Thursday, 28 February 2013

Playing it straight-faced

It's been almost 30 years since the Pet Shop Boys introduced their tunefully deadpan blend of literacy and lyricism to the musical landscape. Back in the mid-80s, when they first released Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money), it was easy to dismiss them as yet another heavily synthesised duo, with tongues (and possibly something else) pressed firmly in cheek. And yet, despite a cultivated sense of ambivalence that suggested they could barely muster the energy to turn up for their own videos, something about this odd pairing of an architect and the assistant editor of Smash Hits caught our imagination. Remarkably, almost three decades later, the boys are still going strong, having seamlessly navigated countless pop trends, only to emerge as joyfully joyless as ever before.

Even after eleven studio albums, and countless other musical sidelines, there's still no sign of their creative muse deserting them. Rather than churning out repetitive derivations of their debut every year, the boys manage to maintain a relatively prolific output without over-saturating the market. As well as the live albums, cleverly constructed compilations and two enormous double-volumes of their collected B-sides, Neil and Chris have explored their artistry in a variety of unusual endeavors; amongst them a ballet, an instrumental score for Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, and a theatrical collaboration with playwright Jonathan Harvey. Unashamedly intellectual, and yet never less than accessible, their back catalogue is a testament to the power of great pop music. Tackling subjects as diverse as Catholic education and the Brown/Blair bromance, they create pop music that makes you think, and political statements that make you dance.

Their position as elder statesmen of pop was hard won, given the initial ambivalence that greeted their musical debut. Although electronic pop was as de rigueur as those airbrushed posters of a Lamborghini viewed through a Venetian blind, the boys' innate sense of ironic detachment left the tone-deaf critics confused. Others were so distracted by the formula, that they missed the wicked sense of fun. Over the years they've been spoofed by everyone from Raw Sex to Flight of the Conchords, but none of them were really able to see beyond the stony faces and immobile stage presence, which was always part of the joke.

But what of the songs themselves? Like the band itself, they were clever enough to be taken at face value, but with a deeper meaning for anyone willing to look beyond the glacial facade. In some ways, theirs is one of the most dated sounded back-catalogues in popular music. Whereas this might be a problem for other, less interesting acts, it's a virtue of the Pet Shop Boys that they've always managed to embraced contemporary sounds so completely. Whether it's the heavily sampled electronica of Please; the cold clubbing beats of Nightlife; or the post-Britpop guitars of Release; each album offers a powerful snapshot of the era it represents. But strip away the anachronistic veneer, and there's plenty to engage hearts, as well as minds, beneath the surface.

When Elysium was released late last year, the critics were quick to laud it as a long-awaited return to form, forgetting that they'd used the exact same terminology to describe the four albums that preceded it. In fact, when viewed as a whole, their discography is one of the most consistently excellent of any music act working today. They may no longer top the charts the way they did in the late eighties, but as an album act, and champion of the long-neglected B-side, they remain unsurpassed. So here's a tribute to ten of their finest non-single moments - gathered from down the back of the internet, since none of them had proper videos.

It Couldn't Happen Here, from 'Actually'

Despite the ignominy of having lent its name to the Boys' ill-advised foray into film-making, this lush, orchestral lament about the advent of AIDS in the mid-80s is a melodic melancholic masterpiece. Co-written with film composer Ennio Morricone, this track perfectly captures the complacency of a community that dismissed the threat of the disease as something that simply happened to other people. It's also notable for a full-on vocal performance from Neil Tennant, who was often criticised for speaking his lines, rather than singing them. 

Shameless, from B-sides collection 'Alternative'

This single that never was ended up as a B-side to Go West from the Very album. Written at a time when Big Brother was still a reference to George Orwell, rather than Brian Dowling reading off an autocue at Borehamwood, this upbeat chant-along classic shows a prescient insight into the desperation of modern celebrity culture. My only regret is that this song hasn't been updated to reflect the current desperation of today's 'celebrities'. If anyone could pen a lyric about Kinga ramming a bottle of Chardonnay up her Jacob's Creek, it's Neil Tennant. Plus, he'd no doubt pair it with a backing track that paired Debussy with a disco beat.

Only The Wind, from 'Behaviour'

I'll be honest - I struggled with the Boys' fourth album when it was first released. Having quickly embraced the electronic accessibility of their early stuff, I found Behaviour to be ponderous, slow and relentlessly downbeat. It didn't help that Chris Lowe's synthesisers had been drowned out by a full orchestra, which only compounded the wistful melancholy of the piece. As a 15 year-old already prone to bouts of insular contemplation, I needed my pop to be upbeat and euphoric - two words you'd be hard pressed to apply to this album. However, I stuck with it, and came to realise that the miserablism which had turned me off as a teen, now made this their indisputable masterpiece. And 'Only The Wind' is the jewel in this tarnished crown. With strings orchestrated by Angelo Badalamenti, and a surprisingly tender vocal (for a song about domestic violence), this song will haunt your brain like watching The Woman in Black on a comedown.

Hit and Miss, from 'Bilingual, Further Listening'

Although I eventually grew to love Behaviour, Bilingual never managed to win me over, and remains the one Pet Shop Boys album I could live without. It didn't help matters that the boys chose 'Before' as the lead single, which paled into inconsequential nothingness after the many high-points of Very. Too many of the songs favoured guest appearances by feminist drummers She-Boom, and the album's faux-Latin stylings felt about as incongruous as Neil Tennant turning up to a water-park in his black jacket and theatre scarf. However, this era wasn't without the occasional gem. The Motiv-8 remix of Red Letter Day was a dancefloor winner, plus there was also this fantastic B-side to Before. Mixing pounding percussion that hinted at the rockier sounds they were later to embrace on Release, with a disorientating swirl of synthesisers, Hit & Miss was arguably more interesting than anything that appeared on the album. 

Pandemonium, from 'Yes'

Featuring guitar and harmonica by Johnny Marr, this effervescently catchy selection is a love song of sorts, inspired by the relationship between Kate Moss and Pete Doherty. Originally written for Kylie Minogue, the song is sung from the woman's perspective, as she vacillates between celebrating and lamenting the fact that there's "chaos every time we meet." Of course, the song is written in such a way that the genders of the singer and subject are never explicitly referenced, which has always been key to the boys' ability to sidestep the ghettoisation that tends to limit the mass-market appeal of other gay artists. With a sing-along chorus and an insistent beat that could almost be a tribute to Chain Reaction, this is one of the catchiest songs the boys have ever recorded.

Indefinite Leave to Remain, from 'Fundamental'

Fundamental was probably the band's most explicitly political album, addressing issues of surveillance, terrorism and the 'special' relationship between Bush and Blair. This melancholy ballad appropriates an immigrant's status as an analogy for an unequal position in a relationship. Unlike the pounding 'Integral' that followed it, which used apocalyptic arrangement to express its anger, Indefinite Leave to Remain strikes a more wistful tone, using a solemn melody played by a brass band, and Tennant's plaintive vocal to suggest resignation and defeat.

Here (PSB Extended Mix), from 'Disco 3'

Originally written for the musical 'Closer To Heaven', Here was the stand-out track on Release, and focused on the non-biological families that gay people often build around themselves: "We all have a dream of a place we belong, where the fire is burning and the radio's on," sings Neil comfortingly. Despite its robust melody and uncomplicated sentiment, the boys always felt that the album version was "day one sort of recording," but that it had definite disco potential. By the time it appeared on the Pet Shop Boys' third 'Disco' collection, which featured remixed album tracks and new dance-oriented compositions, the track was rebuilt around a euphoric reprise of the main melody. 

Breathing Space, from 'Elysium'

For many fans, the last album Elysium felt like something of a disappointment, since it recaptured the melancholy of Behaviour, but without the standout melodies. Thankfully, even the lads' weaker albums always manage to squeeze in a classic or two, and Breathing Space is a case in point. Seamlessly blending a lead acoustic guitar with a repetitive but melodic synthesiser, the song bubbles along as Neil articulates his need to take a breather from the pressures of modern life. It's been speculated that this song might be hinting at Chris and Neil's plans to gradually wind down, but as long as they keep making tracks as gorgeous as this, they're likely to have a fight on their hands. 
Unfortunately, EMI have blocked this particular track on YouTube, so you'll have to have a look on Spotify for it. 

I Want A Lover, from 'Please'

Urgent, impatient and coldly electronic, this early track is interesting for the way it highlights the band's curiously impersonal sexuality. "I don't want another drink or fight, I want a lover, tonight," Neil sings, careful not to indicate any gender-specific requirements of the role. Here, as with the first track on the boys' debut album, Neil is once again making plans to leave with a companion. The big difference is that he's now dropped any pretence at planning the perfect crime, and he's just looking for an unapologetic fuck. Oddly, this adds to the strange eroticism of the song, even if copping off with Neil Tennant holds all the sexual allure of having your leg humped by a Sony AIBO. 


One In A Million, from 'Very'

It's hard to pick a stand out song on 'Very' since there were so many fantastic nuggets of pop joy, but this one feels particularly anthemic. As with many of the boys' most upbeat tracks, this is actually about a relationship's end, and someone's denial about the state of affairs. And yet, despite the doomy premise, it still manages to leave you with a big goofy grin on your face. And that's the magic of the Pet Shop Boys - you might not always know what you're supposed to be feeling, but at least you're always feeling something.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Caution - Staging In Progress

Pity the poor documentarian. Like the anthropologists of yesteryear, their role is to observe with neutrality, report without comment, and remain invisible throughout, lest they should interfere with the integrity of their subject. All in all, pretty lofty ideals when applied to a fly-on-the-wall show about a south London fried chicken takeaway. 

Which does, of course, beg the question - who on Earth would want to watch an hour of glorified CCTV footage captured over a week in Clapham's Rooster Spot? Pretty much everyone, as it happens, if tonight's Twitter feed was anything to go by. Spurred on by the programme makers, who helpfully offered up hashtag suggestions like #chickenshop and #spicychicken, it seemed as though everyone was peering through the greasy window of this particular venue, and poking a judgemental finger at the lives they observed within.

Perhaps the appeal of The Fried Chicken Shop lay in its simple agenda; to document the comings and going of modern urban life. As the voiceover proclaimed in the opening couple of minutes, the high street chicken shop is where we can observe the best and worst of British culture. Overstating things a little, maybe. You'd certainly be shit out of luck if the word 'culture' made you think you'd be getting a guest appearance by Grayson Perry. Instead, what we got was an appropriately eclectic, if over-egged for the camera, portrayal of the standard interactions of your average London high street.

We saw the jobless, filling their day with a cheap and nutritionally void lunchtime offer. The school-kids bickering and bantering over their bargain burgers. And countless drunken bar patrons, attempting to dilate their pupils long enough to read to oppressively illuminated menu board. Interspersing all this human drama were enough shots from the chip-pan-cam to give Gillian McKeith a coronary. So, all in all, not too shabby.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the show struck a somewhat melancholy tone as it documented the mundane trials and tribulations of big city life. We saw Paul and Sarah; a couple with learning difficulties, who call in most days for lunch and a chance to flick through the Daily Mail. Then there was William, who suffers from a degenerative condition that's slowly robbing him of his eyesight, and the barmy faith healer who attempted to cure him with a combination of prayer and a spongy green stress-ball. William was endearingly grateful for her ministrations, having observed the power of prayer himself when he wished for a bus on a cold morning and one promptly arrived. Proof that miracles do happen, even when TfL is calling the shots. 

Later on, we met Nick, who spent an inordinate amount of time showing off about his job in social media, and attempting to bully the shop's staff into using Twitter. He even engineered a role-play scenario, albeit one that rather unimaginatively involved him playing a customer in a chicken shop. Nick's overlong segment ended with him declaring the Chicken Shop as a representation of what the new Britain is all about: “I’d rather go to a chicken shop than WH Smith.” High praise indeed.

The real stars of the show, however, were Ali and his employees Waqar and Shawqat. Smiling helpfully through all manner of indignities and insulting exchanges, they displayed a singular commitment to working hard and getting ahead, putting the pissed self-important city boys, rocking up after a night out and teasing each other about wearing Primark jackets, to shame. Having moved here from Afghanistan to study IT, Shawqat enjoys his job, telling us "I like working in a chicken shop because you never know what's going to happen." Well, except for the fact that people will come in and eat chicken - that's pretty much a given.

Having said that, the programme makers went out of their way to portray the entertaining diversity of the shop's evening clientele. Performance artists masquerading as autistics, a flock of drag queens who took camera-friendly exception to being called "Sir" and a pair of homeless guys who prefer the independent chicken shops to the big franchises, because they're more likely to give away free food. Plus, of course, we got the crowds of drunken idiots, steadying themselves on the counter and dragging people into the street for a fight. Here then, was the representation of the "front line and the bread line" promised by the opening narration. The Rooster Spot in Clapham is where all walks of life cross paths, only to then trip over an omnipresent yellow 'Cleaning In Progress' sign.

Interestingly, the voiceover attempted to position the chicken takeaway as some kind of remarkable 21st  century phenomenon. A recession-proof wonder that continues to grow in popularity, in the face of a regressive economy. In fact, the chicken shop isn't so much immune to economic pressures, as it is a harbinger of the recession itself. Ask anyone who lives in a less-than-salubrious part of town what the predominant business model is for their area, and they'll tell you it's either betting shops, or the kind of cutlery-free food establishment where buckets are favoured over crockery. In my cosy little corner of East London, chicken shops continue to pop up, like yellow-headed spots on an overweight teenager's neck. And every morning, we awake to find the streets littered with chicken bones, as if the entire neighbourhood spent the previous evening engaged in some kind of communal voodoo rite. 

With aspiration and opportunity at an all-time low, the chicken shop represents a nation in stagnation. Food selected purely for its low price, rather than taste or provenance. Social interactions that depend on name badges to create the illusion of intimacy. And a zesty lemon-scented wet wipe to clear away a lifetime of broken dreams. The sad reality of the chicken shop is that, despite Little Mix's empowering assertions, some wings were only made to fry. 

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Rinse and repeat

Say what you like about Black Mirror's oppressive tone and borderline horror scenarios. It's still a breath of fresh air in a world where Downton Abbey is seen as the highpoint of drama programming. Don't take that the wrong way - I'm as much a sucker for teapot-porn as the next man. But I do find it hard to fully engage with a show where the big issues might as well be the over-toasting of Lady Mary's crumpets. If I'm going to sit through any drama that doesn't have the welcoming hum of the HBO logo at the start of it, I need something a little more substantial. And for that alone, I'm thankful for Charlie Brooker grim nuggets of dystopian allegory.

Last week's series two opener asked some pretty tough questions - not only about how much of ourselves we filter into our online identity, but also bigger issues about love, death and the grieving process. Challenging stuff for a nation that tends to see drama as the intermission act between instalments of Dancing On Ice.

This week, I noticed that people on Twitter were discussing how unusual it is that the show is billed as Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror. It's not actually that odd, when you consider that the creator is really the only true constant in an anthology show. In much the same way that Rod Serling became synonymous with the twilighty show about that zone, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents never explicitly named what it was that the tubby auteur was presenting, Brooker's name has become something of a brand promise. You know that you're going to get something pitch-black and bitter that'll leave you with an unpleasant aftertaste, like an hour spent nibbling on a bar of Tesco Value dark chocolate.

Tonight's episode, cryptically entitled White Bear, was no exception. It opened with Lenora Crichlow as Victoria, slumped in a chair and looking less than her usual photogenic self. With her hair matted and greasy, eyes bloodshot, and wearing what seemed to be the same grey cardigan from Being Human that she was doomed to spend eternity in, it was clear that Victoria had issues. Just how many issues soon became apparent, as she struggled to remember who she was or why she was there. Flickers of memories; images of a smiling girl, a man and a burning car, suggested that she was a grieving mother. The bandages on her wrists and pills scattered around the floor certainly added to the air of desperation. But, why then were people standing in the windows of the neighbouring houses, filming her on their phones? And why would no-one answer when she cried out for help.

Initial suspicions suggested that we were in Sixth Sense territory, and that purgatory looks a lot like Welwyn Garden City. But even that couldn't explain the random people who kept showing up in bizarre masks and attempting to kill Victoria. As she ran for her life - or afterlife, depending on how this all played out -  the bystanders simply crowded around attempting to record it on their iPhones. The first killer wielded a shotgun, the next was wearing an animal mask and gold evening gown, and brandishing an electric carving knife. As this terrifying harbinger of death kept popping up throughout the next hour, it seemed that Charlie was trying to tell us that batteries last a lot longer in hell.

In standard 28 Days of Walking Dead Later fashion, Victoria soon stumbled across some other survivors, who helpfully offer up some breathless exposition, in between bursts of gunfire. But no sooner had Victoria and her new saviour escaped a petrol station full of assassins than they were tricked by another 'hunter' who pretended to be on their side, for all of three minutes.

It turned out that the masses had been zombified by some electronic pulse, triggered by a TV signal that looks like an enlarged Space Invader icon. As her newfound friend explained, "It did something to everyone. They just like spectators  They don’t give a shit what happens to us." In order to save the world, they need to switch off the signal at the conveniently located 'White Bear' transmitter tower. Except, it couldn't really be that easy. Especially since Victoria was still having flashbacks about her child, who also had a cuddly white bear with her. Coincidence, or set up for a MASSIVE REVEAL?

Despite the heavy-handed set-up, the reveal still came as something of a rug-pull, as Victoria attempted to shoot one of the hunters, only to release a burst of coloured confetti instead of bullets. In a way, it's as preposterous as the ending of David Fincher's The Game - the whole thing was an elaborate set-up and everyone was in it. The extra dark topping on this misery sundae, however, is the fact that this was a punishment for Victoria, who wasn't the grieving mother we were led to believe. In fact, she and her boyfriend were a modern-day Brady and Hindley - abducting, torturing and recording the murder of the little girl with the white bear. And since the boyfriend had already killed himself in custody, society had decided to put Victoria through this heavily metaphorical torture. Having been reminded of her crimes, Victoria was put in a modified Popemobile, and driven slowly back to where she started, whilst being pelted with tomatoes by a crowd of people who are now much less passive than they were a few minutes earlier. Back at the house where it all began, she's drugged and tortured, before having her mind reset to go through it all again.

Countless science fiction and horror stories have explored the notion that Hell is repetition, and White Bear is no exception. And yet, this seems like a curiously archaic Daily Mail position for Brooker to take, given his usual distaste for easy moralising and reactionary rhetoric. But there's always a sting in the tail, and Charlie hides his right at the end of the story. Interspersed amongst the end credits, like scenes of Dom DeLouise corpsing in Canonball Run, are the final little vignettes that reveal we've been in the White Bear Justice Park - £12 a day for adults. I guess that Charlie would be a masterful poker player, since he's happy to keep his hand a secret until the final moments. There are no belly laughs to be had, but we're allowed to crack a bitter smile as we see the complicit public being briefed on their interactive day out: "No talking, especially not to her. Keep your distance - remember she is a dangerous criminal. And above all, enjoy yourself."

It seems a little strange to treat the point of your film like comical deleted scenes, held back until the very end of the presentation, but since Charlie is such a masterful story-teller, we can forgive him this indulgence. And once again, we're left with more dark subjects to ponder. If someone has no recollection of their crimes, can they be effectively punished? Does our societal bloodlust for vengeance make us just as dangerous as the criminals we seek to discipline? And will the butler ever be able to get a proper shine back on the Earl of Grantham's brogues? Sorry, wrong show. 

Monday, 18 February 2013

Fag Break


There, I said it. Well, typed it. Shocking, isn’t it? Except, not really. I doubt anyone’s offended or outraged, just because that word is sitting there on the page. What’s the context? And what made me want to use it in the first place? Until you can answer those questions, it’s simply six letters in a familiar sequence. For all you know, I could be talking about a bundle of kindling, or a mildly anachronistic meatball. And yet, there are those who would argue that the word should be consigned to Room 101 of the OED, no questions asked.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of 'faggot'. I could happily spend the rest of my life without ever hearing it used, or seeing it feature in yet another story about some brainless US sportsman lashing out on Twitter. But it’s still just a word, albeit one with considerable power. Especially when wielded by a careless, unthinking or malevolent speaker. 

It might be almost twenty years old, but the point made in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s fascinating documentary The Celluloid Closet, about Hollywood’s portrayal of casual homophobia, still resonates. 'Faggot' is the only pejorative that can be used by a film’s lead character, without instantly marking them out as a bad guy in dire need of redemption. Now, ask yourself when you last watched a movie (that wasn’t made by Quentin Tarantino) where the hero got away with calling someone 'Nigger'.

Despite this, many people argue that to compare ‘faggot’ with the N-word is a matter of false equivalency. In fact, they're both politically charged and emotionally loaded terms. Remember the fuss that kicked off when Radio One tried to ban Fairytale of New York? The broadcasters argued, not incorrectly, that the song’s use of the lyric “You cheap, lousy faggot” could offend listeners. However, in the context of the song, the word made sense, since Kirsty MacColl was clearly singing in character. Not that such nuance is observed by the people I usually hear singing along in the pub. If you’ve ever been called, or referred to, as a faggot, you'd become a little more sensitive to the extra emphasis that people tend to place on that particular word, as if they’ve been given momentary license to say something rebellious. Equally, a similar controversy came to light recently when the BBC re-aired Fawlty Towers, minus some of the Major’s more socially unacceptable dialogue. Although this was another example of character as context, the fact remains that society has also evolved in the forty years since the show was first broadcast. Watching it now, the Major's casual racism no longer represents the mildly inappropriate ramblings of an elderly eccentric - it threatens to derail the entire episode.

The two parallel issues of racism and homophobia are currently rearing their heads again, since R&B star Azealia Banks is making a concerted effort to reopen the debate. This all started last month, when the New York-based rapper began a Twitter-feud with Perez Hilton, a man with no shortage of celebrity nemeses. When Banks dismissed him as a “messy faggot,” critics were quick to take her to task for her thoughtless use of language. But rather than issue a simple mea culpa, the provocative musician decided to tackle society’s fixation with the word, head-on. Initially, Banks assumed that she could wield her own bisexual identity as some kind of defence against any accusation of homophobia, displaying the same kind of misplaced logic that saw Jade Goody refuting accusations of racism on account of her being "half black."

In a way, she's right to question our obsession with language, and a culture of knee-jerk offence taking. But she must also accept that we each have a responsibility for the words that we choose. Initially, she argued that "A faggot is not a homosexual male. A faggot is any male who acts like a female. There's a BIG difference." Let's set aside the issues of a woman who perceives female behaviour to be a negative characteristic, worthy of scorn. Instead, let's focus on what counts here - individual redefinition. She's still at it, now elaborating on her original theory and stating that "Faggot means coward, liar, backstabber" then asking her followers how they would define the word. This is problematic, since she's accusing the rest of the world for choosing to take offence, but shifting the goal-posts by coming up with her own definitions. Try to imagine visiting your grandmother and calling her a cunt, then argung that you've decided you meant it as a term of female empowerment. Good luck getting yourself back in the will.

I'm sure that many people might rationalise their use of the word differently. But ultimately, it all comes down to intent. For all the talk of communities reclaiming and reappropriating the words that have hurt them, what matters here is how they are used in the moment. This is where the accusations of false equivalency between faggot and the n-word don't hold water. If it’s a word that still has the power to belittle, bully or harm, then it’s bad. If it’s a word you wouldn’t want your kids using, it’s bad. And if it’s a word that’s ever been yelled at someone as a pejorative or insult, it's bad.

But is Azealia right - have we all become hyper-sensitive? Are the forces of political correctness clamping down on our right to free speech? Not at all. No-one's saying she can't use it. And we’re not saying there’s no room for debate about the shifting nature of language, and how words become more or less acceptable over time. We’re simply saying that the right to speak freely doesn't automatically insulate you from the criticism of those you've opted to offend. 

More importantly, it's also worth considering the point that Neo-marxist Jonathan Neale made in his must-read book, 'What's Wrong With America.' Analysing the way the rich and the powerful have conspired for the last 100 years to keep different sectors of society at each other's throats - pittting immigrants, women, blacks, gays and unionists against each other - Neale argues that the more time we spend battling the small stuff, the more likely it is that we'll take our eyes off the bigger picture. In doing so, we fail to spot the real villains in our midst. Azealia needs to recognise that as a black, LGBT woman, she's faces no small number of battles. And just like the rest of us, she needs all the friends she can get. 

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Hearts and Glowers*

It’s Valentine’s Day, which can only mean one thing - a torrent of Helen Fielding-style articles bemoaning the definitive ‘Hallmark Holiday.’ A cavalcade of clich├ęd tripe about how it’s all a big conspiracy to make single people feel more unwanted than Dobbin in a Burger King. They’ll piss and moan about all those cruel seasonal reminders that they’ve yet to find their special someone, and pass the blame onto the happy couples who choose the window seat, presumably so that passers-by can see them demolishing a chocolate fondant with a single dessert fork.

So to all you lonely hearts out there, bemoaning your cardless mantelpiece, let me tell you something for free. Valentine’s Day is rubbish for everyone, not just those of you who can still have a shit without needing to close the bathroom door. The fact is, it’s a cold, merciless and cynical invention, utterly bereft of the spontaneity and emotion that love is all about.

Let’s take another look at that happy couple in the restaurant. See how close they’re sitting. Well, that’s because the restaurant decided to cram a few extra tables in to take advantage of the increased cover charge. What looks like intimate body language is more likely to result in a slipped disc than any under-the-covers action. And when they’re not shifting uncomfortably in their seat, you might notice that most of their time is spent stifling yawns, refolding napkins and trying to talk about anything other than their day at work. They’re feeling the pressure as it is – they’ve been put on show in the window seat, so they’re struggling to act as if they’re enjoying themselves. Deep down, they’re worried that everyone else looks happier than they do. One of them is wondering when babysitters got so expensive, and the other one is probably working out how much money they could have saved by having the same meal at home.

Those couples who don’t fancy braving the hordes and paying over the odds for a glorified set menu, can easily replicate the same magical ambience at home. Marks & Spencer and Waitrose are both running their popular twenty quid ‘Romantic Dinner For 2’ promotions. Remember, nothing says “I would lay down my life for you” like microwaving a couple of mozzarella stuffed chicken breasts and choking back a bottle of Cava that could put the shine back on your serving spoons.

Of course, if you’re going to stay in, convention dictates that you’ll need to set the right mood. Time to clear all those unopened bills off the dining table and light some candles. Not the scented ones either – they’re far too sickly if you’re eating. Now, look at what you’re wearing. I’m afraid onesies, sweat pants and t-shirts are all out. It may just be another wet Thursday, but you need to dress up as if you’re modelling for the Sandals brochure. Oh, and you’ll need to think about the soundtrack for your evening, in order to line up the first sex you’ve had since the clocks went back. Thankfully, the record labels are on hand, helpfully repackaging the same shitty ballads in a new 40-track compilation, as if anyone in their right mind needs another copy of Minnie Fucking Ripperton’s Loving You.

Since you’ve got a whole evening to fill, music won’t be the only entertainment you’ll need to get sorted. It’s not enough to flop on the couch for a double bill of Cowboy Builders. This is Valentine’s Day, and so there’s an expectation that you’ll have to sit through some drippy romantic comedy, as Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Aniston and Kate Hudson battle it out to see who can produce the most derisive assault on contemporary feminism. And try on shoes, ‘cos women love that shit, right? It doesn’t really matter what you watch – they’re all filled with the same tired plots, contrived scenarios and photogenic bed hair – and you just know it’ll end with her getting her man, wearing her dress and missing her period. Just as long as whatever DVD you throw on comes repackaged in a pink cardboard sleeve with a die-cut heart on the front.  

Bugger, almost forgot the card. Woe betide anyone who wakes up on Valentine’s Day and doesn’t have a hastily scribbled card, envelope still damp with morning-breath saliva, to hand to their significant other. That’s after spending twenty minutes in the card shop, trying desperately to find something that doesn’t make bile catch in the back of your throat. Try to ignore the fact that most card manufacturers show a
crushing lack of awareness about how people in relationships actually talk to each other. So swallow your pride, hand over your three quid, and try to imagine that the term ‘love machine’ might actually apply to you, rather than the battery-hungry accessory that lives in the bedside cabinet.

It’s time to face facts, people. Valentine is a hateful shitstorm. Even if you’re happily settled down, it’s a point-by-point, retail-enabled deconstruction of everything you’re doing wrong. It doesn’t matter how successful your relationship is, or how happy you are together – it’s appearances that count. Christmas might be Santa’s busiest day of the year, but come Valentine’s Day, Cupid might as well be on a booze cruise to Calais, because there’s fuck all for him to do here.

*This is a rewritten piece that was originally posted last year. I think this version is better.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Black Mirror's Cracking

Countless column inches were devoted to the first outing of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror. Was it comedy, science fiction or techno-horror? Was the tone cautiously optimistic or nihilistically misanthropic? And if push came to shove, would you fuck a pig?

Such guessing games are par for the course with this kind of TV. Like Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, which Brooker himself often cites as his primary inspiration, the stories are modern day parables - OK, technically, they’re the day-after-modern-day parables. Rather than taking the stories literally, we’re invited to see the fantastical scenarios being played out by a parade of largely unlikeable characters as analogues of contemporary living, and the vice-like grip that technology has on our collective subconscious. Brooker holds up the eponymous black mirror and invites us to reflect upon our humanity, as we spend ever increasing amounts of time channelling our lives through those glassy little touchscreens.

Tonight's instalment, the first of series two, was filled with neat little glimpses of tomorrow's technology - wafer-thin smartphones, interactive drawing boards and coffee cup lids that glow red when 'the beverage you are about to enjoy is extremely hot' - but this wasn't a show about gadgets. Because Brooker knows that technology isn't really the villain of the piece; we are. In Be Right Back, a young couple called Martha and Ash move to a remote cottage where Ash grew up. Less than 24 hours into the nesting phase and Ash has been killed in some kind of non-specific accident. Cut to the wake, and before the sausage rolls have even cooled, a friend is proposing an ominous, yet oblique solution to Martha's still raw grief: “I can sign you up to something that will help,” she offers, “It’s not some crazy spiritual thing. And I mean, it’s still in beta…”

It turns out that someone has invented a new software programme capable of amalgamating all of Ash's social media data, and cobbling together a virtual version of him. At first, the tentative pair interact solely by email. But before too long, the voice synthesiser means Martha is able to have long conversations as she wanders the windswept hillsides, bantering with her dearly departed about the perils of roaming charges. In perhaps the programme's only positive note, we can at least look forward to a future of uninterrupted 4G coverage. However, after accidentally breaking her phone, the now pregnant Martha decides to get herself a crying, talking, not really sleeping, walking, living doll.

Programmed with Ash's personality, the synthetic person looks like him "on a good day," but that's because, as he explains, "we tend to only put our most flattering pictures on social media." He's obviously never seen my Facebook page. The only mistake seems to be a missing mole on his neck, but that is quickly rectified – although it’s not clear whether this is an automated system upgrade, or just the downside of being a redhead.

At this point, you'd be forgiven for expecting all hell to break loose - the last time we watched a woman stuck in close confines with an android called Ash, things ended messily. Instead, Brooker prefers to exact a more psychological torment on his protagonists, rather than force-feeding them a rolled-up magazine. In a refreshing twist on convention, there’s no rampaging robot here; Ash remains a curiously compliant companion. It’s Martha who’s the ostensible villain of the piece – selfish, manipulative and impossible to please. By the time she attacks Ash for not making the appropriate sleeping noises in bed, it’s clear that Martha won’t ever be happy with her relationship. Banishing Ash downstairs, she even berates him for not putting up a fight.

In the end, Martha drives him to a cliff-top and instructs him to jump. She’s trapped in a partnership that’s merely a facsimile of what it used to be, and the only way out is for Ash to kill himself. However, the epilogue reveals that, at some point, Martha had a change of heart. Instead, Ash 2.0 is consigned to the attic, where his family has previously stored their own keepsakes and mementos of his dead sibling as a child.

This was dark, powerful stuff, shot through with the oppressive mood of a contemporary horror story – even the daylight scenes appeared to filmed through a muslin shroud. The performances were brittle and shrill, with automaton Ash the only character with any real sense of light and shade. But maybe that was the point all along.

Brooker challenges us throughout to question the way we manage our digital lives. He asks whether the relationships we develop on social networks are the real thing, or just binary simulations. He wonders whether we put so much of our lives on the internet that our personalities could be recreated by some kind of aggregation algorithm. And in the early stages of Martha’s engagement with digital Ash, what is he, if not a glorified version of SIRI?

But the morality of digital technology is really just shiny, black veneer. The show asked much more provocative questions about the nature of relationships. “Did you just look that up?” Martha asks, when Ash pauses before answering a memory question – like anyone who expects their partner to have instant recall of every conversation they’ve ever had. Ash’s improved bedroom technique is attributed to an online porn database; an incisive commentary on how pornography is gradually evolving the norms of sexual behaviour. Ultimately, when Ash spends the night outside, he asks to be let back in, arguing that he’s “Feeling a little…ornamental.” Are our relationships for show, or for feeling?

In the end, the main problem with Be Right Back is that it simply had too many ideas for a one hour show. But since we live in a world where TV producers are lining up celebrities for another series of Splash! with Tom Daley, that doesn’t really feel like a criticism at all. Black Mirror is provocative, insightful and challenging TV at its best. And it reminds us that we must learn to stop blaming technology for our human failings. No matter how dark the glass, we can’t blame the mirror if we don’t like the reflection.