Reviews

Fame

Michael Abernethy

Through these auditions, viewers are introduced to the one element that distinguishes Fame from similar series -- compassion.


Fame

Airtime: Wednesdays 8pm ET; re-airings on Bravo
Cast: Joey Fatone
Network: NBC
Amazon

I am sick of American Idol. I'm sick of hearing about it, reading about it, seeing ads for it, opening up USA Today to see the entire "Life" section devoted to what happened on last night's episode, turning on Entertainment Tonight to be subjected to nightly American Idol background stories, and every day hearing tidbits about Kelly, Justin, Rueben, Clay, Ryan, and, most of all, Simon. I don't care if Clay got ripped off or if Kelly's CD has been bought by every person in the world except myself. I admit that the four finalists from the first two seasons are all exceptional singers, but they are just that -- singers, not saviors.

What bothers me most about American Idol is the apparent glee that so many people take in watching people embarrass themselves. One of the show's main draws is Simon Cowell, who doesn't have a successful day at work unless he has brought someone to the brink of tears. He's unnecessarily harsh on the good contestants, and he's just cruel to the bad ones. And from what I've gathered, one of the show's most popular features are clips of those contestants who, bless their little hearts for trying, aren't ever going to be stars, not even at the neighborhood dinner theater. The thrill lies in watching these folks fall flat on their faces, so Simon can pounce.

Granted, American Idol isn't the only show to feature this format. Talent-driven game shows have been popular since Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts in the early '50s, but never before has the genre been such a force in tv programming. Now, we can watch people stumble or fly in their attempts to be America's next big country-western star, junior singer, senior performer, comedian, model, director, screenwriter, and sex god or goddess. Not all of these shows feature scathing critiques, although several do, but each makes a point of showing the auditions of the really bad contestants so we can laugh at their foolish dreams.

Surprisingly, perhaps, NBC's new talent show, Fame, does not solicit my disdain. It doesn't for one reason: Debbie Allen, the respected director, producer, actress, dancer, and choreographer. Her association with the concept of Fame dates back to the 1980 feature film of the same name, in which she played the dance instructor at Manhattan's School for the Performing Arts. She reprised the role in the television series based on the film, where she also took on the jobs of choreographer and, occasionally, director. And now, she's the driving force behind Fame-as-reality-tv.

Allen says she's on a quest to find a "triple threat," a singer-dancer-personality. The series' two-hour premiere focused its first hour on Allen's auditions in four major cities throughout the United States. Through these auditions, viewers are introduced to the one element that distinguishes Fame from similar series -- compassion.

Allen is not about denigrating or humiliating those who appear before her. She doesn't insult or ridicule. Instead, she focuses on building confidence in her young subjects. Even those whose auditions were atrocious didn't hear derision from Allen, although she was never dishonest and didn't give contestants false hope. She delivered her comments with a smile or a laugh, and shared with contenders what they already knew -- they just didn't have it. It's hard to imagine that anyone out of the thousands who auditioned left feeling like he or she was wrong for having tried.

Allen's handling of the contestants is best exemplified by her interaction with a 16-year-old girl named Kim. Unable to do the dance steps that a group of competitors had just been taught, Kim walked off the stage quietly and returned to her seat in the auditorium. Allen stopped the others, then coaxed the girl to dry her eyes and get back on the stage. By the time Allen was finished, not only did Kim return, but the other contestants were cheering for her and shouting her name. Kim didn't make the cut, but she undoubtedly was prouder of herself when she left than she would have been had she been in the room with Simon Cowell.

Allen again demonstrated people skills during auditions in Chicago, the third set. During one group's dance routine, she singled out one young lady and asked, "Where do I know you from? Wait. You auditioned for me in New York, didn't you?" After seeing hundreds of contestants, the fact that Allen remembered her made the young woman feel special, and on this occasion, she did make the cut, which she hadn't done previously.

Allen encourages her contestants all the way to their performances in the finals. The 24 finalists in this first episode were sent to Allen's dance studio for intensive training and rehearsal. She was tough and precise, and worked diligently to turn those whose specialty was singing into dancers and vice versa, relying along the way on a variety of pep talks. Still, Allen doesn't come across as a cheerleader. She is always professional, but clearly believes in showing young people their potential, if not in the entertainment field, then in life. Once each contestant makes his or her finals appearance, Allen is on stage with words of praise and congratulations.

For all the good that Allen brings, she is not the series' focal point. It's the contestants. The finalists are all competent, but pretty much interchangeable with the contestants from Star Search or Idol, aspiring performers who have yet to learn that good music has nuances and that belting out every note or running the scales may not be the best approach to every song.

And while their dancing is serviceable, a few of them could use some pointers from host Joey Fatone, the most energetic dancer in 'NSync. Here he's agreeable, although at times, it is clear that this sort of gig is new to him. This is most obvious in his bantering with the judges -- manager Johnny Wright, singer Carnie Wilson, and DJ JoJo Wright, who are all tactful and honest in their appraisals of the contestants. Still, Allen is the highlight. Her energy and enthusiasm are infectious, and she is the reason I sat through all two hours of the premiere, and why I returned this week for the second episode.

To be honest, it really doesn't matter to me who wins, although some of the contestants are obviously more deserving than others. If you are drawn to talent game shows to evaluate potential new stars, then Fame may be of interest. If you are drawn to such shows to laugh at the foolishness of folks in over their heads, Fame is definitely not for you. But if you would like to spend part of your summer with a woman who is a positive role model for kids and adults, someone who knows the value of positive reinforcement and how far a few kind words can carry a soul, then spending your Wednesday evenings with Debbie Allen is a must.

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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Features

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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