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: