Games

I Performed an Abortion to Save the World, and All I Got Was This Lousy M Rating

South Park: The Stick of Truth reveals the strange and ambiguous quality of entertainment rating systems.

I performed an abortion to save the world. Actually, it was one of three abortions that I performed, two of which were performed on men. I also dodged my father's scrotum while battling an underpants gnome. He, of course, (the gnome) was crushed by one of my mother's big, swinging breasts. I climbed up a man's rectum, farted on a man's balls, and I also witnessed several anal probings by aliens.

What I am trying to say is that I recently have been playing the Mature rated game, South Park: The Stick of Truth.

There is a scene in Stick of Truth that takes place in an Unplanned Parenthood abortion clinic in which a discussion of women's vaginas and Dorito's Locos comes up. One of the characters listening to this conversation is holding some kind of scientific device and declares that “I'm picking up some hot readings on the ESRB,” as if the device he holds is some kind of ESRB monitor. As the conversation concerning abortion records and Taco Bell continues, he checks the monitor's readings again, and shouts, “The ESRB is going crazy!”

And, yet, the ESRB did not go crazy when it came to rating The Stick of Truth it would seem. It gave the game an M for Mature, not an AO for Adults Only. In 2004, the ESRB did go crazy when it was discovered that the M rated Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas contained a mod buried in the game's code that was only accessible by hacking the PC version of the game. This mod called “Hot Coffee” was a mini-game that allowed the games protagonist, CJ Johnson, to participate in a sex mini-game in which a fully nude woman would grind on a fully clothed CJ (simulating sex acts).

When the mod, which again was not accessible unless the game was first hacked (in other words, most players of the game would never see it), was discovered, an outcry was heard over the existence of said mod, and the ESRB demanded that all versions of San Andreas be branded with the dreaded AO rating, a rating that would preclude sales at Wal-Mart and is generally (like the former X rating in movies and the current NC-17 rating) considered a death sentence for a video game property. No one, it is argued, will buy an AO rated game.

At the time, I found the whole thing rather baffling as it isn't as if sex, nudity, and the like had never appeared in video games before. There are at least five or six games in the Leisure Suit Larry series, a series that, of course, predates the ESRB rating system (the first of which was published in 1987). Playboy: The Mansion would also be released in early 2005 and featured bare breasted (though not fully nude, which is, perhaps, notable) women grinding on fully clothed men throughout the game. It also received merely an M rating for this content.

All of which is to say: baby, we have come a long way in ten years as far as video game rating goes. The content of “Hot Coffee” mode seems rather tame and banal, considering that I have killed aborted fetuses in 2010's less than critically acclaimed Dante's Inferno along with a 50-foot naked woman who spawned such monstrosities through her nipples. Oh, and also that I have dodged an enormous scrotum by mashing the “W” key in the nick of time in The Stick of Truth.

All of which is also to say that at this point, I have no idea what the hell an M rating is supposed to mean at all.

As I understand them, rating systems are, of course, a form of self monitoring on the part of the entertainment industry, which would prefer not to have the government dictate what can and cannot be in a piece of media. As such, there is no specifically legal consideration in regards to distributing games and movies, just an agreement between publishers and distributors to try to keep certain media from being sold to minors. Additionally, ratings serve as content warnings to potential buyers. The M is supposed to indicate the presence of violence and sexuality in a game. AO, one would imagine, is intended to indicate extreme presentations of sex and violence.

I understand why both San Andreas and The Stick of Truth would not receive a Teen rating. However, the label M as a content warning seems inexplicable and impossible to understand when comparing these two properties, which is a real problem if that rating is intended to provide clear content warnings to consumers.

Now, please understand that I do not in any way object to the existence of The Stick of Truth. Indeed, I actually would wholeheartedly endorse the game for fans of the show and also for gamers that are not easily offended. I think it is one of the most enjoyable and clever games of last year. It is absolutely obscene, though. It is its nature, and that, as far as I'm concerned, is that. I also read Chuck Palahniuk novels. So sue me.

What I do object to is the meaninglessness of its rating. There are many players who are not going to be able to stomach the places that The Stick of Truth goes (like up a man's rectum, for example), which is fine. What I would like, though, is some clarity at a glance. Yes, I know potential players can visit the ESRB's site for a fully detailed description of what The Stick of Truth's questionable content entails (though honestly the description on their web site doesn't do the game's level of obscenity justice in my opinion). However, what most consumers see when looking at a content warning is simply the letter rating that indicates how “heavy” the content will be.

In this regard, though, this is simply a problem across media. I have no objection to an X rating for movies like A Clockwork Orange or Midnight Cowboy, and, frankly, I wouldn't object to such a rating appearing for movies like Watchmen or Changeling. The way that violence or sexuality is presented in those films is considerably more excessive than the traditional type of content presentation in an R rated movie.

Some may be surprised by my reference to the Angelina Jolie vehicle Changeling, which to my recollection doesn't actually contain any overt sexuality or violence onscreen. However, this is a common example that I use when discussing content descriptors for media. I recall the previews for that film not indicating its darker undertones at all, and the movie is in fact quite disturbing (it's actually also pretty lousy, but that is another matter all together). The trailers are the sort of thing that would make my mother-in-law say something like, “Oh, an Angelina Jolie movie about a mother searching for her son. I should see that.”

Of course, the movie is about child murder and it's dark as hell. I want a simple content descriptor that clarifies for my mother-in-law that this isn't a movie that she would want to see. In some way, perhaps, that is measurement for my sense of the usefulness of a content rating. Would this be material that a mature adult like my mother-in-law is okay with seeing or not seeing? If you know what I mean (because you know someone like my mother-in-law or are like my mother-in-law and have a low tolerance for media that creates discomfort in a viewer), then you should get what I mean.

I don't know why The Stick of Truth received an M rating when it so clearly contains things that make it considerably more troubling and bothersome than a typical Mature rated game does. Is it because South Park and Matt Stone and Trey Parker's work in general is a known quantity and there is some assumption that they should get a pass or that the audience is already aware that South Park has always pushed the envelope of questionable content? What I do see, though, is a missed opportunity to perhaps legitimize the AO rating with a game that people would play and would buy despite that rating.

The stigma of AOs, Xs, and NC-17s needs to be eradicated in a world in which that level of content is accepted by some audiences and clarity is sought by others. A product of this sort, which has an audience that would buy it regardless of its rating (actually they might avoid a Teen rated South Park -- after all, what would be the point?) could actually be helpful in making developers less afraid to produce content that might be labeled AO and might make consumers less leery of the label.

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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