Feeling at House in Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey is the How the Other Half Lives of period dramas. But rather than inside/outside, upstairs/downstairs emerges as the central division.

Downton Abbey

Director: Brian Percival, Ben Bolt, Brian Kelly
Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith Dan Stevens, Michelle Dockery, Brendan Coyle, Elizabeth McGovern, Joanne Frogatt
Distributor: Universal [UK]
Studio: Carnival/Masterpiece for ITV
Release Date: 2010-11-08

The house is everywhere. Whether it 's one of the stock movies about haunted houses or in literature such as Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street, it's clear that the house has another function that transcends its materiality. The house (or rather, mansion) figures prominently on British television, rather like a never ending royal wedding. As urban theorist Anthony King observed;

"Socially, buildings support relationships, provide shelter, express social divisions, permit hierarchies, house institutions, enable the expression of status and authority, embody property relations; spatially, they establish place, define distance, enclose space, differentiate area;culturally, they store sentiment, symbolize meaning, express identity; politically, they symbolize power, represent authority, become an arena for conflict, or a political resource." (King, Global Cities. Routledge 1990)

The house is thus never a given, an uncultured or objective setting where the lives of the characters happen to take place. It's rather a force in itself, at once reflecting and shaping value systems that are inherent to society and that are incarnated in individuals themselves. ITV’s Downton Abbey is a perfect case in point, as even the title of the series indicates the importance that the house will come to assume; Downton Abbey is the estate of the Crawley family, inhabited by them and their small army of servants.

The entire first series revolves around the quest for a suitable man to marry the eldest Crawley daughter, as the all-girls family does not have a natural heir to the estate because of the primogeniture law. While his mother, Dowager Countess Violet (an excellent role of Dame Maggie Smith) and his wife Cora urge him to request a change in the laws so that eldest daughter Mary can inherit or Cora can at least rescue the dowry that was used to restore the property, the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley, is reluctant. But all differences aside, the house is much more than an imposing heap of bricks to the family. As Crawley sums up, “Downton is in my blood and in my bones.”

Property and the house are at stake, so not any man will do for Mary. The first series starts with the terrible news of the Titanic’s fate reaching the family at the estate, and ends right before England became involved in the Great War. This period directly preceding the First World War is often remembered as a golden age in England’s history, as the country’s isolated position rendered it secure from external and military conflicts. While these may have been absent, the society itself was characterized by anxiety over issues of class and empire. The aristocracy and gentry were increasingly challenged by the slowly organizing masses, and attempts by the upper classes to reinforce their dominance were met with criticism.

It's in this setting that Downton Abbey navigates the complex social objectives of the early 20th century Britons, all mapped onto the confined setting of the house itself. The attempts to maintain a clear separation between upper class and servants become increasingly problematic when this separation has to be maintained within one house, and creator Julian Fellowes (who achieved fame for penning Gosford Park, among others) pays considerable attention to this upstairs/downstairs dichotomy. The colors are the most noticeable visual expression of this, as the opulence and vibrant colors of the Crawley rooms stand in stark contrast to the sparse decoration and natural tones of the servant quarters.

The Servants' Quarters

The series has transcended its distinctively British location; the rights have been bought by over 100 countries, rendering the series a global phenomenon. As PopMatters reviewer Maysa Hattab points out, the period piece is set apart by the microcosm of society it depicts, with servants and the Crawley family sharing habitation. This also means that we as viewers are transported to places we have never been before: the servant’s living areas.

The first episode already makes clear that there are different ideas about the way in which the relationship between masters and servants should be reflected in the house itself. Mary receives a suitor, the Duke of Crowborough. Being somewhat of a bad boy, the Duke urges Mary to show him the servants’ quarters. Mary only consents in her attempts to please the Duke, and is in constant fear of her father finding out about this transgression of the boundary that exists between her and the servants. The Duke is unfazed, as his conception of a house is that it completely belongs to the owner, and the owner can access all spaces in the house at his own convenience.

Mary rather sees a house with multiple homes; on paper, it all belongs to her father, but in reality there are several groups of people that use part of the house as their private little sanctuary. The servants have their own rooms and wing, while the Crawley’s occupy the grand rooms and have their own bedrooms as the true sanctuary. Earl Grantham shares his daughter’s view, as he not-so-politely asks the Duke to leave when he receives word of the clandestine visit to the servants’ quarters.

The meaning of the house as a domestic space is not only inscribed in the everyday practice within the house itself, but also by the history that is attached to the house. While the servants are mostly occupied with the people in the house—practical matters to keep the family satisfied, such as ironing the newspaper, and improving their chances of promotion—and view it as a workplace and site of self-improvement, the Crawley’s themselves view the house more in terms of history; Downton Abbey is status, the outward reflection of a particular class that is blissfully unaware of the practicalities that occupy the minds of the commoners (in a particularly poignant example, the Dowager Countess asks Matthew Crawley, who proposes to acquaint himself with his future duties at Downton on the days off from his job as a lawyer, “what is a weekend?”). While for (some of the) servants Downton forms a temporary home because their coworkers make it so, the Crawley’s emotional attachment stems from years of tradition, and even more from the fear of losing it.

For the daughters, home can be a curse as well as a blessing, a prison and a sanctuary, but it is constitutive of their identity. Areas such as the drawing room allow them to escape the requirements of being a lady, if only momentarily. Their father expresses the close connection between identity and property as well when he has to defend himself from his mother’s claims that he doesn’t care about the estate: “What do you think? I’ve given my life to Downton. I was born here and I hope to die here. I claim not career beyond the nurture of this house and the estate. It is my third parent and my fourth child. Do I care about it? Yes. I do care.”

The Drawing Room

Downton Abbey bears another, real-life link to the house, as well; since the first series aired, television tourists have flooded the real Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle in Berkshire. The house has become an exhibition space, inviting the public gaze rather than serving as a shield from it. Furthermore, one in ten Britons has expressed the intention to visit the house within the next year. It seems that the actual Lord, Lord Carnarvon, can count on quite a few visitors for the new tearoom that is currently in development to accommodate all fans. One thing the visitors will not see are the servant quarters: these no longer existed in their original state, and were reconstructed at the Ealing Studios in London. But as Julian Fellowes pointed out, the cost of this was relatively low, certainly compared to what reconstructing the grand rooms would have cost: “The thing about filming in these great houses is that if you were to start from scratch, you simply couldn’t build this, and if you did you would have used up all your budget in one room.”

While the house is part of the appeal, it's also important not to award too large a role to it. Downton Abbey is an excellent period drama with a phenomenal cast that has brought back high-budget to Sunday night television. It's not surprising that after last year’s premier on ITV, the series continues to make headlines, even after the first season is long over and the second season still months away. The question of the house and its figuration on the screen is an interesting one, and deserves more attention than I have been able to give it in this blog.

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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