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Patrick Schabe

Patrick Schabe

Popping Off

It's difficult to know how to introduce a column in a magazine no matter what the target audience is. When you've identified your target audience as an intellectual base, interested in cultural studies, social theory, and a fair smattering of Pop, you start to feel like a writer for ALF. I decided to start writing Popping Off after my own set of cultural convictions was being put to the test on a daily basis.

You see, I love popular culture. Though this may come to haunt whatever academic career I may have, I'll go ahead and say I LOVE popular culture. Every nuance and text has the ability to spark interpretation, debate, camp, and consumption. From the professional acting that is politics to Pokemon, I think that life in this great postmodern era (whatever that is) rules! Meanings are ripped apart and smashed together at will, and yet the human race goes on, barely at the first mile of the marathon.

But there is a problem. A big problem. There is so much to love, and so many talking monkeys to interpret their surroundings, that I become overwhelmed. Not some paralyzing aphasia either, but a bitter, sarcastic, ironic stupification. It's a sensation that breeds strong, reactionary commentary. It's almost...(shudder )...anti-pop.

And I'm not alone. I have found that with every sham of advertising I defraud, every SUV driver I scorn, and every subculture I call poseur, I am entrenching myself into a subculture of its own: the intellectual hipster. Suddenly it becomes a question of what we consider valid and authentic. And to put the rainbow-chip icing on the cake, staying relevant means maintaining a balancing act on a tightrope where on one side you slip into academic, canonical elitism, and on the other you fall into ignorant, self-satisfied consumption.

It's this circus act that binds readers of magazines like this one together, and isolates each of us into individual egos, battling for our rights of self-hood. No matter where you look, gentle reader, you will find a mind that is one book better educated, one wit sharper, and you will fall prey to the sinking feeling that you have become the object of derision. There will always be someone more hip than me, and even though I've spent my life asserting my individuality while trying to fit into the cultural schemata of society, I'll never be enough of anything. And neither will you. None of us will.

There is such a wide array of cultural lenses available to each and every one of us that no one will ever be the last word in anything. We can constantly redefine the "other" to exclude more and more people from ourselves, but it seems impossible to ever include everyone in a system where there is no "other." We can, however, victimize ourselves, and each other, in an endless quest for the superior high ground.

Problems persist, however, and the fact of the matter is, our culture is diverse enough that somewhere, somehow, someone sometime is going to piss you off. It might be a bold statement that clashes directly with your value system, or it might be an over-all attitude that speaks to you of the bottom of the Bell curve. The problem is not that the world isn't always perfect, the problem is that we have not, and may never, overcome the ethnocentric inflation of our culture over everyone else's. It is more or less obvious today that I can't rightfully say that my mid-western American culture is superior to that of the Kurds in Iran. But it is a commonplace event for me to feel like my white, middle-class, student/intellectual culture is "better" than Bobby Joe's 4x4 driving, stock car racing, John Deere cap culture. Generally, we stereotype more within our own society than we do when looking at other societies. For me, the real rub is not that I hate the tatooed James Dean rockabillies, or the bass-bumpin' white suburban "gangstas," it's that they hate me. Our ever fashion conscious society makes me their "other." No matter how wide open my heart is for these people, they are going to treat me like a third-rate human, just because I don't subscribe to their cultural value system. Is it subculture clash, or just isolationist superiority? I don't know. But I do know this: if you don't have "the look," you'd better stay on your side of the tracks.

These are the artifacts that we attach to inform our sense of selves. In doing so, they isolate us from the artifacts we do not attach to, especially those we assign negative value to. We "read" other people by their chosen lifestyle symbols. Why? Because more often than not, we find those symbols indicate an average assumption that holds true. It's not racism, but it is bigotry. Hell, I can probably think of more white males (the minority I belong to) that I think are wastes of carbon than I can any other ethnic/gender combination.

The point is, I have no business judging other people this way. There is nothing about my individual culture that is more worthwhile than another. While "multiculturalism" might be thrown about like a National Geographic in a doctor's office until it's dog-eared, the basic ideas of the theory are sound. Unfortunately, there are extremely few people who ever live up to the standards of actual multiculturalism, even among its proponents. For too many years, the concept of the "other" has dominated our thinking. Once the Pandora's Box of manifest destiny was opened, it could never be closed. However, we have outlets like this magazine, and the occasional brave college course, and a few good documentary cable programs to teach us that we have a limited, subjective picture of the world. Slowly we are beginning to realize that cultural soap-boxing isn't going to cut it in a global society.

Will it stop us from making value judgements against each other based on our outward symbol choices? Will it keep me from being pissed-off by wiggers and rockabillies? Will it prevent an intellectual snob with the perfect clothes, the perfect education, and the perfect record collection from making you feel like an ignorant outsider in your own society? Will it make the intricate network of subcultures that forms popular culture any less beautiful? Not any time soon.

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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Film

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Julian Barratt and Oliver Maltman (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

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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

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Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

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Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

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