Survivor: Thailand

Benedetta Gennaro

Ever helpful, Jeff Probst reminded everyone that, on Survivor, assumptions are always wrong.


Subtitle: Thailand
Network: CBS
Display Artist: Adam Briles, Mark Burnett
Creator: Mark Burnett
Airtime: Thursdays, 8pm ET
Cast: Cast (as themselves): Jeff Probst (host), Jake Billingsley, Erin Collins, Stephanie Dill, Jan Gentry, Helen Glover, Brian Heidik, Jed Hildebrand, Shii Ann Huang, Ghandia Johnson, Clay Jordan, Penny Ramsey, John Raymond, Ted Rogers Jr., Ken Stafford, Tanya Vance, Robb Zbacnik

What can I write about Survivor that has not been already written by countless television critics, popular culture analysts, and scholars? They've all discoursed on the intrinsic values and cultural significance of living for 39 days away from any form of Western comfort, surrounded by venomous creatures, exposed to nature's elements, and competition among 16 contenders to a $1 million prize. They've also looked at the show's game aspects, where alliances among different members are crucial to advance to the final round, and that only the smartest and ruthless one will go home with a fatter bank account.

Since all this work has been done, much of it critical of the series, I want to consider why Survivor is still so popular, namely, viewers' desire to put some basic values to the test. On one level, Survivor is still fun to watch because it is not shy about celebrating greed, and occasionally revealing its deleterious effects. Inevitably, each season, the cameras follow contestants as they transform from apparently pleasant and community-oriented human beings into selfish backstabbers.

It's also clear that contestants -- at least those since season one -- have some idea of what they're signing on for, and may even anticipate how they will make their transformations. And in this way, the series is one of the most interesting social captivity experiments ever to air on television. Fredric Jameson argues that too many cultural analysts stress the negative connotations of mass cultural texts, such that utopian elements get lost. Survivor purports to incorporate most of Jameson's pet notions, for examples, solidarity, collectiveness, social harmony, and classlessness, but demonstrates that such values are really utopian, since no contestant can adhere to them and still win.

It is still too early in the fifth season, set on Koh Turatao, a small island 600 miles from Bangkok, to tell who might reject those values first. But the applause that greeted Ken, the police officer from Brooklyn, New York, left me wondering whether the other contestants will show some post 9-11 "patriotism" and crown him as the sole survivor, and so create their own sort of "utopian" principles.

Still, the producers have never pretended the show is about anything but money, in the form of ratings. This season's promotional spots set up a "new" possibility: that Survivor: Thailand would occasion the biggest twist ever in the game's rules. The tribes were going to be divided along gender lines: girls on one side and boys on the other. This rumor was reinforced in the premiere episode's opening credits, where the six women were presented first, followed by the six men. In past editions, the opening credits introduced the tribes; now, the terms look different.

Such a blatant gender division might have raised provocative questions, concerning stamina, smarts, and competitive urges (would the boys be able to bond in order to win)? But then, I thought, such a twist would have omitted much of that tension that makes reality shows increasingly voyeuristic (see, for examples, The Real World or Big Brother).

Survivor can't afford such omission. And so, the series began as it always does: Jeff Probst called on the two oldest contestants, Jan and Jake, to select their tribes. Jan gathered the oldest and probably smartest group (Chuay Ghan), whereas Jake picked some of the most obnoxious and vain castaways (Sook Jay). So much for all the rumors about having all-female and all-male tribes: the only thing that the girls and the boys did as unisex groups was to paddle to the island where they first met their host.

Ever helpful, Probst reminded everyone that, on Survivor, assumptions are always wrong. We were wrong in assuming that the tribes would have been divided among gender lines. We should have known that such misleading was a function of money, as the advertisers and producers endeavored to engage us in the game, to watch each week to be surprised or to have our guesses about the "changing" rules, as well as the contestants' personalities and attitudes, confirmed.

This invitation to play the game at home (in office chat, or on the internet) is one of the series' enduring successes. After four previous seasons, and only two episodes in this one, I have already picked my favorite team (Chuay Ghan), and which survivor I want to see voted off the next episode (Rob, the guy who decided to bring as luxury item his skateboard). To my dismay, Chuay Ghan has already sacrificed two members: John the pastor, and Tanya, the youngest participant, and ill since the series started. But I could predict this much: every Survivor aficionado knows that if a player pukes every day, she's gone.

That's the secret of reality game shows: the fundamental rules and player motivations remain the same, and so we feel satisfied when we "guess" outcomes correctly. Before each show, some of my friends write down who they think will get the reward challenge, who will win immunity, and who will be voted off. They have small prizes for who hits the mark, emulating the dynamics of the show, with the difference being that they sit comfortably on their couches, nails trimmed, and beards shaved. From a safe distance, they might observe (and enact) some cultural truths. By the end of the season, we'll admire the winner and readily forget those utopian values.

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.

Keep reading... Show less

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

Keep reading... Show less

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.

Keep reading... Show less

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.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.