The Music of Saturday Night Live

The Music of Saturday Night Live

The Best Musical Moments of 2016 on Saturday Night Live


I don’t go to a lot of concerts anymore. Three years of Falls Festival, a couple of Big Day Outs and a day-drunk Laneway excursion kinda disabused me of the urge to indulge in live music, as well as whatever they call those fucking spicy potato swirls that come on a stick. Depending on who you are, that many outings will either seem like quite a few or an abysmally small amount. In any case, if you are at all like me and find that your most common exposure to live performances these days is through the remove of late night television programs, then you could have done a lot worse this year than the musical guests on Saturday Night Live. These are the best that were on offer.


10. Courtney Barnett

Australia’s very own Barnett has an apathetic candour and downbeat sing-speak approach that might not be a great fit for live television, but her raucous tunes more than hold their own here. “Nobody Really Cares if You Don’t Go to the Party” is solid enough, though it’s the frolicking, smart-arse rocker “Pedestrian at Best” that stands the tallest, where Barnett gleefully roars many of the lyrics with a joyful abandon.

(So, NBC online kinda suck and there are no available videos of Barnett’s SNL performance, but here’s another one that’s pretty great.)


9. Future

Atlanta rapper Future is so constantly Auto-Tuned that you’d wonder how he’d manage a live performance without it. Short answer: he doesn’t. Warbling through a mic that computerises his syrupy vocals (or at least sure sounds like it does), Future performs with the gusto and confidence of a man who wears his sunglasses inside and knows damn well that he’s pulling it off. “March Madness” is fun but a little muffled, while “Low Life” largely gets stolen from the dude by The Weeknd’s cameo feature, though Future’s enjoying himself far too much to notice.


8. Margo Price

Since TayTay jumped ship, country music often gets the short shrift on variety programs. Margo Price’s solution is to steer away from the “good girl/but is she?” dynamic and instead become this generation’s Loretta Lynn, indulging in hedonistic textures that abound in male country musicians’ songs. Sure, Kacey Musgraves likes weed, but on “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)” and “Since You Put Me Down”, Price can’t seem to kick the whiskey which, when conveyed with the help of a five-piece band including a dude on harmonica, creates a strange, compelling dissonance. In other words, it’s some proper honky-tonk with extra tonk.


7. Alicia Keys

Alicia Keys has undergone a well-publicised reinvention, both in her appearance and musical style: she stopped wearing make-up and started adding way more instruments than just the mainstay piano to her songs, so her ballads are now bangers. On “Hallelujah” (an original, not a Leonard Cohen cover), she cries over handclaps, choirs and church organs for someone to let her in. It’s got the histrionics of an X-Factor performance but with some honed artistic talent behind it, while “In Common” is a stripped-back EDM track with an insanely catchy hook sung with a smooth, swaying cool and wry smile.


6. Solange

Beyoncé hasn’t appeared on SNL since 2008, probably because 30 Rockefeller Place is structurally unsound to contain all the might and swagger she possesses in her current form. Solange Knowles, wisely, never tries to live up to the towering spectacle of her older sister; she’s carved her own identity as a bit of an oddball who’s no less talented, just more restrained. Her performances here speak to that, first the lilting, ethereal “Cranes in the Sky”, which she sings softly wearing a spiderwebbed dream-catcher for a fascinator, and then the ebullient “Don’t Touch My Hair”, where her and Sampha both dance like the coolest kids at a German techno concert.

Solange, not giving a fuck what you think. (NBC)

Follow this link to “Don’t Touch My Hair”:


5. A Tribe Called Quest

Earlier this year Phife Dawg, a founding member of the legendary ‘90s hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest, died of complications brought on by diabetes. So, halfway through their SNL performance of “We the People…”, the remaining members held a microphone up to a banner depicting Phife as a gargantuan, green cartoon as the song came to his verse. I know how stupid that sounds but, somehow, it’s actually quite touching, not to mention one hell of a show regardless, with master emcee Q-Tip spitting timely verses about gentrification, the irrational fear of others and the black experience, both on “We the People…” and a lively rendition of “The Space Program”. Phife would be proud.


4. The xx

The xx’s whole vibe is predicated on laid back, unexpected ripples of beauty. That’s a hard thing to convey on live television but there’s no doubt that, with their first preview of new material in four years, they lived up to the hype. As expected, their smooth guitar and bass interplay matches seamlessly with their smokey vocals, coalescing into a posture of easy melodies and soft, sultry rhythms. “On Hold” alternates between Romley Madley Croft’s breathy delivery and Oliver Sim’s dirt road confessionals about the conditions they instill upon loneliness (because that’s the sort of band they are), bolstered as always by Jamie xx’s inscrutable, sublime samples. “I Dare You”, on the other hand, is a little more undefinable, something like a mirror-house version of R&B. In a live setting, it’s like watching two estranged lovers remembering what it was like to be enthralled with each other, just for a moment, before it slowly dissipates.


3. Kate McKinnon

SNL cast member Kate McKinnon has been doing her Hilary Clinton shtick for so long and so effectively that it’s hard not to burst out laughing immediately at the sight of her. That said, there was always something affectionately supportive about it, especially astride Alec Baldwin’s brutal Trump impression; McKinnon seemed, like a lot of us, to really think Clinton had this in the bag. So, on November 13th, five days after Trump’s shocking victory and six days after what now feels like the prophetic death of Leonard Cohen, McKinnon opened the episode alone at a piano, in full Clinton garb, singing Cohen’s immortal “Hallelujah.” It went well beyond being a fitting tribute to a great man’s legacy: it was a testament to the power of resilience, of being broken by the unexpected and finding glimmers of hope in the shards of yourself, a quite but firm repudiation of hatred and insistence that, now and always, we remain stronger together. It was the faintest, most cherished of lights on the darkest of days.


2. Chance the Rapper

Few living artists take as much obvious and infectious pleasure in performing as Chance the Rapper. It seems only fitting, then, that his most recent appearance on SNL was the last episode before Christmas, a time of year when the gleeful, unbridled child in all of us finds its feet and dances to the music only we can hear. Lucky for us, Chance has found that feeling, distilled it and made it his business to put those tunes out into the world all year round. During his live rendition of “Finish Line” (featuring wide-eyed, pitter-patter rapper NoName) Chance spits bars full of yelpy affirmations and references like “Scars on my head: I’m the boy who lived”, and it’s somehow not corny. Decked out in red overalls covering a white sweater, Chance dances, acts as bandleader and hype man for his backing players and croons “Jesus it’s your Birthday, Happy Birthday Jesus”; once again, he somehow doesn’t make you cringe but, rather, smile from ear to fucking ear. Even on “Same Drugs”, a stripped-back song about the perils of aging, Chance looks around him and can’t stop chuckling, seeming in disbelief that he’s even here and gets to do this. To anyone who’s been paying attention over the last few years, it’s really no surprise at all.

Chance, in action. (NBC)

Follow this link to “Finish Line”:


1. Kanye West

Kanye West’s performance on SNL this past February was, in a word, radical. No, not in the way a backwards-hatted white kid on a scooter in 1997 might use it. I’m talking proper, one black fist raised in the air, standing in front of an acid wash screen in all white for a one fucking minute intro to a song that seems to equate Kanye with the almighty, that kind of radical. Flooding a stage with black performers on a show that has been notoriously slow to adopt a diverse cast and has had five non-white hosts in the last year, that kind of radical. Constantly, without any censoring, dropping the n-word all over your tracks on live television because they were in there for a reason, that kind of radical. But, shit, all this grandstanding doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun as all hell. Watching Kanye, Young Thug, Kelly Price, The-Dream, A$AP Bari and, for whatever fucking reason, El DeBarge turn the stage into their own Coachella set for “Highlights” is goddamn magnificent. “Ultralight Beam” though, complete with a vocal choir and yet another showstopping performance from Chance the Rapper, was like a salve the world didn’t even know it needed yet, a deeply felt, beautiful rendition of Kanye’s gospel. Like the man says, “This is everything.”

Kanye West, Kelly Price, The-Dream and Ye’s Gospel Choir. Do you see what I’m sayin’? (NBC)

Follow this link to “Ultralight Beam”:


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