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The Rise of the Superhero Myth

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Rise of the Superhero Myth

by Avery Johnson

Box offices have been booming lately. Everyone seems to want to see the latest superhero movie- with their spectacular effects and non-stop action. They never cease to amaze, but what is it that comes away with us once the extra scene has ended? What is it that these films and by extension comics teach us about the world we live in? Although this new cultural phenomenon is enjoyable, superheroes as a concept and what they stand for is a topic that needs to be critically engaged with.

Superheroes at their core are familiar to Christians if we look beyond capes and tight pants. They are generally people who have acquired a power through their own skill or through providence, otherwise they carry a human identity that allows them to be a part of society when not saving the world. In many ways, the heroes are fully human, but there is another, more powerful side of them that advocates on the side of humanity. Sound familiar? In these movies, superheroes deal with the same struggles as the rest of us, but by their powers or extraordinary skills, they are able to overcome them and save the day. They fix the problems that humanity creates in their ignorance and greed, maintaining the belief that they are capable of goodness despite how they fall. In the introduction to the book The Gospel According to Superheroes, B.J. Oropeza writes, “Whenever the heroes put on their mask or costume, they take on their savior identity and willfully go through another episode of separation, transition, and reintegration as they battle wicked menaces. They point us to the realization that society cannot eradicate evil on its own; it needs the help of a powerful yet godly redeemer,” (8). The heroes on screen point us toward Jesus, the one who did become human and save us from the evils we created and could not correct on our own.

By working toward the redemption of the evils in the world, superheroes also remind us of our longing for a perfect place, a return to Eden or the Paradise that is to come. Many times, the men and women who become the heroes begin in an idyllic place free from suffering, but something happens that corrupts it and begins the hero’s mission for its restoration. Oropeza writes, “Most superheroes suffer tragic loss: Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Robin, and Toro all lose their parents, the Hulk loses his sanity, and Spawn his life. Yet despite their losses, or sometimes because of them, they gain a sense of great commission, forever trying to mend something that has been torn apart…By protecting the weak and upholding justice, they want to restore a little bit of Eden to the world…” (6). By fighting evil and preventing disaster, superheroes attempt to bring back the goodness that they knew before they realized the fallenness of the world around them. Like the rest of humanity, they have suffered losses and seek to restore what the evil has taken or corrupted.

In addition to pointing viewers and readers toward something greater than themselves, they also show us the state of our society- our hopes, our fears, and our values. For example, Iron Man has nothing inherently “super” about him, but his power is his use of technology in the digital age. In the Apple™ age, we value those who can use their intelligence to create the most advanced systems. But there is also the fear of what happens when it is put in the wrong hands- the premise of the first Iron Man movie. In a similar way, Captain America reflects our fears of a world that is changing quickly. We wonder if the past is the paradise that we sometimes think it was.Their fears are our fears, and often we hope together for a world free from the suffering that comes with evil.

What has been done well in recent movie versions of superhero comics is the handling of villains and the audience’s relationship to them. They are often ordinary people who experience something traumatic, and when given the power to get revenge, they do. They become sympathetic when they share our struggles- broken family relationships, hurting the people they love most, and being ridiculed by those they seek to emulate. It makes us as viewers think about our own worst moments and times that we have committed the same evils as them on a smaller scale. When we evaluate our own sins and failures, we begin to realize that we are the same as them, minus superpowers of course. Given the same circumstances, might we be the villains too? The creators of these characters force us to question ourselves. Loki from the Thor movies and The Avengers is one character who does this through his appearances. In Thor, he begins as a mischievous, but well meaning character trying to deflate his brother’s ego, but after finding out that he was adopted and not getting the support he looked for from his father, he tried ineffectively to prove that he was worthy of his family by turning Odin against Thor. Instead of proving his point, he meets only their disapproval, which pushes him further into his rage. What makes him relatable is that he finds the monster within himself, and by fighting it pushes away the people who could help him- namely Thor and Frigga. He is lost and looking for his place in the world, just like those who watch the movie.

What Loki and others also show audiences is their capability for good. Villains are not the embodiment of evil in these films, but they allow it into their lives. Loki was once one of the heroes, but he allowed his anger and hurt to control his decisions. Whether or not they chose a life of evil, there are many examples of villains who show redemptive qualities. In X-Men, Magneto once worked alongside Professor X, but his mission for revenge against those who discriminated against him directed his path away from the side of goodness. He seeks justice, even if his definition of it has been twisted. Tim Perry writes in his article “Mutants that are all too Human: The X-Men, Magneto, and Original Sin” that, “He knows also that it is good and right to act to prevent further acts of moral evil. He fails, however, in his preventive mission. He succeeds only in perpetuating the cycle of violence, only in becoming the original object of his hatred, the ideologically driven oppressor,” (184) In a similar way, the Winter Soldier is another character who began good, but is now fallen with the hope of redemption after the release of the newest Captain America movie. He did not choose the circumstances that he was faced with, but at the end is given the choice to maintain the status quo or fight back against his creators. Like these characters, we are given choices about how we react to the troubles we face. We could allow anger, hate, and fear to control us, or we could fight back and try to rise above.

Though there are many valuable qualities in the superhero genre, it is not completely without fault. There are many examples of superhero movies being exploited, characters being idealized, and character selection being discriminatory in its history. It is no secret that sometimes studios like to show off new technology, and superhero movies are a great vehicle for that purpose. In this genre, it is easy to get away with adding more fight sequences, making violence more realistic, and using special effects to create the biggest baddies that the creators can think of. When this happens, people show up to see the spectacle- to escape from realism and indulge in the violent fantasy displayed before them. We can lose our sense of reality for a couple hours to watch the heroes swoop in to save the day from the bad guy who is out to destroy the world.

At other times, the stories appear to be simplistic and maintain the status-quo. They fight for values that we stand behind, at times without challenging them. For the most part, the characters are American and uphold the “American dream” as an ideal to be imposed on the villains who challenge it. In Captain America, for example, we are confronted with an openly patriotic character who represents an idealized version of America’s past and a nostalgic return to the old values. What it does not confront is the ways that America used its powers against others (or universal fallenness)- just that of the antagonist and his or her own evil. Though the movies often do tie blame to humanity as a whole, it can also fall into the trap of putting the source of evil beyond ourselves, onto some distant outside force that seeks to create chaos, rather than stirring up what is already there.

In addition to this, there is also the issue of the lack of diversity among superheroes. There are few women, and even fewer minorities, among the realm of heroes. Think of the most popular superheroes of the moment. How many are women? How many are not white? It is obvious that a certain group is privileged above others in this genre. It is the white American males who are the saviors and everyone else is a villain or victim. In recent years, there has been some effort to address this problem by introducing new characters or changing the race of characters for the movie adaptation, but there is still a definite bias that limits the narratives available and discriminate against those who do not fit into the classification.

Even though the metaphors presented earlier are helpful for understanding how religion influences superheroes and the mythologies associated with them, they do not give a complete picture. Take Sufjan Stevens’ song “John Wayne Gacy Jr.”, which Stevens has said in an interview at Calvin was in part written as a rebuttal of the American superhero myth, for an example. In the song, he addresses the idea that everybody is capable of the same low level of depravity. If that held true with superheroes, it would be more apparent that they are capable of the same evil as the villains and that among humanity there are only villains. The superhero-as-savior-figure does not always hold up when investigated further. Jesus empowers humanity to confront evil for ourselves, but the superheroes swoop in to save the day, often leaving bystanders watching in fear as a huge battle takes place around them. Rather than this model, we are a part of the action with power to fight against evil or to join it. Instead of taking place around us, it involves us.

It is true, the superhero myths have their flaws. They do not always accomplish what they are capable of. But there is an attempt in these movies to point toward something bigger, even if it is sometimes hidden. We are a flawed creation with a flawed product, but within it, there is something worthwhile. Viewers can find recollections of a world lost to us, a savior figure who is human and hero, and the reassurance that the things we fear are not permanent. They challenge us not to flee and hide when faced with trouble, but to have faith that the hero can save us from any evil, even when its within us.

Works Cited

Perry, Tim. “Mutants That Are All Too Human: The X-Men, Magneto, and Original Sin.” The

Gospel According to Superheroes. Ed. B.J. Oropeza. New York: Peter Lang, 2005.

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Reflections on Iron Man 2 by Andrew Mihovich

Friday, June 13, 2014

The first note about this movie I have in my tiny notebook is “Dark version of main theme at beginning”.  We discussed this in the discussion after the movie—as Ivan goes to work on a suit to rival Tony’s, we hear a dark, sinister take on the main theme of the movie.  The fact that it also has definite Soviet undertones didn’t occur to me until somebody pointed it out.  Presumably, it just so happens that Russian music lends itself to being dark, sinister and overbearing when the situation calls for it. (In fact, one of the things that helped me realize this was from the X-Men cartoon from the 1990s, where Colossus, a Russian character, had similar theme music.  I always liked it.)

This makes a point of at least two things: First, Ivan Vanko is a very dangerous character.  If he is after Tony Stark, for whatever reason, then he means trouble.  Second, the influence from the main theme of the first movie stresses their similarity—Ivan Vanko is a technological genius working on a power suit of his own. (In this case, that only serves to make him more dangerous, though I found myself not quite having the feelings of dread to match the music.  Not yet, anyway.) Third, he is Russian.

In the same breath, I note one of Ivan’s quirks: “Card suits on fingers.  And a burd.”  This is picked up again later.  One of the things that helps sell Ivan Vanko as a character and a legitimate threat is the various quirks that are given to him.

Ivan Vanko’s status as a new character and a legitimate threat is supported by the sheer number of little quirks given to him.  He has a pet cockatoo, which he feeds Vodka.  He has tattoos all over his body, from card suits on his fingers to I-don’t-know-what.  He looks darn cool in an alley with an overcoat, shades, and his hair done up.  He isn’t Obadiah Stane (the villain of the first movie, memorable but arguably taken for granted) and he isn’t the Mandarin (a favorite for the third movie and Iron Man’s arch-nemesis in the comics), so they get creative in selling him on his own merits.  A sympathetic backstory of a warped childhood doesn’t hurt—so to speak.

While I’m on the subject of Vanko, two other things come to mind.  First, Mickey Rourke is reportedly a very good actor.  I can’t say, really—I’m not familiar with his work.  However, taking that for granted, it was one and a half viewings before I realized, in contrast with the measured, charismatic performances of Hammer, Stane, and even Raza: Vanko is blunt.  His actions are blunt, his mannerisms are blunt, even his features are blunt.  He is clearly intelligent, even articulate, and he comes alive after a fashion when he is in his element and his prodigious technological skills are engaged, but he still comes off in many ways as a revenge-driven brute. (This probably partly reflects his upbringing.)

The other thing was his very first scene.  This film, like many before it, has fun (re-) introducing its characters, and in many cases, their faces.  It’s a minor thing, but it still made its way into my notes, partly because I’ve become rather intrigued by the variety surrounding the “face reveal” shot.  I could go on at length, but in this movie alone:

-Ivan Vanko’s very first scene sees him stewing in a corner as his father dies of alcohol poisoning.  What’s going through his head—if it’s even supposed to be clear—I can’t say.  But it’s ten seconds before he turns to meet the camera for the first time, and his father for the last.
-Tony’s re-introduction is a stark (excuse me) contrast, as, following a flashy entrance in the Iron Man suit, his helmet is removed to reveal him grinning, loving the crowd and soaking up attention.  Robert Downey Jr. is good at that—just one of his many talents. “It’s good to be back,” he says, and the audience agrees.
-Rhodey’s reappearance is ingenious, and I can’t claim credit for noticing, though I like to think I’d have figured it out on my own.  He is introduced facing away from the camera, until it’s clear who he is, new actor or no.  “I’m here, it’s me, let’s move on,” he says.  Tony tries to say something. “Drop it.”

I could go on about similar scenes for many members of the cast—I could dissect Pepper’s re-appearance to an unnecessary degree, or any one of Justin Hammer’s scenes—but let’s move on.

Back to Stark.  There is an art to re-introduction, and there’s more to it than revealing just another bearded face.  Stark’s first scene is a bombastic, impressive re-introduction to the audience—ego and all.  The scantily-clad go-go dancers kind of make that clear, and Stark drives it home with a thoroughly vain, charismatic speech about his accomplishments.  Both audiences, as a group, love him for it.

Let’s talk about Stark.  Let’s talk about why these movies are so popular and so much fun.  In the comics, Tony Stark, is (quite) a character, too.  But at his most basic, he is a flawed hero, the CEO of Stark Enterprises, and also (with an appropriate origin story) Iron Man.  He is also clever, rich, and largely uninhibited in a way that would be difficult to match with fellow Marvel heroes Hulk or Captain America.  The writers, directors, and Robert Downey Jr. have taken Tony Stark—the central character of their multimillion dollar blockbuster—and run with him.

That is to say, they have thrown everything into making him a clever, entertaining, charismatic, larger-than-life powerhouse of a hero (such as he is) who is also Tony Stark.  He makes funny quips left and right, an art at which which Robert Downey Jr. appears to be genuinely adept (the “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” joke from the first movie was reportedly not in the script but improvised on the spot, on-camera) in an environment of loose consequences as a character who thrives on being a lovable egotist.  Cary Grant, eat your heart out.  He uses his vast wealth quite liberally, and if he wants to respond to his existential crisis by jumping in on the Circuit de Monaco, then he is going to do it.

The word I’m looking for is escaping me—Chutzpah?  Gall?  Audacity?  That might be it—but he pulls off amazing tricks, feats and one-liners of every variety, looks darn good in the meantime… and hits the beats that make him recognizably Tony Stark and Iron Man of Marvel Comics.

But more to the point, he is Tony Stark of Iron Man and Iron Man 2. (The relative amount of screen time he spends as Iron Man and Tony Stark, and the overall problem of working a semi-realistic plot into any superhero movie, just occurred to me.  But I can get into that some other time.)

This actually takes me through the first four pages of my notes.  The only thing I haven’t touched on is Pepper’s absolutely stunned reaction to being promoted to CEO.  I’m not sure where I would go with that.

Revenge!  This is the first word on the next, page, minus the exclamation point, and it brings me to something very important about Iron Man 2’s plot. Iron Man 2 hits many of the same beats as its predecessor, even for a sequel.  Tony’s struggle, two major villains, one foreign, one a “second banana” figure, one besting the other’s guards in an act of betrayal, scantily clad dancers working for Tony, a somewhat disappointing climax, an unorthodox sequel hook after the credits—they’re all there.  The second movie does them well enough, while bringing in an exceptional amount of its own material, including character background, development, and setups for more movies. (All of which can presumably be found in abundance in the comics, but what they worked into the movie is impressive.  Stop me before I get sidetracked.)

One thing Iron Man 2 is missing, however, is a certain kind of sueprheroics.  The first movie featured a realistic terrorist organization, The Ten Rings, as one of its villains.  While corrupt businessman / iron-monger Obadiah Stane turned out to be the movie’s “real” villain, Iron Man also had to face off with a band of marauders terrorizing innocent people in the Middle East, the likes of which we are certainly familiar with in real life.  Iron Man takes them to the cleaners.  We cheer him for it.

Iron Man 2 is missing this.  Its main villain, Ivan Vanko, has his eyes on one man: Stark.  Iron Man is fighting to save his own life.  Yes, Ivan endangers and even kills various innocent bystanders, and Iron Man goes out of his way to defend them, but this is a fight between the two men.  This would not normally make a bad movie, just as Stane’s attempt to take over Stark Enterprises in the first movie would not have made a bad movie, and in point of fact, it doesn’t make a bad movie.  It’s well-made, well-received and a lot of fun.

It is, however, also a superhero movie.  One of the main roles of superheroes is to defend innocents from threats—fantastic or mundane—and save the day. (To be fair, there is a repeated emphasis on how Iron Man has had a significant impact on worldwide violence, but while arguably more important and a creative concept to boot, it doesn’t have the same effect.) Except for a few scenes where Stark must save innocent innocent bystanders caught in Vanko’s attacks, Iron Man 2 is missing superhero-style superheroics.  That may not be 2’s only weakness compared to the original, but it’s a signficant one.

All this talk about Vanko.  What about the movie’s other villain, Justin Hammer?  Some would argue that he just isn’t as interesting as Vanko.  There may be something to that.  However, there is one angle I have come up with, ever since the ride back after seeing the movie for the first time: Justin Hammer is what Tony Stark could have been.

He’s a good deal less skilled.  He’s a lot less charismatic.  At certain points, he is certainly more ruthless.  But he is also an amoral, egotistical, self-absorved showboater in charge of a major corporation.  There are tricks he pulls that even the “old” Tony might not have, such as being Senator Stern’s puppet, or hiring a maniac who just tried to murder his biggest competitor to work for him, to say nothing of the way he breaks Vanko out of prison, but he is not a far cry from the Tony Stark we see at first.

Given how Tony changed after his epiphany in Afganistan, I do wonder what we might see from Hammer after being arrested and disgraced (the disheveled hair and broken glasses, which he later loses altogether, were a nice touch) while vowing payback the whole way out.

Where was I?  Still at the racetrack, according to my notes—an easily missed line about Tony suggesting that Pepper get a massage from the new girl (which probably isn’t that hard to unpack), a note about the foreshadowing as Hammer watches Vanko’s attack on Tony with more interest than fear (and me expecting I could do scenes like that if I bothered to write more), and…

I described a while back how Iron Man 2 was lacking in self-sacrificing heroics.  There is one roundabout exception to this: Tony’s friends, Rhodey, Pepper, Happy, and less personally, Fury and Romanov, trying to save him.  This isn’t in my notes, but it did strike me about the movie and one of its messages: How not to deal with an existential crisis, imminent or otherwise.  The movie presents a very good picture of someone responding to the prospect of death by alternately performing spontaneous, half-thought-out acts of charity, clamming up and refusing to tell his friends what’s wrong, and toward the end, getting drunk and acting like an animal.  These are pitfalls he falls into so that, ideally, the audience won’t. (I’m still not sure why he didn’t turn to an external power source that wouldn’t affect his bloodstream.  But that’s beside the point.)

This is followed by a note about adapting and improvising in writing.  I think there was a lot of that in this film, and it benefited for it—many of the best ideas are brought up on the spot, and I don’t just mean on-camera ad libs.  But that’s a bit much to get into right now. (I think I was still thinking about Stark’s sheer, no-holds-barred characterization, described earlier.)

Then there’s a note about Vanko’s escape… and the note about how Iron Man “never stopped protecting us.”  Again, it is a kind of superheroism, and it does work on its own terms, but it arguably lacks the “oomph” expected of a hero defending the innocent.

That said, this brings us to two of Vanko’s lines to Tony: “If you make God bleed, people will cease to believe in him,” and more simply, “You lose.”  We also discussed this after the movie, the first in particular.  I won’t repeat what was said there, except that the point about Jesus actually bleeding is oddly apropos, and that it may be important to note that Vanko is a villain.  However, there is one wrinkle to this claim that may not be obvious: It is not that he was able to damage the seemingly invincible Iron Man suit or literally make Tony bleed, though he certainly did both.  It isn’t even that he showed that contrary to Tony’s claims, such suits were possible, and immediately so, though this is closer.

What he proved, more conceptually, is that Tony Stark was not the only one who could do it.  To hold to Vanko’s metaphor, in the eyes of some of Stark’s more single-minded supporters, as both Iron Man and the creator of “Iron Man”, he showed that he was not a “god”.

My notes trail off a bit here, apart from some amusement at Hammer claiming that he and Vanko are “very alike”. (He is set up as a buffoon at every turn, isn’t he?  I stand by my “What Tony Stark could have been” hypothesis.)

Shortly after this, we have the “party” scene, and the lowest that Tony Stark sinks.  My first note is about the powerful “fallen” image after his fight with Rhodey: Collapsed in the corner of a wrecked room, with an unusual party light shining on him. (Off that, Rhodey takes the suit to the military.  End second act.) It called up my own ideas for a Birdman movie, but that’s well outside of this analysis.  In the same breath, though, there is a note about the “scary” party—and how, as Tony slips into drunken, nihilistic “anything goes” mode and starts blasting wine glasses out of the air, to the delight of the (also drunken) crowd, it is portrayed as a very bad thing, thanks in no small part to the very ominous music.

The soundtrack is also important shortly thereafter: In the fight between Stark (Iron Man) and Rhodes (War Machine), the music—diegetic music, no less—helps to very nearly play it for laughs, with a strong element of fun in seeing these two comic book heroes slug it out on the big screen.  However, by the end, things become very un-funny as the music drops out entirely.  It’s not funny anymore.  A minute later, we’re looking at the fallen hero described two paragraphs ago.

My next note…  a brief thing about Fury and Romanova’s faces, the latter “introduced” in a form-fitting bodysuit before her identity is revealed.  And let me just say that in a movie already full of fun actors and characters, I love Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. (There’s a notable story behind his casting, but this isn’t the place for it.) (I do also note that this is right after the first movie… which it actually isn’t, now that I think about it.  How fast did that paladium spread all of a sudden?)

Say my notes: “Elaborate backstory.  I like it.  Scope.” Again, this movie goes into the pasts and details of its characters, though it is limited by its two hours of screentime. (Comics nothing, I wonder what the novelization gets up to.) There is also a note to the effect of, “Hammer.  Engineer or not?” It isn’t clear just how much of an engineer Hammer himself is, even if he is clearly below Stark and Vanko. (On the one hand, there is his loving, detailed description of “The Ex-Wife”.  On the other is his total lack of comphrehension at what Vanko was up to until he explained his “drone” concept—any good engineer should have been geeking out in the same breath as berating him.)

This movie has lots of “big” characters, I noticed, and I’m not just referring to Tony Stark, charismatic, brilliant superhero and former head of Stark Enterprises.  Other players include the current CEO of Stark Enterprises, the CEO of Hammer Enterprises, a prominent United States senator, and—the one who inspired the note—the director of the ultra-cool fictional defense organization S.H.I.E.L.D..  The power and authority behind every other character in this movie arguably adds to its appeal.

...followed by a note about actions, MOs, speech and reactions (inspired by Downey’s reactions to discovering the “new element” with his late father’s help—all of them, one after the other) to match.  Tony Stark, protagonist extraordinaire, may be the main source of great moments (of which cramming the entire “World of Tomorrow” display into his car and driving off is only one), but he by no means has a monopoly on them.  It’s that kind of movie—very “packed”, very fast-moving.  And we love it for it, at least insofar as it’s very—almost purely—fun. That’s when (taking the original notes) I finally realized how “blunt” Vanko is.  If that’s how he comes off, presumably, that’s how Rourke intended it.

Speaking of “big” characters, the final battle has the appeal of many comic books, probably more so than even most fantasy novels, or possibly many comic book movies to date: Super-powerful combatants trading super-powerful blows in a battle we just don’t have the means for in real life.  This is followed (as Vanko closes in in his personal, refurbished suit) by the two-word note, “Boss fight.” Little more needs to be said about that, I think, except that I am a long-time video gamer and proud of it.

Well, that, and that (like the first movie) I personally had a hard time getting into the climactic scene.  Vanko may have had Rhodey and Stark on the ropes, so to speak, but… given Vanko’s “energy whip” weapons, it’s hard to read when our heroes go from “still fighting” to “mortal peril”.  I’m not sure what to expect from Iron Man 3.

But that wasn’t in my notes.  The last thing I have written, before a few notes about the post-movie discussion, is “Bittersweet ending… averted.” This goes back to the first time I saw Iron Man 2.  Vanko is beaten.  However, he still sneers: “You lose.”  His drones begin to self-destruct.  However, our heroes escape in plenty of time, so—while he could have been simply overestimating himself—it does not seem like that’s what he meant.  Tony narrowly rescues Pepper, but Vanko could hardly have known about her.

Then they make it to safety… and beneath them, explosions light up the city.  That was it, I thought.  He didn’t get Tony, but he left his mark.  It’s the second movie of the trilogy.  How many people did Vanko just take with him?  By the sound of it—none.  I was strangely disappointed.  But that wouldn’t have been a fun way to end a fun movie.

Setting up for an Avengers sequel, getting Stark and Rhodes decorated by their political enemy, and discovering Mjolnir after the credits—that was fun. (The first time around?  I laughed like the Joker.)

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41 albums I (Greg) enjoyed listening to this year

Monday, December 16, 2013

Arcade Fire - Reflektor
Ásgeir Trausti - Dýrð í dauðaþögn
Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
Cage the Elephant - Melophobia
Chvrches – The Bones Of What You Believe
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Daughter – If You Leave
Dawes – Stories Don’t End
Delorean – Apar
Fitz & the Tantrums – More Than Just a Dream
Haim – Days Are gone
Iron and Wine – Ghost on Ghost
James Blake - Overgrown
Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady
Jim James – Regions of Light and Sound of God
Julianna Barwick - Nepenthe
Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience
Laura Marling – Once I was an Eagle
Lily & Madeleine - Lily & Madeleine
Lord Huron – Lonesome Dreams
Lorde – Pure Heroine
Lucius - Wildewoman
Maps - Vicissitude
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away
Over the Rhine – Meet Me at the Edge of the World
Phoenix – Bankrupt!
Phosphorescent – Muchacho
Poliça - Shulamith
Samaris - Samaris
Sigur Ros - Kveikur
Tegan and Sara - Heartthrob
The Avett Brothers – Magpie and the Dandelion
The Blind Boys of Alabama – I’ll Find a Way
The Civil Wars – The Civil Wars
The Head and the Heart – Let’s Be Still
The Knife – Shake the Habitual
The Lone Bellow – The Lone Bellow
The National – Trouble Will Find Me
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the Weekend
Vok - Tension
Volcano Choir - Repave

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Female Narratives in the Music Industry by Avery Johnson

Thursday, December 05, 2013

What is it that women must do to get their fifteen minutes of fame in the music industry? Although some are able to find loopholes, many of them find that they are successful when they follow the advice of the men who are in power over them. Based on what has gained media attention in the past, women must present themselves in a way that exploits their sexuality and appeals to men. In music, a singer is told that these types of performances will help her break away from outdated values and gain a wider adult audience, but that is not what happens. When the musicians are exploited in this way, they are not gaining the respect of audiences for being free with their bodies or taking risks, but exposing themselves to objectification and playing into destructive narratives.

Many female artists have been led to believe that their behavior is freeing them, all while they have been caught in the trap of the men who are telling them this. Their liberation looks more like bondage. It is not that women should live in fear of exposing their ankles or go back to Victorian ideals, but the behaviors that they have been conditioned to perform go against what they have named as a purpose. As a result, the behavior that is the new norm has created a binding narrative that forces women to play into the distorted ideals in place. They do not gain respect, but become pawns that play into false expectations.

The most current example of this playing out is Miley Cyrus and her recent performance at the VMAs. She has gained media attention for her behavior, but at what expense? Not only has she alienated younger audiences, but she has become a part of the narratives that she grew up exposed to. She was shown that exploiting herself in this way is what she needs to do in order to be successful in popular music. Because she was raised in a family that was immersed in the music industry, she has been conditioned to act this way. She is not the first, but only the most recent in a long history. We only have to look back at Britney Spears and Katy Perry to find the legacy that Miley has been indoctrinated into.

One singer who has gained popularity in a different way is Taylor Swift. She became popular at the same time as Miley Cyrus, but chose to present herself as the good girl. She does not behave in a way that is similar to Miley, but maintains a young audience by attaching herself to a narrative that is unlike the other, but still limiting and demeaning. Taylor has a little more control of her image because she writes her own songs, but she has a role to play. The script that Miley has picked up is only part of the dichotomy that women in music are forced to chose between. Each lies on different extremes, but they are both roles that prove to be restricting because they have to stay within the boundaries that have been put in place. Like Miley, Taylor has made choices about how she wants to present herself, though they are different.

Though both of these women chose different paths, they were trained in similar ways. They became popular about the same time in an institution known for the code that it creates for those involved. They choose people young to be a part of the music industry, but because they are young when they begin, they are more easily conditioned to fit certain roles. Once Disney is finished with them, the regular press takes over. They watch and wait expectantly for the young artists to come of age and then begin to interpret their behaviors as rebellion. Some, like Taylor Swift, choose to stick to what they were originally taught and do not break away from their image, but others have expected the reactions of the press for so long that they play along for the exposure. Miley had seen what had happened to other former Disney-made musicians, so she knew what could happen when she emerged from that world. There was a script ready and waiting for her when she turned eighteen. The press encourages these behaviors in young musicians for the sake of a spectacle that they love to hate.

One question that arises in this conversation about the roles of women in music is how Robin Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines” comes into recent events. Although Miley has received criticism for her performance at the VMAs, Robin Thicke has come away from it relatively unscathed. What we forget is that he was on stage with her and that he was a participant; we only focus on the part that Miley played in the performance. The fact that he wrote the song and that he was performing the song with her is often overlooked. If we pay attention, we can see that she is copying some of the tactics that he used in his music video. The foam finger that she used on stage was also a prop in the music video, and she acted like the nude, voiceless women from the music video who danced next to the fully clothed male singer, but she changed it by taking part of Robin’s role. Rather than remaining voiceless, she sang some of his lines to him. The same words that he said earlier somehow became worse when she said them. All of this is without even bringing the implications of song itself into consideration.

The lyrics come across blatantly as a situation of rape in many instances. Has anybody asked which lines are being blurred? And how about T.I.’s rap in the song that assumes she wants her ### smacked and hair pulled? In one of the lines, he says, “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ### in two.” This, as well as calling her an animal, is demeaning. It is not clear why Robin thinks that being with a “square” who treats her with respect is a bad thing either. What this presents us with is a double standard within the industry and culture of music. The press has completely overlooked his participation while blaming Miley for what happened. They chose to focus on Miley, who was acting out the lyrics, rather than Robin who wrote them and acted them out with her. While Robin Thicke gets away with making women disposable sexual objects, Miley Cyrus gets criticized for playing along.

These are only a few examples of the double standards and female objectification that feminists have been trying to eradicate for so long that still lingers within our culture. These women have been exposed to an industry that tells them to act in a certain way, and it is up to them to decide how to respond. They can either do what the men in power tell them to in order to get attention from audiences, or they can try to go against the grain, running the risk of moving into obscurity. Unfortunately, the roles that are placed on these women will not change until men like Robin Thicke and those in power change.

Meanwhile, we criticize those who have been conditioned to perform these behaviors and continue to pay more attention to those who act in certain ways. This reinforces what they have been told and perpetuates the cycle that connects success in music to performance techniques. What we are forced to acknowledge in these situations is that despite feminist movements, we still do not know how to present female musicians.

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Review: Play! A Video Game Symphony by Jacqueline Ristola

Monday, April 22, 2013

As I approached the DeVos Performance Hall January 29th, I noted my drastic lack of formal attire. With my jeans, tennis shoes, and backpack, it wasn’t clear I was about to attend a symphonic concert. But to my relief, I wasn’t the only one, for this concert was no ordinary Grand Rapids Symphony concert. The concert was Play! A Video Game Symphony, and gamers from children to adults came to listen to their favorite gaming themes.

The whole concert experience felt more democratic in nature; there was no assumed dress code for the event, though some chose to wear gaming T-shirts to show their pride. Gamers cheered loudly for their favorite games, starting the concert with continuous, uproarious cheering through the first piece, various Super Mario Bros. themes. Eventually the audience bridled their their enthusiasm at appropriate moments to listen, but their participation illustrates the communication between both parties, the performers and the audience. With the symphony’s increase in live performances to film, this indicates the symphony’s attempts at both broadening the scope of their audience and perforating the line between high culture and low (pop) culture.

Aiding in this democratization was Andy Brick, encouraging the audience to be vocal about their love for this music. Not only was he the conductor for the evening, a video game music composer and conductor of the Play! Symphony tour from 2006-2010. He took time to introduce each piece and the game the music was attached to, and illustrated the sense of pride and celebration of the gaming artform. It’s hard not to get elated when the conductor himself sang along to the Dragonborn theme from Skyrim.

The music itself was thrilling, bring a full scope of textures and a richness to the music that. Having a full orchestra only amplified the mood and atmosphere of the pieces, especially the creepy tones to the Castlevania and Metroid themes. The video game footage playing on three large screens above the orchestra (which also cut to live footage of Brick and performers throughout as well) also helped set the mood and illustrated the artistry of both the music and game. The Legend of Zelda piece might have had the best combination of music and visuals. Beginning with the opening Zelda theme and beautiful images across the open plains of Hyrule, the experience was transcendent.

I suspect the Symphony will keep expanding the standard classical limits and integrate the popular arts into their performances. If their work is anything like Play!, breaking the high/low culture barrier will prove fruitful indeed.