Sunday, 24 July 2011

Why The Music And Entertainment Industry Deserves A Cactus Enema, Vol. 1.

As this is intended to be a politics-and-media based ranting outlet, given the dreadful events in Norway and the shameful way the early reporting on the atrocity panned out, one could expect a rant on that.

But the truth is that while I do care greatly about that subject and have been a card-carrying anti-fascist since my teens, I'm going to veer away and talk about the one thing that has been consistently scoring higher on the "Most Viewed" logs of the news sites today, the "unexplained" death of musician Amy Winehouse.

Now, aside from the grotesque grief athletics covering the pages of every red-top that had paparazzi stalking this young woman through the very worst of times, (tempered by the fact that at least the News Of The World is not one of them), what has got me about this is the fact that I shouldn't give any more thought than a token moment of sadness and sympathy for her and those that genuinely cared for and loved her, but for reasons I'm not sure about, I do.

Maybe it's the fact that she was a similar age to my own younger sister, who I love dearly and with whom she shares a name. Maybe it's because I too spent time around the Camden scene in my late teens and early twenties and saw how corrosive it could be. Maybe it's because I'm a gullible, easily-led fool who decries the whole "celebrity" circus while sneaking the occasional furtive look when the mood takes me. But the fact is I was not a fan of her music, and had earned many a withering look from Mrs. Blue over the years describing it as "Sylvia Young soul", "Re-heated Motown leftovers" and "Really no better than Lily Allen's output, when you get down to it" - yes, I am a music snob.

And the worst kind of music snob too, one who had the bit between the teeth, saw it peter out due to random misfortune and, frankly, mediocre talent - who then spends significant time pointing out exactly what's wrong with the ones who are making and have made it. To be fair, I'm well aware of the ridiculousness of my position and the utter lack of any right to say what I'm saying on the matter.

Enough about me though, time to get to the point. When I was a starry-eyed teenager with a well-loved Korean Strat copy, a few chords under my belt and a desire to get up on stage and assault people's ears, the way to do it seemed fairly clear. To whit; getting together with a bunch of like-minded mates, practicing for hours at home and saving up Saturday job money for the privilege of renting a damp rehearsal room for four hours a weekend, then being prepared to spend the next few years in the distinctly unglamourous cycle of claiming the dole, living in squats and spending months doing toilet-circuit gigs around the country for petrol money and not much else - in the hope that you could build up enough buzz to get some A&R guys from small labels to show up at a gig and be impressed either by the music, or (more honestly) the fact that you've got a bunch of mates who'll show up consistently to anything you do. This process is hard and the rate of attrition was high, so by the time the fresh-faced teenagers who had dreams of success had been transmogrified into poorly-fed refugees with thousand-yard stares (many of whom had been in at least two or three different bands by then), that was usually when things started to happen.

This world was clear and distinct from the other path into showbusiness, which involved stage school, learning the rudiments of the craft you had chosen and applying them diligently. Those that followed this path and succeeded usually ended up in theatre and musical productions, or in production outfits creating material for manufactured pop groups - it was a career path rather than something you felt driven to do at the risk of your health and sanity.

Now, as a Labour supporter it pains me to say this, but the rot really started with Tony Blair in 1997, because his interpretation of benefits required that one be actively seeking employment. This effectively ended the "auld alliance" of sorts between the Establishment and grafting up-and-coming musicians (which amounted to "we'll give you enough to make sure you don't starve, just don't get ideas above your station until you make it"), for which he was rightly pilloried by the same musicians he'd spent the last few years courting in an attempt to appear "down with the kids" (along with Billy Bragg, of course...). The response was the ludicrous "New Deal For Musicians", a fig leaf if ever there was one.

So at this point you may well ask, "What the hell has this got to do with Amy Winehouse?" - which is a fair question and I ask for your forbearance.

What this *really* meant was that in Blair's vision, the path to stardom should be approached as a career path just like any other, which led to the championing of institutions like the BRIT School and BIMM, whereby the young stars of tomorrow (plus a larger percentage of also-rans) would be educated in the ins and outs of showbiz, and the lucky ones would be set for stardom at around the same age that most of their peers would either be taking their first forays into work or going to university.

At the same time, the music industry itself was changing. The supposed sea-change that accompanied the advent and wake of Nirvana's "Nevermind" was quietly being undone, as the myriad scruffy oiks who had been signed were quietly and unceremoniously dropped from the majors who had worked themselves up into a feeding frenzy signing them up just a few years before. In the UK, the Britpop "phenomenon" was slowly wheezing its last as the big names either released turgid, coke-adulterated rehashes of the same riffs that made them famous in the first place or distanced themselves as much as humanly possible from the carnage, and the rest were quietly dropped from their labels for being, frankly, crap. The labels amalgmated themselves into a dwindling number of what can only be described as gigantic amorphous pustules, and the return of the old guard was heralded not only by the rise in manufactured pop artists (Billie, Britney Spears, Boyzone, B:Witched et al), but also by the advent of reality TV show Popstars, in which, like a nightmarish low-budget version of "Frankenstein" shot in an unreconstructed 1980s Coventry meat-market nightclub, the festering, reanimated corpse of Pete Waterman was suddenly once again regarded as someone worth listening to in musical terms. Remember it was less than half a decade between "Smells Like Teen Spirit" crashing into the UK Top 10, and the 7-week presence of the execrable Simon Cowell-masterminded version of "Unchained Melody" performed by Robson & Jerome at the number 1 spot.

To this newly-consolidated industry, the rise of these new performing arts colleges must have appeared manna from heaven, because the graduates of these institutions would know exactly how to press musical buttons to get a hit, would have just enough personality to maintain an image, but most of all would be prepared to play it safe in musical terms - writing new material, but keeping it all in a package that would sell to as many people as possible (which means tickling the nostalgia nerve and *never* doing anything new). Everything could be compartmentalised and targeted, there would be something for everyone, and if the sales didn't match expectations - who cares? Drop 'em and there'll be a fresh bunch along by July and we get to make money off of their efforts too!

Which brings us back to the point. Now, I don't know about you, but the experiences of myself and my friends over the years have taught me that in this modern world, the years between the age of eighteen and twenty-five are among the most chaotic and unfocused of your life. Some will be at work already and some will stay in education until their early twenties - but this is a time of experimentation and working out just who the hell you are. You may look at yourself and either like, or at least be able to cope with what you see and in which case you should count yourself one of the lucky few. Confusion and self-doubt abound - whether it be related to your appearance, abilities, sexuality or whatever. This time is experienced with your peers but at the same time it is intensely private. Just about the last thing you need at this point in your life is relentless intrusion into what you're doing and who you're doing it with along with wild and lurid speculation as to why you're doing it.

While the old "claim-dole-and-spend-a-few-years-on-the-road" method was certainly unglamourous, what it did do was harden you. There are few more dispiriting feelings in the world than playing to the landlord and his dog in a pub/music venue a hundred miles from home, knowing that there may not be enough diesel in the tank to get you back and that cheese on toast three times might be the extent of your sustenance tomorrow. Sometimes you even had the local nutter come in, throw things at you throughout your set and mutter darkly about what he intended to do to you when you packed down and came outside. In short, you only stuck to your guns if you *really* wanted to do it and you learned to accept a ton of disappointment and knocks on the way.

Now - look at this video that Mrs. Blue sent me earlier of Amy Winehouse, on the cusp of fame, playing on Jools Holland:

The occasional glances at the audience and the Cheshire-cat grin at the end are endearing, but look at the rest of the body language. She's holding that guitar to her chest like a pre-schooler holds a comfort blanket and she's staring furiously at the fretboard as she sings. If this doesn't set alarm bells ringing I don't know what could - yes, she's got talent (those jazz chords that eluded me for years are *down*), she's got sass and she's got a hell of a voice but she is patently *not* *fucking* *ready* to cope with fame yet.

However her management and label spot a goldmine - she's singing lyrics that resonate with a generation of girls about her age, but she's setting it to music that your Great Auntie Mabel could dance to and not give a fig about what she's actually saying. "Wow!", they think to themselves, "That's at least five demographic groups we can sell her to!".

And so the machine builds up. No years of trudging around in front of unappreciative audiences, no nights spent thinking "Fuck you, I can do this" as the electric meter clicks off, the stomach starts groaning and the damp sets in - this is a rocket ride straight to the big time. But she's not prepared for the viciousness inherent in the industry, and as the stories from people who encountered her in person now pouring forth attest to, she is *not* comfortable in her own skin yet, she has *serious* self-worth issues that have not been resolved, and frankly she is too fucking sweet-natured to deal with the beast that she's trying to ride, at the same time that most of her peers are just finding their feet in the world, with ample time and space to fuck up and regroup when things get nasty. This is all happening in public view and it's happening right *now*.

Much will be made of the role of drugs (in which I include alcohol and nicotine) and addiction in this story. Much will be made of the "27 Club" which she has sadly joined. Talking heads will speculate endlessly on the pressures of fame driving her to seek an escape, just as illustrious predecessors like Joplin, Hendrix and Cobain did, the only problem with that being that it's all bollocks.

Recreational drug use is something that a significant number of young people encounter these days, to an extent that even I don't understand at times. It's largely unspoken - but ironically, going down to the pub, getting together with people and having a bit of blow, amphetamine or even the disassociative anaesthetic ketamine (which the Torygraph can neither spell nor research, so they call it "horse tranquiliser") is probably one of the few things that made her feel normal. The only problem being that the difference between her and her peers was this - while their intake was limited by a wage packet or student income, she had a near-unlimited supply of money with which to feed the habits once they took hold.

So in the coming days and weeks, the entertainment industry will "mourn a wasted talent". They will serve up the same re-heated cliches they used for Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix just as the industry hammered her work into a re-heated, radio-friendly, Motown-lite package and they will cluck sadly at the public's appetite for salacious stories that clearly forced them to put paps outside the Hawley Arms night after night. But it wasn't the public who put a 20-year-old woman who had talent and sparkle - but sadly not yet the chance to either ground herself fully, be comfortable in her own skin or provide herself with the emotional armour necessary for fame - in the spotlight. It wasn't the public that knew that if she ended up a trainwreck, another would be along in a year or so to take her place and keep the money rolling in (thankfully, Adele seems much more self-assured).

It was an industry that has no qualms about spitting out its young when they've outlasted their usefulness, stamping on dreams and providing a small cadre of very rich men with an endless supply of income in the name of what was originally supposed to be art.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Phone Hacking

What we've got:

What we need:

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Royal Weddings And Corner Politics

There are many reasons I love Mrs. Blue as much as I do. One that came up very recently involved our desire to avoid Royal Wedding hysteria as best we could. Few of our friends were quite as apathetic as us, and so I resolved to sleep in as long as I could - maybe I'd have missed the worst of it by the time I dragged my pasty arse out of bed.

Instead I awoke at about 10:30AM and shambled towards the living room to find Mrs. Blue with the DVD remote at her side, a couple of episodes into the first season of The Wire.

As I said - I love that girl something fierce.

You may find through the rambling of this piece that I inadvertantly throw a few "Wire-isms" in there. Logically I know that it's almost entirely scripted - and that what we're hearing is essentially overheard street talk reconstituted by the show's writers. But there's a poetry in the brutalist dialogue that makes up much of the series - whether that's down to the skill of the writers or whether it was already there in the language they overheard as journalists, policemen and teachers I don't know, and frankly don't care.

Cards on the table : I first saw Homicide : Life On The Street as a teenager, and after the first episode it became one of my late night "must-sees". Despite it's occasional requirement of suspension of disbelief in the name of making TV, it had a style and poise about it that was unparallelled at the time. It certainly wiped the floor with the much more popular NYPD Blue in terms of story and technical execution, and to this day it holds a very special place in my estimation. It therefore follows that any work that followed based on the storytelling nous of David Simon would have to be appallingly bad for me to dislike it.

Pages and pages of writing by far more exalted pensmiths than myself have dissected The Wire thoroughly, and so there's no real point in me going there - other than to say that if you have a taste for epic storytelling and a willingness to put effort into understanding and getting to grips with a mirror held up to society revealing unremitting bleakness, then you will not be disappointed.

Where I do want to go has less to do with the story of the show itself than it has to do the way it was a critical marvel, but met a lukewarm reception commercially. Many have said that it had to do with the predominantly black cast - although I've heard this mostly from people on my side of the political divide rather than those who have an axe to grind over ethnicity, and maybe that is part of the deal. Maybe TV audiences made up of predominantly white westerners can't relate to a show that expresses the trials and tribulations of a city in the United States made up of a predominantly black population. Personally I have more hope for human empathy than that, but that's just my opinion. Simon himself puts an intriguing assertion forward, however.

...American entertainment does nothing but sell redemption and easy victories 24-7.

I'm not saying that "The Wire's" unique in that respect -- there's a lot of other high-end television that is dark and continues to be dark -- but I agree with Chase in one respect. I read an interview with him where he said what American television gets wrong relentlessly is that life is really tragic. Not a lot of people want to tune their living room box to that channel. It's an escapist form.

And there it is. Depressing as it is to acknowledge, some people just don't want to hear bad news, no matter how beautifully it is presented. Now - a lot of people would scoff at that statement - "But Blue", they'd say, "Haven't you seen the soaps and dramas with astronomical viewing figures presenting bleak situations? In this country alone you've got Eastenders, Holby City and a lot of Skins. You had until recently The Bill, Waking The Dead, Prime Suspect and many more like them". But to them I'd say that the difference is that all those shows are stylised. The stories and character interaction are different. They are sops to our human inclination for grief athletics. They *feel* like fiction.

Present it plainly and in an uncompromisingly blunt style and people will turn away. They've got enough to worry about, working to keep a roof over their heads or eking out the last pennies from that ever dwindling benefit payment to put up with being told in their own living room that :

These really are the excess people in America. Our economy doesn’t need them—we don’t need 10 or 15 percent of our population. And certainly the ones who are undereducated, who have been ill-served by the inner-city school system, who have been unprepared for the technocracy of the modern economy, we pretend to need them. We pretend to educate the kids. We pretend that we’re actually including them in the American ideal, but we’re not. And they’re not foolish. They get it. They understand that the only viable economic base in their neighborhoods is this multibillion-dollar drug trade.

And this does not just apply to minority kids working street corners in the US - this applies to many more of us than we ever care to admit. That's an uncomfortable truth right there and it's staring us right in the face.

Here in the UK, our raw material production and mining industry - gone. Our volume manufacturing industry - gone, sacrificed by Thatcher in the '80s for the sake of petty political payback. The people that worked in these industries and their families are either scattered to the winds, or staying put and eking out an existence on benefits as the communities that generations of their forebears put sweat and blood into building collapsed around them. The lucky ones may have found a way out, and made themselves a place in our Brave New Service Economy - but the unlucky are still there, human beings who by and large came from families who taught them that honesty and hard work would see them right. Betrayed by a class of people who considered their lives and communities unworthy of consideration - a class of people for whom they did not exist.

And so we watch the procession of the gilded carriage. We glory in the pageantry and spectacle. And we hope against hope that gilded exterior of the throne can distract us from the creaking of the rotted wood that lies beneath.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

More fun from the Murdoch thread on CiF...

(Responding to a poster who considered that I had no argument, simply "venomous ... ad-hominem" attacks)

That's quite precious. It appears you've skipped the posts where I explained my beliefs regarding the limits of unregulated capitalism (note - "unregulated" - not anti-capitalism in general) and go straight for the part where I have some fun with a post that is blatantly nonsensical to anyone who's bothered to take even a token interest in the political background of the last century or so - a vernacular interpretation of the founding principles of the left was that at the turn of the last century, the workers who provided the labour from which capital was made were getting a very bum deal when it came to benefiting from the capital their labour produced. Socialism was intended as a political movement to redress that balance. Certainly I never read anything in Das Kapital which suggested that money be taken from the working-class and handed to liberal media elites in capital cities.

Say what you like about Lord Reith and his somewhat patrician attitude, but his mantra of "educate, inform, entertain" was intended to improve the lot of all, including the working classes. Whether you love it or loathe it, over the last few decades the BBC has had to put more emphasis on "entertain" in order to continue providing a quality service in terms of education and information - but the quality of that output is largely unquestioned. To give just one example, the base level of knowledge of our planet in the UK would be very different had the "Earth" series never come to fruition (and arguably it could never have been made the way it was if commercial viability was brought into the equation). Murdoch's mantra on the other hand is more along the lines of "entertain as cheaply as possible, misinform where possible, destroy competition, jack up prices, profit".

Now, if you're of the opinion where the principles of business to make profit are absolutely sacrosanct and paramount then you'll have no problem with that, but if you care about the quality and diversity of information reaching the public, you're likely to think differently. Here we have the crux of the problem that's demonstrated so clearly on this board, because if you're of the free-market right you will consider the output of the right-wing press and Murdoch's broadcast media to be expressing a truthful position and, conversely, consider the output of the two left-leaning national papers to be scurrilous lies - believing that the BBC is aiding and abetting. If you're of the left persuasion of any stripe it's probable that position is likely to be reversed, and as such, consensus is difficult if not impossible.

What Murdoch has done Stateside (as have many other right-wing broadcasters in the wake of the Fairness Doctrine repeal) is continue to drive that wedge home as far as possible - classic "divide-and-conquer" tactics. Put more bluntly, if they can get a significant percentage of the rest of us fighting the others by claiming that the others are behind what's screwing them (whether by reinforcing existing beliefs or attracting new converts is immaterial), then not only do they distract us from the notion (I'd say hard fact, but I'm trying for balance ;)) that it is the wealthy business owners happily screwing *all* of the rest of us, but profit handsomely from the advertising dollars that their broadcasts bring in. It's a much more nuanced and insidious version of "The Big Lie".

(Responding to a poster who suggested I read Hayek's "The Road To Serfdom")

I've read "The Road To Serfdom" - it was a long time ago, but thankfully Wikipedia has helped me out with the passage I was racking my brains trying to remember.

"...probably nothing has done so much harm to the liberal cause as the wooden insistence of some liberals on certain rules of thumb, above all of the principle of laissez-faire capitalism"

This is where I find the notion that "lefties" are, as a bloc, reading only things that support their (our) preconceived positions and avoiding opposing views, creating a vast echo chamber not only laughable, but the biggest example of projection on the part of some on the right that I've ever encountered.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

The Murdoch Fait Accompli

(Cross-posted and paraphrased from CiF)

Murdoch's MO in the UK has never really changed, tending towards a variation of "Agree to token competition, mercilessly leverage existing monopolies to rubbish said competition, then use the competition's weakened state to buy them out and obtain the monopoly in the new market as intended all along".

As to which political party his empire backed and when, the question is largely academic. The views pushed by News Corp are uniformly right-authoritarian (unless you happen to be rich or a friend of the family - preferably both, in which case there are few unforgivable sins). Backing New Labour in 1997 was a no-brainer, as you'd have had to have been comatose not to notice that there was no possible rescue for the Tories at that time. However, he was able to use his influence to make sure that Blair and his cabinet tacked as far to the right as possible - to the point where Labour was no longer recognisably Labour. I was always certain that he was biding his time until his natural Tory allies managed to decontaminate themselves enough to get within spitting distance of power, and so it has proved. Anyone who gets involved with Murdoch knows full well that they are the pilot fish to his shark and always will be - the only point where the analogy falls down is that it is rare for a shark to attack or eat a pilot fish, whereas Murdoch silently holds the threat of a full-scale career-ending backlash over his fellow travellers, who are certain in the knowledge that he will never be afraid to use it.

Finally, anyone who thinks Murdoch is an advocate of the "free market" - in fact anyone who thinks any oligarch is being honest when claiming advocacy of free market ideology (in the sense of a level playing field where the "best" business will naturally be the most successful) must be huffing some seriously good stuff. In reality "market forces" become a process of attrition whereby the players with the most resources will always tip the playing field in their favour by throwing resources from their existing reserves into the new market while the smaller competitors slowly but surely go to the wall. The most obvious example of Murdoch doing this was the short-lived battle between Sky and BSB in the '80s, but it seems to be accepted business practice in many spheres. Which is why, when it comes down to it, those saying that Murdoch is successful because he has the best product is either what he would consider a useful idiot - or possibly a disingenuous shill.

The one small comfort available to those of us who do not subscribe to the notion that wealthy oligarchs are superior beings who should be given carte blanche to do as they please while encouraging the rest of us to fight each other over the scraps that fall from their table - is that for all their much-vaunted clout (though being realistic it's still considerable), Murdoch and his ilk were not able to engineer an outright Tory majority last year. The hope is that the power of the press is waning in that regard, as more people turn to other sources of information. However this is not a given, and this is no time to be sitting back and letting things take their course.