Friday, 27 January 2012

Even long shots make it

"Sentimental" is a word the powerful use to repudiate the weeping of the weak. In nineteenth century Britain, for example, the Irish were seen as sentimentalists, willful lovers of melancholy and booze rather than victims of famine and colonialism. Similarly, the fashionable modern view of Dickens is that he was a great comic novelist, but one with an unfortunate weakness for sentimentality; if only he'd spent less time believing in the possibility of human kindness and moralising about the plight of the poor, so the argument goes, he might have made it to the level of Shakespeare and Dante. Obama is sentimental. Socialism is sentimental. Occupy is sentimental. Love, generosity, music, tears, Kevin Keegan, solidarity, poetry, pop music, feminism, folk music, sadness: mere sentimentalism in the eyes of cultivated realists.

But there is another way at looking at sentimentality. Maybe when a book or a song or a film appears sentimental, this is because someone is trying to communicate some kind of ineffable tragedy or absurd dream of hope. Maybe they are trying to make the truth sing through the available cliches even though they know this will always seem hackneyed and painfully inadequate so long as the powerful are able to define the parameters of respectable sophistication.

"Don't Come Home Too Soon" by Del Amitri (the official Scottish national football team tune for the 1998 World Cup in France) is a sentimental song. Its mood is mawkish. Its emotional plea is blatant. The string arrangement is consciously "epic", and the snailtracks of Britpop conservatism cover its formal surfaces. That acoustic guitar strumming pattern (chang-chang-chikky-chanka-chang-chang) was surely one of the worst things to happen to the world in the nineties, and its presence in the foreground here confirms this song as the very archetype of cliche and obviousness. Blame Kurt Cobain. And Richard Ashcroft. And late capitalism.

Yet "Don't Come Home Too Soon" is a great song. Ezra Pound said that the beauty of art is a brief gasp between one cliche and another, and this is a tune full of such gasps. Justin Currie's voice might be the epitome of MOR, but you'd have to have a heart of stone and ears of rubber not to appreciate his rounded, enveloping timbre here. The two and three part harmonies are frequently sensational. The guitar chords are rich in spite of their clunking rhythm. And there are continual surprises in the shape of the melody: ornate little hooks and mini-refrains keep popping up at unlikely moments ("that stupid plane", "you might prove them wrong", "I don't care what people say", "even long shots make it").

And then there's the subject matter. The football tournament song is not known for being an especially fertile genre in pop music. Yet here it has been transformed into something unique and remarkable. Just to be clear about exactly what is going on here: this is the pop song as a poem including history ("so go then out into history"), a national epic that draws on a tradition of Romantic heroism, a love lyric, an elegy. This is a song about realising with certainty that you are going to die, and an attempt to view that death as somehow an occasion for communal hope.

This is a very strange and unusual piece of music, sentimental but wildly complex at the same time. It is an attempt to derive empowerment from failure, which seems to me to be the essence of spirituality. And I reject utterly the notion that this is some sort of slave morality or victim complex. Religion is not or not only opium. Marginal peoples do not choose to be victims or accept victimhood; rather, they use belief as a means of humanising themselves and creating the imaginative space that is a precondition of one day attaining to real autonomy and independence.

This is the power of sentiment, and this is why I'm hopeful for 2014.

 (This is the only video I could find, but it seems somehow appropriate.)

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Crossed Over And Crossed Out

That project - an ever evolving, uncontroversial portrait of contemporary tastes in popular music - addressed one problem surrounding music in the file-sharing era to the exclusion of all others. Faced with readers who wanted to know how to be fans in the internet age, Pitchfork’s writers became the greatest, most pedantic fans of all, reconfiguring criticism as an exercise in perfect cultural consumption. Pitchfork’s endless “Best Of” lists should not be read as acts of criticism, but as fantasy versions of the Billboard sales charts. Over the years, these lists have (ominously) expanded, from fifty songs to 100 or 200, and in 2008 the site published a book called The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide to the Greatest Songs from Punk to the Present. Similarly, Pitchfork’s obsession with identifying bands’ influences seems historical, but isn’t. When a pop critic talks about influences, he’s almost never talking about the historical development of musical forms. Instead, he’s talking about his record collection, his CD-filled binders, his external hard drive - he is congratulating himself, like James Murphy in “Losing My Edge,” on being a good fan. While Pitchfork may be invaluable as an archive, it is worse than useless as a forum for insight and argument.
In the last thirty years, no artistic form has made cultural capital so central to its identity, and no musical genre has better understood how cultural capital works. Disdaining the reserves of actual capital that were available to them through the major labels, indie musicians sought a competitive advantage in acquiring cultural capital instead. As indie’s successes began following one another in increasingly rapid succession, musicians working in other genres began to take notice. Hip-hop is an illustrative foil. As indie bands in the ’90s did everything they could to avoid the appearance of selling out, rappers tried to get as rich as possible. The really successful ones stopped rapping - or at least outsourced the work of writing lyrics -and opened clothing lines and record labels. But for all their corporate success, rappers knew where the real cultural capital lay. When Jay-Z decided, as an obscenely wealthy entertainment mogul, that he wanted finally to leave his drug-dealer persona behind, he got himself seen at a Grizzly Bear concert in Williamsburg. “What the indie rock movement is doing right now is very inspiring,” he said to a reporter. One year later, his memoirs were published by Spiegel & Grau.
(Click the above for the rest of the article) 

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Noughties fantasy worlds

Television comedy is slowly becoming a dire mulch of crappy game-show formats, bland observational comics impressing the easily impressed l!ve at the Hammersmith Odeon and the main players being nicked by Sky who’ll parse substandard material in the name of ‘presence in the market’. But the noughties produced a slew of great productions, often in the slipstream of Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci’s Partridge/Day Today/Brasseye work, that through their attitudes to drinks and drugs told us a lot about social trends in the decade. For the purposes of this I’m setting aside programmes such as Black Books and Pulling, where booze is often the principal motor of often very funny comedy but not much else gets a look in. Regrettably, it has not been possible to include Two Pints of Lager in this piece.

A workplace comedy with the focus on job precarity due to downsizing and streamlining, the setting only allows for legalised escapism. An enhancer of mundane existence, a validator of life itself and the portal to greater, more exciting things – that was booze’s role in The Office, often led by the insufferable manager David Brent (as in real life, Ricky). Welsh woman getting it in the car park by the northern salesman (‘nearly done’); Gareth’s threesome with a wild chic and her willing spouse after Chasers; Tim the Loser getting it on with new Swindon girl, all outcomes are possible once the can of Stella is cracked open. All these things bring about is temporary situations, a transgressive blip without enough substance to dissuade any character from not turning up and logging on. Consolation for life in Slough. For Brent though these things are still off limits due to the considerable wall he puts up in the form of his ego. That doesn’t stop him reminiscing to a disinterested Tim about long nights in the pub with Finchy, Gareth and co, in sync with the prevalent school of thought that needless weekday drinking is somehow cool. No wonder suburban hostelries are on their arse if they’re the only people left in them.

In such normalising circumstances, drugs is just ‘waccy baccy’ with no other substances mentioned. Of course Brent is ‘mad enough without the gear’ and always off ‘to munchie city’ when high, he tells the fellow motivational speaker in a memorable scene. Like his hero Ian Botham, he’s ‘smoked the odd doobie’ but, as with the support cast with their boozy fumblings, not enough to put him off wasting time and his life at work.

In Peepshow, a sitcom closely bound to the fragile ups and downs of modern consumer capitalism, with work vital for one and anathema for another, the prognosis is gloomier in some respects as the theme involving alcohol is one of dependence. ‘Let’s get cunted’ as a salesman droog says on the eve of (not after) a major Kettering conference. Booze pops up in any and most situations – a yard of ale with Christian relatives, a can or two in the supermarket or waiting outside a church to punch an ex-monk, a pack of Aussies ‘getting shitfaced’ on a Wednesday night. Dobby says ‘it facilitates the talking of shite’, and Mark adds ‘in the long term there’s depression, lethargy and addiction but who’s looking to the long term?’ Indeed, if anything unites Mark and Jez, the conventional odd couple of British comedy, it’s their love of drink. Johnson the boss also sums up the love-hate relationship with alcohol well, being mostly dry and puritanically ‘clean and serene’ but ultimately unable to resist the alcoholic lifeforce in the final NYE party. Poor me, pour me another drink.

Booze serves all social functions from consolation to innocent hedonism and often makes farcical situations even worse, yet it is the attitude to drugs that is far more revealing. Here, a didactic tone often appears, coke turns Superhans into a gibbering wreck in the toilet and of course he’s forever the cartoon for his crack habit (yeah, what a joke!), Sophie is seen to go distinctly flakey and unreliable (those old chestnuts) when she starts dabbling in E while her dealer friend is ‘not a bad person, but a moron’, and in the last series there is a denouement of sorts when even Superhands’ own party is seen as too out-there to experience. So while drug-talk provides some of the best lines and scenes, usually via Superhans and his talk of ‘nature’s glue’, dropping acid at a birth and the k-hole he administers Sophie’s cousin-cum-bedroom producer, we’re always encouraged to see such activity as marginal, stupid and dangerous.

It’s an interesting take, and while they would hardly lose their core audience if they took a bit more of a 30something Skins line on narcotics, perhaps its longevity is partly accounted for by the writers’ mainstream ‘look at the sad druggies’ stance, allowing the more casual fan to feel comfortable with the Croydon tower block world. Sometimes, Peepshow was more like Men Behaving Badly than anyone would care to admit. But this stance has always made me feel less than comfortable, and this extends into other areas where the writers are less sure-footed, such as homosexuality. Careful, if you get high you may suck your best friend off!

On to Nathan Barley, Brooker and Morris’ early evocation of the nice ’n sleazy nation of hipsters aka ‘self-facilitating media nodes’. With more weight given to specific signifiers of people type and place and the painful irony of criticising a hermetic world you are actually part of, there is less on the social rituals of intoxication, so we see the old east end boozer now ‘Nailgun Arms’ a lot but there is less on the activities therein. There are also events and clubs in an identifiably Shoreditchy milieu, but little excessive drinking and drugging shown as the activity takes on the more nebulously modern tag of ‘partying’. Indulgers are cast as loners who depend on drink and drugs and are out of step with the in-crowd too busy being cool. Dan Ashcroft, the anti-hip writer who slags off the idiots, is an idiot too for caning it on the execrable schmooze circuit too much, as is evident when he wakes up in Barley’s office covered in paint. Then there’s the young cokehead, who the scheming Barley is happy to say ‘go on, get it up your beak’ without partaking himself. And Barley himself is made more laughable by his use of strong weed (‘colossal amounts of TCP’). He thinks it aids the creative process, but of course it doesn’t. Probably. Not unless you have installed some very hardworking filters.

Ashcroft gains a small victory when Barley copies his Geek pie hairdo and is still winning after Pingu’s defenestration, but he fucks up with Barley in his pants and the Shoreditch twat wins out, switching back on to the programme of highly networked self-promotion, bagging the TV series and subjecting a comatose Ashcroft to his whims. Don’t drink kids, you’ll lose your status as the plum writer on an edgy magazine and some twat with a web audience of other twats will take over.

Finally, the Mighty Boosh. Despite much emphasis on the ephemera of pop subculture for the material that provides our knowing laughter – breakdancing mutants, Vince’s ‘harsh tasty’ beats for the cobra, Bollo’s DJ slots at Fabric, punkgothbluesmodjazz younameit – life's drinkers, tokers, pill-poppers and snorters are almost marginalised. Naboo aside (who has smoked so much he has magic powers), they pop up as odds and sods such as the Scottish street alky, the actor-lush, Sammy the Crab ‘off his tits’, shamen Kirk on one. But when Fielding and Barratt, who had already explored the techno hippy waffler with his Pod act with Tim Hope, do touch on hedonism, they get it right, with some funny, accurate lines delivered round the shamen stag tour, for instance.

In Booshworld, there is generally no need to portray temporary oblivion when there is a premium on adventure, fantasy and otherworlds – which is sometimes little more than a conceit and a device given that most of the time ‘the humour’ is Vince and Howard riffing off each other, placing them in traditional comedy duo territory. The message almost seems to be: don’t hammer it too much, because you wont be able to indulge in this shit-chatting. I have a friend like this, a lad who has lived in several east London interzones (Whitechapel, Broadway Market, Bethnal Green) and knows one or two of the Boosh entourage, who resolutely avoids serious talk. Often the ‘game’ with him is how you can follow one meaningless statement with another. What are his views on the world? Don’t be so gauche, we’re talking about creatives here.

Over the course of the three series they move from the Zooniverse to Naboo’s flat and frequent mentions of Camden onto the Dalston shop, with the last being key to the outlook. In the Boosh as in hipster zones such as the real Dalston itself, there is a sense that youthful contemporary cool society, with its handheld gadgets, instant access to all of life’s wonders and mysteries and wilful ignorance of class and race (easily achieved when you're white and well off), is already nicely deranged enough, providing infinite jumping off points for endless, directionless, issue-less conversation. But that would be a conceit too. Booshers or Barleys may not need industrial quantities of booze and the other stuff, but they are still just as divorced from reality.