Sunday, 31 March 2013

Vox Inhumana

The BBC’s had a tough year; forced to sell off its most iconic property; the fallout from whole Jimmy Savile whitewash, and The Voice. Once trumpeted as a ‘credible’ rival to Cowell’s all-conquering X-Factor, the reality proved somewhat less compelling.  And yet, despite all the bad press, here we are again, as the BBC offers us a new series, the way a cat might present an eviscerated pigeon carcass – it seemed like an endearing gesture at first, but now we’re just freaking out about the blood on the carpet.

Even the continuity announcer is struggling to get her excitement on, sounding more like Susie Blake being forced to deliver the Wallaby hops for a pair of 13 year-old twins. “Time to spin those chairs,” she gravely intones, as I consider doing just that and staring at the corner for the next ninety minutes.  And then there they are - Danny, Tom, Will and Jessie held in place by spinning lasers, like Zod, Ursa and Non awaiting sentencing from the jury of Kryptonian elders.

In a curious cost-saving measure, they seem to be rerunning last year’s footage of the judges being complementary to each other. Danny’s bigging up Jessie J’s vocal prowess, and we’re told that is a legend because “There’s nothing he can’t do.” Except maybe sit still. Reflecting back on the show’s debut, the other judges refer to Tom as the champion, since none of them could be arsed to Google Leanne’s full name. Still, they’ve got 100 years of experience between them. Admittedly, eighty percent of that belongs to Tom. But they’re channeling it all in a pitiful rock ‘n’ roll medley. The audience gamely clap along and attempt to dance on the spot, all doing their best to look like they’re not just waiting out the wet weather in the Hi-De-Hi ballroom. By the time comes in with Lulu’s Shout we’re reminded ironically of that earlier comment about his multi-hyphenate skillset. As the quintessential jack-of-all-trades, his voice has all the power and presence of an asthmatic wasp after a half-marathon. Meanwhile, Jessie commandeers the mic to shout “Are we gonna have some fun tonight?” On the strength of this opening number, it’s by no means a certainty.

Even less visible than they were last year, Reggie and Holly pop up to explain how it all works. With all the various rounds and gimmicks, it’s all starting to sound a little complicated. Don’t be too surprised if they introduce a new round this year where the vocalists have to take it in turns to perform the Randy Newman songbook while gargling with egg whites. Time to check in with the judges one last time, mostly so that we can ensure that still has that ridiculous side parting. You know, the one that resembles a bypass carved into a hillside. Only now it’s been paired with a giant kirby grip that seems to be oxidizing the hair around it. And let’s not forget lovely old twinkly-eyed Tom, who’s patiently sitting there - a fresh dusting of snow on a fruit bowl full of tangerines. We’ve got ten contestants to get through tonight, and the clocks go forward at 1am, so we’d best crack on.

First up is Ash Morgan, who does art sessions for kids with special needs. He makes a big deal about being from The Valleys, but I guess everywhere looks like a valley when you’re built like a hillock. He’s clearly struggling with his nerves, so Holly helps out by reminding him that he’s going to be singing in front of the world’s biggest superstars. And Danny from The Script. Despite the fact that he speaks with a wheezy shortness of breath, he’s fine when he’s singing. Less than a minute into his impressive performance and already Jessie J is making it about her, leaping out of her chair and spreading herself all over the stage. Will tells him his heart is as big as his voice, but it’s probably best to steer clear of too many size references. Jessie wants to work with him because she’s real, and as she rushes up to hug the first of her 12 acts, we get a close up on her awful green fingernails. My best guess is that she’s been fiddling with the rotating mechanism in her chair and needed to wash her hands with Swarfega.

Danny County is new to music, and only did his first open mic night last year. This is only the third time he’s ever sung in public, and he’s chosen to do his acoustic version of The Sugababes’ About You Now. At first, this is about as incongruous as Damien Rice having a go at B*Witched, but it works because he’s got a nice tone to his voice. It’s all going great until we hear his speaking voice, which is just as slurred and lackadaisical as when he performs. Danny thinks they’d get on like a house on fire. Backdraft with the guy out of The Script? Keep talking Danny. The Irish frontman’s pitch involves “sitting around in the studio, few beers, with the lads…” which now has me actively planning the arson attack myself. In the end, the hopeful warbler picks Jessie as his mentor, which makes some of the other judges jealous. In the discussion after the fact, Jessie gets defensive and complains “I’m not JUST a great singer…” True, she’s also a gratingly immodest shrew.

Leanne has done the holiday clubs circuit, but is now back at home, working in an office and sleeping with her mum. Don’t get any funny ideas, it’s just that they’re sharing a tiny flat. She refers to herself as “little old me” which is a sure sign of a psycho diva in the making, or someone who spent too much time watching Penelope Pitstop as a kid. She gets all four judges to turn around, thanks to a strong voice and that likeable Stacey Solomon vibe, and in the end selects

Louis Coupe is a sixteen year-old musical prodigy, who can play about eight different instruments in an ugly school blazer. He spends most of his time sitting in his room listening to old records, and tautologically adds that he’s a bit of a nerd. He’s picked Learn To Fly for his big song, and Jessie looks furious. I’m guessing it’s because she doesn’t know the lyrics, so is unable to sing along and draw the camera’s focus onto her. Sadly, no-one turns around, which is a bit of a shame, because the pop world was crying out for its own Gareth Keenan. As a conciliatory gesture, Will advises him to write a musical, to which he replies “I already have done.” Of course he has. He then gives the judges a burst of Jerry Lee Lewis and skips off to hug his family.

Next to perform is Andrea Begley, a Civil Servant from Northern Ireland. She lost her sight to glaucoma, which gives the concept of a blind audition a novel twist. She’s a lovely girl with a great voice and a refreshingly honest sense of humour, it’s just a shame that her family don’t try to keep her away from the perming solution. Performing Sarah McLachlan’s Angel, her nerves have given her an irritating vibrato, but the voice itself is pure and clear. The nicest moment of the show so far is when she admits to the judges that she’s visually impaired, and wasn’t entirely sure whether anyone had turned round. Jessie stirs a little condescension into the mix, by applauding Andrea’s courage, as if she rode a flaming motorcycle onto the stage.

Kirsty Crawford is an attractive girl, like Sarah Harding in a cheap Nikki Minaj wig, but she’s dressed as if Jason Voorhees just chased her through some wet laundry. The vocal is way off and the tune never really kicks in, so it’s no surprise when none of the judges turn around. Jessie offers some feedback “from female to female” as though the ability to menstruate means her advice will be more meaningful. Danny talks about how he bottled it on Ellen, which sounds like post-watershed talk to me, but he’s “still rocking and rolling.” Jesus.

Every show needs a decent twist, and tonight’s comes courtesy of Mike Ward. We see lots of footage of him hanging around in Manchester and practicing some truly awful raps with his be-hatted brother, like a pair of Mancunian Lee Nelsons. The Eminem background music was setting us up for something gritty and urban, but what we’ve actually got is Glen Campbell in an Adidas tracksuit.  His pitch is all over the place, but the judges are won over by the incongruity of his performance. Danny tells him that country singers are rare, which may be true in Moss Side, but not where people actually buy country music. In the end, he picks Tom as his mentor. Cut to a quality exchange with Holly in the green room: “Can you actually believe it?” “I can’t believe it.” Brilliant.

Katie Benbow is obsessed with all things vintage, but her ‘at home’ footage looks more like an opium-induced nightmare from The Woman In Black. Her vocal technique is as irritatingly unconvincing as her era-straddling image, as she keeps swapping pitches and keys like a swinger on a campsite. Her seriously ill grandma is waiting in the green room, so she asks Tom to give the old bird a wink. Tom goes one better and sings a few lines to her – a risky move as it happens, since she looks in danger of losing her oxygen cannula. Jessie’s ever so excited, boasting “there’s so many things I can teach you.” Week one, they’ll cover Oxbow lakes and irregular verbs.

Here’s Anthony Kavanagh, who was a teen star called Kavana back when the Spice Girls were still pretending to like each other. He even managed to beat Gary Barlow for the title of Best Male Singer back in the late nineties. At 21 he became an actor, but that never really took off. He tells us that he’s had some massive highs, but that’s backstage at the Smash Hits Poll Winners’ Party for you. The vocal is terrible, and no-one turns around. To be honest, he should probably be thankful that they didn’t just make a break for the fire exit.  

Tonight’s final contestant is Matt Henry. He does something with dogs, but I really can’t tell you anything about it, since my Jack Russell barked through this entire segment. His performance of Ray Lamontagne’s Trouble is great. Jessie tries to create a beguiling pose on her spinning chair, only to almost be flung into the audience when she misjudges the speed of the rotation. The other judges have picked up on his likeness to and force him to wear Will’s ridiculous Timmy Mallett glasses while they pitch their respective mentoring skills. Danny promises a combination of experience and wisdom, because he’s a modern day Aesop. Will says he’s a palm tree and they never fall. This makes almost no sense at all, but it’s now 2am and the delirium is kicking in. Matt says he’s been “dreaming about this moment for… you don’t even know how long.” The show’s only a year old, so we know exactly how long. Next week, more of the same. 

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Not so irreplaceable after all

To be perfectly honest, I’ve never really understood the appeal of Beyoncé. More of a rounded performer than a singer of any note, she’s a titanic monument to self-belief, perched precariously on top of a spectacular pair of legs. And yet, ever since she disbanded Destiny’s Child to focus on her one-decent-song-per-album solo career, she’s been lionised to an unhealthy degree. People are willing to overlook her shrill, reedy voice, disingenuous stage persona and gratingly repetitive back catalogue, preferring to label her as the ultimate Independent Woman.

At least, they were until last week. Suddenly, all the single ladies (all the single ladies) are wondering why they ever pledged their platonic troth to such a conceited egotist. What once seemed like assertive empowerment now comes across as grasping entitlement. "Bow down bitches" she says in her new single. "Poke it up your arse," her once-loyal subjects are starting to shout back.

Not that any of this should come as much of a surprise. Isn’t this what always happens whenever a famous woman gets too successful? We pick them apart and condemn them for not living up to the unrealistic standards that the rest of society has chosen for them. Rihanna gets plenty of stick for shacking up with the guy who treats her the way Paul Hollywood handles his shortcrust pastry. Tulisa’s still trying to live down a single sloppy blow job that her ex-boyfriend decided to shop to the press. And then there’s Taylor Swift; a woman so wholesome that she shits Hovis; yet she’s regularly depicted in the press as some kind of guitar-wielding succubus. I swear, women are running out of role models at such a rate that by the end of 2013, there'll only be Lorraine Kelly and the ginger one out of Girls Aloud left to set the right sort of example.

Then again, what do I care? After all, I'm a man. The last time anyone picked out a role model for me, he wore a green beret and showed me how to fasten my woggle. So rather that lamenting the fact that Beyoncé is no longer an exemplar of modern womanhood, we should be asking why society has decided that women need famous figureheads to rally around.

In many ways, this obsession with role models is really no different than the age-old double standard about promiscuity. How would you rather be defined - as a legendary swordsman, or a skank? Similarly, most of us would prefer to simply get on with whatever it is we’re doing, without having to worry about whether or not we’re setting a good example.

The difference, of course, is that the role model problem is more subtly pernicious. People who talk about female role models foolishly assume that they're somehow doing women a favour. Dress like Audrey Hepburn if you want to achieve timeless stylishness. Check out the way Karren Brady has managed her career in male-dominated world. And only pay attention to Claire out of Steps when she's back on the Atkins.

The implication here, is that women can only envisage their own potential if it's in relation to another woman. No wonder, then, that so many magazines use the byline 'Steal Her Style' to talk about current fashion trends. Women are being insidiously conditioned into perceiving each other as targets or threats. The media would have us believe that they're incapable of planning a career, a night out, or even an outfit, unless it's already been endorsed by a woman in the public eye.

We all aspire to be influential. We hold ourselves to a higher standard, and we'd like to think that other people would do the same. But no-one sets out to be a role model. It's an unrealistic objective, not to mention an unwieldy burden. The most we can do is our best. And if we fuck up, we just hope that no-one's watching. Women like Beyoncé, Taylor and Rihanna have no such luck.

Monday, 18 March 2013

There's life in the zombie genre yet

It's been a long time coming, but zombies are finally fashionable. For too long, they've been relegated to the shadows, bumbling around idiotically like contestants in the Take Me Out green room, while their more dynamic contemporaries hogged the spotlight. In the world of cinematic monsters, the living dead are seldom little more than props - barely animated piles of meat, occasionally shuffling into shot so that they can be crudely dismembered. They lack the raw sexuality of the vampire, the inner turmoil of the werewolf, or the unfinished business that keeps ghosts hanging about on this mortal plane. Horror writers have long since realised that there's not much you can do with a brain-dead protagonist who's in charity shop rags, unless you fancy dramatising the Jeremy Kyle Show.

Instead, film-makers have exploited the potential of the undead in exploring the darker side of humanity. The living dead may take every opportunity to chew messily on people's internal organs, but they're rarely presented as true villains. Even in his seminal black and white shocker, that inadvertently established the rules the modern gut-muncher, George Romero felt sympathy for his lolloping hordes. He was far more intrigued by the darkness in the hearts of his living protagonists, opting to focus on man's inhumanity to man, albeit with a few head-shots for good measure.

In recent years we've had Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead and Romero's patchy second trilogy, followed by remarkable cable drama The Walking Dead and last month's teen drama Warm Bodies. And now, with a supernatural hole in its schedule left by the dearly departed Being Human, BBC Three is offering up its own contribution to the sub-genre.

In The Flesh opens boldly, with a gruesome attack in a deserted supermarket, as a young woman in combats gathers supplies. For a moment, it seems as though she might be the lead character, until she stumbles across two zombies making short work of someone's scalp, who turn their attention to her and smash her head into a shelf. All in all, it's not too similar to my local ASDA.

Turns out, this was all a flashback – except the twist here, is that it's the male zombie who's reliving it. Meet Kieran Walker, presumably named in tribute to the show's transatlantic counterpart. Kieran is a reformed zombie, who's been sensitively rebadged as a sufferer of Partially Deceased Syndrome. As a consequence, he's been extensively rehabilitated, medicated and is now preparing to return to society, complete with a ready supply of NHS-provided contact lenses to mask his milky gaze.

Our pallid protagonist still feels guilt over his time as an undead killing machine, a fact that isn't made any easier given his regular nightmares of that scene in the supermarket. He even attends a therapy group to work through his anxieties about reintegration, where other PDS sufferers clash over whether they should be re-assimilating at all. One inpatient taunts another with an Orville impression that feels somewhat anachronistic for a show that’s presumably set in the near future. But we can forgive writer Dominic Mitchell for the occasional self-indulgent pop culture reference, since this is a show that could do with the occasional moment of levity.

Back in the real world, Kieran’s parents are trying to sell their house in order to move somewhere more remote, which is a little odd given that the village where they currently live makes Ambridge seem like a bustling metropolis. Complicating matters further is their antagonistic daughter, who wears camouflage, listens to the Ramones and has signed up with the Human Volunteer Force. The HVF is a militia group formed with the self-imposed authority to eradicate the ‘rotters’, who spend most of their time angrily regurgitating their own propaganda, like UKIP with sawn-off shotguns. In a clever commentary on reactionary right wing politics, the HVF are struggling with obsolescence, now that the rehabilitated undead are being steadily reintroduced into society. Previously hailed as heroes, they’re now in danger of losing their veterans’ benefits, like free pints in the village boozer.

Meanwhile, Kieran finally comes face to face with his family, who are shocked and disturbed by the synthetic complexion he’s painted on in order to smooth his reintegration. It doesn’t help matters that the local vicar is doing his best to mobilise the villagers in an angry demonstration against the government’s Domiciled Care Initiative. The voices of the crowd, led by Ricky Tomlinson, articulate every argument we’ve ever heard levelled at immigrants, asylum seekers, mental health patients, parolees and registered sex offenders. The problem here, is that the multiple allusions to real world issues threaten to undermine the allegorical purity of the concept.

But that’s not all - there’s another social issue that will presumably be addressed in the next two episodes, as it’s revealed that Kieran committed suicide over the death of his friend Rick. Something happened between these two that drove Rick into the army, where he was promptly dispatched by an IED in Afghanistan. We’ve already had a RomZomCom in the form of Shaun of the Dead – is the BBC preparing us for the world’s first GayZomRom?

Either way, some of the most interesting moments come in the subtle beats as Kieran attempts to fit back into family life. His sister bursts in to find her newly reunited family enjoying Sunday lunch, and refuses to sit down while “that thing” is at the table. It’s unclear which she’s most upset about – her undead brother, or their choice of roast: “You know I hate lamb.” Kieran’s got his own problems, as he goes through the motions of eating, moving his cutlery back and forth several inches above his plate. We’re not clear on what the PDS sufferers eat, but chances are, they don’t slather it in Bisto first. Later on, there’s another lovely moment as Kieran and his dad desultorily attempt to play The Game of Life, offering a stark commentary on this synthesis of an ordinary existence.

The shows final few minutes kept the shocks coming, as a fake-out tip-off made viewers think that the Walkers had been rumbled, when in fact it was Ricky Tomlinson’s wife who was dragged out into the street and shot. Similarly, it was revealed that Kieran’s friend Rick is coming back home, causing consternation for his father; founding member of the HVF.

Credit must go to the show’s designers for giving the show an impressively bleached look, giving it the same cold, washed out appearance as its undead cast. Likewise, the moments of dark humour prevent the tone from getting too despairing early on. Standout moments include a shot of Kieran’s mum standing on the landing brandishing a chainsaw, and the community nurse lamenting the extensiveness of her three weeks’ training on administering PDS medication. It’s still no barrel of laughs, but then, it is a show about death, grieving and intolerance. Finally, here’s a show that gives zombies the starring role they deserve. After fifty years of playing second fiddle, it seems that the walking dead are finally de rigueur-mortis.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Public NMEs

Being a teenager is no fun. It's a decade of badly-dubbed Clearasil adverts, the aching shift of orthodontistry, and poorly choreographed kissing. What's supposed to be the best time of your life, is actually a never-ending purgatory where you're too big to sit at the kids' table, and too immature to join the grown-ups on theirs. It's no wonder that these are the years when most of us first come to music, whether that's for expression, release or escape. Along the way are a series of milestones. There's the first album, followed promptly by the first piece of kit to play it on. Then come the recommendations and sharing. Soon, we've amassed something of a collection, and we're wanting to see our favourite acts in the flesh. And so it goes.

The funny thing is, that pattern is pretty much the same for everyone. Sure, the names and faces adorning the bedroom walls will change every few years, but the behaviours are constant. So it's curious to see how often people forget these universal rites of passage, and rush to condemn the folly of youth for their naïveté and poor taste. Even more worrying, is the tendency for the self-proclaimed arbiters of taste to attack the very acts that shoulder the responsibility for bringing the next generation of fans into the musical fold.

This week, NME held its annual awards ceremony, and with all the good grace of an ousted Tory councillor, announced One Direction to be the Worst Band, and Harry Styles 'Villain of the Year'. Predictably, the press were all over this, commenting that Harry had "beaten off stiff competition from David Cameron" which has left me with a bunch of mental images it'll take hypnotherapy to shake. Equally predictable, were the tedious comments left under each of the stories 'reporting' on this non-event, which suggested that much of the animosity toward the boys comes from the improper appropriation of the word 'band' to describe their musical collective. The second most popular argument for the pandemic of playground bullying is the fact that One Direction don't write their own songs. Now, I can't be arsed to Google it, but I'm willing to bet that Elvis never got compared to Ferdinand Marcos, just because he let the songwriters get on with it.

The problem here, is that it's far too easy to dismiss anything that isn't to your taste, as shit. But all art is subject to interpretation - one man's Pollock is another man's leaky bin bag. I don't care if Niall, Zayn and the lads have never picked up a guitar, because I don't see guitar-led rock as the only musical genre worth listening to. Great pop music is about so much more than the ability to play live instruments. Great pop happens when the sentiment, the melody, the singer(s), the charisma and the production all intersect in the perfect confluence. Berry Gordy Jr knew it. Benny and Bjorn knew it. And Stock, Aitken and Waterman knew it. Over the last fifty years they've all been criticised for daring to 'manufacture' music, as if an industry demanded anything other than a production line. Their output was condemned for being disposable, but since tastes change, that was never a problem for the people listening to it. Any enduring appeal was never calculated, it was simply a nice bonus if it occurred.

Take the 'Hit Factory' for example. While NME and its contemporaries were sneerily adding an 'S' to their monicker, they were busy churning out smashes with a success rate that would make Emeli Sandé feel like a workshy underachiever. When the criticism finally started to get them down, they wrote a 'fuck you' song about it. They gave it to a pair of hopeless Scousers as their debut single, and shot a video on the cheap of them dancing their way around Albert Docks. 'I'd Rather Jack' spent three months in the charts, because it understood how kids felt about having people talk trash about the music they enjoyed. It spoke to them on a level that wasn't condescending or contrived. Isn't that what music's supposed to do?

Of course, the S.A.W. formula, with its Calrec Soundfield Microphone-enabled vocal treatments, now sounds more dated than a Choose Life t-shirt. But the melodies and messages are as strong today as they were when they were being introduced by a CGI rollercoaster on The Chart Show. Last year, Kylie Minogue marked her 25th year in music with an acoustic album recorded at Abbey Road studios. Almost half the album was built around dramatically reconfigured versions of those 'disposable' songs, and they work far better than anyone might have expected. Aside from the odd lyrical banality, which we'll forgive since we're equally willing to cough politely whenever someone brings up Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, the songs sound fresh and timeless. You may still not like them, but in the end, that's your loss.

I find it hard to fathom why some music fans are willing to spend so much energy attacking pop. They want to portray Simon Cowell as some kind of high-waisted parasite, growing ever-more corpulent off the blood and sweat of ignorant teenagers, who dream only of fame and untold wealth. However much disdain you might have for the X-Factor and its ilk, it's important to remember that the baton has been passed to acts like Cher Lloyd, Olly Murs and One Direction, to bring new fans to music. I'm willing to argue that no thirteen year-old is going to make 'The Queen Is Dead' their very first iTunes purchase. Pop music is a gateway drug - its very accessibility is what gets young people in and allows them to experiment. Getting annoyed that people listen to pop music is like sitting in traffic behind a learner driver, and being angry that they don't already know how to execute a flawless three-point turn.

Pop music introduces people to the art form. It helps them define their tastes. Those kids who are heading out to their very first One Direction concert, are in the process of activating a lifelong love of live music. So does it really matter if Liam Payne thinks a plectrum is the fleshy bit under his cock-head?

The great thing about music, about all music, is that there's something for everyone. Some people find their way to Velvet Underground and Johnny Cash. Others, like me, got hooked on Dolly Parton and Swedish schlager. It's all part of life's rich pageant. If you've found the music that makes you happy, revel in that, rather than condemning the tastes of others. And if you hear something you genuinely don't like, then don't fucking listen to it. Find the off switch. Or the volume dial. Otherwise, you're no better than the pearl-clutchers who complain to the BBC every time they see a twat on the telly. And I don't mean Danny Dyer. On the other hand, if you like pop, be proud of that fact. Don't apologise for it, and stop trying to make excuses - I'm right there with you. Forget about guilty pleasures and drink-fuelled nostalgia. As a great pop star once sang, music makes the people come together. Let's try and remember that.