Our Favorite Political Music of 2021 : The NPR Politics Podcast Miles Parks, Juana Summers, and Ayesha Rascoe are joined by Stephen Thompson of NPR Music to discuss their favorite political music of the year.

Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org
Join the NPR Politics Podcast Facebook Group.
Subscribe to the NPR Politics Newsletter.
Find and support your local public radio station.

Our Favorite Political Music of 2021

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1067329484/1069156953" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript



Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting and misinformation.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: And I'm Juana Summers. I cover politics.

PARKS: But today, we are covering music and reviving something we did on the pod a couple years ago and going through the best political music of 2021. And to help us with that task, us political reporters not make a fool of ourselves, we're bringing in NPR music expert Stephen Thompson, one of my personal favorite music writers. Hi, Stephen.


PARKS: How's it going?

THOMPSON: It is going well. Thank you so much for having me. This is a treat.

PARKS: Yeah. So I think we should probably lay down a few ground rules as we go through our best of 2021. First of all, best is in the eye of the beholder, so if you loved it, it is free game. And No. 2, I think we should note that we're using the word politically pretty loosely here. I don't know how many songs were written about the child tax credit or the January 6 commission.


PARKS: So I think we can kind of talk our way into a lot of songs being political in this, and I think that's what we'll end up doing. So, Stephen, with that in mind, why don't you start us off? What song did you bring for us today?

THOMPSON: Well, the song I brought is from an album by an R&B singer named Jazmine Sullivan. The album is called...


THOMPSON: Yes, right? I knew I was in the right place. The album is called "Heaux Tales" - H-E-A-U-X - and it is a collection of songs built around interviews with and the experiences of women. And the songs are about sex and race and class and relationships. And each of these stories, you know, really comes from a different perspective. And to me, this album is the truest example of music as an act of empathy. This is stories being told about people who don't always have their stories told.

My favorite song from this record is called "The Other Side." And...

SUMMERS: Mmm hmm.



THOMPSON: And there's this kind of twist in the song. The song starts out kind of like, I want to - I'm poor. I want to be rich. But then the song kind of takes a turn from that as this fantasy becomes more curdled and compromised. I love this record so much. Let's hear a little bit of "The Other Side."


JAZMINE SULLIVAN: (Singing) I'mma (ph) move to Atlanta. I'mma (ph) find me a rapper. He gon' buy me a booty. Let me star in the movie.


PARKS: I swear I listened to this song so many times, I was convinced I needed to go marry a rapper. Like, I was...


PARKS: I feel like I was like, all right, I guess that's my new life plan.

RASCOE: That's the thing - is like, you going to go to Atlanta, get a rapper. He going to buy you a booty, and then you might star in a movie. That's what I'm talking about. Like, that is...


PARKS: I think she does end up starting her own business, too, later in the song, too. She's independent businesswoman.

RASCOE: Later. That's later. That's possibly. That's possibly.

PARKS: Possibly, if she feels like it.

RASCOE: But she gon' get the booty (ph).


THOMPSON: I could spend this entire podcast picking apart the contours of this fantasy and the way that it starts to curdle as the song goes on.

PARKS: Yeah.

THOMPSON: There's a point in the song later on where she's basically saying - like, ultimately, she's, like, getting facelifts. Like, have two kids with a surrogate.


RASCOE: Surrogate.

THOMPSON: I'm a fly mama. I'mma (ph) stay fit, get a facelift. And all of a sudden, it's like even in the fantasy you have laid out, there are compromises in order to perpetuate it. And so to back up slightly, one of the most influential songs in my entire life, one of, to me, the most important songs I have ever listened to is that when I was 16 years old, Tracy Chapman put out the song "Fast Car."


THOMPSON: And I think "Fast Car" is one of genuinely the greatest songs ever written. And hearing it when I was 16, it just - it opened my eyes to songwriting as a window into lives that are unlike yours and really feeling the feelings of other people. And this song, to me, taps into some of that same feeling. Like, music is - music can be a window into other lives in such interesting ways.

RASCOE: To me, what I loved about that song is because it's dealing with the idea of, here is a woman who is doing something, living a life she does not want to live. And it's like, I am going to use what I got to get what I want. And as women, there is often this idea of, you better use what you got. And if that is your body, if that is looking good, if that is going to the gym, that - and you can use that to - I mean, this is a tale as old as time - marry up, get the - you know, this crosses, you know, all - you know, this crosses race, all of that. But the idea that you're going to marry up, get that man, live that life to get that, but it's all very tenuous because...


RASCOE: ...You can lose it, and there's always going to be somebody else at the gym looking good with a booty.


RASCOE: You can't - it's very hard to hold on to that - right? - like, 'cause what you have starts to slide, starts - you get the wrinkles, you get - I mean, this is "Real Housewives" on, you know, steroids, right? Like, this is what every season of "Real Housewives" is about.


SUMMERS: I thought it was also just like - I love the song 'cause it feels so confessional in a way...


SUMMERS: ...And is so thoughtful. The "Real Housewives" image and, like, the point Ayesha makes about Black womanhood in particular I thought was what really resonates with me and what made me love this song and, really, the entire album so much, honestly.


PARKS: Yeah, yeah. All right, Juana, so you're up next. What song did you bring as your best political song of 2021?

SUMMERS: All right, so we're going to go in a totally different direction here. I picked a song that I learned about on Twitter, actually, from a set that the band did at the LA Public Library.

THOMPSON: Oh, yep.

SUMMERS: Yep. I know the NPR Music folks know this one because I read a great piece on it from them when I saw this tweet originally. It's a band called The Linda Lindas, and they opened the Los Angeles Public Library's AAPI Heritage Month celebration back in May. And the song that I picked is a song called "Racist, Sexist Boy." And as somebody who grew up and was in high school going to small shows in the early 2000s, this was just so nostalgic for me. They are saccharine but angry and raw and just eloquent and don't mince words in a way that I wish I had that I certainly did not have when I was these artists' age. They're all in their teens. And I love the fact that they're angry.

But in the song, they also talk a lot about renewal and rebirth. And they say - you know, I think the lyric is, we rebuild what you destroy, after they're kind of taking down these closed-minded, untoward boys that they're singing about. I just thought it was such a fun, but also really meaningful song, especially this year when I think about - you know, I cover race and politics, and the amount of violence and racially directed violence we've seen against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in this country, it just - I don't know - it just resonated so much for me this year.


THE LINDA LINDAS: (Singing) Fake dance, shoot and destroy. You are a racist, sexist boy. One, two, three, four. You say mean stuff and...

SUMMERS: I just didn't think there could be, like, a better anthem for the year. And also, as somebody who spends a lot of time interviewing members of Gen Z, this seemed just kind of just like right-on-the-nose perfect.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

PARKS: Yeah, there's something about the simplicity that, like, I just feel like we talk around a lot of these things so much, and just to have it just said over and over and over again, I feel like it really is - it's an earworm in the sense that it's catchy, but it also is like you come away from it, and then 15 minutes later, an hour later, it's like, still, that idea is still kind of swirling around your head even after you've heard the song.

All right, we're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, me and Ayesha are going to share our picks for the best political song of 2021.

And we're back. And before the break, we were talking about how The Linda Lindas scream racist, sexist boy over and over again partially because they feel like the world just isn't listening to them. And that idea, saying something over and over and over again and feeling that the whole world isn't hearing it, is something that the song I picked, which is "Tried To Tell You" by The Weather Station, really gets into as well. Which - and this song, first off, is just - I think it was, on Spotify, my third most listened to song this year. It's just so unbelievably beautiful. I can listen to it, like, when I'm waking up, when I'm getting ready for bed, when I'm, like, exercising, whatever. But, like, broadly, it's this really - it gets down to this really interesting theme that I covered a lot this year as I was covering the hearings on Capitol Hill around social media.

This whole record - The Weather Station's whole record really looks at the cost of human advancement, technology and just basically says, we've done all of these things over the last hundred years, and, you know, what is the cost of that - whether that means climate change, whether that means when it comes to social media, you know, the human cost. Have we sacrificed human connection to be, you know, able to talk to anyone anywhere? And I think this song just really gets at that idea and basically says, you know, we need to look really hard at all of this advancement and what it's doing to us as people.


THE WEATHER STATION: (Singing) Would it kill you to believe in your pleasure? I tried to tell you.

PARKS: I love that line the song ends on. Would it kill you to believe in your pleasure, this idea - how much time we all spend staring at these screens thinking we're getting pleasure or enjoyment out of them, and then we kind of wake up, I feel like, one day, and we're just like, oh, that was my life or that was that week or that was that month.



PARKS: You know? And I don't know. There's a darkness behind this song.


PARKS: But there's also this optimism, still, kind of that's underneath it.

RASCOE: Yeah, that's a little depressing. But I think...


RASCOE: You know, but life can be very depressing.


PARKS: We got to talk about these things.

RASCOE: We have to. We have to have the conversations so you can make a change and make a difference, yeah.

THOMPSON: It's such a perfect example when we talk about political songs, right? Like, it's really easy to approach the political songs of the year, and you start to look at like, well, here's a song about climate change. Here's a song about lockdown protocols. Here's a song about racism. But, like, there are so many nuances in politics and in life and in songwriting, where songs can be acts of politics without necessarily being explicit and blunt about it. This song is kind of a perfect example of that. It is questioning the state of the world in ways that feel really personal and specific and relatable. Yeah, she's so rad.

PARKS: Ayesha, why don't you close this out for us? What song did you bring?

RASCOE: Yes. So - and this won't be a surprise to probably anybody, but definitely to no one - to anyone that knows me, but I have spent much of this year listening to the women of rap. And, you know, we are right now, I would say, in a renaissance and in - just in - like, you just have so many strong women rappers. I love the City Girls, and I love Meg Pete - Megan Pete...



RASCOE: ...Aka Megan, Meg Thee Stallion. And so she had a song that really addressed, really, a lot of the criticism. You have all of these women rappers, and there is a criticism of them, as she addresses, really, in the video for her song "Thot S***."


RASCOE: And we can play a little. Can we play any of that? We can play a little bit of that, right?


MEGAN THEE STALLION: (Rapping) Hands on my knees, shakin' ass, on my thot...

RASCOE: OK - oh, that's it? OK.


PARKS: That's all we get. That's all you get. If you want to listen to the song, go to Spotify, go to Apple Music.

RASCOE: OK, you got to listen to this song. What I feel like - what she did in this video is basically she showed this white male senator complaining about the women's video, saying that she - you know, these whores are out here, need to have their mouths washed out with holy water - because there are all these criticisms - right? - of the music that these women make. There was all that criticism of "WAP," and, you know, it was just ridiculous. But what I felt like was so ridiculous at the time was these news outlets would play videos of "WAP" and say, look at this. Isn't this horrible? Let's play it - 18 more minutes of it on a loop.


RASCOE: Isn't this - I can't believe it. Oh, my gosh. Did you - play that one more time. Let me see her do that again (ph).

SUMMERS: The outrage.

THOMPSON: I mean, truth be told, that is kind of how I reacted to that song was like, oh, my goodness, I can't believe they're - let's just hear that one more time.


RASCOE: That's the thing. I mean, so this is what the video, which is, you know, a bit graphic - but it's just people sitting on their behind (ph). But - and, you know, it gets a little graphic at the end. But the whole point is this man is saying this when he's clearly gratified from it. And you are upset at women for taking back their power, but women are doing all of these things. They are taking care of you. They're taking care of your children. They work in jobs. They doing all - why piss off the women in your life? So that's what I thought was political about that.

PARKS: Yeah.

THOMPSON: I mean, kind of what I was saying before about how we define political music - like, Megan Thee Stallion being on top of the pop charts is an - is a political act.





THOMPSON: ...That is political. Lil Nas X having a No. 1 single in 2021 - NPR Music's song of the year, in fact, in 2021 - with a song about - a pop song about gay sex, that - being Black and queer at the top of the pop charts in 2021 is a political act. And it's really hard to separate, and I don't think we should even try to separate the political and the personal and statements of identity and strength.

SUMMERS: And I love this song so much, and I'm so glad you picked it 'cause I think one of my favorite parts of the song is where she says, are they supportin' you or really just attackin' me? And she just really drills down so eloquently in every line of this song just how much she knows herself, she knows her worth, she knows her immense talent, even with all of these kind of naysayers who are not necessarily on the level or making good faith arguments about her music. And I just think that is - I just think she's just such an eloquent spokeswoman for this, like, wonderful moment of Black music that we are in right now.

RASCOE: And I think - and just to be clear, yes, it's a lot of twerking. First of all, twerking is not easy. It is an art form in and of itself.


RASCOE: And, like, the dancing that Meg Thee Stallion does, the show that she puts on - that is work. That is...

PARKS: No question. No question.

RASCOE: ...Hard work. That is not something that - you can't just get out and do that, right? Like, I know I certainly can't do that. So...

SUMMERS: No, ma'am.

RASCOE: You know, put some respect on Megan and her knees. Put some respect. That's what I'm saying.


THOMPSON: Twerking is not easy, says NPR.



PARKS: All right, Stephen Thompson of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, thank you so much for joining us, and happy new year.

THOMPSON: Happy new year to you, too. And here's to a 2022 in which nothing political or bad will happen.


PARKS: I'm sure that's - I'm sure that'll be...

SUMMERS: Famous last words.

PARKS: Thank you to all of our listeners for listening on a holiday and, of course, all year long. We cannot wait to do this all again next year.

I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting and misinformation.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

SUMMERS: And I'm Juana Summers. I cover politics.

PARKS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.