Women of the arts, working and (sometimes) finding success within discriminatory industries

Grimes. WireImage.

Grimes. WireImage.

By Jake Pitre

On April 23, 2013, the music artist Grimes, whose real name is Claire Boucher, wrote a lengthy manifesto on her Tumblr account, lambasting the music industry for its casual sexism. She wrote about how she doesn’t want to be molested at shows because people perceive her to be an object for their satisfaction, and how common and accepted this behaviour is. She goes on to call out men that approach her without being asked, offering to help out with her equipment.

“As if I did this by accident and I’m gonna flounder without them,” she wrote. “Or as if the fact that I’m a woman makes me incapable of using technology. I have never seen this kind of thing happen to any of my male peers.”

Lindsay Zoladz, associate editor at the music website Pitchfork, celebrates Grimes for speaking out about this issue. The fact is that women across all the arts often have a harder time finding success in their respective industries. Even once they do, they still have to deal with sexist and discriminatory situations like the ones Grimes described in her Tumblr post.

“It’s so common and widespread,” Zoladz said, “so I don’t think you could talk to a single female artist that doesn’t have a story like that.”

Creative and Cultural Skills, a council in the UK devoted to developing a skilled workforce, reports that the gender divide across all music industry related jobs is 67.8% male to 32.2% female. The Performing Rights Society, which represents songwriters and composers, has just a 13% female membership. There are many women in powerful positions, but they are still judged not on their talent alone.

“I think the way that women are viewed is a little bit different,” Zoladz said, “because there’s an emphasis on appearance, and people saying really nasty shit. [Women] have to prove it that they know things, especially stuff related to technology or equipment. I don’t think that most men experience that.”

Zoladz said that when she came to Pitchfork in 2011, she was one of the only women on the staff, and she hoped she would not be pigeonholed as the resident critic of female artists. More recently, she says that the editor-in-chief, Mark Richardson, strives for balance.

“I do think that he makes a conscious effort to balance [the gender divide] out,” she said, before adding, “which historically wasn’t always the case here. I think there’s a diversity among female writers now, so everyone’s able to develop their own voice.”

Despite her hope to avoid being labelled ‘the female critic’, it is true that 30 of her last 40 reviews on Pitchfork were of female or female-led artists, several of them covering themes of feminism, like The Knife, Bikini Kill and St. Vincent. She says this does not come from a pointed effort to request female or feminist artists.

“That’s more of a reflection of my personal bias as a listener,” she said. “Every critic brings their own bias to this job. It annoys me when I hear people say, ‘Oh, Pitchfork always just makes Lindsay Zoladz write about the female artists, to save them from being called sexist.’ I see this frequently. It denies [me] agency.”

She explained that one doesn’t see her male peers denied the same kind of agency for their own biases.

“People assume an agency there,” she said, “he listens to that music, he probably pitched it or wrote about it enough to be seen as his beat, simple as that.”

She went on to say that she appreciates and is grateful for the large audience Pitchfork has, but that to use that specifically to put forward certain politics (ie. feminism) would be irresponsible and missing the point of criticism.

“Good politics doesn’t necessarily make good music,” she said. “I want to use the platform [of Pitchfork] first and foremost to point out good music to people. If it’s something that the message or the values in it are in keeping with what I think is good, too, then that’s a plus. [But] it’s something that I try to not let dictate me. At the end of the day, I’m a critic and I have to give the most honest opinion about the music.”

Comedian Jackie Monahan. Getty Images.

Comedian Jackie Monahan. Getty Images.

Jackie Monahan, a comedian in Los Angeles, performed for much of her career as a lesbian comic (she recently split with her wife of 12 years, and describes her current sexuality as being attracted to energy, not gender). This additional aspect did not particularly help in gaining popularity or success, but the root of the issue was still her sex.

“I didn’t advance very far at all because a lot of the shows [she was in] were heavy with women,” she said of her early career. By contrast, the more popular “shows in Los Angeles, there will be nine guys to one girl, and that’s not cool. There’s [certain] shows here and in New York City, and the guys that book them are pretty against booking women.”

She remembers a recent altercation online with a man who was hosting an all-male show at his venue.

“I wrote on [his] Facebook,” she said, “‘Why don’t you have any girls on your show, you don’t want to be outshone?’, and he said, ‘Haha, our next show is going to be all girls’. I’m like, why can’t you have a mixture? You don’t want the juxtaposition of girls being funnier than you?”

“He didn’t say anything back,” she added.

Apart from booking shows or getting ahead, she has also encountered her share of direct sexism and harassment from audiences.

“When I first started,” she said, “guys would yell at me to take my top off, and they probably wouldn’t be doing that to men, so that was annoying.”

“I had an audition once,” she continued, “and some guy was really drunk, heckling me, but I handled it well and he got kicked out. But I don’t know if he would’ve been heckling a man the way he was heckling me, because it was based on my appearance.”

Monahan long ago resolved to not let this type of thing get to her, because if she were to focus on it, it would simply drain her creativity.

“I’ll point it out, but I’m not going to get angry about it,” she said. “There’s no point in [doing comedy] if there’s no fun in it anymore.”

She also stressed that despite giving in at first after being told by friends and the industry to avoid publicly coming out, she decided early on to embrace her identity and not worry about any lost career opportunities.

“People told me, do not be out as a lesbian because you’d be hindering how much money you can make,” she said. “But I always have to be true to who I am, and that’s what I wanted to talk about.”

Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in 2013.

Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in 2013.

Perhaps more so than any other, the gaming industry is uniquely notorious for the rampant sexism of male gamers and the low representation of women working in the industry. Karla Zimonja, a designer with independent developer The Fullbright Company, is acutely aware of this.

“In my AAA [major developer] life, there has not been a whole lot of super upfront, in your face sexism,” she said, “but the pay difference is real, the amount of authority and amount of times you get consulted versus guys with the same role is significantly different. I have never worked at a AAA company that is more than maybe 7%, 10% female. It’s preposterous.”

In Canada, women comprised just 16% of the video game workforce in 2012, and most of those were in administrative positions, according to Nordicity, a consulting firm.

Jennifer Jenson, a professor at York University and organizer of Feminists in Games, an annual workshop devoted to better understanding the digital gender divide and to finding solutions for it, is puzzled by the gaming industry’s seemingly accepted sexism, and how this can turn women away from engaging with it.

“For some reason,” she said, “games companies tend to have these really hostile work environments for women, not just because of the kinds of jobs people are doing, but because women are subjected to porn on the walls and on computers, because they’re outright stalked or harassed.”

“I can’t tell you the number of people who I’ve talked to,” she shared, chillingly, “that said people feel like it’s perfectly their right to follow them around at GDC [Game Developers Conference] for three days. That’s not cool.”

After a lecture, Jenson sat down for a roundtable discussion about games. About 15 were gathered, most of them men. One man spoke up and shared a story about the computer game World of Warcraft. He played in a guild with a single mother of two. One evening, the guild was to go on a raid. The mother didn’t log on – both her children were sick. In the team chat, frustrated, he called her a “c***”. Jenson was shocked. The man, dumbfounded, said, “I don’t see why that was wrong.”

Jenson shares this anecdote to suggest that even though this kind of casual sexism is a wider cultural and societal problem, there seems to be a greater license for it in the arts, and she finds it in gaming especially.

“There’s a level of entitlement to be an asshole,” she said, “that isn’t in the rest of the world. That is the difference. I don’t get asked in any other context how that [the WoW player’s story] is an incorrect speech act.”

Zoladz, too, recognizes both the larger cultural size of the problem, and the pattern of male entitlement that exists in the arts community, in her case the music and music journalism industries.

“It’s more a culture that women aren’t considered to be experts in music,” she said. “That was certainly my experience. I didn’t have a lot of female friends that were as into listening to records and poring over the details. Other people I knew who were like that were men, [because] it’s a socially acceptable way for men to be, whereas it’s seen as more of an anomaly with women.”

“I think that confidence gap is something that happens early on and affects the number of women that grow up and believe in their opinions enough to want to write about music or be a critic.”

Some women in the arts, while aware of how common this kind of discrimination and marginalization is and support the fight against it, have not actually experienced it themselves. Olivia Johnston, a photographer based in Ottawa, is a self-identified feminist but feels disconnected from the struggle many women have to get ahead.

“It’s odd,” she said, “because I fight against all these issues, but I’ve never really had to deal with them myself in the same way. I’m sheltered from a lot of the negative stuff that women experience.”

“I personally haven’t had much problem with [getting her art shown]. It’s not really like a glass ceiling to me.”

Even Monahan, the comedian, feels as if it might be better to ignore it.

“I don’t let it affect me,” she said. “Other women do complain about it a lot. A long time ago, I saw somebody who was my age now, and they were so bitter [about it]. I remember looking at them and I was like, if I’m ever that bitter, I’m quitting comedy.”

US-Beyonce-1_067-5313205

With disheartening statistics and horrifying stories of sexism, discrimination, harassment and marginalization, it is easy to get bogged down in how negative these environments are for female artists. Once a woman is able to find success, she continues to face these and other challenges and obstacles in a way unlike what men typically go through. And yet, women like Monahan refuse to lose faith or let it distract them from their goals.

Grimes, back in a 2011 interview with Maisonneuve, echoes the sentiment by suggesting that the best course of action is to just focus on your work.

“The music industry is kind of a boys’ club,” she admitted. “Not that I’m really adamant about changing things. I feel like the best way to change it is to not make a big stink and just do a good job.”

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Actress | Ghettoville Review

ImageActress has never been one to mess around, his albums being more like mazes filled with sharp and unexpected turns to become lost within. A Disorienting fog covers Ghettoville, Darren Cunningham’s fourth and supposed final album under the moniker of Actress, with each track feeling more distant and abstract than usual.

Following up his 2012 release R.I.P. (which happened to be my favourite album of that year) Cunningham has stripped back the sound to a less focused and grittier work. Where R.I.P. was a clean and meticulous high definition product, Ghettoville is a dirty low-fi sprawling and misguided mess. Now, none of that is necessarily meant as criticism. Cunningham initially promoted the album as a sort of sequel to his 2009 debut Hazyville, and this does feel like a continuation of the small grimy sound of his debut, however it’s now on a much larger scale with 16 tracks clocking in at just over an hour.

Ghettoville is without a doubt the least accessible Actress record to date. The two opening tracks “Forgiven” and “Street Corp.” are sure to scare away those who aren’t willing to invest the time in Cunningham’s frail and distorted world. I’ve described to friends (warning: they laughed at the pretentious nonsense) that the opening track feels like riding a yak up a snowy hill with the entire sky filled with static. However, static feels prominent everywhere on this album. Actually, let’s be honest here, this album is ugly. Cunningham’s press release for the album described it as “devoid of any soul,” and while it is definitely not empty the album does lack any sort of light.

The album art of Ghettoville couldn’t be more telling for the actual sound within. Although the album is no doubt hideous, beneath the fogs are little hints of beauty like the sketches and shapes behind the grey of the cover. It’s these small moments of beauty that bring life to the album. The subtle “Time,” sort of wanders along with slow additions of heartfelt vocal samples, and both “Birdcage” and “Gaze” stand as highlights that bring back a classic Actress sound while feeling far away and distant.

The most puzzling moment on the album comes in the back to back pairing of “Don’t” and “Rap”. These tracks are straight up vaporwave, an experimental movement from 2012 capturing the sounds of older pop songs and chopping/screwing them, something totally out of sync with the Actress sound. Now, both of these tracks work well in the context of this crazy mess of an album, especially coming in at the end like a resentment and dismissal at the state of music, however it does add to the problem that this album feels like it has no consistent voice throughout.

While not reaching the highs of his previous two albums this decade Splazsh (2010) and R.I.P., Ghettoville is still a worthy album to add into the Actress catalogue. It’s long, messy, and all over the place, but that seems to be part of the charm.  If this truly is the end of Actress, it’s been a fun run, and what a way to go out with such a confusing divisive record.

R.I.P. Music 2014” – Darren Cunningham

Keith Hickey

Let’s Kill The Guilty Pleasure

Carly Rae Jepsen.

By Jake Pitre

I’ve been meaning to write this for a long time. It’s something that I think about a lot, something that I consider on likely a daily basis, but can be difficult to properly articulate. It is also something that I think most people generally agree on, or rather when I say a simple statement like, “Everyone should be free to like whatever they want to like,” very few would quibble with me. A lot of it goes without saying. However, I believe it’s an issue that goes a little deeper than that, and is still worth exploring. I think the term ‘guilty pleasure’ should be totally dismissed when discussing pop culture. We should stop using it. Completely.

For me, it’s a gross phrase. A guilty pleasure, according to Wikipedia, is something that one enjoys and finds pleasure in even though they feel guilty about it. I prefer the Urban Dictionary’s typically blunt definition: something you shouldn’t like, but like anyway. Therein lies the core problem: why shouldn’t I like this? Who decided that I shouldn’t, as an avid and serious music listener, find immense pleasure in listening to Carly Rae Jepsen or Taylor Swift? Why should I feel compelled to refer to the much-derided Sucker Punch as a guilty pleasure to avoid any scorn I could receive? Why should anyone feel guilty about something that brings them pleasure and enjoyment?

'Sucker Punch'. Warner Bros. Pictures.

‘Sucker Punch’. Warner Bros. Pictures.

This is the basic outlook. It’s a gross phrase because it is reductive to meaningful art, but more importantly, because it presupposes that someone should feel a certain way about something they find pleasure in and encourages them to disassociate themselves from it. It perpetuates the idea that some art is more valuable or important than other art, and that if you prefer or even just enjoy the ‘other art’, your taste is somehow inferior and you should clarify this ‘other art’ as guilty pleasures. This idea is, inherently and obviously, false.

Unfortunately, it seems that we are psychologically hardwired to feel shame and guilt when we like something that others may perceive to be a lesser work. We make excuses, because we’d rather lie about what these things mean to us than to feel the powerlessness and indignity that can come from unequivocally loving something others consider to be culturally subordinate. I always think of the Arthur episode where Arthur goes to a store to buy a Love Ducks CD, dressed in a trench coat. He asks the clerk if they have it, and the clerk goes on the loudspeaker to ask, “Do we have any copies of the Love Ducks CD for this boy?” (I love that he specifies “this boy”). Arthur, horrified and humiliated, spreads his arms and explains, “I have a baby sister!”, even though we know the CD was for him.

It is gross that Arthur, and we as Arthur (Arthur is us and we are Arthur), have to feel this way. I find it to be particularly unfortunate and defeating because I think there is so much richness to be found by cultivating a diversification of your taste. If you only ever experienced pop culture that has been deemed the most valuable and essential, you would enjoy some good stuff, but I find that once you explore outside of that, you often find things you more closely connect with and become passionate about.

'Hannibal'. NBC.

‘Hannibal’. NBC.

Treme may be critically and culturally significant, but no one really watches it because they love the characters and stories and then create fan blogs about it. A show like Hannibal, while dismissed by some as trash TV, still deals intelligently with themes like death and isolation and grows a huge, obsessive following. And at the opposite end of the spectrum from Treme is Pretty Little Liars, which many people love but some inevitably feel the need to qualify it as a guilty pleasure. It’s not necessarily that Treme and Pretty Little Liars are equivalent shows in terms of quality, but they are just as valuable to their respective fans and are therefore equally valuable and vital as pieces of art.

Expose yourself, with an open mind, to any and all types of music, movies, TV, art, literature and whatever else, free of inhibitions or doubt or preconceived impressions, and your enjoyment of pop culture will – I promise – grow. I know this from personal experience. I went through the traditional childhood and adolescent stages. In elementary school, when I was too young to know any better or give a shit, I liked Hilary Duff and Avril Lavigne unapologetically. In high school, I switched over to Nine Inch Nails and Death Cab for Cutie and balked at anyone that liked country music or Ke$ha. In fact, I remember sitting on the bus, late at night, coming home from some field trip and “TiK ToK” came on the radio, twice (I should note that I now love Ke$ha). Two girls sang along to the entire song both times, and I eventually turned around and told them to listen to real music before they start singing next time. Looking back on that moment now, and others like it, that’s what I feel guilty about.

kesha_thebeijinger2

Ke$ha.

As I neared the end of high school, though, I started to see things a little differently. I wish there was some moment I could point to as when everything changed and I started trying everything and liking whatever I liked, but I think it was really more of a progression. As I began to encounter more pop culture, I started to care less about how I would be perceived for liking something and I started to care more about what I was encountering and how it made me feel. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that this gave me a new freedom. Maybe I don’t exactly like myself, but I am comfortable enough with myself to take pleasure in whatever I want and not feel guilty about it or feel the need to excuse it out of fear. The kid walking his high school halls in a NIN t-shirt and the guy walking his university campus in a Carly Rae Jepsen t-shirt are the same person (he even still wears his NIN shirts), but the latter one feels more diverse with his taste, open to new experiences and he feels more accepting of his identity and how others’ perception of it isn’t important.

This is a long-winded and personalized way of saying that the guilty pleasure is out of touch, and restrictive on us coming to terms with ourselves and our identities. It is, obviously, part of a systemic problem in our society where everyone not only feels pressure to fit in to a certain aesthetic but also to avoid any semblance of inferiority, to steer clear of shame and embarrassment. To do so, we lie to others and by extension ourselves about what art means to us on a personal level. Just because I take film seriously and analyze it on an intellectual level and all that, doesn’t mean that I couldn’t have felt a strong connection to Frozen and consider it to be one of the best films of the year, and it feels ridiculous to have to say such a thing when we live in 2014 in a seemingly educated and tolerant society. No one’s taste is any lesser or invalid than anyone else’s, and no piece of art is any less valuable than any other – all that matters is if it’s valuable to you. That’s why I propose we reject the guilty pleasure, and just start loving the art we want to, unequivocally and without exception.

The Real Bad Boys of Journalism Present: The Top 20 Albums of 2013

We really like music. It is in our ears constantly- on the bus, at our houses, in the club and as we fall asleep. And by we, I don’t just mean the writers who contributed to this list. I mean everybody. What fun would the world be without a soundtrack? Regardless of your thoughts and feelings about Kanye West or Lorde, at least we can all sit in agreement that music brings people together and makes us all feel good.

The 20 albums on this list are what made us (and this time I mean those who write this list) feel good. We danced, we cried, and in the making of this list, we argued to the soundtrack of these albums. There is hardly a single common point between these albums except maybe the massive play count they garnered in our music libraries. Some of the writers for Arbitrary Analysis even strongly dislike albums on this list, while others have gushed about them all year. As you will read in the following list, however, when one of us likes something, we love it. Happy New Years ❤


dpram20 | Daft Punk | Random Access Memories 

So how does the world’s most celebrated electronic artist successfully make a return after a seven-year recess? They don’t. It seems like the disappointed reaction to this album must have been inevitable, considering how much hate it got, despite how good it actually turned out to be. But maybe I just was never a big enough fan of their old stuff in the first place.

What Random Access Memories does is take Daft Punk’s incredible style and production and supplement a variety of personalities to enhance the experience. Nobody was listening to “One More Time” saying to themselves: “this is good, but if they could only get that guy from Animal Collective in there…” But it is impossible to deny the benefit some of these cameos add to their sound.

Is the whole album consistent? No. Is it a little overlong? Sure. But at its best, the album is creating some of the best songs to come out this year. The absurd hype-train that was “Get Lucky” has led some people to flip-flop on its standing. Screw the apprehension, that song is the best dance track to be released in years. It’s groovy, captivating, and demonstrates that brilliant balance between Daft Punk’s style and the one’s incorporated by their featured artists.

Random Access Memories is a delight to listen to. It’s expansive and its got soul. When Daft Punk hits their mark we’re dealing with some fabulous soundscapes, and I think that’s something we can all appreciate.
– Duncan


Image19 | Danny Brown | Old

Like Lieutenant Dan, I’m rollin’/ Back to back, I keep on smoking

– “Dip”

Hotel rooms crushing pills and menus/Daughter sending me messages saying ‘Daddy I miss you’/But in this condition I don’t think she need to see me

– “Clean Up”

This, to me, exemplifies the unique dichotomy in the persona of Danny Brown. Brown, to borrow a fitting cliché, burst onto the scene in 2010 with The Hybrid, and even more so a year later with XXX. He is a rapper that is not averse from dropping a few dick jokes, and many of his lines are brilliantly clever (like the Lt. Dan one above). But he is more than capable of an emotional gut punch, because he is a man wracked by depression, anxiety, loneliness and a cavalcade of acknowledged vices, and he isn’t afraid to contextualize everything around this lifestyle.

It’s a long album, 19 songs, and split into Side A and Side B. A is more about Brown’s nightmares, and B is more crowd-pleasing (to put it simply). His trademark vocal tone barks across unparalleled party starters like “Dip”, but becomes more subdued at times. There is no enigma in rap quite as strange or original as Brown, but he’s more concerned with being remembered. “So I’m breaking day sniffing Adderall, writing,” he shares on “Float On”, “and not for the money, for the life after dying.” Brown is desperate to leave his mark, and he’s well on his way. – Jake

Image18 | My Bloody Valentine | mbv

Very early into the year, I started proudly claiming 2013 would be remembered as ‘the year of the comeback’. Now, this wasn’t in anyway an original claim, and I’ve had arguments with friends over what exactly a ‘comeback’ is, but basically a whole lot of artists seemed to be reuniting and releasing new albums in 2013 for better or for worse. mbv, the third album from My Blood Valentine and their first since 1991’s masterpiece Loveless, stands above and beyond any of the other ‘comebacks’ of 2013. Did anyone actually think this would come out? Did anyone actually think it could be this good?

What works best about mbv is just how natural it feels. It’s as if frontman Kevin Shields never took the time off, the shoegaze genre was just as hip as it was in the early 90’s, and Belinda Butcher’s dreamy reverbed vocals were as fresh as ever. The blaring guitar that blasts through “Only Tomorrow” is a perfect use of their sound, and “New You already feels like an absolute classic. Still, they are experimenting and shifting the shoegaze genre in noisier (the helicopter sounds of “Wonder 2”) and even more dreamy (the essentially ambient “Is This and Yes”) ways than ever before.

mbv is like a visit from an old friend who’s somehow just as cool, if not cooler, than you remembered. They may have taken their sweet old time, but it’s like My Bloody Valentine had never really left. – Keith

jpld17 | Jai Paul | Leaked Demos

Jai Paul’s leaked demos shouldn’t be on this list. They shouldn’t be on your computer. Jai Paul didn’t want you to hear them. They are incomplete songs, some may be throwaways, and they were only leaked because somebody allegedly stole them and uploaded them to bandcamp, and yet it is one of the most compelling releases of the year. The songs sound like sketches, sure, but these are detailed sketches that require no refining to be works of art.

I could go on about how this album is indicative of our times and how album format no longer matters, but there’s a thousand think-pieces on that readily available from your favourite music publication. The actual content is what matters over the legend of the album’s release, because it is simply brilliant. Jai Paul’s vocal strength and range are undeniable despite the relatively sloppy mixing, and his chopped up Funkadelic-inspired guitar riffs are fantastically polished for a set of demos. Skittering drums and bizarre samples (Harry Potter? Gossip Girl? Ravi Shankar?) fill in the necessary gaps, creating a consistently energetic and upbeat atmosphere throughout the playtime. Maybe the demos are hinting at a fully-formed release to come, but even if they don’t, it’s hard to feel dissatisfied with what we have. – Ben

bo16 | Baths | Obsidian

Will Wiesenfeld, better known as Baths, is an open person. His Twitter feed is decidedly unfiltered, sharing many personal details and late-night thoughts (and buying habits). His music follows suit, and far more so on his sophomore album, Obsidian, than on his excellent debut, Cerulean. These are deeply personal songs, covering an emotional palette that more often than not skews toward the melodramatically dark.

A lot of Obsidian is about death, and there are several direct references to suicide (“Phaedra, it is you that made me want to kill myself”). Wiesenfeld was in a bad place when writing this album, and the darkness creeps throughout each song. His vocals, which are intimate and wavering, are the focus here, rather than the footnote they were on Cerulean. His lyrics are homoerotic, candid and gut-wrenching, achingly exclusive yet identifiable. Wiesenfeld calls us to glare at his darkness, and we’re forced to feel our own. – Jake

bb15 | Beyonce | Beyonce 

Other artists could do what Beyonce does, like drop a 14-song album in the middle of December exclusively on iTunes with a video for each song and without any prior warning, hype or single, but none would look as good doing it. When Beyonce does this, it is an event. Many were asleep when the album hit, but I watched as every tweet, status update, and Tumblr post was about Beyonce (most of them in adulation). It was a fervor similar to what Daft Punk created over months with their comeback, and she accomplished it in one night.

Even more impressive was that the music and the videos all delivered handily, as forward-thinking and next-level as the album’s surprise release. This album is simultaneously Beyonce’s most personal, most experimental, and most overtly sexual. “Haunted” is a glorious thing, with brilliant production and a loop of Beyonce saying “around” that is one of my favourite moments in music this year. “***Flawless” gives us the immortal line, “I woke up like this – flawless”, and also cleverly reapplies the criticism the opening (as “Bow Down”) received earlier this year by inserting an excerpt of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discussing feminism. On this album, Beyonce does whatever she wants (as a grown woman is wont to do). She has her cake and eats it by stressing how hard even she has to work to look like this and accomplish all this, and yet she looks so effortless doing it. – Jake

anva14 | Autre Ne Veut | Anxiety 

In some senses, Autre Ne Veut’s performance on his latest album, Anxiety, felt like the aural equivalent of losing one’s virginity. Emotionally unchained and clumsy, sure, but something about it just feels as though it’s right. Any and all falterings present on Anxiety are greatly overshadowed by pure determination and feeling.

The album begins with “Play By Play,” a song that undoubtedly hooks you into the album with its slowly rising intensity, although the best (and most intense) moments on the release come further into the listen.

Take highlight “Counting” for example. The track’s squeaking, hardly functional saxophone seems to encapsulate the ethos of Autre Ne Veut: Take what you have (a fantastic voice) and drench it with emotion until it’s soaked, keep pushing and pushing until you’re reaching the limits of what’s possible. Fuck what your art-school dropout vocal coach taught you, emotion is all you need. Squeal, scream and writhe on the floor of the recording studio and then leave. In and out.

Once the album fully gets into its groove, things flow naturally. Every song has a verse-chorus-verse, rise-and-fall pattern to it, but never does this formula get tiring because what is happening on those tracks is so focused and committed, even addicting. As closer “World War” washes over you, the calm of the moment feels monumental. You’ve just experienced an album. You’ve been gripped and thrown around, but it’s all for the better. Do it again. – Ben

tnpfor13 | These New Puritans | Field of Reeds

The Talk Talk comparisons were inevitable. These New Puritans had always briefly experimented with classical instrumentation in pop structures, but finally with their third album Field of Reeds, These New Puritans stop dipping their toes in the pool and jump head first into the deep-end.

Field of Reeds is a guided tour of our own existence. Frontman, Jack Barnett, is telling us some kind of story, but it’s not made apparent what about. He’s going on about something that has to do with spirals, islands, swimming, and of course casually touches on the meaning of everything in the world including ourselves.

The moments of silence are as stunning as the loud climaxes of the tracks. Barnett and his group present both everything and nothing in our lives all at once. As the terrifying vocals of the children’s choir say in “Spiral”, “You want to seek the light, you want to get it right? Cause I’ve got nothing that I want to say.” It’s all a search for meaning, as Barnett hesitantly sings on centerpiece, “V (Island Song)”, where he sings with (somehow) both confidence and hesitation,  “I am the reasons. Not the questions. Not the answers. The air.”

One of the most stunning works of post-rock in years, Field of Reeds touches on old classics for inspiration, but becomes its own entity in a lost, yet completely articulated, search for both everything and nothing. – Keith

jbn12 | Julianna Barwick | Nepenthe

In Greek mythology nepenthe is a drug of forgetfulness, alleviating all sorrow and anguish. When listening to Julianna Barwick’s second album, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate title. The album operates like a sedative, tapping into your nervous system. Its constant tranquility is nothing short of magical.

The album can certainly be described as ambient, but Barwick’s vocals bring such humanity to the genre. At the same time, those vocals have an otherworldliness to them; emotional, yet distant, giving truth to that Grecian claim. The sound is reminiscent of Sigur Ros, without any of the pretension.

Julianna Barwick’s debut release was completely built on the sound of her voice. With Nepenthe she builds on this by adding instrumentals, creating a much more full and rich sound. Barwick manipulates and layers her voice, making it another instrument in the production’s orchestra. I don’t use that last word lightly either, this is the stuff of grand concert halls.

Listening to Nepenthe is a beautiful experience. Playing it on your iPod while walking has the ability to transform your environment into a dreamlike landscape. That’s no simple feat; few albums can absorb the mind and spirit like this. Considering the doldrums of everyday life, perhaps a drink of nepenthe is something we could all use. – Duncan

ctrar11 | Chance the Rapper | Acid Rap 

Despite being named after a hallucigenic, Acid Rap is one of the most lucid releases of the year. The mixtape is a dense listen, as frantic and enlightened as the mind of an 18-year-old stoner/truant/rapper can be. Chance The Rapper (as he says himself, please say “The Rapper”) writes his raps in a stream-of-consciousness style, not only mentioning parties and trips, but conflicted relationships with parents and mixed feelings about gang violence. Through all this he manages to sound fresh, and not even a little bit cheesy as many rappers do when addressing such topics. A lot of his effect is in his brutal honesty, his complex worldview, and the fact that he wrote much of the tape while in high school.

Chance The Rapper’s wordy lyrics are only bolstered by his incredible instrumentals. In an age where drill and trap tendencies are monopolizing Chicago’s rap scene, everything on Acid Rap feels deep and lush. The mixtape’s live instrumentation and slow-burning beats pull influence from soul and funk, picking up where Kanye West’s early instrumentals left off with an added after-school band practice aesthetic.

As a whole what makes Acid Rap stand out is energy. The tape felt tailored for summer nights full of parties, and summer days spent road tripping to the next one. Chance The Rapper sounds happy, and when he doesn’t, he can speak of mistakes and missing his mom without making himself sound disingenuous. The tape is a look into the diverse talents of an individual who may come to be one of the most important figures in new-school rap. – Ben

ds10 | Disclosure | Settle

For a long time, I wasn’t sold on this album. The debut album from young UK dance duo Disclosure, Settle, blew up in England and received (mostly) critical acclaim across publications, but I would be the first to point out the low points and long running time as faults. It wasn’t until recently when my friends joked, “What is this album? You play it literally every day.” Settle becomes a part of you. Suddenly the album wasn’t too long, it felt far too short. Every song felt like a hit single and only continued to become more engrained into my everyday activities.

Settle is all about love, and similarly, it becomes even better when you loose yourself into it. For a dance album, I never found myself dancing while listening, simply nodding my head and feeling enamoured with it warm synths. From the huge “Latch” begging to give into love, the wobbling “F For You” and its infatuated narration, the beautiful closing moments of “Help Me Loose My Mind” begging for devotion, or the most emotional and powerfully positive “Defeated No More”, the entire album is like a pep talk from a friend to ask out that person you’ve been absolutely infatuated with.

Settle does the exact opposite of what its name would suggest, it doesn’t simply Settle it strives to find the love of our lives, the beauty in all the world around us, and it strives for perfection. It’s like a spontaneous combustion baby. – Keith

ctbowyb9 | Chvrches | The Bones of What You Believe

My favourite genre of music, outside of simply synthpop, would be night drive music. This is music that seems to have been recorded with night drives in mind, songs that fit the unique and otherworldly atmosphere of a night drive immaculately. M83, The Cure, Grimes and Chromatics (who, fittingly, have an album called Night Drive) are all excellent examples. Lorde and Sky Ferreira put out albums this year that would fit well, also. Chvrches are a band that I can listen to anytime, but this album is particularly well-suited to night drives. The synth flourishes, Lauren Mayberry’s soaring and infectiously accented vocals, relentless hooks rendering any song a potential single. I can’t think of a more exhilarating moment this year than when I was driving fast down an empty road at night, windows down, the thrilling release two minutes into “Tether” hitting me like the bursting of a bubble of gum.

But the shiny neon exterior isn’t all Chvrches are concerned with. What really works for me about the band’s music is the intimacy. They are earnestly giving us deeply heart-on-the-sleeve, impassioned details about love and intimacy and the dissolution of these things, and it all results in a smorgasbord of cathartic synthpop releases. Every song emits a powerful emotional response from me (the highlights being “Recover”, “We Sink” and “Night Sky”), because it all sounds so sincere and so real. An appeal to the heart, perfect for a night drive. – Jake

a&8 | Arca | &&&&&

&&&&& is the Cthulhu of beat tapes. Incomprehensibly massive and primal, dripping of ooze, summoned by some mysterious force, it throws its weight around for almost half an hour and then fades away. Do we even want to know what it is or where it came from? Maybe some repressed bit of our psyche does. Or maybe last.fm does.

Arca is the chosen stage name of Alejandro Ghersi. Ghersi makes beats for Kanye West and FKA Twigs. &&&&& is his mixtape that he released this year.

For its entirety, the mixtape hosts a dark and echoing atmosphere, leaving the most basic elements of rap beats to scrap amongst themselves as the sounds of the conflict bounce and reverberate in the abyss. Drum hits and synths refuse to play along to the beat, and samples warp out of tune as they emerge. Every moment of quiet inevitably gives way to a beat infinitely more menacing than the one before. It is easy after hearing the tape to understand Arca’s direct input into tracks on Yeezus such as “Send It Up” and “I’m In It” although &&&&& as a whole never feels more than a distant cousin. Instead the beats stay in their own half-world, not begging to be rapped over, but commanding your attention nonetheless. – Ben

afr7 | Arcade Fire | Reflektor 

Sprawling, ambitious, and reflexive, Arcade Fire’s fourth album, Reflektor, is a change of pace for the Canadian indie-rockers, yet feels like the exact change they needed. With production help from LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy*, Reflektor was hyped as Arcade Fire’s “dance/disco” album, but calling this just disco is selling it short.

As the opening title track suggest, the album is all about reflections, as Arcade Fire spend the album reflecting various genres and exploring the power of music itself. The track “Reflektor” is a lengthy dance rock jam which has already become an indie anthem. “Joan of Arc” begins with jolting punk rock before becoming stadium rock chants, while “Normal Person” feels like its simultaneous mocking and perfecting rock music as as singer Win Butler asks, “Do you like rock n roll music? Cause I don’t know if I do.” “Here Comes the Night” feels like an equal mix of African funk drumming and the Under The Sea sequence of The Little Mermaid. Basically, this album goes all over the place musically, but still feels cohesive as an exploration of the power of music.

Besides how brave the album is musically, it’s also Arcade Fire’s most consistent since their debut Funeral, with its second disc stealing the show with the streak of “It’s Never Over”, “Porno”, and “Afterlife.

Reflektor is a big giant mess, but the pieces all fit together beautifully, making it one of the most daring and rewarding releases of the year. – Keith

* Sidenote/Warning: I’m a huge James Murphy fanboy.

dnwts6 | Drake | Nothing Was The Same 

Back in 2011, in something of a throwaway line off of the bonus track “The Motto”, Drake coined the term “YOLO.” Everybody declared their hatred towards the ridiculous phrase, but you would be hard pressed to find a person who never proclaimed it in alleged irony. This is the embodiment of Drake as an artist. For better or for worse, he is so unapologetically himself that it is impossible to deny his impact.

Drake’s last album Take Care was a magnum opus of sentimentalized passion and anguish. It was flooded with fantastic tracks, and was an absolute pleasure to absorb. With all that expressed pain came a dilemma though: it was a tad cumbersome. It appears that Drake realized this, coming back with a much leaner and focused album. Perhaps not as consistent as his last effort, Nothing Was the Same sees him putting out songs that outdo anything that’s come before them.

Drake’s lyrics and delivery are both on point, and 40’s production is as good as anything else in the genre. The biggest treat of this album is “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” which not only solidifies Drake as a phenomenal R&B artist, but is also one of the best songs you’ll find in any genre this year. Realizing the promise to Hip-Hop Kanye put forth with 808s & Heartbreak, Drizzy has proven that there is plenty of room for the undisputed “softest rapper in the game.” – Duncan

vwmv5 | Vampire Weekend | Modern Vampires of the City 

Looking at the rest of the top five, our list is dominated with albums that are trying to push the boundaries of their genre, or music as a whole. Modern Vampires of the City doesn’t do that. Nor was Vampire Weekend trying to do that. They have planted themselves firmly inside the box, but they explore each and every inch of it.

This album is an absolute celebration of music. It’s not breaking down any barriers, but it’s the best thing to happen in indie music this year, and the best album Vampire Weekend has ever produced. The music is dynamic and brimming with vitality, making it impossible not to sing along.

When discussing this album, I mistakenly referred to it as the “feel good album of the year.” This was a miscalculation, overlooking its exceptional complexity. The album is full of life, overflowing with energy and passion. But emotion should not be confused for happiness. There is an extensive range of feeling here, and it is so easy to immerse yourself in it.

Ezra Koenig has always been an interesting singer, and that doesn’t change, but he’s proven himself to be an impeccable songwriter as well. Tackling a diversity of themes, there is a surprising level of depth here in a genre that simply never demanded it before.

There is a feeling of growth and development from Vampire Weekend’s previous material. If this album is representative of where they are heading in the future, we have plenty to look forward to. – Duncan

ksth4 | The Knife | Shaking the Habitual 

Following up, a full seven years later, on a widely respected and acclaimed hit electronic album with a challenging, politically-motivated feminist manifesto is perhaps a little bold. But then, it would have been underwhelming had a band like The Knife returned with anything less uncompromising than Shaking the Habitual. The Swedish duo have been busy in the interim (Karin Dreijer Andersson put out a solo album as Fever Ray in 2009, and both heavily contributed to the opera Tomorrow, In a Year in 2010), but Shaking the Habitual is their welcome (if polarizing) return.

This album is far more interested in transmitting a political ideology than their dance-fused masterpiece, Silent Shout. Working through themes surrounding feminism, queer theory, environmentalism and other topics, The Knife has strong messages, and only the most fearless music could possibly accompany them. Accessibility is the last priority when there are so many sounds to manipulate into something that seems out of control, but remains compelling and maybe a little uncomfortable. Andersson’s androgynous vocals serve a less obtuse purpose in this mess of ideas, all the shouts and screeches and noises cohering into a distinct intellectualization of their themes. Unwisely dismissed by some for a lack of hooks and apparent inscrutability, The Knife invited us to look a little more closely, and they did so aggressively enough that we had no choice but to listen. – Jake

opnr+73 | Oneohtrix Point Never | R+7

R+7, in spite of being one of my favourite albums of 2013, was nearly impossible to talk about. Many of the reviews of the album spent more time talking about Daniel Lopatin’s influences, the album cover, and other details that are relevant but not essential. It is just truly hard to give somebody who hasn’t heard the album a concrete reason as to why it is so captivating, and maybe that is the inherent appeal of it, like some kind of critical Ouroboros.

Put simply, R+7 is an electronic album. The music itself is comprised of various outdated samples and synthesizers that sound cheesy or unexciting because of how familiar they are to us. Garageband synth presets, fake choirs et al. The material is draped over the exoskeleton of various electronic music forms such as house, drone and IDM that gives it newfound appeal. It really is more than the sum of its parts, the end result being a series of slowly rising, complex compositions that are breathtaking to listen to.

I really did mean that part about R+7 being breathtaking. The first time I heard “Still Life” I felt like the city bus I was on was going to take off a la Magic School Bus or something. I was enchanted, and this is the kind of music that gives me faith that electronic music has so much capacity to tug at emotions in unexpected ways. – Ben

dhsbth2 | Deafheaven | Sunbather 

“Accessibility” is a dirty word in the music community. In an attempt to escape the perceived drivel of the Top 40, listeners struggle to find sounds that are pushing the boundaries of the medium. But there is something to be said about music that breaks down the barriers of entry, finding middle ground across genre divisions. Sunbather is an album that accomplishes just this.

Deafheaven builds upon their Black Metal origins with the striking appropriation of Post-Rock and Shoegaze, creating a sound that is absolutely absorbing. The production draws you in through these more subdued instrumentals, but ultimately transcends the achievements of its foundational influences.

Black Metal fans can call foul, claiming Sunbather’s genre colonization has caused it to lose its identity, but there is a reason why this album has been able to breakout of a typically niche genre. Not through compromising its virtues, but expanding their possibilities. That gorgeous pink cover does not represent a swan song, but rather a musical manifest destiny.

Sunbather is an emotional powerhouse. Wailing guitars drown into slow sorrowful misery. The album is spiritual and dynamic, with constant development that refuses to retread its past strides. George Clark’s tormented vocals transform the poignant lyrics into more of a feeling than language. There is a quality of sincerity here that escapes metal’s alienating theatricality.

As you turn the album on, all the contextual noise is extinguished by the beauty of the experience. Its existence was unanticipated: Sunbather is the true sleeper hit of 2013. – Duncan

kwy1 | Kanye West | Yeezus

2013 was the year of Yeezus. From the performances on Saturday Night Live, the city wide projections of “New Slaves”, the outrageous “Bound 2” video, the seemingly doomed but daring Yeezus Tour, and one of the strangest musical beefs of the year followed by one of the most honest interviews with late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, West was on fire in 2013. However, nothing eclipsed what was most important, the album itself.

Kanye West’s 2010 critical darling, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, opened with the question, “Can we get much higher?” Well, apparently we can’t. In between screams on the relentless “Black Skinhead”, West fiercely claims, “Follow me up, cause this shit bout to go down.” Dark Fantasy featured five interchangeable covers, Yeezus doesn’t need a single traditional cover. West went from orchestrated maximalism to experimental minimalism. As West said during his interview with Zane Lowe, he can do perfect, he’s done perfect, but now it’s time to destroy it.

The album begins with a harsh noisy acid influenced synth line and never stops beating down hip-hop expectations from there. Each song is a statement and journey of its own, both challenging hip-hop norms while delving deeper into West’s own twisted psyche. West is angry, as he passionately and violently berates our culture in “New Slaves”. “Blood on the Leaves” becomes an antithesis of “Runaway”, where the latter has West admitting to his own faults, the former has West pushing the blame onto everyone around him. Yeezus is the darkest parts of us all.

But, at the end of the day, the album tells us exactly why its here in its very first track.
He’ll give us what we need / It may not be what we want.

– Keith

Personal Lists

thvBen

1 | Kanye West | Yeezus
2 | Oneohtrix Point Never | R+7
3 | Arca | &&&&&
4 | The Knife | Shaking The Habitual
5 | Chance the Rapper | Acid Rap
6 | Jai Paul | Jai Paul Leaked Demos
7 | Autre Ne Veut | Anxiety
8 | Vampire Weekend | Modern Vampires of the City
9 | Tim Hecker | Virgins
10 | Denzel Curry | Nostalgic 64

I think that I would describe most of what I liked this year as “colourful.” It was nice to see artists expanding their creative horizons through healthy experimentation while still working with a musical palette I recognised and enjoyed. I’m emoji-prayer-handsing that Panda Bear and Kanye West deliver in a similar way in 2014.

asaplla

Duncan

1 | Vampire Weekend | Modern Vampires of the City
2 | Kanye West | Yeezus
3 | Deafheaven | Sunbather
4 | Drake | Nothing Was The Same
5 | Julianna Barwick | Nepenthe
6 | Arcade Fire | Reflektor
7 | Oneohtrix Point Never | R+7
8 | Daft Punk | Random Access Memories
9 | These New Puritans | Field of Reeds
10 | A$AP Rocky | LongLiveA$AP

To be honest, I do not listen to nearly as much music as the other contributors to this list, so please take any overarching statements with a grain of salt. 2013 was the first time that I made an effort to listen to a lot of the music out there. I don’t think I could’ve picked a better year to do so. This year had so many phenomenal things, across all genres. To all the nostalgic defeatists, I say, “maybe music isn’t dead. Maybe we all just forgot what it fucking sounded like.”

sfntmtJake

1 | Chvrches | The Bones of What You Believe
2 | Baths | Obsidian
3 | Kanye West | Yeezus
4 | The Knife | Shaking the Habitual
5 | Sky Ferreira | Night Time, My Time
6 | Lorde | Pure Heroine
7 | Pure Bathing Culture | Moon Tides
8 | Beyonce | Beyonce
9 | Majical Cloudz | Impersonator
10 | Haim | Days Are Gone

The more music I listen to, the more I look for intimacy and sincerity. There’s a place for music that doesn’t engage with these things, and I love some of it, but I return more often to music I can find these qualities in, and there was a lot of it this year. For me, that comes in many different ways, but Chvrches worked in those areas and hit me in a way unlike anything else. Most of the albums here went down similar paths, emotionally direct like Baths or Majical Cloudz, and I hold them all closely for that reason.

basinski_nocturnes_sleeve_type3

Keith

1 | Kanye West | Yeezus
2 | Disclosure | Settle
3 | Oneohtrix Point Never | R+7
4 | My Bloody Valentine | mbv
5 | These New Puritans | Field of Reeds
6 | Deafheaven | Sunbather
7 | William Basinski | Nocturnes
8 | Drake | Nothing Was The Same
9 | Julianna Barwick | Nepenthe
10 | Julia Holter | Loud City Song

For my part-time job this summer I was allowed to listen to my iPod during work hours, which made this one of the most fun years of music for me, allowing for a lot of discoveries and re-listens. What made 2013 really special though was how much I enjoyed all the blockbuster albums (Kanye West, Disclosure, Arcade Fire, The Knife) while still finding a bunch of little guys to champion (These New Puritans, William Basinski, Collen, Sean McCann). A great mix of releases this year, and what was probably my favourite year of the 2010’s so far.

Best TV Episodes of 2013

By Jake Pitre

'Orange is the New Black'. Netflix.

‘Orange is the New Black’. Netflix.

2013 provided us with so many good TV shows, both new and old, that this list could potentially contain dozens of phenomenal episodes. In fact, there was so much excellent television in the last twelve months that it felt far too intimidating to list and rank the best shows, so I decided to focus on specific episodes instead. Much more manageable. And yet, I still struggled immensely in sorting through all the amazing stuff I watched this year and then picking out the best of it. The episodes gathered here are my absolute favourites, the ones that blew me away.

I watched a lot of TV this year, easily the most that I ever have, but there is still plenty I have not yet had the chance to catch up on (although I’m working on it). This includes Orphan Black, Broadchurch, Rectify, Scandal, Trophy Wife, Hello Ladies, The Bridge, BunheadsTop of the Lake, and the most recent seasons of Bob’s Burgers, ElementaryBoardwalk Empire, Treme and Person of Interest. I’ll do all that, I promise. I think that this is indicative of just how much great stuff is out there (and how I shouldn’t have wasted my time with The Newsroom and Under the Dome).

As we watched the fall of the anti-hero in 2013, we marvelled as diversity and originality burst forth on our televisions in so many ways. Orange is the New Black, my favourite new show of the year and a Netflix exclusive (as if we needed yet another source of essential original content), came out of nowhere in the summer with its unparalleled ensemble cast and total female domination with its rich and complex characters. Hannibal turned the serial-killer glorifying procedural genre on its head with its cinematographically gorgeous attitude toward the grotesque and thematic depth. The Americans turned a spy show into the most meaningful exploration of marriage on television. Everywhere you looked, and no matter how you watched, there was brilliant writing, distinctive directing, perfect performances, beautiful imagery and purely original storytelling. Here are my favourites.

20. Brooklyn Nine-Nine – “The Vulture”

From Michael Schur and Dan Goor, the masterminds behind Parks and Recreation, this cop comedy starring Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher hasn’t been around very long but has already established its ensemble cast splendidly. This episode, where they all work together in order to solve their case before the titular vulture, Detective Pembroke, who sweeps in on practically-solved cases and takes the credit. The ensemble, which also includes the hilarious Chelsea Peretti and Terry Crews, is one of the best currently assembled on television, and this episode is the best-so-far example of that. “You can join my dance troupe, Floorgasm.”

19. Futurama – “Meanwhile”

This beloved animated sci-fi from Matt Groening and David X. Cohen never really captured the same magic in its rebooted material as in the original four seasons. These last few seasons have mostly run from mediocre to good, with the occasional great episode. But the series finale (evidently for good, this time) was a perfect farewell. Combining a clever sci-fi concept (a time-travel device that only goes back 10 seconds) with powerful emotion (Fry and Leela’s relationship) is classic Futurama, and it works wonders here to provide a truly satisfying ending.

'Sleepy Hollow'. Fox.

‘Sleepy Hollow’. Fox.

18. Sleepy Hollow – “Necromancer”

This show needs and deserves a bigger audience. When at first it seemed pointless to reboot the story of Ichabod Crane and place him in modern times, it has proven to be one of the most delightful shows in TV – and even, occasionally, legitimately frightening. This episode, without spoiling too much, has the Headless Horseman finally captured by Crane and Abbie as they figure out what to do with him, and the results are both hilarious and chilling. Tom Mison (right) and Nicole Beharie have outstanding chemistry, and the often ridiculous situations are propelled by them – and their fist-bumps. “Dead guy, mental patient, and a time traveler from the Revolution.” “That’s our team.”

17. Masters of Sex – “Catherine”

One of my favourite new shows of the year, Masters of Sex isn’t really about sex – although, there is a fair amount of it on-screen and it is what Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson are researching. But the show is really about intimacy and our struggle for it and our complicated issues with it. The performances of Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan anchor this show, and this episode contains perhaps my favourite moment between them all season. It comes after an otherwise excellent episode, with shocking moments like Libby, Bill’s wife, standing up and Bill pointing out her blood-soaked dress, and the first appearance of Allison Janney as the wife of the provost (she better get some Emmy attention for this role next year). But at the end, when Bill finally breaks with only Virginia in the room, he asks her to close her eyes. He can’t bear to have her see him like this. It is a powerful and strangely elegiac moment, and one of the most lasting of the year.

16. New Girl – “Cooler”

They might as well have called this episode “The Kiss”. This was the episode where the show’s writers decided to quit the will-they-won’t-they game and answer with a strong, “They will”. And Jesus Christ, what a kiss. It was so unexpected (up until that point it had looked like they were going to walk right up to that line but refrain from crossing it) and so perfect, you know? There are so many ways this development could go wrong and throw the show off the rails (we’ve already seen some problems in the new season), but we trust in the writers and actors to carry this. “The Kiss” was fantastic, and we even got another rendition of True American, which there better be one of at least once a season.

15. Archer – “Live and Let Dine”

When this show is on the ball, it kills. And it works best when the entire ensemble is together, particularly in an enclosed space. The ISIS crew are called in to work security at a restaurant called 16 (pronounced ‘seize‘) to watch over talks between the States and Albania, and it’s all captured as part of a reality show, Bastard Chef. The chef in question is Lance Casteau, beautifully voiced by Anthony Bourdain, who is perhaps the best utterer of the term ‘cockwits’. Even deep into its fourth season, Archer manages to find fresh ways to take off on the spy genre and do so hilariously. “Not you, Chet. You look like a dinosaur’s tampon.”

'Girls'. HBO.

‘Girls’. HBO.

14. Girls – “On All Fours”

The second season of Girls was a little messy at times, but it would be hard to argue with this standout episode. Yes, this is the Q-tip episode as it has become known, and it shows these occasionally despicable characters doing pretty ugly things. Hannah is falling apart, all alone. Marnie is covering Kanye West’s “Stronger” for Charlie, and it is something you cannot look away from. And then she stumbles back into hooking up with Charlie, as she wants to be saved and he wants to save her, sort of (even though it’s doomed to fail again, almost immediately). Then there is Adam’s dark and deeply disturbing sexual experience with Natalia. This scene polarized some fans, and it is understandable from how horrific the scene is. But this episode is about how these characters can’t escape their pasts and how their pasts keep dragging them down, and Adam is the culmination of this. Girls in uncompromising, at least give Lena Dunham that.

13. The Americans – “Duty and Honor”

I could have picked several episodes from the stellar first season of The Americans, which tells the story of two Soviet KGB officers posing as an American couple in Washington D.C. during the Cold War. More than that, it is a show about their marriage, which started fifteen years earlier as just a cover (the first time they met, they were told they were to be married for the mission) but has turned into something real. This episode splits them up as Philip (Matthew Rhys) goes to New York City for a mission. While there, he sleeps with another woman, and his wife, Elizabeth (Keri Russell, who was robbed of an Emmy nomination this year), decides she wants to work on their struggling marriage. The ending, wherein she tells him this, asks if anything happened between him and that other woman and he lies, is the bedrock of their relationship, which is plagued by lies and passion in equal measure and in alternating roles.

12. Parks and Recreation – “Leslie and Ben”

'Parks and Recreation'. NBC.

‘Parks and Recreation’. NBC.

This episode was written (by Michael Schur and Alan Yang) as a potential series finale when the show’s future was uncertain, and it would have been a beautiful send-off. Luckily, that wasn’t the case, but it still stands as one of the show’s best episodes, which is saying something. The relationship between Leslie and Ben, who are absolutely perfect for each other, was slowly developed in order to strongly hit every emotional beat and significant milestone. It was all leading up to their wedding, which is thrown together at the parks department after some setbacks and yet is still completely suitable for these two and totally rewarding. Amy Poehler and Adam Scott sell the hell out of this episode, and it all hits exactly right with, “I love you, and I like you.” I got teary-eyed at that. Fuck.

11. Justified – “Decoy”

If there has ever been an episode to convince someone that Justified is worth checking out, this would be it. In its first couple seasons, the show was too obsessed with telling interesting, stand-alone stories rather than serializing. This changed more and more every season, and this – the fourth – was easily the most serialized and far better for it. Raylan Givens, portrayed by Timothy Olyphant who is peerless in delivering one-liners, is trying to get Drew Thompson out of Harlan County before the Tonin crew can get him. This results in an exciting episode, but one that still has plenty of time for what this show does best – clever dialogue. This mostly comes from Drew waxing nostalgic about Raylan’s father, trying to get into his head, but Raylan is having none of it, of course. “Playing the part of a lawman doesn’t mean you know shit about shit.” Amen.

10. Enlightened – “Agent of Change”

'Enlightened'. HBO.

‘Enlightened’. HBO.

I may have enjoyed the Tyler episode, “The Ghost Is Seen”, more than this, the series finale, in terms of my emotional response, but “Agent of Change” is far more exemplary of the show as a whole and is a testament to its form of storytelling and how cruel it was that the show was canceled by HBO. It is a relatively happy episode for a show that usually was not, ending on an uplifting note to Amy Jellicoe’s journey (a word she would no doubt choose). In her search for self-actualization, Amy hurt people, but also helped them. Tyler grew out of his shell, and his future with Eileen is assured and utterly heartwarming. Jeff’s article is finally published, and Amy stands up to Charles Szidon. It is resoundingly cathartic when Amy says, “I’m just a woman who’s over it. I’m tired of watching the world fall apart because of guys like you. I tried to take a little power back,” and all Charles can do is sputter in rage and call her a “cunt”. Amy wins, and although her story is now over, what a way to go out.

9. Hannibal – “Fromage”

'Hannibal'. NBC.

‘Hannibal’. NBC.

There are several episodes I could have chosen to highlight here (“Amuse-Bouche”, “Savoureux”, “Coquilles”), but I think “Fromage” was the best exploration of Will Graham’s deteriorating psyche and the show’s penchant for beautiful deaths. This is a show obsessed with death, all angles and aspects of it, and it chooses to depict it in exclusively creative and often gorgeous ways (the angels in “Coquilles”, the totem pole in “Trou Normand”). In this episode, a musician was killed, his throat opened, and a cello neck was inserted through his mouth. This is about one killer sending a message to another, and the episode ends up being more action-packed than Hannibal usually is. But what is truly significant is Graham’s rapidly worsening mental state, as he is having more hallucinations. Graham has been hesitant about doing this police work since the beginning, uncomfortable with what he is seeing, and all the while he is being manipulated by Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen, another actor robbed of an Emmy nomination). Hannibal blindly (or not) confesses to his therapist that he thinks he has found a true friend in Graham, and it all puts Graham in a box that he can’t escape from.

8. The Returned – “Camille”

'The Returned'. Sundance.

‘The Returned’. Sundance.

This beautiful French show, which aired on the Sundance channel this year, is kind of a zombie show, but it’s really not. In this, the pilot episode, characters who died years earlier are returning from the dead, ostensibly healthy and normal, although ignorant of what happened to them. The pilot is all mood-setting and mystery-establishing, and it accomplishes this in spades. There is a distinct influence that can be felt from Twin Peaks, so I’m already inclined to like it, but it has plenty of its own style. It is haunting and contains several frightening images, but it mostly works through the emotion and conviction (or lack thereof) of its characters. The camera lingers at the end of the episode over Camille’s family (pictured above), shaken by her return, confused, happy, afraid. Her twin sister is terrified at first at the sight of her sister, four years younger while she herself has aged. The Returned is concerned with what these characters do in the face of the unexplainable, and it’s thrilling to watch.

7. Mad Men – “The Crash”

'Mad Men'. AMC.

‘Mad Men’. AMC.

The sixth season of Mad Men was, in my mind, the one-hour drama equivalent of the messy second season of Girls. High prestige shows under similar amounts of pressure (one in living up to its terrific if divisive first season, the other in reaching towards its ending), sometimes succeeding and sometimes not so much. “The Crash” was the best episode of this season. It is a drug episode, as everyone in the office takes an unspecified drug and we watch the outcomes. It deals in surreality, as most of what happens is probably real but it’s difficult to be sure. This episode would probably have earned a place on this list just for the immortal gif of Ken Cosgrove tap-dancing on a bad foot, but there’s more going on. It’s an episode, like many episodes of Mad Men, about loss, and about Don’s self-destructive tendencies. He destroyed what he had with Sylvia, indirectly but inevitably, and he doesn’t know how to deal with that. He becomes careless and seems to be aimless and afraid. Tell me about it, Don.

6. American Horror Story – “Madness Ends”

'American Horror Story'. FX.

‘American Horror Story’. FX.

I’m still not entirely sure what to make of American Horror Story‘s third season, Coven, which I have been enjoying immensely but feels like a less-focused step down after Asylum. That season was kind of a beautiful mess, too, but it led to “Madness Ends”, a surprisingly poignant and affecting finale that expertly wrapped the story up. This is a show where you are constantly baffled as to what you’re watching. It is daring, but also pretty stupid sometimes. Some of it can feel ridiculous for the sake of being ridiculous. But there are moments of real brilliance, and this finale is full of them. The entire sequence of Sister Jude’s last days living with Kit and his family is among the best of the year, as she struggles with being her old self and helping to raise Kit’s children as a kind of surrogate grandmother. And when she dies, this woman we have watched do horrible things, it is so sad. This is partly due to Jessica Lange’s nonpareil performance, but it is also thanks to the writers having sketched this arc and drawing it to this emotional conclusion. American Horror Story is capable of such beauty and poignancy, but also of hilarious one-liners and embarrassingly stupid moments. There’s nothing else like it.

5. Game of Thrones – “The Rains of Castamere”

'Game of Thrones'. HBO.

‘Game of Thrones’. HBO.

As with every other fan, “The Rains of Castamere” was tough for me. I know that Game of Thrones, or rather George R.R. Martin, are not afraid to break your helpless little heart. I also knew going into the episode that something called the Red Wedding existed and that it was going to be “crazy”. It was. Outside of the Breaking Bad finale, I can’t think of a more talked-about episode of television this year. Deservedly so, as we watch the writers ruthlessly kill off multiple beloved characters all at once with such confidence unseen in any other TV show. It happens so quickly, and it is so horrible. After, it cuts immediately to the silent credits. Sit with that, the show seems to say. The world isn’t fair, whether your world is Westeros or Earth, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. The whole situation was set up brilliantly, as we slowly come to realize that something is not right here. The sequence was done so perfectly, and I kind of hate it for that because it makes me want to bawl just thinking about it.

4. 30 Rock – “Hogcock!/Last Lunch”

'30 Rock'. NBC.

’30 Rock’. NBC.

I’m cheating a little since this is technically two episodes, but together they made up the series finale for one of my all-time favourite shows, and it was a completely satisfying goodbye to Liz Lemon, Jack Donaghy, Tracy Jordan and everyone else. While working in a little feminist commentary about women-in-the-workplace, Tina Fey gave Liz the best possible ending, as she is happy with Criss and their two children (mini-Jenna and mini-Tracy) after putting on the final episode of The Girlie Show (and a future in television). Right to the end, 30 Rock was the best at rapid-fire jokes (Kenneth is immortal, “Goodbye Pete Pete, I will forget you.”). But it handled its emotional moments very well, like Liz and Tracy saying goodbye in the strip club they met at in the pilot (“But because the human heart is not properly connected to the human brain, I love you and I’m gonna miss you.”) and Liz and Jack’s flawless final talk (“There is a word, a once special word that’s been tragically co-opted by the romance industrial complex and I would hate to use it here and have you think that I’m suggesting any kind of romantic sentiment let alone an invitation to scale bone mountain…”). I couldn’t have imagined a better ending, and then Jenna sang the wonderful and bizarre “Rural Juror” song.

3. Breaking Bad – “Ozymandias”

'Breaking Bad'. AMC.

‘Breaking Bad’. AMC.

It’s not that I prefer to consider “Ozymandias” the series finale of Breaking Bad (as some do), it’s that in years to come when I think about 2013 as the year that the show ended, I will think of this episode. I think most people will. This was, along with the ending of “The Rains of Castamere”, the most punishing hour of television I saw this year. It was relentless and heartbreaking, and yet still felt somehow inevitable. Hank dies, and it hurts. But the most shocking moment of the episode for me was Walt spitting in Jesse’s face, “I watched Jane die.” This vicious and devastating line, delivered with a crazy amount of venom by Bryan Cranston (who is in a league of his own), didn’t emit a gasp but a yelp of disbelief. In an episode full of horrifying moments, that is the one that has stuck with me the most.

Directed by the great Rian Johnson (who also directed “Fly”), everything disintegrates in spectacular fashion. Walt tries, deludedly, to save Hank, but it fails (we at least get some relief from Hank dying with his dignity and identity strongly intact). He tries to tell Jesse that he means nothing to him by telling him about Jane, but we know better. Jesse becomes a slave. Walt kidnaps Holly in an act of pathetic desperation. This episode is an exhausting run of wholly devastating moments, and even though it destroyed me, I could not look away.

2. Orange is the New Black – “Lesbian Request Denied”

'Orange is the New Black'. Netflix.

‘Orange is the New Black’. Netflix.

I could have chosen practically any of this series’ excellent first season episodes, and I can’t disagree with many TV critics that put “Tall Men With Feelings” on their own lists. It’s a fantastic episode with a killer montage and thematic resonance. I wanted to choose “Lesbian Request Denied”, though, because this was when I knew this show was something special, and it is my favourite example of the show using Piper Chapman as a gateway to tell the interesting stories of other characters. In this case, it is the story of Sophia, a transgendered woman in the female prison with Piper. Creator Jenji Kohan knows what she’s doing with Piper being at the centre (in this interview, she even refers to her as their “gateway drug”), and she knows that Piper’s story can easily become the subplot while someone like Sophia, with a captivating and complicated story to be told, can become the focus.

Sophia’s forced switch to a lower dose of estrogen is something that affects her deeply and threatens her body, and we see through tragic flashbacks that she traded in one prison (her body) for another. On a lesser show, this would come off as trite and on-the-nose, but here it is beautiful and heartbreaking. Laverne Cox does an amazing job portraying Sophia’s struggle, and the complicated issue of transgendered people is dealt with maturely and movingly. This gives us a much stronger hold on who this character is when in the perspective of the prison, and her fight to find herself is depicted with tremendous care and passion. Again, this is a remarkable episode of the best new show of the year and is only one example of how it tells a compelling story about complex female characters.

1. The Good Wife – “Hitting The Fan”

'The Good Wife'. CBS.

‘The Good Wife’. CBS.

Few television shows, particularly procedurals on broadcast networks, are willing to go for the slow burn. This is when you spend a lot of time putting pieces into place, developing strong relationships, and laying foundations…in order to, eventually, burn it all to the ground. The writers of The Good Wife, led by series creators Robert & Michelle King, this year pulled off one of the best blow-ups in TV history. It is almost as if the entire show, which is currently in its fifth season, had been leading to this episode. I’m not overstating it, either. When the fourth season brilliantly ended earlier this year with Alicia Florrick inviting Cary to her home to tell him that she’s in (referring to abandoning their firm and starting their own), there was a flurry of excitement from the show’s fans. This is a show accustomed to good season-ending cliffhangers, but this was something else.

It may seem strange to those that do not watch this show that it is my choice as the best episode of the year. What you would need to understand, without going back and watching the whole thing (which you should do), is that this has been a long time coming. The splitting of the firm, yes, but more so the implications of this. Several episodes later, we are still watching as these characters struggle to process and deal with this change, especially as Will tries to understand Alicia’s betrayal. They are former lovers, and I cannot think of a more charged moment this year than Will storming into Alicia’s office and, as pictured above, throwing everything off her desk in an emotional act of anger and hurt feelings.

That moment, and the episode in its entirety, was what we’d been waiting for. The show has been building to this, and it earned the right to destroy everything it had built and start again, as Alicia and Cary are at Florrick Agos. I found myself rooting for them, very excited about the prospect of them starting their own firm, but I was also deeply sympathetic towards Will and Diane, blindsided by this betrayal and disloyalty. Beyond the desk-destruction, two other moments made this episode the best of the year for me. The first was Will, calling Alicia but instead getting her daughter, and he is very polite to her amid the chaos. A small moment, but a significant one putting the mayhem in perspective. The second was Alicia entering the elevator, up until that point remaining strong and steadfast, but then breaking down in tears. This isn’t what she wanted. Perhaps she was naive, but now it’s real and Will has told her, full of rage, that he was the only one that would take her in. And once she is alone, all she can do is cry.

Honourable Mentions

  • Eastbound & Down – “Chapter 26”
  • The Colbert Report – “Daft Punk”
  • Arrested Development – “Off the Hook”
  • Veep – “Running”
  • The Office – “Finale”
  • House of Cards – “Chapter 8”
  • South Park – “Informative Murder Porn”
  • Getting On – “Born of the Fourth of July”

Can we fix sexism in gaming? Professor Jennifer Jenson and Grace of Fat, Ugly or Slutty have some ideas

Jennifer Jenson, far left, running the Women in Games panel at GRAND 2013.

Jennifer Jenson, far left, running the Women in Games panel at GRAND 2013.

After the lecture, Jennifer Jenson sat down for a roundtable discussion about games. About fifteen were gathered, three women, the rest men. One man spoke up and shared a story about World of Warcraft. He played in a guild with a single mother of two. One evening, the guild was to go on a raid. The mother didn’t log on – both her children were sick. In the team chat, frustrated, he called her a “c***”. Jenson was shocked. The man, dumbfounded, said, “I don’t see why that was wrong.”

It goes without saying that sexism is a serious issue everywhere in society, but gaming is different. In terms of both the culture and the industry, Jenson, a professor at York University, argues that there is something unique about the gaming context.

“There’s a level of entitlement to be an asshole,” she said, “that isn’t in the rest of the world. That is the difference. I don’t get asked in any other context how that [the WoW player’s story] is an incorrect speech act.”

In the games industry, only 1 in 10 employees are female. However, roughly the same amount of women play games as men. Online, women are often harassed, degraded and marginalized. Grace, co-founder of the website Fat, Ugly or Slutty, which collects submissions of sexism from (mostly female) gamers, remains optimistic.

“Incremental change is how to get people to see that there’s a way,” she said. “Changing it all at once isn’t as easy as eroding the current structures that we have. You can do this small thing and watch the huge impact that it has, then go on to the next one.”

Fat, Ugly or Slutty has been one small but significant step for Grace (knowing what it means to be a girl on the Internet, she does not share her last name and achieves androgyny online by being known only as “gtz”). The website has slowed down recently as she focuses on other mostly sexism-related projects (like this and this), but she stands behind the site’s legacy.

“What I’m really proud of is the rhetorical power of the site [in] the archive format,” she said, “where I’m learning that it’s not actually a requirement for daily posts to make the argument that there is something different in women’s experiences online.”

The idea for the site, with the tagline “Every message is the same. I’m always either fat and ugly, or a slut,” was to simultaneously draw scrutiny towards the issue while primarily making others laugh.

“It’s stratospherically absurd how each individual message is,” she said, “and when you take them as a whole, it’s still funny.” She is quick, however, to note the fact that although it started as a joke, it wasn’t long before it took on an additional shape. “We were laughing,” she said, “but it wasn’t until later that I realized it was because I was so surprised and shocked that I was laughing. So it has this serious element, but it absolutely comes from a place of humour.” 

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Looking through the many images on the site, I noticed how in that majority of cases, I was surprised to notice that the offending gamertags or handles were not blanked out.

“We have had a couple people contact us, or come into the comments and act just as you’d expect the original behaviour that got them on the site would have them act,” Grace said. “But there was one person in particular that contacted us, and he said that he didn’t mean for it to be that way and he understands how none of that was appropriate, so he wouldn’t want to have his gamertag presented that way. He didn’t exactly say the perfect words or say he’s sorry, but we took his name off the site. He got it just that little bit, just enough. If you understand some of it, at least you’re on your way.”

In the future, she plans to stop including the gamertags.

Grace brought an interesting example to describe why women have such a harder time when gaming online.

“What I think it is for a lot of people is just straight up ignorance,” she said. “For example, what’s the likelihood that when a guy plays online, he’s going to pick a feminine gamertag, a feminine avatar? The odds are gonna be pretty low. For women, the odds that they would choose a male avatar, a male name, are going to be higher in comparison.”

“So what happens,” she continued, “is that you have women who will actually see the difference in treatment that they get being perceived as men versus being perceived as women. But if men don’t actually spend any time making efforts to be perceived as women, they are ignorant of what that experience is like, because they’ve got no reason to think that it’s different, so they assume that it’s the same. But there is a difference in the experience.”

Overall, Grace sees gaming’s issue with sexism as part of a much larger whole.

“Sexism in gaming is a tiny piece of the larger sexism problem in our culture,” she said, but she explains her optimism. “Other companies are taking notice, and we’re gonna start seeing tools being put in the hands of players. It’s so hopeful. This is why whenever people are talking about harassment and trolls, they get depressed and I get excited.”

“This is why I say baby steps,” she goes on. “What I’m really happy about is that the shock I had, and the shock so many guys [have] had with the site, it’s that it opens their mind even just a little bit, to start looking at the world through a different set of eyes.”

While FUoS provides an outlet for awareness, Jenson comes from a researcher’s perspective. 

“We do empirical research so we can identify problems and issues and talk about how we can fix or address them,” she said. “That really is the feminist agenda. It’s not to just document what’s happening, we’re saying we know what’s happening, now we need to work to change it.”

Riot Games, who are behind 'League of Legends', is taking steps to combat sexism and harassment with their behavioural control system.

Riot Games, who are behind ‘League of Legends’, is taking steps to combat sexism and harassment with their behavioural control system.

Jenson is the organizer of Feminists in Games, an annual workshop devoted to better understanding the gender digital divide and to finding solutions for it (Grace was a panelist at this year’s workshop). Most of the feedback, from developers, designers and gamers, has been positive.

“We’ve had people who’ve e-mailed us,” she said, “to say they’re part of the industry and they really want to have more conversations about this, that there aren’t enough conversations about this, and these are from both women and men. We’ve also heard from community members, people who’ve very much benefitted from some of the seed funding opportunities that we’ve made possible.”

“We had some interesting negative pushback,” she said, “someone called us feminist circle-jerks or something. [laughs] I think the negative stuff is actually useful, too, helping to prove our point.” 

Jenson puzzles over the rampant sexism in gaming culture.

“A lot of girls know they don’t belong,” she said. “All they have to do is open a magazine, look at an online gaming website. They’re told that where they do belong is in this marginalized pink way, if you look at the broad message that is out there.”

“For some reason,” she continued, “games companies tend to have these really hostile work environments for women, not just because of the kinds of jobs people are doing, but because women are subjected to porn on the walls and on computers, because they’re outright stalked or harassed.”

“I can’t tell you the number of people who I’ve talked to,” she shared, chillingly, “that said people feel like it’s perfectly their right to follow them around at GDC for 3 days. That’s not cool.”

Jenson and Grace both pointed out two recent developments, the Xbox One’s new approaches to matching players and monitoring harassment and Riot Games’ new tribunal behaviour system for League of Legends, as examples of systemic improvement. But more must be done.

“We have to take the reigns in our own hands and make the changes that we want,” Jenson said, “because they aren’t just going to happen.”

“I think the conversation’s changing.” Grace said. “You know when you see people get mad about, like, ‘Argh, we get it, you’re a girl and you’re a gamer, we don’t even care’. Even that kind of anger is borne from the idea that they accept women gamers as normalized. So the conversation is different. I play the long game, so these are baby steps.”

In the meantime, Grace still enjoys laughing at the archived submissions at FUoS. “The very act is so weird,” she said, “and bizarre, and without merit on almost every level that everything about it combines into this perfect thing.”

She shared with me her all-time, for-the-books, absolute favourite submission she has ever received, posted to the site on February 6, 2011. “Is he sending it just out into the ether,” she wonders, “or is it supposed to be some sort of escalating conversation? It’s just magical, every part of it.”

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Breaking free with a divergent creation: An interview with Karla Zimonja

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The gaming industry is now bigger than it has ever been. Blockbuster AAA titles are toiled over for years by teams of several hundred employees, and once released, they take in hundreds of millions within days or even hours. To leave that world behind and go independent takes a certain amount of bold confidence, and Karla Zimonja and the team at The Fullbright Company were not afraid of taking the challenge.

“We were just at points in our lives where it made sense to take a big risk. Steve [Gaynor, lead designer and writer at Fullbright] called us up and was just like, ‘Well, you guys wanna take the jump?’, and we all had situations in our personal lives where we were like, ‘Yeah, let’s go,’” Zimonja, Fullbright’s 2D artist and story adviser, said in a Skype interview, adding “we were all willing to take a jump and had confidence in each other.”

The three initial risk-takers were Zimonja, Gaynor and Johnnemann Nordhagen, all of whom had worked together at 2K Marin, most notably on the acclaimed DLC for BioShock 2 entitled ‘Minerva’s Den’ (Kate Craig soon joined them, handling environmental art). Having put that experience behind her, Zimonja is proud of the result but disappointed with the limiting nature of the AAA space.

“‘Minerva’s Den’ was a really good experience. That was my high water mark for years,” she said. “But there’s a lot of things you can’t do in AAA. There’s a lot of things that are very difficult to make happen. We just wanted to do something [that] we couldn’t do there.”

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Zimonja was eager to point out the many benefits of working in the independent sphere. “You have hugely more freedom to do unconventional things,” she said, “story-wise, you can make experimental games about being a cyber-queen or something, you can do that. You’re going to have a really hard time being super weird and avant-garde in the AAA space.”

“I worked on a whole bunch of things with this game, and it’s way more satisfying to do that than to just be like, ‘Well, I made the textures for 4 out of the 6 guns and most of the armour,’ it’s like, thats cool, I guess. [laughs] With Gone Home, I did every single note, all the packaging, helped out with some models, casting, voice recording, video editing…all kinds of stuff. It’s much more interesting to be able to do a variety of work.”

Zimonja, 36, has been in this industry for a while, but it was never the goal to be here. She received a degree in animation from the Rhode Island School of Design, worked on some TV shows (like Dr. Katz) and commercials, ultimately feeling dissatisfied, and by chance started working in games.

“This was back in the day when it was maybe easier to move around career-wise,” she said, “and it wasn’t quite like it is now where it’s harder to get your foot in the door. Then I got into the possibilities of working on games rather than other kinds of entertainment, especially commercials, because, sheesh.”

“I grew to love it and I feel like I’ve gotten to do some cool things in games, which is nice,” she continued, “which is probably more than I would’ve gotten to do if I had been stuck in the mainstream animation industry. Games have a lot of freedom.”

To wit, Gone Home – Fullbright’s first game, released in August – appears at first to be a creepy horror game taking place in a haunted house, but ends up being a sweet, nuanced story about a teen lesbian romance in 1995, when Riot Grrrl was in full force.

The use of certain horror elements (and the presentation of these elements in the game’s marketing) was purely intentional to throw players off course. “We needed those [horror] tropes to set the scene and keep you uneasy. We used it as a tool to keep the player’s expectations in line,” she said, “something seemingly freaky appears and immediately there’s an explanation.”

“There’s a certain amount of scariness that you’re going to have in an empty house,” she added, “then once we have that we can use it to remind you that real-life situations can seem scary but have a logical explanation and/or can seem scary but the emotional truths are the real, important thing.”

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The choice of setting was also distinctly purposeful. “The area [in Oregon] in that time period [was] rife with cool feminist movements and Riot Grrrl is a big, visible aspect of that, so we figured it would be an awesome character trait to have our main characters be into that,” she said, “and it’s almost probable when you consider really rebellious teens in that time period, in this location, ground zero for Riot Grrrl.”

She said despite growing up in the 90s, she was mostly isolated from the feminist movements of the era. “It’s mostly in retrospect that that’s meaningful. I was in a small town in Massachusetts, so there was not a lot of that kind of thing present,” she said, “but I knew about it thanks to stuff like Sassy [a feminist magazine] and a couple of other cool publications. It’s mostly imagining how it would’ve been to have been engaged in that.”

However, Zimonja is very aware of the rampant sexism in the gaming industry today. “In my AAA life, there has not been a whole lot of super upfront, in your face sexism,” she said, “but the pay difference is real, the amount of authority and amount of times you get consulted versus guys with the same role is significantly different. I have never worked at a AAA company that is more than maybe 7%, 10% female. It’s preposterous.”

“I noticed this when I was talking to a college student at GDC,” she went on, “and there were booth babes around and I made a comment about it, like, “Yup, they sure are doing a great job respecting us!” and the student was like, “I don’t know, whatever, I can not pay attention to it”, and I was like, you shouldn’t have to ignore this and deal with the weird marginalization that comes with it.”

Gone Home, with its focus on feminism and female characters, stands out in a male-dominated gaming marketplace, and Zimonja 23r23rholds this as a sincere point of pride.

“It was really good to be able to do something that really reflected our values and to actually be progressive and allowed to have multiple female characters,” she said. “We pass the Bechdel test [which measures gender bias in media]. It’s really good to be a counter example in that regard, because it’s nice to show people that it won’t make the world explode if you behave better.”

Going independent may have been a risk, but on top of telling the story they wanted to tell, Gone Home has so far sold well over 50,000 copies, and Zimonja feels gratified.

“It’s very different from working on a AAA game. That’s not nearly as much yours, the team is so much bigger, so you share it with so many people,” she said. “It’s a strange situation, it’s hard to believe the praise is about us. It’s a very weird thing, it mostly just feels like people being very sweet.”

After switching between careers and going through the corporate machine of the gaming industry, Zimonja is content to challenge it from an independent standpoint.

“The space is narrowing,” she said, “so if you want to do something different, you have to leave.”

Buy Gone Home here.

– Jake