you know, Johnny, when it comes to the heart, we can’t tell our kids who to love.
Near the end of season five, there’s a lovely episode where David’s adorably unflappable boyfriend Patrick (Noah Reid) comes out to his visiting parents. The parents are visibly uncomfortable and you’re waiting for the worst, but it turns out that they’re happy for him, just melancholy that Patrick kept his true self from them for so long. By design, there is no homophobia on “Schitt’s Creek.” This is Eugene and Dan Levy’s world, and we should all be so lucky to live in it.
FX’s “Pose,” the Ryan Murphy co-created drama series about ball culture and trans and gay life in New York City of the ’80s, set itself a daunting goal for its second season: Tell the story of how AIDS ravaged a generation of gay and trans people while President Ronald Reagan took no action. How do you document the terror, the demonization, the loss upon loss of those years without driving TV and streaming audiences away? Murphy, co-creator Steven Canale and writer-producers Janet Mock and Our Lady J did it by alternating the focus from the personal to the political, drawing parallels to the criminal indifference shown toward the lives (and deaths) of LGBT people by a Republican administration and its powerful religious allies, then and now.
Season two of “Pose” gave viewers a living history lesson of the plague years, from ACT UP die-ins to the terrors of living with the disease that (in those days) meant certain death. The show’s most beloved characters, House of Evangelista mother Blanca Evangelista (MJ Rodriguez) and drag ball emcee Pray Tell (Emmy winner Billy Porter), both developed full-blown AIDS during the course of the season, reacting with their usual resilience (Blanca) and anger (Pray). Yes, “Pose” was often difficult to watch this season without shedding tears. But, as Pray Tell is fond of saying, the older members of the community have to educate the youth. Here is a major TV series with a cast, producers and writers that is majority trans and gay (and majority black- and brown-skinned), exploring the fullness of LGBT lives at a time when the faction in power is doing everything it can to erase them from public life.
Some of the characters’ experiences were horrible: the murder of Candy Ferocity, an African American trans woman; the many characters’ backstories about being banished by homophobic and transphobic parents; Pray Tell’s bone-chilling AIDS-fever dream where he wanders through the hospital ward singing “The Man That Got Away.” But this was all necessary to make the essential point — “Pose” shows you what people will risk for the freedom to live an authentic life.
For all the heartache and sickness this season, “Pose” still gave us plenty of music, dance and ball-walking (a through-line astutely showed the attention Madonna’s “Vogue” brought to the ball community, and the debris after mainstream interest faded). And when the emotional highs came, they were soaring. Pray finally letting himself act on his attraction to a much younger dancer led to a long, skin-to-skin bedroom scene of pure ecstasy. And Rodriguez continues to infuse Blanca, the head and heart of her ball family, with poise, grit and an endless capacity for maternal love.
In an indelible scene from the season finale, Blanca turns up for the “Mother of the Year” ball competition still weak from AIDS-related pneumonia. From her wheelchair, she radiantly lip-synchs to Whitney Houston’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This land is our land too, the choice of music proclaims. Blanca’s House of Evangelista, her crowded table, her chosen family, is a vision of a welcoming, inclusive America that was just a dream in 1990. We’ve come so far in 30 years, the writers seem to be telling us, even as they invite us to consider the forces that threaten to drag us backwards to the time of outcasts and plagues.