Reviews

American Dreams

Cynthia Fuchs

The patterns are predictable and disconcerting: 'American dreams' are produced and reproduced in celebrity and performance.


American Dreams

Airtime: Wednesday, 8pm ET
Cast: Brittany Snow, Arlen Escarpeta, Gail O'Grady, Tom Verica, Will Estes, Jonathan Adams, Vanessa Lengies
Network: NBC
Amazon
Maybe someday it won't be so hard.
-- Meg (Brittany Snow), "Commencement"

You girls aren't allowed in here.
-- Barbara Eden (Paris Hilton), "California Dreamin'"

Life never stands still for Meg Pryor (Brittany Snow). As American Dreams delivers what are likely to be its last four episodes, she and her best friend Roxanne (Vanessa Lengies) are graduating from high school in 1966 Philadelphia, with Meg set to deliver the commencement address. A sweet-natured, middle-class white kid, Meg has grown up during the show's first three and half seasons, abandoning what once seemed a terminal perkiness for more nuanced disillusionment. That's not to say that Meg is ever quite down. Rather, she's a survivor, in spite and because of her naïve exterior.

Unable to sustain a network-pleasing viewership (this season it's averaged about 7/5 million, down about eight million from the previous year, and 10 million during its first year), American Dreams' end now appears imminent. This much is indicated by NBC's decision to move the show from Sunday nights to Wednesdays (opposite ABC's ratings hog Lost), and has cut the number of episodes for the season nearly from 22 to 13). This abandonment of the series is too bad, honestly, for it is one of the few to grapple weekly with current events and anxieties, in the guise of not-so-nostalgic "history."

Opening with the JFK assassination, American Dreams immediately situated tv and history in a mutually influential relationship: as Meg and her family watched the funeral on tv, the image suggested at once the "community" of viewers produced by the crisis, as well as the expanding effects of mass media on national and otherwise collective identities. As creator Jonathan Prince recently told the New York Times, the thinking behind this image was to connect the series seeming "nostalgia" with current events, in particular, 9/11. In the ensuing seasons, American Dreams engaged in more sustained connection-making, shifting focus from the melodrama acted out by Meg's parents, Helen (Gail O'Grady) and Jack (Tom Verica), to a storyline that sent her brother JJ (Will Estes) to Vietnam (during the war's ominous expansion, from 1965-'66), captured in Cambodia, he has now has made his way home, where he faces Beth (Rachel Boston) and their infant; no surprise, JJ has had trouble finding work (he wants to work for NASA, but has no formal education beyond high school) and frets because he is unable to "settle" back into any sort of pre-war condition.

Meg's own evolving understanding of history as mutable, arbitrary, and even favoring certain powers, has been visible in her decisions -- sometimes childish, sometimes remarkably thoughtful -- to resist expectations, both her family's and yours. Throughout, she has remained dedicated to dancing on American Bandstand, this being the show's defining "gimmick" and venue for guest stars, that is, contemporary artists posing as past pop stars, for examples, Michelle Branch as Lesley Gore, Wayne Brady as Jackie Wilson, Brandy as Gladys Knight, Usher as Marvin Gaye. If some appearances have been more thrilling than others (Jennifer Love Hewitt as Nancy Sinatra?), they do indicate the series' desire draw young viewers and illustrate the intricacies of consumption-as-history (and vice versa). The patterns are predictable and disconcerting: "American dreams" are produced and reproduced in celebrity and performance.

As a device to integrate tv -- as a process and production, as well as a means of (brief) magical transport -- into Meg's experience, the AB stint has proved ingenious: she and Rox share their deepest concerns while clapping their hands on the bleachers, or argue while bobbing on the dance floor, monitors, cameras, and performers visible all around them. Growing up on (and to an extent, as) tv, the girls are both typical teens and model consumers, eager to win boys' attentions and evade their parents' seemingly oppressive scrutiny.

At the same, the past two years have seen Meg in particular become more "politically" engaged, in part on her brother's behalf, as she was arrested at an anti-war protest, but also in her emerging understanding of the ways the "government" imposes its will on citizens. Whether squabbling with her little sister Patty (Sarah Ramos) or negotiating with her dad for small measure of "independence," Meg presses for the sort of understanding that eludes most teenagers (And adults, for that matter). She wants the world to make sense, to be ordered and fait; her discovery that it's not has been painful and rather a lengthy process as well.

Her most recent trauma has been slow-burning, emerging from that most crucial aspect of American Dreams' renegotiation of the '60s, racism and the Civil Rights Movement. Punctuated by familiar images (a local race riot, protest marches, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. on television), Meg's absorption of this ongoing national trauma has been affected by her father's emerging consciousness as well; this season, Jack, a city councilman, has been butting heads with the old guard over his support of a black police candidate.

Meg's own dilemma was underlined when she realized, in this year's 30 January episode "Starting Over" (the last before the show went on its brief and probably panicky "hiatus"), what you've known for some time, namely, that her friendship with Sam (Arlen Escarpeta) has become something else. At her prom, Sam and Meg danced, and realized they felt differently about one another than they had presumed. "We danced," she later reports to Rox, in the 9 March episode, "Commencement." "And it didn't feel like just a dance" "It was a date!" asserts Rox, thrilled that her friend has at last realized her feelings for the nicest boy they know.

For her part, Meg is predictably, even adorably excited, but also worried. She's seen the troubles her father and especially his partner Henry (Jonathan Adams) -- Sam's father -- have endured in their joint business, a television store. She's also watched her father undergo something of a revelation over the past couple of years, becoming conscious that his own ignorance of racism has also been self-serving and (however unconsciously) exploitive. When she discusses her budding romance with JJ, in "Commencement" ("He's such a nice guy and we might not be just friends"), big brother sets her straight. Their parents, he says, no matter how open-minded they appear, could never allow their little girl to date a black boy. Meg is perplexed: "You had Negro friends in Vietnam," she argues, tentatively. That's different, he asserts, and that's the end of that conversation.

But it's hardly the end of Meg's disquiet. While she spends much of the episode working on her graduation speech, the series comes up with a smartly structured critique of social and cultural systems that remain in place to this day. "I wanted to give a speech today," begins Meg, gallant in her gown, standing before her fellow graduates. "About how our lives can be anything we want them to be, about how 'the future is now.' But I cannot give that speech. Not anymore."

As she continues to speak, the scene cuts to Stokely Carmichael (Brian McKnight -- now here's an innovative use of a pop star), addressing a SNCC meeting. He delineates the many disappointments and abject failures of "this racist society, a society built on the blood and sweat of our black skin. But today we are standing up. We must question the values of this society. And I maintain that black people are the best people to do that because we have been excluded from that society. We ought to think about whether we want to become a part of that society." At the same time, so their voices are interlaced, Meg continues to speak: "The future isn't something that we can simply imagine. It isn't something that just arrives on our doorstep. The future is something that we have to fight for. We must fight the hatred and prejudice, and not just in society. We must fight them in the hidden places of our own heart."

That she sees a distinction between "society" and "out own hearts," already puts her a step ahead (or a step further into frustration). The following episode, "California Dreamin'," which airs 16 March, provides an appropriately alarming next step (which only looks backwards). When Meg wins a Campbell's Soup Essay contest, she and Rox fly off to Hollywood, where artifice and performance are acutely visible. Here she and Rox meet some helpfully instructive "hippies" ("We've given up on that world, we're not a part of it," one girl says), and also, the flipside of the same culture, Barbara Eden, on the set of I Dream of Jeannie ("We are standing inside of I Dream of Jeannie's bottle!" they squeal).

While there's surely something snarky to be said about the fact that Eden is played by Paris Hilton, the casting is also apt. As emblems of the most plastic and willfully ignorant media industry, Hilton, Eden, and Jeannie combine to suggest just how much Meg needs to figure out her place in this "future" she wants to fight for.

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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