Columns

I'll Swap You Two Wydens for a Biden

Getting America’s youth to pay attention to politics doesn’t require a change in message, but a change in messenger -- baseball card style.

Riding the bus last week, I found a seat among a group of high school-age kids who looked so quintessentially “American” that I wondered if they were en route to a casting call for a political campaign commercial: The ubiquitous thin white iPod umbilicals dangling from their ears, baseball caps twisted in various personalized directions, two carrying weathered baseball gloves, another a laptop, another a guitar, all looking like they had learned how to dress in an Old Navy changing room. I settled into my stiff composite bus seat and turned an ear to their conversation, which centered on their shared lamentation that they and America's politicians had nothing in common.

Considering it was Portland, where extracurricular kibitzing from strangers is an excessively exercised right, I pointed at the gloves and mentioned that over the years, nearly a dozen professional baseball players had served in Congress. They looked at me without a word, apparently determining if I had let the prescription lapse on my mood-leveling medication. I then pointed to the guitar and reminded them that John Kerry plays guitar, and again I was treated to a collection of blank stares usually reserved for math teachers who ask for the square root of 14. After an awkward silence, one asked with thinly veiled disinterest, "Who's John Kerry?"

Who is John Kerry -- the man lost the presidential election just four years prior and he was already an obscure footnote? I decided to go with a politician with a more recent public profile, and reminded them that presidential candidate Governor Mike Huckabee was also a musician, a devotee of the bass. "He's the preacher, right?" one of the boys inquired, unconcerned that he was cavalierly reducing a man's lifetime of diverse public service to a single modifier. "Yes, and no," I replied, but the kids stopped paying attention at "yes". I was as out of touch with them as politicians were.

This encounter lingered on my mind. Don't get me wrong, I was no different at there age. Back then, politics was a milieu of the adult world, some mysterious network of strange names that instilled varying degrees of admiration and ire in my parents. To some degree, I never grew out of that, as I’m still stumped when 29-down in the crossword suggests, “Senator from Missouri”.

The fact is, studying the names of our elected leaders is something most of us stopped doing in Junior High civics class. There are 100 Senators and 435 Representatives, so keeping them all straight is like trying to know every player on every team in Major League Baseball.

But there's the crux: I know people who do know every player on every team in Major League Baseball, or would at least score a solid 'A' on a comprehensive MLB test. But these same people would fail a comprehensive congressional quiz with scores that would likely be lower than the runs in an average MLB game.

Mental compilation of baseball statistics is an enthusiasm that borders on religion for many (with that border thoroughly breached for others), yet we monitor our elected leaders like we do the kids in our graduating class who we never really knew -- we hear occasional updates through the grapevine over the years, but their accomplishments generally escape our notice.

I understand the allure of America's game, but all play and no work makes Jack an oblivious voter: Isn't there a way to make political awareness more essential in our lives, to raise kids with a genuine curiosity about the machinations of the legislature?

I think there is. But to understand the methodology, let's trace the fervor for baseball statistics to its roots. Before Sportscenter became must-see TV for adult males, before the Sports page muscled out the Comics for most coveted section of the newspaper, the statistician seed is planted in the form of baseball cards. Baseball cards have been in circulation since the end of the 19th century, and over the years they have become treasure troves of occupational data about our baseball heroes, packing an impressive amount of information onto a 4”x3” flash card: height, weight, birthplace, team, position, signature and factoids, plus several season's worth of batting averages, hits, RBIs, at bats, doubles, triples, home runs and more.

For most kids who collect baseball cards, statistics are studied with the fervor that archeologists focused on the Rosetta Stone. Statistics are currency used to purchase respect, with ever-competitive kids memorizing the details so that they can casually mention that Barry Bonds best batting average (.370) came in 2002, a year after his home run record breaking season. While every young sports fan would love to grow up to be a sports celebrity, most would be equally happy to be the next Bob Costas, sports commentator extraordinaire whose encyclopedic command of sports trivia defies traditional theories of knowledge retention.

The trouble is, kids become masters of baseball statistics at an early age and then become possessive of that sports literacy: It's a lifetime of learning (often literally), and when confronted with the daunting task of maintaining that main-frame-sized database and using some of the cranial server space to store new information about politics or how to do laundry, most don't want to tamper with the circuitry. It's not that men don't want to grow up, it's simply that many have defined their reputation in their circle of friends and in their schools by mastery of sports statistics, and to abandon that is to abandon their very identity. Politics doesn't take a backseat because it's boring, it takes a backseat because it's new, and new means unfamiliar, and unfamiliar means starting at the bottom of the learning curve, again.

That’s why politics needs to take a page from MLB’s template and capture the target audience’s attention early in the consumption cycle: Make facts a coveted commodity, make knowledge something to be hoarded. The solution to American youth's disinterest in politics is simple: Congressional trading cards.

Congress CardsTM, a bi-annually released set of 550 trading cards featuring each of America's 100 Senators, 435 Representatives, and 15 specialty cards featuring that session's Senate Majority Leader and Speaker of the House, the Capital building, cards for each political party and landmark legislation that passed that year.

Imagine the possibilities: Walking by an elementary school playground and hearing a cluster of kids settle an argument about who chairs the House Ways and Means committee by producing the 2008 Charles B. Rangel card; at home, kids reconstructing the entire assembly by pinning the cards to a poster of the senate chambers on their bedroom walls, exclaiming, “If I can get Gordon Smith and Blanche Lincoln, I'll have the whole committee on Energy and natural resources. Jimmy has Gordon Smith, but he won't trade it for anything except Hillary Clinton, and there's no way I'm trading that one.”

The cards could be packaged just like baseball cards, complete with the rectangular wafer of dehydrated gum. Every card will feature a photograph of the politician with a flip side that chronicles their service to the nation, including facts about the person and about the state they represent. (A surreptitious means of adding geography to the knowledge base.) The gum could even be flavored to match a chief export of one of the 50 states, including honey flavored gum from the Beehive State (Utah), and hazelnut gum from Oregon to celebrate its dominance in that industry.

The cards would be produced by the U.S. Mint, with a portion of the proceeds going to the state whose legislators are included in the pack. Residents of each state would vote on how to spend their own trading card revenue: Oregon might vote for investment in alternative energy solutions, perhaps, while Washington earmarks those funds for upgrading its public transit systems. By having each state decide on its own financial distribution, purchasing the card packs would be an act of patriotism, an investment in both the nation and in their local communities.

This is a prime opportunity to educate our children – and supplement state revenue. The information learned from Congress CardsTM will help them grow up to understand the inner workings of the US Congress, and to know whose hands are on the levers that stop and start the machinery.

Kids will still have baseball cards, and Mariano Rivera's career stats will surely continue to be the subject of studious memorization -- but when talk turns to who are the greatest closers, Mariano won't be the only name offered: “With due respect to Rivera,” some child will boldly opine, “Olympia Snowe's record as an integral voice on many crucial bipartisan Senate compromises wins her my vote for best closer.”

Of course, all the kids will have studied the Olympia Snowe card, so everyone except the Yankee fans will agree. (Though the lobster-flavored gum that came with in the packs with the Snowe cards is destined to get a unanimous thumbs-down.)

Alas, apologies to Mike Huckabee: Until Congress CardsTM prove successful and the United States Governors card set appears, those kids on the bus are still going to think of you as the preacher.

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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