Sarah Vowell Explores American History With One Foot Firmly in the Land of Humor

Part travelogue, part historical narrative, and every bit a statement on post-Obama politics, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is an interesting work that serves multiple purposes.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

Publisher: Riverhead
Length: 282 pages
Author: Sarah Vowell
Price: $27.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-10

For a country that prides itself on the classical liberal ideal of individualism, the United States is sure indebted to France. Not that being indebted to any one country takes away from a sense of identity, but as for those of us who are Americans, I think we know full well the constant rhetoric about how no place is like America because of some indomitable spirit that sets us apart, apparently, from everyone else. This is also the ego that makes the rest of the world hate us, but I digress. Even though our history is one that usually identifies a split with Great Britain as our starting point, we often forgot how much American independence was predicated on French support – financially, psychologically, diplomatically, and perhaps most important, militarily.

Yet, in a country with so many places of French etymology -- Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Louisville, Kentucky; Champaign, Illinois; Bel Air, California; etc. – we remain largely unaware of our debt to France and the interweaving of its history with ours. I lived in West Lafayette, Indiana for almost five years and never really stopped to think about the origin of the town’s name; I was too busy getting hammered at Harry’s Chocolate Shop (look it up). After reading Sarah Vowell’s new book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, it dawned on me, just as it did during her research, that everyone has a “go-to Lafayette-labelled noun”, but few of us every stop to thinking about it.

Part travelogue, part historical narrative, and every bit a statement on post-Obama politics, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is an interesting work that serves multiple purposes. On one level, it's an excellent introduction to early American history, which brings forth a better understanding of Lafayette and the contemporaries we know and love – Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams. However, its main contribution, as I see it, is highlighting lesser known figures and events including John Dickinson, the 1824 presidential election, the Olive Branch Petition, the Homespun Movement, Admiral de Grasse, the plight of American POWs during the Revolutionary War, the Fabian Strategy, and General Nathaniel Greene, aka “The Fighting Quaker”. I have taught American history and government at the college level since 2003 and learned so many things, from this book, for the first time.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is also a sharp addition to the canon of American political science work that has bemoaned one major question since Angus Campbell, Philip Converse, Warren Miller, and Donald Stokes wrote about it in 1960’s The American Voter; why do American voters know so little about their government? Vowell asks a serious question, ironically prompted by her discussion with some Quakers in the Brandywine Valley: if there is so much writing on violence, particularly its use in American history, why do Americans know so little about not only war history, but history in the first place?

Still, on another level, Vowell has attempted to do what she does best: explore American history with one foot firmly in the land of humor. With references to Bruce Springsteen, Internet trolls, Matthew Broderick, the George Foreman Grill, Rob Lowe, and her ever-present nephew, Owen, as well as Teddy Newton’s amazing illustrations (I actually laughed out loud when I saw his drawing of Benjamin Franklin), Lafayette in the Somewhat United States does the unthinkable and makes a book at American-French relations … funny. Sacré bleu!

Vowell, who rose to fame as a contributor editor for WBEZ Chicago’s This American Life, attempts to extend her magic touch to the story of the Marquis de Lafayette, possibly the most influential Frenchman ever in the history of the United States. How did a 19-year-old French aristocrat from a military family manage to escape his wife, family, king and government, in order to join the colonists in their war against Britain? More importantly, how did this teenager become a general, distinguish himself in combat, become an ally for the rest of his life, and eventually, the “best friend America ever had”? How, indeed.

However, it would be unfair to pair Vowell with that other media commentator turned American history author, Bill O’Reilly, whose recent works on Lincoln and Kennedy -- Killing Lincoln (2011) and Killing Kennedy (2012), naturally -- attempt to churn old ground on the two most famous presidential assassinations in an effort to get American people interested in history again. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, on the other hand, is every bit a book of well-researched scholarship, as it is a cathartic missive for Vowell to ponder curious parallels between current and past American political and historical development. I counted 83 citations in the bibliography, and it’s obvious to me that the author spent as much time reading the personal letters of a number of figures of the Revolutionary War era, as she did historical works.

At the beginning, this book reminded me of an extended episode of Drunk History (Comedy Central), but the content changed and became somehow stuck between satire and history; it’s as if Vowell was unsure of how serious she was supposed to be. Her style is to interpolate facts with witty, sometimes deadpanned comments, and while it works overall, it also gives Lafayette in the Somewhat United States an exasperating feel. Yet such a criticism has been leveled previously against Vowell, who has made a recent career of writing similar examinations of American history that combine the serious with the silly, e.g., 2005’s Assassination Vacation, 2008’s The Wordy Shipmates, and 2011’s Unfamiliar Fishes.

For example, she begins the book with this question: “How did the Marquis de Lafayette win over the stingiest, crankiest tax protestors in the history of the world?” But the American obsession with taxation doesn’t appear again until page 155, when Vowell manages to connect the lack of food and infrastructure for Washington’s troops to the current mismanagement of the Veteran's Administration and asks, “Is it just me, or does this foible hark back to the root of the revolution itself? Which is to say, a hypersensitivity about taxes -- and honest disagreements over how they’re levied, how they’re calculated, how that money is spent, and by whom.”

On the next page, she describes this as “our centuries-old, all-American inability to get our shit together.” She’s not wrong, but this example is but one of many times when Vowell starts a topic, and then quickly changes gears.

What of the namesake himself? Since I knew so little of Lafayette before reading this work, and now feel like I have a greater understanding of 18th and 19th century American history, I can hardly fault the author’s sincere and cogent effort at educating the public. From another perspective, however, there were times when I found myself scribbling in the margin, “What happened to Lafayette?”

Vowell doesn't reveal the reason she wrote this book until almost the end, when she mentions, almost in passing, that she was initially motivated by Congresswoman Ginny Brown-Waite of Florida who introduced a bill in 2003 to move American remains from French cemeteries back to the US because France was “a country that has turned its back on the United States.” Later, while visiting Herman Melville’s home in Massachusetts, Vowell says she was looking at an exhibit and saw an 1824 dress worn by the future Elizabeth Knapp Shaw Melville when she was presented to Lafayette during his victory lap. According to Vowell, this started her thinking that “Americans had forgotten France’s help in our war for independence in general and the national obsession with Lafayette in particular.”

The problem is that many Americans, and not just politicians like Brown-Waite, are so caught up in this out-of-control jingoism, that we pretend to care about being American without accepting what that entails. For Vowell, it's the telling and retelling of tales about how a poorly-fed and clothed, motley group of people, barely American, were, despite all odds, able to use “DIY Yankee pluck” to defeat an enemy that did not want to let us go, but worse, believed that we would not be able to survive without their help.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States shows us that it was more than just one man who was able to enthusiastically support a vision of a free United States. It took a friendly European power (with an agenda of their own). Perhaps the most fitting tribute to the Marquis de Lafayette is the author's conclusion, where she beautifully recounts the many instances where Lafayette was paid the highest panegyric praise including an almost tear-inducing account of Colonel Charles E. Stanton standing before Lafayette’s tomb on the Fourth of July, 1917, in Picpus Cemetery, Paris, and telling the crowd,

America has joined forces with the Allied Powers … and what we have of blood and treasure are yours. Therefore it is that with loving pride we drape the colors in tribute of respect to this citizen of your great republic. And here and now, in the presence of the illustrious dead, we pledge our hearts and our honor in carrying this war to a successful issue. Lafayette, we are here”

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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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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