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Red Heels

If America had its own Marianne, she would be a lot like megaselling Taylor Swift. She becomes literally wide-eyed when someone pays her a compliment; her family owned a Shetland pony; she wrote her first hit single in math class. But is that quality becoming a liability four albums in?

Football Dub

How football and videotape plunge America into a hyperreality each Sunday—and how that process recalls the origins of dub.

Shadowing the past few campaigns of the National Football League like a corner in man-to-man coverage has been the medical revelation of irreparable brain damage caused by merely playing the game. With every post-game recap, there seemed to follow even more news on helmet-to-helmet hits, new scientific studies revealing the depths of such trauma, all of it lingering over the game like post-concussion symptoms. Commentary has aired on 60 Minutes and in Time (in 2009, a deflated pigskin illustrated a cover with the headline “The Most Dangerous Game”) and The New Yorker, where Malcolm Gladwell’s article “Offensive Play” discussed the brown tau and beta-amyloid stains that appear on the brains of players who have suffered too many head-on collisions. He noted that NFL players suffered five times higher than average diagnoses of “dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or other memory-related disease” after their playing years were behind them, adding a lineman’s description of a standard downfield drive: “Every play, collision, collision, collision… literally, these white explosions—boom, boom, boom—lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter.”

The Psychology Of Sales

I love a man who believes in multi-level marketing schemes. We sit in a hotel meeting room, a room named after the state flower followed by the letter B. My boyfriend, this man I love, is on the edge of his seat. There is a thin sheen of sweat on his forehead and upper lip. He is taking furious notes, digging his pen into the legal pad on his lap so hard everyone can hear his desperation.

When we first met, at a cocktail party for my job, he was tending bar. He wore a crooked bowtie and a wrinkled vest, a stained, short-sleeved white dress shirt and black slacks, also stained, which were a different black from the vest. I ordered a gin and tonic and he told me I had beautiful eyes. I watched as he made my drink, deftly pouring the right amounts of gin and tonic, cutting me a fresh slice of lime. He blew his shaggy hair out of his eyes and smiled as he handed me my drink. I took a sip and stared at him coolly. “You are a real mess,” I said. He shrugged, looked behind me and nodded for the next customer to give their order.

The man at the front of the room walks back and forth across the stage. He talks with his hands, is the kind of person you would say is animated. He is a short man with a bright shiny bald spot that gleams beneath the fluorescent lights. Every few minutes, he points one of his thick fingers toward an audience member and pulls them up front. I keep my head down. I don’t care for audience participation. His name, or the name he goes by, is Billy Bobby. I’m not quite clear on what Billy Bobby is selling but his racket involves websites and reselling and search engine optimization. I know enough to know his ideas are total bullshit while my boyfriend thinks Billy Bobby is preaching some kind of gospel.

Singing Book

Years of sampledelica, instant remixes, amorphous albums, and mischief have obscured how Beck was seen at the outset of his career: He wasn’t viewed as a mere prankster, but a songwriter. Far from dooming him as a novelty, “Loser”—the deadpan 1993 single that turned him into a star—saddled Beck with the “voice of a generation” tag, thanks to his laconic, sardonic drawl embodying the slack of Generation X. To solidify his status, his songs were covered—and given a tacit nod of approval—by artists with stature. Tom Petty recorded the 1994 track “Asshole” for his soundtrack to Ed Burns’ 1996 rom-com She’s The One (in retrospect, a nifty time capsule of post-alt haziness); that same year Johnny Cash sang “Rowboat” on Unchained, his second collaboration with Rick Rubin. Both were strong indications of how Beck was viewed as part of a folk tradition that stretched back into the old, weird America.

But Beck soon shook off all the expectations, placing all his chips on the Dust Brothers’ sonic collages for 1996’s Odelay, his first major-label album after 1994’s Mellow Gold and first to be made with a wide audience in mind. Odelay is still the only one where all his contradictions are seamlessly woven together, capturing his myriad influences as well as the conflicting cultural tides of the ’90s, a time when this folk-punk terrorist rocked the hip-hop with the pantyhose and didn’t seem like a freak. Racking up a couple of hits and a Grammy, Odelay crystallized the popular perception of Beck—an ironist who is happy to tweak the collective consciousness, a one-man Beastie Boys. He never quite abandoned gravity; his rush back to folk for 1998’s Mutations established a pattern that continued when he tempered the millennial freak party Midnight Vultures with the mournful breakup record Sea Change.

Ever since that 2002 release—a proudly classicist record in its construction and intent, one that could have been passed off as a ’70s artifact—Beck has seemed bored with the very idea of the album, or even pop music.

What Is The Reason

As members of ’90s emo band Texas Is The Reason slowly walked out of the dark to their instruments at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, you could hear the dense, spiderwebbing guitars of their one instrumental, “Do You Know Who You Are?,” issue from the speakers in neat overhead streams. The stage was traced with small circular lights, as if powered by tiny, diminished suns. During their two-show 2006 reunion, the band were enhanced by dynamic, interweaving spotlights; this setup felt as if they were consciously creating a new environment, tended by warmth.

Guitarist Norman Brannon played the opening chords of “Antique”: a few drifting chords that seem very near one another, that feel naturally related, like bodies of water. Garrett Klahn sings in one note that sounds painfully excavated; it resembles a stream pushing gravel. All of the band’s music has a watery aspect, actually—each song gives off the sense that it will feed into a larger or smaller embodiment of itself.

Lost In The Machine

It’s easy to be giddy about Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s answer to Toy Story for those whose toys are virtual. It involves being a kid, or at least an ’80s kid, with eyes wide like quarters, muscle memory zippy from years of gaming, and hearts young enough to embrace animation, arcade games, and snarky neon pipsqueaks with names like Vanellope von Schweetz. (There are lots of them; the movie rode the nostalgia wave to high box-office grosses and an early HD release next month.) It’s equally easy to be cynical. It helps to be a critic. It helps to have any of the following: ready arguments about Disney vs. Pixar; an instinctual distrust of nostalgia and memes; cascading visions of Fix-It Felix Jr. arcade games in theme parks once the Angry Birds midway games go stale, Felix ports for Xbox and PS3 and PC and iOS and garage-door clickers, puffy Ralph plushies and Vanellope-shaped fondant trinkets multiplying everywhere. Either stance is fine, though this film rewards the easy route. Wreck-It Ralph, fittingly, is structured like a game. The hero (of sorts) is Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly, in wry mode), an intermittently villainous bad guy who resembles an inflatable Kiddy Kong. His days consist of smashing up buildings and being chucked into the mud for it; his nights are spent alone in the village landfill. The villagers hate him, partly because of his vague rage and partly because he spends his days smashing up their buildings. The game’s hero, Fix-It Felix, is cordial enough to Ralph when he’s not getting medals for thwarting him, but this cordiality doesn’t extend to party invites. Ralph guilts his way in to one, and after some faux pas and fracas he gets an ultimatum from one of the crabbier guests: sure, you can hang out in the penthouse—in the impossible event that you’re a good enough guy to get your own medal.