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Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Rage against the Christmas number 1

It’s quite a big deal to get the Christmas number one slot in the UK pop charts. Over the years, lots of major artists have had a go at writing something specifically for the Christmas market and no office party is complete unless it’s had a blast of some the classic seasonal tracks by the likes of Wizzard, Slade, Elton John or Wham.

For the best part of a decade, the Christmas top spot has been more or less the property of the winning act from the X-Factor. The show is cunningly planned to climax just before Christmas, leaving just enough time to announce the result, press a few million copies of the winner’s debut single and then line up a series of media opportunities designed to push the ‘cash-in’ product over the finishing line. It is almost impossible for any other recording artist to compete with the massive level of exposure experienced by the X-Factor winner in the run-up to Christmas. Not since the Spice Girls’ reign of terror in the mid-nineties has such a stronghold been exerted on the festive chart.

In recent years, some folk have managed tried to prevent the Lord of Darkness (a.k.a. Simon Cowell) from pushing his latest 15-minute superstar to the top of the charts; last year, a charity record by the choir ensemble 'Military Wives' managed to foil his evil plans. In 2009, some really bright people on facebook ran a successful campaign to get the American rap metal band Rage Against the Machine to number one. Their plan to reclaim the chart for the people worked brilliantly; they managed to stop one Sony BMG act from getting to number one and, instead, put an entirely different Sony BMG act at the top of charts. Now that’s what I call sticking it to the man.

A day or two before the Christmas chart was announced, I heard ‘the Rage’ on Radio Five’s breakfast show promoting their song. The presenters of the show informed us that they had agreed to do a live version of the track, minus the unsavoury language so that folk could make up their own minds about it.

During the interview, they came across as a rather dim and unpleasant bunch of spoiled brats. Their song, if memory serves, was called something like ‘Fuck you mom, I’m not going to tidy my room’. One of them said something about it being a more ‘worthy’ number one because it was "written in an industrial slum", while X-factor winner Joe McElderry’s track was written by "overpaid professional songwriters". So much for solidarity among the musical fraternity; presumably the Rage thought that the labours of mere industry hacks who write for singers like Joe McElderry should not have the same market value as the labours of rock dudes in their forties who dress like teenagers and write their songs in ‘industrial slums’.

After the interview, the Rage launched into their song with some gusto; in fact, rather too much gusto, because the producer of the breakfast show had to cut them off after a couple of minutes because, in spite of a pre-interview agreement to tone down the language, those crazy guys in the Rage started swearing anyway.

I suppose they were making the point that they were like, TOTALLY FUCKING CRAZY ART TERRORISTS who were, like, out to bring the whole shitty music industry TOTALLY CRASHING DOWN with the AWESOME POWER of their music and swearing.

After hearing this performance, I went straight out and bought ten copies of the Joe McElderry single to give to friends and relatives as presents. The behaviour of the Rage had achieved something that I thought would have been impossible; by dint of their sheer buffoonery, they had forced me into the arms of Simon Cowell and his forces of darkness. But sadly, even my last-minute intervention could not stop ‘Fuck you mom, I’m not going to tidy my room’ from becoming the Christmas number one.

This year’s big attempt to derail the X-factor juggernaut is again focused on a charity single, with the Justice Collective tipped to claim the top spot with their cover of 'He ain't heavy (he's my brother)'. With all proceeds going towards supporting families involved in the Hillsborough disaster, the track has an impressive cast list that includes Sir Paul McCartney, Robbie Williams, Gary Barlow, Mel C, Holly Johnson and Gerry Marsden. It's hard to see how it can fail.

And, as far as I know, it hasn’t got any swearing in it.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Song of the Week - 'Gathering Dust'

This track is lifted from the second Eisenhowers album.  Musically, it is heavily influenced by great British pop, specifically the Kinks and XTC.  The rhythm section – Ross Morgan and Fraser Sneddon- is solid throughout, with Ross also providing some nifty percussion work.  Emma Jane’s chirpy backing vocals contrast nicely with the rather caustic tone of the lyric.   

The song dwells on cynicism and self-regard, inspired by an ugly conversation held at a party in the wee small hours of the morning.  The central character is a person who has become so cynical and jaded that he has all but ceased to engage with the world.  He’s the kind of guy who creeps around Facebook hoping to find that his former friends and acquaintances are now divorced, bankrupt and selling the Big Issue.   
You might well conclude that the moral of the story is that you shouldn’t get involved in late-night conversations with miserable singer-songwriters.  Not unless, that is, you have no problem with your drunken remarks being woven into songs that literally quite a few people might hear.    

Gathering Dust

Monday, 10 December 2012

Someone Keeps Moving My Chair

There are several rock and pop artists who have been hailed by critics as ‘great’ lyricists.  Dylan is often quoted, as are Costello, Morrissey and one or two others.  Talented as these writers may be, I’d suggest that none of them can match the genius of John Flansburgh and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants.  A deeply intellectual and philosophical strand runs through their work and, in their many splendid releases since their formation in 1982, they have tackled most of the big issues of the day with songs like ‘Why did you grow a beard?’, ‘Bastard wants to hit me’, ‘I am a grocery bag’ and ‘Where do they make balloons?’
Like many great writers, such is the clarity of their vision that they can encapsulate complex notions in ostensibly simple lines. My own favourite couplet is from the magnificent 'Someone keeps moving my chair', where they somehow, within two brief lines, manage to distill the existential crisis of urban alienated post-industrial liberal atheist humankind:

"Do you mind if we balance this glass of milk
where your visiting friend accidentally was killed?"

On first reading, the lyric might appear to suggest that anything is permitted, appealing to our sense of the absurd; but -if not read in a frivolous sense- it can be interpreted either as an outburst of relief or of joy, or perhaps even as a bitter acknowledgment of a metaphysical fact.  The fact -or to be more accurate, the ‘fact’- is actually a tenuous certainty of the absence of God, represented in this case by the 'glass of milk'.  In that sense, the balancing of this ‘glass of milk’ somehow gives a meaning to our lives that far surpasses mere existential joy in the ability to behave as truly free beings, that is, without fear of consequence or judgement.  Echoing Kant, Flansburgh and Linnell argue that moral principles are simply the products of reason.  The incorporation, therefore, of the consequences for ‘balancing’ this ‘glass of milk’ into their moral deliberations would be deeply flawed, since it would deny the necessity of practical maxims in governing the working of the will. They ask the question ‘Do you mind if we balance this glass of milk?’ when they already know the answer.  
But, in order to 'balance' our hypothetical glass with impunity, we must first have accepted John Stuart Mill’s qualitative account of happiness, wherein utility is to be conceived in relation to humanity as a “progressive being", one possessed of, and capable of exercising, truly rational capacities.  And yet, in this technological age, these rational capacities incapacitate us through the dilemma of almost limitless choice.  If the choice was just about the ‘glass of milk’, it would not be hard to make; but there is, of course, no real choice worth making.  The 'glass of milk' does not, in fact, liberate us; it binds us.  In the absence of ‘God’, it does not authorize our actions.  Yes, the song seems to suggest, we are permitted to balance our 'glass of milk', but what has become of our 'visiting friend'?

Sunday, 2 December 2012

'The Map and the Territory' by Michel Houellebecq

This starts off reading like a satire of the contemporary art world, but then turns into something of a mystery thriller. Like some of Houellebecq’s previous work, it is set in the near future but addresses the concerns of the present. France is recovering after a major financial crisis and has become almost totally dependent on tourism and, once again, agriculture. We follow the career of the artist Jed Martin as he pursues his life’s work "to give an objective description of the world."
Single-minded, somewhat naïve, but completely focused on his work, he wins international acclaim through various projects, before his painting starts to bring him incredible wealth. When he decides to paint the famous writer 'Michel Houellebecq', we are treated to a comic and self-deprecating portrait of a reclusive and world-weary man who, we are told, "smells bad, but less bad than a corpse".

As one would expect, there are extended riffs on a variety of topics –France and the French, euthanasia, socialism, art and commerce- but when the fictional 'Houellebecq' exits stage left (I won’t tell you how that happens, but it isn’t pretty), the novel seems to lose some momentum as it starts to follow a police investigation into the ‘Houellebecq’ case and also the final, introspective phase of Jed's career. Having spent much of his artistic life focusing on human labour (his most famous painting is called 'Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology: The Conversation at Palo Alto') Jed becomes a recluse and spends decades making films celebrating the triumph of vegetation over industrial objects. His work suggests that, in spite of all this human endeavour, plants and vegetation will endure to reclaim the world from humankind.

Houellebecq has been described as French literature's JG Ballard and it's probably fair to say that his key themes are existential ennui and the decline of the liberal west. He is at his best when he goes off on one and his forensic cynicism can be quite intoxicating; this, however, is probably his most mainstream work and not at all likely to scare the horses. 'The Map and the Territory' makes you think about the nature and purpose of work; Jed Martin's career is presented as an ideal and noble pursuit, a route to personal identity and fulfillment much more rewarding than travel, consumerism, love or parenthood. Other opinions, as they say, are available.