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jddunn13 ([personal profile] jddunn13) wrote2009-12-31 12:33 pm

Year in Review, Part the Second (Culture)

I feel like I've lagged quite a bit in cultural consumption this year, but I thought I'd put that assumption to the test with a review. Compiling it all bears that out, and I think the common theme is comfort food plus back catalog, both of which are probably excusable given the events of the past year in my life. I don't want this to turn into a trend though, and in the coming year I'm definitely going to take steps to get back on the horse and seek out new things.

There are also a couple of more troubling background themes: 1. Too much of everything. I just can't keep up with even a fraction of what's out there in media and culture and politics that I would like to, and the strain is starting to tell, and also to keep me from slowly digesting and really thinking about things, and even making me avoid taking on longer and more challenging media. 2. Feeling passed by. Especially in music, but somewhat in online media too, as I've never really embraced the Twitter/Tumblr revolution and the trend towards short-form, context-free, portable everything. Hell, I still have a basic dumbphone and hardly even text anyone. Also stuff like the Kindle holds no interest for me at all, though it could if it were different in crucial ways(pricing, open formats, touchscreen). It's weird, in that I'm pretty much the most plugged-in and culturally voracious person I know, and I still feel like I'm behind the curve most of the time. I'm trying to just stop worrying about it and do what I like, but since I have professional aspirations and pretensions of expertise in these areas, I'm kind of oversensitive about it. The new consciousness that I'm on the wrong side of 30 in a youth culture arena probably also has something to do with it.

Books: After a very good reading year last year, I slipped a little here. Lots of re-reads, lots of fairly fluffy nonfiction, lots of false starts and unfinished books lying around on the end tables waiting to be picked up when the mood finally strikes again... like I said, a comfort food sort of year. Frank's One Market Under God was probably the most important thing I read, as it explains exactly how we got to a place as a culture where investment bankers could blow up the world economy, get billions of dollars in no-strings bailouts, and still get away with portraying themselves as martyrs persecuted at the hands of Big Government when anyone tried to demand even the tiniest smidgen of accountability in return.

Major themes were lots of books on the Depression and New Deal, probably highlighted by Terkel's Hard Times, several things about the French and Scottish Enlightenments, with Rousseau's Dog being the one that tied them together, a return to the Civil War, with Team of Rivals leading the way there, and a look at early America and the development of participatory democracy through the lens of Democracy in America, Walter Isaacson's Ben Franklin biography, and The Library of America's Debate on the Constitution books, followed on by an excellent biography of J.S. Mill that covers a lot of the reaction to those trends back in Europe. In general I was interested in past times of sociopolitical crisis and how we have dealt with them in light of what was going on with the economic collapse and the Teabaggers and the paralysis of the Senate and the breakdown of elite competence and all that.

In fiction, there was a big chunk of Jane Austen after resisting forever(she's really funny and mean, who knew? I guess people who actually bothered to read her.) Pynchon's V, Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Grapes of Wrath(as part of the Depression unit), the rest of the huge annotated Sherlock Holmes collection I bought a couple of years ago, and lots of rereads, most notably Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai, which I loved as much or more as the first time and may get my vote as the best novel of the decade. Oh, and earlier in the year I re-read most of DFW's stuff in the aftermath of his death, which was an interesting and poignant wrap-up on the 90's and the era right after 9/11.

Music: Music is the area where I've severely fallen off of the wagon. Some friends were debating their Top of the Aughts lists, and I realized that about the most recent thing on mine would likely be Arcade Fire's Funeral. I haven't been to a show in around 2 years. I think the last show I saw was either Mission of Burma or The Mountain Goats in my last few months in Boston. Part of that is geography and economy, but it's not like Champaign or even Chicago are huge treks or crippling expenses. It's just not the priority it once was, and more importantly, not a crucial part of my social life. What the hell happened to me? 22-year-old me would be calling me a sellout.

A lot of what happened is that music just passed me by. All of my favorite bands broke up, and I never found new ones. That was compounded by genre trends, in that new bands that even play the subtypes of music that I enjoy the most (post punk and post hardcore, noisepop, shoegaze, droney postrock, crossover genre-bending new-wavey/electronica stuff but with a hard/noisy edge, experimental/conscious hip hop, etc) just aren't coming along very often. The trends towards boring 1-note garage revival, hipsterish high concept performance art, tweepop, singer-songwriter/folk/confessional, art metal, singles-based hip hop and dance pop, and so on have not been kind to me. I've liked some of the best of it (except the art metal... I just can't seem to make myself get into metal no matter how hard I try) but the problem was the huge rush of followers that crowded out everything else from the mainstream conversation. I'm sure there's a lot of amazing self-released or otherwise below the radar stuff out there in the genres I like, but finding it is a full time job at this point, and I just don't have time anymore.

Last.FM says my top band this year was Rachel's. That makes sense, as another obstacle to my music consumption is that I have a harder and harder time working while listening to stuff that foregrounds itself. Classical and ambient are about all I can take anymore when I'm really trying to read, write, or code, and since that's when I'm at my computer and listening to the most music, that's what I tend to listen to. Next are Low and Yo La Tengo, plus Mission of Burma, Jawbox, Bjork, Sonic Youth, etc. So, comfort food.

Otherwise I've mostly been going back and exploring the family trees and more obscure antecedents of the music I already like. Lots of early new wave and post punk and garage rock the past few years. My main project this year was tracking down all the more obscure Wu-Tang Family stuff I hadn't gotten around to yet, and I'm still in the middle of digesting that. I'm also doing my best to compile a big list of stuff to check out from everyone's best-of-the-decade lists, so hopefully in the coming year I can catch up on what I've missed in my musical malaise of the past few.

Radio: The biggest shift of all of my listening habits has been from music to radio. Podcast-enabled time shifting has finally made radio a viable proposition for me, and has also resulted in lots of interesting shows that wouldn't have been viable on commercial radio. The vast majority of what I listen to is still the staple NPR/PRI/BBC stuff(BBC Newshour, This American Life, Fresh Air, The World, In Our Time), but things like Dan Carlin's Hardcore History, Stuff You Should Know, and World Soccer Daily(and lots of other soccer/football stuff) have been welcome additions. I've also listened to a lot more streaming radio(KCRW, KEXP, WBUR, WGBH, WILL, and the like) via iTunes. This has also almost entirely replaced TV news as my work background chatter and source of basic goings on, as cable TV news finally became too vapid and infuriating to abide at all this year.

TV: Not much new TV, and a big backlog of old stuff to catch up on. I've still got torrented grabs of The Wire, Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica, Lost and even stuff as old as Firefly and Buffy that I need to get through at some point, but I never seem to find the time or focus to sit down and consume a whole TV series in a row. I've also sacrificed the Tivo to economy, so that way of keeping up with current things has gone by the wayside. As far as stuff I actually make a point of watching, it's basically down to The Venture Brothers/Metalocalypse, the Daily Show/Colbert, and The Office/30 Rock. Colbert and Metalocalypse are the only ones among those that felt like they notably progressed this year. I'm amazed at what Colbert has been able to do with that character. I remember when the show was starting, I didn't give it six months, because I thought the schtick would get old very quickly and they'd run out of ideas. It's a testament to his talent and intelligence that he's been able to keep it fresh and even growing for this long.

Metalocalypse was your typical Adult Swim 1-trick-pony that I thought would get old fairly quickly like the rest, but now they've expanded it to a half hour and started doing actual character development and plot arcs, which is moving it more in the interesting direction of the Venture Brothers. I still think Venture is maybe the best thing going on TV right now, but this half-season has been kind of uneven and lacked the overt funny and consistent punch of the previous two. Hopefully the next half-season will pick back up. Office and 30 Rock have both kinda stagnated, and I don't always catch them though I usually catch up on Hulu before episodes scroll off the edge. I keep meaning to catch Parks and Recreation too, but never quite get to it. The Daily Show is almost as solid as ever, but it takes too many hiatuses, many of the regular correspondents kind of suck(more Asif Mandvi and Larry Wilmore, less John Oliver and Jason Jones, please! And bring back Kristen Schaal, she's hilarious), and Stewart has developed a bit of an annoying gullible contrarian tic(see ACORN and Climate Gate) since Obama took over. Minor quibbles though, as he's still a national treasure and it's still a great show.

The other thing I should mention is Maddow, who I'm kind of conflicted about. Again, she's kind of a national treasure and it's amazing to have a voice like hers on TV, but the format of the show (all the fluffy Kent Jones and Ana Marie Cox shit mostly, but also the increasingly common Olbermannish yes-man interviews with smug mainstream liberal commentators) and the kind of obsessive emphases on temporary tempests in temporary teapots is making me less and less interested in watching it regularly. I think this is more the problem of end-stage TV news, but it's disappointing to see someone as promising and obviously intelligent and talented as Maddow getting trapped in that dynamic.

Movies: I've never been very good at keeping up with movies as they come out. I tend to see like 5 things in the theater a year at most, and wait for DVD for almost everything else. Netflix being another sacrifice to economy this year, I've watched even less, and have mostly had to rely on either torrented stuff or things I've happened upon on TV or in social situations. In Bruges was the best thing I saw period. The best thing I saw in the theater this year was District 9, which managed to be the very rare perfect mixture of action thriller and interesting thinkpiece. Pixar's Up and Wall-E were both sublime in parts, but flawed, like most of their stuff is. I finally got to stuff like Superbad, Juno, Knocked Up, etc, and was kind of underwhelmed. Juno was the best of the bunch, but the hipster namedropping and manneredness were kind of painful and ripped me right out of the movie too often. The best re-watch of the year was Heathers. I couldn't believe how current it still felt compared to the John Hughes stuff I rewatched when he died (which is still great, just in a time-capsule sort of way.) I also really liked Slumdog, which probably permanently exposes my sentimentalist streak. Oh well.

Gaming: Comfort food was the rule of the day here as well, with most of my actual gaming time spent on Civ 4, FIFA 08, and disposable online flash stuff(some of it very well done, but little of it very replayable.) I still don't dare let myself get sucked into any MMO worlds, because I just know I'd be a danger to lose huge swathes of my life to one that's compelling at all. I also finally finished Twilight Princess, which had been sitting 2/3 done for like 2 years, which then prompted me to go back and replay Windwaker and Ocarina of Time. That was satisfying, though playing them all in a row makes you realize how much they recycle puzzles and dungeon concepts from game to game. I'm definitely more interested in exploring the overworld than doing dungeons in these kinds of games, which is why Windwaker is probably still my favorite. Such a huge world, and the sailing aspect gives a real sense of adventure and wonder, as do the atmospherics in general. Twilight Princess comes close, and the Wii controls make it a much more engaging experience, but it's just not quite big enough and a little too linear.

Scribblenauts was an amazing and charming trick, but it's about an inch deep and I had pretty much exhausted it in a few hours. I can't wait to see those kinds of elements put into a real narrative or rich puzzle game though. I keep meaning to play some of the Final Fantasy ports for the DS or the Professor Layton games or something like that on our weekly trips down to St. Louis, but it has been harder to game (or read, sadly) on those than anticipated because I'm not good at playing through interruptions, of which there are many.

The biggest gaming disappointment for me is the realization that the Wii is pretty much dead as a 3rd-Party console. Nobody figured out how to port their stuff to it in ways that make unique use of the controls or even, uh, work much of the time. The Nintendo titles still look pretty good, and I'll pick up some of the back catalog when I have money again, but it was a huge missed opportunity for gaming, and that's too bad.

Online Video: A decent amount of my TV time has been transferred to Youtube and online video. A lot of that is ephemeral or nostalgic, but there is original stuff that I feel has mattered and will last. I'm sure I'm forgetting some, but here's a sampling from the past year:

Auto Tune the News - This is one of those rare occasions where everyone is in to something because it is in fact objectively awesome. A triumph of pop-cultural and musical alchemy, and the rare spoof that also works on its own terms as art. I kept waiting to get tired of these, but I just never did. 3, 4, and 7 are my favorites. I think what really makes them work is that they're even better (loving) parodies of the current shoddy, lazy state of pop and hip hop than they are of politics and TV news.

Sara Benicasa's fake Palin Vlogs - These are from late '08, but I find myself coming back to them every time Palin does something insane in public. Screw Tina Fey, it's Benincasa who nailed Palin's character and mentality perfectly in these riotously funny gonzo portrayals produced during the '08 campaign.

Target: Women - Sarah Haskins should get her own 30 minute Soup-style show where she does nothing but make fun of gender portrayals in the media. This is some of the best media criticism out there, and it's also some of the best comedy. I guess she is technically on real TV, but Current TV isn't real (basic cable) TV and most people who watch her probably do so online.

Poem for the Rooftops of Iran - Maybe the first great revolutionary document of the social media era. This is heartstopping, and stands in for hundreds of other similarly irresistible personal and political documents of what is happening on the streets of Iran.

The Instantly Legendary 70-Minute Phantom Menace Review - This is the best use of online video for the purposes of critique, and some of the best editing, that I've ever seen. Also an utter evisceration of George Lucas and his work, using his own words and films to just completely destroy him. Also also an excellent study in organizational failure and what happens when a leader defies restraint and surrounds himself with yes-men. It could almost act as a stand-in for the Bush Administration and the failures of elites in general in the Aughts (Trigger warning, there's a frame narrative involving a serial killer which leads to a scene involving a captive woman and other references to violence against women. I really wish they hadn't made that choice, as it detracts heavily from an otherwise brilliant piece.)


Articles and Blogs:
The School - Not new, but new to me. This first-person reconstruction of the Beslan School Siege is possibly the most harrowing thing I've ever read. Not for weak stomachs, but worth it.

The Joshua Generation - A masterful study that places Obama and his campaign in the context of the history of the civil rights movement and the African American experience since.

Tent City, USA - The always excellent George Saunders spends some time living in one of the emergent shantytowns of Great Recession America, and reports back in his inimitable style.

The Menaissance, and Its Dickscontents - Not so much for the quality of this particular article as for the emerging debate it summarizes and represents. I read and thought quite a bit about this stuff this year.

Did you just get way more done when you worked in an office before the Internet? - A revealing look at the things we take for granted, in the form of explanations of how offices actually worked before networked personal computing. I can't believe how torturously difficult getting anything done collaboratively must have been.

Classic Animation Remixed - An exhaustive look at the freewheeling and experimental early days at Cartoon Network, with links to tons of the precursors that eventually led to Cartoon Cartoons and Adult Swim.

Several related looks at how urban legends and misinformation are propagated and sustained in our society and media. First, an Ask.Mefi thread on how almost every town with a stoplight in Cold War America developed an independent rationale for why it was "2nd or 3rd" on the target list for Soviet nuclear strikes. Next, a total destruction of the credibiliy of Oprah and the snake oil salesmen she regularly features on her show. Finally, there's False Witnesses, Fred Clark's brilliant 2-part exegesis of how evangelicals (and other ingroups) will themselves to believe terrible things for reasons of identity and moral self-affirmation.

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom - Clay Shirky on the inevitable freefall of newspapers, and what we might do to replace their dwindling journalistic functions.

Football, Dogfighting, and Brain Damage - I wish Gladwell wasn't the messenger here, but he's right, and the developments he summarizes here are already shaking sports to their core and will continue to reverberate for years to come.

Trial By Fire - If you can still support the death penalty as practiced in America after reading this... well...

The Rural Brain Drain - I've been living this one for the past couple of years, and also trying to combat it, but not seeing many options.

In Praise of the Scifi Corridor - This is one of those "only on the internet" and "I would never have known I could care about this topic until I read it" sort of things.

Kagame's Hidden War in the Congo - Depressing but necessary debunking of the post-genocide success story narrative about Rwanda. Man, Africa tuly is always fucked, huh?

Wealthcare - Jonathan Chait uses a book review to take Ayn Rand et al to the woodshed. Satisfying and of prurient, schadenfreudelicious interest.


Sports: A crappy sports year all-around for me. The Cubs were both disappointing and probably the hardest team to like in my adult memory. I couldn't even bear to watch them after mid-August. This was also the year that I decided I hate the Red Sox almost as much as the Yankees, which was a sad but inevitable realization. Oh, and those Yankees, predictably, remorselessly steamrolled through the playoffs and World Series, and have proceeded to get even better and younger in the offseason.

Illini sports were brutal, with the 08/09 basketball team being fundamentally, frustratingly limited even though they did ok and made the tournament, the football team being a rolling disaster, and the current basketball team being strangely apathetic and bafflingly inconsistent. Since I'm back home, I actually tried to follow the Bears for the first time in years, and that has also been a disaster. I got back into the Bulls a bit too due to that amazing playoff series with the Celtics last spring, and then they start out this season just terribly as well.

Since I was working from home and had satellite TV, I really followed the Tour de France closely for the first time ever. That was interesting, though I didn't really develop a particular rooting interest or anything. Cycling is a bizarre, extreme sport with all kinds of fascinating sordidness around the edges, and I'll probably follow it at least a little going forward.

Finally, I've really gotten into international soccer and especially the English Premier League over the past couple of years. This has coincided with a vast expansion in the number of games available on US TV, and in the number of outlets covering the game well from a US perspective. Soccer is right up there with baseball for me now in terms of the two sports that I follow most avidly. Unfortunately I decided to adopt Aston Villa as my rooting interest, and they also collapsed spectacularly down the stretch last season after a very promising start. I also root for Arsenal in the Champs League and when doing so won't conflict w/ Villa, as a I really like the way they play. That rooting interest isn't working out much better though, as they haven't won a trophy since I started following them. Even when I start fresh with a sport, I'm evidently incapable of supporting a winner.

On minor sporting upside, I did finally manage to win both of my fantasy baseball leagues, including the really competitive one for the first time ever.

People Who Done Good: Stephen Colbert, Elizabeth Warren, Paul Krugman, Matt Taibbi, Henry Waxman, Al Franken, Neda Agha-Soltan, Malalai Joya, Mohamed Nasheed, Nate Silver, Shaq, Stephen Fry, Chesley Sullenberger, Louis CK Naomi Klein, Manmohan Singh, Greg Craig, Richard Trumka, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Bruce Schneier, Kenny MacAskill, Kirrily Robert, Dr. George Tiller, Simon Johnson Jay Rosen, Daniel Larison, Howard Dean, Anthony Weiner, Alan Grayson, Roger Ebert, Rick Perlstein, David Neiwert

[identity profile] trisloth.livejournal.com 2010-01-01 05:51 pm (UTC)(link)
If you like Rachel's, definitely check out Balmorhea (#10 on my top 10 of 2009).

Also, I can't recommend the BBC show The Mighty Boosh highly enough.

[identity profile] bluishora.livejournal.com 2010-01-04 01:19 am (UTC)(link)
I spent an afternoon a few months ago watching all the Target: Women I could find on YouTube. That and AutoTune the News are the only YouTubey things that are worth it for me.

Also I'm on the second episode of Firefly right this very minute. So far so good.