Thursday, January 30, 2014

Take that, Pat Boone: Daft Punk at the Grammys as a response to American cultural hegemony

Carl Wilson at Slate makes some interesting points about the racial ramifications of the Grammy Awards a few days ago, one headline fact being that Macklemore, who is a Caucasian gentleman I believe, won three awards in various rap categories. Does this matter? Should this matter? Most worthwhile American musical forms of the past 100 years or so, bar country, have their roots in African-American culture yet we no longer see musicians such as Elvis Presley or Bill Evans to be weird freaks of nature, so I don’t really understand why Macklemore or Eminem should be any different; nor why Miley Cyrus should be accused of appropriating twerking as if no white girl has ever stuck her bum out before ever ever ever. Wilson seems relatively relaxed about all this; where I do part company with him, though, is his description of Daft Punk’s performance of song of the year ‘Get Lucky’ as “a veteran white group playing retro-styled black dance music, with African-Americans as side musicians.”

Really? What I saw was three respected and successful black performers, Pharrell Williams, Nile Rodgers and some new kid called Stevie Wonder, acting as the acceptable, telegenic face of the music while the nerdy white boys hid in the shadows/in the control booth/under their helmets. In some ways in can be seen as an inversion of the situation in the 1950s, when tedious crackers such as Pat Boone sang neutered versions of songs written by Little Richard and Fats Domino; as if Daft Punk have internalised the notion that black performers such as Kanye West possess a certain inherent credibility to which Macklemore can never aspire. That desirable limited-edition Nike is now on the other foot.

But maybe I’ve got this all wrong. Maybe Daft Punk really are demonstrating their control, in a deeply passive-aggressive sense, by having the three black guys dancing (literally and metaphorically) to their tune. In which case the scenario is still essentially subversive, but from a geopolitical standpoint rather than a racist one. The two full-time members of Daft Punk are French: Williams, Rodgers and Wonder are all American – unless being black suddenly gives them a free pass, which in the light of the current POTUS’s background would seem a little peculiar, to be honest. What Abba and Kraftwerk never quite managed, de Homem-Christo and Bangalter have achieved, wresting control of modern popular music from the Anglosphere. Giving a bunch of surrender monkeys the gong for a performance on which the Yanquis act as hired help is akin to awarding the Pulitzer Prize to Gérard Depardieu for a conceptual art piece that involves him force-feeding John Wayne with camembert and snails. I would have thought that Wilson, as a Canadian, might have spotted this and celebrated it.

Never mind, though. It’s still a good tune. Oh look, Mötley Crüe have split up.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The information superhighway: do you remember the first time?

I’m reading – do forgive me – Volume 4 of Philip Sandifer’s Tardis Eruditorum (Tom Baker and the Hinchcliffe Years) and this pops out:
...the charmingly dated phrase “information superhighway.” This phrase rightly serves as a sort of memetic tombstone for a particular historical moment in digital technology: the last point where it was possible to talk about it without actually knowing a single thing about it. 
It’s about a novel by Justin Richards called System Shock, published in the years when Doctor Who wasn’t really a thing for most people, but that’s not particularly relevant and I haven’t read it anyway. But it did get me thinking about the way in which the web sort of oozed up on people throughout the 1990s. I’d had a bit of a conceptual head start over many of my contemporaries because the company I worked for at the beginning of the decade marketed a vast database that clients were able to access remotely from proprietary terminals (which were forever breaking down and always reminded me of Etch-a-Sketches). Towards the end of my time there we installed an intranet and I’m pretty sure that the first e-mail I ever sent was directed to one of my colleagues with whom I’d just endured a rather messy break-up.

But the first time I ever properly used the world wide web must have come in about 1995 – coincidentally the same year that System Shock was published. It was in an internet cafe (remember them?) somewhere in central London and you paid not just for your time online but also for the assistance of some bright young thing who’d tell you what to do while also bringing your coffee, a sort of browser barista. And the first thing I typed into a search engine, prompted by all the smut and innuendo that attended the protracted death rattle of the Major government, was:

The problem is, I can’t for the life of me remember what answers came up.

Anyway, over to you, my dwindling band of heedless bots and casual passers-by. When you went on the www for the very first time, what did you do, where did you go, what did you ask?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Race in Asia: shades of beige

I haven’t written very much about the current brouhaha in Thailand because the whole thing’s at once too deadly serious – a battle for the very soul of an entire nation – and too bloody silly – uh oh, Frankie Valli just cancelled his Bangkok gig sceduled for Wednesday. But I was tickled by this stand-off last week between John Sparks of Channel 4 and Dr Seri Wongmontha, or “the flamboyant Dr Seri” as it’s almost obligatory to describe him, a supporter of the anti-government protests. It’s all entertaining stuff, with a sort of ramshackle panache that would enliven Western political debate immeasurably. But once the duel was over, Seri apparently addressed his adoring fans thus:
Do they think we’re stupid? It’s proven people with yellow skin are smarter than people with white skin... Thais who study abroad get better marks than their classmates.
Well, that’s unpleasant, although I suspect the good doctor is simply expressing what a lot of people in these parts think. The problem is that his reference to yellow skins (implicitly those of Chinese ancestry, albeit sometimes at a remove of several generations, and overwhelmingly the sort of people who tend to study abroad) bestows this supposed genetic superiority on the Bangkok elites while potentially excluding the far darker-skinned rural Southerners who have provided much of the heavy lifting for this month’s attempted shutdown. And since the organisers are attempting to stamp out the notion that the protests are all about maintaining class privileges – despite some of their most ardent supporters going off-message when there’s a microphone in front of them – that’s a bit awkward.

But hey, it’s not just Thailand that’s got caught up in a bit of hey-aren’t-foreigners-a-bit-rubbish? embarrassment. Thanks to Richard Lloyd Parry for directing me towards this gem from Japan:

PS: And this, by Patrick Winn, is another good take on the class aspects of the struggle for Bangkok’s streets.

PPS: Oh, it’s all coming up now. This, from China, courtesy of James Crabtree. It’s the line drawings that are particularly noteworthy: 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Celebrity Big Brother and the death of journalism (again)

Almost exactly a year ago, I suggested that a particularly venomous article by Julie Burchill signalled the end of journalism, as various manifestations of what we used to call the broadsheet press appeared simultaneously to realise that vileness sells best and if you can’t do vileness then at least write about other hacks being vile, like moderately literate hyenas eating each other and ultimately themselves and then vomiting up the partially digested flesh and selling it to the highest bidder.

But you know what? I was wrong. The Burchill piece was still actually about something that matters, whatever you might think of the way she approached it. This is the end of journalism. On the DigitalSpy site, one Catriona Wightman – who sounds as if she should be the captain of lacrosse at a halfway posh convent school in Berkshire – essentially transcribes a few minutes of Celebrity Big Brother, most of which concerns a debate about whether one of the housemates had wiped his bottom with a towel. There is no attempt at wit, no pretence of analysis, not even any simulation of enthusiasm or explanation of why we ought to care. Ms Wightman just writes down what some people did and said on the telly:
Lionel Blair, meanwhile, seemed disgusted by the whole scene as Luisa said: “It probably was Jim.”
Now, I’ve been accused before of intellectual snobbery, of being too harsh on people who, it is argued, are “lacking in cultural capital”. So maybe I’ll be pilloried again for suggesting that Ms Wightman, apart from writing shit about shit, is also writing about stupid people for stupid people. Whether she herself is stupid or shit I couldn’t possibly say. But if she isn’t, she’s pretending to be, which is probably worse. But now I’m writing about her, so what does that make me, apart from a stupid hyena who’s decided to eat shit?

Thursday, January 09, 2014

In praise of Thavolia Glymph

I’ve been kicking around a few ideas for a novel recently. It’s not exactly a work of naturalism, seeing as how it’s set in an imaginary island state that includes components of about six Asian cities, and I want some of the names to reflect that disconnected oddness. So far I’ve got a magazine publisher called Valpolicella Wang and a gay chef, Reinhardt Funt, neither of which entirely satisfy. I’m always impressed by fiction writers who get the names of their characters dead right, implying all the appropriate tropes of background and personality without seeming to try too hard. The trick is to be odd but not entirely implausible and of course, very few pitch every name right every time; Dickens and Waugh are masters of the game but for every Wilkins Micawber or Margot Beste-Chetwynde there’s a Georgiana Podsnap and a Miles Malpractice, which are just silly.

More recent exponents of the art are Kurt Vonnegut (who gave us Kilgore Trout, Montana Wildhack and Valencia Merble but was probably trying too hard when he created Isadore Raspberry-19 Cohen) and Thomas Pynchon, responsible for Oedipa Maas, Brock Vond and Laszlo Jamf. You can just about imagine someone bearing one of those names in real life but the chances are that nobody actually does, which is handy if you want your characters to do something really horrid without their namesakes taking legal action. I speak as someone whose name has twice been appropriated in the cause of fiction, once in a Doctor Who novel, then in a Commando comic, in neither case applied to characters who committed any atrocities as far as I recall. But then my name is just very slightly out of the ordinary. The only time I’ve known it to provoke more than a flicker of reaction came the first time I visited the United States. “Foot-man?” sneered the man checking my passport. “What sort of a name is that?” “US Immigration?” I responded, reading the badge on his uniform. “What sort of a name is that?” Except I didn’t of course, because I was 17 and a bit scared.

So for a name to work, it has to be a bit odder than Tim Footman, but not to the point of outright goofiness. I’d have been really proud if I’d concocted a character called Thavolia Glymph. I mean, what a name; such mouthfeel. Each part could stand alone. Thavolia, I’m thinking, is some imaginary princedom, on the border between Ruritania and Shangri-La. And Glymph? A glum nymph? But it’s when they come together that the magic really happens. As I type the letters, a whole, fully formed character comes to life in the space between the screen and my eyes. I’d have identified her as the leader of an eschatological cult in Pynchon’s next book but one. Or maybe one of Reinhardt Funt’s fag hags.

So I’m at once grateful to and frustrated by Hadley Freeman (another good name, but only if you know she’s a woman) in The Guardian who informs us of the existence of a real Thavolia Glymph, an academic at Duke University. (What is it about academia? Remember the mighty Drummond Bone?) I’m sure she’s a fine scholar in her field; but were I ever to attend one of her lectures, I’d worry that all her words would become an indistinct blur as I focused my attention on the weird glory of her name and wondering if I’d slipped through some sort of conceptual portal and found myself within a work of literary fiction. Although maybe that’s happened already. Foot-man. What sort of a name is that?

(The picture shows Professor Glymph examining Lincoln’s inkwell. Which is obviously a pretty rubbish inkwell, since ink from it was never used to write her magnificent name.)

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Soylent: all you can eat

Science fiction, of course, remains so until it becomes fact. Which is why it’s such fun to revisit the predictions that Isaac Asimov made in 1964 about what life would be like 50 years hence – which is now, of course (thanks to Richard for the pointer). I was particularly interested in his notion of truly instant meals, which are finally coming to pass in the form of Soylent. Rob Rhinehardt’s invention takes its name from a soy/lentil blend described in Harry Harrison’s dystopian novel Make Room! Make Room! (published in 1966) so one could argue that Asimov’s idea predates the fiction, let alone the science; although one could also see as a model the meal-substitute chewing gum – tomato soup, roast beef and blueberry pie – that does for Violet Beauregarde in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964, the same year as Asimov’s think piece). Incidentally, the inclusion of processed human flesh in the Soylent blend wasn’t in Harrison’s book – it was an invention for the 1973 movie Soylent Green. But I’d still be intrigued to find out who was behind the brand name and what their reasoning was; it’s certainly attention-grabbing but not necessarily in a good way. Death cigarettes, anyone? Touching Cloth?

Geekery aside, Soylent does make us think anew about food. While the low cost of the product has potential humanitarian benefits, it’s clear that Rhinehardt’s prime market will be those who aren’t really that bothered one way or other about the pleasures of eating and need fuel rather than gastronomic titillation. Which strikes me immediately as barbaric, although on reflection it’s just a personal preference. Some people really aren’t bothered one way or another about music or art or books either, which I find deeply weird, but each to their own. I guess they find my ambivalence about cars and guns and golf equally peculiar. The difference is that if I avoid golf for a year it won’t kill me; the gastronomic agnostics still need to consume calories, even if the process doesn’t bring them pleasure. 

Maybe the odd thing is that eating is the only function that’s vital to human survival that we’ve turned into a source of pleasure; we don’t have glossy magazines or high-concept TV shows dedicated to breathing or defecation or the circulation of the blood. (I suppose sex is still a necessity for the human race as a whole but on an individual basis it’s quite feasible to opt out.) And while the idea of a cheap, non-perishable source of nutrition is clearly attractive, I can see a rapid transition to a state of affairs where the social, communal pleasures of food are fenced off as a non-essential, reserved for those who can afford them. I mean, we could get rid of all these politically inconvenient food banks and just hand out Soylent instead.

Or we could just eat people after all.