Comics

"Fame: Conan O'Brien" & the Fact-based Circus of the Unforgettable

In perhaps the savviest move for a print-vs-digital environment Bluewater has re-inscribed their August release of Fame: Conan O'Brien with the core values of emerging social media. Download a free exclusive preview of the book.

Editor's Note: Download a free exclusive preview of the book.

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Why is it so hard to forget Comic the Insult-dog, even so long after the character's heyday on Late Night with Conan O'Brien? Or for that matter, Conan's deliciously cynical wit? It's easy to recall snippets from his monologues. His response to a headline that two Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts were wed in a gay marriage ceremony on the internet for example, that this would naturally be the case as gay marriage would be easier than explaining what a girl was to a D&D player. There was an intelligence to Conan's carefree humor that seems completely irrelevant to our world of ongoing debt crises and rolling economic meltdown. And yet, talking about Conan O'Brien's late night show as if it were a relic from 80 years ago rather than eight is exactly what lies at the heart of what makes him even more relevant today.

After the debacle of last year's time-slot war with Jay Leno, his mistreatment at the hands of NBC, his parting of ways with long time collaborator Max Weinberg, and his comeback Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television tour, Conan O'Brien is arguably more interesting than ever before. Not only because events that hold us in their thrall are unfolding in the career of a well-loved entertainer, but also because the texture of Conan's story is shifting. His story is becoming mythological in the way Bob Dylan's or Eric Clapton's or Tom Waits' have become, and audiences sense that shift.

The grace with which Conan conducted himself on air in the closing episodes of The Tonight Show contrasts sharply with the raw deal dealt him by NBC. When NBC-ban and his comeback tour are added into the mix, Conan's story begins to feel a lot like the story of the Average Joes caught in the byzantine drama that began with Enron, snaked its way through Madoff and still flies its colors with the direct connection between this year's debt ceiling crisis and 2008's TARP.

Bluewater's Fame: Conan O'Brien, a comics biography of the star released this August, offers none of these connections though. This is bio unfolded through the lavishly nostalgic (and breathtakingly beautiful) whimsy of artist Erick Adrian Marquez's loose linework. But it is also a bio that focuses on the facts of the events and incidences in Conan's life. You'll find no professional observer's voice in Fame: Conan O'Brien; no mildly hagiographic voice as with the Stephen F. Hayes of Cheney, no stern admiration as with the Robert Draper of Dead Certain, no rambunctious, Wild Man of American Letters as with the Hunter S Thompson of Fear & Loathing on the '72 Campaign Trail. Instead, writers CW Cooke and Patrick McCormack deliver a near journalistic account of Conan's life and his career to date.

Contrasted with the warm palette and the halcyonic style of Marquez's artwork, and given the timing of this book, Bluewater's Fame: Conan O'Brien proves to be one of the shrewdest biographies this year. At a time when Archie Comics and BOOM! Studies are gearing up for a concerted focus on iconic characters, when publishers like Radical are throwing themselves onto the cutting edge of transmedia and the Top 2 publishers (DC) are investing a new ground-floor for their ongoing mythologies, it is surprisingly Bluewater who seem to have redefined the comics genre.

Rather than insert the voice of a professional observer to guide audiences through the process of Conan's life, Bluewater defers to the audience itself. Fame: Conan O'Brien reads like social media; not the kind of Twitter page where stars micro-blog their thoughts, but the kind where Guy Kawasaki tweets links to interesting articles. At the core of this model of news-gathering and news-sharing is the idea that media that finds you (especially the kind that finds you by way of your social network) is more pertinent to you, and therefore more likely to be useful.

In the battle between print and digital, particularly when this battle is localized to the comics industry, many publishers have drawn a line in the sand at the idea of a confluence between print and digital. Many treat print and digital as two separate kingdoms. Yet, as Archie Comics CEO Jon Goldwater points out (whose time in the music industry during the rise of Napster is brought fully to bear), this kind of static thinking could easily sink the comics industry. What's called for is new and innovative ways to benefit comics industry by its filiation with digital distribution, Goldwater argues.

It seems that Bluewater has fully embraced this challenge. Rather than taking comics into the digital realm, Bluewater has re-inscribed the comics medium with the ethics of social media. It is a masterstroke. Freed from the critical distance of a professional observer, audiences are easily able to recognize their own stories in Conan's story. No matter the high-frequency glamour of negotiating multi-year contracts for hosting The Tonight Show, Conan's story is our story; the story of having not merely survived but of having weathered the storm. And in this recasting of suspended new beginnings, Conan takes on a new role. No longer simply the Harvard-educated late night comedy host, Conan becomes mythology--the touchstone of an entertainer who performs with grace even while hard times loom overhead.

Bluewater offers PopMatters readers a unique first look with this preview of Fame: Conan O'Brien.

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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Features

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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