Cultural diplomacy serves who?

When it comes to guns and butter, gimme margarine any day and not just 'cause I hate to bite the bullet. Considering that for the last six years, the Bush administration has indulged in gunboat diplomacy and still refuses to publicly admit how poorly it's fared, I was intrigued to see this Washington Post article where it looks like they're now taking baby steps to also initiative a soft option to win hearts and minds. But I also wonder how successful cultural diplomacy would be now and what the perils are for the people who try to practice it now.

Mind you, this isn't anything new. As the article notes, Yo Yo Ma and B.B. King made the rounds and way back in the 1950's, no less than Dizzy Gillespie toured for the cause (claiming in the Cold War climate that he would introduce "the cool weapon," referring to his trumpet).

The Peace Corps was also founded for a similar initiative, to wind hearts and minds overseas. I joined them in 1987 and served for two years in Botswana (southern Africa). Along with a bunch of other bleeding heart do-gooders, we only vaguely thought of ourselves as employed by the State Department, even if that happened to be the case: we received propaganda about George Bush Sr. that we laughed at and promptly discarded. If I was speaking to anyone about America, I was frank about my opinions and never felt compelled to defend Bush I or any of his policies.

Similarly, I wondered how compelled more official cultural ambassadors are to express or not express their opinions. I remember that Henry Rollins had visited Iraq and met with troops- not exactly a guy who holds back his thoughts but he later admitted that he supported the troops and was not there to stir up anti-war sentiment. Hell, even Al Franklin made the trip also and he's definitely not a guy to soft-pedal a war he doesn't agree with though again, he was there in support of the G.I.'s and not the war effort per se.

What makes the recent push by Bush II interesting is that it's so contrary to his previous "shoot first, ask questions later" diplomacy. Maybe this is a minor admission that the previous policy isn't having good results. After his tenure in office, what did Colin Powell have to show for his efforts except for an embarrassing misguided U.N speech that he now regrets and which in the end didn't sell the war policy well? Ditto for Condi Rice. So now comes Bush strategist Karen Hughes who had previously been on a listening tour of the Middle East to hear gripes, figure out why we weren't popular and figure out how to counter that. Obviously, one option isn't getting at the root of the problem- doing diplomacy in good faith rather than just as a mask for future wars- so it's time for some little band-aids to solve the problem, hence the recent cultural initiative.

But honestly, are a couple of overseas concerts going to counter six years of failed foreign policy? Of course not. The intended audience isn't anyone who already see us as devils but anyone who might be somewhat sympathetic or at least open-minded enough to think that we ain't all bad. To prove that, we can show off our cultural goods to impress foreign audiences and in effect say "See, we're not the evil empire you think we are." But again, that's small stuff when you compare to the bellicose language that the White House lobs about their noble goals for democracy abroad (but not when it comes to the faulty voting procedures here in the States).

But in the end, despite these problems, we need to support these cultural initiatives because no matter how flawed the administration's foreign policy is otherwise, this program is a good idea that needs to continue its work (though If they were serious about cultural exchanges though, the State Dept would work harder to ease the Visa burden for foreign musicians who want to tour in the States). As the Post article notes, it means not just helping train arts programs overseas but more cultural exchanges and more money for translation of works (not just into English but from other languages into English). It's not going to solve any foreign policy problems but it will be part of a continuing, necessary dialog that we need to have more of.

I'd even go as far to say that it doesn't even necessarily mean that all of this dialog has to be civil. Part of the problem that we have with our foreign policy now isn't just that Bush II is too trigger-happy but also that the idea of engaging in tough, difficult dialog with other countries that doesn't just involve threats is foreign to Bush II: say what you will about Clinton or Carter but they both understood how important peace agreements were to Middle East stability, hosting the principles together at Camp David.

Part of this is means trying to address and understand controversies like this: Mozart opera cancelled. Because this German production was seen as insulting to Muslims (though it's been staged before), it's been called off for now, though it might later be staged. Immediate comparisons were drawn to the Dutch cartoons that lampooned Mohammad last year and the furor that arose because of that. Just as in that case, there is similar opposing views about proclaiming free speech and being culturally sensitive. This isn't something easy to reconcile and it's something outside the scope of regular diplomacy but definitely the important kind of issue we need to consider if we really want to have an open, frank dialog with other cultures.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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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.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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