Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Dracula Test

Given that criticism is what I do here, I enjoy reading professional literary and film criticism from time to time. When I pick up a critic's work, though, if it involves Victorian literature, horror, monsters, or anything of that sort, I have one simple test: do they understand Dracula?

For a culture with a huge backlash against Freud (some of which is unfair, I might add,) we sure do love talking like him to dismiss things! Dracula presents a pretty easy target; it's Victorian, so of course it's about repression! The female vampires are hot, so of course it's about how slutty women deserve to die! The heroine fights to escape the villain, so of course it's about how the only good woman is one who has no sex drive! The heroes kill the villain, so of course it's about how men need to keep their wives in line from dangerous foreign influences!

I know the phrase "you're wrong" is frowned upon in literary criticism, so let me put it this way: if you say the above, you have nothing more to say to me about books. I will neither agree with you nor find your opinions interestingly different; you may be brilliant, but I am unlikely to give you the benefit of the doubt.

Notice I didn't say you have to like Dracula. You can think it's the most boring book in the world, that the letter format is cliched, that Bram Stoker couldn't write dialogue to save his life, or that it could have stood to lose a couple hundred pages. And if you do like it, your interpretation doesn't have to be the same as mine. You can obsess over aspects I find trivial, or focus on implications that I can't see at all.

What matters is that you didn't take the easy way out, and that you actually paid attention to what you read.

Jane Smiley passes this test. So does David J. Skal. My beloved Kate Beaton fails it, but then I go to her for humor rather than criticism. And honestly, this could have been The Maltese Falcon Test (can you watch film noir without dismissing it all as male chauvinist anxiety?), The Romeo and Juliet Test (can you read Shakespeare without dismissing love at first sight as him signalling that characters are stupid?) or even The Video Game Test (can you appreciate that a medium can produce art without dismissing all of it as murder simulation?) All of these tests would indicate that a critic gives some thought to what they write, and has opinions I can share or at least respect.

For now, though, I still think of it as The Dracula Test.

Monday, April 2, 2012

How Gaming Made Me Like Country Music

I've always liked to think that I'm flexible when it comes to musical, with a few genre exceptions. Country was one of them; maybe it was family vacations where the adults chose Garth Brooks CDs that did it for me, or maybe it was radio stations playing borderline racist Toby Keith songs. Sure, I liked bluegrass, but that was folk music, not country. I was a liberal middle-class city girl, and I knew I wasn't country's target audience. So be it- not all music works for all people.

And then it turned out I was wrong, thanks to a couple of supernatural western RPGs.

My groups have always liked to have a gaming soundtrack, put at low volume during the entire session or just climactic scenes; dragon-killing is even more fun with Nightwish on in the background. It's a common practice among roleplayers, and some game books even make suggestions as to what music you should listen to while playing. Such was the case with Dogs in the Vineyard.

I've mentioned this game before, but it's something of a noir-western where you play Mormon gunslingers battling demons of sin (who are either abstract concepts or physical monsters- our GM always chose the latter.) The book reccomended putting on some spirituals and murder ballads on while playing, with maybe a little Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. My group went through our music collections and contributed songs for the playlist; Johnny Cash was there, Ennio Morricone was there, the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack was prominent, and a few tracks came from Nick Cave's album of murder ballads.

Johnny Cash was better than I expected; after listening to God's Gonna Cut You Down, I understood why he had such a following. The game was lots of fun, the soundtrack was a hit, and when it came time to play Deadlands, I decided to look for things to make another monster-western soundtrack.

The Devil Went Down to Georgia...hey, that's a really good song! So are these Appalachian ballads. And so is some band called Sixteen Horsepower. This page says they fit in the goth-country subgenre; does that mean there's more like it?

I had discovered the worlds of traditional and alt-country, which were much more to my taste than Toby Keith or Garth Brooks. Just as I discovered when Lupe Fiasco broke my preconceptions about rap, the good stuff doesn't always end up on the radio.

I'm not the only one who likes alt-country better than its pop equivalent. Columnist Chuck Klosterman argued that such banjo-filled ballads are made primarily for hipsters, and that pop-country is "real" because it reflects the actual experiences and preferences of rural Americans. Triggerman from Saving Country Music argues the opposite, that pop-country isn't real country, but a dumbed-down mess that reflects the truth of no one's life, while alt and traditional tap into the rich musical traditions of genuine Americana.

I'm not really one to speak on this matter as an aforementioned city girl; my mother fled the South as soon as she could, and it's never been a strong part of my heritage. Still, perhaps the fact that bands like O'Death and the Carolina Chocolate Drops can reach my jaded city heart counts for something?

All I know is that just as bringing in outside sources such as soundtracks can give a greater appreciation for the gaming experience, it can also work the other way around.