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Unfree Masters: Recording Artists and the Politics of Work
By Matt Stahl
Duke University Press, 2012, 312 pages

Matt Stahl knows they’re not so different.

It’s easy to regard the career of recording artists as glamorous, their finances as abundant and personal liberties more so. Yet, beyond the ostentatious veneer of Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance, it’s just another pawn in a socioeconomic game, one that resembles yours and mine.

Stahl, assistant professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, starts his new book, Unfree Masters: Recording Artists and the Politics of Work, by expounding and dispelling the notion that modern recording artists, while ostensibly exchanging their creative and expressive talents for economic gain and resultant personal and creative liberties, are, in fact, just as bound to their employers – the recording companies – as the Average Joe and Jane.

“(Recording artists) determine to a great extent what they do and where, when, and how they do it.  … But (they) also typically work under unequal contracts and must hand over long-term control of the songs and albums they produce to their record companies. … The recording artist is both autonomous and the target of control,” Stahl writes.

Just as recording companies can be bought and sold, so can the recording artists signed to them, becoming an exchangeable, if not perishable, commodity in the creative labour market. Musicians are presented for the public’s consumption and adoration, seemingly embodying artistic freedom and self-expression yet the artist is nevertheless a “political and economic actor” whose working relationship is likewise one of subordination.

Stahl’s book looks at the neoliberal politics of today, the manner in which recording companies – the employers – have, for decades, exerted dominance over their employees. Socioeconomic security is on the downslope for all workers, and artists – even big shots – are no exception in today’s society.

The book is an interesting read, accessible and highly informative, showing how the media, notably American Idol, define artists’ thresholds of mobility, freedom and creative talent. Later covering topics such as contract issues, copyright law and historical disputes between musicians and recording companies, Stahl presents the struggles within the music industry as timely, universal political and socioeconomic issues.

– Adela Talbot


The Saddest Place on Earth
By Kathryn Mockler
DC Books, 2012, 69 pages

One of the more amusing practices in philosophy is the use of reductio ad absurdum which involves testing a proposition by conjuring up the most absurd or untenable situation to test the proposition’s logical validity. Kathryn Mockler, an instructor in Western’s Program in Writing, Rhetoric and Professional Communication, freely employs this practice in poetic form, producing a series of risible poems and prose fragments, some of them reminiscent of pataphysics (most notably in the personification of Hurt Feelings and Anger sharing a cottage), God appears on Oprah, and Buddha signs up for Weight Watchers.

Stylistically, there are some consistent features that bridge Mockler’s previous literary offering, Onion Man, where she masterfully balances sneering ironic humour with the accent notes of reflective sadness. The Saddest Place on Earth, once again, demonstrates Mockler is Western’s literary gem, producing a pithy volume that is touching, playful, and unpretentiously saturated with brilliant insight.

– Kane Faucher


Lily’s Story
By Don Gutteridge
Bev Editions, 2013, 828 pages

Don Gutteridge literarily dramatizes the parochial in this frontier tale taking place in Lambton County in the 19th century, but in a way that does not overly romanticize or sentimentalize the lives of its characters. The prose is exceptionally rich, reminiscent of Ernest Buckler’s The Mountain and the Valley. A narrative that spans from 1845 right through the First World War, there is something of a haunting yet non-maundering apologia, and yet the author contains it in the subtle tones to keep emphasis on the very human story that unfolds.

That being said, it is less a story centred on characters as it is one focused on the geography of the region where the characters play out. It is the dramatization of a territory that lends Lily’s Story an almost visceral feel, aided in part by Gutteridge’s masterful strokes of descriptive, parochial colour that places it in the tradition of literary high modernism. Gutteridge, a former Education professor, arranges all the ingredients of what a good historical fiction in this genre requires: erudition, and a narrative exquisitely contoured by historical facts that are just dense enough to provide believability without being obtrusively self-announcing, and in just the right density to maintain a continuity where the story is not just an ornament hung on those details.

What appealed to this reviewer was the delicate touches that truly bring out the landscape in a non-obtrusive, unforced manner, filtered through the challenges of a frontier people.

– Kane Faucher