Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Art in Bangkok: what do you want to be today?

This, I’m afraid, is what usually passes for high-profile modern art in Bangkok these days. Vague nods to Western notions of culture (tired Christian iconography filtered through an airbrushed posse of probably-Russian models) for the express purpose of selling you an expensive lifestyle. This is about food, but it could have been condos or cars or plastic surgery or whatever. Incidentally, the product it’s shifting is part of CentralWorld, the vast shopping mall that was immolated at the climax of the last bout of urban unrest here, in 2010.

So it was more duty than enthusiasm that propelled me to the clunkily titled Art and the Collective in Southeast Asia. The venue, the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, has enjoyed a mixed reputation since it (finally) opened in 2008; it’s an intriguing space, built as a sort of reverse helter-skelter around an atrium with visitors strolling up the spiral slope with pictures on the walls. But the quality of the contents has been patchy at best, its exhibits neither edgy enough to fully win over the city’s small but visible hipster population nor possessing sufficient mainstream appeal to pull in big crowds. Much of the space on the lower levels has been rented out to small retail outlets, so you can pick up an ice cream or a recycled laptop bag or even a mountain bike – Bangkok hipsters love their bikes – which at least gives a vague sense of community to the place. How many of the punters actually trudge their way up the spiral to look at the art isn’t entirely clear.

But I make the effort and am slowly, grudgingly forced to review my prejudices. As the name suggests, this is a group show, including pieces by artists – established and upcoming – from countries across the region. Some of the art is brutally political, such as the Groszesque cartoons of Vietnam’s Nguyen Van Cuong and this even-handed up-yours to the protagonists in Thailand’s current electoral impasse:

Remember, this is a part of the world where, economic and political advances notwithstanding, there’s still a substantial degree of risk in mocking the elites that run the show, even more so in deconstructing the cultural and social taboos that underpin their power. But the real subversion comes not from artists who put their heads above the parapet; it’s the ones who take the spectators with them who are really challenging the status quo. Interactivity is the order of the day, whether analogue (a circular ping pong table on which we’re encouraged to play; the priapic self-portraits of Vasan Sitthiket, bearing placards written by us) or digital – several installations come to life when the viewers stumble in front of cameras, taking a role whether they want to or not.

And you’re actively encouraged to take photos. The reason this is forbidden in many Western art spaces is that the galleries decide what souvenirs you take from them, and monetise that choice; to be fair, the artists do take a meagre cut from sales of the various postcards, tea towels etc, provided they’re still alive to do so. But, despite all the boutiques and cafes at BACC, there is no real gift shop through which we exit. Instead there’s a pin board bearing recommendations for online tracts about the redundancy or otherwise of copyright law when it comes to creative work. And in that spirit, we snap away, our bodies remixing the originals in an act of casual détournement.

Which brings us back to the emaciated poseurs at the top of the page. CentralWorld is a few hundred metres from one of its biggest rivals, the Siam Paragon mall, which was recently dubbed the world’s most shared location for selfies; for any new retail development, the creation of photogenic landmarks that might raise one’s Instagram profile would now appear to be as fundamental as parking spaces and toilets. So it may seem on the face of it that BACC has simply bowed its head to the realities of 21st-century capitalism. But there is a sliver of difference between the two. When people snap themselves gurning within Paragon or CentralWorld, they define themselves as passive consumers; when they do the same at BACC, they immediately become artists, seizing the initiative, another placard that they’ve drawn themselves.

PS: (Jan 15) Rather more focused review that places the art in the context of the current upheavals in Bangkok.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

I turned my face away and dreamed about Christopher Walken

From Wikipedia:
The New York Police Department (NYPD) does not have a choir, but it does have a Pipes and Drums unit that is featured in the video for the song. The NYPD Pipes and Drums did not know “Galway Bay” and so sang and played the Mickey Mouse Club theme tune for the music video instead and the editor put it in slow motion to fit the beat.
I think that sums up the season pretty well for me. Although maybe this is the fairy atop the tree: 

Anyway, Happy Christmas your arse, one and all.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The blog is not dead, it’s just Peter Capaldi

I am informed – via Facebook, of course, because that’s how it works these days – that the blog is dead. Even more dead than when it died a couple of years back. Except of course that it isn’t dead at all; for one thing, the obituary that brings the news appears to be a blog of sorts. Less a death, more a meme thing, or maybe a Who-style regeneration:
So, R.I.P. The Blog, 1997-2013. But this isn’t cause for lament. The Stream might be on the wane but still it dominates. All media on the web and in mobile apps has blog DNA in it and will continue to for a long while. Over the past 16 years, the blog format has evolved, had social grafted onto it, and mutated into Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest and those new species have now taken over. No biggie, that’s how technology and culture work.
I suppose it’s just the same as arguing that the e-book will never really kill the book, because without the book there would never have been e-books. The difference is that none of us were around when books first crept their way into existence but we now see whole technologies – and the cultures they spawn – born and dying within a matter of years, months even. And it feels as if Doctors used to last longer in the old days as well. Well, some of them.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Shia Labeouf and the thin line between postmodernism and being a bit thick

Dull actor Shia Labeouf has suddenly become a teensy-weensy bit more interesting by apparently copying huge chunks of a book by Daniel Clowes into his latest film. Brilliantly or otherwise, he then compounded his crime/mistake by copying his Tweeted apology from a comment on Yahoo Answers; before finally, bathetically acknowledging, “I fucked up.” Which isn’t terribly original either.

Is he brazenly arrogant or utterly clueless? Or is this some weird, counterintuitive method of publicising his movie, like Joaquin Phoenix being strange on Letterman? Of course, Labeouf could have copy-pasted the argument of the German author Helene Hegemann, who – when it was discovered that a noticeable chunk of her novel Axolotl was lifted from someone else’s blog – declared, “There’s no such thing as originality, just authenticity.” I’m sure she wouldn’t have minded. Much.

PS: Further evidence that this is all some sort of bad conceptual joke.

PPS: (Jan 9) And now... this...

Friday, December 13, 2013

Crazy Rich Asians and the irrelevance of getting things right

I’m not certain how accurate the recent story was of one Tao Hsiao, who supposedly killed himself after enduring a five-hour shopping marathon with his girlfriend. I mean, I’m sure the poor guy died, but there’s just something too neat in a narrative that has someone’s last words being “don’t you have enough shoes already?” before he leaps to his demise from the seventh floor of a Xuzhou mall. It encapsulates so much that we feel about consumerism and gender and above all the social and economic changes that have overtaken China in the past few decades that it feels more like an urban myth than a random slice of domestic tragedy.

On one level, I suppose Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan, doesn’t warrant such scrutiny, since it admits to being a work of fiction. (Incidentally, I only came across it because of a review by my dear friend Leyla Sanai, who I’ve never actually met, as is the way of friendships lately, and she’s been a bit poorly lately, so please send her all your love and good vibes.) As the title suggests, it’s a satire about a group of fabulously wealthy ethnic Chinese and there’s good fun to be had in the clash between brash ostentation and what we might once have had the confidence to define as good taste, a battle that’s going on throughout the Sinosphere. As I type this, I’ve got in front of me the menu for a Bangkok restaurant that lists scallops done three ways, incorporating the holy trinity of culinary flash – caviar, truffles and foie gras – on one plate. Maybe it works, maybe it tastes great; but ultimately that doesn’t matter as long as you’re eating something most people can’t afford. There’s a certain degree of richness beyond which you’re allowed to get things totally wrong – factual goofs, not just aesthetic solecisms – and nobody’s going to point it out. This is where I roll out my story about seeing a group of high-rolling Thai-Chinese businessmen ordering the most expensive claret on the list and dropping in ice cubes.

Back to the book. Hey, I understand how irony works and I understand that what characters say and do and think may not reflect the attitudes of the author. As you’re probably only too aware, American Psycho is one of my favourite novels, and I know that when Bateman misattributes songs by the Ronettes and the Rolling Stones we’re meant to be in on the joke. But you can’t always assume that. If one of Kwan’s characters says that a hotel is nine blocks from Piccadilly Circus tube, or that someone’s double-majoring at Oxford, should we chuckle because these silly Asians, no matter how rich they are, don’t know how British cities or British universities work, maybe because they’re too rich to have to care? Or should we hope that for his next book he gets himself a better editor?

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Seeds of Greatness. Or otherwise...

And so I find myself reading Jon Canter’s 2006 novel Seeds of Greatness, for no other reason than it having been there. Actually, that’s not quite true. I picked it out of the pile because something about the author’s name set off a tiny, metaphorical bell. For the briefest of moments I wondered if he might be someone I knew from university, or with whom I’d worked at some point. And then I checked out the spiel inside and, yes, of course, it’s that Jon Canter who writes stuff, for Lenny Henry and Fry and Laurie and Smith and Jones and that lot. There’s a photo of him in the biography of his university contemporary and sometime flatmate Douglas Adams; he co-wrote the latest Liff book, but presumably only because Adams is dead. So that’s it. No, I don’t know him, just the name. He’s hero’s best friend, Joan Cusack meets Beau Bridges, nominee (but never winner) for the supporting actor Oscar, wind beneath various people’s wings, destined to pop up in the biographies of several dead comic writers and performers without ever warranting a biography himself. Of the five plugs on the cover, two are by people he’s worked with. That’s how it works, people. Still, he looks happy, doesn’t he?

Of course you should never read too much of the author’s life into fiction but really, come on. The narrator, David Lewin, was born and brought up in the Jewish bourgeoisie of north London, went to Cambridge and ended up living in Suffolk with an artist, all of which are also true of Canter. It’s not really a roman à clef, though: while Canter went on to a successful, if not showy career in comedy, Lewin ends up working in a bookshop, his only connection to glitz being his childhood friend Jack Harris, who becomes a hugely successful chat-show host. After Harris dies, Lewin is commissioned to write his biography and much of the plot is effectively a flashback as he tries and fails to fulfill his commission. There’s a crucial moment when he has the chance to write material for Harris’s comedy club act but spurns it; could this be an alternative reality, Canter wondering what might have happened had he not seized one particular opportunity?

The inevitable temptation is to try to fit the fictional characters to real faces; for example, is “the ranting Scots stand-up Tam Vietnam” who reinvents himself as legit actor Clive Duncan really Craig Ferguson, formerly Bing Hitler? And while Harris himself comes over as some sort of Jonathan Ross/Chris Evans hybrid, there are also elements of the all-but forgotten Jack Docherty; Harris is eventually usurped by a gobby gay Irishman, just as Docherty’s star was eclipsed by his stand-in Graham Norton. Ah, the days when people cared about Channel 5...

It’s a good but not a great book; it all ends too neatly and there’s a definitely tinge of Nick Hornby/Tony Parsons-style bloke confessional to it (and Parsons himself is responsible for another of the glowing acclamations). But it did make me thing about how we judge our own successes or failures against those of our contemporaries. Does Canter, respected as he may be in his field, that he’s somehow in the shadow of Adams or Stephen Fry or Rowan Atkinson? Maybe, maybe not; more importantly the reader’s response to the characters’ varying fates inevitably refracts into self-contemplation. Yes, I admit to feeling a gentle pang of inadequacy when one of my contemporaries gets his own TV show or wins an Emmy or inhabits a Dalek or fronts a globally successful rock band. But at the same time am I flattering myself to wonder whether my own very modest successes (a few books published, the odd bit of telly, a Wikipedia page even) ever prompt similar pangs in others after some ill-advised nostalgia-Googling. Who is the most successful person I’ve known? And the least? What are the criteria? Who decides? I mean, it’s very nice to write a book, but isn’t it better to have one written about you? Even if you have to die first, of course.

(This is a picture of me in 1989, when I should have been planning my career, or at least revising for my finals. Maybe my books would have sold better if I’d done that. Maybe.)

PS: Two snippets from the book that particularly appealed to me, on a purely solipsistic level. One sums up everything you need to know about restaurant reviewers: the teenaged Jack and David are bunking off from Yom Kippur and nip into a restaurant.
Jack complains to the waiter that his kidneys are ‘overcooked’. He bisects one with his knife, exposing a pinkish tinge. ‘Look, it’s bloody.’
‘You mean “undercooked”, sir.’
Jack, the little big man, stares at the waiter with the full force of his ignorance.
‘What am I, a chef? Take them away and bring them back when they’re different.’
And the second is the description of the discreetly gay father of the narrator’s on-off girlfriend: “a bald man with invisible floppy hair.” I’ll take that.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Elan, Diane, Neetzan, Tom and the truth

1. Man uses Twitter to describe in real time an exchange of passive-aggressive notes with a rather needy-sounding fellow passenger – Diane – on a delayed flight, which all ends in violence. It’s all terribly amusing.

2. A relative of said Diane comes to her defence, explaining that she doesn’t have long to live and the prospect of having to spend her last ever Thanksgiving away from her family may have explained her bahaviour.

3. Original author of exchange admits that he made it all up. Well, except the Diane defence. Somebody else made that up.

4. From a Wall Street Journal piece about Neetzan Zimmerman, an editor at Gawker:
But telling the truth kills virality, reducing traffic. 
5. From a poem written nearly 80 years ago, to which I keep coming back, over and over, hoping against hope that someone will listen:
Human kind cannot bear very much reality.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Winter of content

Following on from what I was saying a few days ago about the degree of sincerity and commitment with which some people buy into the pop-cultural tropes of the 1980s, Boris Johnson’s recent hymn to the Bell Curve is apparently another pronouncement from on high that may or may not be ironic. But it does express the political zeitgeist, following David Cameron’s recent admission at the Lord Mayor’s banquet that his government’s whole austerity package is an ideological crusade rather than a pragmatic necessity prompted by economic circumstances.

However, the clearest manifestation of this trend is not political but commercial. In importing the US phenomenon of Black Friday – without also adopting the preceding Thanksgiving festival that gives it a wispy veil of moral justification – British retailers are at the ones at the vanguard of a full-blooded, non-ironic 1980s revival, persuading people that their social value is determined by how much stuff they have. And of course Friday’s bout of acquisitive savagery is just a curtain-raiser for the big event.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

American Psycho: perfect skin

When I first heard that American Psycho was being made into a musical I wondered on what elevated level of irony we were working. Was the whole thing a wry joke, or are there people out there who take Patrick Bateman’s evaluation of Huey, Whitney and Genesis as legitimate music criticism? OK, the blurb describes the show as “a satirical commentary on capitalism” but Oliver Stone said much the same thing about Wall Street and plenty of punters walked out of that movie determined to become bankers.

Of course, such responses may be ironic in themselves. So I’m prepared to be charitable about Karen Dacre’s article in the Evening Standard, which focuses almost exclusively on the sartorial aspects of the show. After all, when someone comes up with a sentence like
Bateman’s preoccupations — sourcing the right suit, maintaining perfect skin, looking his best — are the same worries faced by Londoners today and explain why Easton Ellis’s tale remains so compelling 22 years on.
...she has to be joking. Right?


Saturday, November 23, 2013

Rutherford Chang: other people’s Beatles

I can’t remember when I first heard or heard of the Beatles because where I lived, they were always around, always a presence. I’m not quite ancient enough to remember them being a living breathing, extant thing, a news story (stop-everything moments like ‘Hey Jude’ on the Frost show and ‘Get Back’ on the Apple roof happened during my lifetime but too early for me to remember) and yet the music has been there in the background for as long as I can remember. And the story, too, even if I sometimes got the details wrong. I remember poring through my dad’s copy of The Beatles Complete that was inside the hinged piano stool, simultaneously besotted and disturbed by the variously underclad ladies but above all obsessed with Alan Aldridge’s picture on the inside front cover that depicted the incremental transition from cheeky ‘Love Me Do’ moptops to bearded ‘Let It Be’ litigants. (I can’t for the life of me find the image online and the version that I remember is, as far as I know, tucked away in a bookcase somewhere in Hampshire after the piano gently wept itself to oblivion but if anyone has a scan please let me know.) And without knowing many of the details of their lives beyond the names and the music and a couple of viewings of the Yellow Submarine movie I invented a whole narrative for the foursome, much as I did for Doctor Who and my other imaginary friends. These were characters, puppets of my mind. Intellectually I knew that the dull farmer who sang ‘Mull of Kintyre’ was also the weird jester behind ‘The Fool on the Hill’ but it was as if – like the Doctor – he’d reincarnated, becoming something only tenuously connected with his previous persona. Wings was a foreshadowing of the Colin Baker years. And as for what John, George and Ringo were doing in the 1970s, I don’t think it ever crossed my pre-pubescent mind. They may as well have been dead.

And then one of them was. I was 12 years old when Lennon died and the acres of newsprint prompted by the event filled in a lot of the empirical gaps; this was the first time I’d heard of Brian Epstein and the Maharishi. Shortly afterwards I read Philip Norman’s Shout!, the first of many Fabs books I’d devour, and got to grips with the actual history, albeit one that turned out to be rather skewed: it set in place the orthodoxy of Lennon the angry saint and McCartney the prim sell-out, which persisted until Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head more than a decade later. Macca referred to the Norman volume as Shite!. I also found myself on an educational cruise in the eastern Mediterranean where the evening’s entertainment pretty much consisted of alternating showings of the 1966 World Cup final and A Hard Day’s Night. I came home with a temporary aversion to Turkish delight and convinced that I’d been born 15 years too late.

And it was around that time that I started properly, actively to listen to the music. Previously it had been something going on, tapes of the Red and Blue albums soundtracking long family car journeys in the gaps between the Ella songbooks and the weather forecast. But now I was bold enough to raid the paternal vinyl collection, going back to the source, to Rubber Soul and Revolver and, of course, Sgt. Pepper. The one I left till last, because it looked at the same time forbidding and dull, was The Beatles, aka The White Album, recorded and released in 1968, the year of my birth. The critical consensus is that it’s potentially a superb single album, foolishly stretched over four sides by a combination of drugs, arrogance, jealousy and post-Epstein (he’d died the previous year) indiscipline. But it quickly became – and remains – my favourite of their LPs for the same reason that In Utero, The Holy Bible and This Is Hardcore would be among my favourite albums of the 1990s; I’m fascinated by things falling to bits and people recording the moment through their art, at once participants and observers.

Anyway, I kept listening and reading and life carried on, as it does. And I encountered people who didn’t much care for the Beatles, which seemed odd then but less so now; I still reckon it’s perverse to deny their cultural significance but if you don’t enjoy listening to the music itself it’s just a matter of aesthetic preference; who am I to judge? And I also found people for whom the Beatles were simply the best band ever, which felt even weirder and still does. Surely they were outside any ranking system of bests and favourites; that was for Captain Beefheart and James Brown and Joni Mitchell and Prince and the Raincoats, to be loved or hated and argued about at two in the morning over bottles of Bulgarian pinot? The Beatles were just sort of there, like the Bible and Shakespeare on that imaginary desert island.

But then it hit me – not entirely coincidentally, this was around the time that I first got interested in postmodernism and all that malarkey – that these differing perceptions of the Beatles were down the fact that there were not just different Beatles, there were different The Beatles. I described in my still-just-about-available Radiohead book how the release of Sgt Pepper on CD allowed listeners to re-sequence the album to create the track listing that the band originally conceived; the shift from ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ to ‘Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite’ immediately sounds wrong, because it grates against decades of listening. And when I bought the CD of the White Album, my first move was to try to concoct the perfect single-album, 14-track version. But although the shift to digital permitted this level of bespoke album creation, it also led to a degree of uniformity, in that the distinctive sounds of individual slabs of vinyl, the pops and buzzes that made up the battle scars of an album’s life were erased, polished into a sheen of ones and zeroes, a product that simply played or didn’t play, with very little in between.

Which is why I’m fascinated by the work of Rutherford Chang, who owns over 900 different copies of the White Album, many of them seriously bruised. One of his recent projects involves recording 100 of these copies on top of each other, so the differences between them all are exposed and amplified, speeds shifting, accumulated scratches, fluff and grime making themselves known, each making a tiny impression on the overall work...

...and at that point the manuscript ends. I was going to attempt to tie all the threads together and bring it back to the current Doctor Who anniversary fandango, something about how everybody’s perspective on Who is dependent on the actor who was at the controls when they were seven years old and thus tonight’s episode is hundreds of layers of fluff and grime on top of each other but then I took a break to drink brandy and listen to David Quantick’s Blaggers Guide to DW and he pretty much did the Beatles/Who continuum thing (and he wrote a very droll book about the White Album, which I namechecked in my aforementioned Radiohead tome) so I won’t bother (although the Listen Again version inexplicably dies in the midst of a Zarbi bitchslap). Except to mention that the Fabs appeared in the Hartnell-era The Chase (introduced by Jimmy Savile, so officially it didn’t happen) and also, slightly tangentially, in the first story that I’m certain I saw, The Three Doctors...

PS: And here’s the last time I got all pomo on the Fabs’ bottoms.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Please buy my lastest masterpiece

I have written seven books, by which I mean there are seven books in circulation that have my name on the front as the sole author. But I’ve lost count of the number of books that have a little flake of me in their DNA, whether as an editor or a contributor or just someone who happened to be hovering in the background at the time, the Bill Crump of publishing.

Anyway, there’s another one hitting the shelves right now and it’s called Christmas Dodos, by Steve Stack. I have a copy in my greasy mitts because the author (also known as Scott Pack) dropped me a line a few days ago to say he wanted to send it to me because of my contribution. Which was very decent of him, especially because I had absolutely no recollection of having contributed. Apparently Steve/Scott had put out a call over various social media for people’s reminiscences of Yuletides past and the ephemera associated with them and some were incorporated within the text but, to be honest, I belch out so much drivel over Twitter and Facebook these days, I have trouble remembering what I wrote a few hours back, let alone months ago. I assumed that when I actually got hold of the book I’d remember my own witty and perceptive contribution, but no. Apparently I said something about the Blue Peter Advent Crown with its coat hangers and flameproof tinsel. I suppose it’s the sort of thing I might have mentioned but any recall is lost to the digital ether, like the ghosts of Blue Peter pets past.

Which is appropriate, in its own way, because Christmas Dodos concerns itself with products and pastimes and concepts that are on the verge of extinction. Think board games on the back of selection boxes, satsumas, paper chains, shopping at Woolworth’s, the Christmas Radio Times and loads of other things that will prompt blank looks from anyone born in this millennium. Since I’m not deriving any benefit beyond the comp copy and the gentle ego-fondle that comes from one more product having my name buried within it, I can recommend the book with a degree of objectivity. It’s a slim, attractively priced volume that would make a very acceptable stocking filler or, come the New Year, addition to the reading matter in one’s smallest room (which I mean as a compliment). Which I suppose is appropriate, because I suspect that stocking fillers and toilet books are also on the verge of extinction. A bit like my memory.

PS: Christ, just spotted the typo in the header. Everything’s falling apart.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Rob Ford: Canadian > Bacon

I realised that I hadn’t posted anything for over a week, so I started working up a thoughtful post about how the fact that the most expensive artwork ever is one artist’s painting of another artist says something not entirely complimentary about the up-its-own-arseness of the art world today. Blah blah, culture of narcissism, postmodern reflexivity, yada yada whatever.

But then I saw this Taiwanese take on the whole bizarre Rob Ford scenario and every definition of art I’d ever previously understood suddenly seemed anodyne and beige. I mean, Francis who?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Cornelius Gurlitt and the banality of availability

Most of the coverage of the art haul found in a Munich apartment focuses on the mechanics of how it all came together, the extent to which it was appropriated from its rightful owners and how Cornelius Gurlitt managed to sell bits of it off over the decades without alerting anyone to its existence. Which is all right and proper of course. This bleak period in German history is objectively more significant than a bunch of pretty pictures; and there’s a certain grim satisfaction of probing the cognitive dissonance of Nazis who railed against degenerate art but at the same time desired to possess it.

That said, assuming that some or all of the paintings do end up in public view, in galleries and museums, postcards and tea towels and fridge magnets, will their mysterious provenance affect our response to them? For a while now, I’ve been interested in the way some things – from the stolen paintings allegedly destroyed by Olga Dogaru to the World Trade Center – suddenly become more interesting when they cease to exist. Do others – the Gurlitt collection, for example, or the recently recovered episodes of Doctor Who – lose their charm because they cease to be myths and are now boringly accessible?

PS: The German government is being a bit less cagey about the pictures in the flat and has actually started releasing images. I do like this one, mainly because it looks remarkably like a baby photo of my dad.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Gaga and Reed: Artpop will eat itself

In the wake of Lou Reed’s demise, Suzanne Moore writes in The Guardian:
Watching Gaga writhe on the neuro-disco is a daft parody of Walk on the Wild Side. Amusement. Art does not have to be about transgression, it can be about anything – of course, it can. But look at us mourn the time when it felt that way; this loss is immense.
To be honest, that single article ticks so many of the boxes that I’ve been trying to cover in this blog that it almost makes what I do feel a bit redundant. Time for a rest, maybe.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

And you thought funeral selfies were bad?

The latest eruption of moral why-oh-whyery to transfix the interwebs has been prompted by the Tumblr Selfies at Funerals, which does pretty much what it says in the title; young people trying to make a solemn occasion all about them. Could there be a more apt symbol of the corruption of modern society?

Once again, plucky Thailand rises to the challenge. On Monday three bomb disposal officers were killed in the restive south of the country and when the bodies were brought into the hospital, a couple of nurses decided to mark the occasion thus:

PS: The nurses have apologised. So that’s OK then.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lou Reed, the Daily Mail and Paul Gambaccini

I was going to write something about Lou Reed and about how I discovered the second Velvet Underground album when I was about 15 and how it changed, well, pretty much everything, even though I never started a band. But then I read somewhere something that Lou himself had once said: “To me, ‘RIP’ is the microwave dinner of posthumous honours.” And there was enough RIP-ing going on already; damn, even Miley Cyrus had something to say, tweeting between the twerking. And then I was going to write something concerning the odious Daily Mail article about Lou, fingering through his entrails before his corpse was cold, tutting and sneering over his various debaucheries, much as that squalid rag did for the blameless Stephen Gately. But as I wrote it I began to feel the bile rising in my throat and the veins throbbing in my head and quickly realised that the whole repulsive article was a massive trollfest and for once I wasn’t going to be lured. Better to remember the real reason we’re mourning him wallow in the delicious playlist that Everett True compiled in the old grump’s honour.

But I’ll leave the final word to Paul Gambaccini. I have nothing in particular against Mr Gambaccini; he once gave me some chocolate and a Nancy Wilson album for being able to name five famous Belgians and several years later, in absentia, prompted a heated public argument between me and another journalist over 12 cans of Guinness and a publishing contract, but that’s a couple of stories for another day. No, I just think that his tweeted response to Lou’s death (to which I was alerted by Ern Malley) says, in its own strange way, something about media – social and otherwise – and celebrity and journalism and all sorts of matters. Take it away, Gambo:

PS: And then there’s this, from Metro, via The Poke and Gavin Martin:

PPS: And Suzanne Moore is very good on why Lady Gaga is a poor substitute for Mr Reed, among other things.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Yeah Yeah Yeah

At first glance, Bob Stanley’s Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop appears to follow the script that was laid out for all-encompassing histories of popular music when Charlie Gillett wrote The Sound of the City back in 1970. It’s pretty much chronological, give or take a bit of to-ing and fro-ing as specific genres, demographics and geographies are taken into account. Rockabilly, skiffle, doo-wop, the British blues boom, deep soul, glam, check check check.

But look just a little deeper and Stanley’s wry subversion becomes apparent. Yes, he’s got his facts right, although a couple of times he appears to get Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page confused; but his choice of emphasis, an occasional turn of phrase, work to challenge the orthodox, slightly blokey, BBC2-documentary, Rolling-Stone-endorsed myth. It’s a bit like one of those dreams where everything is normal and mundane until you go to work and someone you last saw at school 30 years ago is sitting at the next desk and the actress Penelope Wilton is the tea lady although your office doesn’t really have a tea lady but nobody says anything and you only properly realise how weird the scenario is when you wake up. Stanley downgrades sacred cows, sprinkles in delicious droplets of arcane trivia as if he’s hosting the best pub quiz on the planet and pulls things together with analogies and metaphors that are erudite and apt but never feel as if he’s showing off. For example, over a few pages of the chapter on Jamaican music he gently chides those who categorise all musics from the island under the catch-all term “reggae”; suggests that the success of Bob Marley was rather more of a music industry confection than we might have assumed; informs us that three of the biggest Jamaican hits of 1969/1970 had overdubbed strings by the guy who wrote the theme for The Double Deckers; and brilliantly encapsulates the rivalry between dub titans King Tubby and Lee Perry, defining the latter as “...a skinny four-foot-eleven character with a penchant for ‘I’m mad, me’ self-promotion who played Salvador Dali to Tubby’s André Breton.”

It’s slightly unfortunate for Mr Stanley that the release of his book has been a little eclipsed in the hype stakes by Morrissey’s autobiography but together they offer an alternative perspective, one that’s as happy alluding to the Surrealist pioneers as it to namechecking dead blues guitarists and defunct record companies. Stanley and Morrissey, in their different ways, adhere to a narrative that isn’t picked up at the front of a gig or in the back of a tour bus (Stanley is also a musician and yet I’m guessing indie synthpoppers St Etienne haven’t trashed that many hotel rooms) but in attic bedrooms and second-hand record stores, in the pages of fanzines and doodled lyrics when you should be doing your homework. I’d perhaps take issue with the title; it’s not The Story, it’s merely A Story, and like all alternatives, if it were ever to become The Story it would lose its reason to exist. But it’s a good story, one that deserves to be told, and Bob Stanley is the right teller of the tale.

Monday, October 21, 2013

A 1980s revival, but whose?

In a passionate but ultimately rather peculiar piece in The Observer, Carole Cadwalladr appears to suggest that the current chatterati obsession with Mr Morrissey’s new autobiography is unseemly because it draws attention away from the financial hardships being endured by many people under the heavy yoke of neoliberal economics and Morrissey himself owns three or four houses around the world and old hamface David Cameron once said he liked The Smiths or something something something. Now this seems a little harsh to me; while Morrissey never claimed to be a revolutionary in a coherent political sense, he did call for the decapitation of Margaret Thatcher. But that’s not enough for Ms Cadwalladr, who argues (again, I'm inferring some of this, because by the end I’m really not entirely sure what she’s on about) that writing songs and books about seriously bad stuff is a cop-out and that we should be fighting the power in a more meaningful manner. Like writing op-ed pieces in The Observer I guess. Or – just to pre-empt your inevitable and righteous sneers – blogging.

In the same paper, Nick Cohen sees the Frieze Art Fair – and in particular the resurgence of sometime Wall Street trader Jeff Koons and his horrid tat – as emblematic of the insidious takeover of London’s cultural scene by plutocrats, and his conclusion could serve as a final postscript to what I wrote here a week or so ago:
Collectors do not buy Koons because he challenges their definitions of art. The ever-popular explanation that the nouveau riche have no taste strikes me as equally false – there's no reason why the nouveau riche should have better or worse taste than anyone else. What a buyer of a giant kitten or a gargantuan fried egg says to those who view his purchase is this: “I know you think that I am a stupid rich man who has wasted a fortune on trash. But because I am rich you won't say so and your silence is the best sign I have of my status. I can be wasteful and crass and ridiculous and you dare not confront me, whatever I do.” Extraordinarily, after all we have been through, in economics as in art, that is truer than ever before.
There may well be a 1980s revival upon us but I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. Cheap-and-cheerful TV documentaries may have defined the decade as being about shoulder-padded yuppies conspicuously consuming as the theme from Miami Vice plays in the background, but I remember it rather differently. The campaigns around cruise missiles, the miners’ strike and Clause 28 may have ultimately been futile in the sense that Thatcher was still as firmly in charge, resolutely unguillotined, at the end of the decade as she was at the beginning. But they did happen and they did offer a valid, alternative narrative to the period. And if Jeff Koons is on one side of the barricades, happily fellating the wallets of Russian oligarchs, Morrissey – with all his many faults and frailities – is on mine.

PS: I really ought to stop basing my blog posts on things I’ve read in the Guardian and/or Observer, oughtn’t I? But if I’d been blogging in the 1980s, that’s what I would have done, so it seems somehow OK.

PPS: Something that I posted on Facebook a few days ago, that retrospectively seems to tie into Cohen’s conclusion. Stefan Collini in the LRB:
Future historians, pondering changes in British society from the 1980s onwards, will struggle to account for the following curious fact. Although British business enterprises have an extremely mixed record (frequently posting gigantic losses, mostly failing to match overseas competitors, scarcely benefiting the weaker groups in society), and although such arm’s length public institutions as museums and galleries, the BBC and the universities have by and large a very good record (universally acknowledged creativity, streets ahead of most of their international peers, positive forces for human development and social cohesion), nonetheless over the past three decades politicians have repeatedly attempted to force the second set of institutions to change so that they more closely resemble the first.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Why the Smiths are better than Oasis

Noel Gallagher, one-time leader of 90s comedy beat combo Oasis, has ventured into the realms of literary criticism. In an interview with Don’t Mention The War Monthly GQ, he damns all fiction as “a waste of fucking time” and complains that 
people who write and read and review books are fucking putting themselves a tiny little bit above the rest of us who fucking make records and write pathetic little songs for a living.
Meanwhile, another Mancunian curmudgeon who writes pathetic little songs, himself no stranger to the absurdities and cruelties of the English class system, has realised that the best way to take revenge is to write a book

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The role of the cultural critic in the Asian century (LOL)

(Just before I press “PUBLISH” I start to think that the following post might be interpreted as some sort of reiteration of the Yellow Peril scares that began towards the end of the 19th century. It’s not; some of my best friends, etc. It’s simply an observation that, while the cultural changes wrought by technology over the next few decades will be immense we should at the same time be aware of how a shift in economic and political significance towards East Asia and elsewhere will also have an effect on what we consume and how we’re expected to consume it. Whether this is objectively A Bad Thing as such, I leave up to the reader.)

Will Self discusses Mark Kermode’s new book and muses on the technology-driven shift from declarative (implicitly elitist) forms of criticism to collaborative, conversational, nominally democratic models:
At the moment, the wholesale reconfiguration of art is only being retarded by demographics: the middle-aged possessors of Gutenberg minds remain in the majority in western societies, and so we struggle to impose our own linearity on a simultaneous medium to which it is quite alien. The young, who cannot read a text for more than a few minutes without texting, who rely on the web for both their love affairs and their memories of heartache, and who can sometimes find even cinema difficult to take unless it comes replete with electronic feedback loops, are not our future: we, the Gutenberg minds have no future, and our art forms and our criticism of those art forms will soon belong only to the academy and the museum.
Which is all appropriately downbeat and as such makes me think of Eliot (Are the Gutenberg minds inside the heads of the Hollow Men, waiting for their inevitable, whimpering demise?) but I also wonder if there’s something missing in the analysis. There’s a new monied elite coming from China and elsewhere which, unlike previous generations of nouveaux riches feel little need to pay tribute to the purported peaks of Western culture, beyond insisting that their offspring take violin lessons. Sure, they like Western things, but not the sort of Western things we expect educated, successful, wealthy people to like; their Old World aspirations are Versace rather than Vermeer, Louis Vuitton not Louis XIV. Wealthy women see Victoria Beckham as a role model and they don’t see why they should apologise. In the Asian century there is no cultural cringe. (And yes, there are exceptions to this rule but they tend to be rather quiet, marginal ones.)

And this has an impact in the Old World, not only because distances are shortened and national boundaries blurred by the www; as big chunks of London and New York and Paris are being bought up with money made in Shanghai and St Petersburg and Dubai, so the cultural norms of those places begin to apply. There may not be all that many Chinese or Russian billionaires in London but their influence is disproportionate to their numbers. (Hey, did you really believe that the digital revolution would be a great leveller, with one voice on Amazon or TripAdvisor being no louder or softer than another, no matter the size of the owner’s bank balance? How sweet.) And if they, rather than the Carnegies or Guggenheims or Gettys are to be the go-to guys for philanthropic munificence (I can’t see state funding for the arts existing in another two decades, given the prevalent double-whammy of austerity and sneering philistinism) how will their tastes – or lack thereof – trickle down to affect the wider cultural life of Britain and other countries? If you were running a big gallery, would you tell someone waving an eight-figure cheque that no, you won’t run an exhibition devoted to Donatella Versace even if she’s BFF with the donor’s trophy wife? I mean, it’s all Art, isn’t it? Isn’t it? And sure, the vast majority of British people would never set foot inside the National Gallery or the V&A or any of the Tates; but what goes on in them has a massive effect on how Britain presents itself to the world and ultimately, incrementally, over decades and generations, on how Britain feels about itself.

When people grumble about how immigration changes societies it’s usually a question of numbers and demographics, with dire warnings about how more Mohammeds are being born in the UK than Joshuas, as if one Middle Eastern name is scarier than another. And, yes, there are very real problems associated with such changes and the political elite has been very bad at addressing them, either damning any worries as being tainted with racism or going to the opposite extreme with the likes of the inept and crass “GO HOME” van campaign. And if we really were operating in a digital democracy the presence in Rochdale or Leicester of several thousand people from the backwoods of Bangladesh would be more significant than how a few rich Chinese guys opt to extend their largesse in London. But we don’t. The world is still analogue and still ultimately plutocratic. The cultural time bomb is being primed not by bearded Muslims in northern industrial towns but by people who are assimilated enough and, more significantly, wealthy enough to slip under the radar of even the most paranoid demagogues of the BNP/EDL/UKIP school. And that could lead to a “reconfiguration of art” that would dismay Self and Kermode even more. Not with a bang but a ker-ching.

PS: In more immediate terms, this touches on the areas I was discussing in my previous post. Here I’ve included links that might explain references to a TS Eliot poem and Donatella Versace. Different people might have required one or the other or both or neither and I made a belt-and-braces decision based on that. But as the centre of the world shifts eastward, the criteria upon which I base such decisions may shift as well. Please read the very common-sensical response of The Chicken’s Consigliere to said post and hope that more people think that way, otherwise I think I might just go insane.

PPS: Aaaand... Priority visas for rich Chinese

PPPS: Back to the Will Self piece; Simon Price gets stuck in. “A world with uncriticised art gets the art it deserves.” Yes.

PPPPS: (Oct 19) Last night I attended the launch of the Bangkok spin-off of a big, posh Singapore bar/superclub. My inner teenage Trostkyist stared on in horror. I have seen the future and I don’t want to go there. 

PPPPPS: (Oct 20) Does it never stop?Chinese buyers tend to be interested in British popular culture – I’ve had clients who want to visit Tesco because they’ve read it’s where William and Kate shop.” 

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Luis Buñuel, Doris Lessing and the fine art of recycling Facebook posts

A recent article in The Guardian (oh Lord, how many times has he started a blog post like that?) queries the notion that one’s online activity offers an accurate snapshot of the self. The author, the deliciously-named Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, muses:
Before I read this study, I had assumed that everyone experienced those moments where, when they’re in the process of doing something particularly derivative and cliche [sic], they take a moment to consider what a massive, contrived stereotype they actually are. 
Well, I don’t know if everyone has those moments, but I certainly do. Despite my outward insouciance, recently I’ve been getting terribly self-conscious about what I post on social media and what others may infer from it.

For example, yesterday I posted the following image on Facebook:

and appended the comment:
This is what looks over my left shoulder. It makes me wish that Luis Buñuel had directed a mash-up of The Great Gatsby and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Mind you, that pretty much sums up how I feel about Bangkok.
Which is all well and good, but depends for its full effect on the reader having seen a few Buñuel films, read both Fitzgerald and Orwell and maybe having spent a bit of time in BKK, thus understanding how big, staring eyes fit into the scheme of things. Can we assume such things these days? Are they in the canon that my average Facebook follower should be expected to know? What about blog readers? Do I have to spell it out or can I rely on you to Google in the gaps? Am I just a great big steaming intellectual snob? Is that such a bad thing anyway?

Then, a few hours later, someone on Twitter was enthusing about how wonderful it was that Peter Higgs had gone away on holiday without a phone so he could avoid the inane questions of journalists when the news of his Nobel Prize was announced. I replied that this was indeed pretty cool, but Doris Lessing’s reaction to winning the literature prize in 2007 was even better:

which got such a good response on Twitter that I cross-posted it to Facebook and several people chortled while all the time I was thinking, “Jesus, exchanging witticisms about Nobel Prize recipients, is that the acme of middle-class intellectual wankery or what?” Or is the acme of middle-class intellectual wankery in fact worrying about whether other people think you’re a middle-class intellectual wanker? I think I’d better work harder on my insouciance.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Peaky Blinders: my problem with the music

I’ve only managed to watch two episodes of the BBC drama Peaky Blinders so far, but I quite like what I see.* It seems to fit into an interesting sub-genre, the period drama with a (post?-)modern sensibility; along the lines of Desperate Romantics and the show with which I’ve seen it compared most often, Boardwalk Empire. What distinguishes these shows from, say, Downton Abbey is that the period details (clothes, décor, contemporary historical references) appear to be for the most part accurate but the script and performances have a swagger and a self-awareness that is strictly 21st century. Once again demonstrating the extent to which Quentin Tarantino has become the dominant cultural influence of the past 20 years, shows such as Peaky Blinders are also packed with references large and small to other media, especially film; so the activities of a gang of Brummie crooks in the years following World War I conjure up The Godfather Part II and Once Upon A Time In America, provided you can imagine Robert De Niro supping pints of mild from a bucket. Or maybe it’s The Long Riders in flat caps. That’s the joy of postmodernism; you can just find a reference point that fits your own prejudices and viewing history and insist that it’s so, and Roland Barthes’s laundry van will squash anyone who disagrees. 

In theory, the music should also fit with this theory. The background tunes are for the most part culled from the back catalogues of Nick Cave and Jack White, singer-songwriters whose music survives in the modern rock era while also gazing back at a semi-mythical past of bar-room brawls and devils at crossroads; it’s anachronistic but, hey, Celine Dion wasn’t around when the Titanic sank either. And the diegetic music (mostly Irish ballads and a bit of Puccini so far) sounds pretty authentic. Again, a precedent was set by Boardwalk Empire, which is set in 1920s Atlantic City and has as its theme a song by contemporary psychedelicists the Brian Jonestown Massacre and nobody seems too bothered.

But somehow I am bothered by the use of Cave and White. Part of the problem is that I’m too close to their music; I see how the clanging anvil of ‘Red Right Hand’ fits into the industrial hellscape that is Peaky Blinders-era Brum but to me it’s also track five of the Let Love In album, which I’m pretty certain I bought at Tower Records on Piccadilly Circus on its week of release in 1994. Even more confusing, they use music from Cave’s soundtrack compositions, for The Proposition and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which inevitably makes me think of those films; not in the vague, thematic sense in which I think of The Long Riders but it a very straightforward, nuts-and-bolts manner of how soundtracks are put together. Which in turn makes me think about how films are put together and before long I’m thinking about where I’ve seen the actors before and the Scarecrow from Batman Begins is staring out the grumpy dad hero from Jurassic Park. Maybe the makers are trying for a spot of of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, making you aware all the time that these are just actors speaking lines, that the music is stuck on afterwards, that it’s all just make-believe. And I know this is what Tarantino does with music, but there’s something ever so slightly camp about QT’s deployment of familiar (or for that matter unfamiliar) tunes and I don’t think Peaky Blinders is trying to be camp or funny. Or maybe, as usual, I’m just over-thinking stuff to the point where I can’t enjoy it any more. Maybe I should just drink mild from a bucket.

* Is that enough? I’ve just read the first few pages of Douglas Coupland’s new book and my initial thoughts are that it’s a bad parody of Martin Amis, with occasional interruptions from a bad parody of Bret Easton Ellis. Is that fair?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Presidents and producers

I’m reading Yeah Yeah Yeah, Bob Stanley’s history of pop music from the first UK charts to the dawn of Napster and while – being as I am a terrible geek about this sort of thing – I’m pretty familiar with the overall story arc, there are plenty of nuggets that are new to me. Or maybe I did know them once and they’ve slipped out of my brain and have been hiding on Mr Stanley’s hard drive for the past couple of years. From the section about Phil Spector, for example, I really ought to have known that the first use of the phrase “wall of sound” comes from 1884, in an article about the redesign of Wagner’s Nibelungen Theatre in Bayreuth. And I wasn’t aware of this line by the horrible genius (Spector, not Wagner, but I’m sure he said something similar) defending his own art, in an interview with Tom Wolfe of all people:
...people are always saying the words are banal and why doesn’t anyone write lyrics like Cole Porter any more, but we don’t have any presidents like Lincoln any more, either.
And obviously this gets me thinking about the music (and presidents) we have today and whether we get the product (and specifically the producers) we deserve. I can certainly see the attraction in ‘Get Lucky’ and ‘Blurred Lines’ the two pop hits that will almost certainly turn out to define 2013 in the end-of-year polls but they’re both essentially catchy hooks extrapolated almost to breaking point into full-size songs. And I know I’m a middle-aged fart and my younger friends tell me they simply don’t understand the controversy provoked by Robin Thicke’s sleazy/rapey lyrics because the hip-hop they listen to contains stuff that makes ‘Blurred Lines’ sound like so much low-fat yogurt. But it’s not just about the words; I can’t help but think that lots of people currently nodding their heads to Thicke’s minimalist schtick would simply be unable to process the sheer batshit let’s-see-what-this-sounds-like sonic invention of Spector or Joe Meek or Brian Wilson; or what Bill Laswell brought to the party, a few years before they were born:

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

I have measured out my life...

In characteristically self-destructive mode, I began my book about The Noughties (available at all good stores, etc) with assertions by Ferdinand Mount and Niall Ferguson* that decades are essentially arbitrary chunks of time and their use in book titles and the like is simply a matter of journalistic convenience. Of course, I wasn’t the only writer who failed to be discouraged by these outbursts of common sense, as my tome battled in the Christmas 2009 market with titles about the 1970s and 1980s, like one of those celeb-talking-head-list shows but with A-levels.

And writers (or maybe publishers and – it is to be hoped – readers) are becoming even more wedded to the notion that life fits into a calendar-shaped box, not less. I’m currently reading a book about 1922, and there are recently released volumes about 1913 and 1979 on my wish list. And the process will doubtless get increasingly more specific, narrowing things down to months or days. Pretty soon you’ll be able to commission a breathless narrative about the day you were born, complete with a TV tie-in featuring a breathless, slightly paunchy TV historian clambering over battlefields and poring over newspaper archives and pausing meaningfully at junctures that seem to be just as arbitrary as the periods chosen. Hell, why not just write about individual moments? I was doing that years ago...

* Actually, that’s not true. I began it with a quotation by Prince. About a specific year. Can’t remember which one though... 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Jonathan Franzen: literary fiction’s Grumpy Cat

I did read a Jonathan Franzen book once, honest. I’m pretty sure it was The Corrections and I think I enjoyed it – I certainly finished it – but, you know what, I can’t remember the first bloody thing about it. I do know it’s about a family but every time I think I recall it, I’m really remembering All Families Are Psychotic by Douglas Coupland. It’s like literary Olestra, slipping through without leaving a trace. And it’s not just me; I’ve spoken to several other people for whom Franzen’s saving grace is that he’s not bad enough to be memorable.

That’s his fiction, of course. When he gets himself entangled in real life he becomes far more memorable; see the saga of the swiped spectacles. And now he’s come up with a long screed about how the modern world is rubbish and the internet is a bad thing, mostly. By long, I’m talking over 6,000 words, which – as JF is obviously aware – is far too much for our tiny 140-character minds to cope with. tl;dr, as the young persons might say (and I’m sure a little bit of Franzen dies every time they do).

But the horrid interwebnets do serve Franzen well in one respect. Whereas 20 years ago such an essay might have prompted a correspondence in the Guardian’s letters page that tailed off after a few days, in 2013 his thoughts are picked up, picked apart and passed on over and over, here and here and here and here and here and here and... Sometimes people agree, very often not, but each article and blog post about what he says serves to a greater or lesser extent as a plug for his new book (many copies of which will be shifted by Amazon, even though in his piece Franzen describes Jeff Bezos as a horseman of the apocalypse). But in order to do this, the author must whore himself out to the digital punter he so loathes. He is no longer an author. He is a meme.