A Manifesto for Pop (and for writing about it)

The pieces on Rihanna’s new album (including my own but particularly this one from The Quietus) have raised some interesting points about pop music. Largely, however, the various reviews have been interesting because of what they avoid. While many (but not all) critics/pop writers note the Chris Brown involvement and express unease at this, the general consensus seems to be that you can ignore this as long as you enjoy the music. That seems baffling to me – it’s unavoidable in the record, from the title onwards. No, what this argument is really saying is ‘hey, it’s only pop music – if you enjoy this, who really cares about its meaning?’ It treats pop music as an ultimately disposable, ephemeral pastime which is certainly not worth wasting your critical faculties on. This approach permeates most writing about pop music with even avowed pop lovers refusing to seriously engage with it as an art form. Instead we have an almost endless stream of sarcasm, cynicism, irony and self-imposed critical distance where even love for something is undermined as soon as it is expressed.

I remember that when ‘We Love Pop’ magazine launched, I read a feature in The Independent where the editor elaborated on its rationale:

The Wanted were at No 1 in the singles charts recently – what sort of magazine do you buy if you like The Wanted? Or if you were one of the thousands of girls watching Beyoncé at Glastonbury? There are no music magazines out there that target girls. Girls’ magazines featuring music stars tend to be the gossip ones and not about the music.

I think it’s fair to say that this raised the prospect of a kind-of Mojo-esque magazine devoted to pop music – one which took it very seriously and focused heavily on the music. A cursory look at any WLP cover, however, will show that it’s very much another magazine heavily in the vein of the ‘gossip ones’ the editor was differentiating it from. It doesn’t really tackle pop seriously at all. If we stick with the Rihanna/Chris Brown issue, something where WLP could be said to have an important role to play in speaking to an audience of teenage girls, they’ve largely avoided it. Instead it’s the subject of sarcastic jokes, perfunctory nods or odd outbursts of faux-sincerity which only engage on a completely superficial level. Again, it’s presented as something which distracts from the music rather than being a core part of it.

Can pop only be tackled if it’s done so in this very lightweight, light-hearted manner? Clearly not – a website like The Quietus has had frequently brilliant articles on pop, Q Magazine has had entire issues devoted to serious discussion of Madonna and that archetype of ‘music snobbery’ Pitchfork had an often-astounding column devoted to ‘poptimism’ . No, serious discussion of pop is clearly happening (if on a small scale). It could be argued, then, that many of the people writing about pop at the moment are approaching it with the almost-subconscious contempt which they imagine most others have for it. It comes back to that tired old ‘rockism vs poptimism’ thing: rock is the ‘serious’ music, which is taken to mean earnest and po-faced, and it’s the subject of earnest and po-faced analysis. Pop is fun! Pop writing should be fun! Pop writing should not be earnest and po-faced! And we end up with an approach which is seemingly terrified of taking anything too seriously and certainly hesitant to tackle pop as a serious art lest they be lumped in with the boring guitar snobs.

Thinking about this led to a discussion with a friend regarding Rihanna and Lana del Rey which very quickly became a proxy for notions of authenticity, talent and seriousness which are diffused throughout current pop writing. This made me realise that, in all the time I’ve written about this kind of thing, I’ve never really articulated my approach to pop. In attempting to do this I found that much of what I was thinking applied equally to my approach to writing about pop.

So, in the spirit of discussion, I present my own little manifesto for pop. I apply it mainly to artists but the implications for writing are implicit:

1 – Care about what you do. This is fundamental. Whether it’s Katy Perry, Grizzly Bear, King Creosote or Flying Lotus, the big divide in music is not between rock and pop but between those who take what they’re doing seriously and want to do it well and those who do not. ‘Artists’ like Cheryl Cole, Pitbull and the countless dire indie bands in the world rely on people’s low expectations, aspiring to nothing more than passable facsimiles of what other, better artists have done before. We should not be afraid of calling these people out. Most of all, we should have disdain for those who see pop only as a route to money and/or fame.

2 – Pop is an art form. A magician is an entertainer. A juggler is an entertainer. That dog which won ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ is an entertainer. Entertainment is but one aspect of pop, which is an art form. Sometimes pop makes us sad, sometimes it makes us uncomfortable, sometimes it makes us angry, sometimes it’s difficult, sometimes it blows our mind. These can all be great, positive things and they are lost if we view the primary purpose of pop to be light entertainment. That idea brings us Olly Murs.

3. Art is human creativity. This sounds almost absurd. Yet the logical conclusion of many ostensibly ‘pro-pop’ arguments is that a catchy pop song made by a computer would be great pop, as the origin is irrelevant. However art is a human construct, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination”. This is precisely why it’s absolutely fine to make demands on pop artists. We want them to communicate their inner world with us. This may be done by them writing songs. It may also be done by them interpreting songs written by other people, bringing their unique voice and persona to them. It is not done by someone blankly miming to a boilerplate dance-pop knock-off. Understanding this and having some expectations of pop artists is not buying into notions of ‘authenticity’ or ‘rockism’ – it’s understanding the very purpose of art itself.

4. Pop is fundamentally about music. Again, one which perhaps seems obvious but sometimes everything around the music can take over. People like Cheryl Cole and Olly Murs are television personalities who have perfunctory music which serves these personas. We can all think of pop stars (even ones we love) who have released sub-standard music with brilliant videos, dance routines, live performances, glitz, glamour! These things are not unimportant but they should never replace the music. It always must come back to that. That’s why we’re here.

5. But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Like any art form, pop has a context and relies on relationships. The first and most important relationship is, of course, between it and ourselves. But it is also influenced by and speaks to wider society. Issues of politics, of power, of economics, of gender, of race, of sexuality, of interpersonal relationships – all of these and more feed into great pop (even if it’s not explicit in the record itself). That’s not so say that they forever anchor it or that it doesn’t make sense beyond this context but that’s part of the wonderful complexity. Never, ever dismiss any of these issues because ‘it’s only pop’.

6. Pop artists are not your friends. In that great pop communicates an inner world, it’s understandable that we may be repelled by personalities which we find abhorrent (hello, Chris Brown). However this is very different from the X Factorisation of pop where being ‘likeable’ is one of the most important things about an artist. Towering, untouchable, alien artists such as Madonna, Prince and Bowie would never have done well by this standard. A great pop star is there to make great pop, not be someone you can imagine popping down the pub with.

7. Don’t patronise young pop fans or use them to justify crap pop. A common response to criticisms of certain pop artists these days is to say ‘the kids like it’. What’s forgotten here is that just as lots of adults like dross, so do lots of kids. Why are we so afraid of thinking this? Watching ‘Crossfire Hurricane’ the other evening I was struck by the scenes from the early career of The Rolling Stones where girls in their early teens were fanatical about them. Just as teens (and younger) throughout the past 50 years have loved Elvis, Little Richard, The Beatles, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Taylor Swift, Beyonce. And loads have hated these artists and loved countless other artists who rarely (if ever) trouble the charts. Every time someone (usually at least double the age of the people they’re talking about) defends something terrible with an appeal to ‘the kids’, they’re talking rubbish.

8.  Beware instant opinions. Relating to point 2, great pop is frequently not instant. This is sometimes forgotten, especially in this age of Twitter and Facebook and internet forums and album leaks. Literally ten minutes after a big pop album leaks you’ll be able to find people giving forceful opinions on it. This is fair enough but the nature of online identities is that opinions very easily become entwined with self-worth. They become about getting attention, making a statement, being right and are quickly calcified as a result. This is exacerbated further by the speed of leaks and the corresponding demands on attention, where if an album doesn’t instantly grab you there are strong temptations to move on to the next one almost immediately. Some albums take time; some albums make demands of the listener. This fear of making demands, of not being instant and of people moving on quickly is what fuels the identikit-pop which floods the charts.

9. We are all here because we really love this stuff. All of us who spend hours and hours every week listening to music, thinking about music, writing about music – we are very much in the minority. We are not typical of how most people interact with music. Why, then, do we go to such pains to pretend that we are? Why do we pursue the kind of relativism which, applied to other art forms, would see dreck like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ compared with Shakespeare merely because ‘people like it’? If we truly thought that mass consumption was the ultimate arbiter we wouldn’t waste our time on this. The fact that we do is because none of us truly believe that and the beginning of a sincere interaction with pop is to acknowledge this and stop trying to speak on behalf of the people who really couldn’t give a toss. It’s not being a ‘snob’ to recognise that you care about all of this far more than most people do. Does that mean your opinion is the be all and end all? Of course not. But it means you shouldn’t instantly undermine said opinion with appeals to an imagined mass audience.

10. So show it. Following on from 8, if we love pop – we should show it. Drop the easy recourse to sarcasm, to gossip, to irony and get stuck in with the art we adore. Let go of corrosive fixations on ‘flops’, on ‘snobs’, on ‘haters’. Stop pretending that we don’t find some popular pop artists spirit-crushingly awful and don’t love some hugely unpopular ones. Above all, stop pretending that we don’t think pop is a wondrous, magnificent, life-changing GREAT THING that matters.

And…there we go. Comments welcome!

Here Chris Hedges offer the kind of angrily coruscating analysis of power which would see you dismissed as a ‘trot’ in mainstream political circles in the UK. In fitting with neoliberalism’s reduction of politicians to a manager class, it has become de rigueur to present yourself as being reasonable and concerned with matters of realpolitik, as if this is not in itself shot through with ideology. I was surrounded by such attitudes at university, prematurely middle-aged youngsters speaking of ‘tough choices’ and viewing power as something to aspire to rather than an almost-endless series of relationships, often hidden from plain sight, which governed the world around them. The past year has, of course, brought a series of scandals which has offered us a small glimpse into many of these relationships – yet many of the politically-engaged keep parroting the same lines, shoving their fingers in their ears and labelling anyone who seeks to expose, understand and even destroy these relationships as an extremist.

The American election which Hedges writes about offered yet another example of how degraded our politics has become. Some would call it ‘post-ideological’, I’m sure. I wrote previously about how in many quarters it became little more than a contest between the one commonly-viewed to be the ‘good guy’ and the one commonly-viewed to be the ‘bad guy’. What was perhaps more shocking than this was how power became reduced to a checklist of utter banalities, separate from any real-life impact. I saw several columns in support of Obama which did acknowledge his use of torture, his complete disregard for the rule of law and civil liberties (to name but two of Hedges’ concerns.) Yet they were presented as marks in a column looking at his good and bad points, counter-balanced by his positive words about gay people, his rhetoric about ‘ordinary Americans’. Of course we all must do this to a degree – but if we have dearly held principles, there would also surely come a time where we drew a line in the sand and said “No more. Not in my name.” We have become so brutalised and desensitised that ‘he kills thousands of people with no explanation, justification or oversight, but I like his tax policies’ is viewed as the argument of reasonable people while those who focus on the former are tarred as puritanical radicals, demanding the world from their well-meaning elected representatives.

I wrote frequently during the Summer about how efforts to discuss the Olympics and, to a lesser extent, the Jubilee celebrations as political events were greatly frowned upon. You were again liable to be viewed as a bitter crank, overly critical for the sake of it. Yet we should always be critical of the narratives which govern our worlds, in the sense of questioning them and how they serve power. Instead, this critical approach so maligned in ‘the political sphere’ (as if anything can possibly be outside of this) is diverted to the sphere of entertainment, where critical thought has become scathing skepticism and knee-jerk cynicism. We consume our entertainment while believing ourselves to be ‘above’ it, from X Factor and 50 Shades of Gray to Twilight and reality tv shows. We believe we understand how these things work, how they seek to manipulate us and play with our expectations. We share endless Youtube clips to engage with our peers in laughing at them, tearing them apart, asserting our dominance over a culture which we instinctively refuse to view with any sincerity.

This form of critical thinking is largely empty and perhaps even damaging. Fundamentally, there are no principles involved here – we don’t ridicule because these things offend our sense of what culture should be, rather they exist solely so that we may ridicule them. So we have an enormously odd arrangement where a critical approach to entertainment (albeit a corrosive, empty one) is celebrated while one which speaks of politics and power is beyond the pale. It’s notable that one of these approaches leads absolutely nowhere while the other threatens to ‘radicalise’ people.

Of course, so-called radicalisation is only part of a path and a critical approach to power which stops at your front door is arguably one which is as much about flattering egos as choosing the ‘good guy’ is. This is another common criticism of ‘trots’ – that they are either inactive, or engage in actions which have little effect, merely in order to feel right rather than engage in often-difficult and laborious reform. To the extent that our politics has increasingly become an extension of our egos rather than our principles, this is probably accurate to some degree. The crucial point however is that it’s accurate to some degree for people of every political hue, with countless people engaged in ‘mainstream’ politics doing/achieving little yet enjoying a smug superiority because they have hooked their wagon to something larger and frequently unchallenged (and the fixation on reformism is undoubtedly one of the manifestations of real politik.)

Personally, I think that the true challenge with your politics is how you live it day to day, not how it manifests itself on marches, protests and so forth. This isn’t for a second to deny the importance of the latter. Yet they offer platforms for political action, opportunities to be part of something bigger. As incredibly important as that is, it’s far more difficult to articulate your principles and attempt to live a life true to them in your office each day, or with your family, or with your peers. Because it is here that you again and again will encounter the dominant sense that any significant deviation from commonly-accepted interpretations (ways of interpreting, even) is bitter, angry, sad, smug, superior and countless other aspersions. It’s here that you are personally challenged. Of course, it’s important to guard against the temptation to fragment the world into those who understand and those who do not. It’s so easy to see yourself as a true believer and this offers only a self-gratifying cul de sac as ultimately pointless as the idea of the ‘trot’. Engaging with people, especially those who challenge your views, is the only way to prevent this.

Hedges’ piece undoubtedly reads as pessimistic and would be portrayed by some as nihilistic. Given its source, it’s debatable whether it will reach anyone who isn’t already sympathetic to its argument. This will be enough for many to dismiss it as the self-gratifying ramblings of a bitter man (much like my much less well-written blog!) Yet those who instinctively feel that urge would do well to question why it is so, especially when it is so rarely the approach taken to opinion pieces which parrot more conventional views. It is clear that Hedges has been on an intellectual journey regarding his beliefs, his principles, his identity even, and this rigorous questioning of the things we hold dear can only be healthy.

Death of the liberal class

‘The Newsroom’ – “What men really want is not knowledge but certainty.”

There is a famous quote from Bertrand Russell which has become so ubiquitous that it has arguably slipped into the realm of cliché: “What men really want is not knowledge but certainty.” The quote is invariably wheeled out in a religious context in order to criticise believers as unthinking. It is undeniable, however, that it has a much broader application – one which encompasses our entire lives. We all want to believe that we are seekers of the truth, however messy and unpalatable that truth may be. Yet it could be said that in reality, most of us simply want to belong; to feel comfortable in our own skin. Feeling ‘right’ is a big part of that and so in actuality we want to be told that our beliefs are correct, unconsciously surrounding ourselves with people and outlets which flatter us. Furthermore, no-one wants to believe that they are mediocre – feeling right is nothing special if the vast majority of people believe the same things. So we buy into ‘hordes at the gates’ narratives. Take a cursory look at our culture – left and right,  Charlie Brooker and Melanie Phillips, Labour and Tory, Democrat and Republican, Gay and Straight, Atheist and Christian, liberal West and backwards Middle East – it grows ever more polarised and dependent on the idea that one group of people know the ‘truth’ while everyone else is a drooling, bigoted, fanatical idiot. No matter what we believe individually, we of course always believe ourselves to be in the enlightened group, scorning dehumanised opponents who are simultaneously scorning an imaginary version of us.

Russell’s quote popped into my head while watching the pilot of ‘The Newsroom’, the much-anticipated new show from Aaron Sorkin. There are even allusions to Russell’s theme, with the righteous Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) arguing that it’s impossible for any news show to broadcast the ‘facts’ as people nowadays pick and choose their own ‘facts’ from many different sources. It’s one of the show’s superficial concessions to appearing ‘complex’, along with dialogue which condemns both Democrats and Republicans and an early, pivotal monologue which waxes lyrical on the decline of America as a ‘Great Nation’.

On paper, ‘The Newsroom’ should be catnip for me (and I did rush home to watch it.) I have generally loved Sorkin’s self-consciously theatrical screen work, where uncommonly beautiful people deliver unreasonably eloquent dialogue, taking on grand themes as they walk purposefully down corridors on absurdly eventful Tuesday afternoons. Certainly, some of the themes laid out in ‘The Newsroom’ are ones I have much affinity for/sympathy with: characters speak about television (and broader culture) aspiring to more than ‘gossip and voyeurism’; there is a noble belief in the power and responsibility held by the ‘Fourth Estate’ in a democracy; there is indignant dismissal of the idea that moral relativity and human failings mean that we should shy away from addressing morality and didactic (self-)improvement. These are all things I have written about before, so their being addressed on a major new show should thrill me. Unfortunately, the pilot was such a mess (and advance word from the critics seems to unanimously agree that the show gets worse) that I can’t envisage it doing anything other than harming these themes.

It is, of course, nothing new for Sorkin to tackle such themes – it’s part of why he’s so loved by certain audiences. ‘The West Wing’ presented an idyllic liberal White House during the ‘lame duck’ years of the Clinton administration and the succeeding liberal nightmare that was the Bush presidency. It was as much wish fulfilment as ‘The Newsroom’ aims to be. Yet even looking only at the pilots, the differences are clear. Instantly, the premise of ‘The West Wing’ lends itself to grand oratory, life-and-death issues and a righteous, lofty protagonist (it’s far less jarring to be presented with a President delivering hectoring monologues to his staff than a modern –day news anchor). It’s fundamentally important that ‘The West Wing’ initially focused on the ‘little people’ – the staff around the President. In fact, the President is barely in the opening episode (and the story goes that the original intention was for him to never be seen on screen). In ‘The Newsroom’, however, we are led into the show by the hectoring protagonist, Will. We are told that he has built a hugely successful career by being inoffensive and neutral – yet we see literally 1 minute of this persona before he is directing an ‘explosive’ and controversial lecture (which self-consciously nods towards the truth-telling anchor of ‘Network’) at a college student. He is ‘The Smartest Guy in the Room’ and he knows it. Undoubtedly, a liberal-minded audience is meant to swoon at his grand narrative on America’s decline – but it’s nonsense. He paints such an idealised picture of a bygone era that it’s impossible to see him as anything other than a bitter crank; the fact that he does this by almost reducing a young female to tears renders him instantly unsympathetic.

Sorkin’s previous series, ‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’, had a very similar opening: a middle-aged protagonist lets the mask slip and delivers a coruscating monologue which insults his audience. In both cases, the characters are little more than ciphers for Sorkin; crucially, however, the outburst in ‘Studio 60…’ leads to the character being fired. He only appears in the pilot and his actions act as a catalyst for the rest of the series – Sorkin gets his point across but we aren’t asked to stick with the guy who just told everyone they were idiots.

Indeed, the inevitable comparisons with Sorkin’s previous work is another obvious problem. “The Newsroom” has Sorkin tropes stamped all over it, from ‘The Smartest Guy in the Room’ to the ‘walk-and-talks’ to the slightly crazy but hugely gifted ex-girlfriend. It’s all so readily identifiable that at times it lapses into self-parody. This is particularly the case as this show puts ‘the message’ above all else – literally every few minutes, a character we’ve just been introduced to makes some indignant speech or grand statement which any remotely sophisticated viewer can recognise as being in Sorkin’s voice. At times these speeches are excruciating, as when the slightly crazy but hugely gifted ex-girlfriend argues that an educated electorate is integral to a functioning democracy (and that is pretty much the exact sentence which leaves her mouth) and insists she would rather ‘make a great programme for 1000 people than a mediocre one for 1,000,000’. Sure, Sorkin’s dialogue has never been naturalistic but it’s nonetheless a stretch to believe in character after character who acts as a sketchily-drawn outline for Sorkin himself. The lack of subtlety is such that it feels less like a drama than a lecture and, even if you are sympathetic to some of the arguments presented, you find yourself worn down by just how disingenuous and smug everything is.

This failure serves to highlight what the intention is, which takes us back to Russell. It’s difficult to imagine that the show has any other purpose at this point than to convince Sorkin and his audience that they are the true believers besieged by hordes of idiots. No-one is going to be provoked by ‘The Newsroom’; no opinions will be changed, no minds will be blown. Anyone who watches ‘The Real Housewives of…’ who tunes in is not going to contemplate the morality and wider implications of that show – instead they’re going to think Will/Sorkin is a sneering wanker. The show is so blunt that it couldn’t even claim to be sneaking up on viewers, using entertainment to provoke debate – its opinion is clear and that opinion is the entire point of the show. The entertainment is secondary and that is the death-knell for a television drama.

As a post-script, I couldn’t help but contrast ‘The Newsroom’ with another show I’m currently watching, ‘Breaking Bad’. I’m halfway through the second season of this and it couldn’t be more different. The characters are at the core of everything – and what characters they are. Deeply flawed, sometimes morally repugnant yet always recognisable to us, not least for their very human motivations – the show deals entirely in moral shades of grey. It’s impossible to fully sympathise with the protagonist and his choices, yet also difficult not to like him. As a result, the show does creep up on you with shocking moments, bleak decisions and painful circumstances which cause you to question ideas of right and wrong, good and bad. I won’t write more about it at the moment since I’ve got 2 seasons to catch up on, but if you’ve not seen it I wholeheartedly recommend that you watch.

An interesting, eloquent piece which delves deeper into some themes I touched on in my blog yesterday. You can hear already the inevitable, tedious cries of ‘snobbery!’ which greet any claim that we are capable of great things; greater, certainly, than ‘The Only Way is Essex’ and Perez Hilton. Such pap has become synonymous with ‘popular culture’ and criticising it is seen as an attack on people – particularly the working-class. I’ve long argued that this argument shows far more contempt for both popular culture and the working-class than the criticisms themselves. Indeed, there is a strong, proud tradition of intellectualism amongst the working-class – the conflation of being ‘ordinary’ with ‘lowest common denominator’ is a pernicious fantasy. It is a rarely challenged one, with the aforementioned charge of ‘snobbery’ being wheeled out frequently, yet the fantasy is openly exposed when figures like Gordon Brown attempt to appear ‘ordinary’ by speaking about ‘X Factor’ and we rightly respond with ridicule and cynicism.

The common thread of Fox’s assertions – that we are increasingly unwilling to engage in demanding intellectual effort (I’d go further than this and say that we are increasingly scornful of anything and anyone which expects this) struck a chord with me as I am currently slogging my way through a difficult book. It’s only 200 pages long but it has taken me weeks to read 50 pages. This isn’t because it’s tedious or terrible but rather because every page is packed with people, ideas and history which I am completely unfamiliar with. The desire to find out more about them sends me off on lengthy internet tangents. If I’m being honest, however, this isn’t why it’s so difficult. Rather, it’s because it makes me feel very ignorant and stupid. I’m squarely confronted with how little I know, how quaint and mediocre much of my thinking is. The temptation to toss it aside and take comfort in some lighter reading is very strong, not least as it would cause me to cringe less at my blog posts which seem absurdly naive and banal afterwards.

Reading ‘Dumbing Down’ brought this experience to mind instantly and caused me to think about its root cause. It struck me that it’s because we largely consume culture in order to flatter our own egos. As with so much of modern life, the things we read, the music we listen to, even the conversations we have – they are extensions of ourselves and we process them by thinking about what they say about us rather than what they say about the world. Even when we flatter ourselves into thinking that we are being ‘objective’ and reading alternate viewpoints, they tend to be prosaically oppositional within a strict, narrow continuum. Truly challenging ideas, those which violently confront our core assumptions and beliefs, threaten to chip away at (or even fundamentally alter) our closely-guarded sense of self. Changing this (improving it, if you want to call it that?) requires dedication, effort and an ego which can accept both being completely wrong and also holding previously contradictory, even unacceptable views. More than this, it necessitates a powerful and eager curiosity which values discovery over personal gain.

Why do I say this? Well, the extension of ourselves, specifically our egos, into everything we touch goes far beyond the culture we consume. It seems quite fundamental to the way we relate to each other. It’s a basic concept of psychology that we are drawn to others whom we believe are similar to ourselves; however, while this would traditionally be taken as meaning that we have a strong sense of self and associate with like-minded individuals, it currently commonly seems to mean that we are fearful of expressing any strident identity. Sure, we have brought brushstrokes which we cling to – ‘liberal’, ‘light-hearted’, ‘intelligent’ etc – but the ego is so paramount that people adopt personas in order to be validated rather than forge friendships based on an honest, messy relationship between two distinct personalities. The relationship therefore is one of mutual gratification where each acts as a mirror, reflecting the person the other wishes to see. It’s arguable then that a truly rewarding relationship with another person requires, as with culture, intellectual effort and an acceptance that it will not always take you to comfortable or affirming places.

Effort can often feel like a slog – that’s why it’s so easy to get stuck where we feel comfortable. Guarding against this is constant, requiring an unshakeable conviction that pushing our minds, ourselves, to places where we feel exposed and where our egos are shaken is the only guarantor against a living death. I make no grand claims to be any better at this than anyone else but I’ll finish that book and celebrate that it will perhaps make me that tiny bit less ignorant.

Dumbing Down

Recycle, regurgitate, remember

I was going to write about nostalgia, irony and the PWL concert/Steps/S Club 7 etc reunions but why reinvent the wheel? Much of what I was thinking is expressed in this chat with @wotyougot (in italics). Of course there’s much more to be said, not least getting into acts like Pulp and Suede doing the same nostalgia circuit without producing new material but, perhaps, without the same painful undermining of what they are as they do so. (I have no problem with people loving PWL etc, incidentally, I just wish people could engage with that love sincerely and not in a ‘lol this is all a bit naff and embarrassing’ way.)

Just seen the PWL concert. The line-up is made up of acts you appreciate  hearing  (once every few years) via a Now compilation. Not spending a day, seeing live, in Hyde Park. 

This re-hashing the past needs to stop – Too many trying to capitalise from nostalgia.

Indeed, the PWL concert is actually quite hateful I think. It’s one of those things I’m always banging on about, the hateful attitude to pop that develops as opposition to the ‘real music’ rock thing, which leads to people semi-ironically celebrating such ephemeral (and in some cases downright terrible) acts.

What I find funny is that because it’s entirely about nostalgia and celebrating trash, no-one will  complain about it or they’d be told ‘don’t take it so seriously babes’. Yet folk will happily complain about Madonna the week after cos she’s still taking her work seriously.

Last night  I was thinking about how much our present is based on putting a price tag on nostalgia and exploiting the past. They’ve just announced a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film re-boost. Urgh. I was obsessed with that show as a teen and welcomed the three movies that followed and a few years ago the animated one, but that’s enough. To bring it back now, and apparently it’s themed around the idea that they’re actually aliens and mutants, is just wrong. Why not set up a new film based on a similar premise and have some confidence in a new idea rather than exploiting a brand of the past and using nostalgia as the selling point?

I understand the hypocrisy I may display considering the joy I share about a new SATC film, but even there I can see they’ve gone too far and simply want them to do a SATC3 cause, even though I appreciated the second one, I don’t want that to be the end of that. 

To do a PWL concert is just stupid. And spot on there with peeps saying ‘serious babes’ etc. 

How about we start celebrating the future and new ideas please !

It’s been happening for a while ie pointless remakes of films like ‘Halloween’ and ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ and ‘Arthur’. I was talking to Rob about ‘Short Circuit’ the other day and then I thought how weird it was that they haven’t remade it yet! There’s a lot of thought out there about how culture recycles and regurgitates itself more and more as it hurtles towards a cliff edge and this is inextricably linked to the cynical, sarcastic, superficial mode of engagement that most people have with culture (and with each other!)

When I looked at FB this morning I saw the usual sarcastic, ‘humorous’ comments about everything and anything that’s happening in pop culture and I felt a flash of anger that this is what we’re doing to ourselves. Do you notice how striking it is nowadays when you see someone expressing a sincere, deep love for something and not undermining it/their love for it as soon as they’ve expressed the sentiment? 

I think a new TMNT film would be fine – they’re characters in the same way as Dracula or werewolves or whatever – but do something interesting with them, relevant to 2012. Don’t do yet another bloody ‘reboot’. That’s what was good about the animated film a few years ago. I find the new ‘Spiderman’ film so depressing – rebooting a franchise only a few years after the last film?! And there’s talk of them rebooting Batman already as ‘The Dark Knight’ is the final Christian Bale film. So idiotic and entirely about money. Credit the audience with the intelligence to not need to be told an ‘origin’ story yet again.

The Human Centipede 2

I keep reading a lot about the ‘rights’ of individuals to watch whatever they want. Where does this ‘right’ come from? It certainly isn’t a ‘right’ recognised in the European Convention on Human Rights, which states:

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises. 

2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and im-partiality of the judiciary

This being a serious, grown-up document which recognise that there are always competing rights and responsibilities. Such as the responsibility of a filmmaker to acknowledge that the work they create contributes to our culture, and our culture is hugely powerful in shaping our values and our societal mores. Such as the right of everyone to fight against a culture where the brutalisation of women is presented as entertainment for men, as if this has absolutely no effect beyond entertaining the viewer. We don’t need research to look into the effect of culture on people – everyone has at some point been profoundly affected by art. We are moved, elated, inspired, angered, outraged…why then is it such a leap to believe that something with no purpose other than to present sexual brutalisation as entertainment can degrade a viewer?

The BBFC isn’t a perfect body and no-one would argue that it is. But I think only a complete fool would argue for its abolition or for its powers to be reduced. Allowing a free-for-all isn’t a mark of civilisation. Recognising competing rights and responsibilities, and the compelling power of culture to shape us all, is what is civilised.