Bountiful Landscapes of Junk: The History Channel and Reality TV

Irmak Ertuna-Howison

As the American economy struggles in this eternal recession, the TV screen is filled with images that bring back a more primitive sort of capitalism, one which operates on the border between the compulsive hoarding and the accumulation for profit.

Watching the History Channel in Istanbul is an exotic experience. Sandwiched between UFO Hunters and an assortment of quest-for-the-holy-grail documentaries are the various hit reality shows, all of which appear to be based on a simple formula: follow around a bunch of white American men going about their business-as-usual and, along the way, discover the trials and tribulations of their livelihoods. Whether loggers, pawnbrokers, truck drivers, or alligator hunters, their stories are uniformly set in the ‘heart’ of America.

What is it about Swamp People, Ax Men, American Pickers or Pawn Stars that makes us keep watching? What other ‘authentic’ American ventures will the History Channel find to hook us with? Is there an experience we share with these characters? Is this another version of the American Dream? (If it is, that would help to explain the prominent link to the Green Card Lottery on the History Channel website that appears when you visit it in Turkey. But somehow I doubt that being a storage-unit-bidder is a common aspiration of immigrants in pursuit of a better life.)

Or is ours a simple case of homesickness that drives us to follow these scenes from America? Although my husband (an American) and I (a Turk) spent enough time in a de-industrialized college town in upstate New York to call it our home, this was not the America that we knew. Our town had nothing to do with the swamps of Louisiana or the forests of Alaska -- although parts of it did resemble an old basement full of junk. Set in the middle of green rolling hills, the city was desolate, littered with strip malls along empty highways and a downtown decorated mostly with ‘Out of Business’ signs. Much like a thousand other American cities, I’m told. Yes, there were quite a few interesting local figures (landlords, bar owners and nostalgic seniors), but none of their businesses merited our devoted attention. There was no sense of glory, no feeling of adventure. They were simply people trying to survive in a dying economy. The scavenger hunts on screen are reminiscent of our trips to the Goodwill stores—but unlike us, the transitory grad students, the ‘townies’ did their shopping out of necessity, not with hopes of finding a cool vintage treasure.

Ax Men

What we see on the History channel is a different type of America. These tough guys, dressed in their plaids, driving Caterpillars or huge motorcycles, ooze testosterone. There are no women -- or more accurately, there are no women who are not secretaries or tag-along wives. Considering that these shows cater primarily to American men, it seems surprising that the producers did not see the need to sprinkle in a few sexy ladies here and there. There aren’t any attractive guys either. If you commit to these shows, you give your consent to watching fat, hairy men in muddy overalls.

These shows do not require eye candy; watching them is like entering a giant American Man Cave. With no women to fool around with, the men can play with their toys, which range from antique swords and guns to tugboats and forest machines. Size seems to be an issue: the bigger the toy, the more exciting the story. Who knows what kind of a huge device will come out of a storage unit in Storage Wars? On one episode, the Pawn Stars estimate the price of a helicopter, the next, an original life-size Transformers robot. Sometimes, it’s the accumulation of toys that is massive. How many episodes of American Pickers take place in an old collector’s (a euphemism for hoarder) gigantic junkyard? How many times does the lyrical auctioneer open the doors to a tremendous stockpile in Storage Wars? But what keeps us watching is not so much the monetary value of, say, a desert windsurfer, but the sense of risk, adventure, profit and loss that comes to the storage bidders, pawn brokers or junkyard scavengers.

These objects are reverentially burdened with history. An engine or an old dollar bill becomes an insignia to a glorious American past. All objects carry a sense of heroism. After all, they did manage to survive their relegation to oblivion before they were rescued by their saviors. Although it seems like you learn more about American history through these shows than through a PBS documentary, in fact, all we are able to discover are bits and pieces, old junk from a lost era.

Storage Wars

Alligators and magnificent forests affirm the sublime and archaic nature of the continent. While the loggers deplete these forests and the pickers forage through other people’s junk, the looming sense of scarcity grows. Amid this dearth of resources, the competition is on for one last great haul of timber or one last buried treasure in a dark basement or behind the door of an old storage unit. There is a last grasp to accumulate. It’s not just the old hermits, but tough and seemingly self-sufficient types who also hoard.

This insatiable desire to accumulate is like a labor of Sisyphus, as Marx might say. Marx also finds a resemblance between the hoarder and “a conqueror who sees in every new country annexed, only a new boundary.” Perhaps it is the nature of accumulating itself that drives these men to constantly open up new frontiers, to trek into areas untraveled, to go deeper into that swamp.

As the American economy struggles in this eternal recession, the TV screen is filled with images that bring back a more primitive sort of capitalism, one which operates on the border between the compulsive hoarding and the accumulation for profit. These shows are addictive because of our shared nostalgia for a straightforward, back-to-basics capitalism that is now long gone: an era when cost and profit were calculated by addition and subtraction, not by convoluted software programs. The History Channel reverts financial speculation back into traditional bidding wars; contemporary precarious labor that defines today’s work disappears as we marvel at old-fashioned manual labor. Factories in America close and reopen in Asia. All that’s left are basements and storage units full of junk and forests full of tree stumps. These all-American figures flaunt our collective desire to begin again.

American Pickers

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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