Temporary Layoffs: Good Times?

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James “JJ” Evans may have been born to the proud, positive (if sometimes injuriously so) parentage of Florida and James Evans, but his bloodline runs thick with the watermelon sap of the Sambo family tree. Yet the blatant stereotype in JJimmie Walker’s kool-aid gulping, jive talking, chicken-hat sporting, velvet-clad  JJ only distracted from the subtler affirmations of white hegemonic values.  White viewers were distanced from the issues plaguing the residents of the Evans family’s neighbourhood – inflation, job shortages, gang violence, poverty – which were instead rested on the comfortably intangible powers that be.  A monolithic government force, and not a society of individuals, caused the problems, and, as the show’s title and laugh track affirmed, things really weren’t so bad (Coleman 97).

As Herman Gray notes in Watching Race:

“The television programs involving blacks were largely representations of what white liberal middle-class television program makers assumed (or projected) were “authentic” accounts of poor black urban ghetto experiences.  Good Times (1974-79)… for example, [was] set in poor urban communities and populated by blacks who were often unemployed or underemployed.  But more important, for the times, these black folks were good-natured and united in racial solidarity regardless (or perhaps because) of their condition.  Ironically, despite the humor and social circumstances of the characters, these shows idealize and quietly reinforce a normative white middle-class construction of family, love and happiness.” (77)

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Even as viewers shared, guilt-free, in the struggles of the Evans family, the show quickly “degenerated into a boisterous racial farce” (MacDonald 186).  Seeing the enormous popularity of the re-imagined minstrel, Lear insisted on JJ’s heightened presence on the series, writing his signature catchphrase, “DY-NO-MITE!” into every episode.   “As scripts increasingly pandered to JJ’s buffoonery,” John Amos left the show, followed later by Esther Rolle, leaving television’s first wholesome, if cloying, black family in the hands of the eldest son (MacDonald 186).   JJ’s foil and younger brother, Michael “the militant midget” Evans’ character arc followed much the same trajectory as the show itself.  Without the intervention of the “proud, strong and determined image of Afro-American fatherhood,” the Malcolm X-quoting star student soon became his older brother’s double (MacDonald 186).  The potency of Michael’s politics, however, is problematized by his youth.  At the show’s start, Michael Evans is a twelve-year old encyclopedia of black history and mouthpiece for black pride mantras.  Yet “the militant midget” poses no real threat of revolution; he still needs his mother’s permission to play basketball after dark.  To temper the potential threat of JJ, a seventeen-year old, womanizing and smooth-talking black male, he is made ridiculous.  His appearance is the subject of joke after joke (in the playful dozens-style taunts of his family), he is inarticulate, he fails school and carries himself like a peacock-feathered turkey.

I propose a close-reading of a pivotal episode of Good Times, season three episode twenty-four, the season finale, entitled “The Rent Party,” to further examine the image politics, both onscreen and off, present in the series.  It is James Evans’ last appearance on the show and a rare episode not to highlight, let alone exclude, JJ.  Following this episode, Michael’s transformation is most apparent, as is the exaggerated emphasis on JJ’s character.

The episode begins with an allusion to JJ’s absence; “Kid Dy-no-mite” is in St. Louis for an art competition.  JJ’s (rare) exclusion from the episode only heightens his presence.  The exaggerated buffoonery absorbed so intrinsically in the character as to desensitize the audience ] becomes blatantly and doubly visible when it is performed by another (and largely antithetical) character.  Brother Michael, the “militant midget,” clears his throat and ‘blacks up’ to imitate JJ on the telephone.  Adopting blackvoice (playing the suave dozens, Michael tells the caller “Mama, just make sure you are dressed for the test and I will do my best to take care of the rest”) and the accompanying gestural excess, the voice of black liberation, education and solidarity becomes a conduit for JJ’s cartoonish antics.  Even when present, JJ creates a sort of negative cultural space, occupying the limbic area “between black invisibility and white-authorized representations of blackness” (Gray 156).  When he is physically absent, then, the rounder, more fulfilled character of Michael fills the bean-pole shaped void, making visible the emptiness of the present-JJ and compromising his own representation.  The layers of visible and invisible blackness, as well as the episode’s referentiality speaks to Stuart Hall’s intervention in textual reading:

“The directly behavioral ‘message’ has been stylized and conventionalized by the intervention of a highly organized set of codes and genre conventions (a code-of-codes, or meta-code).  The intervention of the codes appear to have the effect of neutralizing one set of meanings, while setting another in motion” (Hall 52)

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In the case of Good Times, genre conventions, specifically those of the black sitcom, are embedded in its reading. The obvious attempts at re-writing this code (the intervention of serious social issues in place of light comedic fare) are mere misdirects from the show’s actual capacity to complicate and subvert its layers of meaning.  In spite of, or rather because of, its singular generic placement in the realm of the black sitcom, Good Times covertly reveals and hides a much deeper set of cultural codes, enclosing the full history of black television in what its four cameras show.  Thus, as traced in the previous sections, Good Times, potentially, encodes vaudevillian/minstrel roots, the injurious TV minstrelsy of the 1950s, the empty space of the 1960s, government intervention and black reaction and the reel upon reel of news footage intrinsic to the contemporary image of African Americans.  In most cases, these codes come out in obvious one-liners, like Michael’s assertion that “black ain’t beautiful on a yellow bus” or Florida’s lamentations that movie heroes were either white or Stepin Fetchit.  Yet, in the episode “The Rent Party,” Good Times makes notes of its roots and their lingering presence.

As the title suggests, the primary conflict of this episode is the impending eviction of an elderly (and sassy and audience-beloved) tenant, Wanda, and the Evans’ efforts to keep her under their ghetto’s collective roof.  Wanda’s forcible eviction is not rested on the shoulders of the dominant race or classes and their institutional ignorance of inner-city issues, but rather, indirectly, on the weak-willed, overweight, clumsy, lazy and disliked (black) janitor.   Bookman, in fact, despite his blatant scripting as a flat (but blubbery) post-Amos Andy, is somehow outside of the black experience; in a barely audible in-joke, Bookman says to James, you just can’t be nice to you people,” to James’ indignant, “you people?!”  Failing to implicate the white populace in blame, yet assigning it to a exaggeratedly stereotypical character who nonetheless identifies with whiteness complicates the centers of oppression and injustice in the show’s microcosm of black experience.  Thus, Bookman is the “good nigger,” who caters to white society to the extent that he identifies with the oppressor despite the obvious ridicule of him.  For the show’s run, Bookman’s justified unpopularity is alluded to often, yet its roots in “whiteness” only come to light in James Evans’ final moments.

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The titular rent party becomes a stage for an intra-textual variety show, placing the sitcom in the cultural space of Ed Sullivan and T.D. Rice.  The episode becomes a frame for the diegetic entertainment at the party, creating a variety/vaudeville show within the coding of the sitcom.  The “pride of the projects, Michael Evans,” as announced by standing emcee James Evans, begins the rec-room variety show, performing Ruby and the Romantic’s “When You’re Young and in Love.”  Despite the innocence of the lyrics and the tameness of the dancing, this performance, when combined with Michael’s earlier performance of his older brother, marks the militant midget’s transition from perverse intelligentsia to women-chasing re-imagined buck.

Constructed mulatto Bookman then performs a nuanced imitation of Ed Sullivan and his interviewees.  Playing the roles of popular white cultural figures to the delight of a fictional black ghetto audience and an actual studio audience, Bookman situates himself precariously between white-scripted blackness and black-scripted whiteness.  Such is its meta-code: the conventions of vaudeville are re-imagined through the lens of the variety show which is then distorted by its containment in a sitcom.  The implicit audience in the vaudeville reference is doubled by the onscreen audience of the show’s tenants and tripled by the studio audience adding to the laugh track.  And the conflation of vaudeville with variety updates the minstrel image to exclude possible direct readings of inverse minstrelsy, and hide/reveal the possibility of racial farce turned around.

Good Times’ potential power relied on a slow but inexorable mixing of authentic black culture and problems into white values and white assumptions of authentic black culture and problems.  Thus, its gentle comedy and upholding of normative white middle-class values were the assimilationist and pluralistic prelude to the eventuality of multiculturalism.  Yet, following one episode of slightly more visible subversion, its potential collapsed under the weight of plurality.  The two world could not mix, so the son killed off the father to maintain the blackness approved of by whites.  In the hands of “Kid Dy-no-mite,” a show with mild, but real potential for change imploded; the Evans’ project was long-condemned.

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krill: steve hears pile in malden and [i burst] into tears [incoherent]

Seinfeld

DISXLAIMER: enamored of Krill on an aural maybe cosmic maybe personal wink wink I love you plane, so.  This is mostly a scribbled note about me liking Krill more than me

It’s really nice that people that are sad and sensitive and with an arsenal of words and feelings that only seem expressible to me via semi-tongue-in-cheek reviews and tweets in a vacuum have a band like Krill to turn their cotton-logged thoughts into songs.  It’s really nice that they can compact these into not-long, litote-free sentences that read well on the back of a pristine 10” (if the print is a bit blurred by false dry-ribbon and true pixilation).

Says Brian to me, “hey, is this some sort of Seinfeld reference, y’know, the black and white cookie”  Yes it fucking is Brian, by which I mean it’s a reference to my dad’s boundless love for chinese cookies and transitive boundless love and boundless and boundless and boundless, brian, dummy, i will never kill myself. We wish we weren’t “we,” Dr. Leone. This is really beautiful, mostly lyrically though.  I don’t love some of the sounds.

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Sacrament! Religious syncretism in Quebecois wrestling

This is an excerpt from an essay I did which received an appropriately shitty mark

…Since Roland Barthes’ seminal 1972 essay, “The World of Wrestling,” the sport (as I’ll call it until wrestling is more thoroughly defined) has entered the ring of cultural and performance studies scholarship. Scholars grapple to define and locate so elusive a sport, which to Barthes was an “Exhibition of Suffering,” to others was a gendered performance, an archetypal tragedy, an orgy or fundamentally a comedy.  I shy from any teleological reading of wrestling.  It defies essentialism in its very performativity; as is often the case in performance studies, wrestling is too ephemeral, too changing, too slippery to capture in a chokehold.  It is an act of and from the body and therefore potentially tragedian, archetypal, heteronormative homoerotic, orgiastic or comedic in description, but like the rippling sinew and undulating flesh of its performers, not any one thing.  It is more accurately, as Sharon Mazer notes in her Sport and Spectacle, “a sport that is not in the literal sense of the word, sporting; a theatrical entertainment that is not theatre,” in short a performance of contradictions.

In a damp church basement in northern Montreal, these contrary bodies (opposed to definition, opposed to each other) meet every Saturday night to battle in an ICW ring. This display, a particularly Quebecois imitation of WWE wrestling, is what Barthes describes as true wrestling:” performed in second-rate halls, where the public spontaneously attunes itself to the spectacular nature of the contest, like the audience at a suburban cinema.”   Rows of metal chairs sit before a metal barrier in front of the ‘ring’ – a twenty by twenty foot square – surrounded by rope, and in the moments before the announcer’s entrance, anticipation.  Amongst the many bodies at play in wrestling are those of the audience, the standing or seated, cheering, jeering, leering consumers and directors of the performance in the ring.    Belonging to both the seamy and scholarly, wrestling has amassed an audience whose own archetypal performances shape the world of wrestling.  Primarily, there are the ‘marks’ and the ‘smarts,’ those who believe the “visual markers of authenticity” and those who participate in “fandom [as] a mode of performative consumption”(Koh).  For the marks, –who believe the narrative, who see naturally occurring heroes and villains and not managed personae, who see a steel chair to the head and not stage fighting, –the performance is ultimate physicality.  These people privilege the immediacy of the enactment over the script, but in their complete engagement and belief, are most susceptible to encountering the text within the spectacle. The ‘smarts’ are active readers of the script, watching and reading how the plan is actualized yet still engaging in the language of moments embodied on stage.  Their fixation on the spectacle is naturalized by the immediacy of engrossment, but underscored by an ironic practice of over-engrossment.

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 When the first match begins – with a shirtless, spandex-clad blonde hero pitted against a bandanna-sporting, skull-bedecked villain – the line between the knowing spectator and the beguiled one is erased.   Whether or not the hero’s choreographed motions (the hero is thrown to the ground, he rises in pain, he gallantly punches and pins the still-celebrating villain) are ‘real’ is irrelevant.  The audience collectively and compulsively cries out at the hero’s pain and shouts at the villain’s, the audience’s bodies receiving the true emotions mimed on stage.  Such is the peculiar pleasure of wrestling, which lies “in believing and disbelieving in what it sees at the same time” (Mazer 7).

The lack of distinction, and the lack of importance, separating ‘fact’ from ‘fiction’ in the wrestling arena opens the possibilities of a dogmatic reading – wrestling is a play of faith.  Above the bodies posing and pounding on the ICW stage hangs the body of Christ, framing the display of physicality in the space of religion.  Because of its immaterial relation to reality, the actual contest is extraneous, and the “ritualized encounter between opponent, replayed repeatedly over time for an exceptionally engaged audience” is privileged (Mazer 3).  Ritual is performed in the ring, in the makeshift pews and from the rafters.  The audience, suspending disbelief or genuinely believing, practices the rite of faith.  Here, wrestling becomes catechistic; a moralistic tale of good and evil, multiple re-iterations of man’s literal fall from grace.  The sacrifice of the body, the mutilated flesh, the spilled blood, citationally reenact crucifixion.  The placing of this even within a peculiarly Quebecois house of worship adds layers of cultural meaning to the bodies present.  Shouts of “tabernacle!” and “sacrament!” come from the audience like displaced “hallelujahs.”   Simultaneously reiterating the religious foundation of Quebecois culture (particularly in this event) and blaspheming it, worship and heresy become utterances of the same sentiment…

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Hey, it’s a Movie! (2): Venus Victrix

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/919642/Blonde-Venus-Movie-Clip-Hot-Voodoo.html

At the time of Josef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus’ release, times certainly were changing.  Film audiences were still vibrating with the excitement of the advent of sound. WWI had only just waved farewell to arms and another global catastrophe loomed with the rise of the Third Reich.  Cities were being rebuilt, as were family dynamics in the midst of an unprecedentedly seismic global catastrophe. Renaissances sprung up on every front, from Harlem to the household.  Unsurprisingly then, despite insistence on a return to normalcy, change and instability became the standard of the time.  In Blonde Venus, this insecure modernization perilously coexists with the equally precarious status quo.  Ultra-modern pitted against the primitive, masculinity alongside femininity, white beside black, work versus leisure and other oppositions all point to the mutability of power in an age of uncertainty.  In a memorable performance scene, in which Marlene Dietrich’s Helen Faraday gives a cabaret pantomime of African dance, she straddles the unexpectedly narrow gulf between power and subservience, primarily as they relate to gender and progress.  In the dance scene in Blonde Venus, Sternberg utilizes film’s formal features to ape the shifting lines of status in an ever-modernizing society.

Power swings uneasily across gendered lines in this scene, where sexuality simultaneously empowers and endangers heteronormativity. Conventionally, the male is imbued with signifiers of potency: industry, progress, control – posturing him assertively over the female realm of domesticity, traditionalism and objectification.   Yet within this scene, these associations become androgenized, and, even when relegated to their gendered bounds, culturally impotent. Helen’s re-introduction to the stage marks both a feminine victory and defeat; she must usurp the role of man-as-worker (her husband having been chemically castrated, so to speak, by the technology over which he should have dominion), but she also must cater to the lusts of her presumably male audience. Helen’s caravan of dancers’ entrance onto stage seems to emphasize the latter role, with the camera severing their heads and parading their gyrating torsos and undulating legs.   Their rhythmic unity fuses the harem of exotic dancers into a spineless, carnal mass, maneuvered by the thrust of (man-powered) drums.

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As the dancers’ ward, a shackled gorilla, and their audience, a jungle of gawkers, enter the frame, their hierarchal stance comes into question.  These amazons, objects though they may be, have total authority over the hairy ape and over their rapt masculinized audience. In fact, the dynamism of the performers incapacitates their onlookers, who are visually camouflaged and pruned by the set’s foliage.   As the women raise their pseudo tribal masks and march their prisoner towards camera and into the crowd, its position, too, comes into question.  It is pushed and pulled by the chain-wielding dancers, it appears lost and confused amongst the roaring audience and it is impotent to resist the drag of its captors.  Yet, it is the locus of the scene, the only distinguishable figure amongst a sea of masked women and anonymous spectators.  As the dancers begin an apparently ritualized dance around the beast, it is elevated to a near deific status.  Has primal man regained power over its harem?  Clambering onto stage, opening his beastly mouth (in protest? Threat? Mocking laughter?), the beast removes his hirsute costume to reveal an effeminate hand, face, body – those of Helen Faraday.  Thus, this feminine form assumes the masculine power of the deified ape, now transmuted into her strident display of sexuality. The beast has discovered tools: namely, that of her body.  She is blatantly sexualized, emblazoned in her costume’s pubic plumes and adorned torso; however, as a performer, her masquerade is voluntary and positions her above the audience and their gaze.  Even when objectified, Helen’s feminine sexuality earns her top billing.

The lines of power as they relate to progress, too, become blurred in the fervor of the dance scene.  Within the scene, ‘male’ and ‘female’ lose their opposing connotations as powerful or weak, now delegated to ‘progress’ and ‘primitivism.’ Progress is cultivated, human, white, in control; primitivism is wild, animal, black, enslaved.  Yet within this scene, the primacy of evolution over regression and the distinctions between such dichotomies are put into doubt.  Opening the scene, two dark hands pound a potent, tribal rhythm on the drums.  The shot cuts to the orchestra’s beaming black conductor, framed by the nightclub’s jungle-themed décor.  His inane grin and crown of palm fronds displace him within the scene, undermining the control his natty suit, wielded baton and deliberate choreography might otherwise privilege him.  Rendering him unsophisticated – inferior to the white audience who comfortably inhabit a tailored suit – he is reduced to minstrelsy, yet the need to unarm this “primitive” suggests his innate power.

The dancers’ and Marlene’s performance calls into question the supposed dominance inherent to modernity, miming savagery to show the flaws of cultivation.  As the dancers shimmy into frame– again, they are a mass of headless, black bodies, gyrating in irreligious ritual – their visual recollection of their displacement from Africa (urbanity’s symbolic opposite) equates them to feral exoticness.  Like rare birds, decorated in plumes no less, these women are animalized, made objects to be captured and to captivate.  Thus, these simulated women-of-the-jungle are enslaved as objects of visual pleasure, yet also have agency over their urbanite audience, which is hypnotized by their rhythmic and aesthetic fascinations.  The chains linking the women together also evoke ambiguous readings: are they shackled in slavery or united in solidarity?

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Their ward, earlier read as man, can now be read as his evolutionary ancestor, an animal displaced from Africa.  The women have complete sway over him, further confusing their role on the hierarchy of power; made animal by their modern viewers, they are nonetheless the tamers of an even wilder beast.  As the chained ape and its leaders parade through the crowd, they remain largely in the shade of the artificial jungle and their metropolitan audience is bathed in shimmering whiteness.  Yet white is not necessarily suggested as light nor as right; in fact the audience is in the dark, duped into believing their agency over the performers.  Spectatorship itself indicated status; leisure time was privileged only to the masters of modern living, yet this performance retrogresses its audience, making them dumb onlookers of ancient rites. The performers trap their supposedly enlightened spectators in dumb paralysis, who unknowingly look on in carnal, not intellectual delight.

The music, fusing tribal beats and jazz, refers to opposing paradigms of “black music.” The primordial rhythm degenerates black culture, but the modernity of jazz immediately denies such a denunciation. As progenitor of an artistic renaissance, blackness colors modern dominion and distances itself from, via ironic conflation, the notion of primitivism as weakness.  Blackness here re-appropriates displacement, celebrating a re-constructed Africa in the costuming and set; subverts primal weakness, taking prisoners, in the audience and in the ape, of its own and asserts cultural power, trumpeting black contribution to modern society with swinging refrain.

Uniting all signs of power’s growing mutability is the Blonde Venus herself: Helen Faraday and her transformative performance. Removing her costume and adopting a bleached Afro wig (bedecked with mock-African talismans), she becomes a masquerade of black culture.  Yet, in her completed conflation of man with woman, animal with human, converting implied power in the process, her fusion of black with white cannot be read as mere masquerade.  Instead, it aligns her, a figure of power, with a culture read by her audience as inferior.  Moreover, as a performing ape-turned-sentient performer, she regains control of her masquerade, reducing her audience to knuckle-dragging onlookers.

The Blonde Venus — draped in fur or uncovered, masculine or feminine, sexual or sexualized, black or white, primitive or modern — divulges no absolute wielder of power. Instead, in her various roles and their conflictive and conflated stances, she merely questions with whom power lies, and whence comes history’s next victor.  Not only is power in constant flux between supposed opposites on the scales of gender and of progress, but also, like the volatility of the era, these opposites in themselves are fluid and interchangeable.

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Nada calm it: Venice beeeaaaach

 

“Hey dad, what’s that over there?” “Not a comet, I tell you what”

Or so goes the fake origin story I just made up right now of Notta Comet (now Notta Comet 3, without Galen) who guess what, have a new single called Venice Beach b/w Home.  Spoiler alert! It’s good.

 

Lol I’ve totally forgotten how to write so this is the thing where I say “ok, a joke about The Age of Reason and the number of types of canned tomatoes there are at Segall’s” and you kinda fill it in from there:

Like best witches, a p good band from Chicago

Spoken word (“this is the part of the song where I tell a story about…”)

Lung-stuff, edit: deeeep lung-stuff

Nervous glee

Nice-guy brawl-y

“You bring the p-funk. No cops”

Anxious art-rock

Less math-y then I expected (“chugga-chugga-chugga STOP chugga-chugga, one more time” says Mr. Guitar)

 

“Home” has more of the canned and condensed sprawl expected of Montreal mathcore jazzcore nerds, stacked to the f-in’ roster with little bits of in-joke confetti.  Nervous hiccough vocals, like a shocked statesman (immediate reference point is Pops from “Regular Show,” duh) quckly become Vincent Price invocations of male-wail freakouts in between cooed anti-harmonies.  . I half-expected “dada” chanting halfway through “Home,” but it’s groggy-excited doo-wop instead which is really just as well.   In just two songs, Venice condenses the great time Montreal post-hardcore is having right now, like just a lot of fun.  Even though I’m in New Jersey in a gross robe, definite long-distance love-affair via Notta Comet.  Postcard says, “wish u were here,” return to VENICE BEACH comma HOME.

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*Still* Room for *Shining Wizard*

Not being in Montreal is a very pressing issue in my life right now.  So is having a commensal at best relationship with art/media. That said, hearing Montreal duo *Shining Wizard*’s church-shaking new release is definitely activating the parts of my brain that can’t distinguish between envy and enjoyment (all of them).  Farley Miller and Alex Pelchat (of every band in Montreal [see also: the world]) bring tight dynamism to free jazz abstraction, toeing the line between creation and destruction with every free and freaky extended jam.  Miller’s drumming is tight and driving; Pelchat’s guitar is original without venturing into soloist solipsism.   Both know when to hold back and when to fucking go for it;  the serious musical chops so often associated with auto-canoodling are the with (mostly) none of the masturbation.  It is that tension between the high (re: those mathy song names! Like easily DFW chapter titles, tbh) and the low (re: grown men who happily discuss/name their band after WWE moves) that makes *Shining Wizard* brilliant.    Closer “Cling to the Fillibuster” runs through each of the genre tags in its bandcamp arsenal (“loud” may be an apt descriptor, but never a critique), going from straight-up sneering grime to jazz freakout in a matter of (well-times) seconds.  No Room for *Shining Wizard* is free jazz for even the uninitiated, a punk takeover of a music-snob genre.

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