2013 - %3, September

"Ask a Slave" Takes Aim at Racial Ignorance

| Tue Sep. 10, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

"What's your favorite part of the plantation?"

"Why don't you just go to Massachusetts and go to school?"

Those are just a couple of the brilliant questions tourists asked Azie Mira Dungey during her two-year stint portraying a domestic slave at Mount Vernon, the historic plantation of George and Martha Washington. "Their questions just made me feel like they really don't value my history and my presence the way they value the mythological status of" the president, says Dungey, an aspiring actress who has spun her on-the-job experience into a new YouTube comedy series she calls "Ask a Slave." "I'm dismissed in such a way—it's very telling to me."

Wanted: "One housemaid. No pay. Preferably mulatto. Saucy with breeding hips."

After graduating from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, Dungey returned home to the DC/Maryland/Virginia area—the "DMV," she calls it—and took a job as the Washingtons' enslaved lady's maid. After work, she told me, she would come home and recount her experiences for incredulous family and friends. They encouraged her to start writing down the tourists' questions, which "left me wanting to address so many issues behind the questions," she says.

On the job, Dungey could hardly unleash sarcastic responses on the tourists. Hence the series: "Ask a Slave," which has three episodes so far and will air new ones every Sunday—sets straight her ignorant interlocutors with humor and attitude.

"How did you get to be maid for such a distinguished founding father?" asks one visitor (portrayed by an actor). "Did you read the advertisement in the newspaper?"

"Why yes," Dungey replies. "It said, 'One housemaid. No pay. Preferably mulatto. Saucy with breeding hips."

"If we whitewash this narrative…that does affect us socially and politically—and it divides us."

In our interview, Dungey recalled perusing writings of Thomas Jefferson in which he claimed that orangutans are attracted to black women. She thought, "'Wow, this guy is a huge jerk!'" But after reading the now infamous Psychology Today blog post (since removed) that claimed to have proof that black women are the least attractive of all women, she realized that not so much has changed.

Before the first episode aired a few weeks back, while Dungey was still editing her clips, Russell Simmons released a video entitled "Harriet Tubman Sex Tape" (also since removed from YouTube) in which the revolutionary abolitionist has sex with her master in order to blackmail him. After seeing it, Dungey says she began to doubt whether she'd be able to pull off her show.

But through humor Dungey was able to make her political points without offending viewers—the most hilarious moments coming, she says, "from modern misconceptions." She hopes her series, which so far has racked up a combined 740,000 page views on YouTube, will open up a discussion about whose history is most valued, "because this narrative we have about ourselves, and our origins, if we whitewash it or if we ignore certain aspects of it, that does affect us socially and politically—and it divides us."

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The Sheer Raw Power of The Julie Ruin

| Mon Sep. 9, 2013 7:19 PM EDT
Kathleen Hanna fronts The Julie Ruin on Jimmy Fallon's show, September 3.

The Julie Ruin
Run Fast
TJR Records
 

As singer for the trailblazing '90s group Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna was a driving force in the riot grrrl movement, which blended feminism and furious punk rock. After the band's demise near the end of that decade, she moved on to Le Tigre, addressing similar concerns in a more dance-oriented format. Hanna has been out of the scene for nearly a decade, however, so her return to action in The Julie Ruin is cause for celebration.

Taking its name from her pseudonymous 1998 solo project as Julie Ruin, this high-octane quintet also features former Bikini Kill mate Kathi Wilcox on bass and Kenny Mellman of the drag cabaret duo Kiki and Herb on keyboards. But human tornado Hannah is the focal point. Howling and shouting in full attack mode, she hasn't lost a bit of the fire that made her so compelling two decades ago. She continues to excel at fusing the personal and political in songs such as "Girls Like Us" and "The Kids in New York," though you don't need a lyric sheet to appreciate Run Fast. The sheer raw power of the music is reward enough.

Season Four of "Boardwalk Empire": More Great Characters, Sleazy Politics, and Racial Tensions

| Sun Sep. 8, 2013 5:11 PM EDT

As much critical acclaim as Boardwalk Empire has garnered over the last three years, there's an argument to be made that the HBO drama remains underrated. The series dialogue is consistently some of the sharpest and memorable on television, almost on a casual basis. The casting, production values, music, and 1920s gangland confrontations are superb. The effortlessness with which the Boardwalk crew juggles seemingly dozens of intersecting storylines is admirable. And the creative involvement of Martin Scorsese (who executive-produced and directed the $18-million pilot episode), author Dennis Lehane, and Terence Winter certainly doesn't hurt.

It's all too easy to take the show's greatness for granted at this point. The fourth season (premiering Sunday, September 8 at 9 p.m. ET/PT) shrewdly advances and improves upon the rich character development and Prohibition-era power struggles of the excellent third season. Nucky (Steve Buscemi), "Chalky" (Michael Kenneth Williams), Capone (Stephen Graham), Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Gillian (Gretchen Mol), and company are back performing another act of their seedy opera of money, sex, booze, and spilled blood. The first five episodes of the new season are as stirring in the hushed violence of tense conversation as they are in the decidedly louder violence of slain mobsters. The season's fifth episode includes one of the most riveting, jaw-dropping death scenes in the history of television.

And Boardwalk Empire has always featured a healthy serving of political content, inspired by true stories of Jazz Age corruption and presidential, federal, and local politics. James Cromwell guest-starred last season as an exceedingly grumpy Andrew Mellon, who was Treasury Secretary under presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. The series also depicts Gaston Means (Stephen Root), a real-life con artist who was tied to crooked politicos during the Harding era.

Season four draws from a similarly shady political history. Al Capone is shown subverting democracy before he becomes the infamous Chicago boss—Capone and his brother Frank (Morgan Spector) harass working-class residents of Cicero, Illinois, to ensure the election of a Republican mayor. It's an exciting subplot based on something that actually happened in the mid-'20s. From History.com:

In 1923, when Chicago elected a reformist mayor who announced that he planned to rid the city of corruption, [Johnny] Torrio and Capone moved their base beyond the city limits to suburban Cicero. But a 1924 mayoral election in Cicero threatened their operations. To ensure they could continue doing business, Torrio and Capone initiated an intimidation effort on the day of the election, March 31, 1924, to guarantee their candidate would get elected. Some voters were even shot and killed.

Even Chicago's tongue-in-cheek political saying, "vote early and vote often," has been attributed to Capone.

This season also introduces Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright, a terrific actor who played Colin Powell in W. and blues legend Muddy Waters in Cadillac Records), a Trinidad-born, Harlem-based crime lord who is as ruthless as he is cultured and sophisticated. Narcisse refers to black Americans as "Libyans" and white Americans as "Nordic." He works at the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a once-influential fraternal organization founded by the black nationalist Marcus Garvey. Narcisse is a charismatic criminal with "well-formed, proto-black-power politics," as Slate notes. Here's Wright talking to GQ about his character, and the racial politics that come with the territory:

Dr. Narcisse is a doctor of divinity, vice, and chaos. So, he walks into the room and he stirs things up but he's an equal opportunity troublemaker...But his relationship to Chalky is one that's based in the intra-racial relations of the time to a wonderfully detailed extent—at that time, there was something of a great debate within African-American society, among the great thinkers of the past: W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and within the Harlem Renaissance, about what was the way forward. Within that debate were some pretty vicious personal attacks over complexion, politics, between urbane and rural—a lot of those dynamics are fleshed out within the relationship between Dr. Narcisse and Chalky. It even further immerses the storyline in real history.

I'll leave you with the season-four "Kings" trailer, which features Narcisse prominently:

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The Guy Behind "The Fox"—The Summer's Funniest Music Video—Talks About Going Viral

| Thu Sep. 5, 2013 6:33 PM EDT

That's the music video for "The Fox," an infectious, wacky, and exuberantly funny new song by Norwegian entertainment duo Ylvis. It was posted to YouTube on Tuesday and is already a hit. Gawker hails it as the true "Song of the Summer," beating Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" and Daft Punk's "Get Lucky." BuzzFeed praises it as perhaps the greatest music video on the internet. The Week thinks it might be the "'Gangnam Style' of 2013." USA Today has weighed in, proclaiming it "the next viral music-video sensation."

The video (directed by Ole Martin Hafsmo) depicts a man in an orange fox costume who dances and belts out noises a fox might make, including "gering-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding!" and "fraka-kaka-kaka-kaka-kow!" As you can tell, the lyrics (posted below) get creative and sort of insane with its answers.

For the vast majority of Americans, "The Fox" will be their introduction to Ylvis, a musical-comedy act inspired by artists such as The Lonely Island, Tenacious D, and Flight of the Conchords. But the duo (brothers Bård and Vegard Ylvisåker) is an established act in Norway, where they have their own talk show. The music video was meant to promote the show's new season, but to the shock of its creators, it's taken on a life of its own.

"To be honest I am quite surprised!" Bård tells Mother Jones. "This song is made for a TV show and is supposed to entertain a few Norwegians for three minutes—and that's all. It was done just a few days ago and we recently had a screening in our office. About 10 people watched—nobody laughed."

WATCH: Suzie's Summer Job at the Obama White House [Fiore Cartoon]

| Wed Sep. 4, 2013 8:42 PM EDT

 

 

Mark Fiore is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and animator whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Examiner, and dozens of other publications. He is an active member of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, and has a website featuring his work.

"Another Self Portrait" Is Bob Dylan's Latest Tribute to His Musical Influences

| Mon Sep. 2, 2013 6:05 AM EDT
Dylan in Toronto, 1980.

Bob Dylan
Another Self Portrait: 
The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10
Columbia

Bob Dylan's 1970 double album Self Portrait shocked and dismayed some of the faithful at the time of release, confusing audiences looking for another mind-boggling classic. Dominated by traditional songs and cover versions ("Blue Moon," "Let It Be Me," etc.) performed in a seemingly lackadaisical manner, it came off as a determined attempt to defy expectations and shed the pressure of being a messiah. In retrospect, Self Portrait makes more sense, being Dylan's salute to music that helped make him who he is (hence the title), while sustaining the down-home vibe of John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, though the cluttered arrangements are still distracting.

The mostly excellent Bootleg Series has allowed Dylan to explain himself more fully, something he never would have deigned to do so directly four decades ago, and the two-disc Another Self Portrait is especially useful in that regard. Drawing on sessions for Nashville Skyline and New Morning, as well as Self Portrait, it offers alternate takes, undubbed versions and revelatory outtakes, depicting a Dylan more interested in revisiting his folk beginnings than trying to exasperate the fans. The previously unheard "Pretty Saro" and "Annie's Going to Sing Her Song" recall the young Woody Guthrie disciple, while "Belle Isle" and "Little Sadie" improve dramatically in their stripped-down settings.

After 10 editions, The Bootleg Series continues to surprise with fresh perspectives on the greatest songwriter of the rock'n'roll era, which is no mean feat. Completists will opt for the four-disc set, which adds the original Self Portrait and Dylan's spirited 1969 concert with The Band at the Isle of Wight festival
.

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"Made in California" Is the Essential (and Nonessential) Beach Boys

| Mon Sep. 2, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
The Beach Boys in 1964.

The Beach Boys
Made in California
Capitol/Ume

With a staggering 174 tracks on six discs, Made in California is not the place to start for anybody interested in learning why The Beach Boys were arguably America's premier band. For that, consult one of the umpteen greatest hits collections or Pet Sounds, their acknowledged masterpiece. But this massive hodgepodge of classics, obscurities, and barrel-scrapings—more than 60 of them previously unreleased—offers a compelling portrait of resident Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson in all his brilliance, and reveals a group of remarkable versatility, able to blend soulful doo-wop, Phil Spector's wall of sound, jazzy pre-rock vocal harmonies a la the Four Freshmen, and rollicking Chuck Berry-style rock into one exciting identity.

From callow treats like "In My Room" and "Be True to Your School" to the ambitious intricacies of "California Girls" and "Good Vibrations," Wilson had few rivals when it came to catchy singles. As he started to share creative control with the rest of the band in the second half of the '60s, the results were spottier and weirder, with mediocrities outnumbering the winners throughout the '70s and '80s. Then the Beach Boys splintered, seemingly for good. Made in California can't hide the quality-control issues, although it does shine a light on worthy less-celebrated songs like "Baby Blue" and "All This Is That," and touches on their tantalizing, short-lived 2012 reunion. While hardly essential, this handsome package has plenty to lure Beach Boys diehards. You know who you are.

Houndmouth Comes Alive

| Mon Sep. 2, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Houndmouth
Jim Herrington

During the performance of a song called "Penitentiary" at San Francisco's Outside Lands festival last month, Houndmouth's curly-haired guitarist and vocalist Matt Myers was very deliberate in his annunciation of the first line: "I hid a batch in Fresco/I couldn't score a job/So I did the next best thing and I learned how to rob." He's referring to a Dallas suburb—not to be mistaken for Frisco, San Francisco's out-of-vogue nickname.

"I thought of changing it to Waco," Myers told me after the set, lounging backstage with bandmates Katie Toupin (keys), Zak Appleby (bass), and Shane Cody (drums), and sipping bourbon from a mug. "I know people from San Francisco don't like to hear their city called Frisco."

From the Hills Below the City, Houndmouth's debut on Rough Trade earlier this year, features a dozen tracks of corn-fed middle-American roots rock. In addition to the Frisco/Fresco thing, it name-drops at least a half-dozen southern states, towns, and cities. The songs are filled with stories about hittin' the road, ridin' the rails, gettin' thrown in jail, and comin' back home—dropping all nonessential "g”s.