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. 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 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 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 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)

CLASSIC: Best of 2013 — American country songs

First, a warning: these are not necessarily the best country songs of the year. This is a list of the songs and performances I could not get out of my head. Like ’em or not, I most often caught myself humming along with them on the radio, then downloading a copy for the iPod, and wailing at the top of my lungs in the car.

10. “Runnin’ Outta Moonlight” – Randy Houser/“Don’t Ya” – Brett Eldredge

Interchangeable, but catchy. I don’t terribly love them, but I hear them once and I’m singing them all day long.

9. “We Were Us” – Keith Urban (feat. Miranda Lambert)

It reminds me of the Wes Mack song. The entire Keith Urban album, while it veers away from country more than any previous release, has a more innovative, unique sound. “Little Bit of Everything” was fun.

8. “That’s My Kind of Night” – Luke Bryan

Probably the biggest single of the year on country radio. If you listen to country, this was everywhere. It may be the worst song Zac Brown has ever heard, but it’s unrelentingly catchy. I resisted for as long as I could.

7. “Red” (Live at the 2013 CMA Awards) – Taylor Swift

6. “If I Didn’t Have You” – Thompson Square

5. “Slow Me Down” – Sara Evans

I wasn’t that hot for it the first time I heard it (are those strings in the intro? Probably not) but it grew on me.  It’s still not yet a big radio hit but I’ve heard it so much in my car, I’m ready for the next single.

4. “Wasting All These Tears” – Cassadee Pope

Downloaded it on a whim one day and fell in love. I can’t distinguish between her and the other girl that won The Voice who also has a new album out, but I know this song is great.

3. “Love Will” – Jennifer McCarter

Remember the McCarters? From the late 80’s? Jennifer visited WSM-AM last December for an interview, previewed this song and I downloaded it immediately.  It fell off the radar among the 3000 or so songs on my iPod so when it popped up again a while later I fell in love all over again. Simple, but gorgeous.

2. “Sunny and 75” – Joe Nichols

Fitting that it hits #1 in December. It’s been so cold and snowy lately, you HAVE TO sing along with it now.

1. “Go Rest High On That Mountain” (Live at George Jones’ funeral service) – Vince Gill & Patty Loveless

This is what country music is all about. Back in May I found this performance both devastating and unforgettable.


Honorable Mentions:
“Done.” – The Band Perry
“Hopeless Rose” – Sweethearts of the Rodeo
“Goodbye In Her Eyes” – Zac Brown Band
“It Goes Like This” – Thomas Rhett
“Did It For the Girl” – Greg Bates
“Easy” – Sheryl Crow


Non-Country Favourites:
“Roar” – Katy Perry
“Heart Attack” – Demi Lovato
“Your Body (Oxford Hustlers Radio Mix)” – Christina Aguilera
“Treasure” – Bruno Mars

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

CLASSIC: American Country Awards 2013

Sara Evans, Justin Moore, Rhett Akins’ son (I just forgot his name). LeAnn Rimes!

There’s so much competition internally, within the record labels and the industry, to get the big names on the CMAs and the ACMs every year that it’s entirely refreshing to see second tier stars performing full songs, receiving a little national airtime.

This is only the fourth year for the American Country Awards, and I’ve avoided every year except for this one, and even now it’s just by whim that I’m watching. Genuinely surprised. Here all along I thought it was an also-ran award show created by a network that’s never invested in the country audience.

And yes, that’s what it is.  But it’s making the best of it.  Kellie Pickler. Randy Houser. Florida-Georgia Line not singing “Cruise.” But that Jake Owen song with the ZZ Top guy: I saw a tweet, during the CMA Awards when Eric Church sang his latest country rock song, that basically said current country stars aspire to music that sounds not like 80’s pop but full-on heavy metal, and it was in full evidence here.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m getting old and I’d have felt this way had I been this age when someone like Marie Osmond was hitting #1 with “There’s No Stopping Your Heart” back in the 80’s or whether there is a genuine shift in the sound of country music and we’ll never again hear acoustic music on the radio.

(This was originally posted on my previous site Critically Country on December 10, 2013)

CLASSIC: 2013 — the year the CMA became a helicopter parent

Nearly a week has passed and I’m trying to parse out the implications of “country’s biggest night.”  As I mentioned last year, the CMAs had traditionally been that organization that was the Oscars of country, that annointed the stars with awards that truly were prestigious because they were voted upon by the members of the industry.  A conservative voice, it has always struggled to balance defining the industry’s ambassadors to the greater entertainment industry versus bandwagon-ing the hot thing of the day — sometimes with the same award.

You look at the undeniable “crossover” superstars at the time of their Entertainer of the Year wins: Barbara Mandrell in 1980 and 1980 (during the height of Barbara Mandrell & the Mandrell Sisters TV show), Shania in 1999, Taylor Swift in 2009 and 2011.  Each was dubiously a “country music” star but certainly an ambassador the community could promote as its own.

So just like that parent that can’t always be around to take care of things, but swoops in to take care of the necessary things, the CMA acknowledged the across-the-board success of Florida-Georgia Line and spread the love with all those “Highway Don’t Care” awards, they managed too to pull back the reigns and honor — because that’s the word — George Strait with Entertainer of the Year.

It was right around the moment Eric Church turned the classy (albeit “new country”) music show into a 1980s heavy metal concert that I started to think, “I really want George Strait to win Entertainer.”  I’ll admit I have conservative tastes when it comes to country music but that performance, plus all that “Cruise” love was adding up to too much.  Check this and tell me what country music sounds like:

It really is the single most memorable moment from the evening for me, the way this unrelenting rock song just showed up and encapsulated the angst of every traditional country music fan.

The show was a huge success.  Most notable was the number of tweets for the evening: 1.6 million.  This is the last genre to experience any significant erosion of CD sales, back when everyone was downloading without paying.  Just a few years ago, it was one of the very few genres that saw any significant online presence.  The growth is spectacular and, as much as I hate to admit it, we have cross-pollinators like Eric Church to thank for it (if, in fact, we are thankful).  Notice the way the traditionalist country fans find their way into the conversation in live-tweets like this one from  Entertainment Weekly.

Back to the awards: along with the George Strait win, the CMA didn’t just let Kacey Musgraves’ six nominations be its own reward.  That New Artist win was deserving and it sent a message — to whom, I’m not sure (radio, maybe?) — that the voters were looking to acknowledge quality and possibly even attempt to influence the future of the genre.

I think Miranda Lambert’s fourth consecutive Female Vocalist win was more about matching Reba’s record than genuinely honoring her work this year.  The gossip around the Internet in the lead-up to this show was a rather consensus vote that Carrie Underwood deserved it, especially given her snub in the Entertainer of the Year category, where she was undoubtedly a contender.

Yet it was an enormously entertaining show.  The sound worked, the duelling stages — including the one in the audience — worked.  It was a show worth watching, love it or hate the winners.

(This was originally posted to my previous site Critically Country on November 12, 2013)

CLASSIC: Gord Bamford “When Your Lips are So Close”

It doesn’t sound like a Gord Bamford song.  He co-wrote it with his producer Byron Hill and Nashville songwriter Brent Baxter, who recounts his behind-the-scenes journey to Gord and this recording brilliantly on his blog Man vs Row.

Gord Bamford sings country music, unquestionably.  His singles really just vary between honky-tonk uptempos (“Stayed ‘Til Two,” “Drinkin’ Buddy”) and slow heartfelt ballads (“Little Guy,” “My Daughter’s Father”).  And I’m sure the rest of the songs on the new album will hew closer to this path.  It’s available tomorrow, incidentally.

“When Your Lips…” works.  It’s left of centre, just enough to excite the fans and intrigue those who might not otherwise be interested; the perfect single to open an album.

Also: the lyrics in the hook makes sense if you substitute “your lips” for just “you,” though you still have to strain a bit.  He’s trying for a play on words, but they don’t quite fit.  The song is definitely about longing, and where it veers I think is regarding the frustration of wanting someone who’s right. over. there. but you still gotta get to know ’em.

(This was originally posted to my previous site Critically Country on October 7, 2013)