I really am trying to make my year end posts about things I didn’t really talk about this year. I swear. However, when it came to the music category, I ran into two issues. One, its that I feel farther away from what’s “in” with each passing year. Every year end list feels like a damn hipster parade, especially when I just want to sit here and listen to pop music and pop-punk when I’m at work when I’m not listening to podcasts.
And there was stuff I listened to and enjoyed this year, for sure. Fall Out Boy’s raucous follow up to Save Rock and Roll titled American Beauty/American Psycho, Carly Rae Jepsen’s 80s synth-riffic Emotion, Butch Walker’s dark exploration of grief with Afraid of Ghosts, and Florence and the Machine’s angry and hopeful How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful were all albums I really enjoyed. Not to mention Against Me’s 23 Live Sex Acts and Murder By Death’s Big Dark Love. There was also a Muse album in there that I kinda sorta enjoyed, but was ultimately forgettable in comparison to their earlier albums.
However, this brings me to the second problem. Because even with all these albums, the soundtrack to Hamilton was my favorite album all year.I talked about Hamilton earlier this year in a post that was half review, half rant over accessibility. I still absolutely stand by it, especially now that I was FINALLY able to buy the soundtrack with my Christmas money and have been re-listening obsessively without the issue of Spotify and YouTube. It’s surprising how I keep finding things I missed before even after four months of listening to this cast recording.
At some point, I realized I have a thing about making history accessible. Perhaps it comes from growing up with an armchair historian of a father who eventually got his masters degree in military history. However, much to my dad’s eternal bemusement, I found other things to be interested in. My 20th Century Topics IA in IB was about the Iranian Revolution centered around Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and we got into a bit of a tiff after I called him out for his own reasoning of “historical accuracy” over the treatment of Lyndon Johnson in Selma as his reasoning for not seeing it, which is its own piece of complicated history. The latest moment of confusion came when I asked for the Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton that Lin-Manuel Miranda based the musical on.
Here’s the thing about the way we treat history. It’s often seen as something so far away and god-like that its easy to forget that the people who were involved in it were humans too. I don’t mean that in the “oh wow, Hitler had feelings too” way, but in that people who shape our histories are complicated beings that don’t come out of the heads of gods fully formed. Thomas Jefferson was a shitty human being, but in some ways, so was Hamilton.Hamilton does a great job of framing the history of America’s founding in a way that makes it accessible to audiences that would have never considered it outside of the few chapters in their history textbooks in school or even felt like they had a stake in as several cast members have admitted. By framing it with hip-hop and rap, modern speech patterns and placing people of color into the roles of these historical figures, the show weaves a story of rebellion and revolution about actual historical figures. While certain segments of the show were changed for dramatic purposes (Angelica had five brothers and was already married when she met Alexander, Alexander resigned from office versus being fired) or for simplification (James Monroe was the one who approaches Alexander about the Reynolds affair), but the musical still keeps fairly accurate all things considered. I only just started Chernow’s 828 page monster of a book, but I’ve been surprised at just what came through into the musical.
It’s not just the historical components though. It’s also the way Miranda was able to see and draw out the hip-hop narrative out of the story of Hamilton. Perhaps its true that history does repeat itself, but the fact he was willing to take a risk on showing such a familiar arc in something that seems the opposite of that is impressive. Maybe it is that universal appeal of love, sex, war, and arguments that have made it take off so much. Especially among Star Wars fans. Seriously, I was seeing so many graphics even before Miranda was announced as a collaborator on the Cantina music for The Force Awakens.
And even with the limited information we have about the women of the Revolutionary War, the show still pushes them as part of that history. Even with all of Alexander’s brilliant wordplay and self-destruction, the show’s final number is there to remind that we wouldn’t even know all of this if it wasn’t for his wife Elizabeth Schulyer Hamilton working to preserve his legacy after his death. I’ve just gotten to a point where I can sometimes listen to Phillipa Soo’s performance during ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story’ without crying. Sometimes.Hamilton is just as complex of the man it’s about. Dense and brilliant, the musical tells a universal story of hustle while telling a part of history that isn’t very humanized. While it isn’t a complete picture of the man’s life or the time, it still shows that side of history without being stodgy and forces the listener/viewer to rethink just how we frame that part of history. Not to mention the stellar performances all around from Miranda, Soo, Leslie Odom, Jr., Renée Elise Goldsberry, Daveed Diggs, Anthony Ramos, Christopher Jackson, Okieriete Onaodowan, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Jonathan Groff.
I still hope that I can see the show at some point, but for now, I’ll just keep the soundtrack going.