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Orthodontia: A Generation Laments

Glenn McDonald

There's a planet full of kind and decent people who, as children, were terribly abused. We were the lab rats and guinea pigs for a nascent industry called orthodontia.

Few things are as traumatic to the prepubescent community as orthodontia. Gym class, maybe. Impending puberty itself, certainly. But when it comes to the apparently arbitrary infliction of humiliation and pain, nothing quite beats a gleaming new set of braces.

This experience is specific to a certain generation, I think. Many of us caught an intermediate wave of orthodontia after the practice became very widespread, but before they worked out all the kinks. Generation X, we used to be called, but now that we're 30-somethings, no one has a name for us anymore. The Boomers annexed the 30-something tag 20 years ago, but no one calls them 50-somethings now. Now we call them "The Generation That's Going To Detonate Social Security in the US".

Anyway, the point is, there's a planet full of kind and decent people who, as children, were terribly abused. We were the lab rats and guinea pigs for a nascent industry called orthodontia. Incredibly expensive, extremely painful. Good times.

I was a victim myself. In sixth grade, it was determined that I had a dangerous overbite, and I was promptly dispatched to Dr. Sam Forster, DDS, who had a cozy little office down the way. Dr. Forster seemed a kindly enough old man at first. He gave me little paddle-ball and tile-puzzle toys whenever I came in, and always ruffled my hair in the manner of hair-ruffling adult types everywhere. He also had a brilliant propensity for inflicting pain. I'm convinced now that Dr. Forster was a man born out of his natural era. His talents really belonged in the Middle Ages somewhere.

Man, I hated those braces. The next three years were an era of fairly constant dull aching, punctuated by regular visits to the good doctor to get the things tightened. I remember clearly my first few visits, looking up at Dr. Forster as he worked and wondering, how did this come to pass? What series of bad decisions had I made to end up here? This man is turning a screw in my mouth with a wrench. Does Amnesty International know about these guys?

It got worse. Besides the grinding bone-pain, braces in those days also more or less tore the inside of your mouth to shreds. Sort of like Cap'n Crunch cereal, but with deeper, cleaner cuts. My understanding is braces these days are much more humane -- still metal, maybe, but with strategically placed plastic parts and rounded edges. Not so, back in the day. Braces were hard, sharp, and made from industrial iron scrap. Imagine having a length of rusting barbed wire superglued to your teeth. At least, that's my recollection.

What's more, I was given tiny little rubber bands and ordered to attach them to various hooks glued to my teeth. This lent a creepy, drooling aspect to my smile, and caused my mouth to literally snap shut. Was there no end to these indignities?

Naturally, I rarely wore the stupid rubber bands. I did discover, however, that they made for the perfect covert classroom projectile. You could cock one of them around your knuckle in such a way as to peg a librarian up to 30 feet away simply by straightening your index finger. Amazing thing, really. They were quite accurate. My little bags of rubber bands got used up in a hurry as I armed all my friends.

Frankly, I needed the allies. Junior high kids are famously cruel and inventive, and when I showed up wearing braces, I quickly won a nickname. Tommy Milchner, being hip in a sixth-grade way to obscure James Bond villains, called me "Jaws". I would win my revenge a year later when Tommy himself suffered the ultimate disgrace -- one of those wraparound headgear "appliances." Cleverly, I called him "Tommy the Assclown". Such is the karmic ebb and flow of childhood discourse.

At any rate, I gradually settled into the routine, resigned to my fate. Even at that tender age, I had a keen sense of opportunism. A soft complaint at the dinner table often earned me extra ice cream. I also convinced my mom that a waterpik was critical to proper oral hygiene. This resulted in many happy hours hosing down the much-despised family cat.

Perhaps the worst part, though, was the seemingly interminable nature of the ordeal. At first, I was told I would only have to wear braces for six months. Then six became nine, and nine became a year. At that point I was told another six months would absolutely do the trick. It was a lie. They were all lies.

Psychologically, it was brutally effective. I came to assume that all adults lied all the time. This stance served me well when, later and to my parents still-smoldering lament, I discovered punk rock and marijuana. "You have only yourselves to blame!" I would shout. (To myself, in my room, when no one was home. I was a relatively gentle punk.)

The day finally came when my braces were to be permanently removed. I remember my mom gave me $20 for being such a brave little man for so long, and truth be told, I did feel handsomer somehow. Dr. Forster used a variety of tools to pry the metal from my teeth, leaving a gritty residue of three-year-old adhesive -- the same stuff they now use to attach ceramic heat shields to orbiting satellites. Actually, I don't know that for sure, but it stands to reason.

My mom thanked Dr. Forster and we gathered up our stuff to leave. I added a few more little plastic toys to my bag, and headed out for the final time. At the very last minute, just as my mom turned her back and opened the door, I wheeled around and — hard as I could — kicked that bastard Forster right in the shin. To his credit, he never squealed, and I think we both recognized that some sort of cosmic balance had finally been struck.

Ah, yes. Sweet memories. There's a rather fantastic picture my Mom recently unearthed of me going to some junior high dance. I'm wearing a 1980s vintage skinny tie and a Members Only knockoff jacket. My hair is carefully feathered, and I'm standing in front of my Billy Squier poster in my bedroom. My date, I think her name was Dawn, is standing awkwardly next to me (we were far too nervous to touch one another, and when we danced later that night, I remember employing the straight-arm zombie-like stance particular to those tender years.) We're both smiling into the camera with a mouthful of braces, and there's actually a glare from the flashbulb reflecting off the damn things.

I showed the picture to my nephew the other day. He's getting the new "invisible" braces, made from some gentle space-age polymer. Looking at the photo, he smirked. "Nice hair. Are those sparklers in your mouth?"

The kids today. What are you gonna do?

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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