Reviews

Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives by Todd Gitlin

Claire Zulkey

. . . a sound overview of how we have become affected -- or disaffected -- by the media.


Media Unlimted

Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
Length: 288
Subtitle: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives
Price: $25.00
Author: Todd Gitlin
US publication date: 2002-03
Amazon
"Modern man lives under the illusion that he knows what he wants, while he actually wants what he is supposed to want."
— Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom

Picture-in-picture. Pop-up advertisements. The Sony Walkman. Muzak. Elevator video screens. In-flight broadcasts. Scrolling banners. Our culture is more awash in information and entertainment than ever before. From the car radio to the bus advertisement, we absorb more information than we even know. It's not so much that it's difficult to escape as it is easy to pick up. System overload, human style.

The beneficial nature of the information churned out by the media does not concern Todd Gitlin. The issue at hand is whether we are even remotely aware of how much the media bombards us with data, endless streams of it.

Gitlin, author of several books on mass media and contemporary culture, writes in his latest volume that we live in "the age of disposable feelings". He adds, "Each hot, breaking, unsurpassed, amazing, overwhelming event fades, superseded by sequels; each 'crime of the century' dissolves into the next, only to be recycled in the form of TV collages, magazine and movie of the week 'specials', instant books, branded sound bites and video clips, chat groups and instant polls, each cross-referenced to previous spectacles, each assigned meanings by choruses of pundits and focus groups, each instantly labeled unique, unforgettable."

Gitlin theorizes that people are becoming increasingly distracted and he presents some interesting data to back up his thesis. For instance, the cost of entertainment has gone down substantially over the decades, from more than a day's full wage for the theater in the 18th century to 1/100th of a day's wage for cable television. Some of Gitlin's data and facts are difficult to swallow. His sketchy measurements of the ever-shortening sentence in American novels over the years are unsubstantiated. He opens up a whole new can of worms when he postulates that lower-class children seem to ingest more television than middle and upper-class.

Though at times Gitlin's point in itself is difficult to pin down, one truly fascinating element of Media Unlimited is the chapter "Styles of Navigation and Political Sideshows," where Gitlin determines the different ways people "have recourse as the torrent washes over us." He discusses personifying characteristics as coping mechanisms, detailing elements such as: The Fan, who has an "emotional, visceral" link to the star at hand; The Content Critic, who, "like the fan, steers with preferences . . . but . . . works with aversion;" The Paranoid, "a negative monotheist" whom Gitlin himself calls "admirable;" The Exhibitionist, "a positive paranoid;" The Ironist, who is "amused to be amused;" The Jammer, "who believes that images are power…and thinks that he can redistribute power;" The Secessionist, who "turns her back;" and the Abolitionist, "who refuses to accept [the media's] existence as a good argument for why they should continue to exist." Without using facts or figures, this is the chapter in which Gitlin gets the most concrete. Undoubtedly the reader is drawn into the discussion here by identifying with one or more of Gitlin's characteristics.

Gitlin sets himself up for a difficult project when he takes on the intimidating goal of "Grasp[ing] the totality of the media". In his effort to keep his work short and sweet, the result is a bit scattershot. Gitlin does not conjure up any particular explanation for the media torrent, nor, despite his seemingly disapproving tone, does he offer any solution other than to urge the reader to become aware of the media wash.

As Jeffry Scheuer, author of The Sound Bite Society writes of the book, "Gitlin seems reluctant to follow the traditional explanatory path of the left to follow the money. Greed may fuel the speed and plenitude of the media, but the torrent's synergy, he suggests, transcends profit. Capitalism and modern technology don't simply mold us, they confront and accommodate us." Gitlin's emphasis on how much media there is, as opposed to the content of it, is a slippery topic. What is the alternative? We, and he, are not sure. This fluidity, as well as a tendency to appear to refer to the media as a robotic totality, instead of a business run by actual people, sometimes gives Gitlin a grouchy "The kids these days" tone.

Media Unlimited is a sound overview of how we have become affected -- or disaffected -- by the media. More should be written. As Jim Fallows writes in an open letter to Gitlin on Atlantic Unbound, "I wonder if you could sharpen . . . your contention about what aspects of the modern media you consider most worrisome." Gitlin's inability to differentiate between 'good' and 'bad,' media, or whether there is any, adds to the murkiness of the book. One can't help but wonder Gitlin's response if asked: Was watching the news coverage of September 11 the same kowtowing to the media giants, as, say, watching Jerry Springer or Ricki Lake?

In an interview with Phil Kloer of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gitlin recently stated, "I do think the media-saturated life is something of a travesty of human existence, and something of a defeat of the values we claim to cherish." Hopefully, in his next work, Gitlin will tell us more of these values, and how we can avoid this travesty of human existence.

"The most important thing about the communications we live among is not that they deceive (which they do); or that they broadcast a limiting ideology (which they do); or emphasize sex and violence (which they do); or convey diminished images of the good, the true, and the normal (which they do); or corrode the quality of art (which they also do; or reduce language (which they surely do) but that with all their lies, skews, and shallow pleasures, they saturate our way of life with a promise of feeling?"
Todd Gitlin

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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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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