Have Yourself a Counter-Culture XMas: Red-Nosed Misfits, Elven Outlaws & Bearded Marxists

The TV versions of Rudolph, Santa, and Frosty are chaotic, freewheeling, and anarchic -- closer in spirit to Heath Ledger's Joker than to Bing Crosby's Father O'Malley.

You know Lenin and Trotsky,

And Che Guevara,

Kerouac, Dylan,

Brando and Mailer,

But do you recall,

The most famous subversive of all?

Few characters are more beloved than the stars of the most popular television Christmas specials. The images of Rudolph, Frosty, and Charlie Brown appear as unthreatening in the American canon as Mickey Mouse or Mister Rogers. In many ways, the specials have helped to define the Christmas holiday season for generations of viewers. And there is a pretty clear consensus about which specials really matter: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, Frosty the Snowman, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. Ask anyone to finish the song, “You’re a mean one...” and you’re almost guaranteed to hear “Mr. Grinch!” in response.

While the networks have trotted out special after special over the years, and while every now and then one will get defrosted for a time (1974’s The Year Without a Santa Claus comes to mind), none of them has really offered much of a challenge to this holiday quintet. Yet, many fans may not realize that all five of these shows were created during a short six-year span during the late-‘60s. We may not be conditioned to think of terms like “subversive”, “counter-cultural”, “iconoclastic”, or “revolutionary” when we see images of Rudolph and Frosty, but in many ways these specials reflect the spirit of that era as surely as Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Far from being the season of “peace on Earth”, each December features a tumultuous socio-political debate about how American culture has lost the “true” meaning of Christmas, with the most flamboyant complaints coming from conservative commentators who argue that somehow Christianity and traditional American values are being victimized by a “vast left wing conspiracy” to secularize their cozy, idealized memories of Bing Crosby tunes, Currier and Ives prints, life-size Nativity scenes, and chestnuts roasting on open fires. For the past few years, Bill O’Reilly of Fox News has turned each December into a social crisis, even informing his audience in one of his “Talking Points Memos” that a liberal “war” on Christmas is central to “the culture war between traditional Americans and secular progressives. Outside of the war on terror, this culture war is the most important thing happening in the country today.” One of his fellow Fox News broadcasters, John Gibson, even wrote a book, The War on Christmas (Penguin 2005), declaring that liberals have launched a war, not only on Christmas, but “really a war on Christianity.” He concludes with a bit of rhetorical saber rattling (or maybe jingle bell ringing?), by rallying his troops and threatening his enemies that “The war on Christmas is joined.”

These calls to stop the secularizing liberals and to “put the Christ back in Christmas” often speak to a desire to bring back an idealized Christmas of old—homogenized, white bread, and snug in the WASP nest that was, for some, the American Dream. They try to put Christmas in a box—safe, controlled, and neatly wrapped in heavy stock paper from the gift-wrapping center at Macy’s. In the context of this debate, Bart Simpson’s notion that “Christmas is a time when people of all religions come together to worship Jesus Christ” doesn’t seem too absurd.

As Christmas has become increasingly politicized, the general perception has been that “Christmas” belongs to the conservatives while a bloodless mishmash of a multicultural, politically correct, and socially sensitive “Holiday Season” belongs to the liberals. However, if that were true, wouldn’t it follow that the Christmas television canon, a celebration of the holiday specifically dedicated to teaching and entertaining children, would have emerged during one of the key moments in modern conservative ascendancy—influenced by those who know how to “keep Christmas well?” Yet, the best of the specials didn’t emerge during the Reagan Revolution, the Gingrich Contract with America, or the Bush Patriot Act. These specials belong to the counter-culture flower children.

Of course, in one sense, the fact that the “classics” are now decades old would seem to lend weight to the O’Reilly/Gibson argument. If American culture is “losing” its connection to the “real” Christmas, it makes sense that the only “good” television specials were the ones created years ago. However nostalgia, filtered through paranoia and narcissism, proves a far less reliable beacon than a bright red nose on a foggy December night. A closer examination of these programs suggests that what resonates in such holiday specials is not a controlled and confining tradition, but rather a much older and more chaotic, freewheeling sense of anarchy, a cousin more closely related to Heath Ledger’s Joker than to Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley. In fact, the Rudolph, Santa, and Frosty of the Rankin/Bass specials would seem more comfortable at a peace protest or Civil Rights march than a boycott of Target for wishing customers “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. If the “radicalism” of these specials seems surprising, it shouldn’t, for in many ways they represent a partial correction in the development of the American Christmas tradition.

As many cultural historians have demonstrated, evidence suggests that the “true meaning” of Christmas may not be what conservative commentators think. In his Introduction to Christmas Unwrapped: Consumerism, Christ, and Culture (Continuum, 2001), James Tracy writes, “Such jeremiads usually call for a return to the ‘original meaning’ of Christmas, either as a Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth or as a spiritual celebration of ‘family values.’” Yet, as Tracy suggests, “these critiques fall wide of the mark… because they at least implicitly posit a golden age of Christmas observance from which we have fallen.” This pre-Lapsarian Christmas tradition is largely a myth, romanticizing a so-called “ancient tradition” that really originated in the 19th Century. In The Battle for Christmas (Knopf, Doubleday, 1997), Stephen Nissenbaum points out that most of the earliest observances of Christmas had little to do with our romantic notions of a domestic, child-centered holiday: “It was a time of heavy drinking when the rules that governed people’s public behavior were momentarily abandoned in favor of an unrestrained ‘carnival,’ a kind of December Mardi Gras.” No wonder the Puritans banned it (See "Christmas Controversy" on Wikipedia)

The European tradition, with an emphasis on short-term social inversion, effectively contained the dissatisfaction of the lower classes and reinforced the status quo. However, as the riotous practices re-emerged in democratic New England of the early 19th Century, the threat of a democratic social protest, with implications lasting far beyond the need for a week or so of blowing off steam, made the Christmas season dangerous politically. As Nissenbaum explains, rather than following the lead of the Puritans and banning the celebration altogether, several wealthy New Englanders, including Clement C. Moore, began incorporating sketchy practices from Dutch cultural history and claiming them as historical Christmas traditions. The end result was an invented tradition, a domestic, child-centered, commercial Christmas, complete with presents, indoor trees, Santa Claus, and an implicit sense that this was the way things used to be.

At the risk of sounding like one of John Edwards’ old talking points, the United States became a land of “Two Christmases”. One Christmas, a politically-tinged American descendent of the unruly carnival celebrations of European tradition (Quasimodo’s Christmas, if you will), becomes increasingly marginalized, while the other, a manufactured holiday “safe” for those with wealth and privilege, comes to define the holiday mainstream. However, the topsy-turvy Bakhtinian social inversion that offended the Puritans and frightened the New England elite, has roots that O’Reilly and his compatriots should presumably admire, from some of the earliest Christian doctrine in Matthew 20:16: “So the last shall be first, and the first last.” In fact, the same idea underscores the narrative structure of the most enduring Christmas stories: Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where a rich man’s past, present, and future is turned upside down; Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, in which George Bailey’s various failures make him “the richest man in town;” and that other famous Christmas story where kings give presents to the poor kid born in a barn.

Thus, one could argue that while the domestic Christmas of invented tradition becomes the face of the season, the real heart of Christmas rests not in a placid still-life of carolers, sleigh rides, and easy listening music, nor even in a devout, pious, and formal religious ceremony, but rather in the tension-filled class struggle of chaos and rulebreaking. If so, then it should come as little surprise that the turbulent ‘60s, which saw the climax of the Civil Rights Movement, the modern feminist movement, Stonewall, the anti-war movement, the sexual revolution, and the rise of youth culture, provided the immaculate petri dish from which grew the heart of great Christmas popular art.

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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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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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