U.S. Supreme Court and the case of the anti-gay wedding cake baker

This issue seems so uniquely American: it involves the unraveling relationship between the Christian Bible and democratic governance, of course, but also the question of whether government or the free market can more effectively structure an orderly society.
Posts like this one (screenshot and link below), and especially the comments attached to it, really excite me because you can see the sheep pretty clearly (the ones who submit to someone else’s intellect, ideology and biases) but you can also see the shepherds, too, the ones who use their knowledge of scripture and politics to build ideas that are both nuanced and reasonable.
For what it’s worth…
1. I didn’t agree with #1 until I read a comment hypothetically requesting of a Jewish baker a cake that celebrates Hitler. Or, a little closer to home, the request of a Native baker a cake that celebrates Andrew Jackson or Sir John A MacDonald. OR… the request of a gay baker a cake that celebrates Focus on the Family (wait: didn’t that happen on an episode of 2 Broke Girls?). And I believe, too, that the free market eventually pans out the racist/bigots/etc, especially (if only) in America.
2. Now that I’m on board with #1, I get the whole “freedom of association” piece now. I’d prefer that all racist/bigoted business owners fly a flag announcing it, so I’ll know to avoid them. Otherwise, thanks to a government directive, I’ll buy my gay cake (and win the battle) while they’ll spend their profit—my money—supporting causes against my entire being and livelihood (and win the war).
3. No idea what Jesus would’ve done, but I’m swayed by the thought that (a) He would’ve baked the cake because He’s cool with the gays and this isn’t even an issue; or if you believe homosexuality is a sin, that (b) He would’ve baked the cake, then befriended and enlightened the sinner in order to show him/her/them the path to God. (Having said that… I’ve personally witnessed how the best of intentions here can turn out disastrously, can be entirely counterproductive, but I guess that only proves that none of us is Jesus)

NOW, Shania Twain (snap judgement)

I’ve listened to it just one time. These are the highlights:

  • Who’s Gonna Be Your Girl
  • I’m Alright
  • All In All
  • Life’s About To Get Good
  • Swingin’ With My Eyes Closed

There are some serious duds, mostly due to their easy, predictable lyrics:

  • More Fun
  • You Can’t Buy Love

The rest are forgettable.

I don’t hate “Poor Me,” but it, along with “I’m Alright,” is a little too maudlin, depressing. Which leads me to theme: I don’t know what this album is about or what it’s trying to say, and to whom. This would’ve been the perfect time for a concept album, similarly to what Miranda Lambert did with her latest. The lyrics for a few of the songs indicate that Shania was interested in excavating the demise of her relationship with Mutt Lange to some degree; “Life’s About to Get Good” and “I’m Alright,” in particular.

The production is way over the top. At times her voice is front and center, and loud, despite instruments playing at maximum volume already. How this music will play live, I can’t imagine. Clearly her vocal was run through a battalion of equipment before it landed on the album.

Two songs especially disappoint because the production suggested good things that the lyrics didn’t deliver. At the opening of both “Home Now” and “We Got Something They Don’t” I thought to myself Okay, here we go! This one sounds like it’s gonna be gooood but it didn’t happen.

And friends, this ain’t country… in the least. At times I heard sounds similar to 1970s Elton John, 80s rock (surprise surprise, though with an entirely new set of producers it kinda is a surprise). The hook of “Home Now” reminds me of an album track from Culture Club. My instinct, and again I’ve only heard this album once, is that this doesn’t fit into the current music marketplace anywhere.

It presents the question: what should we expect from Shania Twain? After a 15 year hiatus, a well-documented divorce and remarriage, Lyme disease and its related vocal struggles, I expected a little more introspection, everything inside “Life’s About to Get Good” but stretched out to span an entire album. Definitely some fun songs, but “You Can’t Buy Fun” doesn’t come close. There is no “Man I Feel Like a Woman” here, though “Life’s About to Get Good” was aiming for it.

Despite her presence everywhere during the run-up to this release, I think that because there is no single or specific genre attached to the album hurts its chances of success. After 15 years, this is a comeback album so if it doesn’t revolutionize anything then you gotta give the fans something familiar but elevated. That it doesn’t fit in the current (meaning: R&B-infused) mainstream means there is no place for these songs to land.

At radio, which promotion team would take this on?

As for streaming, we’ll know soon enough if listeners respond well enough to build a story.

Shania was, for better or worse, a country trailblazer. By now, “Any Man of Mine” and “Man I Feel Like A Woman” are 90s country classics. “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under” remains her most underrated contribution to country as a genre. A shuffle, with fiddles and drums blowing out of the speakers, all cranked up to 11?!  It far surpasses any of the bigger hits as it regards Country Music (except for perhaps “No One Needs to Know”).

This album reminds of the crossover attempts by Lee Ann Womack and Faith Hill. Each  wanted to engage a bigger audience but didn’t really know how to do it. Or perhaps their industry handlers didn’t know how to do it. The best hook on the album comes from “Life’s About to Get Good,” but where can we genuinely expect to hear it other than the grocery store? I’d say the mall but who goes to the mall anymore?

The Rose: a retro film review 

You’re either old enough to have seen this film at least once, or you’re so young that you’ve not ever heard of it. There really isn’t an in-between. 

Bette is an icon, a gay icon of the highest stature and though she had a moment of breakthrough to the pop culture zeitgeist a few years ago with a Kardashian Twitter fued, and despite a coveted ‘belle of the ball’ appearance (and win) at this year’s Tony Awards for her universally acclaimed performance in Hello Dolly, she’s not held the American imagination as much as when she first broke through in the 1970s. Or even during her return to form, a film renaissance in the late 1980s. 

The Rose takes place over just a few days, following the tour of Mary Rose Foster, who is known by all as only ‘Rose’ or ‘The Rose.’ The film’s narrative momentum, the two-hour-long crescendo to its climactic scene, is a stadium performance in Rose’s hometown somewhere in Florida. In between, we witness brilliantly photographed performances in (we’re told) New York City and Memphis. 

Rose is exhausted, an alcoholic who repeats at least three times that she’s no longer interested in drugs. She pulls a large green liquor bottle from her oversized handbag and tips it back so frequently that, had the film been made today, the internet would give it a name and we’d be overrun with memes. She repeats as well, beginning with the very first scene, that she wants to take a year off after the hometown performance in Florida. 

Her manager, played by Alan Bates, refuses to entertain the idea, though we’re never told why. We know the tour is financially lucrative but the narrative suggests it is a bluster of non-stop movement and chaos, that these few days are indicative of the entire experience. Most every film review defines him the bad guy but, aside from Rose’s obviously erratic nature (which, perhaps my fault, I assumed was an immutable characteristic), he seemed to make the most sense of anyone involved. 

Over the course of those few days Rose falls for an MIA military (title) — note the fort Campbell shout-out! — and brings him along for a ride, drops in backstage at a country musician’s show where she’s perfectly humiliated, performs impromptu at a drag show (where, this is sort of interesting, all the queens sing live), gets lost with Huston and then gets found, meets up with a female lover (in a scene that’s more fascinating by the interpretive stretch were supposed to take as viewers, that they’re lesbian lovers), loses Huston, finds him, and then loses him again. 

At one point she stops and says to (name), “you were really all alone for six whole days?” We feel for her because, though she longs for that sort of solitude, she claims to want an escape from the pressure of her tour and career, it seems increasingly obviously that she wouldn’t know what to do with herself, should she ever carve out a few days alone, much less an entire year. 

It’s aspires to be the sort of film that defined the 1970s: think of Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather, The Deer Hunter, even the original Rocky, and especially Nashville. But it doesn’t quite do it. 

It’s based on the life of Janis Joplin, of course. Notoriously, permission was not granted the producers of the film–one of whom was Midler’s manager at the time, with whom she ironically had a major falling out post-The Rose –to use original source material, and so the film to some degree struggles in its effort to effectively step aside from that iconic performer’s influence. The Rose takes place in 1969 yet the music is undoubtedly a product of the 1970s. A scene that finds Rose and Huston facing discrimination for at a diner (“We don’t serve hippies here”), along with Rose’s wardrobe, though an assumption that it’s stagewear is valid, are the only references to the time period. 

It’s a film designed for Midler to flourish, to outshine and perhaps even upstage all the others. I fell in love with Bette as a young boy when I saw Ruthless People in 1986 and then it’s followup, Outrageous Fortune, in 1987. Back then The Divine Miss M (a moniker she assumed from nearly the beginning of her career in the early 70s) was described as brash and brassy, outspoken, and in those mid-80s roles she entirely lived up to those adjectives. So with those two film as a starting point, and decades of reading how The Rose was a great dramatic departure from that personae, it comes as a surprise to see a similar over-the-top performance here.  

Don’t get me wrong. It’s still a great film. Long outdated references to rackjobbers unwittingly add to the period piece setting. The musical performances are absolutely top notch; at times the director Mark Rydel allowed a single song performance transition without a scene break to another song, giving the film a documentary quality. The end is a bit of a stretch. It relies on the audience’s ignorance of the stresses put on a performer, or perhaps drug culture. We don’t feel Rose’s descent over these few days. In the end it feels like a rollercoaster and, as with all rollercoasters, it hits a breakneck pace somewhere in the middle and then abruptly, incongruously, it just stops. 

The first day, back at square one

The bare walls are depressing.

I’m in my new home, a basement apartment in an area of town I’ve taken to calling Siberia. The plan was to find a place downtown but older buildings meant no A/C, crowded spaces meant $100/mo to park my car, and generally speaking everything I saw was overpriced. I mean: I just wanted to be able to stumble home, those nights when you need a drink or two. My friend Lynn reminded me last night at dinner that, considering the amount I’ll save by living here, I’ll be able to pay a cab to drive me to Siberia every now and then.

I’m single again and it all became real today. The only objective was to get my bed here, my toiletries for the bathroom, and some dishes and utensils: the bare necessities I needed to get out of my friends’ spare bedrooms. And I got the job done. Who cares that I have boxes and boxes of cereal here but no milk? That I brought my thermos and instant coffee but forgot to bring the kettle? The bed is here and, until I go back to “the Odessa house” tomorrow, my workstation is right here on this bed.

The place will fill in soon enough, I know. The books and CDs will find a home. My writing desk. My night stand, the one we put in the guest bedroom while I sat my phone, night lamp and a few books on an old cushioned stool that I used in Derek’s bedroom in the house where he lived before we moved in. And, of course, the wall hangings.

The months after we broke up weren’t real, I understand now. I stayed in the house and continued living as I had before. He said we’d lived as roommates, the last year especially, and it was true. The only significant change after we broke up was that I got drunk more often and felt liberated enough to tell him how I felt about his new “boyfriend,” their shared closetedness and preoccupation with sex, and that it was shameful the way he lined his ducks in a row in preparation to devastate me.

Fuckin’ Craigslist.  I’ll always hate you.  And Jennifer Nettles, too.

The irony, I suppose, is that I’ve always enjoyed my alone time, that here — on my first night, back at square one — I had the TV on mute, while I scrolled through Facebook, chatted with a friend, carted ON MY OWN the heaviest damn king sized mattress ever invented across the length of this unit and then made the bed, pulled my laptop out and got some work done. It felt good, this very first night, to spend my own time doing my own thing. Unafraid to indulge myself in a blog post, the first since September 2016, one month before he dropped the bomb on me.

I’d planned to ask him for a TV tonight, for him to give me the one he won at an office raffle a couple years ago, the one in “the office” of the Odessa house, that room we never spent any time in, the TV that was mounted to the wall but not once plugged in or turned on. The TV I brought into the house we shared is too big to fit into the built-in entertainment unit here, so when I texted to tell him I was on my way — and also added that the satellite installer would be here tomorrow and that I had to pick up the receivers at the Odessa house where he lives — he immediately called instead of waiting the 15 minutes it would’ve taken me to drive there. He said he had company and what all would I be taking? More importantly, what would he watch on TV tonight if I take the receivers?

I argued because isn’t it smarter to have a conversation in person than on the phone? Because I’m the one who’s life has been upended, who’s starting all over with no full-time job, no relationship, BUT AT LEAST a roof over my head (as of today), but God help us if you’re inconvenienced without two hours of television between the moment when your friend leaves and you go to bed tonight.

I’m the one who’s been sleeping in my friends’ spare bedrooms the past three weeks, thankful they could keep me and yet trying with every step to not wear out my welcome, but two hours without TV for you is too much to ask.

I’m the one who always felt guilty for enjoying my alone time.

Until tonight.

Marlon James on cultural appropriation in literature

This debate over cultural appropriation bewilders me. The most we read about it tends to regard clothing, headdresses at music festivals, that sort of thing. Yes, of course, it’s offensive, but I like to think simple visibility is an adequate response: you show up as your regular, common, Indian-looking self and that person should immediately understand what they’re doing is wrong. I mean, wouldn’t you just feel stupid?!

Similarly with the Ralph Lauren t-shirts that include Indigenous-inspired graphics. I own one, and I wear it rather often, because I feel as though that juxtaposition, the sight of a Native person wearing an article of clothing that simplifies all of Indigeneity, (a) is quite funny, and (b) tells a story all its own. It says “this shirt doesn’t make any sense draped over a real Native person’s back, and it would look especially out of place if a non-Native person were to wear it.” In fact, I’ve not ever seen anyone in those clothes; I can’t fathom the sort of person who would buy anything like the shirt I own, except for me (and even then I wear it ironically).

So when the author Lionel Shriver commented on “the concept of cultural appropriation” in literature, and basically lamented a world where white people find themselves frustrated/hindered by criticism foisted upon them by members of minority groups under-represented in the arts to begin with, I again was torn. Until I read Marlon James response. It was a Facebook post and I just have to share the entire thing.



Madonna: Truth or Dare/Who’s That Girl Tour

There was a time when I was young — and I mean, like, super young — when I routinely brought to school with me the Madonna and Like a Virgin albums, as well as the “Angel/Into the Groove” single. Cassette tape versions, no less. The little school desks we had back then included a small compartment on the inside right at the inside edge, molded by the metal form, designed to hold pencils and other utensils beyond the text and notebooks that were pushed back into the hollowed out workstation. It was on the furthest left side of that compartment where I stored those cassette tapes; in fact, that section was exactly the width of those old cassettes.

Not once in my memory do I recall them played in the classroom, or in a “ghetto blaster” at recess, or a Walkman. I just brought them with me and stored them in the desk all day like jewels, artifacts that a collector wouldn’t dare leave out of eyesight for a sustained period. 

I had no idea what “Like a Virgin” meant so, perhaps needless to say, it wasn’t my favourite. In fact, I can’t recall the original allure, but I was a fan back then in a way that I never could be again. One day Noreen asked me if I’d heard the new song, it was “Live to Tell,” and, coming from a household that listened to only country radio, I said no. I got the True Blue album on vinyl soon after,  woefully convinced it would be the format in which I’d continue from that point to build my collection. The following year, I bought with my allowance the Who’s That Girl soundtrack… on cassette.

And as far as Madonna goes, that was it for me.

Too young to understand what was happening artistically with the You Can Dance compilation as well as the Dick Tracy soundtrack, by the time Like a Prayer and the first Greatest Hits albums came out I was exclusively a country music fan. But even in my young mind the promotional antics (the Pepsi commercial, the Sex book) proved more a turn-off than attraction.

This morning I watched Madonna: Truth or Dare for the first time and I love it, but I think only from an historical perspective. It predates The Real World, the grand-daddy of reality TV, and so doesn’t pack nearly as much a provocative punch as it must have 25 years ago. From this distance, as a 2016 entertainment, it still works. Remarkably. 

In an age of information abundance, it seems necessary to search out the things beyond what’s spoon fed to us. Two years ago I found the extended mixes of “Who’s That Girl” and “Causing a Commotion,” two of my all-time favourites. I personally edited them down to a more manageable (for my ears) 4.5 minutes, and fell in love with the small flourishes, deviations from the 30-year-old original mixes that made the songs new all over again.

Likewise today, Truth or Dare wasn’t enough. While browsing online after the film ended, intrigued by the bit players (my “Where Are They Now?” concerns regarding the backup singers and dancers), about a half hour of mindless clicking and reading led me to Ciao Italia: Live From Italy, the concert video from 1988. Apparently it’s the full performance from the 1987 Who’s That Girl Tour. This is the tour that preceded Blonde Ambition and it very much prefers performance and song over spectacle. “Like a Virgin” was part of a medley, for example, that included “Dress You Up” and “Material Girl,” and somehow managed a delightful mashup with “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch.”

It’s perhaps the one Madonna tour I would’ve preferred, had I ever the option to see any one of them live.

You can almost sense the idea of a film like Truth or Dare developing from that 1987 experience, in the same way we’ve all taken our turn at some point to say, “my life should be a reality show.” Compare the little boy dancer who shows up every few songs on stage to the way she later refers to herself a mother-figure in the movie. It’s like Who’s That Girl was a transition tour, a mile marker separating the “take over the world” ambition from the Dick Clark interview on American Bandstand from the self-aware performance artist that came almost immediately thereafter. 

The evolution of hip-hop

Years ago, I bought my brother a book, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop. I gave it to him for Christmas, I’m sure, yet somehow amid all my moves and family visits it ended up in my library, untouched.

About a month ago — on a whim, no less — I watched Straight Outta Compton. It got good reviews so I thought, “What the hell… here’s something the critics love on a topic for which I know very little.”

Intrigued, I noticed book the next day on a shelf, and so I devoured it. It was published in 2010 and stops just before Jay-Z and Kanye exploded, thankfully.

Now, seemingly out of nowhere, comes this HBO documentary, Hip-Hop Evolution, that does nothing less than perfectly complement the book visually, providing interviews with Afrika Bambaataa, Grand Master Flash, and Russell Simmons. Archived film clips from the 1970s and 80s just take the experience over the top.

Just one episode in and it’s already my FAVORITE show!

Sweet Jesus, is it already 2016?!

The last post here is from 2014 and when I took a glance at it just now I was like, “ah, that was just last…”

No. It wasn’t just anything. That was a long time ago. And man, so much has changed. Here’s a fun fact…

People don’t blog anymore! LOL. Of course that’s not true. Having said that, I’m not even sure if people say “LOL” anymore. I do know that asking people to click on a link somewhere in Facebook or Twitter that’ll bring them to an outside website is sometimes too much to ask, and that we should be pontificating right inside those online worlds.

But I’ve already paid the bill for this site, for this year anyway, so I’m gonna stick around.

That's me. 2016 version. Wispy grey hairs an' all.

That’s me. 2016 version. Wispy grey hairs an’ all.

JosephBrant.ca has been like that aunt and uncle you say you’re going to stop in and visit some time but rarely ever do: the idea pops in your head every now and then, that you should engage, fulfill the promise you made (if, and sometimes only, to yourself), that there’s nothing to lose… but then … I dunno… it’s time for dinner, or it’s time for bed. Or it’s time to write.

My biggest excuse for avoiding josephbrant.ca is that my priority these past couple years has been to write and read, the work of earning an MFA in Creative Writing, as well as my work online with a couple side jobs I keep. At the end of the day, many days, I’m like “I been on this computer too damn long.” So then I go eat, or to bed.

But I’m back. That’s the good news. Now… about that aunt and uncle…

… and the migration from my old site is complete

It took a far, FAR shorter amount of time than I’d anticipated. In fact, I think I was able to make this happen within an hour. Unbelievable.

I’d been concerned about losing the links and embedded video, in particular, and it was like magic the way they were just cut-and-pasted from my old site to this one.  It was SO easy.

I’m leaving Typepad for obvious reasons (if you’re familiar with Typepad). It was the original blogging platform that my blog-hero Andrew Sullivan used way, and I mean WAY, back in the day. For years people and the Internet in general had recommended WordPress (the more difficult to set up .org version) and because it seemed so daunting, I held off. Setting up Typepad was easy, though costly in the end. The main reason I’m bailing is the $11/month I’m paying just to access it. (Again, possibly my fault. The hosting here I’m paying for annually instead of monthly).

Last summer, 2013, I found a social media program at Seneca College that walked me through the entire process of WordPress.org so I’m glad I’m finally here. Another reason i’m grateful to #SenecaSoMe: I learned that for SEO purposes it’s smarter to just have quality and consistent posts on a site than to just get a fancy URL. The previous site was called Critically Country but the URL was countrymusicincanada.com. I thought that was all it would take. I was wrong.

And there were other quirky things. I absolutely hate headlines where each word is capitalized, and there was no way around it in Typepad. A world of difference here at WordPress. My only concern with WordPress, of course, is the unrelenting spam comments. Now that I’ve updated all the plugins here, I’m really hoping that won’t be a problem. Fingers crossed.

So when you browse through the history of the posts here, the ones from Critically Country will be labeled “CLASSIC” in the headline, and before it you’ll find some old assignments from the #SenecaSoMe program. I haven’t looked through them since I submitted them, so cringeworthy as they may be, something inside is telling me to keep them for future reference.


CLASSIC: Best of 2013 — Canadian country songs

There was a lot of really great music produced in Canada this year. I’m not so much the radio listener I once was, though it remains the primary source to identify new music. Though my iPod worked overtime accommodating my LOVE for some of last year’s really great songs (I could listen to “I Wish I’d Known” on a loop for an hour and not complain), the following list is made up of the Canadian country songs that made 2013 great.

10. “Blame It On the Radio” – Small Town Pistols

Even if it’s just 2/3 of them, it’s always great to hear new music from The Wilkinsons.

9. “Love You For a Long Time” – High Valley/”Where the Party At” – Chad Brownlee

These songs were all over the radio where I live. You hear them often enough, they become favourites, and that’s not a bad thing. Because there were quite a few songs embraced by Canadian country radio that were far less “country” but played even more.

8. “Bounty” – Dean Brody

A true Canadian country star leads a new album with this classic story song you almost never hear in country music anymore. The Lindi Ortega cameo is a great highlight.

7. “Don’t Say You Love Me” – Alee

Where did THIS come from?! Yes, it’s one of those “less country” tunes, but it sounds so goooood. I heard somewhere an acoustic version, and discovered it was written on a piano. Stripped down, the song is much more emotive — but the banjo hidden in the big blaring electric mix here is nice, too!

6. “Get By” – Tim Hicks

Unavoidable, especially throughout the first half of 2013, this was co-written by Florida Georgia Line so if you’ve not heard it yet, you know what kind of song you’re in for. So infectious and fun, it’s easily the single of the year.

5. “Never Gonna Let You” – MacKenzie Porter

I was blown away by “I Wish I’d Known” last year and this follow-up is just as great. The instrumentation has an amped up acoustic feel, and her voice doesn’t try to be country which is refreshing, as is the ode-to-friendship content.

4. “Can’t Keep Waiting” – Autumn Hill

Just like “I Wish I’d Known,” this duo’s first single from last year “Anything At All” was one of those songs that stops you in your tracks the first time you hear it. Subsequent singles, like this one and the recent “Fire,” have been solid.  I really like these guys.

3. “Hope & Gasoline” – Beverley Mahood

Beverley Mahood is BACK!  I’ve been a fan since “Girl Out of the Ordinary” yet when I first heard that whispery voice on this brilliant track I was afraid it was a one-off single intended to keep her country cred — a requirement for CMT to keep it’s country cred while producing decidedly un-country shows like “Pick A Puppy.” Then Patricia Conroy mentioned on the In the Country with Dave Woods podcast that her husband and producer Bob Funk is producing an entire album for Beverley, and that is super news.

2. “When Your Lips Are So Close” – Gord Bamford

One of Canadian country’s most traditional voices leads a new album with this gem. Unlike any single he’s ever released, the rolling tempo is so inviting and pleasing. At first listen I was like, “whaaat?!” but after I settled down and gave it a good listen, I was hooked.

1. “Duet” – Wes Mack (feat. Carly McKillip)

This song is HOT. I’m genuinely torn between hardcore traditional country and turbo-charged hyper electric sounds like this one. Just a Top 10 in Canada, it’s the sort of song country radio salivates over so it should’ve been #1 for many weeks. The new Keith Urban song is a sonic clone.


Honorable Mention:
“Let It Burn” – Lisa Brokop
I just heard it for the first time today. Lisa has made better quality music since she stopped chasing the major labels. She has an unusual voice, and these self-written songs make the full package so much better. “Break It” is an all-time favourite.

(This was originally posted to my previous site Critically Country on December 21, 2013)