I play and read a lot of tabletop RPG (TTRPG) books in my spare time. Whether delving into misty old-school fantasy games like Beyond the Wall or surveying a lavishly illustrated combat game like Lancer, reading RPG books can sometimes be nearly as fun as playing them.
Lately, though, I’ve been on the hunt for games that shake things up a bit. Luckily, a helpful friend (digitally) handed me a copy of Jay Dragon’s new pastoral-furry RPG Wanderhome. On first read, it gave me a lot of what I’ve been looking for in a new game. It jettisons dice and game masters in favour of a consent-based system of moves and go-round-the-table world building. To act, instead of testing fate with dice rolls or other wagering systems, players declare actions that make their character vulnerable or uncomfortable and receive a token. They can then spend that token to change something about the world. There is no accounting for failure here, and knowingly so.
Rather than drawing out a player’s cleverness or grit, these tokens create a sense of giving and taking. There are no real failures or even violence in Wanderhome’s world of the Hæth, but there are also no power trips or strokes of blessed fortune. As I read and leafed through the lovely illustrations and colours of the PDF, I felt a sense of gentleness and lightness.
For much of the book, however, that gentleness is tinged not with joy or celebration but with a seeping sense of loss. Many of the game’s setup steps talk about trauma, at least indirectly. For example, for each playbook or character class you choose traits, skills, or things that you love and then also something you have left behind. The Dancer, for example, gets to choose three dances they perform gladly and one that “they have left behind.” (p. 53) Pushing this theme further, the Exile playbook is almost all about trauma and loss. As an Exile, the player is asked: “You once had a place you called home. It’s gone now. Choose 1 true reason why you cannot return, 1 reason you tell everyone else, and 1 reason you worry is the truth.” (p. 57) It’s bleak stuff. There is obviously potential for compelling play and storytelling, but I admit I was put out by the whole thing. A case of mismatched expectations.
The game’s game-master-less system descends from a game concept called Belonging Outside Belonging. Belonging Outside Belonging (BOB) comes from the mind of designer Avery Alder. I don’t like any of Alder’s games at all because they feel more designed to create group therapy-style talk than gameplay per se. That’s a matter of taste, of course, and the BOB system finds itself put to much less dour and joyless use in Wanderhome. But the way that the player puts themselves in uncomfortable or vulnerable situations to earn the right to change the world in stronger ways still darkens the emotional palette of Wanderhome’s book.
I honestly had moments of anger reading this. I felt like the game I wanted, which was a light pastoral game of travel and talk, had been taken away from me. There are also annoying bits of writing in the book that set me off a little bit, and there is a much angrier version of this post in my drafts. I’m thankful that I didn’t publish it, though. Given more time to think about it, I don’t think I mind nearly as much as I did on my second and third reads of the book.
The reason for that is that the game has a number of guides and rules that help players cut out sad or traumatic matters from play. So there was no point to me getting angry or crestfallen about the game because the sad stuff just wouldn’t come up in my games. Even though it’s still in the book and has forever coloured my impression of the design and its goals, that’s not all bad. I might prefer a light, short campaign covering fluffy slice-of-life journeys through green fields, but the game has more ambition than that. Which I don’t like, but thankfully, the game is open to my preferences as well.
So the only major problems I have left with the book are related to some of the writing. Your mileage may vary, but I think that Wanderhome goes a little too far in keying players in to a narrow way of feeling while playing. Sections of the worldbuilding chapter on the Wanderhome world’s calendar, for example, are kind of maudlin and overwrought, leading up to the writer actually apologizing to the reader for how sad the previous bits had been. (p. 43) Like all of my complaints, this is an aesthetic problem for me, but it sets me on edge, nonetheless. I would have loved a more direct and confident presentation for the world, and I’m curious why the writer felt they had to say sorry to me. So though I’m over my first bouts of annoyance with the book, I’ll admit I don’t share the designer’s goals and still feel a little cheated by the split between the presentation of the book and its story content.
And so it goes. I’m still very happy my friend gave me my copy of the Wanderhome PDF and I look forward to playing with them as soon as I can. If nothing else, the worldbuilding settings and character materials in the back half of the book give you an open book to write in. And above all else, I love that the book has some compelling thoughts about why adventures involve travel and why people choose to move from place to place. Even if I don’t like a lot of the dour material, there’s probably enough sunshine for me after all. Take a look at Wanderhome if this all catches your eye. Just go in knowing what it is and what it’s trying to say before reading.
The Japanese Economy Reconsidered is a short slice of Marxist economic history and analysis. Effectively summarizing the Japanese “lost decade,” which has by now accordioned out to more than two decades of stagnation, the book is an incomplete but strong primer on the Japanese economy in the 1990s. More than a factual account, however, it also offers a preliminary definition and critique of neoliberalism in the Japanese context.
It’s worth asking how Itoh is “reconsidering” the Japanese economy. He asks some of the same questions everyone was asking about Japan in the 1990s: what happened? Before the bubble burst, popular chatter about Japan ranged from idolization to outright terror. Where he differs from the mainstream liberal discourse on Japan is in his diagnosis of the Japanese economy from the 1973 oil crisis onwards. Many accounts I’ve ready discuss how Japan weathered the oil embargo with relative ease, shifting towards an export-focused industrial strategy that ensured steady growth throughout the 1970s and 80s. Itoh, meanwhile, opens his book with: “In 1973, high economic growth in the Japanese economy…came to an end.”¹ Following the resource crunch and inflationary crisis of the 1970s, the Japanese state aggressively injected money into grandiose public works projects, assisted the implementation of automation in factories and offices, crushed public sector unions through privatizations, and fueled a temporary recovery. What came out of that was the famous bubble, where land prices escalated beyond all reason and financial speculation in land and stocks was feverish. After this bubble inevitably detonated, near-zero growth became the norm, which, combined with an aging population, has created an immense problem of planning and legitimacy.
Itoh fills in that basic narrative in chapters 2-5, investigating the role of information technologies, industrial hollowing-out and the effect of the boom and depression on family life, the process of the bubble’s bursting, and Japan’s position in the globalizing capitalist system. In that final chapter, the book focuses on Japanese industry’s increasing capital exports into other countries in Asia, particularly China and Southeast Asia. Given the publication date of the book (2000), it’s not surprising that it ends with a brief autopsy of the Asian boom of the 90s and the subsequent collapse of that bubble.
There is nothing difficult or unclear in Itoh’s book; there is nothing all that striking either. Well, there is one possible exception. While his diagnosis of the “failure of neoliberalism” in Japan might seem obvious in hindsight, it partially synthesizes its analysis of neoliberalism with the idea of Japan as a “company-cented society.”² We see the echoes of his concluding remarks in the 2007-8 global financial crisis, which reproduced many of the dynamics of the Japanese collapse in the 90s: “Company-centred restructuring combined with emergency economic policies that place priority on alleviating the difficulties of big business has deepened the hardship and worry in the economic life of the majority of people.”³ This reality, this induced existential fear, he argues, is part of what has depressed the Japanese birthrate to such lows.
It might be useful to take the longtime category of “company-centred society” and bring it to a more general analysis of neoliberal capitalism. When looking at the kind of civil societies the last forty years of capitalist mutation have produced, we see the gravitational pull of private firms increasing, orienting more and more of the rest of the state and nonstate sectors (NGOs, media, online communities, etc.) around capital accumulation. Indeed, given that most states’ response to the crisis was to violate neoliberal principles with gigantic public bailouts, the idea of company-centrism might even be more generally descriptive of the current form of capitalism in the First World than neoliberal.
Unfortunately, the lot of the Japanese working class has only deteriorated further in the sixteen years since the publication of The Japanese Economy Reconsidered, and the current Japanese government offers no chance of rescue from the vultures of corruption, bureaucratic domination, and industrial decay that have preyed on Japan for most of living memory. So Itoh’s short and straightforward work serves about as well as a book can: it informs and outlines what possible paths the Japanese people might take in liberating themselves.
Makoto Itoh, The Japanese Economy Reconsidered (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2000), 1.
One of the reasons that I started a full retrospective on Ralph Bakshi’s feature filmography is that I find his films intrinsically fascinating whether they succeed or fail. I am, to put it bluntly, invested in his work to a greater degree than I am in most others’. Every Bakshi film is clearly and emphatically the result of a peculiar production process, from conception to final edit. Ever restricted in budget and aggressive in ambition, Bakshi was not afraid to do his best with what he had and still leave ragged edges. His professionalism, hard-won during his TV animation work, inoculated him against toxic perfectionism. Which leaves his films as unapologetically animated and artificial artifacts of human effort. If part of the utopian fantasy of a film like Pinocchio is the magician’s sleight of hand (how did they pull off that long multilayered establishing shot?) combined with an apparently unforced naturalism, Bakshi’s films are forcing, making one conscious of their own limitations and yet––at their most successful––communicating their core ideas well inspire of these boundaries.
All of which is to say that it’s not hard to tell that Cool World was a tough project to finish. It would not shock the otherwise naïve first-time viewer if, after sitting through this mostly bewildering picture, they were told that the animators never got a good look at the script. Or even that the script was entirely rewritten behind the director/writer’s back and forced on him under the threat of legal action. Nor, I would wager, NOR, would the viewer express anything other than the most contented confirmation of prior knowledge if I told them that this was supposed to be a horror film about the diabolical love child of cartoon and human.
They might flinch a bit if I told them I still thought it was pretty good, though.
To put it bluntly, the final version we have seems like nothing more than an adult.swim redo of Roger Rabbit. We have Bakshi’s favoured 50s nostalgia setting, the femme fatale, the put-upon detective, a device uniquely capable of destroying “doodles” (cartoon people), etc. etc. The trouble with Paramount jerry-rigging Bakshi’s ideas to be more like Roger Rabbit, though, is that they were unwilling to put up enough cash to make it a worthy competitor. Beyond that, they did not have the immense prestige of the WB/Disney crossover nor the exacting artistry of animation director Richard Williams. Roger Rabbit is noir and has a grimy cutting edge to it but Bakshi was never going to give the studio a cash-minting facsimile. Richard Williams would never tell animators who had never seen a script to just “draw something funny” as Bakshi did here. Again, the appeal of that earlier smash hit was both its alliance of corporate brand names and its flawless, expensive integration of animation and live action. In that respect, Cool World is only marginally more convincing or natural than the photo backgrounds in Coonskin.
When we look at a given sequence in Cool World––for convenience, let’s pick the scene where 50s cop Brad Pitt picks up his animated girlfriend under a streetlight (recall Hey Good Lookin’)––we are confronted with images that clearly don’t inhabit the same space. Pitt looks stunned and acts near catatonic through the whole movie, blandly reciting his lines and flailing about with all the natural grace of a porcupine. When he bends his arm stiffly around the shoulders of his significant other, the mismatch is more than obvious. Seamlessness was beyond this movie’s capability, and unfortunately it’s been weighted with a plot and emotional beats that require seamlessness to really work. At no point do the character’s emotions, audience expectations, the script, and the animation synchronize or find any rhythm. At least, not in character-driven moments. In the hands of a different director and a less talented team of animators, the result would be an uncoordinated, gangly failure of legendary proportions. As is, the seemingly improvised chaos and sheer effort put into the visuals do some great work redeeming this symphony of discord by pushing the dissonance to the nth degree.
During a relatively serious dialogue sequence between Brad Pitt’s character Frank and Holli Would (Kim Basinger’s voice and live action performance), for example, the frame regularly swarms with complete non-sequitur chaos. Cartoon mayhem encroaches on the frame at regular intervals––i.e. whenever they had to fill time or space––and the effect is what I would describe as “maddening relief.” Every time an unannounced gag about a bunny losing at craps to a bunch of goons happens or a senseless mallet-smashing vignette plays out in bottom corner of the screen, it cements the fact that Cool World is at war with itself. Its creators are at war with a production alienated from them by their producers, and though their weapons are only of the artistic variety, they are strong. Every time there’s some trite plot business going on, you can just watch the other five animated shorts happening in frame at the same time. All of it is animated beautifully and flaunts common sense and spatial logic so thoroughly that the film’s awkward attempts to smash live action and animation together seem almost inevitable in a world as demented as this.
However, the only unalloyed pleasure the film has to offer is Cool World itself––no italics. Barry Jackson’s background art is detailed and twisted full of grungy gothic architecture, cartoon mouths, and impossibly tangled roadways that carry the film’s wonderful car chases. Every backdrop is sheer perfection, a hint, perhaps, of what a fully horrific Cool World might have offered.
As the matter stands, however, Cool World is a failure of a film that is nonetheless stuffed with brilliant animation and artwork. A portfolio more than a real movie, one might say, not to mention a platform for awkward sexual encounters and some truly inane plotting. It’s unfortunate that Bakshi’s last feature, which destroyed his will to try to work in Hollywood ever again, had to be just as mangled and compromised as it was. But I would argue it’s probably the most technically advanced and aesthetically complete of his films even if it’s one of the most narratively scatterbrained. And that’s including Fritz the Cat.
Ambiguity binds the bloody heart of Fran Bow. Written, drawn, and programmed by two people and funded through an Indiegogo campaign, Fran Bow is a psychological horror/fantasy game that bridges Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, and gory mystery stories. What makes it notable beyond its beautiful visual and aural construction is its unabashed morbidity and, I must add, its titular protagonist.
Its gameplay engine works like most point-and-click adventures, presenting the player with a series of puzzles to be solved with inventory items and interacting with virtual manipulatives. Those, like me, who are more interested in advancing the plot and inhabiting the lavish world of Natalia Figueroa’s art, will be gratified to learn that none of them can lead you into unwindable situations and, though they might look intimidating at first, don’t take much time to solve once the logic of the puzzle becomes clear.
Helpfully, each chapter is also accessible from the main menu once it’s been completed, meaning that replaying the game to scour for clues or to relive crucial story moments is trivial. The game also saves the player’s progress automatically, meaning that any software instability or power outage will not set you back. It also removes the ability to maintain multiple save files, but making each chapter selectable makes returning to past areas fairly easy. All that is truly lost is the charm of making up witty names for save files and chuckling about them later
That technical detour complete, I want to spend a few hundred words tantalizing my readers by selectively revealing some of Fran Bow’s intelligent story decisions. My hope is to both encourage more interest in the game as well as to sort out some of my initial thoughts on the aforementioned ambiguity of the game.
Taking place during World War II somewhere in the United States, Fran Bow begins in an asylum, as does its titular character. Imprisoned for a mental illness that has either been aggravated or incited by the gruesome murder of her parents, Fran is given a new, blood-red medication that induces psychotic states. Similar to the various treats and trinkets in the Alice books, these pills reshape the world, peeling the curtain back and revealing a gore-drenched world that often offers Fran more opportunities for escape. Which is not to say that the mundane is any less disturbing; the asylum appears to be using its young patients for surgical experiments.
Eventually, the story takes a number of diversions that complicate the idea that the game is just about mental illness or the link between the body and the mind. More overtly fantastical and whimsical happenings abound in the middle part of the game, coming right after a sudden and unexpected fall. Still, as others have pointed out, the spectre of mental illness never stops haunting Fran’s steps even in the sanctuaries into which she is welcomed. One of the central problems that Fran Bow refuses to solve, therefore, is the question of whether the fantasies are real or whether they are hallucinatory artifacts.
What’s most important, however, is that the story, despite its forays into inter-dimensional weirdness and speculative intrigues, remains anchored in Fran’s emotional and internal journey. Every locale is revealed to be eminently changeable. Bodies are easily destroyed. Fran’s own emotional state varies considerably between her usual ferocity, doggedness, and curiosity to a state of overwhelming depression and sadness. Haunted by an incarnation of falsity and depression called Remor, she attempts to make sense of her own trauma in a world that is unrelentingly hostile and untrustworthy.
Upon first finishing the game––a few minutes before starting this post––the theme I grasped most strongly was that of skepticism and the value of one’s own internal intelligence and strength. Fran’s ultimate virtue is her self-reliance and her refusal to trust too easily. At the same time, she is not catatonic or paranoid no matter her (unresolved) relationship with the mundane reality of the game. Her openness to change and to the bizarre, seeing the initially frightening as potentially helpful and offering her aid to those in need regardless of their strangeness: these are what the game values the most. Even the most sinister figures from the start of the game might (not to reveal too much) have the potential for a small redemption. Her primary enemies are fear, lies, and deception, the abuse of science and the dark manipulation of the imagination. Those with power over her who seek to use her for their own ends, trying to drive her to self-destruction and despair. As someone who struggles with creeping depression and anxiety, the game’s unflinching aspects evoked just the right mix of attraction and repulsion.
More and more, I’m fascinated by the study of emotions and the ways in which we internalize the world we inhabit. Fran Bow takes that dialectic, that process of metamorphosis and emotional processing, and gives it an aesthetic shell and narrative logic entirely appropriate for such a slippery topic. My thoughts on the game are still unsettled, but that’s partly the nature of the game. It’s one of the strongest games in the current adventure game revival, and I can give it my highest recommendation.
“Alone Together” is the thirty-seventh episode of the Cartoon Network show Steven Universe to be broadcast. Considered in terms of the show’s developing plot, it has little importance, containing no revelations directly tied to its cosmic mythology or the character’s identities. This make it an outlier among the last twenty episodes, which have unfolded various twists and broadened the scope of the show’s subject matter. As its title suggests, this episode retreats inward, following the thirty-sixth episode’s introduction of new characters and complications with a small scale story about a so-far isolated event. In other words, it is light on incident. Its significance derives from its introduction of Stevonnie, a fusion of half-human half-gem protagonist Steven and his human friend Connie.
Stevonnie has inspired an avalanche of fan appreciation, much of it tangible and visible on the tumblr tag of the same name. This appreciation ranges from purely aesthetic to romantic, encompassing forms from cosplay to unofficial drawings. It also tends to accompany speculation about the character’s gender identity, as queer fans discuss the intricacies of whether the character is agender, genderfluid, or whether they fill some other non binary category. More than any other American animated show, the adult and teenage audience for the Steven Universe includes a large contingent of queer people, especially women and those who identify as gender outsiders of numerous stripes.
To fully assess the meaning of this episode, we have to move through a few layers of analysis. First, we will examine the apparatus of production behind “Alone Together.” Next comes an analysis of the class character of Steven Universe’s production staff and the cultural resources it draws on for this episode, focusing on conditions of late capitalism in the United States in 2014. Third, we’ll try to situate the show in a political context, focusing on issues of gender and connected issues of the family and intimacy. Within these three stages, we can address some specific aesthetic issues including the episode’s relation of dance to character relationships and its idealized portrait of gender relations in its universe.
Part 1: Cartoon Factory
The show is funded, produced, and linked to larger brand efforts by Cartoon Network, part of the Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., which is under the banner of Time Warner. Time Warner is one of the gigantic monopolies that controls the vast majority of mass cultural production in the United States. Cartoon Network is thus a single niche or tentacle for a much larger profit machine, creating programming largely aimed at children and younger boys in particular. Its corporate press page boasts, “Cartoon Network (CartoonNetwork.com) is consistently the #1 U.S. television network in prime among boys 6-11.”¹ Additionally, Steven Universe itself, as of February of last year, ranked number one in its 8pm time slot among both all kids from age two to fourteen and among “targeted” boys 6-11 and 9-14.² Such statements clarify Time Warner’s true interest in the show, which is as a marketing outreach to children––boys in particular, since they did not mention the show’s performance among girls.
Whatever creator Rebecca Sugar and company wanted to accomplish with the show, the class of big capitalists above them are likely interested in programming like Steven Universe precisely because of the cynical numbers listed above. The show’s vaunted diversity is also much more likely to stir executives’ imaginations because of its appeal to what Nielsen––the company that accumulates and publishes media data––calls “the multicultural consumer.”³ Though the show often takes supposedly progressive positions on gender relations, the family, and so on (more on this in a moment), this may be read not as subversion but as the further commoditization of queerness, the conversion of oppositional populations into rampant consumers who identify with products––including Steven Universe and its merchandise, potentially––as described by Nicholas Martin Arrivo:
Rather, capitalism has co-opted homosexuality and is wielding it as a tool, crafting imagery and definitions of “homosexuality” in order to push products, or rather, push subjectivities, shaping and sexualizing the way consumers view themselves and the world.⁴
So far, there does not appear to be any official merchandise featuring Stevonnie, but the production of products with which the show’s considerable queer audience can identify would be a major source of profit and bonus cultural prestige with left liberals who believe that collusion between big media capital and upwardly mobile middle class, mainly white, queer people to be progressive. We can sum up this way: “Alone Together” is a commodity, the product of a vertically integrated production process controlled ultimately by monopoly capital, which is more interested in marketing to ascendant consumer groups than overthrowing the patriarchy or any other exploitative or oppressive social structure. Of course, the episode cannot be narrowly defined in that way, and contradictions with the simplified scheme just stated emerge as soon as was analyze the class position of the show’s direct producers and creative staff.
Part 2: Knowledge Workers and a Consumer Setting
Cartoon Network Studios produces Steven Universe, on occasion with assistance from Rough Draft Studios in the Republic of Korea. Underneath that umbrella, most of the intellectual labor that goes into creating an episode like “Alone Together” falls under show runner Rebecca Sugar, who was an artist, writer, and songwriter for another show, Adventure Time, until 2013. The animation industry, like all appendages of mass media production, is administered by big capital but its primary “labor inputs” are educated white collar workers who have some advanced technical training––like Sugar’s at art-oriented high schools and colleges––that gives them relatively more control over the content of their work than an assembly line worker.⁵ Of course, their work is always subject to the approval of capital and the primacy of the profit motive, but within certain boundaries (not only monetary but also in terms of content determined by marketing demographic categories) they have free creative play. Mike Wayne reminds us of the dual role of this group as intellectuals reproducing relations of production and ideologies and as productive workers within enterprises:
From the point of view of the impact of their symbolic products, they may be engaged in reproduction (producing ideas and values, otherwise known as ideology, which legitimise the dominant social order); but, viewed from the point of view of production, it is clear that they produce commodities which realise surplus value for media capital, and, indeed, cultural goods as commodities have become increasingly important for capital investments and profits. There is, however, no necessary fit between the economic imperative and cultural values and, indeed, there are good reasons why they often diverge.⁶
In that last sentence, Wayne points to the fact that, though often allied to capital in material ways, the middle class “creative worker” operates at a remove from the values of their managers and employers. Indeed, this “cultural mass” of relatively privileged intellectual workers and white collar specialists is notoriously unstable, to the point where Lenin called them and other petty bourgeois a vacillating class.⁷ David Harvey, for his part, remarks that this class of cultural workers can take on either a parasitic or eclectic role in forming its identity, which is otherwise atomized and nebulous. Subservient to the money power of the bourgeoisie proper to mobilize their creative efforts and yet endowed with “cultural capital” and other privileges, they are subject to “movements of fashion, localism, nationalism, language, and even religion and myth” to a greater extent than other classes with firmer roots.⁸
Sugar and the staff have created a cast of characters that represent this class above all others. Every character is either a service worker––Sadie and Lars at the doughnut shop, Steven’s father at a car wash––a small business owner––proprietors of the local restaurants––or white collar workers of some sort––Connie’s parents, a security officer and a doctor. Of course, Steven and his family of gems are without remuneration of any kind, and this is never brought up throughout the show. Presumably, the gems have an arrangement with Beach City, the town in which they live, but, again, this is left unmentioned.
Beach City itself is a nostalgic paradise of sorts, an idyllic tourist town apparently oriented around tourism. School appears to be optional, as no truancy officers have been after Steven despite his total absence from compulsory education. Depicted as a collection of soft but imposing hills and cliffs surrounding a nest of low houses and small shops, it serves as the perfect staging ground for the idealized environment the show generally chooses to employ on the show.
Steven himself is a consummate consumer, a typical child of late capitalism. Obsessed with pop culture ephemera, food product mascots, and low-quality local food, he has been modeled after Rebecca Sugar’s own younger brother Steven and can be read as the show’s “typical” child. His life embodies that of the production team’s class upbringing: eclectic, rootless, urban (despite the small-town setting), and oriented around consumption as an identity marker. Of course, this is peripheral to the focus of the show, which is on his heroic adventures and coming of age, but his characterization is so firmly rooted in consumer culture that it cannot be ignored. My main conclusion in this section is that the show’s setting embodies the class assumptions of urban knowledge workers in being disparate, eclectic, and rooted in the consumption of identity, which is otherwise difficult to form for such an atomized and individualistic social class.⁹
Part 3: Political Stakes of the Family and Gender
“Alone Together” is the example par excellence of the political stance the show takes on gender and family issues. Steven’s domestic system is essentially three non-human characters identified as female or feminine raising one boy. There are no biological underpinnings for this relationship, since Rose, Steven’s mother, was not shown to be related to any of the gems. Rather, the family is founded on friendship and mentorship. There is a significant age and power imbalance––all the more profound since the gems are centuries old––but it is not a traditional family in any sense except that the relationships play out within a single home structure. Most of the time this unusual arrangement goes unquestioned, though in the episode “Fusion Cuisine” Steven’s friend Connie is embarrassed to introduce this strange family to her more traditional parents. This shows that Steven Universe is not merely naïve or idealistic, but that it is fully aware of what it is doing. Though the show does not have an overt pedagogical bent, in that there are no Very Special Episodes or didactic asides about the importance of tolerance or whatnot, it serves an important role in forming subjectivities and in transmitting messages about political issues to its largely young and young adult audience. We can return to Wayne, who reminds us, “Under capitalism, the elaboration and dissemination of ideas become specialised within a particular category of people who monopolise premium modes of knowledge.”¹⁰
Most of the time, the creators of Steven Universe have remained resolutely apolitical in discussing their creation. See several of Rebecca Sugar’s interviews for examples, including ones in which she mostly disregards her status as the first and only woman show creator in Cartoon Network’s history.¹¹ Interviews are always directed at other ends than just answering questions, so it is likely that this reticence to talk politics comes from both personal reluctance and the diplomacy of doing art under corporate auspices. Naturally, none of this reduces the political content of the show, since it is championing what I would define as a liberal pluralist politics of representation and “diversity.” It advocates multiculturalism and inclusiveness through representation, which is, not coincidentally, perceived as a genuine weapon of ideological struggle by its large adult fanbase.
That commitment to representing marginalized populations extends beyond unconventional families. In “Alone Together,” Stevonnie has a child’s mind but an adult body, one that is drawn and portrayed though situations as immensely beautiful and capable. We see the character sprinting with ease, diving off of a cliff into the ocean, and dancing with instinctual virtuosity. Every character shown interacting with Stevonnie is smitten or awed with their beauty. This includes both male and female characters, notably in an early scene in the doughnut shop where the friendship/possibly romantic duo of Sadie and Lars give Stevonnie free doughnuts out of bashful amazement. At first, the new fusion revels in this attention, just as they revel in the pure expression of bodily autonomy––recall the running, dancing, and acrobatic dives. But the true arc of the episode comes from the writers exposing the continued rifts between the two minds inhabiting the body of Stevonnie and that body itself, or more precisely how people react to them.
The second half of the episode, which takes place at a local rave in a ruined building, their enjoyment of dancing evaporates, replaced by social anxiety and withdrawal. The episode visualizes this in a dreamlike sequence where Stevonnie is trapped inside a gigantic disco ball ringed with crystals. The bright lights and intense gazes of the other people at the rave are oppressive to them. Kevin, a young male character previously shown standing against a wall with contempt for the others, is impressed by their dancing skills and breaks through the crystal wall, addressing Stevonnie directly. He mistakes them for a woman, calling her “girl,” and “baby,” and begins sexual overtures, dancing in a way that is meant to impress his new love interest. The two children-in-one-body have no framework for dealing with this kind of cynical attention and bolt from the dance floor. Despite their joyous unity, the two characters feel isolated by people like Kevin, who are giving them unwanted attention. Finally, they split apart and laugh uproariously, finally relieved of the bizarre body that brought them initial joy and ultimate anguish.
Other characters sexualize Stevonnie, but they have no reference for reacting to this since they are mentally children. Here we see the show’s creative staff developing their premise in a believable way, but to the detriment of Steven Universe’s otherwise idealized portrayal of how gender politics are handled in Beach City. Introducing elements of real sexuality into the show, even subtly, leads to some thorny contradictions that leave the episode in a thematic jumble by the end. This is not wholly unwarranted, but it exposes the ungainly contradiction between the show’s need to keep itself appropriate for boys of a younger age while catering to adult fans. In fact, the children-vs-adults tensions in “Alone Together” could be seen as a loose allegory for this contradictory need to please two audiences: children who just want to have fun and adults who enjoy the show for its realistic social situations and willingness to deal with heavier dramatic material.
Steven Universe has never had pretensions of being a revolutionary show. It fastidiously avoids dramatizing political issues except in the most tangential of ways. Mostly, it functions as a fantasy, not just in the strict sense of genre but as an escapist outlet for imagining a more tolerant and easygoing world. Though it has worn its love of Revolutionary Girl Utena prominently on more than one occasion, it has none of that show’s engagement with larger political structures, preferring a softer and gentler approach that might court controversy but ultimately prefers to tease and insinuate rather than confront. There is merit to this approach, of course, but this conservatism has to be recognized and criticized if we are going to discern the truly revolutionary from the merely subversive. Subversion of this kind is easily encapsulated and marketed, and while it’s true that even revolutionary art can be commodified, Steven Universe’s origins in big capital and its creators’ own restrictions make it less exciting than it could be.
The following is a basic review of some themes and aesthetic qualities for the show Steven Universe. I plan to write two more posts about it this week, including one on the theme of alienation from the past and another that will do a closer reading of one episode in particular, “Alone Together.”
Steven Universe is first of all a fantasy, dreams filtered through the lens of technical studio production and broadcasting. Its protagonist is Steven, a portly preteen boy who resides with a trio of magical beings called Crystal Gems. He is a human-gem hybrid who possesses similar powers, though at the beginning of the show he has little control over them. His housemates, the fastidious Pearl, feisty Amethyst, and stoic Garnet, are his guardians and mentors, bringing him along on their adventures while slowly drawing him into their own troubled histories. Along with his vagrant pet Lion and a smattering of other residents, they inhabit idyllic Beach City, protecting it from bizarre creatures and other threats.
At first, therefore, the show appears to be a conventional power fantasy, though certainly much more feminine and inclusive than the vast majority of superhero stories. Beneath the show’s buoyant, rounded aesthetics and speedy pacing, though, the major themes that emerge revolve around disconnection and amnesia, the struggle to connect with others and guard them against lurking dangers. Because only an intrepid few would immediately connect with a show that begins by expecting viewers to figure out a complicated world, “Steven Universe” anchors the viewer to Steven’s perspective. Since he is only partly privy to the world of the Gems and lives a carefree life little boys can only dream of––no school for him––he and the viewer can share in the shock of new revelations. Most of these start have come in the second half of the season, which expands the world both spatially and temporally in some tantalizing ways, though its potential has yet to be realized.
Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz, gave up her physical form in order to produce a child with Steven’s human father, Greg Universe. Steven’s only relic of Rose is the gem embedded in his navel, the source of his powers. His attempt to control these abilities mirrors his growing knowledge about his mother, whom the show implies was an imposing magic user. Where the early episodes of the show play as pure fantasy, later revelations complicate Steven’s childlike view of the world, and as the show develops his companions’ imperfections become more obvious to him. Steven Universe never ceases to be a fantasy, but, like its protagonist, it becomes both more enlightened and less sure of the basic goodness of the world it portrays. The bonds established between characters early on take on renewed significance when placed in peril by the normal friction of human interaction––not to mention omens of impending trouble.
Aesthetically, the show is similarly fragmented, awash with visual jokes and references to everything from Revolutionary Girl Utena to Hayao Miyazaki’s Future Boy Conan, both classic anime. Like its premise, the look of the show is warm and inviting, combining nostalgia for classic video game sprites with clean, flat compositions and soft color palettes that are heavy on secondary colors. Beach City and the many fantasy landscapes the show introduces are not over-rich with detail, but they all combine small-scale familiarity with an element of the fantastic. A significant part of the show’s animation is its characters’ ability to transform and fuse into one another, giving them fluid forms at times charming and at other times frightening. Despite being so friendly, the show has managed to use its animation to make some truly revelatory images, which are best seen rather than described.
Though it is not yet through its first season, Steven Universe has already outgrown its limits several times. Later episodes, particularly “Alone Together,” take what creator Rebecca Sugar has called the “safe space of fantasy” and used it to results that are moving and careful depictions of social anxiety and the liberating feeling of closeness with another person. It is not a political show per se but rather an idealized space, a fantasy of universe that is not devoid of threats but that deals with them together. I invite anyone interested in animation to take a look, because I expect that few will be disappointed.
I’ve got these old toys
I’ve got this box of memories
We’ll shove them in the fire
And breathe in the flaming potpourri
It’s little inferno just for me
“But I thought playing with fire was dangerous.”
“Well you’re right
But up out of your chimney
Way up in the sky
It’s been snowing for years
And we just don’t know why
Our world is getting colder
But there’s no need for alarm
Just sit by your fire
Burn all of your toys
And stay warm.”
Little Inferno’s cleverness is to a great extent summarized in the eerie advertising jingle you see above. I should probably give the game a more thorough introduction before getting too far ahead of myself. Playing the game is simple enough. A fireplace rests in front of you. You browse a catalog of items, buy the items, and burn them in the fire. Every item takes a certain amount of time to ship, and burning an object will give you more money than it originally cost to order. You take these profits and invest them in more stuff to burn. The upshot is that you stay nice and warm while getting cheap, digital, pyromaniacal thrills. Inside the fireplace cynicism rules without question. Everything from family photos, personal letters (your only contact with the outside world, at least at first), and ragged toys to modern lamps and cheap thriller novels are fodder for the fire. And if your house burns down? Well, let no one say that you weren’t warned. Besides, everything just floats up the chimney into the cold world outside. What makes you any different?
At a certain point, even a hardened predator like myself felt almost sickened by the sheer amount of wreckage I created in the fire. All of it seemed empty and pointless, and indeed the game tips its hand in this regard. The fire is pointless. Before its ravenous mouth all things are equal. It is only once you complete most of the game’s objectives that the world outside the fireplace begins to open up, and that world is an utterly different place. Out there, the world is slowing down and freezing over, the victim of some environmental catastrophe. The rich can escape for real, while the poor have to subsist on the Little Inferno, keeping their children unaware and warm in their houses. That is, until the houses burn down one by one. At that point, what is a child to do? The game’s answer to this question is not entirely satisfactory. Resonances with Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax abound, but Little Inferno lacks most of that work’s didactic punch. Most of its narrative power derives from the absolute contradiction between the world inside the fireplace and the world outside of it. Inside, nothing matters. Outside, everything matters a great deal. Though most of what you do in this game turns out to be utterly frivolous, it serves as a mere prelude to game with far more on its mind than throwing plastic consumer crap on the fire.
Part of the game’s genius is how closely it connects the apparently opposite poles of sentimentality and cynicism. Don’t mistake me: I am not saying that the outside world is a sentimental one. Rather, the sentimental world of kitsch and manufactured pleasures–the catalogues, the bouncy mall music, the shiny–generate and sustain cynicism. Everything is interchangeable for everything else, just different means of earning more money to burn more stuff. It’s through constant repetition that the game insinuates its larger points for the player. The first dozen products are entertaining enough when burned, but after awhile pursuit of gold and little stamps that make shipping go faster become all-consuming drives. Nothing feels real, and it’s not until the world outside appears that you might begin to grasp the consequences of all the smoke you’re pushing into the air. It’s primarily a pretty nifty toy for burning things, but it manages to overturn its own frivolity by calling attention to it. Not bad for a glorified fireplace.
Before we begin, I would like to thank Mr. Harold Zo for his readable and rigorous articles on MGMT last week. We have all benefited from his wisdom, and I am sure that he will contribute work of similarly high calibre in the future, whatever Alexius’ objections might be. I hope that all of you readers were similarly edified by his writing, which can be accessed through this very website.
I will be giving MGMT a rest after this article, though there is word of a new record coming from them in June. I am sure that my audience will not mind a review of that album if I can convince Alexius to write it. Those who have been reading this blog from the beginning will remember my reflection on the stimulating, somewhat controversial show Fun. played at Calvin. Because the context for this concert is different, lacking any political controversy as a discursive spark, I will refrain from pontificating on social issues and instead focus squarely on the event itself. I will, however, be making some passing comparisons to the Fun. show, since it is the only other arena-scale performance I have witnessed at Calvin.
MGMT’s 90-minute set was preceded by a brief dose of almost painfully straight-ahead classic rock courtesy Kuroma. Composed of members of the main attraction’s backing band, the opening act channeled back-to-basics rock with a lyrical emphasis on youth and young adulthood and a no-frills approach to instrumentation. Other than a few synth blasts meant to fill out volume, their set was a strict guitar-drums-bass affair, employing basic chords and a few short solos here and there. It was, because of my position in the audience and the imprecise sound mixing, difficult to hear the lead singer’s vocals, though I could pick up his peculiar singing style. Indeed, the singer’s scratchy high voice was one of the only distinctive elements in the set, which was skillfully performed but mostly unmemorable. Their use of the video screen and lighting mostly consisted of simple flashes and a visual display of their Stars-and-Stripes logo.
Kuroma was in many ways a wonderful compliment and appetizer for MGMT, which, as Mr. Harold Zo wonderfully explained, has a skewed relationship to 1960s psychedelia. The crowd ignited when Messieurs Vanwyngarden and Goldwasser mounted the stage, and they were to keep that energy level all throughout the performance. This was particularly noticeable in the almost absurd amount of crowdsurfing going on. At one point, I counted six or seven people being held aloft and transported, assembly-line-style, toward the security staff at the front, who were kept busy with the raucous floor crowd. Being a more demure and reserved type, I stuck to the bleachers, which were, if uncomfortable, free of the seething, claustrophobic mass on the floor.
MGMT started their set with “Weekend Wars,” and eventually got around to playing a few of their hit singles, including “The Youth” and “Electric Feel.” That song was not part of the set, and thankfully the crowd kept their chanting for it to a minimum. When the hits were playing, the floor was choked with bodies, dancing and celebrating. There was even a scattered remnant holding up actual lighters! This in contrast to the press box I was sitting in, where nine out of the ten closest people to me saw much of the show on their phone screens.
And, truly, it was a sight to behold. Though their lighting setup was nowhere near as polished or intricate as Fun.’s, the band’s trademarked fanged and fearsome visuals were on full display, projected on a huge video screen hanging behind the band. Each song had its own distinct accompanying visuals. These varied considerably, from squiggly, migrating green lines reminiscent of old screen savers to violently distorted videos of jellyfish and freight trains to the sexually suggestive, pulsating phantasms of “Electric Feel.” Particularly striking were the visuals played behind new single “Alien Days,” which can be best described by pointing you to the official lyrics video, which has a similar visual scheme. Windswept tundras dominated “Siberian Breaks,” and helped make that song a special highlight.
Another intriguing visual device (gimmick sounds too harsh) the band employed involved the use of Microsoft Kinect hardware. By setting up a few of these devices near band members, the Kinects recorded and streamed heavily distorted images of the performers on the screen in real time. Often, these streams were integrated into the already-claustrophobic and psychedelic videos, giving the show a sense of visual overload.
The assault-on-the-senses aesthetic extended to the music as well. Every song filled the room with sound, even comparatively docile tracks like “I Found a Whistle.” By the time the band reached that song’s triumphant coda, the sound was almost deafening. MGMT’s songs are rarely sedate even when their tempos are languid, and the show emphasized that this was a band on the offensive. While not exhibiting much in terms of bodily movement, befitting, perhaps, their ironic stance toward pop music performance, the band attacked their songs. Some songs certainly benefitted from this approach. “Alien Days,” “Introspection,” and “Mystery Disease,” all songs from their prospective third album, sounded excellent, and “Time to Pretend” was almost heartbreaking (in a commendable way) for a sensitive young soul like me. As mentioned before, the expansive “Siberian Breaks” suite was a highlight, mostly for the visuals and the impeccably executed transitions.
Unfortunately, MGMT’s technique of sheathing vocals in airy effects tended to make some of the louder songs’ lyrics unintelligible. That wasn’t a concern for me, since I had memorized the songs before the show, but it didn’t help the new songs make a good first impression. My location to the side of the stage probably did not help.
I always find it gratifying to experience a show alongside a devoted and passionate audience, and this was probably the best crowd I’ve ever seen at Calvin in that regard. Respectable quiet was not an option: this was a group that wanted to party, glow-sticks and mind-altering substances included. Estimations from the college staff are that about 3% of the audience, or about 50 to 60 souls, were smoking marijuana. That’s an almost surprisingly low number, though the smell could still be potent where I was standing. Standing in line and looking out over the floor, I could see a healthy portion of the crowd dressed in exotic, summery regalia, with many decked out in gaudy Hawaiian shirts, plastic sunglasses, and zebra-stripe leggings, along with a few pieces of glow-in-the-dark headgear. Sadly, I was rocking nothing more than my standard hat-shirt-jeans ensemble, though I was accompanied by my slightly peppier fiancée, who kept spirits high. This was a fantastic rock concert audience, expressive and more than a little off-kilter in both fashion and behavior.
Unlike Fun., MGMT was not here on an explicit mission. The lack of extensive discussion around a “hot” topic meant that this show had a more relaxed vibe. I would say, however, that the overall showmanship and quality of work on display here outclassed Fun. by a thin margin, perhaps more. Fun. also had a more unabashed and unironic focus on entertainment and populism that MGMT did not exhibit. Yet the presence of a greater ironic distance did not subtract from the show’s enjoyability. I would, tentatively, call this the best of Calvin’s “big name” shows this year. Hopefully, the college can continue this track record and push the envelope even further next year.
When you watch enough animation, you start to obsess over form and detail. You know the mechanical processes that go into producing an image, if not firsthand than through other sources, and so you begin to notice the difference between good animation and its disheartening opposite. Most of this time, this acquired eye for detail will be a blessing to you, since it will help you make better and more cogent critical statements about works of art. Sometimes, however, a piece of animation will come along that has an irresistible pull on your eye, and it will haul you by your retinas through hell and back just because it looks pretty.
Casshern Sins does not inflict real pain on the viewer. Not this viewer, at any rate. I can say this about it, though: the experience of looking atit was nothing short of a delight. Listening and watching attentively, on the other hand, were significant contributors to dull but grinding headaches. I didn’t even know tigers could get headaches, and I am one.
Populated by decaying robots, a remnant of marginalized humanity, and more dust mites than you could shake a Hoover at, the world of the show is a wonderfully evocative emptiness. Its vistas embody bleakness, and the few remaining structures look frail and unsound. Casshern Sins fleshes out this environment with a palpable sense of history, mostly through visuals. Amidst the wasteland, a grand tale is playing out. The story concerns a being named Casshern, who looks like a robot but exhibits characteristics of a living organism as well, including a starfish-like ability to regenerate his body. Other robots believe that by ingesting Casshern they can regain their immortality. At least, they think, they can escape the ravages of the Ruin, a blight that is gradually driving robots to extinction. It emanates from the environment and seems to have been unleashed by Casshern himself when he killed a young girl-like being named Luna.
I learned a few things from the show despite my difficulties with it. These will hopefully prove to be valuable insights with some applicability outside this particular situation.
Lesson 1: Amnesia Is Overplayed
Part of the problem with the show is that its central character is an amnesiac. Other than this fact, Casshern is a perfectly acceptable protagonist in my mind. He’s certainly guilty of inhabiting a particular type–resentful antihero who is obsessed with his past and possesses strange abilities–but his unique character design and the particulars of the plot join forces to rescue him from convention. Unfortunately, he has amnesia.
Amnesia is rarely well-used as a character trait. It tends to justify excessive adolescent brooding (“I don’t even remember the horrible things that you tell me I did! Woe is me!), tedious exposition that could have been excluded or integrated more elegantly (“Horrors! Please tell me more about what horrible thing I have done, and more broadly about the situation of the world as it is now!”), or both. You can probably guess that Casshern Sins is guilty of both.
Amnesia can be effectively and intelligently used as a part of a coherent narrative whole. I think back on Dark City, the 1997 Alex Proyas sci-fi film that has an amnesiac protagonist. There are specific reasons for his being an amnesiac, and the fact that he is disoriented fits the grim noir feel of the film as well as the overall aims of the plot. Now, I have not seen all of Casshern Sins, so its main character’s amnesia might have been put to good use in later episodes. If so, tell me, since I would very much like to give the show another chance someday if I have a good enough reason. That disclaimer aside, I think that Casshern’s amnesia is purely an excuse for lazy writing.
His character, and indeed the broader story, would have been far more interesting had he remembered and internalized his failures, soldiering on without any meaning in his life, full of regret but unable to die. There might have been more time for reflection on the actual themes of the show. Corruption, death, existential angst, guilt, etc. Those are powerful issues and a leaner, more focused show might have had something to say about those issues.
Lesson 2: Sometimes Taking Your Time Is a Bad Thing
I have an unabashed love of so-called “slow cinema.” Tarkovsky, Tarr, and the whole crew of filmmakers who can work with time without compressing or being overly hyperbolic tend to be my favorite directors. Given that, I was anticipating finding the slow pace of Casshern Sins a refreshing change of pace. I did. Not enough.
Writing problems abound in this show. It’s not that the show progresses at a more contemplative pace, it’s that it wastes its contemplation. Clumsy dialogues, insufferable angst-ridden monologues, characters who are clearly designed as mouthpieces for particular views–the show quickly mire itself in the molasses of trivialities, ignoring the deep questions we were supposed to be here to discuss. This is not always the case, as there are a few episodes that have a discernible point of view on a particular matter. In the main, however, the show tended to waste its time. Look, if you’re going to be trivial, at least be zippy and exciting. Put on a happy face.
Drama is less difficult than comedy, but dangers still beset writers who want to deal with Big Questions. Here’s the thing: you have to deal with those questions. Casshern Sins largely does not do that.
Lesson 3: Even Shows That Aren’t Bad Can Be Unwatchable
I’ll close this by defending several aspects of the show. Voice work did transcend the problems of the writing, though not as much as I would have hoped. Sound design in general was a plus, with the hushed vibe drawing my eyes and ears more closely to the show’s atmosphere. Visuals were excellent, as I have mentioned. The experience of watching the show was rarely overtly unpleasant. However, it was almost relentlessly trivial and mediocre, to the point where I had a difficult time paying attention even to parts where characters weren’t spouting vague and headache-inducing dialogue.
It’s a wash. I hope to return to the series eventually, but for now the roof is collapsing on me, and I cannot justify watching a show that leaves me with a dull ache behind my eyes.
I’ll be watching Welcome to the NHK as the world comes down around me.
I take music and punctuation fairly seriously. That I do, that I do. Punctuation-rules-transgressing band and artist stage names make the lives of editors and writers all over the world curl their long, skinny fingers in reflexive agony. It instantly unlocks my vast store of self-loathing. “Oh, me. Why did I choose the hobby of caring about music, if these meanies are going to foul up the beauty of typography and make me ask questions like ‘if a band name is normally not capitalized, but it appears at the beginning of a sentence, when even words like ‘of’ get a chance to be capitalized, then what do I do?’ Indeed, this is the personal hell that Nate Ruess and his cland of funsters (Or is that fun.sters? Oy, here comes the self-loathing again.) plunge me into whenever I look upon their name in my iTunes library
Tabling that discussion (in the American sense) for now, I want to express a certain amount of happy surprise that, for the first time in at least twenty years, I’ve agreed with America’s choice of the number one song in the nation. Let me reassure you that, yes, I am a horrific snob and sonic thrill-junkie who prefers listening to unstructured group improvisation (tap your foot to that irregular time signature, my yops) to the latest genetically-engineered radio sugar. I will be absolutely unapologetic about preferring certain kinds of music to others, and won’t tell you that “of course I think that Lady Gaga is a postmodern genius worthy of my critical attention and energy” just to make you say, “hey, this guy is totally, like, not a smooth poser of a hat-wearing, beard-toting elitist who votes for Liberals and, like, I should date him” (I’m assuming that you’re either a woman or a gay guy and that you have the voice of the Lumpy Space Princess). First of all, I’m not interested in dating right now. I’m married to my work. Second, I need to stop ranting, and I’ll get to the point.
Fun. (writing gods, please let this be the right choice) is a rock band with a number one hit. What’s weird is that that didn’t used to be so amazing. At the tail end of the 90s, we had rock bands with number one hits fairly regularly. I don’t like most of those bands–yes, Radiohead did have a song on a NOW collection, but that was fourteen years ago–and of all the genres of music I avoid, “rock that gets on the charts” is by far the most suspicious and shifty. Only Nickelback and Train and other such detritus are talentless and glossy enough to be bands and still get on Billboard. So, as I navigated to iTunes to listen to the sample for “We Are Young” I had a basic idea of what to expect.
Right off, there were a few positive signs. First, pretty good album artwork that looked more like the jacket of a Vampire Weekend LP than a sludgy late 90s nu-metal disc. Say what you will about Vampire Weekend being toothless and derivative, and they are those things, but they’re production wizards and know how to put together good album artwork with only a few basic elements. Relatively attractive typography, a heavily-edited photograph (or maybe it was taken on vintage film) that smacked of effort and taste, and a kind of unassuming simplicity. Album artwork has a very important place in my music-buying decision-making process (my MUBUDEP, if you will) and there have been quite a few times where I’ve streamed an album online and looked forward to buying it only to stop because the artwork would look atrocious in my iTunes library. Yeasayer, I’m looking right into your dreamy eyes. Ooh. They’re dreamy. But they have a terrible taste in album art. I mean, not all music with a great package is great, but it’s the first warning sign that a band is lazy or has no taste.
Second, I saw that Janelle Monáe was featured. Now, the actual song wastes her talent in the most disappointing way possible, but I’ll get to that later. Janelle Monáe is one of my favorite singers in popular music, a genuine weirdo with a command of melody, production, and grandiose conceptual strategies who makes enthralling genre-hopping pop music and I’ll stop ranting about her now. Needless to say, anyone that Janelle Monáe would work with had to have some talent, aesthetic commonality with her, or both. As it turned out, it’s a bit of both.
Nate Ruess and his band do not come from the “we had a hard time in school too and we speak to the crushed balls and humiliated faces of teenage boys or wannabe teenage boys everywhere” school of rock music. Punk, grunge, metal, and, in a weird way, folk rock, all come from or at least know people from this school. The game they’re trading in is called the Game of Authenticity (TM). In this game, you either tell stories straight from your heart or fabricate them to sound like those stories and sell them as such. You make raw, three-chords-and-the-truth type music that deemphasizes production and, in most cases, talent, to make yourself look sensitive, agressive, or whichever archetypal rock star emotion you’re going for. Fun. is nothing so primal. Nor are they from the BIG SOCIAL STATEMENT OF DUBIOUS VALUE school of rock music. Purveyors of this more respectable and adult style are bands like U2, its evil clones like Coldplay and all 90s and most 2000s CCM bands, and relatively smaller bands like Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene. Fun. is not interested in curing AIDS, though I’m sure they would be as happy as anyone to see that happen, and they aren’t into telling stories about their own failures and life troubles–at least, not without a lot of embellishment and bigness. Fun. comes from yet another school of rock bands, which I christen the Peter Gabriel School, named after its patron saint.
I could also call it the Queen School. What fun. is interested in is being memorable and big, to have their songs arrest your attention and give you a good time but with a varied tone. Though Some Nights features seamlessly glossy production and borrows many sonic cues from hip-hop artist and narcissist extraordinaire Kanye West, it feels much more like a 70s rock album that has been put through an especially aggressive remaster, perhaps by a particularly bored engineer messing with old magnetic tape tracks that he’s digitized and put through Logic Pro. You see, Nate Ruess is what happens when you take a relatively respectable-looking young man, one who wears flannel on stage for crying out loud, and let Freddy Mercury’s ghost have its way with him while he’s performing. Fun., to me, is Queen reborn for this century. Both made enormous songs with stage presence of their own. Both of fun.’s albums begin with heavily orchestrated introduction tracks that let Ruess’ voice dance all over them, reaching for and largely reaching a level of well-crafted drama we rarely hear in pop music. We hear it from these guys, from Janelle Monáe (who is disappointingly underneath the mainstream) and we hear it from the better hip-hop artists. There’s still enough room for some more–and no, Coldplay and Muse don’t count, even though I do like some of the more Queen-influenced aspects of the latter band.
Oh, there’s plenty of drama in pop music. Most albums don’t aspire to be this huge, though. Outside some of the most arrogant and talented hip-hop artists, there are few people left in the mainstream who can sell millions of albums and actually make albumsrather than glorified song collections. Some Nights manages to be suitable for the radio. Look, you have autotune and huge, fat beats. Strong choruses (sometimes overpowering, as in my least favorite song “We Are Young”) drive the songs, which are fleshed out intelligently, growing bigger and bigger even when they are ostensibly quiet and moody (“Carry On”). The stories Ruess tells, the lyrics he sets down, feel authentic even when piped through computers, but they have a deliberate and artificial quality that outshines the reedy naturalism of most songwriting from those playing the Game of Autheticity (TM).
The album has problems. A few songs are much weaker than the others (including the big radio single and “All Alright”) and though the band recalls Queen, it doesn’t have the chops to impress the same way. My favorite two songs are the first two songs, and though it might be the best one-two punch song combination of any album I’ll listen to this year, and it’s enough to sustain my interest up until the well-executed closing track “Stars,” the more inconsistent middle makes you aware of the band’s limitations. Fun. has a lot of room to grow, but they’re a great breath of fresh air for my library. A rock band that gets back to what rock music does best, namely be a vehicle for theatrical drama, and what pop music does best, which is to sound great in a vapid way while worming its way insidiously into your mind.
Fun. also put the point home that taste is ultimately totally personal and a bit amorphous, not resting on genres or particular artists but a specific sensibility. Like good music wherever it comes from. That doesn’t make my own stylistic preferences less important, but more shows that they transcend labels. Fun lesson, eh?
By the way, there’s been this weird snake sitting on my neck this whole time. It’s coming out of my ear, whispering the lyrics to “One Foot” over and over again. I think I’m under its control. It’s telling me to stop writing, that you’ve had enough. Well, that’s that then. I’ll be signing off soon, Reptilian Majesty. Of course I will polish your scales, oh master. And bathe you in sultry springs, yes that too. We’re going to have such fun. together aren’t we?