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.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

In which Lehman Brothers and I are virtual godparents to a five-year-old child, sort of

I didn’t quite know what to expect when I first embarked on this blogging thing. It was a bit like putting a message in a bottle, or maybe on Voyager I; I just started to transmit random thoughts into a void and wondered whether anyone might read them.

What I didn’t expect at the time, although now it seems so obvious, is that blogging isn’t simply about firing off random screeds about Murakami or the Olympic opening ceremony or Charlotte Rampling or university administrators with amusing names; it’s about people responding to said screeds and then other people responding to the responses and the whole rhizomatic structure of words and thoughts and memes and GIFs of piglets in wellingtons that results. It’s The Conversation, a term frequently used by Fiona, aka Patroclus, one of the first people to acknowledge the existence of Cultural Snow; and a witty, erudite writer on her own blog and as an observer of the whole phenomenon. We only ever met once in meatspace, in a dark bar off Tottenham Court Road, but that seems oddly appropriate for this virtual age. I called her the Poly Styrene of Web 2.0 and I stick by that. (I never met Poly Styrene at all.)

Patroclus has rather withdrawn from the blogosphere (did we really used to call it that?) in recent years, devoting her efforts more to her business and her family and things Cornish but she does pop up occasionally on various media. And I was touched and amused by a tweet she sent this morning:

Unfortunately she couldn’t remember what exactly it was she was reading, which is a pity, because I could have sold it to big pharma. But it does give me a chance to direct you to pages 155-156 of my book The Noughties where I contend that the end of Lehman provided a symbolic closure to a truncated decade that had only truly begun seven years and four days before, a few blocks away. (Which is maybe why the book is so short.)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

9/11: Reflecting reflections

As the events of 9/11 remorselessly drift back into the realms of anecdote (here’s mine if you missed it before) and soundbite cliché, we come to realise that Baudrillard was right to an extent; for the majority of us who aren’t directly affected, big events don’t actually exist. All we truly experience are the reflections and distortions that the media offers – which is why I’m posting this today, because it’s really about what got said and written and posted yesterday, rather than about what happened a dozen years back. And sometimes these reflections barely even pretend to be about the destruction and misery perpetrated on that bright blue morning. Look at The New Yorker’s slideshow of its own 9/11 covers and ask what’s really being commemorated. And I’m not even going to talk about this:

But, hey, there are still a few happy surprises to be had in the most unlikely places. Amidst this year’s bout of navel-gazing was David Wong’s witty but thought-provoking analysis of the years since, including this reminder to us old farts, especially if we find ourselves working in an office full of 20-somethings:
After all, if you're under 30, you were still a kid when 9/11 happened, living at home. What the rest of us are calling “a Post-9/11 World” you know only as “the world.”
And this rather wonderful picture by Toby Amies, who was there or thereabouts:

Because, let’s face it, most of us weren’t victims or heroes on that day. Most of us were bystanders, viewers, consumers. And still are and will always be.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Femen and Bucklesby: a tale of two stunts

A man who doesn’t exist, although a lot of people rather wish he had; and another man who does exist, a fact that has prompted even greater disappointment.

The man who does exist is Victor Svyatski, who appears to be the svengali behind the topless provocateurs of Femen. A new documentary presents him as an unlikely feminist, admitting he hand-picks activists on the basis of their looks, describing them as “bitches” and admitting to the possibility that he started the organisation to “get girls”. Indeed, he appears to be a repository of the sort of patriarchal attitudes that – we thought – Femen was intended to challenge:
These girls are weak... They don’t have the strength of character. They don’t even have the desire to be strong. Instead, they show submissiveness, spinelessness, lack of punctuality, and many other factors which prevent them from becoming political activists. These are qualities which it was essential to teach them.
Nobody with any degree of political nous truly believed that Femen was an authentically grass-roots movement but the revelations about Svyatski seem to take astroturfing into a new dimension and risks discrediting the whole movement. Unless of course the film is part of some as-yet unspecified campaign of counter-intuitive publicity, in which Svyatski is in fact a helpless pawn of the bare-boobed campaigners. And in case I sound too puritan about the whole story, it’s no coincidence that I’ve put the Femen picture first in this post, acknowledging the fact that, when it comes to luring online traffic, nipples will always trump...

...a park bench, even one bearing a gloriously grumpy salute to the memory of Roger Bucklesby.

Although it soon became clear that Mr Bucklesby was a figment of a writer’s imagination. And yet that somehow makes the park bench thing even more endearing; whereas the fakery behind Femen disturbs us. I keep coming back to those words by TS Eliot: “human kind cannot bear very much reality.” And I think Eliot would have chuckled at Bucklesby but I’m not sure what he would have made of all those nipples.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Seamus’ last words

The last words of the greatest Irish poet since Yeats were in Latin, in the form of a text message. This has some sort of significance but I’m damned if I yet know what. It will come to me. I also note that the man who may well be the greatest Irish poet since Heaney (if he counts as a poet, or Irish) was late for the funeral.