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?