The Best and Worst of 2017

It’s a time-honored tradition: here are the best and worst things about 2017, brought to you by The Kugelmass Episodes.

THE BEST OF 2017

  1. Facebook
    Previously a “Worst of the Year” winner, Facebook has made an amazing turnaround of late. Sure, the birthday reminders are getting onerous, and Facebook is epically bad at preventing friend requests from spambots. But with its versatile emojis, GIF commenting feature, large text for short posts, generous post sizes, and elegant threading, Facebook has become a warm and inviting place to chat with people like yourself (that’s a more accurate description than real “friends,” which counts as a subcategory). A lot of people blame Facebook for encouraging divisiveness and fake news (as in, the real fake news from Russia and whatnot). Personally, however, I accept Facebook’s implied retort, which is that it holds up a mirror. If you’re the kind of person who believes things without critically examining them, and you’re an insular and provincial person, then you will have a misleading, insular, provincial newsfeed. It’s not Facebook’s responsibility to rouse you from your slumber. My feed is diverse, challenging, validating, and a lot of fun, and that just wasn’t true a few years back.
  2. The price of technology
    You can now own virtually everything you’ll ever need, technologically speaking, for a total of $1,150. That includes a computer ($600), a tablet ($70), a smartphone (free or cheap with a service contract), headphones ($10), cables and a multicharger and a portable battery ($80 total), a voice-activated personal assistant ($30), an inkjet printer ($50), a flatscreen TV ($200), a soundbar ($80), and a TV dongle ($40). That’s amazing. It’s a revolution in so many senses, even though some of the things we need (like cheap e-ink, universal free WiFi, and real live online cable television) are still maddeningly elusive.
  3. R&B, especially when electronic
    R&B has outpaced rap as the most interesting genre alive. Aside from Kendrick Lamar’s album, rap wasn’t especially joyful or creative this year, even if it was distinctive and diverse. R&B, meanwhile, got meaner and sexier and nuttier, with incredible albums from Syd, Kehlani, Kelela, Sampha, Moses Sumney, and SZA, as well as an interesting (if uneven) new playlist from Drake. Consider how often a contemporary music review drops “R&B” as the ingredient that really makes The XX, or Tyler the Creator, or some up-and-coming electronic act worth hearing. It’s 2018 and R&B isn’t just sex music anymore. It’s got soul, and it’s superbad.
  4. The novel as history
    I don’t want to take anything away from the accomplishments of individual authors like Jesmyn Ward, Jennifer Egan, George Saunders, or Mohsin Hamid, by summarizing the trend of their recent successes. At the same time, it really seems like the best new novels are all dissertations of a sort, digging into the stories and fracture-lines produced by traumatic and explosive historical events, and following the endless ripples that reach across generations, broadcasting those catastrophes all the way to the present. I can picture the MFAs of tomorrow meeting at cocktail parties and saying, “I’m interested in writing something lyrical, maybe a sort of piecemeal epic, about individuals aboard the Hindenberg blimp” or “I’m interested in delivering elegiac, morbidly funny stories about both Gulf Wars.”
  5. The sense of place in film
    Considered one way, the essence of film is environment. Film places the individual within a great and powerful canvas, one that visually surrounds her and gobbles up the screen. Whether it was a matter of imagining new worlds (Coco, Blade Runner 2049, Thor: Ragnarok), bringing places in crisis to life (Dunkirk, Atomic Blonde), or discovering the magic in places nobody cares about (Sacramento in Little Bird, Atlanta in Baby Driver), this was the year when the place made the movie. Ironically, this didn’t diminish the importance of individuals taking action: on the contrary, it proved that heroic actions are only meaningful when they are understood in a larger context. In the best films of 2017, the environment was a delicately tuned instrument, palpably waiting — like the dusty orange ruins in Blade Runner 2049 — for a protagonist to appear and strike the keynote.

THE WORST OF 2017

It was a tough year. Let’s do this quickly, shall we?

  1. The damage that Trump’s Administration did to the daily, routine, essential functions of our government (the EPA, the parks, the Justice Department, the State Department, the FCC, etc.).
  2. The fallout of climate change, which worked like steroids on every sort of natural disaster.
  3. Irrational interpretations of the current economic boom, which is unsustainable, and very worrying now that Trump has taken off the brakes.
  4. The nervous, sexist, unfunny backlash following disclosures of patriarchal sexual misconduct and assault against women.
  5. The irresponsible use of neologisms and trending language; for example, the universal adoption of “ecosystem” to describe paywalled path-dependence on Amazon or Google or Apple, or the gradual dilution of the term “mansplaining” (including the uproar over “manspreading”) until it had virtually no significance or radical power.

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Happy New Year! Look for a new chapter of Retreat in the days ahead. -Kugelmass

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