Author: Ellen Squires

Taylor Swift’s ‘Red’ impressive, but not flawless

Taylor Swift has always straddled the line between country and pop music, dealing with criticism from diehard fans on either side of the genre divide for most of her young career. If there were ever any doubts about her true loyalties, they are resolved by the newly released Red the fourth album from America’s beloved starlet. Perhaps becoming an Arlen Specter of the music world, she’s completed the transformation to pop stardom. She uses Red to embrace this unofficial new label emphatically and fearlessly, producing an album that is predominantly loud, angry and bold – if not slightly lacking in substance.

The country twang of plucking guitars and dueling banjos are largely replaced by driving pop beats in Red. Swift even dabbles briefly in dubstep in the bitter breakup anthem “I Knew You Were Trouble,” an experiment in electronic vocals and aggressive beats. There’s also a gentler brand of sugary pop, surfacing in songs like “We Are Never Getting Back Together” and the title track, “Red.” Though often sounding like a mix of Carrie Underwood and Katy Perry, she has also created something that is iconically Taylor.

While most songs are more suited to the dance floor than a pickup truck’s radio, there’s musical diversity within Red that’s not readily apparent at first listen. To write the album off as singularly “pop” is to under appreciate the unheralded, softer moments that quietly make the album shine. The pop music may be the gloss of Red, but it shouldn’t obscure the more nuanced, if infrequent, glimmers of complexity.

The first respite from heavier sounds comes in “All Too Well.” Temporarily adopting a slightly more acoustic approach, Swift laments lost love by recalling memories of autumn leaves and long road trips with a former beau. “The Last Time,” a soulful duet with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody, is also a softer, more melodic winner.

Another successful collaboration occurs in “Everything Has Changed,” featuring newly popular English singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran. Bringing in Sheeran was not just a tactful marketing move, but also an effective musical match. Swift’s voice pairs nicely with Sheeran’s John Mayer-like falsetto to produce a softer ballad about falling in love. Buried among the noisier tracks of the album, the tune is a refreshingly optimistic break.

Swift sings like someone who has learned something in her short, but successful career. She has something to say, and she doesn’t hesitate to proclaim it loudly and forcefully. With more ex-boyfriends than albums, Swift has plenty of material, and her most emphatic statement is about love that is “treacherous, sad, beautiful and tragic.” Her barbs could have numerous aims: former beau Jake Gyllenhall, or more recent victim Conor Kennedy.

Doubtless, she draws from her own experience with heartache, lost love and bitter breakups to provide the thematic oomph of the album. But amid the passion and anger of heartbreak, she also sings an occasionally redemptive tune, ultimately claiming that love is worth it despite her many dealings with “red” love.

While Red relies mostly on formulaic pop music, it’s hard to criticize Swift for taking this approach. The album was carefully engineered to appeal to her fiercely loyal fan base – mostly composed of tween groupies who’ve likely been biting their French-manicured nails in eager anticipation of the release.

Though catering to her fans, Swift hasn’t produced something completely lackluster and familiar, like she so easily could, but demonstrates the audacity to experiment with new genres. That the album has achieved so much early success, landing the No. 1 spot on iTunes in a mere 36 minutes and selling 1.2 million copies in its first week, is admirable and a testament to her devoted fan base and wide appeal.

Red has its flaws, and it certainly won’t be hitting the airwaves of Minneapolis indie station The Current anytime soon. But from the boldness of the new album, it would appear that Swift doesn’t care. Singing of her too-cool boyfriend in “We Are Never Getting Back Together,” she rants about him hiding away in “indie records much cooler than mine.” Maybe she won’t win over the indie crowd, but that was never her intention.

In Red, America’s favorite starlet has created an album that will resonate with her pop-loving fans and continue her meteoric success. Though I’d stop short of hailing her as the next Joni Mitchell, her deepest critics should be silenced by Swift’s unabashed and fearless testament to her reimagined, popstar self. It doesn’t carry the intellectual depth or musical complexity of other artists, but it satisfies with catchy beats and an overriding message. And that’s something to appreciate.

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Proposed SGA Constitution changes put to the vote

The Chapel introduces new concert venue

Oles in search of high-quality music delivered in an intimate setting may finally have their answer, and it’s not the bustling clubs of Minneapolis. Enter The Chapel, a music and art venue that is the newest addition to Northfield’s already vibrant local arts scene.

Tucked amid the gift shops, cafes and clothing stores of downtown Division Street, The Chapel is an operation lacking in pretension. Michael Morris, a Minnesota native and frontman of the band Dewi Sant, founded it almost by default. Initially, he intended the space to serve as the headquarters of his independent record label, Plastic Horse Records. But he quickly found that it doubled nicely as both an office and performance space.

“It was totally over the top as an office,” Morris said. “It’s way too huge and costs too much, but the idea of having a space in my record label’s home where music could be performed and art could be shared was just too good to not make happen – especially a space that sounds, looks and feels like The Chapel.”

A musician himself, Morris is familiar with the Twin Cities scene and often books local artists who happen to be his friends or acquaintances. A handful of well-known acts have performed in the venue already this year, including Caroline Smith, Lucy Michelle, Communist Daughter and Charlie Parr.

“I try to get acts who wouldn’t normally perform in Northfield, other than at the colleges,” Morris said.

He believes that The Chapel can offer a listening experience different than The Pause or The Cove at Carleton. Part of the uniqueness stems from the acoustics of the venue. After initial experimentation with the sound, Morris thinks he’s finally happened upon the perfect system. He likens the sound quality to that in a church or cathedral, hence the venue’s name.

“I’ve never been in a room that sounds so amazing. It’s got this epic natural reverb,” Morris said.

The Chapel also offers a sense of intimacy that bigger venues often lack. Christian Graefe ’13, who saw Charlie Parr perform at The Chapel in early October, said the venue had a more personal vibe, in part due to the informal seating on folding chairs or the floor.

“It was a very relaxed atmosphere,” Graefe said. “The artists are close to the audience and can interact with them.”

The ambiance of the space is all part of Morris’ broader artistic vision and his desire to connect listeners with art and artist on a deeper level.

“One of the reasons that we named it The Chapel is because we think art and sharing it is sacred, and it becomes even more so everyday in a world where every interaction seems to be monitored and calculated for value to convince companies it’s worth advertising on Facebook or whatever. This space seems to have the unique effect of reminding everyone of what music and art mean.”

Though The Chapel has acted primarily as a music venue thus far, Morris plans on dallying in other art forms as well, including dance, theater, poetry, film and visual art. Ultimately, he hopes that the venue will become what he calls an “art gallery in the truest sense,” a space that mixes media while blurring the line between artist and audience.

In the meantime, a handful of shows are already lined up for the upcoming weeks. Bomba de Luz, a band of St. Paul Central students, will perform on Nov. 3, and Jim Ruiz and the Starfolk are slated to play the following weekend, on Nov. 10. The first visual art show will debut in December, featuring the work of local artist Doug Bratland, who designs most of the posters for Chapel shows.

Whether it be Lucy Michelle plunking out her newest melody or a local visual artist displaying his or her work, The Chapel has something to offer art connoisseurs of all tastes and ages, which is exactly what Morris envisioned.

“I want The Chapel to be a space that brings people together,” he said. “If there’s a way that it can be a space where different people in this community can get together to experience music or art, I’d love that.”

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Proposed SGA Constitution changes put to the vote

Turnout reflects distrust

With the colorful array of political signs currently making a kaleidoscope of the Northfield landscape, apathy is the last word one would use to describe this year’s voting body. During the frenzy of election season, we’re so bombarded with commercials, phone calls, debates and miscellaneous political propaganda that it’s easy to assume everyone is chomping at the bit to vote come the first Tuesday in November. But the truth is, only half of them will.

Low voter turnout is a real – and frankly disturbing – problem. And it’s not just a phenomenon of recent years, either: Turnout was 55.2 percent in 1972, a presidential election year, compared to 56.8 percent in 2008. This means that almost one half of the voting-age population consistently hasn’t bothered to cast their vote over the last thirty years. Even as the U.S. has spiraled into economic decline, become entangled in foreign wars and faced the biggest environmental problems in recent memory, the number of voters has held at a relatively steady 50-odd percent. It’s not the economy; it’s the culture.

People neglect to vote because they’ve convinced themselves that they have no choice, a sentiment that has developed as a byproduct of American politics. The divisive two-party system has alienated voters by presenting them with only two viable candidates. Furthermore, the candidates themselves appear to be mere figureheads of corrupt partisan machinery. At its worst, the political process is seen as a carefully-orchestrated farce: The debates are canned and the conventions are staged – an elaborate celebratory ceremony to crown the candidate who was chosen from the get-go.

The perceived purposelessness of the democratic process has produced a culture in which the voting body feels collectively ineffectual. It’s not just indifference to their individual vote; it’s indifference to the collective vote. In abstaining from the political process, people are implicitly affirming their loss of faith in politics to produce tangible change.

This may all be true, but too much ink has been spilled trying to explain the phenomenon of low voter turnout. People have even begun to probe biology in search of explanations, attributing low turnout to a hormone-induced fear of choosing the losing candidate, according to a recent article in The New York Times. Instead of all this silly speculating, we’d be better to focus on a solution.

Solutions often turn on eliminating barriers to voting. But new voter registration procedures probably won’t compel the 40-odd percent who haven’t voted for years to take political action. It will require not just new registration laws, but a paradigm shift. People don’t care how easy the process is if they feel powerless to change anything. What needs to change is politics itself; only this can produce a corresponding cultural shift that will boost voting numbers.

This political season in particular is fraught with percentages: Mitt’s 47 percent, Occupy’s 99 percent, Wall Street’s 1 percent. But the most important figure might also be the most overlooked: the roughly 44 percent who won’t be casting their ballot this November. This untapped body has the power to turn the election in a drastically different direction. We can throw around various explanations for low voter turnout, but it’s time to face the facts: it’s built into our culture, a product of waning faith in the newfangled brand of American politics.

In post-Watergate America, it’s on the politicians to prove to their electorate that they should reclaim faith in the political system. Only then will people seriously take heed of those political signs, step up to the ballot box and vote.

Ellen Squires ’14 is from Andover, Minn. She majors in biology and environmental studies.

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Proposed SGA Constitution changes put to the vote

The appeal to running: on campus and beyond

I live in a house full of enthusiastic runners – morning runners, to be specific. On a typical day, while most of campus is still asleep, half of my housemates are already out on the roads, killing it on their early-morning five-milers. While I, a runner myself, infrequently join the early-morning crowd, I am constantly in awe of this incredible and mildly disgusting dedication.

St. Olaf is a campus teeming with runners. In fact, the large running population was one of the first things I noticed when I came here as a first year. And it’s not just the scantily clad men’s cross-country team who dash through the quad every afternoon: it’s your lab partner in chemistry, your French tutor, your elderly professor who suits up in windbreaker shorts and extra-tall socks to go on his daily run. Running is so prevalent here that it’s in jeopardy of becoming singularly commonplace. I used to harbor a secret pride in my identity as a runner. Then, I came to a college with a curiously huge number of ex-cross-country runners and proceeded to move in with a bunch of girls who one-upped me in every way.

How can we explain running’s epidemic success, not just on campus but around the country? As evidenced by high rates of participation in marathons and other shorter races marathon finishers increased by 47 percent in just the past 12 years running has truly reached fad status. This year’s Twin Cities Marathon featured a field of 8,781 runners – one of them my housemate – up from 6,532 participants 10 years ago.

Why do people pay upwards of $150 to put themselves through 26 miles of excruciating pain? Maybe it’s the swag: the moisture-wicking technical tee or the snazzy Camelback water bottle. Maybe it’s the right to slap the iconic, if slightly arrogant, 26.2 sticker to the back window of your car, proclaiming to the world that yes, you have endured the truest test of physical grit and mental fortitude.

But maybe it’s none of these reasons at all. Running might speak to a deeper human need for physical exertion and the sense of liberation that it can bring. I can’t speak for all runners, but I run for exploration. Running through the natural lands one day this fall, I found myself face-to-face with two deer. For a brief moment, our gazes were locked, and it felt magical. More than that, I also run for my sanity. I can’t endure day after day of the sedentariness of school; the daily grind has to be regularly interrupted with something that uses my body rather than brain.

Maybe it’s something even more deep-seated and universal. Christopher McDougall argues in his best-selling book “Born to Run” that “running is rooted in our collective imagination, and our imagination is rooted in running.”

Maybe we can account for the popularity of running by the simple fact that it’s something that we all can do. And it’s something we’ve been doing for a long, long time. I don’t run away from monstrous predators, like I imagine that people once did, but I do run from the monotony and stress of daily life, at least temporarily. Maybe my housemates and the thousands of people who lined up at the Twin Cities Marathon last weekend are doing the same thing.

But it’s getting too late for unsubstantiated philosophical claims. And tomorrow morning, I just might brave the chill and go for a run.

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Proposed SGA Constitution changes put to the vote

Following elections, Student Senate centers in on new agenda and goals

The student body that controls a half-million-dollar budget has a slightly different look this year. The new faces of the Student Government Association SGA Senate were unveiled following last week’s elections, as candidates were selected for all hall council positions in addition to six senatorial posts. A total of 1,324 students voted in an election that included a number of competitive races. In the end, Caryn McKinney ’13 was chosen as Faculty Governance senator, Thomas Freeman ’14 as intercampus liaison, Guttu Maskalo ’14 as multicultural senator and Love Odetola ’14 as international senator. Rounding out the group are Anna Theis ’13 as off-campus senator and Molly McDermott ’13 as honor house senator. Complete results of hall council elections, in addition to candidate biographies, can be found on the Oleville webpage.

The entire Senate, which includes 38 senators, convened for the first time Saturday, Sept. 29 at an opening retreat. During that time, the group began preparations for the upcoming year. According to SGA Vice President and Senate Chair Matt Alveshere ’13, the goals for the year are wide-ranging, addressing issues from stress to student participation. Bolstering the student voice within the organization is of special importance to Alveshere and the Executive Board.

“Many students don’t come to Senate meetings, and that’s one of the things we want to change this year,” he said. To that end, the Senate is debuting a new student comment portion at the beginning of its weekly meetings. Similar to a city council meeting, Senate meetings will begin with a brief period during which any student in attendance can speak.

“This will be a time for students to come and directly address the Senate, whether it’s with a new idea they have, or something they want to be brought up in the meeting,” Alveshere said.

He also encourages students to come hear the guest speakers who are frequently featured at meetings. These often include members of the administration, such as Vice President Greg Kneser and Dean Rosalyn Eaton-Neeb. Alveshere sees this as a unique avenue of communication between students and the administration.

“The speakers tell us what they’re working on in their office, and they are also able to get student feedback via the Senate,” he said.

To further engage students, Senate is also adding a new social media component to meetings. The SGA webpage will now be posting tweets during meetings, enabling students to access a live feed online.

Also high on the Senate agenda is the issue of student stress. Alveshere notes that St. Olaf students are typically more stressed than their counterparts at other colleges.

“We want to look at how we can re-evaluate the causes of stress, and see what can be done institutionally to reduce it,” he said.

In addition to these preliminary goals, Alveshere also anticipates new priorities to arise throughout the year, especially within subcommittees. The Senate includes seven of these smaller groups, and each focuses on single issue ranging from student wellness to transportation. The subcommittees are often the venue for work on specific issues, and senators serving on them are responsible for dealing with problems falling within the domain of their subcommittee.

Individual senators are also bringing their personal goals to the table. Newly elected International Sen. Odetola, who will serve as a liaison between Senate and the international student community, seeks to bring a global perspective to the Senate. “My main goal as international senator is to be the voice of the international community in student government,” she said. She is hoping to initiate and maintain an ongoing dialogue between the two groups. “I plan on attending International Student Organization meetings and getting the personal ideas and opinions of my peers, and then relating them back to SGA,” she said.

Odetola and her fellow senators convened for their first meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 2 at 6:30 p.m. in the David E. Johnson Boardroom. Alveshere explained that this first gathering marked the beginning of a year of student involvement in what he sees as a vitally important organization on campus. Operating with a sizable budget and debating matters from parking options to student work, Senate has a great degree of influence within the college.

“St. Olaf is lucky,” Alveshere said. “The administration really values our opinions, and we’re one of the most highly-respected student governments around.”

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Proposed SGA Constitution changes put to the vote