Homeward Bound: Odysseus, Frogger, and a Simple Teleology of Play

Why did the frog cross the road? Well, for many of the same reasons that Odysseus did.

In observing some fundamental patterns in stories, myth critics, like Joseph Campbell, have observed that one common element that leads to closure in epic journeys is the story of the return home.

The classic example of the story of the return home is, of course, Homer's The Odyssey. Having participated in the war with Troy, Homer commits an entire epic poem to the story of just getting from the conflict back to the place where Odysseus started, the island of Ithaca. Essential to this particular story (and other stories like it) seems to be the need for a hero who has spent an awful lot of time gallivanting recklessly in wild and foreign lands to get his shit together and get back where he belongs.

This story appears frequently enough throughout the ages, sometimes in quite overt ways (John Cheever's “The Swimmer” apes The Odyssey, for instance) and sometimes in more subtle and metaphoric ways (Jack Skellington realizing his proper place in Halloweentown at the close of The Nightmare Before Christmas). The notion that the need for acting responsibly by embracing more mature roles is one of the central ideas in Shakespeare's movement of his wildly out of control couples in the middle acts of Midsummer's Nights Dream from the chaotic, enchanted world of the fairies represented by the wilderness to the more controlled and ordered atmosphere of their home town in the play's final act. These movements are often foreshortened in more contemporary stories where the denuoument of a story is often shoe horned in in the final seconds before the credits roll (John McClane in his wife's arms in the closing moments of Die Hard). Nevertheless, most of these moments speak to a notion of returning home and, thus, to a more responsible, less wild role as a way of resolving a wandering lifestyle.

The Odyssey opens by observing the problem of a hero abdicating his domestic responsibilities for the sake of adventure. We first meet Odysseus's wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus, in a rather disordered household. Because of Odysseus's years long absence, his island kingdom and household are in real disarray because of the lack of clarity about whether the rightful king of Ithaca should be treated as dead or alive. A group of suitors hungry for his wife's hand in marriage and the power that that potentially brings with it and a son who lacks the power to clean up a household that he is heir to (again, because of the uncertainty of his father's fate -- Telemachus doesn't know whether he is merely prince or a more authoritative king) leaves a kingdom and household in chaos.

That Odysseus is having a bit of a problem acting his role as patriarch is pretty much a given because of the emblematic quality of the obstacles that trouble and elongate his voyage home. Nearly all of the monsters or other impediments that Odysseus is troubled by are feminine and seductive in nature, the kind of thing that might keep a husband and father from his proper place. Calypso, Circe, the Sirens, even the sea monsters, Scylla and Charybdis, are all female, and the Princess Nausicaa, a more helpful figure in the text, becomes problematized in her role as helper by a discussion of possible marriage between she and the wayward husband.

Odysseus adventure can only be completed by returning home to set his household right and by reclaiming his marriage bed. Odyssesus is fine once he becomes or, more particularly, returns to what he is supposed to be.

Curiously, this same “story” exists in the motivation represented to the player of Frogger. Unlike the old joke, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” or the video game seemingly inspired by it (Activision's 1981 game, Freeway), Konami seemed to be unwilling to merely provide an existential and circular explanation (“To get to the other side.”) for a frog's journey across the road.

The visuals of Frogger represent a simple enough system of signs that support the idea that Frogger is motivated to return to the place where he belongs. Beginning in a place where a frog obviously does not belong, on the other side of a busy street, Frogger must make his way towards an environment better suited to a froggy nature, a swamp. Frogger is even spurred on by a timer that, should it tick down, will cause him to simply explode if he doesn't get a move on (don't the gods hassle Odysseus near the beginning of the poem as he whiles away far too many years on Calypso's Island, indicating that it is time to get a move on?).

Even the more natural environment of the swamp (maybe much like the familiarity of the court for a nobleman like Odysseus, represented by the temptation to marry Nausicaa near the close of The Odyssey) offers perils that might cut Frogger's journey home short with predators ready to take advantage of the presence of a wayward frog on their home turf. Safety only exists for Frogger in the home represented by the lily pad at the end of the journey, right where every good frog should be.

I certainly don't think that Frogger is by any means as thematically rich as a text like The Odyseey, but I do think that it is interesting that in attempting to motivate a player in an early video game that the pattern that many other authors have naturally gravitated to as a motivation for their characters emerges in Konami's very simple game and that they have instinctively created a visual representation of that pattern. It does speak to, perhaps, why narratives have become essential parts of games as they have grown more much more thematically sophisticated, since some of those familiar motivators are ones that we so instinctively gravitate to and understand. We don't just want to get to the other side, sometimes we just want to believe that there is a more responsible purpose for concluding our play and going home.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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