A Musical Reflection on 2020

A rain specific to mid-December is falling outside of my kitchen window. I am sitting in front of my laptop as the television echoes through my household with news of the first implementation of the COVID-19 vaccine. The Microsoft Word page I have open glares at me as I ask myself for the tenth desperate time, “how does one describe this year?” 

To say 2020 has been tumultuous would be an understatement. To say this year was “one for the books,” would be nothing short of cliche. So let me begin by saying if this year was guilty of being one thing- how purely human it was. 2020 proved more than any social experiment that the human experience is one of imperfection. It is a phenomenon of fragility, coupled with the mortal truth that there are forces that exist outside of us that can prove fatal. Sometimes, those forces exist within us. These truths were made clear this year, manifested in a brutal virus that ravaged through the bodies of citizens just as it did to entire economies. We saw these truths watching a man die at the literal foot of injustice from his oppressor, proving centuries of systemic racism to a point that is undeniable. On this day, 41 days after the United States Presidential Election, the electoral college is meeting again to vote for a second time confirming Joseph Biden as presidential elect. To have been alive this year was to feel an instinctual anxiety by a raised consciousness watching systems we assumed trustworthy evidently fail us. Despite our great shared pains, let’s not forget the most crucial part to continuing human existence- our ability to persevere. As January nears, I feel now is the time to truly process the last 12 months. To best express all the emotions felt by the United States, I feel as music could best embody 2020’s phases of grief, uncertainty, and most importantly triumph. So, with help from prestigious artists like Bill Withers, U2, and Adele, I would like to encapsulate these events in the words of these artists that 2020 confirms to be timeless.

To begin, we must acknowledge the “before times,” if you will. January seemed hopeful as the calendars changed to an election year in the United States. College seniors ordered graduation gowns and planned so gleefully their day of commencement. At the time, the only naivety in sight was the following through of new-year-resolutions. As gym memberships were born and plans were made, cases of coronavirus drastically escalated in China and Europe. On January 20, 2020 the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the U.S. Ten short days later, the World Health Organization announced the outbreak as a global emergency. 

The song I feel best to pinpoint this period just before the lockdowns to embody the uncertainty society felt is none other than Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin.” Inspired by the Anti-War and Civil Rights movements of the 60s, Dylan urges humanity to open their eyes to peril and accept there must be work done to prevent sinking like a stone. It’s fair to say our country did not expect a pandemic, or assumed it to be isolated quickly like the Ebola outbreak of 2014. President Donald Trump told his constituents not to worry, that churches were sure to be safe and opened by Easter. Just as government officials preferred to turn a blind eye to the movements of the 1960’s as a form of denial, so did the current administration to the pandemic. “Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call, don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall,” Dylan writes. Rage built against the President’s response as many scientists urged the closing of the country to isolate the virus in January. Despite this, overwhelmed hospitals, and rising mortality rates, Trump did not urge workers to stay home until after mid-March. It’s the belief of many that an earlier and stricter lockdown would have saved thousands of lives lost. Times were absolutely changing, and as Dylan warned, we seemed to miss our chance to prepare leaving millions sunken, “drenched to the bone.”

The next preceding months were ridden with death. By May 23rd, COVID-19 had claimed 100,000 victims and was still growing. Temporary business closings turned permanent as production stopped due to lockdowns, forcing many small businesses to lose their source of income and all they had worked for. Millions of restaurant workers were laid off. Evictions reached an all time high as the global market sunk to levels compared to 1929’s Black Tuesday. The spring was pitiful. U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” embraces these worldwide feelings of anguish in the midst of such loss. “And the battle’s just begun, there’s many lost, but tell me who has won?” Somehow the United States managed to politicize this virus, fueled by accusations of governmental neglect against those who strongly questioned the validity of the virus. While millions of lives were destroyed, many American citizens were glued to their televisions watching their respected news outlet furthering their cognitive biases… “and it’s true we are immune, when fact is fiction and TV reality.” As disdain of politicians and neighbors alike grew, Americans also began to develop a distrust for their least-favorite media outlets. American life was bleek as tensions and death seemed to grow in juxtaposition. To me, this song truly enclasps the darkness and anger felt as of this period in time. 

Spring ended and in came a June that once again testified the deep-seeded institutional racial injustice in the United States. On May 25, 2020 George Floyd, a 46 year old man of Minneapolis, Minnesota was murdered in the street… for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. Caught on tape, the video of this man’s last breaths went viral. People watched George tearfully call out for his mother in horror as a police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. A murder so disgraceful, so egregious, the epitome of unjust- but tragically common as unarmed black men being killed by police has been called an epidemic in America. In wake of media coverage, millions became outraged and took to the streets with their masks to protest. On June 6th, over half a million people in America marched chanting the names of victims of police brutality in nearly 550 places across the U.S. Released in inspiration of this, rapper Anderson Paak paints a vivid picture of this civic agony, only blurred by tear gas thrown at protestors. “Lockdown,” tells the tale of these demonstrations with lyrics like “Sicker than the COVID, how they did him on the ground. Speakin’ of the COVID, is it still goin’ around? Oh, won’t you tell me ’bout the lootin’ what’s that really all about? ‘Cause they throw away black lives like paper towels.” With lockdowns just in place, protestors risked their lives to prove a point so obvious, but in so desperate need of recognition- Black Lives Matter. 

The aching of racial injustice was met with suffering from the ongoing Coronavirus Pandemic with no clear end in sight of either. The country was dealing with massive amounts of anger and pain, and to exacerbate it, hugs were nearly prohibited as fear of the virus remained. The irony of this was something out of an Orwell novel. In any ordinary time of fear and sadness, people need people- to be understood and supported. That’s why Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me,” righteously hits home. A classic soul song, Withers revives us of our shared experience. “We all have pain, we all have sorrow.” A summer of mourning for those lost at the hands of the pandemic or their oppressor, millions collectively experienced feelings of weakness amidst all of the loss. “You just call on me brother, when you need a hand, We all need somebody to lean on.” Though we couldn’t physically embrace, Withers reminds us that today, we can still call. 

It is now 17 days until 2021. Derek Chauvin’s trial is set for March. COVID-19 vaccinations have begun distribution. A blameworthy administration is on it’s way out.  The process of healing has started for our tired country. In the spirit of breakups, our closure with 2020 would only be appropriately embodied by the lyrics of Adele, of course. “Water Under The Bridge,” reads as a plea to acknowledge the hardships of a relationship. To say something is “water under the bridge,” essentially means to move on and forget the significance, in any event. When Adele boasts, “Say that our love ain’t water under the bridge,” she’s accepting the end of a relationship, but asks for her partner to at least be conscious of how substantial their journey was. As much as one might desire to following these events, it would be negligent to simply forget this year in hopes of a better future. Let this year serve as a lesson, a reason to be a better person as our consciousness is raised. Let 2020 serve as a cautionary tale to our children who we hope do not see the bloodshed we had to. Those who forget the past are destined to repeat it, after all.

On an optimistic note I’d like to finalize this list with a song that I’d also like to hear at the first legal large group gathering of 2021: “I Know There’s Gonna Be Good Times,” by Jamie xx featuring Young Thug and Popcaan. “Worth every date til’ we meetings,” this trio knows that (social) distance truly makes the heart grow fonder. I’ve learned to prohibit myself from saying things can’t get worse this year. Instead, I’ll say this: no matter what, I will find something good… a silver lining, somewhere. Not only is this song hopeful, but it is  my personal reminder that even in the worst year I’ve ever seen I was still able to see the good if I looked hard enough. 

As we reflect on this year, we can see proof of our growth, passion, and perseverance. Personal and societal achievements that can be attributed to the dark times of this year can truly only help us be a better version of ourselves in the upcoming years. It is my belief that as a country, the majority of us have gained a sixth sense of sensitivity to those different than ourselves. We understand things we may not be able to see are vastly apparent in the eyes of others. Though we are an imperfect people (to say the least), we’re advancing everyday. So, in closing  I would like to tell whomever is reading this essay a few things: be proud of yourself for getting through this year, be kind and conscious of your neighbor, wear your mask, and when in doubt, stream music that says it for you. 


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