Dreck the Halls

For every cinematic stocking full of shiny bright goodies, there are large filmic lumps of dirty old coal.

Adeste Fideles my ass! What is it about the holiday season that makes typically rational people go potty? They will wait in line for the latest media hyped fad gadget (usually something to do with electronics and a massive outlay of not necessarily disposable income), visit with relatives they'd rather see lying flat in their coffins than sitting upright at the dinner table, and pump more inappropriate calories into their overnourished pie hole all in the name of goodwill toward men and glad tidings of great joy. From a self-destructive standpoint alone, concerned parties would have the right to ask just what is Christmas' major merchandising malfunction? Why does it make more or less decent people so desperate – and dumb? Ever since Coca-Cola thought it was a really cool idea to modernize an old Norwegian icon, stripping St. Nicholas of his old world class and posting him as a half god / half bowl full of jelly pitchman, the First Noel has meant one thing and one thing only: unbridled spending and equally uncontrollable material avarice.

It's a shame really, since the primary position of the celebration (beside all the baby Jesus, away in a manger business) is the noble notion of it being better to give than to receive. This was later modified – by protest from the International Confederation of Underage Gift Getters, i.e., kids – to a less strident "it's the thought that counts". Both of these graduated versions of the Golden Rule are meant to make the sting of receiving dress pants from your favorite maiden Aunt a lot less painful. Stripped of their cynicism, the holidays should be a time where your own inner peace presents itself in acts of generosity and selfless consideration. Granted, how a $10 gift certificate to a livestock feed store symbolizes either of those concepts is a quandary for intellectuals and the Future Farmers of America to resolve. But as premises go, the whole give / receive, thought / counts core is pretty solid.

It's just too bad that these formative facets don't translate over into the realm of entertainment. Apparently, when deciding to place their wares within the yearly Yuletide grind, artists go whole eggnog hog for the cloying and cliché. The movies fell into this trap right off the bat. To Hollywood, the 25th of December marks an imaginary moment in time when everyone loves their parents / siblings, forgets their troubles and torments, and sees the sunny possibilities of an unfettered future laying pristine like freshly formed snow angels among the frozen white drifts of a extraordinary winter wonderland. But there's a darker side to all these celluloid chestnuts roasting on an open fire; for every 34th Street set Miracle or example of what a wonderful life it truly is, there are other, more disturbing visions of festive cheer that twist the tenets of the holidays into hackwork horrors. For every cinematic stocking full of shiny bright goodies, there are large filmic lumps of dirty old coal.

from The Great Rupert

Take The Great Rupert (1950), for example. In this nauseating little nugget from the otherwise talented George Pal, The Amendola Family is flat broke on the day before Christmas. They wander the street, looking for a flophouse or discarded milk crate they can huddle into for the night. At one time, they were famous for their human pyramid act. Now, they are infamous for skipping out on creditors. When they con their way into a besmirched basement apartment owned by the Dingles, it looks like another game of advanced landlord abatement is about to begin. But the Amendolas don't know that the Dingles are rich, having just come into some gold mine money. And the Dingles don't know that the place where Daddy Dingle decides to deposit his dinero is also the home for a talented squirrel named Rupert. Yes, it's that kind of film – one of those 'be thankful for what you have because, through happenstance and a string of stultifying coincidences, you'll end up with a magical varmint that drops dollar bills directly into your lap' excuses for fun.

What makes this massively mediocre, besides the incredibly pedestrian stop motion animation that renders Rupert rigid and robotic, is the amoral message at its core. In many ways, A Christmas Wish (as the film was later re-titled) is actually a very good film for the modern holiday experience. It's concerned solely with how much moolah you've got and how rapidly you can piss it away. The expert spenders in this movie (The Amendola family manages to blow $1,500 in seven days) prove that the commercialization of the season was inevitable. When they're poor and yet still have their health and their familial love, they're miserable. But when they suddenly find unexpected wealth, they go completely goofy and impulse shop themselves into a froth. Thanks to Rupert's parasite-infused generosity, they become one-'50s era circus act with a purely false hope for a happy holiday. Maybe the little rat should give them rabies, instead. Perhaps that would bring them back to some manner of fiscal truth.

from Santa Claus: The Movie

While it seems unfair to pick on a picture that wants to do nothing except extol the virtue of happiness – be it pecuniary or personal – especially when there's a potentially cute critter involved, things get even riskier when Tinsel Town takes the supposed high road toward authenticity and mythologizing. Take something like 1985's Santa Clause: The Movie (not to be confused with Hulk Hogan's horrid Santa with Muscles, or the far less subtle horror film Santa Claws). The product of an early '80s ideal that argued for excess as a means of achieving box office success, this lavish production, purposely pumped up with pomp and preposterousness by Mexican maverick, producer Ilya Salkind, was meant to be the definitive take on the red-suited sleigh driver.

Hampered by some of the same formulaic tomfoolery that marred his other high profile projects – the original '70s Superman movies and the intensely popular Richard Lester / Musketeer sagas – Salkind's film seemed purposefully made to challenge fellow countryman René Cardona's 1959 Santa Claus, with its children as slave labor / Santa vs. Satan lunacy. One of the original purveyors of stunt casting (Charlton Heston as Cardinal Richelieu) Salkind wanted to delve into the much-beloved myth, lay out a brand new foundation for the entire flying reindeer / toy making / gift giving paradigm, and interlace it all with a subplot storyline involving greed, commercialization, and the overall tactless nature of the new modern holiday. In essence, he was making Kris Kringle's original story, but turning the cultural icon into a comic book hero circa Salkind's Man of Steel epics.

Only problem is, Santa has no real concrete 'history'. He's a combination of several seasonal symbols celebrated by numerous nations. In Salkind's mind, this was easily resolved. Simply mimic Jesus in the resurrection department. The plot sees a couple of 14th century peasants killed off in a snowstorm. Via that universal power known as elfin magic – famous for cookies and reviving human life – the new Mr. and Mrs. Claus are made immortal. In order to amplify the obvious comic implications of such a situation, Salkind hired that drunken bad boy Arthur (otherwise known as British comedian Dudley Moore), and made the man's diminutive stature a key narrative thread. When Moore -- as the perplexed pee wee named Patch -- feels left out of all the pre-present delivery decisions, he heads to the big city to seek his fortune. As screenplay luck would have it, the irritating imp runs into corrupt corporate bad guy (John Lithgow as B.Z.) who wants to own Christmas outright. All he has to do is tap Moore's merriment manufacturing skills and reap the rewards of a market well cornered.

For anyone who thinks the time between Thanksgiving and New Years is a soulless bastardization of everything the season symbolizes, Santa Claus: The Movie manages to be even more mean-spirited. The opening deaths are typical of the tact taken by Salkind and his crew, including Jaws 2 helmer Jeannot Szwarc. Everything is too big, overblown, and phony, giving the scenes in the North Pole a scope that swallows anything remotely magical or meaningful. Even worse, lead actor David Huddleston is a Claus in costume only. He's got the portly proportions, and the musical mulled apple cider belly laugh, but there is nothing here for the performer to prove. As long as he looks like St. Nick, nobody cares about his inner being. If only this were true of the dreadful Dudley Moore. It's hard to imagine what Moore was supposed to do with this role. Surely, Salkind didn't expect him to do the inebriated retard routine again, and yet there are hints of such forced histrionics all throughout the actor's effort. Like everything else in this misguided mess, the obvious bad decisions made on the creative end destroy any inherent joy the material might have had.

The truth is, if moviemakers hate Christmas as much as their films seem to suggest, they should just come right on out and challenge its core concepts. Even better; if they feel the season is soulless and heartless, their movies should reflect such a strained social mindset. In '80, writer / director Lewis Jackson made the one true masterpiece of Christmas as a commercialized, craven crock. His movie, entitled You Better Watch Out, centered on an emotionally unsound man named Harold Stadling who's given over to delusions of glad tidings grandeur. Ever since he saw Mommy getting frisky – literally – with Santa Claus one long ago holiday eve, the guy has reconfigured his life around a desire to be the seasonal symbol. He's employed in a toy factory, fashions voluminous lists of children he views as 'naughty' or 'nice', and even preps his own personal Kris Kringle persona. As December 25th grows near, Harry has problems adjusting to the demands of his new, imaginary position.

Oh course, none of this ends well. Harold, imbued with the aforementioned spirit of giving vs. receiving, does his best to spread his own message of morals vs. materialism. For his efforts, he is harassed, ridiculed, and defamed, his desire to put the true meaning of Christmas and Santa back into the celebration met with violence and scorn. Naturally, this leads to a few deaths, but Christmas Evil (as You Better Watch Out was eventually labeled) is not really your basic bloodletting. Instead, this is an amazingly deep psychological character study, an unpleasant look at a person who just wants to take the holiday back from the media, the merchants and the moneymen. His motives are as pure as his mannerisms are peculiar, and yet he is met with some less than festive fear and loathing.

It's a sad, shocking pronouncement. Jackson argues all throughout this ballsy antidote for the current corrupt notion of Noel that, even if something like Santa really existed, we'd reject it outright for the far more comforting notions that the season's commercialization has created. If his Harold is indeed a representation of pure spirit, sullied by a populace who can't see beyond his creepy, kid-ccentric façade, what does that say about us? Are we more in tune with Rupert's easy money message or Salkind's disturbing combination of the sacred and the slapstick, or have we simply forgotten what Christmas is supposed to symbolize? Certainly, Harold could be a criminal, capable of anything in the name of so-called 'Seasons Greetings', but if the myth were indeed made real, would we really want it after all? At its dark and disturbing heart, Christmas Evil is the ultimate 'be careful what you wish for' cautionary tale.

Because of bad distribution, and an implied connection to silly, slasher-styled holiday horror films (Black Christmas, Silent Night, Deadly Night), Christmas Evil never got the audience consideration it so richly deserved. Instead, it's fallen into that motion picture purgatory where well-meaning films frequently go to grow old. Like the classic moment in Female Trouble where Divine's Dawn Davenport shrieks out her hatred of family, festivities, and unfashionable flat heels, what our current Yuletide needs is a great big smack in the face. Turgid little efforts like A Christmas Wish and Santa Claus: The Movie only makes matters worse. Thankfully, Jackson's jaded journey into the reality of the season's true twisted soul is finally being re-released on DVD. Perhaps there is hope for our holidays yet. If anyone can save us from ourselves, it's that pseudo Santa Harold Stadling. Not only does he understand the over-commercialization of Christmas, he has the perfect cure. Unfortunately, we may not like what it is.

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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