REWIND: Bask in a glimmer of optimism for 2021 with The Beatles & Alicia Keys

Beatles, Here Comes the Sun, George Harrison

Here comes—let’s be realistic here—the slightly less overcast sun, with the Beatles.

You’re reading this in 2021. That means you made it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m under no impression that 2021 will immediately be all sunshine and rainbows. We’re still in the midst of a plague that should see a new peak due to all the foolish holiday travel, a coup attempt that’s still threatening to turn violent, and massive systemic inequities that continue to kill people, after all. But there are lights at the ends of the tunnels! People are getting a COVID vaccine in the real world as you read this, Trump is losing power in late January whether he admits it or not, and… OK, so two out of three ain’t bad.

On New Year’s Day 2020 I tweeted, “If you’re reading this you made it through 2019. Congratulations! 2020 will probably be even worse but celebrate that we’re still standing,” and boy did I nail that one. But for once I’m tentatively optimistic. At the very least, even if nothing gets fixed, even if things get worse before they get better, I have the feeling 2021 will be the start to stabilizing the problems that made 2020 a constant waking nightmare. I have some inkling of possibly misplaced faith that in a year’s time things will be marginally better than they are right now. And that hasn’t been the case in a long, long time.

So, to celebrate this uncharacteristic, heavily qualified, relatively cheerful mood, let’s go listen to five songs about hope and new beginnings. Then next week after the “get worse” part of “get worse before it gets better” continues, I’ll go back to being my grumpy, misanthropic self.

Johnny Nash — “I Can See Clearly Now”

Yes, I realize this is cliched, but shut up, I’m in a vaguely good mood. On the rare occasion that happens I get cliched. If I find myself in a permanent good mood I’m going to have to stop writing a column entirely.

Nash really just had this one big, timeless hit, but boy was it a good one. He was primarily a reggae singer and once you know that you can really hear it coming out a bit in the song. In fact, his record label in Jamaica signed Peter Tosh, Bunny Waller and Bob Marley after Nash heard them at a party, and that began their exposure to American audiences. And that was after his first attempt at starting a record label went bankrupt and he moved to Kingston because renting recording studios was cheaper there. See? Perseverance!

Of course he also died in 2020 but we won’t dwell on that, it’ll just harshen my vibe.

Alicia Keys — “Brand New Me”

Yeah, this is more a breakup song than a cheerful new beginning song, but hear me out.

First, Alicia Keys is great. That’s it. That’s the first reason.

Second, we’re all very different people than we were a year ago. Nobody goes through a year like that and comes out the other side the same person. We experienced a whole lot of wholly unexpected trauma, from the hopelessness of indefinite isolation to, for the families of one out of every 1,000 Americans, the death of a loved one. We learned things about ourselves and about those close to us. Some of us who spent our lives as extroverts discovered the joy of staying home and having quiet time, some of us who were devout introverts found out that we really do need people sometimes. Unfortunately, some of us discovered that, when faced with stress, we put those around us at risk out of selfish rage.

As we gradually lurch toward the close of some of these chapters, we need to embrace the new us and what we learned about ourselves. We need to use the pain and anxiety we experienced in 2020 to bolster our empathy for those who experience an individual 2020 due to more personal tragedies, or for marginalized Americans for whom it’s never been anything but 2020 because any negative interaction in a store or any traffic stop could mean death at the hands of a police officer.

Learn lessons from bad times, that’s the only thing they have to offer you.

The Beatles — “Here Comes the Sun”

George Harrison has always been my favorite Beatle and this is one of his most famous songs. As the story goes, he spent a day in business meetings for the band’s label, Apple Corps, and got so sick of it he hid out at Eric Clapton’s house for the day. The song is about the brief respite from the drudgery of business that the nice, sunny day at Clapton’s country house brought him. So it’s an appropriate song for a brief emotional respite from everything going on. We all need a metaphorical sunny country day in the midst of our collective metaphorical business meeting.

In the spirit of the column I’ll skip the part where Harrison and Clapton kept hooking up with each other’s girlfriends, spouses and exes.

Miley Cyrus — “Party in the USA”

What? When I get in a decent mood things get weird.

Look, I respect Miley Cyrus as a musician and as a person despite her Disney beginnings and her family’s history of atrocities. Yes, she’s starting to sound a bit like Patty and Selma, but in a different era with a different upbringing she’d probably be more L7 than Debbie Gibson.

This song is appropriate to the theme because right now, we’re all getting off the figurative plane in L.A. We’re excited but nervous, because we don’t know what’s to come and it’ll probably be a tough road but this is the first step to a new, better life. And yes, I’m probably reading too much into an early Miley Cyrus song.

Nina Simone — “Feeling Good”

This song has been done by everyone from Sammy Davis Jr. and John Coltrane to Muse and the Pussycat Dolls, but if you have the option to listen to Nina Simone sing a song, you listen to Nina Simone sing a song. She’s in that lofty second tier of vocalists behind Aretha Franklin, who is the best singer who’s ever lived and I will not be taking questions at this time.

Anyway, I’m ending on this one because, again, it’s going to get worse, but this really is a new dawn and a new day. The end of multiple nightmares is in sight. So let’s take advantage and, rather than striving to put everything back how it was that led to these messes coming into being, rebuild a stronger set of systems from the wreckage. Now’s our chance to prevent the next 2020, whenever that may be.

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