2017 In Review

How Musicians Turned To Their Mothers During A Destabilizing Year

One of the most disarming moments in a sea of disarming moments on Frank Ocean’s 2016 album Blonde comes four tracks in, after the haze of “Pink + White” clears and a keyboard interlude trots in. Over the keyboard, a woman’s voice, scratched by phone compression, warns at length about the dangers of using alcohol and marijuana. “This is Mom. Call me,” she concludes, and though the voice doesn’t belong to Ocean’s mother herself, she pronounces it so authoritatively there’s no doubt in the world this woman is speaking to her child.

The voicemail offers comic relief amid an often melancholy album, but it also frames Ocean’s layered excavation of his past. Rosie Watson, the woman heard on “Be Yourself,” stands in as something of an ur mom, a stern but well-meaning presence against which Ocean must inevitably rebel. Ocean is hardly the first to indulge this construct. Mothers have long appeared in pop lyrics — as a spiritual guide in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man,” as last-ditch saviors in Styx’s “Renegade” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” as a lifelong debtholder in Twenty One Pilots’ “House Of Gold.” Before and after her death, Kanye West looked to his mother Donda for inspiration, and Sufjan Stevens’ lauded 2015 album Carrie & Lowell adopts the death of his mother Carrie as an entry to broader excavations of self, memory, and legacy.

While these mothers halo the music in which they’re referenced, they never quite seem to enter it. They’re mythic figures standing just outside each song’s borders, sparking the narratives held within but not participating in them. More recent albums, like Solange’s 2016 release A Seat At The Table, which features a recording of Tina Knowles speaking to the beauty of being black on “Interlude: Tina Taught Me,” work the presence of the artists’ mothers more deeply into the music’s fabric. And in 2017, a striking number of artists explored their relationships with their mothers as whole, flawed, and complex human beings, not simply deities in an origin story. SZA’s debut album Ctrl opens and closes with a recording of her mother speaking to the album’s primary themes of power, connection, and fear, as though the whole album took place inside a single phone call home. On Big Thief’s “Mythological Beauty,” from the album Capacity, singer Adrianne Lenker puts herself in her mother’s place as she recounts a childhood memory of falling out of a tree and being taken to the emergency room. “You held me in the backseat with a dishrag soaking up blood with your eye/ I was just five and you were 27 praying, ‘Don’t let my baby die,'” Lenker sings, feeling her mother’s pain in lieu of her own. Both albums shift profoundly from the way mothers typically appear in music. SZA’s mother speaks for herself, while Lenker’s mother emerges by way of the intimate second person pronoun, a rare “you” instead of a “she.”

On her debut album as Lushloss, experimental electronic musician Olive Jun weaves an extended recording of a conversation with her mother through moving songs about memory, trauma, and healing. The spoken word sections of Asking/Bearing don’t merely serve as punctuation; they’re incorporated wholly into the music, invoking its tensions and preempting its resolutions. Sometimes Jun will ask her mother a question, and a whole track will play before her mother answers. “I recorded these conversations to see how I naturally talked with my mom, to see if there was any way I could improve our relationship, if there were ways I could communicate differently,” Jun tells me. “I realized at a certain point that I didn’t really know much about my mom.”

Jun can be heard asking her mother about her own parents. Jun’s grandfather died when her mother was 13 years old, and her grandmother is now nearing the end of her life — in their conversation, they discuss her illness. “I’m a daughter asking another daughter about her mother, but this person’s also my mother. It’s awkward. It’s heavy. It doesn’t feel good at first, especially if someone’s mother’s dying,” Jun says. On the album, Jun asks her mother how it feels to lose her parents, and her mother balks. “In that moment, I saw my mom as this person who holds off. She’s hesitant. That’s her reaction as a human being, as a daughter, and not as my mother, which I thought was really important. I put my mom through a lot in that conversation. I’m just happy she opened up to me a little bit.”

For her first solo project, New York noise-pop artist Taja Cheek adopted the namesake of her mother Lorraine, who passed away during production of her debut solo album. She chose her stage name, L’Rain, after she had completed the self-titled LP; the cover art is a photograph of the name freshly tattooed on her arm. “I felt really conflicted at first about my name, but now I feel like I’m growing into it,” Cheek tells me. “It ends up being an evolving tribute to my mom. I get to remember her and think about her all the time, just by doing something that I love doing.”

It was her mother who first encouraged Cheek, who had long played in bands, to break out on her own with a solo project. Much of the album’s sound — the twinkling R&B keyboards, the soaring sheets of vocals — Cheek credits to the music her parents exposed her to as a child. “She used to play piano. She would sit with me as I was rehearsing,” she says. “The whole conception of this project was a seed that my mom planted a long time ago that I’m finally realizing.” Lorraine’s voice even appears on L’Rain, though not in the sampled voicemail of a woman singing “Happy Birthday” as many listeners assume. She’s at the very beginning of “Stay, Go (Go, Stay),” warning her daughter not to step in dog poop. “On the album, she is always the moment of levity,” Cheek says. “She’s providing the humor, and I’m grieving, obviously.”

As a whole, L’Rain bridges the space between the people who most impacted Cheek’s life and the person she’s become because of them. She calls the songs “little monuments” to important figures in her history, and while she didn’t originally intend the album to address literal grief, her mother’s illness and death during its recording forced a new context onto the music. “Maybe even more than remembering her, it’s me lamenting the ways in which I feel like I didn’t spend my time with her in the ways I would have hoped if I knew my time would have been as limited as it ended up being,” Cheek says.

The idea of the maternal relationship as both fundamental and ultimately temporary is nothing new, but it did preoccupy plenty of young artists in 2017. Millennials, after all, are in a strange generational position: We’re not having kids, even though we’re fully grown. Given everything else that transpired in 2017, we’re not even sure we’ll live to be the age our parents are now. The climate of apocalypse that fringes contemporary youth culture has seeded an anomalous conflict: How can millennials carry the world into the next generation when we’re not even sure there’ll be a world to live in for much longer? And if we’re not creating the next generation, what the hell are we supposed to be doing?

On his last album released under the name Coma Cinema, Asheville songwriter Mat Cothran refocuses the eschatological concerns he’s visited on previous recordings through a more personal lens. While his band Elvis Depressedly’s most recent album, New Alhambra, stared down the end times through a Christian mythological worldview, Loss Memory delves into painful psychological ruptures and the healing that follows them. Cothran’s mother appears several times throughout the album’s lyrics, both in memories of childhood traumas and in the present as someone who, like Cothran, has survived those traumas.

“My mom had a really hard upbringing and it took me a while to understand it. I had to go through the exact same things she did to understand any of that stuff,” Cothran tells me. “When I was really young, I just had my mom and no one else. The only human being besides me that was real was my mom. There wasn’t man, woman, mom, dad — there was just Nancy, this being that I revolved around entirely. I had been bitter about some of the things that I had experienced as a kid. I thought that maybe she had subjected me to these things, but now, I realize that we went through the same traumas together.”

Like Cheek, Cothran credits his mother with exposing him to the music that would ultimately influence his own songwriting, like Nirvana and Laurie Anderson. When I wonder why so many artists have been turning to their mothers in their music, he points to a lyric from Anderson’s 1981 song “O Superman“: “When love is gone, there’s always justice, and when justice is gone, there’s always force, and when force is gone, there’s always mom.” The song surfaces the strange conflation of maternal love with patriotic love as Anderson sings of her mother’s “petrochemical” and “military” arms. She has a point: A lot of propaganda operates on the assumption that you owe everything to what engendered you, and so a country becomes a mother. As America, as an idea and a structure and a set of habits, grows increasingly chaotic, perhaps it’s comforting to return to maternal narratives, to seek out answers in the individual and not the universal mom.

The individual mother is the one who’s survived this far, and as histories of violence against women come into sharper relief in 2017, looking to the generation that’s weathered decades of normalized, invisibilized misogynistic abuse may lend some insight into how to approach the future. On 4:44, Jay-Z’s mother Gloria Carter speaks from this precipice as she comes out as a lesbian for the first time. “You live in the shadows for fear of someone hurting your family or the person you love,” she says on the outro to “Smile.” “The world is changing and they say it’s time to be free/ But you live with the fear of just being me.” The fear of gendered abuse is diminished and easier to hold, now that it’s being addressed on a massive scale, but it’s not gone. Even as Björk envisions a world free from patriarchal violence on her new album Utopia, she has to disentangle patriarchal lines of toxicity. “Let’s clean up, break the chain of the fuckups of the fathers,” she sings on “Tabula Rasa,” a song seemingly addressed to her daughter. “It is time for us women to rise and not just take it lying down/ It is time. The world is listening.”

For Olive Jun, exploring her relationship with her mother through her music was a path toward articulating her own identity. “In our relationship, I just felt like there was such a huge story, because there’s not a lot of Korean-American trans women like myself who have to navigate that racial identity and that gender identity,” she says. “Talking to my mom is difficult because to her, transitioning is almost an American idea, even though it actually is happening in Korea. That is something I wanted to explore. My mom was the only female figure in my life growing up. She was my role model, and I remember growing up wanting to be my mom. I wanted to reach out to the first woman in my life and learn how that could inform my own womanhood. I learned a lot about my mother. I learned a lot about how I see her in my life.”

To find our place in the present, maybe it’s necessary for young people to contextualize their pasts, to find some ground to stand on. “I think we’ve all been through a pretty rough year,” Cothran says. “We’re trying to get better. When you want to put your life together, you’ve got to sort through everything you can remember. How did I get here? How do I make sure this thing doesn’t collapse on itself? So you look for foundations. At least that’s what I’ve done.”