The novelty of pitting eight- to 15-year-olds against one another for popular amusement can be glossed over in the name of educational achievement.

Cooperation is undone in favor of personal advancement, victory takes precedence over uniqueness and creativity, and meaningful intellectual activity is shackled to regulations and a stopwatch.
I can still remember the workbook -- an oversized, neon orange monstrosity, festooned with garish illustrations. Perhaps my memory distorts some of the details, as I dreaded my elementary school spelling class and the inevitable call to produce that hideous tome from the dark recesses of my cluttered desk. It wasn't that I was a terrible speller -- my work was passable enough -- but on every Friday we were subjected to a spelling bee, the memories of which still make me shudder today.

Lined up before the chalkboard like captured partisans, every student in the class would shift nervously back and forth, awaiting execution by our teacher. Upon misspelling a word, we would be forced to return to our desks, shuffling dejectedly away from our classmates in public acknowledgement of our failures as spellers. There we would sit, relegated to mere spectators who would eventually applaud the last of us to remain standing, beaming and triumphant, at the board. Every Friday, one victor left the classroom floating on air, while 20 publically-confirmed losers trudged glumly after.

I couldn't help but recall those grim exercises recently when, flipping around on ESPN, I was treated to the latest installment of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The event, a culmination writ large of hundreds of smaller, local, preceding versions, is stylized to heighten all the suspense, heroism, and heartbreak of the competition. Such is the stuff chronicled by the 2002 documentary Spellbound, which features alternately heartrending and heartwarming tales of sacrifice and dedication on the part of the Bee's participants in their bid to become the country's top speller.

This drama -- encapsulated in the spellers' furrowed brow, shots of nervous parents in the darkened crowd, and the impending knell of the disqualifying bell -- has been played up by ESPN since 1994 in a manner similar to any other sporting contest. However, the question remains: just what's so sporting about spelling?

The answer, simply, is nothing -- other than the spectacle of organized competition. The challenge of the tournament, of facing a host of contenders in order to prove supremacy, is a structural aspect of athletics ranging from little league soccer tournaments to the NBA playoffs. The object in any of these scenarios is to survive and advance -- a test of the players' stamina, fortitude, and luck. In one sense, ESPN's treatment emphasizes a universality of competition by highlighting a spelling match alongside a basketball tournament. The spellers, like other athletes, use their skills, as well as strategies (asking for pronunciation, the language of origin, to hear the word in a sentence), to improve their chances for success. Such similarity, however, hardly places them in the same category as the professional athletes who earn large salaries to entertain the network's viewers.

Just what, then, is so entertaining about the Spelling Bee? Sure, some of the spellers are quick-witted or quirky enough to garner a laugh, while others may have hard-luck stories to inspire us. There may even be viewers who like to spell along at home. For most, however, the lure of the event is, again, in its re-enactment of the spectacle of competition.

The novelty of pitting eight- to 15-year-olds against one another for popular amusement can be glossed over in the name of educational achievement, but academic success is not the Bee's selling point. (There are, after all, a variety of extra-curricular events that more accurately measure a student's creativity and intelligence than spelling.) Instead, what's on display is pressure, and persistence in the face of it. Such drama is endemic to sports, hence ESPN's role in broadcasting the event.

More specifically, this pressure results from the imposition of systemic competition. The idea of a single champion who has bested all other competitors structures the Bee and drives its competitors to greater heights of difficulty (with words like "hyphaeresis" and "prosopopoeia"). And while we should rightly applaud the ultimate victor (this year it was 13-year-old Sameer Mishra), we should also recognize that his achievement says more about our own insistence on competition as a cultural value than his (or others spellers') academic abilities.

In this way, the Bee is symptomatic of a larger blending of ostensibly separate spheres: academics and athletics. Both, particularly in the United States, are driven by rankings, competitions, and quantifiable results. From the compulsive insistence on standardized test scores set in place by Bush's No Child Left Behind program, to the popular fixation on class ranking in the college admissions "game" (the term is used here advisedly), the competitive ethos of sports has infiltrated a large portion of academic endeavor.

No longer is learning an end in and of itself, but is rather seen as a means by which to measure oneself against one's peers. As an instructor, I know first-hand that the quickest way to motivate my students to learn the class material is to divide them into teams and organize a competition, all the while lamenting the need for artificial rivalry to incite my students to action.

Perhaps it's asking too much for every student to come to class intrinsically motivated to learn. And, certainly, it's difficult to argue that winning ESPN's Spelling Bee is not a laudable achievement. Still, we see in this event a cultural conflation of winning with learning. Cooperation is undone in favor of personal advancement, victory takes precedence over uniqueness and creativity, and meaningful intellectual activity is shackled to regulations and a stopwatch. Generally, sports are held to be pedagogically valuable for students as reinforcing the importance of fair play and sportsmanship. The Spelling Bee, however, shows that sports aren't the only model by which our students should learn. After all, would ESPN (or any other network for that matter) televise an event in which students demonstrate their studies without the pressure of a competition? The hundreds of thousands of students who were asked to take a seat before the victor might like to know.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

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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 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.

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It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

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Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

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