Monday, August 26, 2019

Hieron and its Consequences

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I should also note that there are things that might be considered spoilers for
Twilight Mirage and aspects of Hieron and Marielda. I’m a bad judge of what people think of as spoilers, though. It’s mostly in broad terms. Skip the sections that begin "Much later in the show we'll find out," "One example of consequences," and "An example: there is a moment in" (and the 3 following paragraphs) if you don't want later-season specifics; in general if you're very sensitive to that kind of thing, maybe come back to this.

Ignorance and Consequences

In episode 12 of Autumn in Hieron, the first season of Friends at the Table, a player does something I’m still in love with. In the decade and a half I’ve been playing tabletop roleplaying games it stands out as my favorite moment of tabletop roleplay of all time.

There are plenty of contenders. It’s hard not to give that to the time a Bard in the game I was running performed a song (in real life) for a potlatch festival for her character’s Sweet 16. Or when a player incapacitated another and then died falling off a building (three times) while trying to break back into the room to add their ear to a necklace. It’s hard to place it above inventing a gym bro to date a football bro in the middle of the tragic horror apocalypse game Ten Candles, or another Ten Candles game where Cathy (like, Ack! Cathy) rolled a half-dozen successes (and kept narrative control) on the last roll, or any moment when a player I’m GMing for lights up for the first time, suddenly understanding the appeal of what we’re doing.

There are even moments in other Actual Play podcasts, like Adventure.exe or The Adventure Zone or The Film Reroll or Interstitial, when character and world meet to bring about a decision that is inspired, surprising, and inevitable.

None of those, though, had the same impact on me as the decision to feed a Word Eater "ignorance."

*****


Friends at the Table is an Actual Play podcast about critical worldbuilding, smart characterization, and fun interactions between good friends (at least that's what they say at the top of most episodes). It started in September of 2014, with episode 12 happening in December of that year.

At this point they've run three seasons (plus one mini-season) of Hieron, a post-post-apocalyptic, post-Fantasy world where orcs are archivists obsessed with patterns, the world is a palimpsest of the gods' failed experiments, and the cancerous nothing known as the Heat and the Dark looms.

Between those seasons they've also explored a science fiction universe inspired by cyberpunk, mecha anime, and labor called the Divine Universe. They create all of this fiction by playing tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeon World, Blades in the Dark, Follow, and a number of other systems where they "play to find out what happens" live in front of microphones, then edit and release it on a weekly basis.

I started listening sometime late in 2014 and have continued to since. Just as they are approaching their fifth anniversary, they are also wrapping up the world of Hieron. For both sentimental and topical reasons, then, I'm focusing on the Hieron seasons of the show for this essay. To that end, I've relistened to all of those seasons in the last month or so. It's all still incredibly compelling.

*****


So: Word Eaters turn out to be what made goblins into what they are. You know goblins, probably. Little green humanoids, barely capable of language, fodder for adventurers, obsessed with trinkets. Loose anti-Semitic stereotypes, in the case of most Fantasy fiction. In Hieron, they howl in the distance. They also invite the players into a cozy home and let them read books, drink tea, and rest. They are people, some more dispossessed than others.

While resting with one of the friendlier goblins, the adventurers find out about Kindrali (also known as "He Who Remembers the Day," which becomes relevant two years later). They seek out Kindrali. They find him. He is a little off. Quick to resort to sarcasm and smirks. They find him again. Kindrali is a decayed corpse, who happens to be in the same room as the false Kindrali they are talking to. They put two and two together.

In a typical session of a tabletop roleplaying game, this is a very well put together fight. The GM has established an NPC that can give some color to the world while remaining unreliable. The players find him on good information, and then have something to go on after. A battle is had and won despite seemingly insurmountable odds.

Instead of that action, a single word is said.

*****


My latest relisten helped me realize that there are two things that Friends at the Table does particularly well, especially when it comes to Seasons of Hieron. One of those I won't get into until after I finish the story of the Word Eater. The other, which I'll develop alongside that story, is what I think the GM and the players do best. They build critical worlds with aplomb, characterize themselves impeccably, and have genuinely funny social banter. One of the other things they focus on, though, is dramatic irony.

Regularly, the players will know things their characters don't. They play through this. The characters make choices that are against their own best interests, because the characters don't know any better (even though the players do).

Based on what they've produced, this seems to be an internal guideline - play into dramatic irony. But I appreciate it mostly as one aspect of a broader commitment. The stories they tell are deeply committed to consequences.

*****


Much later in the show we'll find out that Word Eaters are something like incipient gods. Or, at least, that the gods were made in the same fashion. "Nothing flinched" and then there was Samol, or Hieron, the world and its avatar, one and the same. Samol’s desire to see the world full of life birthed Severea, and his desire to provide for people birthed Samothes.

The pantheon of five are rounded out by Galenica, who was birthed of the desires of people, and Samot, husband to Samothes, who stole Severea’s name when he was a Word Eater (emissaries or avatars of that same Nothing that flinched) and then apologized. Samothes and Samot then had a son, Maelgwyn, who became Samothes by murdering his father in attempt to birth a new god out of the experience of regret.

Whether Word Eater, desire, or absence of nothing, each of these gods are the speech act made material. Instead of simply doing by saying – as in an officiator declaring "I now pronounce you man and wife" effecting matrimony on two individuals – they are by saying. At the beginning of Spring in Hieron, the final season in this world, one of the players spends a few (in game) years hanging out with Samol. They develop an inside joke about how boring it was to be the first thing in the world. The refrain of that joke is simple: "There was no one to talk to."

Samol never says, to the best of my recollection, that he spoke Severea and Samothes into existence. But this is a podcast, where nothing happens unless it is said aloud. And it’s a tabletop roleplaying game, where the Lumpley Principle rules: "nothing happens, in the fiction of role-playing, unless someone says it and it's heard by others," to quote the gloss from The Big Model wiki. Hieron can’t be anything other than a speech act, because it’s a recorded conversation. And Samol is Hieron, and Samol made gods of his desires and of a Word Eater.

Whether a Word Eater or a God birthed of another’s desire, speech acts (“speech ontos” seems a little pretentious even for me) are fickle. They eat "regret" and become tyrants, obsessed only with reshaping a world-eating cancer into a productive force. They focus on the concept of a storm and blanket the world in ice. They steal the names of cities, causing civil war.

This Kindrali that the adventurers encounter is in some ways the most fickle of all. He stole the city’s name and was unsatisfied, consuming more and more words. Which is another reason it is poetic that he ends up being dispatched by just one word.

*****


I wrote a very long version of the following argument about a half-decade ago. I present it in a truncated form here for two reasons. The first is that I want to make it clear what my convictions are when it comes to these sorts of games. The second comes at the end of this minor section.

Tabletop roleplaying games are at their best when there is a dialectical tension between the GM and the players. The GM rules the world. She sets up situations, guides the players through them, plays the people they encounter, and enforces the rules. The players take control of one person within the world, embodying them to the best of their abilities. When they press hard enough, the world breaks.

When they push even harder, though, there is a synthesis. The players take over the vestigial roles of the GM. This is a relic of the history of these games that I don't need to get into. But they become, rather than co-authors in the creation of a story, its cooperative owners. The person who runs the game - usually the one with access to the books (the capital, so to speak) - is dispossessed of their control, becoming nothing more than someone who can adapt to the new norm, get reeducated according to it, or wither away. The stakes are a little lower than real life, so the players probably don’t have to literally take The Coup’s advice.

These games start in social interactions: friends come together to hang out and have an activity to participate in while doing so. They become commodified by way of rulebooks, social capital, and the simple fact of organizing time outside of wage labor. When they really work, though, the commodity is overthrown. People go from loose hangouts to structured, commodified hangouts, to hangouts they are truly equal in. And they hopefully learn to better relate to each other because of the game played.

That second thing? It’s the thing that Friends at the Table does so well – focusing on, embracing, and exploring consequences. That’s the way to play games into their own little revolutions.

*****


Here's the story: after visiting the friendly goblin Mee Kosh, The Great Fantasmo (the Wizard, played by Nick Scratch), Throndir (the Ranger, played by Andrew Lee Swan), and Hadrian (the Paladin, played by Art Martinez-Tebbel) scout out some caves to find Kindrali. They do. He talks to them. They discover the corpse of Kindrali in the same room. The impostor Kindrali, a Word Eater, prepares to devour them. The Great Fantasmo leans into this false Kindrali and summons up his memories. He says one word.

In play and as a podcast, this involves Nick Scratch describing things his character is feeling, remembering, and projecting. Things like being a young academic, full of fear at his new surroundings and the impostor syndrome that develops from it. Worry at how people think of him. Misery at the prospect of failure. Horror at how he used to feel all these things.

In this same moment, Nick Scratch is actively characterizing The Great Fantasmo. The Wizard is cocky and self-assured to the point of absurdity, a miserable traveling partner. He is bookish in the most infuriating way possible, obsessed with learning what is right without doing anything. He is a small-minded man operating with all the tools to pretend he is as open-minded as they come. He is insufferable, and his player knows this. So his player calls upon all his small-mindedness, his pettiness, his jealousy, his insecurity, and banishes a potential god from existence.

*****


An example of consequences being a driving principle of play in Friends at the Table is the situation being described. The GM set up an encounter. It’s a big fight that caps off a portion of the adventure. The GM almost certainly spent time drawing up a sheet full of hit points, moves, character motivations, and an imagined scenario in which the players eke out victory. This disappears once it becomes clear what The Great Fantasmo is doing.

The play is too compelling, the fiction too interesting, to revert to what was prepared. It is to Austin’s credit that he recognizes this; many GMs would not. The consequences are entirely too cool to dissolve back into a discussion of how much damage one person does, regardless of the lost hours spent preparing those hit points.

Other examples abound throughout the show. In the first season of the Divine Universe, COUNTER/Weight, a player gets a girlfriend by failing a bunch of rolls in a row, only to succeed at the one that matters. It’s important because she flirts through it. Autumn in Hieron also has a moment where a character dies in combat and can only come back to life if she promises to kill Death’s son, one of her only friends. She does. Three times – he is, after all, Death’s son.

There is also the way that Austin sometimes handles failed rolls, like the one Keith (who plays Fero, the Druid, and the character who hangs out with Samol during Spring) managed in Winter in Hieron when trying to convince Uklan Tel, an orc who might be the most accomplished academic in Hieron, to make a difference. The failure leads to Uklan Tel agreeing and throwing himself into field research. Two (real life) years down the line, that field research (in Spring, which is set over ten years later) ends up with him semi-inadvertently providing materials to help an apocalyptic cult give body to an undead god-dragon in order to hasten the end of the world.

Twilight Mirage, the second season in the Divine Universe, has as many examples as the rest (though I’m boiling each down to one apiece). One that might not seem like a consequence is the last fifteen (or so) minutes of the final episode of the season. The player characters check in with Gig Kephart (also played by Keith), a livestreamer in the post-Utopian titular universe. They answer a handful of canned interview questions in ways that are wholesome, humorous, and tear-inducing.

It’s not like the consequence of mechanical failure that lead to Uklan Tel, or the strength of roleplaying(/flirting) in mechanical failure that lead to a girlfriend, or the consequence of figuring out character alignment that lead to the death of Death’s Son. It’s more about how roleplaying can lead to a compelling world with fascinating people in it and how, left alone to do their thing, they can become consequential.

*****


The moment The Great Fantasmo banishes the Word Eater comes out of two specific moves in Dungeon World. The first is Art Tebbel's. He asks "what here is Evil?" He has a quest, established in a much earlier episode; he cannot suffer an evil thing to live. The GM confirms that this Word Eater is evil. Because of that, he can't leave. His fellow adventurers must make a choice: split the party and leave, or support him. This move is used effectively throughout much of the rest of the Hieron seasons, especially in developing a complicated and beautiful relationship with another player's character.

The second is a Spout Lore roll by Nick Scratch, where he attempts to learn about the Word Eater. Scratch rolls a "mixed success," which means he learns something "interesting but not useful." The interesting fact is that the Word Eater is very old, the eater of the word that lead to the goblins becoming what they are. Before they became "goblins" they were citizens, co-creators of the city that Throndir is from. They were people, not monsters. And this Word Eater was one who ate that knowledge and continued to eat more and more.

Nick Scratch, the player of The Great Fantasmo, takes this "interesting but not useful" knowledge and runs with it. This specific Word Eater isn't content to consume regret and live forever instrumentalizing cancer. It wants more. So he gives it a new word, wrapped up in the context of himself, the character. In so doing, he establishes The Great Fantasmo. He turns subtext into text; the insufferable academic turns into a rounded-out human being (elf), with all the pettiness that involves. And he wins a fight in a tabletop roleplaying game without having to indulge in hours of rolling to hit, rolling damage, rolling to avoid damage, rolling to figure out how to do damage, and on and on.

*****


If you’ve never played in or run a tabletop roleplaying game, the importance of establishing consequences might sound like a truism. Even if you have, it probably does. What I appreciate about Friends at the Table – among many other things – is how it clarifies that it isn’t something that just happens automatically. Like gender, it’s a choice you regularly make and perform.

Consequences are hard. They can be about rewarding good play, thinking beyond what the players are doing, punishing failure in interesting ways, or making the stakes of the world clear. All of these things help shape an interesting fiction. They can also be about how we relate to each other.

Because the most regular consequence, when playing roleplaying games, is alienating your friends. Things go great until they don’t, and then the group dissolves.

It might be in a moment that upsets or triggers another player and doesn’t get worked through, and so ends up contributing to a toxic environment. Or it might be the consequence of failing to properly organize the game in the first place, leading to its slow and (seemingly) inevitable dissolution. Which leads to lost friendships, which leads to lost opportunities to think through things or to collaborate on projects. Or, at a basic level, to enjoy the company of others.

Turning the reality of consequences into themes, as Friends at the Table does, is a helpful way of imagining (or remembering) what consequences actually are. They’re failed rolls, in the sense of fucking up a social situation. They’re roleplaying too well, in the sense of being who you are at that particular moment too insistently, for good or ill. They’re moments of social beauty, when you’ve set up social situations to include people who make you want to cry because they are so good at making and doing things in this terrible world.

Fictionalizing the broad reality of consequences won’t suddenly make a listener understand something that they refuse to. Especially if they have material reasons not to, which are too easy to imagine under white supremacist patriarchal capitalism. But sometimes fiction pushes you in new directions, whether you want it to or not.

*****


The resolution to The Great Fantasmo whispering "ignorance" into the Word Eater's ear is both immediate and long-term. Immediately, the players and the GM have a moment of shock and appreciation. Long-term, Kindrali becomes a character in the mini-season of Marielda, the Word Eaters are recast as potential gods, and the whole religious structure is changed.

Around the same time as this is happening, the other group of players is on a boat. One jokes about undead pirates. A whole ontology is birthed out of that joke. Play is respected, whether it is in character (like Fantasmo's) or out of character (like the joke about zombie pirates). The whole point of an Actual Play podcast is that it isn't a story. It's a storytelling exercise that gets modified by randomization.

Which brings us to the end of this story and this analysis. Which means it’s time to talk about the other thing Friends at the Table does especially well.

**********


Fiction, Produced by Deconstruction


Here are two questions: why should you listen to people playing tabletop roleplaying games, week by week? What is it about this method of telling stories that works?

For the first, I can’t exactly say that I do. I tend to take long breaks and then catch up. Following an Actual Play podcast week to week ends up being a chore for me, as I try to remember things over the play. I end up listening in big chunks – whole seasons or arcs, ideally – sporadically. I’m also not spoiler-averse and don’t have a tendency (or material requirement) to keep up with the conversation, which helps. (Thus this behemoth of an essay, primarily about something that happened on Friends at the Table five years ago.) The release schedule has more to do with the "podcast" element than it does the "actual play," given that podcasts are business as well as art.

To the question of why do it at all, there’s a fairly obvious answer. It’s fiction. Friends at the Table is very good fiction. Themes of labor and organization co-exist with a deep sadness and frustration with the world, are shot through with joy in victory and play, and shine through in a genuinely felt world full to brimming with people. Most of whom have very good names. Perhaps you enjoy fiction? This is one way to do so.

But then, despite a number of attempts, I’ve never been able to stick with fiction podcasts. I’ve listened to a hundred or so episodes of Welcome to Night Vale (it was a weird week), a dozen or two of Strange Horizons, a handful of episodes from various Escape Artists properties, and even some of The Writer's Voice from The New Yorker. Each had their merits (some more than others), but they ultimately ended up reminding me that my brain simply doesn’t work in that way. In a very specific environment I can enjoy audiobooks. There’s something about listening to someone clearly read something off a page that immediately blanks my mind.

It even happens in Actual Play podcasts, if I’m being honest. Friends at the Table will occasionally have intro speeches – generally by Austin, playing one of the NPCs – for instance. Or The Adventure Zone will have extended descriptive sequences that are pre-written. I have to struggle to pay attention when that happens, which is very unlike the rest of the listening experience for those podcasts.

Which leads us to the second question. What works, here? There are the specific answers we’ve already addressed: strong play that leads to compelling situations with interesting resonance; structural choices that emphasize the strengths of the genre. There are also the things we’ve touched lightly on, like critical worldbuilding that uses existing tropes in new ways that undermine their racist origins, enjoyable banter among friends, and more.

All of these are procedural. They’re points about the process of the fiction, rather than the content or its themes. This is important, because what Actual Play does – and what Friends at the Table does particularly well – is to collapse form into process. It is deconstructive, even deconstructionist. The creation is the act of creating.

So what works about this method of telling stories? It’s that they don’t just tell. They show. And not like the CIA-approved maxim. They show how the decisions are come to, what is left to chance or whim, what is painstakingly crafted ahead of time or after the fact. They tell a compelling story while showing how it is made compelling.

An example: there is a moment in Spring in Hieron when Hella Varal, Lem King, and Adaire Ducarte fight a bone dragon. It’s a bravura sequence. Adaire, the Thief (played by Janine Hawkins), comes with a plan to hogtie this animated dragon corpse. Lem, the Bard (played by Jack de Quidt), makes a beautiful mess of everything while still being helpful. Hella, the Dark Knight (fka the Fighter, played by Alicia Acampora), carries the combat. Until she dies. Almost.

Near the end of combat, there is another moment. The players have succeeded so many times, only to fail. They’re fighting a dragon. That failure has to mean something. Hella is given a choice: keep a ring and get killed, or let it go and live. The dragon has been fighting for this ring the whole sequence. It’s clearly important. Plus, Hella’s girlfriend is literally the god of Death. She’s come a long way since she killed the previous god of death’s son. And the rules say you roll when you get killed. You have, roughly, a 15% chance of being totally fine; a 40% chance of getting a bargain to stay alive; and a 40% chance that your character truly, irrevocably dies. There have been a handful of these rolls across the years, and no one has failed.

The act of listening to how that gets decided is very constructive. Alicia acts in seven different ways, despite only having two options – to roll or not to, to grab the ring or not to. She works through narrative framing (obviously the hero grabs the ring to spite the dragon), character framing (Hella has been carrying this ring on her person for over a decade without thinking about it), social framing (if the GM declares this ring important, the player should obviously protect it), fictional framing (Hella’s dating Death, getting stomped on can’t possibly be that bad!), more fictional framing (the cancerous nothing they know as the Heat and the Dark is almost certainly at play and far more powerful than the Queen of Death), and more. The rest of the people on the podcast talk her through these moments, offering their opinions, providing context where they can. It’s fraught.

As I recall, Austin Walker suggests the possibility of a break, Jack de Quidt reinforces it, and Austin ultimately enforces it. They break (for five minutes, according to the published audio; who knows what that means) and come back. Alicia makes the decision she makes, and it helps clarify who Hella is at this moment, what her priorities are, what the world will continue to look like, and what the endgame of this final season in Hieron is going to look like.

I feel like it is important to reiterate here: this is all part of the text. I’m not recounting what I think must have happened based on the fictional events that transpired. I’m recounting what I’ve listened to a couple of times now. This is the fiction.

The fiction is also the history of Samol, Samot, Samothese, Severea, and Galenica, and the adventures of The Great Fantasmo and Throndir and Hadrian and Hella and Adaire and Lem and Ephrim and Fero, and the lives of Red Jack and The Lardwulf and Uklan Tel and Lenny Lenova and the Sage of the Sands and Emmanuel and Walligan Upchurch and Hedy Braum and many more. It’s the reconfiguring of Marielda and the updating maps of the world as the apocalypses come and go, and it’s the story of the development of community in the Last University and Velas and Rosemerrow and The New Archives.

It’s a Fantasy world (post-Fantasy, post-post-apocalyptic), in other words. There are a profusion of proper nouns that gain resonance only once you’ve experienced the world in which they’re set. But unlike Tolkien or Martin or Brooks or Kingdom Hearts, the way this world is told isn’t as set in stone. Or more accurately, the way the world is told includes all the deliberation, the consequences, the ignorance of people figuring it out in real time.

There are things that are supposed to grab you in a narrative. The flow, the pacing, the excitement. Crafted things. Big fights. Consequential moments. And there are the things that tend to grab me: strange choices, awkward characterizations, moments of resistance. Actual Play podcasts at their best manage a synthesis of these two kinds of taste.

What happens at the end of that (alleged) five minute break is incidental. No matter how Alicia chooses, the fact of getting to hear the choice being proposed and then made is fascinating.

What’s important is how the discussion around that break, the break itself, and the consequences of it are all part of the recording. It’s all part of the text. Remember: playing into dramatic irony – things the players know that the characters don’t – is, as far as I (a fairly avid listener) can tell, a principle of the show. The actors are alienated from their characters. The listener is alienated, because of that, from the fiction. It’s all very Brechtian. Except that it ends up producing tear-jerking, laugh-inducing, cathartic moments, just like the best bourgeois fiction.

This is what it comes down to. Friends at the Table manages to straddle that line between being deeply critical of the stories we tell because they make us feel good under the particular, deeply immiserating, iteration of capitalism we currently live under, and telling those same stories very well. It does this by actively deconstructing the stories as it tells them. Other Actual Play podcasts engage in the same deconstruction, by the fact of their form, but don’t engage with consequence the same way.

So, to ask again: why should you listen to people playing tabletop roleplaying games, week by week? What is it about this method of telling stories that works?

For the first: you shouldn’t; as a recent Variety article makes clear, the podcasting business is currently being gentrified. A platform-capitalist takeover is happening, the same way it did the web a decade and change ago. Unless you’re committed to engaging with the fringes and opposing that gentrification.

And for the second: if you’re interested in good fiction, and you’re interested in one process by which it’s made at the same time, you have something to look forward to. If you have a familiarity with tabletop roleplaying games, even better. Hearing a story be actively deconstructed as it is produced continues to be a thrill. Even five years after I started listening.





PS: Lord Ephrim, the Baron (fka the Immolator, played by Andi Clare) is also an incredible character and I regret not having space for him in this. So I just want to shout out Andi: like everyone else on this podcast they are an inspiring roleplayer, and if there’s one episode of Friends at the Table to listen to it’s episode 9 of COUNTER/Weight, where they drive some incredible scenes.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Friendship Without A Self: Kingdom Hearts

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A name defines an object. Describes the span of it. Gives it purpose. We embarked upon the Replica Program to ensure our new power stays ours. Now, our shadow puppet, "No. i," lives. It needs a name. Something to define it. To give the hollow vessel purpose. (Secret Report Day 7: Meaning, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days)
Xion (No. i) was essentially indistinguishable from a natural human, though she became unstable due to the influence of others. (Secret Report 7: On the Replica Program and Reanimation, Kingdom Hearts 3)

Kingdom Hearts is a series of roughly 10 videogames released over 17 years. For the most part, those games are action RPGs; games with a third-person perspective in which you largely control one person and interaction is either context-sensitive or combat, which happens in real time.

Each individual game in the series is relatively easy to break down: a young man embarks on a journey to fix something that has gone wrong. After trials and tribulations, he succeeds. The twist to this hero's journey is that this success is, inevitably, because of the help of his friends.

If Kingdom Hearts is about any one thing, it's about friendship. Which makes sense: it's a collaboration between the videogame publisher and developer Square Enix, and the media behemoth Disney. It's a series of games where original characters team up with Final Fantasy's Cloud and Yuffie and Squall/Leon to go on adventures with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and Goofy and Pluto. They meet Sephiroth and Pinocchio and Hercules and Ariel and Aladdin. Disney films about True Love and fantasy videogames about Killing God met in the middle, and thematized the process by which this series came to be.

What these games are about and how they are about it are two different things entirely, though. Stories about friendship are a way to reflect on how we are social outside of strict reproduction. They can point to ways in which being with one another can be beautiful or harmful regardless of our intention. They can even identify moments or possibilities of solidarity that we might otherwise have remained totally unaware of. At my most sentimental (or revolutionary, depending on your perspective), I even think they can point us towards modes of engaging with - and disengaging from - intimacy in a world beyond capitalism.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. That "easy breakdown?" It's a lie. Not the part that's more or less The Odyssey or the Hero's Journey. The lie is the phrase "a young man." Because that implies a stable, consistent identity. And the stories these games tell have none of that.

Which is a bit rough, right? Because without that "young man," who is there to have friends?

Put more concisely: Kingdom Hearts is a series of games about friendship. It is also a series in which identity is never not compromised, multiple, fractured, incomplete, and overdetermined. Kingdom Hearts is about friendship without selfhood.

***

What follows is a short summary of all relevant information in each entry in the Kingdom Hearts series.

Near the end of Kingdom Hearts, Sora turns his Keyblade on himself. He does so to unlock his heart, because he has just learned that his best friend, Kairi, has hidden her heart away inside of his own for the bulk of the game. He wants to let her free. He does. In doing so, he becomes a Heartless. For a brief period, you control this Heartless, wandering through a massive castle. You find your friends; Kairi recognizes you even though you look like a random enemy. She hugs you, and you become yourself again.

At the beginning of Kingdom Hearts 2, you spend two hours doing chores as some boy named Roxas who you, the player, have never heard of before. He turns out to be the consequence of that earlier action; Sora's Nobody, his body-without-a-heart. He also turns out to be trapped in a simulation, living out a fantasy life programmed by Ansem so that Sora can return to himself whole.

Except that Nobodies are people's bodies, and Roxas looks nothing like Sora, not really. He actually looks like Ventus, a boy of Sora's age who we don't meet until Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep (set ten years before the events of Kingdom Hearts). There we find out that when Ventus failed to stop Xehanort, his heart wandered into the void and found Sora's, who was like five or something. So Ventus has been in Sora for over a decade.

In Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, we learn that Roxas spent his time in Organization XIII prior to getting trapped in that simulation. There he became friends with Axel, another Nobody. Nobodies, lacking hearts, are not supposed to be capable of feeling, which is what hearts do. He also became friends with Organization XIII's 14th member, Xion, who turns out to be a clone of Sora (or, to be more specific, a replica implanted with Sora's memories of Kairi who is becoming her own person). She's been manufactured to siphon off Sora's memories so he can never be completed again, even if Roxas is somehow trapped in a simulation and funnelled back into Sora, for instance. Oh, and Xion's name (before anagramed and an X added, as Organization members must) is "No. i," which is about as on the nose as it gets.

Sora is trying to regain his memories because in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories he wandered into this place called Castle Oblivion. There, a witch named Naminé (and the structure itself) distorted his memories, causing him to forget Kairi and convince him that he was actually friends with Naminé his whole life. When they meet, Sora inveighs Naminé to wipe him of his memories so that an Organization XIII member won't hurt her. He cares more about a promise to her - one that he knows he didn't really make - than his own selfhood. She does and he stays true to his word. Except that it was never his word, because he is not himself. Because he is a always already others, and his memory is being actively modified by a place and a person, and because he even knows that this was never his word. And still he stays true to it, because it is his word.

In the end he is given another choice. He can remember what happened in this castle, and the time he had with Naminé. Or he can forget it and regain the memories he has last over this time. He chooses the latter, forsaking this person he stayed true to even though he knew that truth was a lie. he chooses to forget his experiences in Castle Oblivion in order to have his previous memories restored, necessitating the destruction of Roxas and Xion, who (re)become part of him.

In Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, Mickey, Donald and Goofy want to investigate what happened to Jiminy's journal. Jiminy Cricket chronicles your exploits throughout most of the games. They digitize it and find it full of bugs, so the three appeal directly to the data version of Sora from the very beginning of the journal to act as an internal antivirus. Data Sora is super down. He wanders through the journal fixing bugs. He thanks Naminé and saves Riku, who is actually the journal embodied. He learns about hurt, and how it can be important as a reminder of loss. He is not Sora, and so Sora remembers none of this; except that he does, because Sora isn't really, or just, Sora either.

Time travel isn't introduced until Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, where the player splits time equally between Riku and Sora as they embark on a quest to become Keyblade Masters, only to get suckered into another plot from Organization XIII. Not only is this the game where they learn about people's constituent parts (Nobodies, Heartless) being able to be reconfigured into their "whole," "original" self, they learn that time is a function of selfhood. See, you can only travel in time by abandoning your body and becoming a Heartless. And even then you can only travel to where you have already been. This is how time travel works: you can only go whenever you've already been, and you cannot be you.

And then it all comes to a head. Xehanort (he's been the actual baddie behind everything) produces thirteen versions of himself to populate The Real Organization XIII. That corresponds to the 13 pieces of darkness that the χ-blade broke into (alongside seven pieces of light). Sora is, of course, both. He is meant to be the 13th piece of darkness, but assembles the seven bearers of light to engage in a final battle. Kingdom Hearts 3 is the ending of a trilogy of ten games, and so it is meant to be a synthesis, where it all comes together. The loose ends are tied up, the victory of light over dark is assured. And it happens, kind of. Except what it really reveals is that no one is anyone, and that everyone is everyone, and that the saying they try to shoehorn in repeatedly - "may your heart be your guiding key" - is irrelevant. Friends are what it comes down to, on both sides.

***

If Sora is the protagonist of Kingdom Hearts and is never himself, then the antagonist - Xehanort - is a funhouse mirror. In Kingdom Hearts, the villain is Ansem. He's a Heartless (the embodied darkness of a heart shorn of its mind/body). In Kingdom Hearts 2, the villain is Xemnas - an anagram of Ansem with an X added, if you hadn't already got it memorized. He's not the guy who digitized Roxas; that's actual Ansem. See, Ansem (from Kingdom Hearts) and Xemnas are actually the Heartless and Nobody of Xehanort, a disciple of Ansem who stole his master's name. The Ansem who digitized Roxas is the original, and he's a good guy/friend of Mickey. Ansem is also an enormous dick, but that's not entirely relevant right now.

Xehanort's goal, revealed slowly over the course of the whole series, is to push the world into an apocalyptic conflict. He wants to lift the veil of the world, ending the current one and creating a new one where things can be better. He's a revolutionary who has no social bonds. And his friends are various hims. Which isn't necessarily solipsistic, given the fractured selfhood at this series' core.

The funhouse mirror is that Sora is only ever presented as Sora, mostly; this character design houses Kairi and Ventus and Roxas and Xion's hearts. Xehanort is almost never Xehanort. He's three people - Xemnas and Ansem and Xehanort - whose ultimate, apocalyptic plan involves him becoming 13 people. Even when Xehanort is on screen, he's equally likely to be Young Xehanort and Master Xehanort standing next to each other. Time travel. Sora is the body without a self; Xehanort the self without body. You might say, equally truly, that Sora is the body full to brimming with selves while Xehanort is a self stretched thin through bodies. Either way, the question remains: who are these people friends with?

***

Fiction writing, writ large, can be approached a number of ways. Some writing says: here is the truth of this world. Described, enacted, and organized. Other writing says: here is truth of these characters, discussed, conveyed, and organized. Still other writing says: here is the truth of this world, but it was actually the truth of the characters. We call this an unreliable narrator. And there's the inverse, writing which says that it is the truth of the characters but is actually the truth of its world. We tend to call this literature.

In any story, it's difficult to tell whether what we know is epistemologically or ontologically true. You might shorthand that to "subjectively" or "objectively;" the former has to do with knowledge, the latter with being. Stories are made of people talking and interacting, and they are made by people writing and drawing and animating and devising mechanics. The unreliable narrator weaponizes that difficulty; we only know what is in the text (and what we bring to it and what we assume about it). Fiction is untrue, after all, but read (or played or watched or heard) by real people.

All of which is to say: it's difficult to say what is precisely "true" in Kingdom Hearts. Or more specifically, how this world actually functions versus how the framing and the storytelling conveys that functioning, and whether there is a difference there (spoilers: as with all fiction, there isn't, objectively speaking, and of course there is, it's the most important thing). Doubly so when the closest thing we have to a point of view character is actually half a dozen hearts in a singular body, absolutely reliant on the bonds of friendship to function.

With that in mind, it's hard to make claims about the ontology of Kingdom Hearts. But there's one I'm fairly confident in: it is a universe in which triads are a fundamental principle. Kingdom Hearts has, as far as I can tell, precisely one binary: light and dark. Otherwise everything is in threes.

Some examples: In every game but Kingdom Hearts 3, your party is three characters full. In Kingdom Hearts, there are interactable elements called Trinities, even. Friends tend to come in threes: Sora, Riku and Kairi; Mickey, Donald, and Goofy; Roxas, Axel, and Xion; Ventus, Terra, and Aqua. But also Sora, Donald, and Goofy and Mickey, Riku and Sora. These threes aren't exclusive. Humans are thirds, even. Heart, mind, and body. This can be experimented on and reproduced. A Somebody (that is, a whole person) consumed by darkness becomes a Heartless (a heart without a body) and a Nobody (a body without a heart), as long as they have a strong enough will (which is to say soul or mind).

From systems to story, the world is carved up into threes. It's a world, in other words, where a statement like "us vs them" wouldn't make sense. Or at least it wouldn't be as compelling as, say, "us vs them vs the rest." Where a phrase like "here and there and everywhere" would have to translate to "here and there and there and everywhere." Because unless you're talking specifically about the war that underlies reality, most things only make sense if there are two other things that complement them. True love isn't a Sora/Riku ship, it's the truth of the matter: that when they grow up, assuming things don't come between them, Sora and Riku and Kairi might well establish a triad. Kingdom Hearts is ontologically against the couple form, is what I'm saying.

***

There's this other videogame called NieR:Automata that came out in 2017 (this is the part where I spoil bits of both NieR:Automata and Kingdom Hearts 3, if that's something you're worried about). It's one of the most affecting things I've ever played; full of small moments that showcase the world and how it is materially constructed. To beat it, you have to play through it around three times. Each time rolls credits, and then the game changes.

At the beginning of the second playthrough (route B), you control a robot. It's one of the mundane enemies you have already defeated hundreds of. You try to revive your brother by bringing them oil, tripping over wires on the way there and back. If it isn't inspired by that moment in Kingdom Hearts where Sora turns into a Heartless (when freeing Kairi's heart from his own), I'll eat my hat.

At the very end of NieR:Automata, you get a final credits sequence. You play a hacking minigame that you've played many times before, and shoot them. Getting through it becomes impossible. You have to acknowledge that things are worth doing, that life is worth living, that games are worth playing. It becomes more impossible. You are finally asked to accept help. When you do, the minigame becomes playable again. Beatable. Even easy. At the end, you're asked to make a decision. You can keep your save files, making it easy to revisit the game. Or you can delete them, meaning if you want to experience things again you will have to invest another 20+ hours, but you will be one of those people that helped you. A real person in the world will be able to pass that final trial because of your sacrifice.

In the lead up to Kingdom Hearts 3's final battle, Sora is reunited with all of his friends and they are wading their way through an army of Heartless. They're over-overwhelmed. You play through a huge boss fight. The enemy only regroups, consolidating their forces into a literal tornado. Sora decides to defeat them on his own. He jumps in, and a brief cutscene happens. A character from the past offers help. You regain control, and are surfing on a wave of Keyblades. The screen instructs you to press the Triangle button. Whenever you do, a bloom of light emerges from Sora, and a name on the left side of the screen disappears. Each of these names is someone who has spent time in Union χ, the Kingdom Hearts mobile game. You are, presumably, expending their life to help Sora get to the final confrontation with Xehanort. The reference point references.

The best aspect of NieR:Automata is how everything in the game feeds into the greater thematic considerations. The biggest, most explanatory cutscene does as much work as a bit of optional side dialogue or a shitty sidequest where you race a robot around a map. The game, in other words, is incredibly tightly wound around specific thematic concerns that leaves many other things - the gameplay, the pacing - to feel baggy or awkward for many players. It is also a work in translation in an industry that systematically devalues storytelling. Kingdom Hearts is much baggier.

***

Kingdom Hearts begins in "the age of fairy tales." This is its prehistory, when the Worlds were one World, and everything was light. That's fairly standard Fantasy fare, as is the fact that the world became rift by darkness. We never actually play in that prehistory, because storytellers and their audiences are told that conflict drives narrative. But the way that they narrativize that transition is important. From the mouth of Yen Sid in Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance:

[I]n time, the World was overrun by legions who wanted the light all for themselves, and the first shadows were cast upon the land. These warriors crafted "Keyblades" in the image of the original χ-blade, and waged a great war over Kingdom Hearts. We call this the "Keyblade War." But though the war extinguished all light from the World, the darkness could not reach the brightness inside every child's heart. With that light, the World was remade as we know it today, with countless smaller worlds shining like stars in the sky. …  After all, light begets darkness, and darkness is drawn to light.
There's a lot to unpack here. The first thing: the placement of the phrase "light begets darkness." The fact that it falls near the end of this quote is telling. It is a truism, one that could itself do the work of explaining all this lore away. The world is full of light, and light begets darkness, therefore some dark elements arose and attacked the light. Instead it is almost an afterthought; the light was coveted - presumably by the light, or people filled with light, because darkness is only introduced by this action.

One of the stories we tell about the birth of capitalism takes place in England in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, all the way through the 19th century. It's a long, slow process known as the Enclosure of the Commons. Under feudalism (hardly a world filled with light), there was significant arable land that was held in common. Peasants used it for subsistence farming, primarily. The emergence of a bourgeois class, people who owned capital, or the means by which to produce goods, necessitated a different kind of labor than the peasant provided the lord, even in agriculture. They pressured this system and it pushed back, but in the process laws were enacted, violence done, and land taken. Peasants were pushed off the common land and turned into wage laborers, people who could not feed themselves except by producing value for someone who had capital. This class, the bourgeoisie, slowly gained more and more power - socially, economically, politically. Then, from the late 17th to the late 18th century, they caused wars. Revolutions in England, France, and America overthrew feudal society, making capitalism the logic and practice by which the world was structured.

It's not a one-to-one translation, obviously. But there's a core similarity there which absolutely does not need to be similar. The world has this good in it. It's a resource; it is how people feed themselves or literal motes of goodness. People see an opportunity to exploit that goodness toward their own ends. They take it. Wars, and the world is changed. Specifically, it is fractured, becomes alienated. People no longer live together in the light, but scattered across worlds. People no longer reap the fruit of their labor, but sell it to the market in order to be able to purchase food and rest from others.

The inciting incident behind the sole binary in this series is an act of enclosure and dispossession. The motivating action behind nearly every game in this series is driven by this war, whether that's the reclamation of Kingdom Hearts or the production of a new Kingdom Hearts or the χ-blade. That motivation might underpin the action, but the people in it are an entirely different story. They're a human shape filled to bursting with selves or a self stretched among a baker's dozen bodies, after all. Or they're replicas filled with one person's memory of another, or bodies without hearts that shouldn't exist and definitely shouldn't have feelings and definitely love each other deeply as friends. And so much in between.

***

Stories can do a lot. They can model behavior that we might want to see in the world, or might want to struggle against. They can help our brains make connections that might not have occurred to us otherwise. They can explain phenomena we aren't equipped to deal with, or they can obfuscate complicated relations and make them seem simple. They can provide comfort, soothing you during a frightening period or letting your brain rest enough to return to work in ideal shape the next day. They tend to be about something, or some things, and so they can accumulate on top of our previous understandings of a concept or a relation, making it more robust or hiding something crucial.

They always do certain things. They exist in relation to the dominant ideology of the time, and in relation to the position of the author(s) and their own social and ideological commitments. They transform ideology, the way a person understands how the world works and how they move through it - even if unconsciously - into fiction, a discrete thing that can be analyzed, understood, and thought about. And they are products of labor, whether written or designed or curated or told.

Stories about friendship can teach us how to be in the world with others, or how not to be. They can teach us how other people are, or how they want to project having been, in relation to others. They can even suggest glimmers of how we might be under a different regime, one where the profit motive is gone, or where meaning is a product of trinary, rather than binary opposition. These lessons can be muddled, useless, or unproductive just as often (or even more) than they are clarifying.

Stories about friendship in a world of trinary opposition, where people are not themselves and everyone is everyone, are bound to be muddled. They can't model behavior, and when they do it must almost necessarily be a failing. But they can spark possibility. They are still fiction, after all, something worked on, something with a concrete relation to the illusions that cause the world to function the way it does, something that provides us a framework by which to better understand those illusions and bring that understanding to the work we have ahead of us. That work is not going to involve wielding a massive key like a sword, beating the embodied darkness of people's hearts into submission and locking and unlocking discrete worlds from each other.

It will involve standing with one another, regardless of whether or not we are at one with ourselves. And it will involve conflict as we struggle against those who pursue, single-mindedly, their own apocalyptic (profit) motive in order to continue to reshape the world in their own image.

Kingdom Hearts' story can't be explained. In the same way that no other story can, not without fundamentally telling a different story. Because what is important isn't that time travel is the abnegation of the self that is tied to the self, or that darkness is impassable by everything except Gummi Ships, those in control of darkness, Keyblade Armor, and also maybe Monstro and Captain Hook's ship, for some reason. It's the experience of learning this young man is young men and women and no one at all, and the way that breaks against your own ideological presuppositions or melds with them immediately. It's whether you play Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories and get mad because everything ends up forgotten, canonically, because that feels like cheating to you, or whether you embrace it because of the beats along the way and the fact that it is true in this world, regardless of any character's memory. It's the moments of skepticism followed by joy you get in starting a new game and finding out that, hey, this terribly-named thing called "flowmotion" in Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance seemed overwhelming and useless and gimmicky but it actually makes moving around this dense, bizarre world a joy in itself.

And some of us - all of us, I think - have complicated relationships to the self. We aren't just who we are. We're conditioned by the world, and by each other. And having this joyful, messy way of reflecting back on that can be helpful. It's partially a coincidence that Kingdom Hearts finally grabbed me when I was coming to terms with my gender identity issues. For you it might be something else. But being able to reflect on the world with the help of Sora and Xion and Naminé has taught me about myself, and about how people interact with the world. Especially when that world's common goods are enclosed on and alienated.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Always Bee Cooking #1: Potatoes and Transitions

This is the first post on my new Patreon page! To support further writing, sign up; I will be posting at least one new piece of critical writing once a month here (early for patrons), and this cooking blog will appear most months exclusively for $10+ patrons.

The Story


One thing I didn't expect from transitioning was a fundamental shift in my relationship to potatoes.

I grew up in a household that wasn't exactly conducive to loving food. Sitting around the dinner table was a masterclass in the kinds of manipulation (CW) that was constantly at play in my mom & stepfather's relationship. He would perform appreciation for her in a way that seemed to be transparently about bargaining for sex. Coupling that with my own intense reaction to certain textures – I have only recently been able to eat oatmeal or lettuce without involuntarily gagging – meant the situation was almost always unpleasant.

I dealt with that by becoming a 'picky' eater. And a large part of being picky is being performative about it, whether you intend to or not.

As late as 2017, everyone who knew me (and cared enough about my food preferences to file them away) knew that I hated potatoes. Hashbrowns were the exception, and I could deal with french fries. That was it.

In 2019, potatoes have been referred to as "[my] favorite food" by multiple, unrelated parties.

Coincidentally: in 2017, I was still of the mindset that any gender questions I had (including wanting, occasionally, to wear nail polish) were probably just white boy privilege and appropriation. In 2019, I'm out to friends, some family, and the internet now I guess?

I started cooking seriously when I moved to a place with a grocery store in walking distance (I haven't been behind the wheel of a car in almost 7 years at this point). My big goal at the time was to make breakfast burritos. To do that, I had to turn a corner on potatoes.

Getting there meant having more potatoes than I could use in just breakfast burritos. So I needed to find out other ways to use them. Once I had a serviceable, repeatable way to make breakfast burritos (check the recipes section!), I started branching out. I didn't want my food to go bad.

The story isn't that clean, of course. Potatoes aren't #transgirlculture. I started cooking them (and at all) because of a mix of material needs. I was having a difficult time working  – due in part to figuring out dysphoria, but also to having a remote job with no dedicated space in which to do it. I've continued because I've just become progressively more broke over the intervening years, had less work, and learned to really enjoy it. Plus Family Dinners. Lifesavers, those.

In the future, we'll get to stories about Family Dinner. Maybe that time I made mint eggs. It'll be nice. For now, though, let's get to some potato recipes that are fairly easy to do.

Some Quick Notes


Since this is the first one of these, I feel like I should say a few things before we get to the recipes.

First off, I'm one of those insufferable people who never measures. I'm sure whenever I start baking, that will change. I'll do my best to include them here, but recognize that these are guidelines.

Even growing up strongly disliking food, I've found that you can kind of guess at what you will have a tolerance for. I want to say err on the side of caution, because a bland breakfast scramble is a light disappointment while a salt mess might lead to wasting food. But you should also go a little hard sometimes, to test your limits. Do what feels right, and when it's wrong, take that knowledge forward (and don't let it get you down on yourself). Don't test your limits with meat though. Meat is terrifying.

Speaking of meat: most months, my recipes are probably going to be functionally vegan. That's how I'm most comfortable cooking. Earth Balance instead of butter, and all that. I'm not vegan, but I mostly eat that way.

I also tend to make more than a single meal's worth, so if you follow me to a T then expect to feed company or have leftovers. Leftovers are great.

All of the recipes below (and likely most of the ones in the future) are going to contain some variation on garlic and onions. I've said here to use the powder; things like dried, salt, or fresh also work, just adjust accordingly. Powder is the most concentrated, so use more of it; dried and fresh need to be cooked, so consider adding it earlier (or later if you're afraid it will burn, though little chunks of burnt garlic are fine imo); and onion salt can take the place of some or all of the salt that you would otherwise use.

I'll also try to have more photos in future. People seem to like those? I didn't have money to buy potatoes while writing this o:).

Oh and: holy shit, thank you. If you get a chance to make one of these recipes, please do let me know. Especially if it comes out messy. I'm trying this new thing, you know?

Recipes


Home Base Home Fries
2-3 medium russet potatoes (or 1-2 large ones)
Neutral oil (canola, grapeseed)
Garlic Powder
Onion Powder (see notes above if you don't have either powder)
Salt
Black Pepper
Optional:
Smoked Paprika
Spinach

Wash potatoes and start chopping. You'll want pieces that are rough cubes, big enough to maybe fit two on a fork/in your mouth. Around halfway through chopping set a pan over medium-high heat to warm.

Once you're done chopping, add oil to the pan. Let it heat for a few seconds, then add chopped potatoes. Add all spices to taste, toss in the pan. Cover the pan and peace out for about five minutes.

Check and stir/flip potatoes, replace cover for another five minutes. Poke larger chunks with a fork or spatula to determine if they're cooked through. If not return cover and cook for another five minutes. Repeat until done. Once done, go to the next step.

Once potatoes are easily able to be pierced by a fork or spatula, remove cover and cook, flipping every few minutes until potatoes are crisp on the outside. Remove to a plate.

Optional: about a minute before potatoes are done, add spinach to the pan and cook until slightly wilted. Voila, healthy breakfast?

Potato & Egg Scramble
Home Base Home Fries Recipe (above)
3 eggs
2-3 handfuls of spinach (or another leafy green)

Follow home fries instructions up to paragraph 3. While cooking, break eggs into a bowl, add a dash of water or milk, and whisk until scrambled.

Once you remove the cover (when potatoes are easily pierced), get potatoes to a well-crisped state (but not quite finished). Pour eggs into the same pan, reducing heat slightly.

Let cook for a couple minutes, until eggs start to coagulate. Begin adding spinach. Cook eggs until done, and spinach until slightly wilted. This can be done in a different pan if you need more space, which will also allow them to be covered so they cook slightly faster. Combine and serve.

Simple Breakfast Burrito
Home Base Home Fries Recipe (above)
4 Eggs
~4 Tortillas
1 handful Kale (or another leafy green)
Chorizo
Optional:
Fresh Cilantro
Avocado

Follow instructions for Home Base Home Fries (less optional spinach). Alternatively, get fancy and follow recipe for Crispy Cheesy Hashbrowns below. I can't guarantee that one, but I bet it's good. Once finished, move to a burner on the lowest heat and only occasionally stir to keep warm.

Add chorizo to a new pan on medium-high heat. Cook for 5 minutes or so, stirring, until chorizo starts to evenly brown. Add kale or other green, and cook until it begins to wilt (a couple minutes should suffice. Add eggs, and cook until done.

Turn a burner with no pan on it on to low. Place tortilla directly on the burner. Once a light smoke starts curling up from under the tortilla, flip and repeat. Lightly toast each side of each tortilla to add some warmth and crunch.

Assemble burritos, adding optional cilantro/avocado if desired. Fold them better than I do, add hot sauce of choice (Cholula or Crystal are personal favorites) or salsa per bite, and enjoy. Refrigerate leftovers for up to a week, if you really want to push it.

Crispy Cheesy Hashbrowns
3-5 medium potatoes (idk what medium means either)
1-2 small handfuls shredded mozzarella (other cheeses should work as well)
A cheese grater and plenty of time
Pepper
Garlic Powder
Salt
Oil
Butter

Start by washing and then grating the potatoes into a bowl large enough to hold all of them. Fill bowl with cold water, and lightly massage potatoes (similar to washing rice). Drain into a colander, then repeat until water runs clear. If you are planning on making a soup simultaneously, reserve the starchy water.

Lay out grated, washed potatoes on a couple of paper towels. Place more on top. Let sit until dry, probably 30 minutes to an hour. Heat up a pan over medium heat. Return to bowl and toss with pepper, garlic powder, salt, and cheese.

Put a generous dash of oil and a half tablespoon of butter into the pan. Pull between 1/2 and 3/4 cup of mixed potatoes (depending on how hungry you and/or your guests appear to be) out of the bowl and place in the pan. Flatten. These should not have a fluffy center. Cook over medium heat for too long (or turn the heat up a little bit if you are in a rush or easily bored), until bottom is crispy. Flip and repeat. Plate. Repeat this whole paragraph until all potatoes are cooked. Serve.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Top Tens of 2018: The Full Lists

TV Shows


#10: GLOW
#9: Haunting of Hill House
#8: Devilman Crybaby
#7: Aggretsuko
#6: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
#5: Channel Zero: Dream Door
#4: Laid Back Camp
#3: Riverdale
#2: Sanrio Boys
#1: Channel Zero: Butcher's Block

Podcasts


#10: Black Banner Magic
#9: Notes From the Back Row
#8: Spectology
#7: The Next Picture Show
#6: All Systems Goku
#5: Filmspotting
#4: Game Studies Study Buddies
#3: Cocaine & Rhinestones
#2: Got It Memorized?
#1: Waypoint Radio

Videogames


#10: Lucah: Born of a Dream
#9: Celeste
#8: Rhythmcremental
#7: Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom
#6: Into the Breach
#5: Zones
#4: Heaven Will be Mine
#3: Dead Cells
#2: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
#1: Extreme Meatpunks Forever: Powered by Blood

Albums


#10: Janelle Monae - Dirty Computer
#9: Nine Inch Nails - Bad Witch
#8: Trust Fund - Bringing the Backline
#7: T.I. - Dime Trap
#6: Lil Wayne - Tha Carter V
#5: Pistol Annies - Interstate Gospel
#4: Robyn - Honey
#3: cupcakKe - Ephorize
#2: Priscilla Renea - Coloured
#1: Kacey Musgraves - Golden Hour

Movies


#10: House of Deadly Secrets
#9: Breaking In
#8: Sorry to Bother You
#7: Hotel Artemis
#6: Traffik
#5: The Rider
#4: The First Purge
#3: The Miseducation of Cameron Post
#2: Good Manners
#1: Blindspotting

And that's it for 2018, from me. Thanks for checking it out. And hey, maybe consider taking a peak at the old Valentine's Day Compilation call for submissions.

Top 10 Movies of 2018

Of all the lists I put out this week, this one is probably the one I'm most qualified for. I watched 56 movies in 2018, a very large chunk of which were new. I reviewed each of them the same day (more or less), so if you want my initial thoughts on some of these movies you can check out my letterboxd account. Most of these reviews are adaptations of those initial thoughts; some completely revamped, some only lightly edited. I hope you enjoy.

#10 House of Deadly Secrets


This isn't a particularly good movie, I guess. Hi, literally two sentences from now spoils the whole thing. This may or may not be true of any of the reviews from here on.

More importantly, the way it wraps up is... there's something. Sylvia, the neighbor who is actually the mother of the girl who went missing in the house in the 1970s, is trying to conjure her daughter. It turns out she accidentally killed Cindy with cough syrup and (unidentified?) pills, buried her in the rose garden, and then made up the story of her being abducted. This all comes out just after she holds Maggie (the house flipper who moved in and is the protagonist)'s daughter Ava hostage, trying to turn her into Cindy. It comes to a head with Maggie digging up Cindy's remains and Sylvia/Veronica confessing, saying that she made up the story and hid the body because her husband would have accused her of killing their daughter and hurt her.

We learned earlier that she ended up killing her husband, and that she claimed self defense. This information is presented in a way to make it seem like she was full of shit; that she just wanted to kill him. Which makes sense in a horror movie. But this isn't a horror movie, really. It can't decide if she's an avatar of evil or the subject of a true crime novel. That inability to decide is annoying but also, maybe, productive.

Because the results of that confession are twofold. For Sylvia/Veronica, it ends in forgiveness. Her daughter appears to her and says that she accepts the apology. For Maggie, it serves to reconstitute the family. We learn a bit into the movie that she's split from her husband, Zeke, because he stole money from her to make an investment that broke bad. He is also there at the confession, and has been helping out. The movie ends - just before a very weird, unnecessary stinger that reveals that this movie still has no idea if it's a horror film - with the couple reconstituted, their daughter looking on happily.

If I were going to pick out one neat thing, it's the way that this movie revolves around three generations of women. Patty McCormack's bizarre, sometimes very interesting performance of a woman who became a mother in the 70s; Angie Patterson's Maggie, and her daughter, Violet Hicks' Ava. The regular intercutting of Sylvia/Veronica's time with her own daughter complicates that as well, giving Addison Aguilera's Cindy screen time to be a missing branch of that tree as well. Basically nothing happens outside of the context of the families, either; there are a few brief shots at school and one sequence in a police office, but that's it.

I'm saying all this to try to wrap my head around what I think is interesting about the ending, but I'm still not sure I've quite got there yet. The way this movie wraps up almost seems like an argument that the nuclear family is constituted through trauma.

The division between Zeke and Maggie is papered over by the actions of a woman traumatized by her "failure" at motherhood, compounded by her fear of patriarchal reprisal/violence. And the families that it is concerned with are almost exclusively made of women, with men as potential violence at worst and incompetent grifters at best. But even with that, it can't imagine them as unnecessary.

There is, in other words, a politics to this bad movie about a grandma abducting a girl because she killed her kid forty years ago. And it's a complicated one, that centers women and gives them complexity. I think that's why this movie stuck with me, and I think it's why it makes it on this list over things like First Reformed, Upgrade, and other films that I found more well made. This fucking thing.

#9 Breaking In


There's an incredible movie in here. It does away with the three stooges' bullshit. It allows itself to linger on the promise of the movie's best moments, whether that's the brief People Under the Stairs moment when the daughter takes to the crawl space, the situation between Gabrielle Union and the first villain in the woods, or even just the promise of a horror movie that isn't constitutionally allergic to the very idea of cell phones. In this top ten I may or may not be grinding some axes. Sorry. The idea that horror movies are ruined by cell phones is super lame and everyone who thinks that is true should feel bad.

That movie isn't the one called Breaking In, which is also embarrassingly PG-13 in too many ways that doesn't mean it is too chaste to threaten sexual assault because Stakes, I Guess. Fuck those three dudes have a disastrous effect on the movie that I saw in this that never really existed.

What does exist is only bad, mostly, in relation to what it could have been. Union gives a largely very good performance, despite being given some truly cringeworthy lines, as do the two children (even if the boy is basically rendered a non-character like a third of the way through). And the camera is so desperate to fill in any potential gaps that even briefly-experienced characters - like the real estate agent, who gives a solid performance - on their own are undercut by the insistence on cutaways that are actively insulting at best.

Some of those moments, though. Union through the glass, making clear the extent to which she's willing to go; or her taking action on the roof. Or the generator lighting. The opening drive to the property, even, which is the only time the film is willing to linger on shots. It's a natural beauty that frames the action without actually serving as a frame, ultimately. But there is stuff here. If only it had more confidence in its audience, and a more genuine desire to stitch together something particular.

#8 Sorry to Bother You


Sorry to Bother You is the movie I wish Okja had been. The surreal elements are genuinely Buñuelian, and work incredibly. The message is unapologetically communist. The twist - if you're still worried about spoilers, worry about them - of Cash turning into an equisapien and getting an affinity group together to perform a direct action on Steve Lift's home was so good it justified the boring half hour or so leading up to it. It wraps up economic, racial, and ecological exploitation into a specifically visual, narrative experience in really excellent ways.

It's at number eight on this list, though. Which is weird. Which means: it was better than like, fifty other movies I saw this year. That's something that shouldn't be forgotten. Unlike my TV shows or (to a lesser extent) albums lists this year, I think I'm genuinely qualified to be writing this list. I saw a lot of shit. And unlike the number ten spot on this list, it isn't here because it chewed away at my brain for months despite me not liking it, and thinking that I should maybe put Jurassic World 2: Fallen Kingdom's weird anthology or Upgrade's excellent cyberpunk or Tau or First Reformed or Annihilation's excellent central performances or Kodachrome or Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle or Hereditary or You Were Never Really Here there because all of those were better in certain ways (I have impressions of all these up on my letterboxd if you want quick responses). Sorry to Bother You is good as fuck, is what I'm saying.

I'm also saying it's this low for reasons that continue to elude me. All those things I said in the first paragraph are true, and are things I like a whole bunch. I enjoyed seeing the movie. I've especially enjoyed Boots Riley becoming a figure that film critics have to contend with. But outside of that, it didn't stick with me. Maybe on a rewatch I'll change my mind entirely. Maybe not. As it stands, it feels off. This placement and my feelings toward the movie in general.

#7 Hotel Artemis


This is a movie about a Boomer woman escaping the traumatic house built for her by a Boomer man for his benefit. She does so in order to become a street medic during a protest against water privatization in near future Los Angeles. It fucking rules.

Foster plays the owner of the Hotel Artemis, a safe haven and hospital for the lumpenbourgeoisie, on the night of the riots. Her performance does such a good job of identifying her coping mechanisms. Jeff Goldblum's brief appearance as the Wolf King of LA, "a hippy who gave up his beads for bullets" (according to Foster's character) and the aforementioned Boomer dad, is also pretty excellent at conveying the way a generation infused with capital has treated its children. And their non-capitalist cohort, as well.

That central tension is served so well by the other patients; Sofia Boutella's Nice genuinely kicks ass in her final sequence, Bautista continues to show depth without undermining his bruiser look; Sterling K. Brown's Waikiki is run a little ragged with motivations but goddamn if he doesn't have the charisma to pull it off.

It's also just a good house movie with some super solid action sequences. Hidden doorways and house rules and a porous inside/outside line.

I don't think there's really a whole lot to say about it, otherwise. It's a great use of cyberpunk without dissolving into neon and smoke in the rain. You might have to let the plot tensions work on you and melt away simultaneously to enjoy it. But dang does it kinda rule.

#6 Traffik


The script for this film is clunky in a way that is belied by the incredible chemistry between the main couple. It is bizarre seeing two people who clearly work together incredibly well deliver stilted lines meant only to reinforce a dead obvious theme or concern or piece of information only meant to drive the plot forward. There's also a failure to take advantage of some brilliant setpieces; the version of this movie that pauses at the house and becomes You're Next but with differently-fucked family dynamics and a sense of broader structural oppression might be my favorite movie of all time.

What we actually get is a largely very good movie with some deep flaws, enough of which hit me closely in a way that didn't let me cruise past. The smaller (what a strange word here) is the premise, detailed in the title: this is a movie about human trafficking, a real problem that is almost exclusively used (in my experience) in media to further criminalize sex work no matter how the worker came to that form of labor. I only say smaller here because I think that fundamentally affects the way the story moves without actively being a problem in and of itself.

The larger (again, a strange way of phrasing this) issue comes at the end: this movie does a pretty great job at making it clear that the cops can't be trusted and that the issues it is grappling with are systemic, right up until it abandons that. The resolution is that the FBI are the real cops, basically; or rather that they are the cops of our ideological projection rather than the corrupted locals. It's such a pat repetition of the Comey bullshit it feels like it couldn't possibly not be intentional. It also feels like the ending of Get Out but if the friend hadn't been in the car, and nothing else was changed. It's a gratifying fantasy, I suppose, but one that deeply betrays Traffik's radical potential and, honestly, does so throughout the film in a way that holds it back at crucial moments.

The thing about it, though, is that it does have all that radical potential. It's not a movie that's a joy to watch, or one that I think hits at core tensions in smart or unique ways. What it is, though, is something worth wrestling with. If that central chemistry doesn't work for you, I imagine it would be a mess, but I think it's incredibly strong. And that was enough for me to care enough to poke and think about what Traffik did, in a way that weirdly stuck with me for most of the year.

#5 The Rider


The Rider is basically a neorealist film about a rodeo rider who gets in a serious accident and can no longer ride. It's one of those movies that people who like looking at landscapes in motion will talk about endlessly. I can be one of those people. It's so pretty.

There's a moment that sticks out: most of the movie follows Brady Blackburn as he recovers from the injury and fails to stop riding. He's rarely alone, but the companionship isn't entirely obvious. Then there's the campfire sequence. His friends sit around, trading stories. It turns into a pretty incredible moment of explanation for the way care work gets done in masculine circles.

There are others, too. That one shot with the plateau in the background is goofy. That sequence toward the end with Lane is kind of incredible.

It won't appear elsewhere, but I think the complicated relationship I had with Thoroughbreds helped me love this movie. Because I really want to see that one again in a couple years, and see if my gut feeling - that it is an incredible thing, despite the way it nuts over Kubrick and refuses to let the central relationship develop - is true. But it also put horses in the front of my mind, and seeing another movie with horses that does keep those relationships real and complicated was really nice.

It's a tiny bit annoying that what amounts to a biopic is one of the best movies I've seen this year, but it's the case I guess.

#4 The First Purge


The First Purge was absolutely my favorite theatre-going experience of 2018, and I did a lot of that (RIP moviepass; who would have guessed that if going to the theater was actually affordable people would actually do it?). I also saw it ages ago and haven't been able to return to it, so this isn't going to be the most well-considered review.

I liked the original Purge a ton, and hadn't seen any of the sequels. The First Purge brought me in for fairly obvious reasons; the marketing around it seemed to foreground the racial elements that the first one handled muddily, and seemed poised to do so in a smart way. I think that bore out. It also looked to be explicitly about class war, and it was frankly delightful to see a movie about lumpenprole revolutionaries of color that was, if not explicitly about that, more or less exclusively about it.

The thing that made this movie work - other than moments like the corridor fight scene and the explicit links between the state and white supremacist movements - was the way it telescoped in and out of characters, making no one have to be emblematic of everything. People were allowed to be complex, to contain multitudes, and to do so without the whole movie being some boring character study. The ideas this movie wanted to hit on were allowed to breath without sacrificing any of the action.

It's just all around a really phenomenal thing.

#3 The Miseducation of Cameron Post


There were a lot of nice, well-framed shots throughout this movie about a group of teens being emotionally abused by shitty adults - the moment where John Gallagher Jr's Pastor Rick breaks down being exemplary. It wouldn't be at all the same thing if this had the stakes of a horror film, but the fact that it was shot like one went a long way for me.

I have two ideas as to why this movie lingered with me so powerfully throughout the year. That previous paragraph is the first one; the composition was just strong. In terms of pure visual enjoyment and in terms of a varied aesthetic palette. That aspect was super surprising. The second one is the reason I went to see this thing in the first place.

Chloë Grace Moretz gives, for my money, the best performance of the year. I'm no acting critic, but she does a great job of letting the camera linger on her, in a way that is better than Ethan Hawke in First Reformed. And he did great in that! But her reservations with the people around her, her disinterest in being there, the way she barely registers that this is punishment until people take a genuine interest in her; all these things played out entirely in her expressions and body language and they felt fucking real to me.

I don't know that I've ever even considered having a thing on a best of list because of a central performance. I barely think about acting at all. I bet any one of you reading this could make a better case than I could for a different, better job done this year. But it modeled something for me that I needed to see in a person, and it did so among beautiful composition and in circumstances that felt real.

Fuck me, was this my favorite movie this year? No. Okay. No. It's baffling that it got so close, though.

#2 Good Manners (As Boas Maneiras)


Good Manners (aka As Boas Maneiras) is The Brazilian Lesbian Werewolf Movie. It is more than that also, but it is especially that. Specifically, it is The Brazilian Lesbian Movie for the first half, and The Brazilian Werewolf Movie for the second. Because one of the lesbians gives birth to the werewolf, and does not make it out alive. And because the movie shifts so immensely in that moment that it feels like two movies.

This might be the only movie I've ever seen where I had to leave the theater while I was watching it. I stepped outside for about ten minutes. It is not gory, and it is not manipulative. It's just so fucking much. The love story in the first half is so complicated by class; the werewolf story in the second is so fraught by gender and parenthood. Everything about this movie gnawed away at core aspects of me as a person. I really need to rewatch it. Because it might be my favorite thing of this year, but also because I was simply so overwhelmed that I have a hard time articulating anything.

One thing: this movie loves floors. There are such particular angled shots that take in the carpets and the ground. It's a movie that looks down, that averts its cinematic eye temporarily, only to return to the sights. I don't know that I can make an argument about how that works holistically, because the whole overwhelmed me and so eludes me. But I remember that.

#1 Blindspotting


About a third of the way through Blindspotting, there's a dream sequence. Our main character, in the last days of his parole, is in a courtroom. Everyone is rapping or reciting slam poetry. The visuals are stark and uncompromising; probably taking inspiration from The Trial. It is messy and I am willing to bet it doesn't work for a lot of people; I am willing to bet there are innumerable versions of me that it doesn't work for. The version of me who saw it, though, was entranced. Up to that point, I would have scoffed if you told me that this might be my favorite movie of 2018. From that point on, I was rapt.

This movie feels grounded in the right way, which is to say intentionally and purposefully. The slow opening moments provide a space of contrast for the more extravagant bits; Collin's slow gestures toward rapping aren't overwrought character bits but a build towards climax; Val's lowkey acceptance of the signifiers of gentrification when applied to others is a central tension rather than a quirk. This is a movie that feeds into itself with an intensity that allows it to get away with a climax that should be deeply embarrassing. And that is, in some ways. But it still works beautifully.

I'm willing to admit that some of my infatuation came from seeing shots of the neighborhood I've called home, on and off, for over six years at this point. That part probably won't translate. I suspect a lot of things about this movie might not translate, honestly. That's fine. Knowing what a singular experience I had with this movie, I can't do anything but highly recommend it. Not because I think everyone will like it, or because I think it's without flaws. But because it captures so many things so well that maybe someone else might have that singular experience, and I think that's worth it.

Which is more or less my motto, I suppose. I'm not good at recommending things to people. I think a lot of that comes down to how particular the joy I get out of things is, how much of myself I inevitably bring to the table. I wouldn't trade the experience I had with Blindspotting in 2018 for any other movie, even ones I think are better. Which is why it's up here.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Top 10 Albums of 2018

This year wasn't a particularly strong one for the kinds of music I'm interested in. I attempted to keep up to date with major country releases on and off, and most of them were deeply disappointing. Most of the rap I listened to didn't stick with me. I didn't keep up with my friends' stuff, even, all that much. But hey, here's a thing: at the bottom of this list, in its own section, I'm going to list to some stuff from the scenes I've orbited for a while. Check them out.

#10 Janelle Monae - Dirty Computer


I've always felt a little embarrassed over how much I like Janelle Monae. Which is: a bit. I think her work is fantastic, what I've heard of it. I also haven't had much of it on rotation. When I listen, it often clicks with me. When I'm not listening, I tend to forget about it, other than that she's very good and doing really cool stuff. Dirty Computer was very nearly the same, for me, until I forced myself to listen to it a half dozen times over the course of this year. I'm not sure that I get it, now, necessarily, but this sure is one hell of an album.

#9 Nine Inch Nails - Bad Witch


I've never been a fan of Nine Inch Nails. In the last few years, my feelings have softened; I kind of hated them back in the day. When I got into industrial and noise in my early college years, I really hated them. Then I learned about how much he was genuinely a part of that world, and eventually started dating someone with a longstanding love of them. Then they appeared on Twin Peaks, and I was like fine. Fine, I guess I'm okay with this Trent Reznor nerd.

I listened to Bad Witch - maybe the first full album of theirs I've ever listened to? - because of an offhanded recommendation made on the Black Banner Magic podcast. In the backseat of a car driving in the dark, it ended up surprising me. Bad Witch is full of weird breakbeats, sometimes reminding me of (and I'm not an expert here, trust) some weird halfway point between UK Garage and Atari Teenage Riot. Other points - "Play the Goddamned Part" in particular - didn't so much feel reminiscent of Nurse With Wound as they transported me directly back to walking through the woods listening to them at night in 2007.

Anything that puts me in the headspace of Atari Teenage Riot and Nurse With Wound is something I'm going to have a fondness for. I don't know that I love Bad Witch; I probably won't even return to it that many times. But there's a specific kind of joy to it that I can't deny, for me at least.

#8 Trust Fund - Bringing the Backline


I wasn't a huge fan of We Have Always Lived in the Harolds, the last Trust Fund record I listened to; it took down the energy from Seems Unfair, their previous, and became contemplative. Which wasn't an objectively bad thing, but my favorite song of theirs is "Football," and I think that's what I come to their music for: incisive pop punk about selves, little moments in relationships, and a pleasant, conflicted energy. That's not fair to them as people or musicians, but it is what it is, I guess.

Bringing the Backline is a nice dialectical synthesis of Seems Unfair and Harolds. The soundscape is way lusher, not just by tweaking the main instrumentation with fuzz and other effects but adding synthesizers and some other new instruments. All of which is mixed to keep Ellis Jones' vocals at the forefront, which is incredibly important.

If anything, the thing that Trust Fund does so well is to be a band that cracks jokes that aren't particularly funny, and to be funny without cracking jokes. Jokes can do a lot of things other than make you laugh; they can show character or reveal psychology. Jones is good at that, and it's pretty cool to hear.

#7 T.I. - Dime Trap


T.I.'s the anti-Jay-Z. Both are some of the first models of what it looks like to be an old rapper who isn't washed up, but continues to redefine his own work without getting lost in the past. Jay-Z's model is of a business, man, though. T.I.'s is a slow, steady radicalization.

He's not at the forefront of anything. "The Amazing Mr. Fuck Up" is one of my favorite tracks on the album, but the beat sounds like some shit Lil B was doing in 2012 when he was "proving" he was more than a novelty, only with more money. His politics aren't as sharp as Vic Mensa or Vince Staples'. But no one else has his body of work, and the way he presses and shapes it is still meaningful.

And there's always something about me that will get weak kneed for a rapper who overflows his bars, especially when it's done in a way that conveys that the rapper just wants to keep going rather than being unable to edit. T.I.'s one of the kings of that.

Song by song, it's not the strongest album he's ever put out. The back half suffers a bit, but the closing track - "Be There" - wraps it up pretty nicely.

#6 Lil Wayne - Tha Carter V


I have this problem where any time I think I want to write something quick about Lil Wayne, I almost write ten thousand words. I am not going to do that. My verdict, quick and dirty: Tha Carter V is disappointing, but it's also way better than it is disappointing.

It's disappointing because Tha Carter III made expectations impossible; these numbered Carters have to be perfectly in line with the times, push beyond them, and breakout successes. That's not what this is. It's a reflection, in line with most of Lil Wayne's other music since the fallout with Cash Money. It fits into his phenomenal body of work really well, and has some absolute standout moments. It's a very, very good record.

#5 Pistol Annies - Interstate Gospel


Even without this third album, their first in half a decade, the Pistol Annies were already all timers. Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley push each other's individual tendencies towards irreverence, subversion, and striking images into the stratosphere; many songs get a single verse from each, and it is clear that any one of those verses could have been expanded into a very good song. They rule.

This record is a bit of a weird one, though. Track by track, it's incredibly solid. The songwriting moves along quickly and pleasantly, highlighting both quips and central ideas without a single song seeming to drag. "Commissary" is a possible counterexample, but only because I don't think the characters get enough space to develop. "When I Was His Wife," "Got My Name Changed Back," and "Milkman" are all examples of the Annies at their finest, full of joy in shit talk and language. Another example: the first verse of the second proper song - "Best Years of My Life" - are:
I picked a good day for a recreational Percocet
I've got an itch to just get high
I'm in the middle of the worst of it
these are the best years of my life
On the other hand, the album opens with "Interstate Prelude," which turns out to be the first minute and change of the title track. As an opener, it's fine; in context of the album, it's a bit awkward. It seems, at least on a first listen, to be aimed at signaling that the girls are proper Christians, despite what you're about to hear. Because that's more or less what the song proper conveys, if in the metaphor of being on the road as a musician.

My impression, more or less, is that this is a Pistol Annies record that has incredible songs, exactly like you'd want. As an album, I'm a little less convinced. But that's okay with me. It has moments of intergenerational tension in "Milkman," of solidarity among women in "When I Was His Wife," of the strange social formations around coupledom in "Masterpiece." It's full of good shit, in other words.

#4 Robyn - Honey


I've been basically checked out of Robyn's output since Body Talk 1-3, and if Honey is any indication I haven't missed a whole lot (apparently it's her first release since then? -ed). Her music still vacillates between incredibly straightforward singles sung in her breathy falsetto that work very well, surrounded by songs that verge on talking, often. Her themes are still about brokenness in relationships, becoming-robotic (but rarely, maybe never, digital), and alienated bodies writhing against themselves and with each other. And it's still hella compelling.

It's in the space that those oscillations create that her distinctive lyrics find their footing. The chorus for "Beach2k20," for instance, goes:
[Do you want to go out]
To this cute place on the beach
They do really nice food
I mean, it's right on the beach
Come through, it'll be cool.
That last bit is one exemplar; Robyn's so often in a mode of awkward aloofness, a fake uncaring that comes across as flirting. It's one way that she focuses. Another: she characterizes her second-person, only to be merciless toward them, as in "Because It's In The Music:"
And I wonder when you hear it
Are you getting that same feeling?
Like you wanna break down and hide.
I keep playing it anyway
If there's a thing that I appreciate about Robyn's records, and which I only realized listening to Honey, it's how much that focus matters. Her range gives her the ability to talk specifically and personally about the "you" that most pop music leaves as ambiguous as possible, without collapsing it into memoir. Which couples with her thematic fascination with alienation from bodies - her own included - to become hella relatable. Also the way she insists on four-to-the-floor kicks even when they're demonstrably unnecessary is very endearing to me.

#3 cupcakKe - Ephorize


Ephorize was sort of my go-to album this year. If I wanted to listen to something and wasn't in the thrall of either of my top two, it was probably what I turned on. Even if I didn't, I'd consider turning it on before deciding, say, to check out something new or to give Tha Carter V or Dirty Computer another shot.

There's something about the way that cupcakKe structures a chorus that gets me every time.
Tap the head of the dick, duck duck duck goose
Head of the dick, duck duck duck goose
Get that dick up and runnin when he fuck this cooch
Covered in all my cum the dick be lookin' like a goose
is genuinely the best. She largely uses simple phrasing and heavy repetition in a funny voice, and it hasn't gotten old to me at all. Even when it's on her weird social justicey tracks ("Crayons" from this album) that I'm less keen on even though I appreciate that she consistently does them.

If you know cupcakKe's music it's probably because of her sex songs, which are very good. They're good because of their content, but mostly because they give her a canvas on which to play with goofy one-liners. I prize rappers who convey how much they enjoy themselves while they perform their craft above everything, and cupcakKe is up there.

cupcakKe also released an album late in the year, Eden, which wasn't quite the heavy hitter her first was. There is a song called "Garfield" where the chorus is just her saying "fat cat fat cat fat cat fat cat fat cat fat cat… Garfield. Garfield Garfield Garfield, Garfield Garfield Garfield," though, which is pretty excellent.

#2 Priscilla Renea - Coloured


I think this might be the actual best country record of this year, but the one that follows managed to eat me alive so well that I can't help but put it at number one.

Coloured is such a neat thing. It's a reflection on growing up black in America, using country and pop (and some rap, musically) as a medium. It opens with "Family Tree," a song with a striking central image and that has a chorus that erupts like a fucking volcano in the chorus. "Jonjo" follows, which is catchy and affable and just joyous. Crucially, "Denim" is on this album, fulfilling the quota every country record must meet of having a song with an overly belabored metaphor that is kind of wack but also really endearing.

The closing two songs are what make the album, in my mind at least. "Let's Build a House" is a slow, methodical appeal to resilience (sorry Robin James) that at least gestures toward a kind of collectivity, again with a strong central image, and is also just a lovely song. And then there's "Land of the Free," which explicitly refers to its propagandistic function:
If you don't believe it's true, I guess I wrote this song for you
You'd think I'd say these words because I hate America?
No
That's just life for me
Living while black in the land of the free
It also has a complicated relationship to reparations, and a lengthy, Hendrix-esque rendition of the National Anthem at the end. I love it for all of that. It's such a particular thing, so clearly and fully felt, and so welcome in its genre. I love this record a bunch.

#1 Kacey Musgraves - Golden Hour


In my messiest moments this year, I spent weeks doing very little but listening to the back half of Golden Hour - from "Space Cowboy" on - on repeat while playing the Microsoft Solitaire Collection. I was doing daily challenges in each of the five variants while those songs played. I can't really hear any of them without my vision partially dissolving into Klondike. I did have a wonderful moment, on the way to see Taylor Swift's Reputation tour, sharing a love of this album with two friends. That has hopefully helped it to stay away from becoming my new Hybrid Theory, the Linkin Park album I still can't hear without subvisualizing the sewers of Cabilis from EverQuest.

This is a good fucking album. I've always been a bit low on Musgraves' work - she has felt to me, for some time, like country music for people who don't like country music. Which is fine, I guess, but it isn't for me. Except when it is, like, perfectly made for me.

There isn't a bad song on the fucking thing. "Slow Burn" sets everything up so well; "Lonely Weekend" is such a compelling look at the kind of person I know (and can be) who really needs to backseat their relationship and enjoy friends. "Butterflies" is damn near perfect. "Oh, What a World," is very good filler at worst (that continues the vocoded motif that the rest of the album needs to work), "Mother" is incredible, and "Love is a Wild Thing" is maybe the closest the album comes to a forgettable song, and probably also the best traditional country bop on the record.

Let's keep going: "Space Cowboy" is so good it made me want to watch Cowboy Bebop, a show it has nothing to do with, really, and which I don't give a shit about. "Happy & Sad" is the best song about anxiety I've ever heard, including that it doesn't know that that's what it's about (or at least the narrator doesn't). "Velvet Elvis" is the most annoying thing in a very heartwarming way. "Wonder Woman" isn't for me but I very much appreciate the sentiment. "High Horse" is what sold me on the album, because it bangs and because its criticisms are so vague and so endlessly intriguing. "Golden Hour" is the best possible way to close this thing out, and "Rainbow" is a really nice coda.

Speaking of which: it's no Rainbow, but I'm frankly surprised anything this year even got remotely close. That's the highest praise, from me, I think, that I could possibly give.

Some Other Stuff You Should Listen To


Quick note: some of the folks here I know well, some I have hung out with a handful of times, some I barely know at all or effectively don't. This is just some stuff from a scene or two I've never been a part of but have been around for, well, like, a long time, lets say. I'm not a good guide to it, either. Look these folks up and find out who they've worked with and shit. It's worth your time.