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Books

Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation

Anand Pandian

Drawing from years of fieldwork with Tamil filmmakers, artists, musicians, and craftsmen in "Kollywood", Reel World explores what happens to life when everything begins to look and feel like cinema.


Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation

Publisher: Duke University Press
Author: Anand Pandian
Publication date: 2015-11
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Excerpted from Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation by Anand Pandian © 2015, and reprinted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

14. Voice

I was born in the Bronx in the early 1970s. My father’s parents waited eagerly for the home movies that would sometimes come to India from America, flickering images of my sister and me playing with stuffed animals and riding on wooden horses. My mother’s parents had come to New York City for my birth. Mamamma spent days lying beside me, I’ve been told, in that small apartment on 233rd Street. “Will you be an American president or an Indian president? What will you be?” my grandmother asked again and again. “Unh,” I said. Really, though, what could I say? What does it take to realize the life given voice by those who come before us?

* * *

The head of operations for the Tamil Padam film production team spies me sitting over a notebook at a café on Khader Nawaz Khan Road one afternoon in 2009. “You’re Nirav’s friend, aren’t you?” Sushant asks, recalling my work with the film’s cinematographer. They’ve wrapped up their shooting and are now in postproduction. “Can you do us a favor?”

I laugh at the idea of what he wants me to do, and insist that there must be others in Chennai far better suited for this task. “The director is looking for a black man,” Sushant admits gravely. But he calls again, two days later, with the same request.

On Saturday morning, I arrive at Bharani Studios in Vadapalani, where the film’s director, C. S. Amudhan, is already at work in one of the sound-dubbing studios. “You’re going to dub for Obama today,” Amudhan declares when I step into the dark and frosty space.

I sound nothing like the president, I profess, secretly tickled by the outlandishness of the idea. But the director assures this won’t be a problem. “The audience won’t have a frame of reference, they won’t have heard Obama speak.”

“Can you tweak it a bit?” I ask, skeptically, yet not without hope.

“We can give it a bit of a baritone. Let’s see how it sounds,” he says.

* * *

The power of voice is a power of animation, bringing things and persons into unexpected life. We tend to think of this power as something deeply personal, bearing the essence of an individual. But voice always has about it an uncanny feeling of ventriloquism, the sense of being thrown from somewhere else. “The source of the voice can never be seen,” Mladen Dolar writes. “The voice comes from inside the body, the belly, the stomach.”

Cinema only deepens this gulf between the sound of a voice and its source. As Michel Chion has shown, films are full of “acousmatic” elements issuing from somewhere outside the visual frame, things heard without being seen, “wandering along the surface, at once outside and inside, seeking a place to settle.” Unseen bodies, sudden eruptions, distant murmurs—so much of cinema’s power depends on the movement of such sounds on and beyond the screen.

Think of what happens in the opening minutes of C.S. Amudhan’s 2010 film, Tamil Padam (Tamil Movie). Under a thatched roof and pouring rain, a young woman wails into the dark of night. A boy is born, but in a land infamous for its partisan love of sons, this one is strangely unwanted. “Here’s fifty rupees,” the father tells the midwife. “Finish off that little life.”

A mournful flute implies that something awful will happen in these opening minutes of Tamil Padam. But the film is a spoof, the scene a parody of a wrenching Tamil movie about female infanticide from the 1990s. There, a midwife reached for a bowl of milk-white sap from the deadly kalli cactus to poison a newborn girl with her first meal. Here, the midwife reaches instead for a shiny green Tetra Pak of P.R.S. Cactus Milk. “Pure! Hygienic!” the carton reads, slickly.

“Grandma, Grandma, wait a minute!” a young voice says as the old woman bends over the child with the carton’s offerings. She looks up and around, unable to place its source. “Look here, Grandma, it’s me, Mini-Superstar speaking!” the voice says again. She looks down with wide eyes, finally connecting the sound to the newborn infant on her lap.

“I’ll go to Madras and truly become a great hero,” chirps the voice, trying to convince her to spare his life. The midwife is impressed with his verbal flair. “You’re already speaking in punch lines!” she exclaims, vowing to save the child and take him to Madras herself.

Years go by, and the child, Shiva, has indeed become a valiant, if somewhat diffident hero. One afternoon, his phone begins to buzz with pleas to undertake an undercover operation against some notorious Chennai gangsters. First the police commissioner. Then the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Then the prime minister of India. Shiva rebuffs them all. Then the cell phone screen scrolls one more name: “Obama calling.”

With a casual flicker of recognition, Shiva takes the call. The film lingers for a few seconds on the image of a dark silhouette standing before a flagpole, curtain, and American presidential seal.

“Okay, dude, I’ll do it for you,” Shiva tells Obama. “My regards to the family.”

* * *

So there I am, sitting on a black leather couch in the Bharani Studios control room. At the console with the sound engineer, the director Amudhan asks to see Obama’s lines. “We can enhance it,” the director says, unimpressed with what they have so far.

“Shiva, please take up this assignment,” he suggests, pencil in hand.

I have to object. “He wouldn’t say assignment.”

“Okay. Job, project, assignment, operation, something. Only you can kill Pan Parag Ravi and Swarnakka. Please do this for world peace.”

“He won’t say that,” I blurt out again.

“Why?”

World peace is very flat. No one actually says world peace. Beauty pageants talk about world peace. It’s not a smart thing, to say that way.”

“Or,” the director proposes, “we’ll say ‘The people of America are counting on you.’ There’s no connection. It’ll be funny.”

I give in.

“When you say Pan Parag Ravi, you’ll have to exaggerate your accent, you’ll have to make it really Yankee Doodle,” Amudhan tells me.

“Ravi.”

“Roll your Rs more. R-r-avi.”

I’m perplexed. “He wouldn’t roll. We don’t roll.”

“That’s okay. We’ll exaggerate it. That’s the funny bit. R-r-ravi... That’s how people would think Americans talk.”

After a few minutes, we agree on what to say. “Let’s go for it,” the director says.

“Just like that?” I ask nervously. “You don’t want me to practice or anything?”

“I’m sure you’ll get it the first time,” he assures. “The second”—he snaps his fingers—“you see Obama on the screen, start talking. We’ll give it a shot, let’s see how it sounds.”

I head through the heavy steel doors into the recording booth. “He speaks more pompously than Obama even,” someone murmurs as I leave the room.

“See this,” the director says to him, pointing out my audio recorder still lying on top of the recording console. “You shouldn’t have said that just now.”

* * *

How do you prepare to assume the voice of anyone else, let alone an American president? Say you’re small, awkward, and clumsy, like me. Say you’ve always been teased about your supposedly foreign accents—Moroccan, French Canadian, Cambodian, South African, always winding up as though you were pretending to be an Indian.

I’d downloaded Obama’s 2008 victory speech onto my iPod that morning. I’d listened again and again on the ride over to Bharani Studios, hoping that the driver couldn’t hear me quietly try out a tenor, depth, and cadence of voice so unlike my own.

Through the double steel doors now into the recording booth, I stand behind a corner podium and mike, facing a large image of the faux-presidential silhouette. It doesn’t help that the image looks nothing like Obama. It doesn’t help that the actor playing Shiva also walks into the control room to lounge on the couch, just before the first take.

But when the recording begins, there is little time to fret, so little, in fact, that I miss my first cue. From then on, there’s no chance to think of anything else but getting the lines right, modulating their speed to match the length of the shot.

“Perfect,” the director said after just a couple takes, when the sound engineer plays the recording. I’m alarmed. “It sounds like me, not like Obama!” I can’t help but blurt out. But all that matters for the film is that I sound American.

There are a few more adjustments. Obama throws in a Tamil-language plea to Mr. Shiva: Americave ungala than nambirku, All of America is counting on you. There are laughs and claps as I rehearse this line with an American twang. Someone suggests another line about Rambo and Schwarzenegger, but luckily, this last idea falls flat.

On my take once more, there is little left to do now but adjust the recording levels. When I step back into the control room, the director is already thinking ahead to dubbing voices for the next scene. Smiling, he offers to help me get a dubbing artiste union card. “You’ve got a career waiting for you here.”

* * *

Sound in Indian cinema is rarely recorded on location at the same time that visual images are shot. Human voices are matched instead to speaking faces in the environment of the dubbing studio. There are nearly two thousand men and women registered with the dubbing artistes union in Chennai. Some are screen actors who join the union to assert the right to project their own voice onscreen. But most are specialists in oral performance, recruited by a “dubbing agent” to speak on behalf of bodies other than their own.

A few months later, on the grounds of another film studio complex close to Bharani Studios, I meet K. Vinayagamoorthy, dubbing agent for Tamil Padam. He reminds me that films are still known in Tamil as pesum padam, “talking pictures.” Echoing modern Tamil theories of speech, Vinayagamoorthy insists that voice alone gives uyir -- life -- to film.

We step into a modest canteen on the studio grounds to talk more about these ideas. For the dubbing agent, cinema demands two kinds of action: “acting in the light” and “acting in the dark,” which his dubbing artistes perform. “This work is creative, sir,” he insists. There is, for example, the challenge of “lip,” that is, the visual movement of lips already recorded by the camera, for which the dubbing artiste must improvise a closely matching stream of words.

Back outside the canteen, we meet a couple of senior dubbing artistes who have dropped by the studio, looking for work. With them, my play for solidarity failed. One repeats my Tamil Obama line—Americave ungala than nambirku—back to me in a faux-American accent, making it known that I could dub this voice only because it accompanied a static presidential silhouette: there was no visible “lip.”

The dubbing agent nevertheless enters my contact details onto his Nokia phone. He takes a photograph of my face, as if to fix a single person to the name and number the screen would call up. Nowhere else in India have I encountered this gesture, one that seems yet again to acknowledge the power of voice to conjure unexpected lives.

* * *

There was a young bespectacled woman at the mike when I walked into Bharani Studios that first morning. She was asked to scream as if she were the woman giving birth under a thatched roof in the opening scene of Tamil Padam.

The director found her too consistently pained on the first take. “A little buildup is needed,” he’d said, “as though the sound is rising.” I listened as the pitch of her voice kept peaking and quavering in visceral tension until the director was satisfied. “It’s over, dear, thank you,” he told her, and she was free to leave.

The dubbing artiste’s name was Shaji. We meet one evening at her own small recording studio on a narrow lane west of Bharani Studios, the name of the enterprise painted in English block letters on the blue steel door: “Sound in Silence.”

Shaji tells me that she is the niece of a screen actress, and that she’d grown up quietly acting out her aunt’s roles as she watched her from a distance. We talk about the work she’s been doing herself, dubbing continuously for films, television serials, cartoons, and other media in Chennai for the past several years.

“Our own lives will be forgotten,” Shaji says. “When we see the screen, we become that. Until now, I am Shaji. Then I am Kavita. Then I am Sunitha.”

Listening to her speak, I begin to see how voice can claim its own existence, its own life, independent of body and identity. “Even my own mother can’t identify my voice,” Shaji added. “My voice will be telecast, and she won’t know.”

Her mother, it seems, would marvel at times, “Where did your voice go? It was nothing like your voice, girl. Don’t lie. Was it you that spoke?”

* * *

The film, Tamil Padam, is a massive hit. I can hear nine hundred bodies erupt in a roar of enthusiasm when a trailer for the film plays on a 70mm screen at Chennai’s Sangam Theatre one afternoon in 2010.

Sixty-two seconds into the two-minute trailer, my lines resound through that cavernous hall: “Mr. Shiva, you gotta do this job. Only you can kill Pan Parag Ravi and Swarnakka. Americave ungalai than nambirku.”

There I am, beaming in that dark space, but there is something unsettling in this pleasure, for I can’t claim this voice as my own. It sounds like me. But so unlike the shouts and whistles erupting loudly here and there in that packed cinema hall, this voice echoes from everywhere at once. It does things I clearly can’t do. And then it’s suddenly gone.

Something else happens in Los Angeles, when the film screens there a few months later. For my mother, everything always seems to come back to her children. Hearing my voice, she sees me in that presidential silhouette onscreen.

“That’s my son!” she shouts into the space of the theater, as those around her shift uneasily in their seats.

Anand Pandian teaches anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. His books include Crooked Stalks: Cultivating Virtue in South India, and Ayya’s Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India, which he wrote with his grandfather.

Culture

Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke


69. Arcade Fire - "Creature Comfort"

This is a big, bold statement of intent from Arcade Fire. There is a clear and admirable desire for the band not to spend too long in the same space and to mine their DNA to reinvigorate themselves. The big synths and angular new wave of early '80s the Cure sound fresh and like nothing the band has done before. Despite the retro stylings, the subject matter is refreshingly current as the group deal with the quest for personal validation from family, friends, and strangers, the anxieties of negative body image and the relentless pursuit of fame at the expense of everything else. The band cleverly offer a metaphorical panacea for all of these ills in the form of "Creature Comfort". Something to numb the pain. This is a song that leaves you anything but anesthetized. - Paul Carr


68. Alt-J - "In Cold Blood"

As far as songs about murders at pool parties go, "In Cold Blood" is actually pretty heady. In true alt-J fashion, it's hard to tell what's a red herring and what's actually relevant to the song, but as with the best songs, it doesn't particularly matter when it's this catchy. The random snippets of binary code, the allusion to C.S. Lewis' Caspian, the extended coda of "La la la"s, these are diversions from the subject at hand, perhaps because the gravity of the matter would make for too heavy a song, perhaps because alt-J delights in being obtuse. Still, with imagery as vivid as "Hair the way the sun really wants it to be" and "Lifeless back slaps the surface of the pool", it is still appropriately shocking, and yet morbidly catchy, particularly once the horns kick in. It makes you feel guilty for enjoying it, which is probably just perfect as far as alt-J is concerned. - Mike Schiller


67. The Mynabirds - "Golden Age"

The transition from 2016 to 2017 needed an elegy, an understated anthem of disillusionment and sorrow, and this is it. With its staid piano melody and Laura Burhenn's velvet vocals, the song taps into the sucker-punch trauma of feeling like social progress's trajectory was a bait-and-switch that made the eventual collapse that more crushing. The lyrics read as a litany of topical grief — the deaths of Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, worsening climate change, rampant police brutality, the severing of family ties amid political lines, and, presciently considering when it was written, the emboldening of American Nazism by Donald Trump's presidential election. Dour stuff, to be sure, yet Burhenn isn't ready to seal the mausoleum. Rather, "Golden Age" is the sound of an ideal beaten but unbroken, its swollen eye still focused on the future. It's a rail against complacency and surrender and offers needed comfort and warmth, while still being goosebumps-inducing in its call to arms. It might be a lofty comparison, but "Golden Age" is a spiritual successor to Lennon's "Imagine" in the current climate. - Cole Waterman


66. Sir Sly - "High"

The premise isn't too groundbreaking: a group of young indie poppers with hip haircuts singing about getting high. What sets Sir Sly's take on getting high apart from many others is how current it is. Sir Sly's "High" nails the mindset of many a millennial as the group sings about "wondering what peace would be like" - drugs as a means of escape from this very specific wave of global turmoil. On top of that, the chorus is mind-blowingly catchy, the beats enticing. This is a social statement you can dance to, an escapist earworm and a party anthem for our times. - Adriane Pontecorvo


65. Taylor Swift - "...Ready For It?"

The essence of pop music is saying the same things over and over again in slightly different ways. This is how life works too. We settle into routines and measure our lives by the degree to which those routines shift or are disrupted over time. Most of Taylor Swift's songs are about what happens when you think about romance the way songs and movies tell us to, but she never seems to run out of new ways to frame that experience.

Usually, it's a matter of melodies or words, but sometimes, it's also a matter of sound, of putting her compositions in an environment that's a little unstable. She does this on "...Ready for It?," which is the most sonically mischievous and audacious song she's released. Over a harsh, sneering rhythm track, Swift covers familiar ground--the rush of new love, the relationship between reality and fantasy--but it doesn't feel that way because the song has a few clever ideas it gets just right: a trio of distorted bass notes that begin and repeat throughout the song; and low-pitched, synthetic brass notes that hit during the pre-chorus. Both signal that something is different, that no matter how many times we fall in love, it will always feel new. - Mark Matousek


64. Carly Rae Jepsen - "Cut to the Feeling"

Nobody has cornered the effervescent side of North American pop music quite like Carly Rae Jepsen has in the past couple years. Arriving on the heels of 2015's triumphant Emotion, "Cut to the Feeling" continues that soaring momentum. Not a whit of the song is particularly groundbreaking; instead it is a classic formula executed to perfection, building from tense verses to a chorus that explodes like fireworks. Nolan Lambroza's production is shimmering and radiant, the perfect backdrop for Ms. Jepsen, who conveys the song's feeling of euphoria with her trademark charisma. It's the type of pop music that puts a smile on your face. - Adrien Begrand


63. Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile - "Continental Breakfast"

At one point in "Continental Breakfast", Courtney holds up a video of "Kurt and Courtney", the chronicling of the relationship of lead singers Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, two of rock's greatest misfits. The synergy between Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett is less fraught; it's downright amicable. It's not difficult to fall in love with both songwriters as they bounce around their domestic lives, interacting with babies, children, and elders alike, with smiles the whole way through. If you don't find this video endearing, you probably don't have a soul. - Tristan Kneschke


62. Animal Collective - "Kinda Bonkers"

Animal Collective follow up last year's Painting With album with more of the same on new EP The Painters. Like much of their best work, "Kinda Bonkers" is bursting with ideas. Built on tabla percussion, see-saw keyboards and parallel vocals that bounce, ping and collide, the band throw everything they can in to see what cooks. All of these different ingredients are whipped up into a customary, trippy, psychedelic sponge. The whole thing is as irrepressible and energetic as you would expect, but it somehow feels more rounded. More straightforward and undemanding, never feeling like it might collapse under the weight of the hooks and melodies the band has crammed on every tier. - Paul Carr


61. ANOHNI - "Paradise"

ANOHNI's inimitable vocals are like a fixed quantity in her music, ensuring that most anything she sings retains an element of pained, graceful beauty no matter how harrowing or grisly the topic. "Paradise", another collaboration with Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never following last year's HOPELESSNESS, pushes this principle to its limit. The track is a tortured dirge barely disguised as bass-heavy synthpop, a veil disintegrating at the seams. ANOHNI sings as one caught between global concerns and her own personal, particular pain, lamenting the solipsistic confines of being but a single "point of consciousness". Perhaps the paradise she evokes, a "world without end", is one where the boundaries of the self are dissolved altogether, opening the way for empathy. And yet any clear vision of that utopia is clouded amid the wailing electronics, making it clear that we'll have to contend with our own kaleidoscopes of pain for some time to come. - Andrew Dorsett

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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