Books

This 'Vanity Fair' Retrospective Reveals the Spirit of the Early Decades of 20th Century America

Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers and Swells is a celebration of progress, of progressives, prophecy, and prescience.


Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers, and Swells: The Best of Early Vanity Fair

Publisher: Penguin
Length: 432 pages
Author: Graydon Carter, ed.
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-10
Amazon

If age begets vanity, Vanity Fair is well named. It just turned 100 (well, in 2013) and celebrated the fact with a recently published anthology of pieces from its first three decades in print.

Vanity Fair was among the first magazines purchased by the soon-to-be publishing magnate Conde Nast. Originally a fashion magazine, he handed the editorial reigns over to his friend Frank Crowninshield, who quickly reshaped it into one of the preeminent magazines of literary and cultural commentary in the country. The wide range of talent it attracted – and Crowninshield solicited – is aptly reflected in this collection, which features over 70 selections from the likes of Gertrude Stein, Aldous Huxley, Djuna Barnes, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, and many more.

There’s more to a collection such as this than its whimsical entertainment value, however. It offers an unparalleled popular chronicle of social change, dictated not through the dry narration of a historian or the skewed lens of a politician, but through the real-time reflections, fears, dreams, hopes, cynicism and satire and inspirational creative content of those living and imbibing daily the spirit of a different era.

There is the ascent of New York as a city worthy of the global arts community, its maturity from provincial backwater to cosmopolis ably chronicled in dramatic prose by Frederick James Gregg (“The World’s New Art Centre”). There is women’s equality, embraced, in typically paternalistic fashion, by the likes of Hyman Strunsky (“Are Odd Women Really Odd?”) and, more empowering, Dorothy Rothschild Parker (“Why I Haven’t Married”; “Men: A Hate Song”). There are surprises for the contemporary reader. Stephen Leacock, taught to Canadian schoolchildren as a quaint, jolly satirist, pens a militaristic ode to war and Canadian empire, thinly hinting that the US should join the manly war effort against Germany (but don’t worry, there’s a sampling of his satire here, too).

Period-works are valuable insofar as they reveal the spirit of their age, and the spirit of this age was expansively accepting of a tongue-in-cheek, biting, satirical irony. Today’s world, by comparison, suffers from a sanctimoniously sclerotic seriousness. Robert C. Benchley’s “The Art of Being a Bohemian” or “An Afghan in America” (attributed to Syyed Shaykh Achmed Abdullah) would have no place in today’s world. They would be called out on Twitter for working with stereotypes; memed by ThinkProgress; castigated for false class consciousness by Occupy Wall Street’s lingering malingerers, run through the racial lens by somebody purporting to be dangerous, and then the whole drama would be recycled IN BIG CAPS by PolicyMic.

No, today’s world is undoubtedly too sensitive for the wit of the past century. A collection such as this reveals something more than just the ideas and concerns of a previous era – it depicts the very sensibilities and zeitgeist that shaped it.

It’s a celebration of progress, of progressives, of prophecy, of prescience. Robert E. Sherwood’s speculations on what it would be like to live in a society of people whose primary source of education is television, intended as humour, proves to actually not be far off the mark. Arthur Symons soberly compares and contrasts the effects of opium and hashish (not bad for 1918!). Articles such as this offer a useful reminder that the moralistic drug panics and prison-industrial complex were yet decades away, so it was still possible to discuss drugs with the same artful poise with which today’s generation discusses the relative merits of merlot versus malbec. One is tempted to wonder whose era was the more enlightened.

And there’s poetry – stirring, beautiful poetry. There’s Dorothy Rothschild Parker in the early years; Edna St. Vincent Millay and Langston Hughes in the later years. There’s also E E Cummings, but here he offers satire, not poetry (then again, after reading his piece “When Calvin Coolidge Laughed” one can’t help but wonder whether satire is poetry, after all). Then there’s John Maynard Keynes writing about the value of money and the banking system; and Thomas Mann writing about motion pictures, for which he feels both love and contempt (“They are not art, they are life and actuality.”). There are intellectuals (Bertrand Russell on behaviourism theory), there are writers (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s marvelous piece depicting a bantering conversation between the various articles in a magazine), and there are movie stars (Douglas Fairbanks Jr., writing a character sketch of his then-wife Joan Crawford).

With such a collection, it’s hard to pick favourites. For prose, mine would be a toss-up between A. A. Milne’s (yes, of Winnie-the-Pooh fame) hilariously self-deprecating piece about the difficulty of writing a bio for his press agent (“My Autobiography”), or Thomas Wolfe’s moving narrative “The Bums at Sunset”, which chronicles the gritty reality of 1930s transients on the road, while at the same time painting of them a beautiful and romantic portrait of the stoic virtue of freedom.

The collection is one for those who are fans of the era, with selections ranging from 1914 to 1936. In 1936 the magazine folded, or more accurately was folded into Conde Nast’s other very successful magazine Vogue. In 1983 it was relaunched as a distinct publication, and since 1992 has been published under the editorship of Graydon Carter, who also edited this anniversary collection of the magazine’s earlier material.

Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers and Swells is an entertaining read. The short selections make it an easy book to dip into here and there as time permits; the pieces chosen are usually entertaining, although one must appreciate their era and style. In this respect the book offers an excellent glimpse into the popular culture of a previous age, and often reveals that not so much in fact has really changed. Writers will be writers – and satirists, and poets, and essayists and more – and this collection ably conveys the creative and intellectual drive that underpinned an era, and which continues to influence, in many ways, the present day.

7

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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Music

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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