One of the ways one can tell that we are in an evil age is that we glorify villain arcs and sympathize far more with villains than with heroes because we can identify with the fallen and wicked but not with those who sacrifice themselves for the good any longer. I have noticed over the course this year that in 2022, the villain arc became a tremendously common narrative that I found in the songs I was listening to and talking about. I am no stranger to hearing people tell villain tales about me, nor am I stranger to seeing other people as villains. What is unfamiliar to me, and remains so, is the elaborate justification that goes in seeking to justify myself in my villainy, such as it is. The process of self-justification has always been fascinating to me, in a dark but compelling way, and what I would like to do is point out how it is that 2022 demonstrated the many-layered nature of villain arcs.
What first drew my attention to this phenomenon was, perhaps unsurprisingly, songs that were related to that great arch-villain of 2022, Disney. When not engaged in its own world-historical evils itself, Disney and its related music did a great deal to popularize villain arcs in this year’s music. Some examples will suffice. Dove Cameron, who once played a descendant of a Disney villain for the network, sang a literal villain song where she opined that she could be a better boyfriend for a girl than her current significant other. The song predictably ended up on the Year-End chart. Another starlet from the Disney network had a holdover song that was a massive smash last year have a music video that portrayed her as a literal violently and gleefully hostile ex threatening arson on her former partner. One of the two songs from Encanto that hit the year end, the #1 “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” was a false villain song about someone who was thought to be a villain but was actually not one, fitting for a movie that lacked a true villain.
Some songs were self-aware villain songs of one kind or another. Kane Brown turned in an excellent song about the self-destructiveness of problem drinking and a casual fling that denied the genuine feelings involved, at least on one side, in “One Mississippi.” Morgan Wallen had a whole suite of songs that combined self-awareness with a high degree of bitterness that ended up hitting the Year-End, about which I will have a great deal more to say at some future point. Taylor Swift ended up turning among the most complicated but self-aware villain stories, having a #1 hit about being a self-aware anti-hero that was accompanied by her own real-life villainy in seeking to manipulate the charts by making a large amount of remixes sold at a discount to her stans week after week. It was easy enough to wink and nod when this was done against Drake and 21 Savage, but less enjoyable as it went on week after week, with no sign of stopping yet. When someone openly says that it must be exhausting rooting for the anti-hero in her while showing those villainous tendencies week after week to a fandom that eats it up, one wonders what it will take for those fans to realize that they are being played for fools.
Some songs were self-aware but not as on-the-nose in ways that incriminated others in the villainy, at least. “Son Of A Sinner” examined the generational patterns of being caught between good and evil, with pulls in both directions, a compelling and relatable point for many of us (myself included). “AA” was a light-hearted but also relatable song about the struggles of a not very cool father with his own struggles trying to keep himself and his children out of trouble. “Stay In The Truck” featured a man willing to pay a great penalty for dealing out what he (and many others) would consider to be justifiable violence against a domestic abuser. Some villain arcs, like the sales discounting of Brenda Lee, were the natural result of coming up second fiddle to Mariah Carey for so many years on the Holiday charts. Other villain arcs, like that of Drake, do not appear to be entirely self-aware, as when one of the most privileged rappers in the business insults other rappers for being privileged after they sign big contracts while being likely contractually unable to release the music they are making.
At other times, people would think of the villain arc as not always being related to the song but to the artist. Some people think Morgan Wallen such a vile person that they cannot enjoy anything he sings because of his own self-destructive patterns of drinking and foolish behavior. Other people think of artists like Journey’s Jonathan Cain or Gabby Barrett to be villains based on their support of right-of-center politics. For some music fans, who apparently live in that sunny country by de Nile, any sort of capitalist involvement taints the music and the musician, which makes it hard for artists to make a living because releasing albums and touring generally requires dealing with unsavory companies like record labels and Ticketmaster. Promoting one’s music by having it played on commercials tends to make people feel like a given musical act is a villain, and some bands, like Imagine Dragons, lean into that villainy, sometimes to make their own biggest hits in years in so doing. At any rate, if not everyone’s music is associated with villain arcs, there are enough of them that one can talk about them at considerable length and depth, if one so chooses to think about it. And a world like ours deserves lots of villains, because it has us in it. We are getting precisely the villain arcs we so richly deserve.