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Kids' TV: A Vast Stygian Wasteland

The horrifying Higglytown Heroes

Kinder, gentler, and thoroughly creepy, today’s children’s television is no match for the classics.

One of the great joys of parenthood, it's often been said, is the experience of reawakening your own inner child. Another of the great joys is casually flirting with the hot moms at your child's pre-school, although that's not something I do, or at least not something I'd admit to in any kind of public forum, my wife being literate and all. So that's just, you know, hypothetical. Honey.

What I'm talking about is the great fun that can be had hanging around with a three-year-old for several hours with no actual agenda. My boy, Declan, is three, and has the proportionate agility and strength of a crack-addicted howler monkey. But recently, he and I both were felled by a particularly savage cold virus that knocked all the fight out of us for about four days. We spent the bulk of our time curled together on the couch and exploring the fascinating world of children's television.

Man, things have changed. I spent an enormous and plainly debilitating amount of my early childhood in front of the TV, watching cartoons. This was before there was any real consciousness on the part of parents (or broadcasters) that television intake should be monitored or restricted. And that was fine by me. I loved those cartoons -- Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, Woody Woodpecker. The central message appeared to be that the world was a fun, colorful and wacky place, if remarkably violent. A land where dynamite and anvils were cheap and plentiful. Smart-ass rabbits, mischievous ducks, malevolent cats and clearly psychotic coyotes -- it was all good.

The live-action Saturday morning options were just as wild. The syndicated Krofft brothers shows were full of man-eating dinosaurs (Land of the Lost), vaguely erotic C-list superheroes (Electrawoman and Dynagirl), and Bigfoot and Wildboy (Bigfoot and Wildboy). It was weird, but at least it was fun.

There were no attempts at educational programming, no instructional content (unless you clicked over to PBS, but everyone knew that crap was for sissies). I realize this is familiar lament, registered by many commentators of my generation. Cartoons were better back in the day; this is self-evident. But frankly, I was unaware of the scope of the crisis. Those four days marooned on the couch with my boy opened my eyes to the bottomless pit of despair that is modern children's television.

The kids shows today are kind, gentle, well-intentioned, and completely unnerving. Not only is there no violence -- at all -- there's barely any conflict. It’s all hugging and sharing and learning.

The worst offender by far is an animated cartoon on PBS -- out of Canada, significantly -- called Caillou. Calliou is a bald-headed four-year-old who looks and acts like Charlie Brown, albeit oversedated with Ritalin meds. Here, truly, is a show about nothing. Forget Seinfeld. Literally nothing happens in these stories. Caillou just hugs and shares and learns, episode after glacially-paced episode, forever. A typical plotline might go something like this:

KINDLY GRANDMOTHER (V.O.) Caillou was thirsty. He decided he would ask for a glass of milk.

CAILLOU: Mom, can I have a glass of milk?

MOM: Sure, Caillou!

KINDLY GRANDMOTHER (V.O.) And so Caillou drank a glass of milk. He felt much better.

There exists also in the basic cable wasteland of children's television an unstoppable juggernaut of vanilla programming called Disney Playhouse.Mickey Mouse is here, updated for the digital age with an aesthetically bankrupt style of computer animation that renders the magical world of Disney approximately as fun as a primary color spreadsheet. Also, a half-hour adventure series called Little Einsteins, in which four adorable, gifted-class types explore the superfun realms of, um, classical music and art. Each episode features a venerated composer and painter, so instead of Tweetie Bird morphing into a Mr. Hyde monster and stomping Sylvester, you get a mini-lecture each morning on the delights of Shostakovich and Edvard Munch.

It gets worse. Higglytown Heroes is another ugly piece of computer animation that celebrates the giddy fun of proper citizenship and an honest day's work. It's just this side of cultural propaganda, and I'm not kidding. The Soviets used to broadcast this kind of thing back in the day, trying to shore up party sentiment and keep the kids toeing the line. Then there's this interstitial programming called "Safety Patrol", in which two adorable little moppets run around writing tickets and busting other kids (and parents) for violations like not wearing a seatbelt, or forgoing sunscreen. Coming up next season: Instructional episodes on how to turn in your parents for recreational drug use.

I dunno, maybe it was all that cough suppressant, but I found the experience completely wretched. There are some bright spots: there’s a British import called Charlie and Lola that’s quite charming. It has stuff like actual jokes and sight gags and entertaining, likeable heroes. You know, something kids might actually like to watch.

I'll tell what's funny, though -- well, not so much funny as totally predictable. The Cartoon Network regularly runs old classic cartoons like Tom and Jerry, and Declan and I caught an hour of these one afternoon. Naturally, he loved them. They're kinetic and crazy, with lots of headbonking and yelling and chasing -- those activities most appealing to a three-year-old's sensibilities.

So we’re going old-school, Dec and I. I’ve already ordered some Looney Toones collections on NetFlix, because every kid needs to see these, cartoon violence and all. And if, someday, years down the line, he drops an anvil on my head, well, that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

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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