Sunday, April 07, 2024

About pretension

When my Radiohead book was published, there were a few rumbles that bringing the likes of Baudrillard into the conversation were a bit – perish the thought – pretentious. I’ve never been particularly stung by such a label (standing proudly alongside Ian Penman on the subject) but I was amused when I recently revisited my old copy of Will Pop Eat Itself? by Jeremy J. Beadle (no, not that one) and noticed that by the second page he was comparing This is the Day... This is the Hour... This is This! by grebo titans PWEI to The Waste Land. And now I wonder whether the modest sales of my book were down to it not being pretentious enough.

Monday, April 01, 2024

About AI

In the New York Times, the neuroscientist Eric Hoel argues that the increased use of artificial intelligence is forcing any notion of intellectual or aesthetic quality into a death spiral, prompted as much as anything by human laziness. For example he refers to researchers at a conference on AI using AI to conduct peer reviews on AI-related papers, taking any human critical intervention out of the equation. Which is a problem, because one thing AI is very bad at detecting is bullshit, which is ultimately what peer review is for.

Of course, most of us don’t hang around at AI conferences, but Hoel suggests that the process is far more prevalent than that, eroding the fabric of culture itself, to the detriment even of people who reach for their weapons when they hear the word:

Isn’t it possible that human culture contains within it cognitive micronutrients — things like cohesive sentences, narrations and character continuity — that developing brains need? 
In other words, the processes by which people engage with all the gubbins of society is as significant as the content itself, and that’s what AI is stripping away. But it’s not as if the purveyors of AI are doing this deliberately, is it? They’re not consciously proposing policies that will make humanity that bit more stupid are they oh wait hang on...

PS: And even if you’re not that bothered about AI destroying the canon of Western literature, you might want to know what it’s doing to your fridge

PPS: And, following on from Musk’s tweet, I think this is supposed to be an April Fool’s gag but these days, who knows?

Friday, March 22, 2024

About art and men

In Tasmania, a man is claiming that his exclusion from the Ladies Lounge, an exhibit at the Museum of Old and New Art, constitutes gender discrimination. The museum’s lawyer contends that his being turned away is integral to what the art is about: “Part of the experience is being denied something that is desired.” 
So Lau’s exclusion from the show is art, as is Lau himself and patriarchy and the court case and the women doing the conga to a Robert Palmer tune, no, follow the link, I’m not making it up. The only question must be, if that’s all art, what isn’t?

Monday, March 18, 2024

About comedians

Once again, I just record these observations with little or no comment. One day, they’ll have a place in my magnum opus about cultural assumptions, the bells-and-whistles box set spun off from my MA dissertation. But till then...

In Radio 4’s slightly contrived panel show One Person Found This Helpful, Frank Skinner feels obliged to explain that Tom Stoppard is a “famous playwright”, and given that the gag is about which of them, Skinner or Stoppard, would grab the headlines if they both perished in an air crash, that need for clarification is significant. (A few years ago Stoppard himself mused gloomily about what needs to be explained these days.)

And on the same day, in The Observer, Stewart Lee, a comic of a roughly similar vintage, lobs in a reference to Messiaen’s birdsong and finds himself under no such obligation. 

Friday, March 15, 2024

About a classical education

An interesting piece by Emma Green in The New Yorker about a resurgence in what’s known as liberal arts and/or classical education. Whatever you want to call it, it stands in opposition to the modern mainstream of pedagogy, favouring the canonical Great Books (and implicitly Dead White Males), which makes it popular with right-wing politicians, although as Green makes clear, that’s by no means the whole story. And if I look at a Trump rally, I wonder how many present, including the main speaker, would understand this gag: 

And then there’s literature: one New York City public-high-school reading list includes graphic novels, Michelle Obama’s memoir, and a coming-of-age book about identity featuring characters named Aristotle and Dante. In classical schools, high-school students read Aristotle and Dante.

And before I’m accused of snobbery, I’m well aware that there are vast gaps in my own cultural knowledge; opera, for example is little more than a blur. That said, I do know that Richard Strauss wasn’t Johann’s son, unlike the poor sap writing on the ENO website... 

PS: And while we’re there, the Arts Council of England is condemning opera critics for, among other sins,  writing “almost exclusively writing from a classical music perspective”.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

About ‘Hallelujah’

A while back, I wrote a book about Leonard Cohen, with a focus on That Song, which had become ubiquitous two decades or more after it had first been released (and mostly ignored). And today, in the midst of an online discussion about the incongruous uses to which it’s been put (see also ‘My Heart Will Go On’ and ‘I Will Always Love You’) I finally realise that I should have called the book SAD JEWS FUCKING.

Thursday, March 07, 2024

About pop

Just came across something I wrote for The Guardian in 2008, offering a sort of “OK, boomer” sigh avant la lettre, suggesting that old people should stop appropriating pop music. Which in turn prompted this delightful response:

Presumably by ‘old’ the author means himself; he’s bald and looks very boring. Probably not intelligent enough for classical though; Andy Williams fan? Nana Mouskouri?

PS: On a happier note, I’m now in the dictionary. For context, go here.

Friday, March 01, 2024

About Brontez Purnell

I can’t claim to know much about the work of Brontez Purnell but it does seem to me that if you’re the subject of the New York Times’s By The Book feature, affecting not to read very much is an, um, interesting look.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

About Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

In, of all places, a news item about the death of Stuart Organ, who for many years played the headmaster of Grange Hill school, I see Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead described as “a spin-off of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet”. And the phrase strikes me as totally wrong-headed but the more I think of it, it feels about right. After all, R&G isn’t a sequel, nor yet a prequel. It takes place in the same fictional universe as Hamlet, the action of which is progressing at the same time, and occasionally intersects. It exists in relation to Hamlet in the same way that Torchwood and The Sarah-Jane Adventures exist in relation to Doctor Who, sharing characters and narratives, but with a different emphasis.

But then I still wonder whether the author of the piece actually knows that, or just threw the sentence together after a brief Wikipedia check. And do you know what makes me doubt her? It’s the fact that she refers not to “Hamlet”, but to “William Shakespeare’s Hamlet”. Someone who knew about theatre would instinctively offer the title alone, assuming that everyone knows what Hamlet is, who wrote it, approximately what it’s about, even if they aren’t able to quote it by the yard. Which feels a bit harsh, because her definition of Stoppard’s play is ultimately correct. But it’s accidentally correct and I wonder whether that’s good enough.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

About syrup

The clever people who sell Lyle’s Golden Syrup are removing the image of bees swarming round a dead lion from at least some of its packaging. “Our fresh, contemporary design brings Lyle’s into the modern day, appealing to the everyday British household while still feeling nostalgic and authentically Lyle’s,” says the brand director, which obviously means nothing whatsoever, so others have stepped in to fill the gap. “The story of it coming from religious belief could put the brand in an exclusionary space, especially if it was to go viral on X or TikTok,” suggests a marketing academic. “It’s woke!” screech the readers of the Daily Mail, but frankly, what isn’t these days, as far as they’re concerned?

I know as much as they do, so here’s my guess. They wanted to get away from the Biblical reference (“Out of the strong came forth sweetness,” Judges, chapter 14) not because it might offend anybody’s sensibilities, religious or otherwise, not because they’ve finally realised a rotting cat isn’t the most appetising way to sell sweet goop, but because nobody understands it. Nobody knows who Samson (who supposedly said it) is, and nobody really cares. Why would you buy something that confronts you with your own ignorance every day? The semi-abstract lion’s face that replaces it doesn’t particularly refer to anything, doesn't challenge or provoke anything, especially not curiosity.

Of course, being a pedant above all things, my main objection to the logo is that the quote’s about honey, rather than syrup, which is a different product. But who cares about that?

PS: This may or may not be relevant. But I’m pretty sure it’s true.

Monday, February 19, 2024

About new music

Sean Thomas in The Spectator claims to have found empirical evidence that music is getting worse. I agree with his conclusion, but don’t recognise his claim to objectivity; music is getting worse because I’m getting old and so, presumably, is Mr Thomas. If I were young, it would all be great, but I’m not, which is why I only get excited by the Top of the Pops re-runs on Saturday nights if they date from 1978 to 1983. Incidentally, Thomas’s characterisation of a modern lyric as “the desire of the singer to ‘kill his mofo bitches’ and celebrate his expensive car, hat and Rolex watch” suggests that he last listened to a rap record in about 1991, and then only fleetingly.

Moreover, it needs to be noted that this year sees the 100th anniversary of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and the 200th of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, two groundbreaking works whose influence is still being felt. But I bet that in 1924 and 1824, there were plenty of people who could come up with an algorithm to prove that they were rubbish.

There is great music being produced now that will still be heard and loved in 2124 and beyond. We just don’t know what it is yet.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

About Gregg and Timmy

I mentioned a few years ago that the two best ever instalments of the Sunday Times magazine’s venerable A Life in the Day feature were both by actors called Tom. What I hadn’t realised, because like so many others, I’ve lost the habit of burrowing into the weekend papers, is that the Telegraph has for some time been running its own pallid simulacrum of ALitD and, unsurprisingly, it’s not as good.

Well, until the gurning greengrocer Gregg Wallace took his turn and, well, it still wasn’t good but at least it was funny.

The problem was that, unlike the Toms’ takes on their respective days, Wallace wasn’t trying to be funny, and the fact that his pride in being able to get into the gym half an hour before mere civilians, his staunch defence of Harvester, his wargaming, his lack of body fat, all speak of someone with such a total lack of self-awareness that Alan Partridge comparisons were inevitable. “Is this a parody?” we chorused.

No, it wasn’t. But this is:

This, Brian Blessed gong, Frazzles, the ghost of Patrick Macnee and all, is the work of Mark Bowsher but inevitably the whole thing developed a life of its own within hours and several people thought it was genuine. Well, genuine in the sense that Timmy Mallett himself had written it, not that it was in any way an accurate representation of his life.

Because ultimately all of the other articles are artifices, constructions hovering in a liminal space between objective reality and how the subject wishes to be presented. The difference is that the two Toms (and Jeffrey Bernard, who collaborated on Baker’s piece) were fully aware of what they were doing and Gregg Wallace wasn’t. And I’d like to think that if Timmy Mallett (with whom I once shared a lift, sandwiched between him and Tony Blackburn, which does demonstrate how easy it is to drift into Partridge territory) were to do a real article on these lines, it would be closer to the Toms than to what Gregg did. But a tiny bit like the parody version as well. Just to keep us guessing.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

About Richard and Davros

There have been complaints that Michelle Terry is to play Richard III at the Globe. Not because she’s she’s the artistic director of the theatre and appears to have nabbed the plum role for herself, but because the monarch has a disability, and Ms Terry doesn’t. (The fact that she’s a woman isn’t an issue, it seems.)

As always, these arguments throw up further arguments; now we’ve dug up Richard’s body, we know the nature of his disability (scoliosis), so does this mean that only actors with this specific condition should play him? And if actors with other disabilities (Arthur Hughes, Mat Fraser, Peter Dinklage) are allowed to take the role, would that not throw up the rather reductive and insulting implication that all disabilities are much the same? I’m also a little confused by Fraser’s response to Terry’s casting: “I will be personally boycotting the production if it goes ahead with this casting,” he says. “I’m done with the pretenders.” Isn’t pretending what actors do?

But wait – since Richard embodies that horrid old trope about the disabled villain, should the role even be played at all? Or, if it is, shouldn’t we excise all the references to his disability – “rudely stamped” and so on – to fit 21st-century sensibilities? I mean, that would seem to be the stance taken by Russell T Davies, who has declared that the evil genius Davros should from now on have legs. Which does mean that nobody can complain if Michelle Terry plays him.

PS: While we’re here, can we stop saying that art that doesn’t quite gel with those modern sensibilities (Friends is a apparently a main offender) is “problematic”? Art, especially drama, that doesn’t present us with problems is all but pointless.

Thursday, February 01, 2024

About the Sixties

An alternative reality, in which Swinging London was devised and documented not by Mary Quant and David Bailey and the Beatles, but by Samuel Beckett.

(Photo of Twiggy and Wilfrid Brambell by Burt Glinn.)

Friday, January 26, 2024

About Barbie and being good

Oh what a brouhaha there is about the lack of love Barbie has received in terms of nominations for the upcoming Oscars. (In short, it got a nod in the Best Picture category, but its female director and female star were less happy. Ryan Gosling, nominated for Best Supporting Actor, spoke up for his spurned sisters but not to the extent of throwing his own chance away.)

For the record, I enjoyed the movie, especially its design (definitely one that has to be seen on the big screen) although it probably wouldn’t be in any of my best-of lists. Gerwig and Robbie are talented people but they’ve each done better things (Lady Bird and I, Tonya). That’s not what this is about, though, is it? Barbie, beneath the pink gleam, is a satire of sexism and patriarchy and masculinist assumptions and, so the logic goes, to deprive it of recognition is to condone all those bad things. 

Except that it really isn’t, is it? Films that are on the side of the angels aren’t inherently great films and yet the Oscar voters have long had a tendency to reward movies on the basis of their social values alone. The nadir of this came at the 78th awards, when the Best Picture gong went to Crash, a movie at once incoherent and simplistic, the script of which is pretty much the song ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist’ stretched over two hours. To add to the fun, it edged out Brokeback Mountain, so even as the Academy patted itself on the back for acknowledging that Racism Is A Bad Thing, it was panicking in case anyone might think it considered homophobia not to be equally reprehensible. Barbie’s relatively slim pickings may be a sign that Hollywood is finally shaking its way out of such ethical quandaries.

Society as a whole isn’t there yet. Maybe the problem is that at the same time as we have become more confident, even to the point of sanctimony, in our moral and political opinions, we feel less able to make aesthetic judgements, to declare that one film (book, song, play, etc) better than another by virtue of imagination, craft and skill rather than just, well, virtue. To argue on purely artistic grounds that X is a better actor or director or composer or balloon sculptor than Y takes us too close to assumptions about class and education that feel too uncomfortable to express. (Incidentally, we are in similar territory when it comes to language. We are encouraged seize on instances of misgendering or outdated racial epithets, but suggesting that the phrase “would of” is in some way incorrect looks plain rude.)

It almost feels as if we’ve slipped back to the Victorian era, when finger-wagging critics dismissed the likes of Wuthering Heights and Tess of the d’Urbervilles, not for any inherent literary faults but because they were morally suspect. The specific criteria have changed (racism and misogyny and homophobia rather than fornication) but the priorities would be familiar to Hardy or the Bront√ęs. We know what’s good, but not what’s good.

PS: My old mucker Clair, who used to hang around these parts as the Urban Woo, deals with the matter in characteristically brisk, no-nonsense fashion in The Independent.

PPS: Reductress, as it tends to, also gets it right:

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

About Barthes

Stolen from someone. Can’t remember who, which is grimly appropriate, I guess. Not for the first time, I think how much Barthes would have relished social media.

Also, from John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure
Roland Barthes observes somewhere that the meaning of any list of likes and dislikes is to be found in its assertion of the fact that each of us has a body, and that this body is different from everybody else’s. This is tosh. The real meaning of our dislikes is that they define us by separating us from what is outside us; they separate the self from the world that mere banal liking cannot do.

Monday, January 15, 2024

About Ballard

In 1974, JG Ballard gave an interview to an 18-year-old admirer, Akihiko Kokuryo, and offered a message to readers of the speculative fiction magazine in which it was published. Translated into Japanese and then back into English it feels like a pretty good way of coping with the modern world that he predicted so well, so often: 

I hope that you will always be skeptical, passionate, analytic, revolutionary, idealistic, dream-like, serene and hallucinated.

And in searching for an image, I find this clipping. We all have those mammoth novels deep inside, don’t we?

Thursday, January 11, 2024

About Mean Girls (and mean girls)

The new movie Mean Girls (which is in fact the film version of the stage musical of the old movie Mean Girls) would appear to have been stripped of its, well, meanness. 

“If we really had people speak to each other the way they spoke to each other in 1990, everyone would go to the hospital,” says screenwriter Tina Fey, although whether she means it would provoke actual fisticuffs, or that Gen Z-ers are so fragile that verbal hostility might provoke a full-on breakdown, isn’t so clear. But then she seizes on what’s really changed, and what hasn’t: “People are still horrible, they're just more likely to anonymously type it. I would like to take but not teach a graduate school class on the ways in which people are just as divisive and horrible as they ever were, but now they couch it in virtue.” In other words, people are still reassuringly vile but maybe not in a way that transfers so easily to celluloid.

But it’s not just nastiness we need to be warned about. For a forthcoming show at Stratford East, we are alerted to “themes of joy, loss and grief”. I wonder whether you can experience so much joy it puts you in the hospital.

Sunday, January 07, 2024

About Theseus

The Ship of Theseus, aka Trigger’s Broom, isn’t quite the same thing as Baudrillard’s simulacrum, but it occupies a similar space. And it does emit some lovely memeage.