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Too many stores?

In a recent Slate piece, Daniel Gross considered whether America has too many stores and whether the current recession (or near recession) will spur an anti-retail backlash.

Developers opening new malls this year clearly timed the economic cycle poorly. And the cultural cycle isn't helping matters any. The extreme consumption of this current gilded age has inspired a backlash. In December, hedge-fund bil­lionaire Ray Dalio ran full-page advertise­ments in newspapers urging Americans to eschew Christmas gifts and instead make donations to charity. Maybe he's just run out of things to buy. Or maybe he's surfing the zeitgeist. "There's a glut of stores," says Judith Levine, author of Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping. "Our physical, intellectual and emotional and psychological space is filled up with consumption." Levine laments the wholesale transformation of open spaces into enclosed retail environments (like, say, Barnes & Noble superstores, where you can buy Not Buying It). And the in­cessant bombardment of advertising may be inspiring a backlash that pushes people to consume less. The anti-con­sumer freegan movement—urbanites who try to get by through recycling, scrounging, and foraging—are taking it to the extreme. These modern Henry David Thoreaus have opted out of the whole rot­ten capitalist system. Working 60 hours per week and chasing job promotion "for the sake of buying the latest crap off the Sharper Image store shelf is no way to live," says Adam Weissman, spokesman for Freegan.info. (Hey, dude, one might say the same about diving into Dumpsters in search of day-old bread and discarded futons.)

Clearly, Gross is skeptical of just about anyone's anti-consumerism, as most commentators (me included) tend to be. It's not that we aren't inundated with advertising and retail spaces. Of course we are, and these things are virtually inescapable in America. The problem is that anticonsumerism becomes an identity pose that is either manifestly hypocritical or deeply reliant on the same individualistic values that support consumerism in the first place -- one advertises oneself as an anti-consumer, making that one's brand on the marketplace of social approval. Not to get all poststructuralist, but when you found your self-concept on not shopping, you are in effect deeply invested in shopping. In some ways, you'd be better off making your shopping as unconscious as possible, which is actually one of the chief gripes against consumer society -- that it makes us take shopping as an activity for granted. We are already inside consumerism, and it's virtually impossible to construct an identity outside of it -- it's the only viable language of identity that we learn in the West.

Since experiences have been reconceived as products -- by the tourism industry, by retail psychologists who want to sell -- its hard to undertake any activity that doesn't feel like shopping, that doesn't feel as though it has been mediated to us via marketing. This is bad enough, but it seems to have broader ramifications, in that stores in and of themselves become a soothing sight, destinations and havens independent of any particular shopping need. Their presence becomes reassuring and familar, a reliable guide to the sort of place you are in, and the sort of place you want to be. We understand places, then, mainly through retail (and what it tells us of demographics), rather than any other natural or geographic considerations. So the need fulfilled by the rapid proliferation of stores is not merely a matter of the specific things they sell but the marking function the stores serve in telling us what sort of place we are in. And shopping in such stores can be as much about endorsing those demographics and belonging to them as actually buying anything.

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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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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This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

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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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Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

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