Dunkirk: A Ghost Story

 

As a kid I was obsessed with all things spooky and occult. Ghosts, haunted houses, werewolves, anything Gothic was my thing. I used to go to the library and get any and every book of ghost stories on the shelves. I watched Ghostbusters as often as I could, I rented any movie I could find at the video shop that was a horror I was able to under the age of 12 and every vaguely abandoned or spooky house in my area was thoroughly investigated and researched by me. Not that I ever discovered anything. My hope was that somehow my investigations would result in some sort of adventure involving some spirit or monster. It never did. I didn’t want to meet anything too scary but just the sort of things that happened in every Goosebumps book I read. As I got older I graduated to the more scary movies and books but it was also around then I wised up. Ghosts weren’t real. Werewolves, Vampires, Mummies, Zombies and so on, as they appeared on the page and on screen, would never be real. Literally no evidence of them ever existed except in folk tales. It didn’t stop the stories from being fun and exciting but ultimately that sense of mystery and the unexplained was gone. Even the cosmological elements I’d moved onto in my teens like HP Lovecraft, The Thing, etc were removed of any real effect because, while I staunchly believe in life on other planets, there is no way they are ever coming here. It did, however, make me realise that the real and terrifying horror that DOES exist here on Earth is because of us. The depths humanity plumbs at the expense of others never ceases to shock and disgust me. This isn’t the sort of spooky spectacle I was after though. ‘Horror’ and ghost stories as a genre were exciting, vicious, violent and cruel, while human beings are all of that but… less exciting?

In recent years the way we tell ghost stories has changed. Our modern ‘woke’ times don’t really allow for the kind of bump-in-the-night terrors we used to enjoy. The prevalence of ‘Slasher’ movies in the 90s on speaks to how we were keener to address the darkness in ourselves and the real horror therein. Today shows like True Detective have managed to combine the frisson of classic horror, the existential dread of cosmic horror and the miserable darkness caused by people in real society. For this reason, True Detective is one of my all-time favourite shows, along with Edge of Darkness from 80s which achieves a similar level of strange, eeriness along with a depressing realism. None of these however capture that sense of excitement and old-fashioned shivers that reading books about Borley Rectory managed to accomplish. The film that has come closest so far was Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.

As the title of this essay suggests, thinking of Dunkirk, as a ghost story is meant to be unusual. It clearly wasn’t made to be a ghost story, it’s a war movie. A classic suspense war movie like Where Eagles Dare or The Longest Day at that. But the movie has more than a few similarities to the genre than you might think. The most obvious one to me is the threat in the film is never given a human face and barely glimpsed at all. The most you see of the Nazis is their bullets, bombs and planes, until the very end when dark, shadowy figures appear upon the dunes and behind Tom Hardy. They are never even referred to as Nazis or even Germans, the are referred to in the abstract simply as ‘The Enemy’; a ghostly force of nature pressing against the British Expeditionary Forces. A malevolent spirit without a face that hungers for their death. Sounds like a ghost story to me. The protagonists are also trapped in one place, the Beach. Haunted House movies always revolve around a need to escape the limited area they are trapped in but are thwarted by the spirits acting upon them. This is to say nothing of the other meaning of the word ‘Haunting’. We tend to use the word ‘Haunted’ to refer to our past; Previous events that come back to assert their relevance or dominance over current events. Many saw the timing of a story about the British fleeing Europe being released less than a year after the Brexit vote as being a little too on-the-nose, but more significantly it’s telling a story of the amorphous and relentless progress of fascism which is a story everyone needs to hear today, frankly.

In more ways than one Dunkirk is a story about the weight of the past, which ultimately encapsulates everything about Gothic storytelling and this is what makes it a true ghost story. Ghost stories were always warnings of the past coming back to haunt us, be that in family secrets or entire towns and villages caught up in some historical evil they allowed to lie fallow. Today our horror seems to focus primarily on the future, as it should, with our fears of climate change and mutually assured self-destruction if we, as a race, continue on our current path, but by ignoring the way the past can assert itself in a very real way if it is not tended to, properly buried or disrespected in some manner, we run the risk of allowing culture to ignore our past mistakes. The Dunkirk rescue was a disaster, Nolan does not shy from this fact, but as Churchill put it “there is a victory inside this defeat that should be acknowledged”. However, Britain has taken the lesson of British Pluck and tenacity but ignored the lesson of not being routed by fascism. Sexism, racism, the alt-right and all other signposts of a slide towards totalitarianism are on the rise but we treat this as anomalous, attempting to merely bat it down like a still glowing ember of a long-spent fire. By making ‘The Enemy’ faceless but still an ever-present threat, Dunkirk, is a ghost story in its truest sense: a warning from history.

The true test of a horror story or scary folk tale was the validity of its monster. Far from being literal, the creatures of classic horror are representative of genuine fears: Dracula was a horror story about disease and class, Werewolves about unchecked masculinity, Frankenstein the fear of science, Zombies with their slow unstoppable trudge embody death itself shambling for us, arms outstretched. A horror story should speak to us on a fundamental level about deep fears or genuine concerns of the time. Ghosts, ghouls and goblins have long since had their day in the mainstream, in the digital age such things don’t scare us. Despite being set nearly 80 years ago Dunkirk manages to tell a story about a very real and present danger to almost everyone in the world today and it does it by not even showing us the monster. You know, like all good ghost stories should.

Why Aren't We Suspicious of Netflix?

 

The title says it all really. In an age where we are keen to question and condemn anything and everyone, because it does not fit with our very specific ideas of ‘correctness’, why does Netflix get a free ride? Because they really aren’t as wholesome as everyone seems to treat them. They recently disclosed they have close to 140 million users worldwide, and with each profile contributing a minimum of $6 a month, that means they are earning well over $800 million dollars a month, yet a Fader article also recently pointed out they are $20 billion in debt. This means nothing however as their business model “promotes growth”, apparently, and it’s only a problem if those loaning the money want to collect. Which they won’t. At least not while everyone bangs on about every single new show that drops, as soon as it drops, on social media. The Netflix accounts on Twitter even utilise the data they collect on viewers to interact with them online: “To the 53 people who’ve watched A Christmas Prince everyday for the last 18 days: Who hurt you?” was a recent tweet. Ignoring the fact, it was doubtless 53 ghost accounts created by a production company to cycle through their content once a day to keep their viewing figures active, this tweet and others like it show an alarming amount of specificity in what Netflix knows about its users regarding who watches what and when, yet they don’t seem to care who knows it. So, why aren’t we more suspicious of Netflix?

At a time when a large portion of America are desperate for the President to be impeached due to collusion with election tampering Russian bot accounts – or whatever the hell it is they think happened – and when Cambridge Analytica are forced to disappear without a trace after provably having invaded the privacy of millions via Facebook for data mining reasons, why are we not keeping a wary distance from the global company that retain our bank information and know exactly what device we are using and when and, for that matter, where? This is a company that recently created a consumer questionnaire in the form of a feature episode of Black Mirror, that now knows whether you like Frosties or Sugar Puffs. Useful information to sell to advertisers, no? It’s also a company who now offers the ability to download their content (via an installed app) that probably doesn’t come with malware, but isn’t that what Facebook told us too? Netflix are known for not releasing their figures and their latest data release was pathetically thin on information. It amounted to little more than a rough guess-timate of their number of overall users (exact numbers fluctuate due to cancellations; daily increasing subscription and the fact multiple individuals use one account) and how many accounts watched their latest ‘Blockbuster’ Bird Box. In short, this is a HUGE multinational corporation that is making billions of dollars, that controls a substantial amount of cultural consumption and dialogue around media, with access to an increasing amount of our personal information, who is not, and has no intention of being, transparent with its own data and finances. Again, why aren’t we suspicious of Netflix?

Netflix is a boom company that only seems to grow larger by the day. It gutted the video rental industry in just a couple of years at the turn of the century and placed itself perfectly as the new media template after the 2008 crash as the ‘mobile premium content delivery service’ for those of us now stuck in the gig economy with no way out. For a generation of workers who live by their laptops from contract to contract, subsisting on coffee shops using their free WiFi because they can’t afford it at home, who are forced to move every six months due to climbing rents and stagnating wages, Netflix is there for you, wherever you are, with its hashtag relatable content and jokey, matey comradery. This is because it doesn’t just buy in and host your favourite media from other sources, it makes them too.

In a Variety article in 2016 CFO David Wells said Netflix want to be hosting 50% their own content “within a few years”. They seem to be on track to meet that target and more. It seems likely they will be closer to 80% by the early 2020s. They are also doing their best to be taken seriously as an artistic medium, enticing big name directors and stars like David Fincher, The Coen Brothers and Alfonso Cuaron. Netflix is seen as a platform that makes space for experimentation for the more creatively minded writers, directors and performers Out There, with many A-list celebrities praising the encouragement the studio offers. A favourite director of mine, Jeremy Saulnier, along with his creative sometimes-partner Macon Blair, have found a home there, delighted that they are able to tell their strange, dark stories with little compromise, and for that I am very grateful. However, there is a reason the joke persists that Netflix’s slogan should be “Hi we’re Netflix, you’re Greenlit.” Their propensity for hoovering up productions and talent has produced some good (rarely great) output, but has mainly produced either utterly forgettable chaff or plain old stinkers. Films like the Cloverfield Paradox and Bright were high profile turkeys but there is a vast undercurrent of content churning below the surface of their recommendation algorithm that is pure effluence, little seen by most users and only exists to cater to a tiny but consistent market. This gives Netflix the feeling of what one Twitter user called ‘a modern straight-to-video dumping ground’ but because of its ‘store front’ based UI and near constant overturn of productions these can be quickly buried in favour of whatever show or movie has positive buzz around it. Its budgeting also means that while fully fledged cinema like Roma can be produced by Netflix, they can rarely fund movies to the same level as a Warner Brothers or a Disney. This creates the sensation when watching something like ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ that the Coen’s are constrained by a limited budget (the finale of that movie in particular is where the limits of its budget shows). This means that while Netflix attract talent with offers of creative freedom, they are still bound by budgeting issues. Those merchandising cheques cover a lot more than we think, eh Disney? And while it never outright lies about its productions, Netflix is very careful about how it manages presentation and expectation, which means it now sits in a unique position where it can neither be seen as a modern legacy production studio nor as a low-to-no budget producer of video nasties. Unlike, say, HBO, who have a reputation for producing less content but at an outstanding quality, a fact that, ironically, is about to change due to the recent acquisition of Time Warner (HBO’s parent company) by AT&T who have stated they want HBO to be “more like Netflix” *sigh*. While Netflix’s method is, on the one hand praised for “disrupting” the choke hold of Hollywood’s production and distribution method, it can also be criticised for disrupting it in the wrong way. The old model and the new Netflix model are both based on maximising profit, whereas Netflix are in the arguably ‘future proofed’ position to capitalise on the high-turnover, “infinite scroll” of modern media. Neither model is actually sustainable however (as I’ll explain), so given their clear contempt for quality control, half-hearted creative investment and desire for an industry monopoly, why aren’t we more suspicious of Netflix?

This is all without mentioning the fact that they are the leaders in market demand for a global pivot toward ‘Streaming Only’ content, which presents us with another problem. Streaming is not a heritage format. We only have a roughly twenty-year time frame for the reliability of digital storage and I don’t know anyone who has kept something digital for that long. I am desperate to recover the data from my 11-year-old Mac that just died and am coming up against a brick wall of people sucking their teeth and shaking their head when I ask how to retrieve the not-that-old data. Built in obsolescence regarding hardware can perhaps be avoided by streaming at least but that is still relying on maintenance by Netflix to keep everything available. You only need to read about the recent trouble customers have had with iTunes deleting purchased items from people’s libraries to understand that digital copies of media are not forever. And lest we forget, huge companies go bust all the time, often without warning. The internet is not forever and nor is Netflix. With the entire globe unable to predict how things will be in a year’s time, let alone five, relying on Netflix to archive your favourite shows and movies is perhaps a little presumptuous. As soon as things take a turn for Netflix and the administrators move in for that $20 billion, you will only be able to watch in horror as your entire library vanishes in an instant. Trust me. I was a Vine user, this happens. To that end, why do we still trust Netflix?

Whilst this may all come off as hysterical and conspiratorial thinking, none of these issues would sit comfortably with any of us if it were any other company. Naturally, I have a Netflix account but I’m careful with my information on it, I pay through a third-party app for instance, but I still watch what I want through it. Its algorithm is probably aware of my age, gender and location, which, for a lot of advertising companies is valuable data. But this data, I’m sad to say, is pretty public domain at this point. We all use Google, or iTunes, Facebook, or Amazon (although I don’t use those last two and neither should you), who are all brazen about how little a shit they give about your privacy, to say nothing of Snowden’s revelations that we’re all being listened to by various government agencies anyway. The demand for privacy today seems tragically antiquated, but my reason for calling out Netflix is not purely their shady, late-stage-capitalism business practices, it’s more to do with how we interact with them. We have become willing marketing partners by sharing memes and viral posts about “are you still watching?” and “Netflix and chill”, all with a thick glaze of humour and chumminess that Netflix has been happy to foster. Their lack of transparency also aids this decision by customers to project a friendly image onto a company who uses a dark red emblem on a black background as their logo. Netflix have managed to position themselves so that they are a multi-national, profit driven company that has a controlling stake in the creative media we consume and mines our personal data, which in today’s highly suspicious and cynical era should set alarm bells ringing, but purely because they create entertainment and art, the public does not subject them to the same rigours of inquisition as other corporations and certainly doesn’t question them as heavily as say, Disney. We all know Disney is a monstrous, litigious, exploitative, soulless company that favours wealth over creativity, but we love what they produce so we somehow resolve this cognitive dissonance by being visibly critical of the Mouse House while still going to see all the Marvel movies and the Frozen sequel. Netflix, on the other hand, has generated no dissonance whatsoever. We all unreservedly love the Big Red N and are happy to contribute to their take over of the entertainment industry while patting them on the back and cheering them on.

I am not asking you to delete your Netflix, I am asking you to think very carefully about how much of it you watch and what you are contributing to it in return for what you get out of it. Netflix don’t exist to make Quality Content Online, they exist for profit and the Leviathan that is digital media today enables them to rake that in at an astonishing rate. The $800 million a month unlikely goes back into production, I’d wager most of that goes to CEOs. Netflix, much like Disney and Warner Bros, have a strangle hold on our cultural conversation but we treat Netflix as the alternative, the Saviour, the ‘Disruptor’. Why? Why aren’t we more suspicious of Netflix?

The John Lewis Effect

It’s that time of year kids, advertising for Xmas begins. Now I must preface this Essay (rant) with the fact that I unironically love Christmas and December. Autumn is my favourite time of year for sure but December is a lovely month that despite all the commercialisation and marketing is a time when you’re encouraged to be nice to one another, spend time with people you love and wrap up warm and get cosy and do nice things like read books, watch favourite films and take nice walks with friends. It’s a great way to end the year and never fails to make me happy and look forward to the next year with greater cheer and promise.

That being said; fuck John Lewis.

I don’t remember which of the maudlin, manipulative, bourgeoisie recruitment videos came first but they laid the template for the modern trend of incredibly high budget, very long adverts for television that normally revolve around some sort of deeply nauseating, idealised depiction of suburban family life that is alien to 90% of us. I mean overall I find the whole thing irritating but this saccharine gunk is so offensive on a human level that it genuinely makes me sick. On an artistic level however, they’re cynical, soulless garbage. Similar to the way charity marketing is emotionally manipulative and cruel to both the people they depict and the people they hope to wrest some cash from, John Lewis has created a template for their Averageness Propaganda that has become an annual event. Imagine that? An advertising campaign for Christmas that becomes a yearly national talking point in and of itself. The marketing team must be RAKING it in.

So what is this perfect formula that generates such a huge buzz and made an entire industry copy them in the hope of catching the same wave of online discussion? Well first you need to spend a fortune. I just googled it and apparently the first one was the silhouette of a girl and a dog created by John Lewis products blocking the light. You may remember a rash of similar ads at that time in the UK because of the shadow puppet group that either won or got to the finals of Britain’s Got Talent (I don’t know, I don’t care) and subsequently they, or pale imitations, were in a load of adverts at the time. Despite that, you can see the formula begin to emerge: simple shots, well lit sets, perfectly choreographed imagery, focus on the product and relating to either children, a character or some form of nostalgic image, in the case of the silhouette it’s a girl in a scarf, her dog and some snow. The operative part of this campaign is the focus on the products and how they quite literally construct the image of an idealised Christmas.

The next one is really when they found their groove. This time a stronger focus on the person. Shots of the ‘Standard’ family members we all have then a hard cut to the product or ‘Perfect Gift’. Again, beautifully lit, no dialogue, perfectly staged, iconic images associated with Christmas placed alongside the products, but this time the real breakthrough. The thing that has stuck with advertising campaigns the world over ever since and seems to never go away: the bloody effing music. Some twee, stripped back, piano only, ‘reimagining’ of the Beatles classic “From Me To You”. And that was it. That’s the formula. Nary would they stray from this potent, cloying, saccharin form of nostalgia porn.

Thereafter it got more ambitious and more child focussed, all about the kids and gifts (products) and some nauseating short story about them. But always the fucking music. After the Beatles it was “Sweet Child O’Mine” done on a piano, then it was ‘Your Song’ by Elton John and yeah alright that one was originally on a piano but this time it was ELLIE GOULDING, and then it was the Smiths done on a piano. Oh and that year they hit upon another little doozy to add to the formula: a Twist. You see the kid waiting for Christmas – big AWWWWW. DON’T YOU REMEMBER IT BEING LIKE THAT?! AWWW – except OH SHIT no he was waiting to GIVE his present to his parents all along! Of course, this is utter bullshit and no child actively runs past unopened presents to give his parents a gift, that’s laughable. It’s an idealised magical realm where unappreciated parents can live out their upper middle class dreams in this pocket fantasy land of expensive consumer goods and children that thank you for getting into debt for the toys they’ve been begging for over the last six months that they will promptly break by the end of Boxing Day. Either way, this was the biggest hit so far and warranted the most discussion at the time which meant next year was going to be REALLY important.

Well this time it’s an update of the Snowman in which a static effigy of crystallised water, trudges across a wilderness, that I think is meant to be Britain but instead looks more like Middle Earth via Harry Potter via half a bottle of Sherry, to get his apparently female snow companion (I’m not sure what gender they describe themselves as because THEY’RE FUCKING SNOWPEOPLE) a pair of gloves and a hat, ignoring the pretty fucking huge lapse in judgement that SHE’S MADE OF FUCKING SNOW AND THEREFORE HER MEAN TEMPERATURE NEEDS TO REMAIN BELOW FREEZING. From which we can only derive that this snowman is actually trying to kill his companion in an incredibly roundabout way for reasons so dark that man cannot tell what icy slurry pours through their black heart and what evil reason compels him forth on this journey of death. Unlike the Snowman book and animation where the scarf the boy is gifted doesn’t have a price tag and ISBN barcode to find online, no that one is just a sign of a child’s imagination and a representation of the kindness of the season and how friendship and companionship is what makes Christmas so special, but what’s the point in that if you can’t fucking SELL IT am I right? So that one’s a huge hit OBVIOUSLY because this time it’s Gabrielle Aplin singing a – YOU GUESSED IT – piano only cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Power of Love. Now it’s become a game of guess the song for next year.

Next year? It’s Lily Allen’s PIANO ONLY COVER of ‘Somewhere Only We Know’. A shit song by a shit band covered not entirely different to the original but whatever fuck it right? It sounds Christamssy and magical because at this point folksy, soft voiced piano covers of alternative classic just equal Christmas ALRIGHT? Anyway, this year it’s a fully hand-drawn animation with hints of Watership Down and the Animals of Farthing Wood cartoons. You know? Those animations that were in no way mentally scarring to an entire generation and ultimately about the horrors of animal nature and the grotesque, monstrosities humanity enacts on the natural world in the name of industrialisation and consumerism? Those stories, yeah. But nothing means anything anymore so whatever. There’s a cute bear and a bunny in it and they’re off to hibernate or actually they’re off to see the Christmas tree that has been magically decorated in the middle of the forest. But the bear gets a John Lewis alarm clock that wakes him up? I think? I don’t know but the point is, this is the formula and we’re sticking to it now. Nostalgia, piano cover, expensive production values, narrative tied to product. Boom. What’s in store next year?

Turns out they’ve given up on the more abstract narratives about non-human effigies and animals that celebrate a festival of their comrades being eaten. This one has the same gist as the gift giving one a few years back (I guess the anthropomorphic ice crystals didn’t go down well with the key demographics) but this time it’s about a real live penguin which OH WAIT turns out to be a cuddly toy the little boy loves, and he’s got it a friend. Cue the sound of gushing water as a million mothers and fathers across the country burst into tears, hug their child closer, then venture to the attic to find their own favourite cuddly toy that has a family of mice now living in it because you haven’t given a shit about it for twenty years. The genius that year was first, the Penguin had a name and became a featured product in stores and second there was a Hashtag to go with it so you could all bleat about how fucking beautiful childhood is while savage cuts to education and public services shutting down libraries meant that generation of children may own Monty the Fucking Penguin but would struggle to achieve basic reading standards. Oh and the music? It’s an experimental electro jazz fusion rendition of Mendelshonn’s Songs Without – just kidding! It’s A PIANO ONLY COVER of John Lennon’s unrecorded ‘Real Love’, because a stuffed penguin is REAL love you ninnys!

And on and on it goes, there’s one about a paedophile that lives on the moon, presumably banished there so he can no longer harm the people of Earth, this time to a PIANO ONLY COVER of Oasis B-Side and theme to Royale Family, Half the World Away. Then its foxes on a trampoline because who fucking cares anymore? Then it was a monster under the bed to sell a book. And this year? WHO CARES?! The damage is done. The formula is set in stone. Even if John Lewis were to buck the trend and do something truly revolutionary like show one of their stores and play an ACTUAL FUCKING CHRISTMAS CAROL it’s too late! Every other company with a big enough budget will churn out an identikit simulacrum with some god awful piano or acoustic cover of some well known ‘alternative’ song. Sometimes it goes wrong. Remember when Sainsbury’s copied it that year of the WWI anniversary with the advert set in the trenches? Three and a half maudlin minutes of ill-thought out pandering that shows British and German forces becoming chums in the famous ‘No Man’s Land Footbal Match’ of 1914 that ends with a crass push in on the Sainsbury’s chocolate bar. Ignoring the fact they all either killed or were killed by those Germans the next day and those Sainsbury’s chocolates probably fell into the dirt and got blown to mulch by heavy arms fire. But it just goes to show that now, nothing is sacred, because they’ve found the formula. You know why? Because it WORKS.

I went back and rewatched all these bloody ads and by the end of each I ended up teary eyed with a lump in my throat. Because Christmas is about childhood, the nostalgia of the time, the companionship, the ability to overcome differences and recognise our similarities, the willingness to forego any issues we have and do what needs to be done for the greater good, to be forced to think about one another, to endure the various traditions just so we can spend some special moments with those we love that, so in their turn they become precious, sacred memories we all carry through our lives and we’ll have a fond and warm feeling to look back on in darker times. It’s why Christmas is so special to me and millions of others and its why these fucking ads are so successful. Because they’re right. And I hate it. I hate that this lovely, wonderful feeling can be manipulated and tied to such a totem of conformity and mundanity as fucking John Lewis! That it can be used to specifically target products at emotionally vulnerable people and make you equate abstract and nuanced emotions with high margin sale units. It’s the cynical yet deft way this formula is now used to ascertain peak emotional response and engagement with the Brand which can be converted into their bottom line. John Lewis’ campaigns of the last 10 years collect all that I love about December and squash it together with all that I loathe. I will never stop finding Christmas a genuinely magical and beautiful time of year that brings out the best in everyone but equally it shows up the absolute worst things about society and how the machinery of our culture sees us all. As grist for the fucking mill.

This year ignore the fucking John Lewis ad. I hate that I’ve written two thousand words on the bloody thing. Don’t tweet about it. Don’t give the video your views. Watch an old home movie of your own Christmas instead. Give your family or friends a hug and ask them what their favourite Christmas memory was. Take your kids out to look at the lights. Get everyone together and play a game or watch a film. Get everyone to read their favourite Christmas book aloud. Do something that these evil, cynical, manipulative, shallow, heartless adverts tell you everyone else is doing and the only way to achieve it is by buying their products, but do it without a company telling you how. Make a memory they can’t put in their expensive, nauseating ads. A moment that can only occur because only your grandma, dad, partner, child, best friend could have possibly said or done the thing that makes the moment so memorable. Don’t wait for a business to tell you to feel something, just go and do it.

Oh and shop local and independent. The high street is dying, do your bit.

Retro-Review: Magic and Medicine

Retro Review: Magic and Medicine

 

The Coral enjoyed a brief success in the early 2000s with their single Dreaming of You which was something of hit and got used in a lot of adverts and TV shows. I had never heard their first album but if it’s anything like their second album they seem something of an anomaly. Magic and Medicine from 2002 is an outright 60s nostalgia album that feels 10 years too late seeing as that revival had its day in the 90s and we were then on the cusp of this god awful nu-wave synth 80s revival we’ve been living through for the last 15 years. But for that very reason it stands out as much today as it did then.

I bought Magic and Medicine on a whim. I only knew Dreaming of You but liked the look of the cover and had heard good things from musician friends. I was surprised then to find them to be a electric/acoustic psychedelic mid 60s band. A cross between The Kinks at their best and The Band (certainly the album cover is reminiscent of Songs from the Big Pink). The production on the album borders on pastiche at times, barely a single ‘modern’ sound is heard on the album. Certainly everything is clear and well mixed – not something that can be said of a lot of 60s records – but the sounds all feel “authentic” to the 60s for want of a better word. Guitars sound thin, bass is rumbley, Drums are over compressed and set back, organs and flutes are more camp than cool, all the instruments and effects are made to sound free from any digital intervention, then combine that with everything being covered in bright and springy reverb and you’ve got a lost 60s folk classic.

The songs are equally well observed approximations of the then Avant Garde invasion of the pop charts. Multiple tempo changes in several songs, spoken word, chatter and sound effects dropped in here and there, references to Dylan Thomas and leaping from retro-genre to retro-genre. From blues to folk ballad, from French Cha-Cha to psychedelic jams, all the bases are covered. Lyrically the songs are equally a tribute to the trippy poetry found in mid-60s music charts too, with songs that are tragic biographies a la Eleanor Rigby, literary allusions, stoned out explorations of the Universe, pining for manic pixie dream girls and lots of spreading love maaaaan.

I got this album when I was heavy into my Kinks phase, so it couldn’t have been better timed. I loved it. It got played on repeat a lot in my first flat and listening back to it now I can see what an influence it had on my song writing of the time. My friend and guitarist pal Chris and I went to London to go and see them at the Empire in fact. A gig indelibly imprinted on my mind thanks to a group of girls stood in front of us having to drag their wasted friend out after she threw up before the gig even started. Chris and I stayed where we were because it meant we had a clear view in front of us for the rest of the show. Anyway, the gig was great. They were touring this album so I knew the majority of the set and they played Dreaming of You early instead of saving it for the encore which I was pleased about. I remember the stage being decked out in trees and art to the album cover image. There was also way more than six people on stage which gave it a lively party feel alongside the wig-out jams they got into at times.

Listening back to it now for this review was a weird experience because I basically abandoned the band after all that. I stopped listening to the album thanks to lots of new stuff coming out, I never bought anything else of theirs and kind of forgot they existed. As such, listening to Magic and Medicine again was itself a trippy experience. The deliberately retro sound combined with the early pro-tools sheen creates a weird dissonance that creeps up on you as the tracks progress. As mentioned earlier it borders on pastiche at times and while it is admirable they went all in on that sound it is ultimately to the album’s detriment. There are some great songs here that should probably have been given a more contemporary treatment but instead sit alongside a whole album of material that seems to just exist to remind you of past songs from a fascinating era. In the same way as the Last Shadow Puppets just looked like a tribute band Magic and Medicine undermines the obvious talent and material in the band by demanding to be “authentically” old sounding, sadly, they succeed all too well. This is by no means a bad album, the music is really great and as an experiment it proves this sort of thing can be done convincingly, but ultimately it sounds like it’s from a lost era. Unfortunately, it’s not the era they were hoping for.

Stand out tracks are, well, all of them. In that brilliant way of bands from the 60s every song is a different genre with a different sound. An ability I have always tried to replicate in all my own albums. Bill McCai is the main single and is the most ‘poppy’ for the time and is lyrically the most interesting. Secret Kiss is the most convincingly retro but comes across as amusing rather than a groovy tune. Milkwood Blues and Confession of ADD are the most overtly trippy and psychedelic tunes that owe a lot to John Lennon. But Pass It On is the underrated gem here, should have been a hit. A simple tune that with a lovely chorus that should have captured the mood of the time and deserves a new audience. The Coral sit alongside bands like the Bees as acts who should have directed their love for this ‘vintage’ sound into newer avenues as opposed to letting it dominate their own sound. It robs them of their own identity and only results in an unfavourable comparison. Still a great album but you’ll want to listen to your own favourite 60s band immediately after and, like I did, probably forget all about it afterwards.

Retro-Review: Reveal

 

I’ll be honest I’d forgotten this album existed. Which was a shock considering how much I love it. REM were the first band I ‘got-into’ as a young teen. My brother got me Automatic for the People for Christmas one year and it was all I listened to for a long time until Ben Folds Five came along and changed my life. While New Adventures in Hi-Fi remains my favourite REM album, I loved (almost) everything the did in the 90s. I generally deem the 90s as their best era. You can split a lot of REM fans into whether they are fans of early or late REM (no one likes the last two albums though) in the same way the Beatles get separated into pre and post Sgt Pepper. Like all 80s music I’m generally ‘meh’ about 80s REM - undeniably excellent though it is - and feel they really came into their own in the 90s, which is why it was such a disappointment when Around the Sun came out in 2004 and was so utterly rubbish. Accelerate was better but is simply okay and therefore a sad final bow for one of the greatest bands of the 20th century.

Reveal came after Up from 1998 which was met with confusion by a listening public who had got used to their post-grunge-pop wonderfulness and were presented with a very different sound. Up was made in the midst of drummer Bill Berry leaving the band and the remaining members seeing if they could continue. I love Up, it’s different but in a good way. Darker, more electronic, but still fiercely melodic. There was still the backlash though so the band went into creative hibernation for a bit. Then, with little fanfare, Reveal was announced in 2001 and the initial singles of Imitation of Life and All The Way To Reno chimed with the music they made for the Jim Carrey car crash Man on the Moon. The single The Great Beyond from that movie was a hit, however, so it made sense they would go with this more upbeat, sun-kissed sound for an entire album. And it works. If Up was all dark, electronic introspection, Reveal is Brian Wilson-esque, sun-bleached, psychedelic wonder.

Listening to this album again after probably 10 years, prior to which I over listened to it, is a strange experience. I had forgotten just how hard 60s Psychedelia they went. Pulsing and throbbing phasers and tremolos in nearly every track give it a woozy wobbly sound, combined with the odd chirps, clicks and pops that are sampled and overlaid in every song, twangy baritone guitars and silky smooth organs all culminate in an audio soundscape that means you can almost feel the hot sun beating down on you. The overall mid-tempo beats also slow the whole thing down to a gentle summer stroll. Of course, Peter Buck’s luscious picking guitar and Mike Mills rich, melodic Bass is all over it too which sits perfectly in the middle of the dreamscape but its Michael Stipe’s vocals that seem to have really found their home. Stipe’s typically abstract lyricism combined with his frail and emotional delivery captures the 60s surf/psychedelic influence so well, but for the first time the lyrics have a shared characteristic for a whole album. The Sun is almost a recurring character in the album while dragonflies, butterflies, bluejays, cottoned candy, sugar cane, lemonade, beaches, even Gallileo all get a mention across the 12 songs. Stipe knows what this album is doing and goes all in on the imagery and it creates a cohesion to the whole thing that positively envelops you. Even the album art reflects the sun-soaked air of delight. Listening to this on a cold, grey October day in the UK I could feel sun on the back of my neck and heat haze off the highway. It takes a lot to transport you through music to somewhere you’ve never been or known but this album manages it consistently.

None of this is to say the album is ‘samey’. The album has its darker moments, like in She Just Wants To Be, the acoustic guitars come out and Saturn Return sounds like a lost transmission from outer space but on the whole Reveal is about that lazy summer feeling you get, meant to be played as a whole to capture a long day on the beach or on a road trip. It’s a concept album in that sense. You even have I’ll Take The Rain toward the end that acts like a summer shower hissing off the hot tarmac and the petrichor filling your senses. It’s a testament to what can be achieved when a unit as talented as REM fall behind a unifying idea and goes all in on it. An album that was such a burst of creative energy and so rich with feeling, Reveal was an immediate hit. Five stars in every review, applauded by fans and critics alike it hailed the return of one of the 90s best bands and set them up for a perfect trajectory into the 21st century. The summer of 2001 was a long hot delight and Reveal was its soundtrack.

And then 9/11 brought it to a crashing end. An event whose shadow casts long into today, shaping the 21st century in a way nobody expected. The bleak misery that followed, the political and military fallout, and cultural distrust is what laid the road to the mess we’re in now. Consequently, Reveal looks hopelessly antiquated and wincingly naïve looking back on it. Ironically Up is better suited to the cynical nihilism of today’s culture but instead Reveal’s upbeat positivity seems a product of a lost time. REM struggled to adjust and 10 years and two albums later they called it a day having never reached the dizzy heights of Reveal again. A really sad ending to my mind. I saw them live not long before they broke up (thank goodness) and don’t recall them playing a single song off Reveal at the gig. It got buried by history. The final track Beachball’s message of hope: “you’ll do fine” has such a bitter irony to it now it’s almost unlistenable. But at the time this album was a bona fide hit. Number 1 in the charts, hit singles, glowing reviews, as a fan it was great to hear everyone enjoying one of my favourite bands as the new millennium got going, the future looked bright and Reveal reflects that optimism. An optimism that’s now very dead. It seems prophetic the other album from the year that was a huge hit was the pitch-black debut ‘Gorillaz’ which, looking back now, seems a little too prophetic. Years later, Damon Albarn of Gorillaz would go back to his 90s band Blur and record Magic Whip which feels like the spiritual ‘post 9/11’ sequel to Reveal. Probably not intentional but still worth noting.

Hindsight is a funny thing, but it puts Reveal in such an unflattering context it breaks my heart. It’s undoubtedly one of REM’s best, it just came out too late. Or too early. Please go back to it if you know it, it’s a beautiful album and comes with its own pair of rose-tinted glasses for anyone who got it when it came out. If you don’t know it, you’re in for a treat. Turn up the heating, lie back in a bathing costume and imagine you’re on a beach somewhere hot. Better still, take it to a hot beach and enjoy. You’ll do fine.

Standout tracks, like always, are the singles. Imitation of Life and All The Way To Reno plant the flag for the super sunny psychedelia but its I’ll Take The Rain that takes the crown. The perfect album capper that has hints of REM at their hopeful, uplifting best, akin to Nightswimming, et al. Personal favourites though are I’ve Been High that is like a blissful emotional soup I would listen to over and over as a 17 year old, She Just Wants To Be that was more like the New Adventures darkness I loved, and Beachball is all kinds of Beatles/Beach Boys gorgeousness I was so happy to rediscover upon relistening to write this review. A shot of pure summer joy, Reveal is an instant cure for what ails you. See what it reveals to you.

Retro-Review: Strangers

 

I was going to leave this one till last in this series of reviews of albums from 2000 – 2006 but I re-listened to it recently with my fiancé as I am introducing her to Ed Harcourt. Ed’s been a BIG musical influence on me since I first heard his first album Here Be Monsters back in the early 2000s. Not only that but he responded to my first and only fan letter I’ve ever written and has remembered me the handful of times I’ve met him in person after gigs. He’s a lovely chap and has been encouraging of a young musician he barely knows for no reason other than it’s a nice thing to do. I am, therefore, biased and predisposed to extoll his virtues at any opportunity. His music means a lot to me and so does my partner so I’m keen to introduce her to some of my favourite artists she doesn’t know, as music is a common passion between us and we have similar tastes. Unfortunately, I have always struggled with Strangers. And yet it is probably Ed Harcourt’s best album.

As these reviews are turning out to be biographical in nature, Strangers came out at an odd time. September 2004 I was 20 years old, had been living in my own place for nearly two years and was dating my first serious girlfriend. It was also six months before my Dad died. I had been anticipating its release for a while thanks to the postcard Ed sent me telling me he was in Sweden recording it and was such a big fan of his first two records that a third was a must-have. It was disappointing then that when I did buy it on the day of release and put it on as soon as I got home I didn’t really enjoy it. Strangers is a completely different animal from Harcourt’s previous albums and the sound of the album is totally different. Jari Haapalainen’s production is sparse and glacial, everything is drenched in thick, dark reverb giving the record a distant and melancholy sound, a sound that marries well with the steely grey of the album artwork. It is also more cohesive than his previous albums. While the style, instrumentation and tempo of the tracks vary wildly, the production is so uniform they all sound similar. What would normally be considered a plus for an album I grumpily saw as a minus. I didn’t want the album to sound like a cohesive whole, I wanted the Beatles-esque, madcap variety of Here Be Monsters and From Every Sphere, with its emotional peaks and troughs. Instead I got a more mature, slightly bleak album that is much richer in imagery but with more oblique subject matter. In short, I didn’t get it.

Two years later, Ed’s fourth and final album with Heavenly Recordings The Beautiful Lie, came out and was much more like what I expected from Harcourt to the point that I utterly dismissed Strangers as an anomaly and considered TBL the correct part of the continuity after From Every Sphere. It is only years later I reconsidered this as a Bad Take. Strangers’ delights are many but only observed in its entirety. As stated, the songs on the album are less individual, the production means tracks don’t stand out as much despite being ‘louder’ or ‘happier’ or ‘more aggressive’. They carry a slightly cold uniformity that blends them into one but creates a definitive sound for the album that no one else can approximate. It is an inimitable album in the truest sense of that word: even if you wanted to, you could not imitate it. As the production resists interpretation other than as a whole it demands you value the tracks in another way, which means actually listening to the songs and making up your own mind. And this is why it is perhaps Harcourt’s best album. His songs on Strangers are probably the best he has written to date. Unfailingly melodic, lyrically complex and deeply varied the songs on the album are almost all masterpieces. Re-listening again recently I was shocked at how well created and distinct each track is and how the production doesn’t overstate the mood or topic of the song. This made me want all albums to be made in the same way. In a time when production is what sells a song I found myself longing for a time when the production gets out of the way and lets the actual music do the talking. It’s a testament to how alien that is though, that it took me over a decade to decode this. Ed is one of the greatest underrated songwriters of our times and Strangers is proof positive of his abilities.

The personnel on the album is small, basically amounting to Jari and Ed playing all the instruments with occasional contributions from friends like Hadrian Garrard on Trumpet or Ed’s wife Gita on Violin. The instrumentation is fantastic however, the title track being an exemplar. A tight and close Wurli keyboard is front and centre with no reverb while the electric guitar has 50s surf levels of reverb on it, combine that with the kazoo solo towards the end and you have a really unique sound set. Synths, strings, acoustic 12 string guitars, megaphones, clavinets, tubular bells and more fill the album but all covered in that a cool, dark, spacious reverb. It’s amazing how crammed with inventive musicality a record can be while simultaneously being so stark. My brother was similarly dismissive of the album as I was on release, stating it was Harcourt’s ‘Jeff Buckley Album’. Personally, I don’t hear the similarity other than that both albums are filled with melodic and interesting songs that are well sung but I imagine it has something to do with that starkness.

Looking back on Strangers now is a strange experience. Unlike Ed’s other albums I have barely listened to Strangers over the years which means when I return to it now it conjures up some genuinely complex and rather painful memories and associated emotions. This One’s For You is particularly emotive due to its theme’s of screwing up relationships and its overall melancholy sound. I used to cover it at gigs but the intervening 15 years or so has distanced it from more recent life events meaning it only ever refers to that time in my life. In short, Strangers is an album by a musician and songwriter at the height of his powers recording with a producer that had a definite sound they wanted for an album, all of which culminates in one of the most mature and intelligent pieces of music made this millennium. It really is remarkable, but it took me the better part of two decades to recognise that fact. To me though, Strangers is inextricably linked to my first relationships, living alone for the first time and the period leading up to my father passing away. It’s a loaded album for me and the fact its ‘Sound’ is so inextricably linked to its content means Strangers will always be a difficult album to listen to. Ed Harcourt is a national treasure few have heard of and should be better appreciated by the world at large and Strangers is, to my mind, one of – if not his actual – best album to date. Not only that, Ed’s a bloody nice bloke and you should support him even if you don’t like his music because he and his music have helped me at some pretty rough junctures in my life. Thanks, Ed.

Standout tracks would be The Storm is Coming which is the sort of song Coldplay wish they could write, This One’s For You which is just achingly beautiful and Loneliness which should have been a bigger single but, again, I feel the production worked against it. My personal favourite song is the epic Kids which feels like it was a lost track from Bowie’s Heroes era but better (not a Bowie fan myself). The album operates better as whole however. The tracks bounce off one another but are inside the same whole like balls in a tombola. Like the other albums I’ve been reviewing, it’s worth your time to just take an hour and sit down and listen to it from start to finish. I’d love to know what you make of it. Especially if you were not aware of Ed Harcourt previously.

Retro-Review: Fire

 

I really don’t think the question “What Music Are You Into?” carries any weight anymore. I don’t think anyone listens exclusively to one genre of music these days. Even if you are outwardly a ‘metaller’ or a ‘mod’, I can guarantee you don’t JUST listen to those genres. All of which lends itself to my theory that genre is a creation of The Market and serves no purpose to art whatsoever. If I had to pigeonhole myself I’d probably say I preferred Garage Blues/Punk (?) but that discounts a lot of music I love. What is slightly easier to define is the sort of SOUND I like, which is very different. Across the board for all the genres I like there is a production sound to recordings and live performances I prefer. It basically amounts to a rough-round-the-edges performance captured with enough space between the instruments to hear them individually. Some people call this a ‘live’ sound, some a ‘Garage’ sound but it applies to a lot of different styles. There are classical recordings I much prefer because of the performance and the way it was captured in much the same way as I like the Propellerhead’s album which is a ‘Dance’ album has an ‘openness’ to it I love. One album that exemplified this method of ignoring a single genre identity and pushing itself through a very rough round-the-edges approach is Fire by Electric Six.

My housemate bought Fire along with The Darkness’ Permission to Land way back when and we both sat down to listen to them. Both were resolutely tongue in cheek and had a good sense of humour about their music, though I suspect The Darkness took it much more seriously. My housemate as a huge Queen fan ended up preferring The Darkness whereas I loved Fire so much I ended up buying my own copy. The fact Gay Bar was their lead single and such a big hit was a hint as to what the album is like but while that track does encapsulate the sound of the album, Fire ends up being much more than that. Electric Six aren’t interested in a particular genre. Despite references to Discos, Dancefloors and Synthesizers, the instrumentation and arrangements aim more at a kind of crappy, mid-80s ‘Metal’ sound, rather than any booty-shakin beats. In turn, the lyrics are deliberately opposed to that as well. Like the wonderfully subversive nature of Gay Bar, other songs on Fire have themes of sex, dancing, violence and militarism. Songs about blackmailing senators, sex in cars, dance commanders, mad scientists, pandemic plagues, electrocution, and more all crop up along with repeated use of words like “fire” “dance” “disco” “war” “bomb” in nearly every song. In a none-too-subtle outward display of intent, the cover is a figure on fire on a 70’s disco dancefloor. This mish-mash of tongue-in-cheek humour, deliberate offensiveness, subversiveness and childish delight in rude words could very easily just have ended up as an unlistenable mess but it doesn’t. Or at least it doesn’t to me. This has a lot to do with how committed the band is to the idea and remain consistent throughout, but also thanks to the sound of the album.

Fire is not a ‘slick’ album. The production and sound of it, as my housemate put it, sounds like a “music student’s exam piece” which is precisely why I love it. The drums sound like they were recorded with one microphone and aren’t that well tuned, the bass isn’t all that bassy, the guitars use some clearly ‘affordable’ pedals for their sounds (I’m convinced one of those pedals is the notorious Boss Metal Zone) and the synths are the cheesiest, thin and tinny keyboard sounds available. But somehow, because of the laser focused intent on the sort of music they are making, the band makes this all add up to one of the most distinctive sounding records of the last 20 years. The whole point of Punk in the 70s was to reject the processed and manufactured sound that had been growing in the charts (in the UK). To do this, bands dressed as messily as possible, played cheap instruments and performed pretty badly too. It was an attitude more than music. This form of anti-music was mercifully short lived, the first wave was all there was really and only the actually good musicians survived. The Clash maintained the attitude but became far greater musicians and Joe Strummer was recognised as being the incredible songwriter he was, while the Sex Pistols are best remembered for their first album and swearing a lot. Electric Six, take inspiration from the former, crafting witty songs, performing them well but with an anti-polish aesthetic. Most importantly they keep their songs short. Most of the songs on the album are well under 4 minutes and at 13 tracks the album comes in at only 40 minutes long. Some of the best moments of the album are the most weird and subversive: the odd noises the singer makes, jabs of noise to accentuate a lyric (“Girl, when I’m fucking you…” *guitar squeal*) and the much copied “Stop! …. Continue!” moment. But beneath all this wry and knowing silliness and subversiveness are some ACE tunes than never outstay their welcome performed by an incredibly tight band with total commitment to the concept and ultimately, they pull it off. Convincingly so.

My friend’s band M.U.T.O. recently supported Electric Six at a gig, so I went along as a fan of both bands. Despite having hit singles (a long time ago admittedly) and presumably access to a level of funds your average muso might not be able to justify spending on equipment (although I’m always surprised the sheer £££ a lot of rubbish musicians will drop on gear) Electric Six still use some pretty odd/cheap instruments and amps. The lead guitarist was using a zoom multi-effect pedal which if you mention that to any ‘Real’ guitarist, their sneer of contempt will reach their ears. My mate’s band supporting them had a better (or at least more expensive) bass amp and guitars. But Electric Six didn’t need them. Marshall stacks and custom shop Gibsons are for bands who don’t know what they want to be or are borrowing their sound. Electric Six sound exactly like themselves for that very reason.

Fire was a big inspiration to me. Over the years Electric Six have made several albums and have never lost their wit or their ability to write a crackin’ tune but the perfect storm of events that created Fire can’t be duplicated. They were Punk against manufactured Punks. I was just discovering The Clash at the time so my whole world was musically opening up and if Fire had been more polished I would have shrugged it off but because of that rough-round-the-edges sound it’s ended up being an absolute favourite. It’s a genuinely subversive album and I feel like it got dismissed at the time. They are referred to today (in the UK) as the ‘The Band That Did Gay Bar’ but having now seen them live, whilst that is still true they are much much more than that implies. They are truly a different band at a time when we really need someone to satirise the miserable state the music industry is in. They have a new album out right now and I would recommend you all go and buy it to support an actually unique band as opposed to one that is marketed to be so.

Stand out tracks, as ever, are the singles, Danger! High Voltage! And Gay Bar but there is plenty more that are arguably better. Dance Commander has the lyrics “Let’s get this party started rrrrright!” and as the first track it really does. She’s White is a fan favourite while Improper Dancing needs to be heard by more people to hear the liberties it takes with song format. Synthesizer is the real underappreciated gem here though. A pitch-perfect album closer that undermines as much as it amplifies the sound and intent of the rest of the album, as well as just being a damn good song. Fire though, works better as a whole. It’s a ‘vibe’ album, the sound doesn’t change much from song to song but that’s a good thing. It’s ideal for a car journey or similar. 40 minutes of fun. You could do a lot worse with your time.

Toxic Authenticity

 

There has been a raft of examples of what has been dubbed ‘Creator Burnout’ on YouTube, but also been linked to other Social Media platforms and their ‘Influencers’ too. The Guardian ran a major article in their weekend supplement talking to prominent YouTubers about the deteriorating mental health amongst ‘Creators’ (apologies for over using apostrophes but I hate these New Tech Business Lingo terms for art and artists and I don’t want anyone thinking I use these despicable, reductive, dehumanising terms in real life). Many mainstream outlets have published articles or done pieces discussing the rise in these difficulties among the new generation of rock stars, citing ill-preparedness for fame and a lack of empathy from their fans and the platforms that exploit said ‘Creators’ as the overall causes. Mental health and anxiety disorders have become a growing problem in youth culture globally and is having some very serious effects, but this seems compounded in the high-profile landscape of YouTube. Internet celebrity couple Meg Turney and Gavin Free recently suffered an armed break in at their home by an obsessed fan of Turney’s. Not to mention the psychological impact the various stresses of their lifestyle and workload puts upon the individual. While I personally feel like this is another example of the corporatisation of society that treats humans like nothing more than nodes and is hard proof of the exploitation of the ‘Gig Economy’ thrust upon an unsuspecting work force post 2008 Crash, there are admittedly many contributing factors to this issue. The burnout these young celebrities are experiencing certainly stand as totems of the current Economy.

Lindsay Ellis, herself a ‘Content Creator’ on YouTube, made this excellent video on the subject that explores the idea of Emotional Labour and how that pertains to the demands of employers/financiers of the modern workforce. She discusses the idea of Authenticity being used as a type of currency by internet celebrities. Vloggers are expected to be their own real, authentic selves despite being on a carefully curated medium that is designed to present their best side. This constant requirement to appear happy and positive is Emotional Labour, and, consequently, this positivity that is created through ‘Authenticity’, must be their constant state. This ‘Authenticity’ is achieved in a variety of ways: their behind-the-camera interactions, outtakes, shooting style and so on. Lindsay’s video is fascinating and explains all this in detail, definitely worth a watch, but what it made me think about is the current difficulty with this idea of Authenticity and its pernicious effect at large, not just on YouTube.

If Authenticity has become a currency who dictates its value? The desire for Authenticity originates in a buyers and seller’s market place. Certain products require authentication to ascertain their value: rare collectibles, antiquities, art work, food. This typically meant looking at factors like place of origin or source, manufacturer, previous users or owners and so on. This then is translated into monetary value by The Market. Today this cold, objective standard that we call authenticity is put upon real living people or even just opinions. Politicians and leaders are judged on their authenticity using the same criteria: Where are they from? Who is their family? Who do they associate with? What did they do for a living? Etc. In the UK we’re still obsessed with class and the authenticity of your class is always in question, i.e. How working class are you really? And if you don’t meet a strict set of criteria to fall in a certain class, you’re not deemed authentic. Celebrities even pretend to be authentic with one comedian on Twitter repeatedly referencing the fact he used to watch ‘Blind Date’ on TV as proof of the fact he was working class. Blind Date being a well known barometer for household income and property location in the UK… Articles written on a given news story are leant authenticity by who they quote from depending on the subject. If it’s Brexit, say, the journalist will want to speak to an ‘authentic’ source: your average Joe, your everyday voter, etc. Ignoring the fact no such mythical creature even exists. While Trump’s authenticity is summed up by his supporters in the fact white working class voters in the south voted for him. “He understands the working man” they say. Specifically, the WHITE and MAN part of that defence, I’d add. The point is that authenticity is currency and currency equates to value. So how do we create value?

There’s another great video by the RSA just put out that discusses value creation historically and how, where once value was dictated by, say, Labour or Farming, today value is largely ascribed based on Preference, which is why marketing and advertising is such a lucrative business even in the supposedly punishing recession of a post-2008-crash world. The idea of individual Preference dictating the Market is a fascinating one as it implies value based on need is significantly reduced, i.e. Automation and technology has made our lives so much easier that preference is primary now needs are generally met. Except they aren’t. 4 million children growing up in poverty in the UK according to a recent survey means needs are NOT being met. The Conservative dream of The Big Society came true, the State deteriorated in favour of individuals being relied upon to offer what should be provided by a Government. Food banks set up by local businesses when local authorities should provide, for instance. This creates the bizarre contradiction that the value of a human being has vastly decreased and yet the Average Person is seen as a highly valued cultural currency due to a premium being placed on this ill-defined authenticity. We want “Real” people to authenticate a policy or product because their preference essentially creates value, and yet the market itself could not care less about basic human needs. Confusing.

Value Theory says that something is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it. This is because Money is a purely human construct that is a representation of that value. We say what something is worth to us, then represent that in the physical currency or digits in a bank’s computer. It is interesting then who we allow to dictate the terms of value. A value typically based on authenticity, authenticity which is ALSO a human construct. As such, the extent of YouTuber burnout can be measured by the high cultural value that is placed on these people crossed with how little we actually care about their well-being. A Social Media star’s value is only as high as their level of authenticity, yet both that value and that authenticity are entirely arbitrary. There is a pejorative term for the people who demand and dictate these terms that has emerged online: Authentocrat. The implication being that to the Authentocrat nothing is viable unless it is authentic, and yet they themselves dictate the terms of that authenticity. If this sacred authenticity is achieved, then yours is the earth my son etc but if not then you, your work or opinion can be dismissed instantly. It’s all just a horrible mess of self-serving ideologies that puts unreasonable demands on a, typically young, person that then sees them treated like nothing more than a disposable rag. To say nothing of the fact people of a certain age/background will equally turn their nose up and state that being a ‘Content Creator’ isn’t a real job anyway, thereby stating indirectly that their job and the individual is inauthentic. You can’t possibly win. It’s no wonder all these people are crumbling under the strain of this cyclical logic that creates as quickly as it destroys.

The poison of ‘Authenticity’ is everywhere today, and it is corrosive to any kind of meaningful cultural growth or development because, as mentioned earlier, authenticity is dictated not only by an individual’s preference but also by history. There are no historical precedents for careers on the internet as it has only become a viable option in the last 10 years. The cultural, economic and historic value, and thereby ‘Authenticity’, of Content Creators is yet to be established or even really understood. So it is no wonder this kind of burnout is being seen because people are trying to make themselves valuable and authentic in such a short amount of time when a queue of people wait behind them to take their place. Whereas what we should be doing is flushing these entirely arbitrary notions of authenticity down the toilet and settling on exact definitions of what authentication means and not letting the soulless, dead voice of The Market dictate the terms. Authenticity is a myth that only benefits the Authenticator.

Retro-Review: Silent Alarm

The early 2000s were a significant time for me personally and it helped that the music of that era was very much in tune with my developing taste. I had grown beyond the all-consuming need to listen to every piece of music to have come out of New Orleans in the last 100 years and was widening my pallet to discover the staples of rocknroll. You see, I hated music until I was about 14. My family were all musicians and I was more concerned with reading and writing. That changed obviously but I kind of skipped all the traditional stuff you’re supposed to get into as a young teen so my late teens early 20s was about discovering how much I loved the Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, Cream, etc etc. We were also coming out of the guitar heavy era of the 90s which, despite living through and hearing, I would only learn to appreciate much later. As such, the music of the 2000s was clearly trying to move away from the 60s and 70s revival and influence of the 90s and heading towards the now punishingly endless and saturated 80s revival that has now lasted longer than the 80s itself. I hated the music of the 80s the first time round and I still hate it (and its contemporary imitators) now. This is all to say, 2000 to 2006 was a time of really interesting innovation and change in all areas but especially music that I didn’t notice at the time. Therefore, I’m going to be going back over the albums that heavily influenced me from that era and looking at them from an undoubtedly nostalgic perspective but hopefully offering some context that may help people appreciate a few forgotten classics or undiscovered gems.

Released in 2005, I bought Bloc Party’s first album on record not long after my father passed away while my parents were in the middle of a divorce and I had just come out of my first serious relationship and began another. I had been living in my first flat away from home for the last two years too and was about to turn 21. In short, I was a bit of a fucking mess. It didn’t feel like it at the time and I’m still impressed at how I handled everything but yeah, it was a really really really weird time. Anyway, I had seen and heard little of Bloc Party but for an early appearance on TV and hearing a song that wasn’t a single that sounded genuinely different to a lot of stuff around at the time. I bought the album on a whim in Canterbury and gave it a listen. It didn’t immediately hit me how much I loved the album. A few tracks stood out and Side A is still superior to Side B but generally I thought “Not bad”. But I kept coming back to it and it wasn’t necessarily because of the music.

I didn’t get into my, now Career, Poetry until I was about 26. I still hated it at this time. Poetry drooled, music ruled. It’s only now I realise my taste for intelligent lyricists in music did not simply come from my love of good story writing. The fact that Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Ben Folds, and so on, were primo influences on my own song writing should have tipped me off to the fact poetry may well have been my calling after all, and its that love for deep, intelligent and unique lyrics that kept me coming back to Silent Alarm. Listening back to Silent Alarm today I am struck by the profundity of Kele Okereke’s lyrics and sub-consciously must have been similarly affected the first time I heard it. His ability to zero-in on fine details when painting vignettes, combined with a restraint that never pushes the lyrics into melodrama and covering a diverse range of topics is really quite astonishing for someone who was only 21 when he wrote the words. This plainness of language but intricacy of emotion is exemplified in the song This Modern Love which still remains Bloc Party’s best track and Okereke’s crowning lyrical achievement that he has matched but, arguably, never bettered. The lyrics match the angular sound of the band perfectly but are equally what lifts the album from good to great. Okereke’s delivery is key to this too. His voice is admittedly an acquired taste but hearing a brazenly London accent in a sea of American sound-alikes was truly unique at the time and predicted the rise of this kind of vocalist, soon seen in Kate Nash/Lily Allen and their peers. However Okereke’s direct performance combined with his direct lyrics is wonderful and still sounds as fresh to this day.

The music itself should have predicted better things to come but its best parts were abandoned later by the band and ignored by the people they influenced. Their producer, Paul Epworth, essentially coached the band through the album, favouring live performances being recorded, than endless layering. The songs were written during the studio time and apparently grew out of ‘jams’ typically prompted by a drum beat. Epworth is smart about focussing on this element in the production. The sound of the album, and its lasting appeal is in the marriage of genres that the band and Epworth accomplish. Despite being a twin guitar band Epworth focusses on boosted bass and drum sounds and adds top-end flourishes like chiming bells. What you end up with is an angular ‘Rock’ band akin to the Talking Heads sound of the 80s but combined with a distinctly techno or ‘Club’ sound. This blend is astonishingly successful and has equally not really been tried since. Franz Ferdinand, who were also leaning heavily on the jangly, angular twin-guitar sound, came out a year before and combined with an equally non-American sounding vocalist, Bloc Party could easily have been deemed a knock off and while they were clearly both being influenced by the same late 70s early 80s nu-wave stock, Epworth drags Silent Alarm into genuinely original sonic territory that hasn’t been touched since thanks to his focus on the sounds that appeal to listeners on recreational substances while the band gives the tracks a depth to the musical and lyrical content. In an age where producer is king, I long for these days where the producer produced the artist not everything about an album. Epworth assists but doesn’t overwhelm, pushes but not over the edge. Producers today seem to treat the artist as the face candy while they do literally everything else for an ablum. Silent Alarm is a Block Party album not a Paul Epworth album.

Their ‘look’ did a lot to endear them to me too. While Russell Lissack seems desperate to be considered the next Jonny Greenwood (complete with floppy hair and fun guitar pedals), Matt Tong and Kele Okereke offered something few guitar bands did at the time, prior, or since: non-White Dudes. Specifically, non-White Dudes playing proto-typically ‘White Boy’ music. A guitarist friend at the time made the casually racist statement that he was disappointed Okereke didn’t sound “more Black” and, sadly, I don’t think he was alone in that. But I was delighted to find a genre dominated by angsty white boys like me finally diversifying. Seeing a band that was (finally) more racially diverse that played diverse music genuinely ground breaking at the time, another reason I took to them. They also seemed to have fun on stage, particularly Tong. As a skinny, gangly dude I identified with a skinny, gangly band that was aggressive on stage and played fast tempo tunes. In every way this band was original and enjoyable.

Finding an album that was enjoyable yet complex with equally complex lyrics about things that I was feeling at the time, meant I was the prime target for this album and it was a gift that kept giving. Its influence on me can’t be understated. Combined with Blur and Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party is why I love Telecasters so much. The band were what I needed and what I wanted more of. Sadly that was not forthcoming. The second album A Weekend in the City is lyrically as interesting and attuned as its predecessor but much more indulgent, similar to its music in that respect. AWITC has its moments but I only enjoy half the tracks on it. By album three I had completely lost interest. To say nothing of the fact that Okereke beefed up, was fired from the band, was rehired, then changed the entire line up of the band later on, I found it hard to continue to identify with a group that seemed so estranged from each other and the sound, I felt, had made their first outing so damn good. Silent Alarm remains a largely forgotten classic to this day. Despite universal praise I never hear singles or tracks from it anywhere, it never features on ‘best of’ lists and they only garnered real acclaim in the US after AWITC. Their debut deserves reappraisal, especially for its lyrics which are as fresh and intelligent as they were in 2004 when they were written. Not treating your audience like idiots, allowing restraint and a certain level of ambiguousness is not something I hear in pop music of the last 10 years and that’s disappointing. Silent Alarm has this in spades though and it’s a belter of an album.

Standout tracks for me are the slow growing opener Like Eating Glass that sets out the stall for the album with a fantastic chorus but with plenty of atmosphere and lyrical occlusion. This Modern Love and So Here We Are should have been the blueprint for 21st Century love songs but their complexity and nuance has since been lost to the crushing obviousness of X Factor winners. Okereke’s Lyrics on both are genuine poetry and should be better remembered. She’s Hearing Voices is another lyrically intricate and arresting track but is probably the only time the music matches, and even overpowers, them, building to a guitar solo that I’ve been trying to emulate for nearly 15 years in its free form, scattershot melody. It’s as close as the band get to ROCK and is all the better for its restraint. The first 7 tracks of the album is it at its best but even thereafter it maintains its mood and never slouches lyrically or musically. A unique album, that fits both as a Club Night set of anthems, and an introspective, At-Home-With-Your-Headphones-On hole to fall down. Finding it as an angsty 20-year-old, churning, mess of emotions and confusion it was a winner and consequently might not be for everyone but I recommend giving it a go, especially if you don’t like their later stuff. Give it a couple of spins to make up your mind and I think you’ll be silently alarmed.

Prohibitive Lifestyles

 

In 1919 the United States of America passed the Volstead Act as a constitutional amendment prohibiting the sale or consumption of alcohol. The following era was known as ‘Prohibition’ and far from being seen or depicted as a time that a repressive doctrine was enforced on the public, movies and novels set in the era display it as a time of an updated of Cowboys and Indians. Dastardly crooks and mobsters against the hardworking, salt-of-the-Earth heroes in blue. Very little mention of booze in these stories. It was the time of untold violence by both outlaws and the government, deep corruption and economic catastrophe, and you couldn’t even get pissed to lift your spirits. Today this all seems laughably stupid and it made me wonder why the hell this act was passed in the first place.

The Temperance Movement as it was known, was a group of idiots who believed a prohibitive lifestyle was the best one. Indulging in the wanton pleasures of the flesh was sinful to these zealots and they demanded everyone feel the same. This movement formed its own lobbyist group known as the Anti Saloon League, or ASL for short. The ASL would back candidates for office that agreed to their anti-alcohol demands and bury those that didn’t. You know, just like the NRA does today. As hysterical and moronic as this all sounds they had a lot of support in high places, largely because of their ties to the church. Some things never change. Long story short, the ASL got their wish and their leader Wayne Wheeler wrote the Volstead Act that was then passed into Law. 14 years of unnecessary violence, a growth in organised crime and the general public basically ignoring the law along with a lot of Law Enforcement followed, until it was fully repealed in December 1933. A bizarre and dumb chapter in American history that drew to a close just as a newer, more devastating chapter began in the shape of The Great Depression.

Why am I bringing up a hundred-year-old constitutional amendment? Well I’m more interested in the culture that fostered it. The Temperance Movement was large but not the majority. Equally everyone loved booze. Not everyone liked the results of booze, but it definitely wasn’t something most people wanted to give up. Yet a special interest group that wanted to restrict personal freedoms somehow managed to exert control on government and crowbar a prohibitive lifestyle into law. A law that the majority hated and immediately backfired yet it limped on for nearly 15 years. Like a lot of things from this era that we are looking back on at the moment it seems barely imaginable how this all happened. How did the fools in office let this happen? Why did VOTERS let this happen? Surely they were all mad?

The Tea Party movement began in the USA in 2009 and forced a division in the Republican Party due to its support from major investors, its more defiantly Right-Wing ideals and its members comprising a large proportion of the GOP’s base voters. In the UK, the hard-Right party UKIP that had gained little support for nearly 20 years managed a surge in the polls and won key local elections and European elections in 2013 & 2014 on a Eurosceptic and anti-immigration platform. We are, again, seeing a rise in the same kind of Right-Wing, morally fluid social movements that pushed through Prohibition. And, yet again, they do not represent a majority but sustain enough clout with both power and business that they get their wishes enshrined in law. The Tea Party was the key to the GOP abandoning their attempts at moderate conservative policies and candidates and how we ended up with Autocrat-in-Chief, Donald Trump. UKIP’s sole policy was withdrawal from Europe which they achieved by a whisker in the 2016 Brexit vote. Special interest groups and lobbyists have been manufacturing ‘Moral Outrages’ (and make no mistake, moral outrages are exclusively Right-Wing affairs) to push agendas for centuries and it’s still happening. Across Europe, in even the most supposedly Left-leaning and democratic countries we are seeing the increasing presence in government of hard or Far-Right parties.

This is as much a part of the fact wealth and business being inseparable from State craft in capitalist society and how global economics since the crash have in no way dealt with the underlying issues that created it, opting instead for laying the blame on Immigration and the Poor, as it is the shame society continues to place on enjoyment and relaxation. Every popular movement or lobby group is based around some form of Prohibitive lifestyle. Be it the restriction of on object, item or thing, or the restriction of personal liberties, these movements insist that life would be better without something: alcohol, immigrants, poor people, etc. Which is obviously why it’s called being ‘Conservative’ but this really isn’t just the Right. New age, hippy, lefty ‘Millenials’ (a pointless, shitty term Centrists and Right-wing people use for anyone they don’t like) are just as strong advocates for prohibitive lifestyles too. How many articles are there about cutting X out of your diet? Or cutting this person from your life? Or cutting out social media/the internet? So many blogs/vlogs demanding that the only rich and fulfilled life is one sponsored by different companies to use their products and visit their hotels. Where’s their desperate land-grab for sweeping reform or knee-jerk legislation that prohibits eating unhealthily? Or better still, Guns? I’m not sure what I’m getting at here but I do find this odd trend for judgement of others and dictation of desire to be hard to swallow, wherever it comes from. The demand for individualism has always, to my mind, been a model of the Right, so it strikes me as odd that a similar model under a Temperance Movement-esque guise of ‘Where You’re Going Wrong in Your Life’ is the overriding theme of what is considered more Left-leaning, or at worst NeoLiberal, literature/social media/advice columns/etc.

While I understand most of this is well meaning and generally on the side of good, society is becoming more interested in what it restricts than what it offers or opens up. It seems to me a result of the last 40 years or so of NeoLiberal doctrine and the Centrist mentality that favours the individual so much while attempting to quietly appease advocates for progressive reform. Which is a prime example of why ‘The Centre’ is such a bad method of appeasement. While on a broader political scale we are seeing a split toward full-Right or full-Left parties and policies, socially we still want the ‘good old days’ back. I talked in a previous post about how even in blockbuster movies the heroes accomplish no change as they lack any ability to see beyond the contemporary catastrophe and desire a return to what was. This feeds the culture of Prohibition and it is everywhere. It feels to me like this helps the Right far more than it helps the Left. Now I’m not saying a Pro-Biotic diet is the same as funding the GOP, but the language and culture of self-imposed restriction is the language and culture of the Right. Equally I’m not saying ‘Everything is Permitted’ because we know where that leads, but this sole focus on the Self is inherently conservative and I’m against that as a rule.

The leaps and bounds the Left have made in the same space of time the Right has risen to a scary level of influence is encouraging (ish) but ultimately the moderation and appeasement the Left has shown is what has led to the Right’s ascendency. More needs to be done to levy the not-insignificant support the Left has in the same way the Tea Party and UKIP has to such astonishing success. I’m not asking for a reverse Temperance Movement but the near all-encompassing culture of ‘You Must Self Police, While I May Indulge’ is pernicious to say the least. It’s become an extreme form of the Social Contract that replaces the State with You and it just feels… wrong to me. I wish I had a solution but I feel like this is just as big a cultural problem as the others we face right now, that needs to be addressed or at least discussed yet is never even questioned.

As an addendum I will point out I do not smoke, drink or take drugs, but have never asked others to stop (except asking my Mum to stop smoking for obvious reasons) or criticised anyone for their choice in vices. It is possible to do both. I think my point is, screw your life up how you want and allow other people to do the same but maybe help people when they do? I dunno. I’d just like to see less movements based on Prohibitive Lifestyles. Make of that what you will.

Yo Tambien Soy Un Hombre Lobo

 

I just spent a week without the internet. Not by choice I might add but the internet went down at home and I had to wait on the delivery of a new modem that took way longer than was expected to arrive (thanks PlusNet). Along with being home alone for two weeks this took me back to the first year I moved to Manchester where I neither had the internet nor a computer. I also haven’t watched TV regularly for about 15 years so, putting it mildly, I was a little bored. Now before I get people from either side of the ‘Digital Detox’ debate running at me, hatchets drawn, I am advocating neither “throw away your smartphone” nor “get over it, the internet is the way of life now”. My enforced digital detox was revealing in that I DO spend too much time online and I need to remedy that but also that my fiancé is American as is a significant proportion of my work, both of which requires an internet connection to maintain. Having the internet and a smartphone isn't just something I can dispose of for a 'better life'. Anyway, this isn’t a post about that. Though I will say if you choose to be one of those sanctimonious pricks who loves to patronise people about how they need to “look up from your phone and experience real life” in the description under a hashtag positivity post on fucking Instagram maybe keep your condescending trap shut?

No, this post, that coincidentally no one will see as well, is about the rediscovery of an album that seemingly did little business and I have heard nothing about since its release. In the gaping chasm of boredom that yawned open in front of me with the loss internet I filled my time reminding myself of stuff I used to do before 2012 when I got my first smartphone. Things like: listening to whole albums and not just putting one on in the background while I do something else or going through a playlist of individual songs, but actually going through my collection of albums and paying attention to each song. This is not to say I haven’t done this in the last 7 years, but I do it considerably less than I used to. Being the true hipster (as if that word has any meaning anymore) I am, I went through my vinyl records and organised them while putting some aside I wanted to listen to. One of those albums was Hombre Lobo by the Eels.

Released in 2009 Hombre Lobo was a few albums and two years after the sprawling, two-disc, 33 track album Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. I had gone through an Eels phase prior to that album’s release and had bought all the band’s previous LPs. Of those, only Electro Shock Blues leaves me cold. Not a bad album by any means but compared to Beautiful Freak, Daisies of the Galaxy, Shootenany and Souljacker it fell way short. Blinking Lights too, perhaps because of its size, didn’t measure up to previous efforts for me. A more introspective album on the whole, I’d hoped for maybe a more wide-ranging and experimental album but this one was just nice. Nothing wrong with that but not what I was after. There seemed to be a glut of these double-disk LPs around that time, Stadium Arcadium and In Your Honour both came out around the same era, a trend I’m actually quite glad died before it got going. Rare you hear anyone say the White Album or Exile on Main Street are their favourite Beatles or Stones albums. Anyway.

I guess I jumped ship on the Eels after that. The early 2000s (to my mind) was full of interesting and diverse music that I love to this day. It was short lived; this creative spurt died around 2005/6 I feel like. This mass of Good Shit however meant I was trying to follow up on a lot of these great albums and bands through the end of the 2000s. It took me a while to realise the rot had set in and by 2010 I was still hunting for the good stuff of previous years as the well, for me, had very much run dry. It was around then I remembered the Eels and decided to see what they had offered in the interim. Three albums had come out in the time since Blinking Lights so I bought the most recent (on Record, natch) Hombre Lobo. It arrived in glorious coloured vinyl and went straight on my expensive direct drive turntable into my fancy, over-powered home stereo amp, and out through my glorious near-field Tannoy speakers. All of which audiophile gumph is currently sat in a friend’s basement. Ah poverty, how you rob us of even simple pleasures… I digress. Track 1 Prize Fighter comes on and I immediately was on board. A kind of glam beat but stripped back, it is a template for the stripped back simplicity of the rest of the album. I loved it and the record stayed on my turntable for a couple of weeks and would frequently return over the course of that year. It made appearances at various DJ spots I did across Manchester too but once I moved out of that flat it kind of got put away and forgotten about. Which leads me to the other day…

I don’t have my turntable or stereo gear where I am so being home alone I finally had control of the ‘Retro Music Station’ in the front room to listen through. As such I was eager to dig the best of the best from my collection. Or at least ones that I loved dearly but had not listened to in a while. Two albums leapt out at me straight away. Bloc Party’s first LP Silent Alarm from 2003 and Hombre Lobo. I might do a retrospective on Silent Alarm too in another post but for now suffice it to say my love for that album has not aged either and it took me right back to my first flat away from home and all the heartache and triumphs of an 18/19 year old. For the other album, I mainly remembered the track tremendous dynamite being an absolute belter (which it is) but little of it came back to me. And it didn’t come back to me immediately putting the needle down either. But slowly, track by track, a nearly 10 year old album, an album I never see on ‘Best of’ lists or even singles from it reappear anywhere, wormed its way into my top 5 favourite albums by the end. I don’t know if it just hit me in the right mood or if it is just that good but goddamn, that album does not put a foot wrong anywhere in its 12 tracks.

You have to GET the Eels to enjoy this album as much as I do I think. E (or Mark Oliver Everett his real name) has a specific formula for his records: Sad strummy song, song with programmed beat, song with sub bass, minor song, major song, punky one, happy one, falsetto song, growly voiced song. The production is as important to an Eels record as much as the unpretentious, wry and heartfelt lyrics is. Keyboard sounds recur a lot: that bass sound, mellotron flutes or strings, that weird choir vocal sound etc, few of which appear on this album. Hombre Lobo leans harder on the trio sound of certain tracks of previous albums (Souljacker Pt.1 leaps to mind), a fact which already has my thumbs up. The reason for this I think is that E had refined his song writing to such an extent it didn’t need dressing up and these songs are all solid gold. Lyrically, instrumentally, in arrangement and more, every song is a perfect literal gem, E’s song writing style refined to near purity. Even the track listing is perfect, bouncing between melancholy lightness and melancholy heaviness to deliriously happy and manically triumphant joygasms from track to track all with the same simple instrumentation all squeezed through a slight overdrive. The whole thing, like all the best albums, is a measured selection of songs that compliment each other but don’t override each other. It has a ‘Vibe’, it definitely has a sound, but within in that is a vast wealth of emotions and sounds and grooves and all the stuff I want out of an album: diversity, originality and honesty. Hombre Lobo succeeds in everything it attempts and extends far beyond. It does require a familiarity with the Eels to really enjoy I think, but if you like plain old good song writing you can’t go wrong with this album either. It’s readily available and I would encourage everyone to track it down (not necessarily on Vinyl) and give it a go.

Track-wise the standouts for me are Tremendous Dynamite and Beginner’s Luck which I defy anyone not to have some sort of physical reaction to. These should be stone cold classics of their genre and, while vaguely derivative (what isn’t these days?), they achieve a purity to their sound not found elsewhere. Certainly not in this century. Fresh Blood errs more toward old-school Eels with its sub-bass and offkey noise sounds, while What’s A Man Gotta Do? Should be up there with the best of 60s fuzz-inspired fun. They’re my favourites but really all twelve prompt some sort of reaction, be that headbanging, painful yearning or shakin yo thang. Rediscovering this album was a real revelation for me and is helping me get back into making music I want to perform again. I would encourage anyone reading this to leaf through your old records, itunes library or CD collection to find forgotten gems and really LISTEN to them. It really is a tonic.

This is the first in what will be an occasional but hopefully ongoing series of retrospective reviews of albums I love and would like to see get more attention. Not that this format will help them in that endeavour but you know, whatever.

Men of Steel and their Superpowers

 

The conflict in Syria has reached an ebb in the international consciousness. It has been buried under the weight of other, apparently more pressing, concerns like the rise of Nazism in the white English-speaking world, Russia investing heavily in the disruption of other Nations and the general economic and societal decline in nearly every developed country all over the world. But still the mess of a conflict in Syria carries on at much the same pace as it has done these last few years. With a vested interest in the war from nearly every Nation it is emblematic of the current, growing crisis we see across the world, yet it is relegated to an ‘also’ in most media coverage today. It’s a bleak time to be alive and as has always been the case throughout history in times of such upheaval, art and culture reflect this. Whether it’s the Mainstream Media chasing the next high of a revelation about Trump, Brexit or some scandal that once would have claimed the career of an individual it is simply shrugged off, or today’s biggest money spinner of cultural ephemera: Superheroes.

If, like me, you were a comic book reader and superhero fan before the release of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man which seems to have kick started this current trend, the almost unanimous adoption of this culture is a little jarring. It’s also kind of annoying. Where were you all when I was a kid? I had (and have) it even tougher because I was (and still am) a DC kid (the publisher of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman among others, for anyone who doesn’t know/care). As such, it’s kind of tough trying to support the company/publisher that is, in a world saturated by the presence of costumed heroes, the least liked and, indeed, actively hated by many. I often feel compelled to defend my love of these characters, comics and movies etc but then realise this is pointless. It’s all too dumb. I’m 34, there are better things to fight for. But lately I’ve been prompted to think more about my enjoyment of the, arguably, most iconic Superhero of them all: Superman. It was his 80th birthday earlier this year so I’ve been going over all the stuff I enjoyed of his in the past and even bought the special edition of the commemorative comic book that was released to coincide with his birthday for MY birthday. All of which has made me look at the Big Blue Boy Scout in a few different ways.

On the face of it Superman, and thus Clark Kent, are the ideal American: white, male, from a rust-belt State, clothed in the colours of the flag and spends his free time when not at work still working hard at serving the community/nation/world. The ideal American. What’s so fascinating about the current trend in superhero culture is the insistence on this sort of status quo being required. The good guys fight to keep the world as it is despite the real world being a place of unending social upheaval right now. They seem to fight for the world to go back to what it once was, an era a lot of people perhaps associate with the 80s or 90s where the much mooted ‘End of History’ seemed to be occurring. With ‘Marvel Now!’ and the Disney owned Marvel Studios, Superheroes are being forced to contest with today's much less black and white, good and bad world. X-Men is almost solely depicted as an allegory for the LGBQT+ community and their struggles, Black Panther went to great lengths to wrestle with the VERY touchy subject of race relations in the USA and the lead character of the biggest film of all time, Infinity War, Thanos the Titan, is a rounded and developed character whose intentions, whilst not pure necessarily, are certainly not the boo hiss villainy of the past. And Yet… the endings of these comics and movies ultimately show a profound lack of imagination on the part of the heroes and therefore Producers/Writers. Without wishing to spoil, the shock ending of Infinity War is hardly permanent. "The only spoilers are in the actors contracts" as a friends pointed out. Change is resisted at all turns, even in the face of cataclysmic and seismic shifts in the story the movie makers would literally rather turn back time than maintain these changes. It is a frustrating business model to watch playout. You can tell Disney/Marvel realise they need to address a polarised and changing audience by incorporating similar themes to the contemporary issues of society but end up just falling back on meaningless platitudes that result in almost no real or significant change. For my money at least, DC has always been different.

Back in the 80s DC produced some of the comics that would come to define the culture of comics and consequently the mainstream of today by hiring genuinely talented and alternative writers and artists to rethink their major lines. This was the era of writers like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Grant Morrisson and more, who wrote the likes of Watchmen and the Dark Knight Returns that deconstructed the genre and the characters themselves. There’s plenty of material by fanboys like me on the internet about this stuff but its significant to me because, successful or not, DC has always made attempts at looking at comics and the culture differently and how that relates to the modern world. And it is this, I argue, the much loathed ‘Snyder-verse’ of Man of Steel, Batman vs Superman and Justice League does better than Marvel (yeah you heard me).  The merits of the technical accomplishments, style, dialogue, effects, etc … well, that’s up to you. There’s a metric shit-tonne of angry video essays and podcasts on how woefully these movies fail at everything and Snyder deserves death or whatever, but I’d like to look at one or two points about why there’s – at least some – merit to the now aborted DCEU.

There is a reason we call the likes of America, China and Russia ‘The Superpowers’ of the world. They lead global thinking or practice in most areas. Where one of the global superpowers goes, others either follow or come into conflict with another, which is essentially what Superman represents. How a Superpower operates is part of the narrative. The much-discussed Christian imagery of Man of Steel is indeed present but far from the most significant facet, yet sadly the one most fixated on. This iconography comes along with the discussion of what a superpower (Christian or otherwise) should or should not do, their influence, their interventionism etc. Similar to the discussion of terrorism which was viewed as Bush apologism in The Dark Knight. The villain of Batman VS Superman, however, is the (admittedly poorly performed) Lex Luthor, depicted as a young, Zuckerberg-esque, tech Billionaire, the opposite of Wayne’s old-school, inherited wealth type of Billionaire. Neither of whom are depicted as good or nice people. The representation of a major international newspaper is that it's a dying artform who must conform to clickbait and not pursue stories of merit that are worth investigating (a more in-depth side plot, that was cut from the theatrical release of Batman vs Superman). While the films offer no ideas for how to change these things, these real-world issues are at least present and part of the discussion in each film. Far more than any other franchise at the moment. I’m not arguing these films are underrated works of art, BvsS is a mess certainly, but they are certainly ambitious and are attempting to do something actually different.

Which is why I bring up Syria. The end of Man of Steel was much criticised for its wanton destruction of Metropolis (a fictional city) and the probable deaths of thousands caused by two Superpowers slugging it out. If this finale had been set in Aleppo before the War, the Capital of Syria that is now reduced to rubble, I wonder what would have been said? As that would barely be an allegory at that point. As an audience we are disgusted by, and refuse to accept, the huge destruction of a major city in the United States, but we have relegated the exact same story to a shrug and an afterthought on the rolling news when it is a true story, just thousands of miles across the globe. The allegory of superpowers wreaking havoc in the middle of a major metropolitan city in havoc seems so absurd yet is clearly tied to the destruction of the Twin Towers (an event now nearly 20 years old), an similarity that was explicitly explored (and ridiculed by audiences) at the beginning of Batman vs Superman. This notion of bringing distant destruction to our doors was clearly not the intended message of Man of Steel but it’s an idea that is present nonetheless. It is these more inquisitive themes I get the most out of from DC more than any other franchise because, for all their faults, they actually bother. The reticence seems to be that superhero movies are not the place for this. Audiences require affirmation, a return to the status quo. So it’s depressing to me that this kind of deconstructive analysis of some really important ideas has been abandoned by DC/Warner Bros. These are big films seen by millions that should have prompted some thought and discussion but for a myriad of reasons (again, better complained about elsewhere) they were not accepted, which I feel is a shame. In the meantime, the world is changing, violently, and insistence on maintaining a – now long dead – image of what the world should be, seems painfully short sighted. History will probably view the Snyder movies as curios, a lens through which to view a strange time as capitalism went through its ending stages, but will view the Marvel movies as grotesque, desperate appeals to an era already past.

That is assuming that future generations are still able to survive in the toxic atmosphere of Earth with no Superpowers to save them…

The Death of Melody

 

I don’t know exactly when but at some point, in the last 18 years Melodies disappeared from music. I realise this will all sound like the impotent ranting of a man on his lawn shaking his fist at the sky but as a musician there has been a noticeable transition away from melody in almost all genres of music. Focus today, instead, relies upon the production or ‘sound’ of a recording or performance. For some styles of music (rap, say) a lack of melody has always been par for the course. Orchestral music, pre-Romantic era, was more focused on instrumentation and arrangement to convey its message or mood. But over the last 200 years or so, a melody has been the leading format for most western music. Most people will point out this 'Death of Melody' is because of the diversification of music in this millennium, the rise of world music and its tonalities being incorporated into contemporary music of all genres, and I would agree. This is certainly a positive, but I don’t feel like this should be at the expense of melody but adapted to, around or in addition. A key figure in this change to melody-less music is the Composer Hans Zimmer.

In case you don’t know, Hans Zimmer is this centuries John Williams, writing some of the most memorable scores for many of the biggest movies of the last 2 decades. For a quick primer in how Zimmer’s scores remove melodies but retain their mood or focus in scoring a movie, I recommend this video. Zimmer’s scores rely on bombast, volume, heavy percussion and – importantly – production. This makes them incredibly difficult to hum. As Tony Zhou pointed out in his own video, this lack of musical identification (that Zimmer is largely responsible for) for a given story or character in a score, can result in a certain neutering of tone. Or a vague homogenisation of it. One of the many reasons why the Marvel Cinematic universe movies tend to blur into one in my memory is down to this. And why the DC Universe (that was, until Justice League, mainly scored by Zimmer - ironically) stands out. It should be noted, however, that Zimmer’s best scores were made in collaboration with other composers like James Newton Howard (Dark Knight), Benjamin Wallfisch (BR 2049) or Junkie XL (BvsS). In interviews Zimmer comes across as more of a mad professor experimenting with sound in a post-modern way, than the classical idea of a 'composer'.

Contemporary orchestral music (classical music to most people) suffers similarly. In a post-modern, post-Bernard Herrmann/Philip Glass/Michael Nyman/Minimalist era, contemporary composers are left wondering where to go and are generally finding more work composing for media than purely writing a piece, let alone a suite, for performance. Jazz benefits in some ways from this deconstruction of melody the most with Brad Mehldau, The Bad Plus and more delighting in breaking apart classic melodies. The Blues has enjoyed recycling the same 12 melodies since it first began to develop in the early 20th century, tending to enjoy longer and longer guitar solos instead. Metal and Heavy Rock has never been overly concerned with melody preferring histrionics over a repeatable melody line, but other than a few ‘pop’ metal bands like the Foo Fighters, it has all but done away with it. And on and on it goes. Where it isn’t being recycled, melody is being removed.

This has lead to the rise of the producer as king. Dr. Dre, Max Martin, Paul Epworth, Rick Rubin, T.Bone Burnett, Ethan Johns and many more, all producers, all receiving co-credit, residual payments and six figure sums on any recordings they work on. A producer’s job is undoubtedly essential in the studio and it is certainly more than simply moving faders around. Pharrell Williams, Ethan Johns and Terius ‘The Dream’ Nash often are incorporated into the live bands as musicians or performers and even write a lot of the material with artists they produce. This is largely because a song (or track as they’re generally called now) has become more of an abstract thing. If an artist hasn’t walked in with a clear and distinctive melody and arrangement and the producer has to piece it all together, why shouldn’t they get the credit. Whereas if an artist does walk in with a full song this can apparently create more problems than it solves.

Melodies are powerful and, consequently, distracting. They can overpower a piece of music and are often the only part of a piece of music you will remember. Yet with only seven notes in a scale, melodies can run together. How many lawsuits do we hear of today where someone has stolen a song. The Hollies-Radiohead-Lana Del Rey continuity is a prime example of the fallibility of melody. If I asked you to hum the melodies of ET, Superman, Star Wars and Indiana Jones you immediately know they have distinctive melodies, but many is the time you watch people get confused over which lead line belongs to which movie. This is because John Williams always uses a similar scale and tonality for all of them. Melody isn’t a guarantee of distinction and can sometimes be more trouble than its worth when Allen Klein knocks on your door and says he’s taking all your royalties from your Number One song that neither he nor his clients wrote.

But something, to my ears, has been lost in all this. I’ve been feeling it a lot lately hearing more pop music on the radio (yes, some people still listen) that substitutes a chant or a “woooo-wooooah!” for a chorus, or a singer doing runs around a melody rather than simply allowing a melody to lead the song. I really noticed it when I went to see Justice League in the cinema and towards the end, Danny Elfman who replaced Zimmer in the composer’s chair, introduced with barely a few notes his own score from the Tim Burton Batman film and John William’s original Superman score. I think they were meant to be disguised but they were so immediately apparent it made my ears prick up. A melody will knock you over if you’re not ready for it. It will lift your song from a mediocre wordy strum to something profound. How often do you hear someone describe something as catchy? That’s melody.

I learn a lot of Beatles songs to try and rearrange them, and I soon realise how simple a lot of them are if you just play the chords, but the melody is so woven into those chord changes you can’t help but hear it, even if you aren’t singing or playing the lead line. Melody is a didactic, difficult, over-powering and an (apparently) easily forged thing, but it is also a memory-inducing, emotion-prodding, sing-along bit of magic. As music develops, in every genre, I fear we are leaving behind some elements of it that make it stand out, instead of merging it all into a homogenous mess for the sake of ‘The Market’. Unfortunately, with various lawsuits, streams in the billions and some people making it very, very rich for doing not all that much, I can’t see us returning to the giddy days of sitting round a piano for a sing-song of this week’s number one hit any time soon.

A Pain in the Arts

 

While on a stroll during the bank holiday I noticed a young boy being admonished by his parent telling him to put his Gameboy/psvita/iphone/digital handheld device du jour away. He was out in the sunshine with his family and he should be enjoying it, admiring the beauty of the landscape, taking in the air, etc. I stopped and watched the group move away from me, while also admiring the scenery, and within in a hundred feet the father had taken out his own smartphone to check and the mother was taking a photo with hers.

It’s these sort of glib anecdotes most newspaper articles start with and then they proceed to condemn said parents for being hypocrites or praise them for chastising the child who is ignoring the splendour of the natural world in favour of a two dimensional touch screen, reconciling that they themselves were only using their phones because they were capturing the moment or ‘just checking the time’ and so on. Personally, I disagree with both stances.

In the age of multi-media contentification, it surprises me very little that reading amongst the young is in decline (though a trip to Waterstones at the weekend seems to state the contrary…) when they are aggressively presented with ‘high-octane blockbusters’ and graphically amazing videogames that are immediately made streamable/playable on most mobile devices then, yeah, life looks dull in comparison. The idea of stillness and solitude is terrifying but, ironically, incredibly dull too. Filling our time with sound and fury makes sense as a distraction. And this is not solely a ‘Western’ (as amorphous as that title has become lately) distinction. Recent missile attacks in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, were recorded on snapchat, with crowds gathering around a missile shot down in the middle of the street. Africa is the only continent with internet coverage below 20% on average according to the International Telecommunication Union, and it is fast becoming an oasis in this regard. While the Digital Divide is still present, it is decreasing year on year. Which means more and more people are able to remove themselves to digital mediums to Consume Their Content.

And this is why I am not disappointed by either the child or the parents for looking at their phones. It is more stimulating to look at your phone in nature, in the same way as me playing with toys in the garden in the 80s caused me to ignore nature’s splendour in the same way. Wherever we mine Rose tint it must be running low from the amount of nostalgia on public display in the media that seems to forget it was ever thus, it has just increased and got louder, something that endlessly benefits the media I might add. For me, the more worrisome aspect of this is to do with something Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw were interested in 100+ years ago: the notion of Anti-mimesis. Or ‘Life Imitating Art’.

The common understanding is that Art imitates life i.e. you fall in love therefore you write a poem about it, but the reverse is that Life is given a greater level of meaning or understanding by Art. Wilde uses the example that Fog had existed in London for centuries but only after it was artistically represented in paintings and literature was it seen as in anyway Romantic or attractive. This reflects in the way we all pay so much attention to our devices in everyday life in lieu of face-to-face social interaction or ‘being in the moment’ when outside. The digital realm has been imbued with more meaning in public discourse and so life is found online, we do not bring our lives into the digital realm. It is a subtle distinction but a significant one. At a time when all Humanities services and education is defunded and under-valued, when art, film, literature, music and more are deemed 'Content' and people enjoying it described as 'Consuming it', then I think we begin to see where the dislocation between ‘irl’ interaction and digital interaction comes from. With very little Art that genuinely upends or challenges popular thinking or understanding (that isn’t some white guy arguing for a return to the ideologies of a hundred years ago that lead to the holocaust) life is not imbued with fresh meaning. An objective reality remains objective and not understood until it is studied and labelled, this is the scientific method in action but is as equally applicable to the artistic method. Representing the world around us from our own perspective is what great Art does; t communicates, it does not distract. It focuses the lenses of the camera and that allows us to look at and appreciate the natural world, the ‘Real’ world, better because of it.

I do not blame anyone for choosing to use a digital device in the wild, I blame digital companies for not providing a nourishing enough experience filled with art and culture online that would allows us, when we put away our toys, to see the view before us afresh.

Crowd Sourcing the Past

 

On the 22nd of November 1963, in Dallas Texas president John F Kennedy was murdered. The 26 seconds surrounding that assassination were captured on 8mm film by Abraham Zapruder. The film, that shows in grainy detail the president’s head exploding from a rifle shot, can be viewed on YouTube in various enhanced forms, is kept in the United States National Archives and has been valued at $16 million.

On the 11th of September 2001 in New York City two passenger jets were flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in Manhattan, killing thousands. The Naudet brothers were filming for a documentary on Engine 7, Ladder 1 Firehouse at the time which put them at the centre of the single largest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbour. The subsequent documentary was aired on CBS to 39.4 million viewers and is one of the only sources of footage that captured the first plane striking the North Tower.

In December 2017 social media star Logan Paul filmed a dead body hanging from a tree in the Aokigahara Forest at the base of mount Fuji, a site that is well known as a place many take their own lives. He posted it on his Youtube channel to over 15 million subscribers, many of whom are children.

The moving image has been present in public life since the Lumiere brothers first exhibited their short films in Paris in 1895. Today, the public of developed nations exhaustively record and distribute footage of our every day lives. Most people are not without a still or motion video camera at all times on a day to day basis. The prevalence of this documenting of everyday life is relatively recent, as illustrated above, and it presents some interesting questions for our future.

The rabid fear mongering of a CCTV recorded existence, observing our every move in a panopticon state of surveillance has been present since I was a child (born in 1984) from people citing the novel 1984 as a dire warning of what this would represent. The adoption of various terms and phrases from that book by the media, corporations and politicians without actually mitigating the authoritarian results suggests 1984 has done more for the political Right than it has for any other cause. And, if anything, it woefully underestimated how we would be watched and how voluntarily we would film ourselves, even going so far as to geo-tag our position when filming. Part of the Social Contract, according to Rosseau, is that we give up certain freedoms in the name of an assurance of certain protections by our state. In many ways we have given up even more freedoms than we initially sign up for but far from being unaware of this or talked into it, we do it willingly. The revelations leaked by Jon Snowden revealed how actively our privacy was being invaded and the response was a total lack of surprise. Condemnation, yes, but surprise? No. The consequences of this all-pervasive surveillance and self-documenting are yet to be seen fully but one part of this repeatedly reasserts itself as a difficulty in modern society: the interpretation of said evidence.

The unifying factor of the examples I gave above is the debate that surrounded them. The conspiracy of a second gunman persists thanks to the Zapruder film and people’s perception of it. Debate and hostility still surrounds the legitimacy of some footage of the twin towers attack, resulting in a persistent (and idiotic) belief the attack was organised internally. Or something. I'm not exactly clear what those people want out of that one. Either way, America still likes to pick at that scab. The Aryan Youtuber’s stupidity in filming the man who died by suicide received widespread condemnation but equally defence from a vocal group of supporters and even after the video was taken down copies flourished on the internet and were poured over, reacted to, re-edited and re-dubbed.

Film or video footage is often seen as incontrovertible evidence of a given event. “The camera never lies” etc. But with the advent of ever more convincing digital fakes you would think that particular misapprehension may finally be laid to rest, yet scepticism of given footage (especially online), requesting sources and generally questioning the veracity of a given media is still woefully low. Sharing the video is simple and easy on all media platforms and by then the damage is done. Proof the video or image was faked will never reach the same amount of people, such is the nature of ‘virality’.

What this should do is show us that evidence, and by extension History, is open to interpretation in all cases and it is only through accumulating evidence and testimony on a given topic we can get a relatively accurate idea of the exact nature of events that happened. Simply filming something was never the be all and end all on something. A cursory glance of anyone’s Instagram is a news feed of carefully engineered publicity. You would hope the question of who took the video, with what, how and why might become more common and – perhaps more importantly – make us look at past events and their recordings with the same level of scepticism. Context is king regarding any significant (or insignificant) event captured on video or film.

And yet, social media and news media relies on a race to the bottom. Demand for instant opinion and discussion on the given event from everyone, the rolling news coverage begging for audience supplied footage, the near immediate reinterpretation of that footage for memetic purposes, all this has developed major events into an abstract of differing interpretations, individual narratives and aggregate opinion. It’s a worrying trend that went from taking footage as gospel (by and large) to taking footage as gospel but only after it has been reinterpreted to fit our own understanding of the given topic. There is endless footage of the burning of Grenfell Tower and even footage inside after the blaze was out from a firefighter’s body cam and yet an enquiry continues, families who lived in the tower still remain homeless or without compensation. A lack of further contextual evidence has fostered a combative and unproductive debate around the traumatic and violent events of the 14th of June 2017. But there’s plenty of footage for the digital archives.

No major event will go uncaptured in the future. Crowdsourcing an archive appears more democratic and transparent, but the inherent subjectivity of the footage means desire for an objective reading of an event is a difficult and lengthy process, which does not suit the contemporary dialogue. No one source should be treated as the defining element in anything and you think that would be easier today given the prevalence footage. Instead the truth, such that it is in the ‘Post-Truth’ society, has become more malleable and, ultimately, less important. That should be of concern to all of us.

No One's A Critic

 

The internet has democratised opinion. At this point this is one of the few things I think we can all agree upon. What once was a discussion at the pub or over the dinner table has become the dominant global discourse. Opinions from a vast spectrum of differing backgrounds, nationalities and ages are now given equal attention under the assumption that they are all valid due to these differences and our own subjectivity on a given topic. But there lies the problem.

While it is true all opinions are allowed, or should be in a ‘free’ society, it is also true that in quite a few places around the world certain opinions have been rejected by society at large. The idea that women should be allowed to vote and have reproductive rights is an opinion, the idea that people of colour are, in fact, human beings could too be considered an opinion, the idea that you should be allowed to choose a partner based on your sexual preference rather than another’s is an opinion and are all opinions (I thought) were generally accepted and understood to be moral advancements of our species. Unfortunately, with this open forum for global debate, fringe voices of an ignorant few have been allowed to fester and spawn, resulting in the belief that none of the above opinions are to be accepted as ‘truth’. The trouble here is that these fringe voices point to ‘Science’ or ‘demands for evidence’ i.e. Objective methods of proving the opinions that lead to an improved society. The trouble with objectivity when applied to humanity is that it rarely looks good for human life. The Universe is purely objective and continually destroys planets, has animals eat their young, gives bone cancer to children, causes earthquakes and mudslides and is generally a callous, unfeeling monster that would wipe us out without a second thought, not knowing or caring what we are. In short, killing Jews was the Nazis being objective in achieving their Aryan goal.

Ironically, opinion doesn’t require facts or evidence, or can simply manipulate or cherry pick facts and evidence. People arguing for objectivity love stats and numbers, saying “The Numbers don’t lie” but in the same breath insisting that sexism doesn’t exist because the numbers say so. Talk to any woman anywhere in the world and most of them will be able to give an example (whether they acknowledge it as such or not) of some sort of discrimination or harassment that happened that week. Equally people can outright lie due to their opinion and present it as fact, ignoring the vast weight of history or empirical evidence to the contrary. This isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon. Religion has denied the existence of Dinosaurs in favour of their respective origin stories for centuries. What is new is the amount of people listening and people agreeing with whatever wild theory is available. Whereas you could sit in a room with a racist once upon a time and be disgusted with them and then ask them to leave, today… less so. That person now demands their free speech and their right to be heard, despite the fact as a society at large most countries have rejected that idea. You could not stop someone having an opinion before the internet and social media, but you could ostracise that opinion. We allowed the opinion to exist but not if you wanted to be part of the whole. The larger group chose their opinion and it did not include the far reaches of right wing thought. But now the people arguing for their stupid ideologies that were dispensed with a hundred years ago (white supremacy, sexism, etc) have found their own large group and their voices must be heard because “they have been silenced for too long”.

My favourite example of how poorly this so called 'democratisation of opinion' works is in the likes of Rotten Tomatoes or MetaCritic, websites that aggregate reviews of media into a percentage out of 100. This is supposedly a fair and unbiased (i.e. objective) method of assessing the value of a given movie/TV show and so on. Despite the fact campaigns (by racists) have insisted Rotten Tomatoes sabotaged Justice League's scores so everyone should down vote Black Panther in response (ignoring the fact Warner Brothers, who released Justice League, own Rotten Tomatoes). And on the flip side, Rotten Tomatoes rates the 1990 film ‘The Witches’ higher than ‘The Godfather’. While I personally enjoy the former more than the latter I’m aware that isn’t the actual public consensus, and many consider Coppola’s masterpiece one of the all-time classics of cinema. For me, these aggregate review sites prove one thing: A complex opinion cannot be represented numerically. The fact we try is a damning indictment on our current approach to ‘The Discourse’ of the Internet.

The joke behind Rotten Tomatoes and its ilk is the old adage “Everyone’s a Critic”. A phrase developed by injured artists whose work has been criticised by someone whose opinion they don’t care for, which nowadays has become a shorthand Dad Joke for when a baby starts crying during a movie. All of which is a pretty apt metaphor for Rotten Tomatoes et al, I think…

The point I’m trying to make is that no one is a critic because no one is truly critical, or at least they certainly don't act it. Criticism requires self-reflection as much as any outward analysis, and not in a “ooh I’m my own worst critic” way, in a fair and wide-ranging way. In the academic field of criticism there are different ‘schools’ of criticism, different methods, and any ‘take’ on a work in the Humanities is seen as a reading. Cultural analysis sees everything as a ‘Text’ to be ‘Read’ and this reading is always subjective, open to be criticised itself in return, so we might better understand a given work’s nuances, its merits and its failures. The more we feel a reading has chimed with the original text the closer we feel to it and the better we might proceed with similar things in the future. This is opinion by aggregate, a natural gravitation toward more generally accepted, more inclusive, ideas. And, coincidentally, a wholly subjective and biased method of review and criticism.

Not a day goes by anymore without someone insisting that arguing for a just, fair and kind society is the work of the devil, or foolish, childish Utopian dreaming. Open any social media site and within a few scrolls you will find an example of ‘The Discourse’: Two people arguing vehemently over whether calling the police on a black woman in a swimming pool was a good or bad thing to do (it was a bad thing to do). Whilst I would like to say this isn’t progress, it is. With the internet and social media we have discovered everyone does not “hold these truths to be self-evident” and whilst it has legitmised extremist views and voices, it has proved we have not come as far as we thought and the war we thought we had won is still raging. It has given legitimacy and strength to other voices too, women, people of colour, LGBQT+ and more. As much as I have grown to loathe Twitter (thanks to it being run by a right-wing apologist) its function of lancing the festering, suppurating boil at the core of western society has been an incredible success. It has revealed us all to be solipsistic monsters, contorting ourselves into knots to support our own blinkered beliefs and experiences. We are seeing the full weight of these consequences brought to bear in the age of Trump, Putin, Brexit, etc and unfortunately it is only through these horrific and tectonic shifts will we finally begin to understand one another and after whatever global catastrophe awaits us at the end of it all, we will be able to move forward and leave behind the idiocies of this age. I hope it doesn’t come to that and we can all learn to be truly critical of ourselves before others but given the way things are at the moment, things aren’t going that way quick enough.

Oscar Wilde wrote “It is personalities not principles that move the age”. Over a hundred years and two world wars later and this is still the case. This kind of cultural stagnation in spite of progress in every other area is what is leading us down the road we are currently on. We all know what those principles are, or should be, now is the time they should be placed before ourselves or we’ll be stuck arguing against The Last Jedi being the cause of the White Holocaust for a generation.

All Play is All Work

In the UK we live in an age of transient employment in almost every sector. We are told unemployment is at an all-time low, but those numbers may well be fudged by the change to Universal Credit, the Dole’s penchant for signing people off for brief periods for ‘training’ and the fact more people than ever are working more than one job just to stay afloat. We have the highest rate of in-work Poverty this country has ever seen and the number of Food Banks across the country has grown to its highest amount in history. Restaurant attendance is down yet the average amount of shopping in a grocery basket has dropped too, meaning we can’t even afford to eat at home. We have been in a process of wage repression since the 70s which means the average income has not increased with inflation, and this results in a reliance on credit so that every household has roughly tripled their debt in the last 20 years. Combine this with the fact that automation is going to continue to shrink the job market so that in the next five years alone one in five jobs will be automated and you have, in no uncertain terms, a crisis. Even the Humanities and Creative industries are disappearing, Art replaced by Content, Artists now Content Creators. People are working harder for longer hours for less reward.

Marx’s Theory of Alienation (Yeah you heard, Marx. Suck it up Peterson.) says that because of the increase in the Capitalist mode of production, as outlined above, we are alienated from the products we create. We are cogs in a machine and have no agency over our lives. Traditionally the solution to this was to have an even amount of time of work, rest and play. “8 hours work, 8 hours rest, 8 hours for what we will” as the old poster said. Conservatives like to boast about the fact ‘people are living better lives today than ever in history’ but this is purely based on the fact we are able to use credit to buy luxury products, like flat screen TVs and iPhones, made by cheap foreign labour. Working ourselves to the bone with no money for food while public services deteriorate under austerity measures is not an increase in quality of life I’m afraid.

But we have the internet.

Yes, hoorah. The internet. You can become a celebrity on the internet! An influencer! Have legions of fans buying your merch. Success is only a few likes and subscribes away so long as you keep that hustle and set up a Patreon account because fuck knows you won’t be subsidised. You just have to sell out and compromise any artistic integrity, so your work has a logo on it and doesn’t swear or have any vaguely partisan message and abides by a capricious algorithm, yet is totally 'you' and unique but doesn’t stray too far from what is on trend. The internet is an incredible tool and is where most people in developed nations (including myself) spend their entire lives. The younger generation (we don’t use the M word around here) are almost all freelance and almost all their work is online. But the internet is abstract, formless, ocularcentric, it is easy to create your own forms of reality in an abstract space. The ‘Post-Truth’ society is only available to a society that allows a significant proportion of itself to live in such an abstract world, but this is how we spend our free time. The real world is where we work, the internet is where we play.

It is worrying then that this digital realm where we play now, has been infested with an insidious culture of games that are based around work. It began with games like the Sims but now a huge industry has grown around the likes of Farmville, Trucking Simulator, Stardew Valley, Tapped Out, Fallout Shelter and thousands more all base themselves around toil and the maintenance of their world. People are forced to check in at every spare moment on their mobile games so they can work their field, feed their people, put all their villagers meters in the green and get back to work. Even if the videogame’s intention itself was not to be this way, Minecraft for instance is a ‘creative tool’, it doesn’t detract from the fact that players have to Mine for resources to create that world and then it requires development then maintenance of some kind. The mountains of ‘crafting’ games or games with crafting elements grows by the day, demanding you spend hours refining your home and ensure your character is well fed, hydrated, happy and in some cases, not insane. A quick glance at a site like the wonderful Shut Up & Sit Down reveals that Board games, the Analogue brother to videogames, is also weighed down by management sims and literal trade games that simulate THE MARKET and the forces that produce it, like Container, Century: Spice Road, Arkwright, Bargain Quest, Sheriff of Nottingham and many, many more. That is not to say these are not creative, artistic and escapist games but overwhelmingly the money and the audience is in these forms of work-to-play games. In short, the space we have carved out in our daily lives for “What we will” is now used to return to a form of work.

We have allowed work, or the image of a more arable, pastoral way of working, to become fetishized. We have romanticised this world of work from a nostalgic view painted by culture as being toil that is appropriately rewarded i.e. you grow a crop = you eat it, or you chop wood = you build a chair with it. Marx’s Theory of Alienation says that Capitalism has distanced us from this direct reward for our work because now we chop the wood and sell it instead of using it. These games create a reconnection with the source of a certain labour and re-establishes the idea of "honest-work". A more conservative mind would probably say this is what we should strive towards. Many do, in fact, demanding the reopening of coal mines and such like but I’d argue this recidivist mentality is damaging and dangerous.

As is often touted by conservative (and centrist) commentators, we have more free time than ever, and they would say this is spent doing all the wrong things i.e. playing videogames. Yet automation is going to continue giving us more and more free time so using these simulations to give us a form of validation and self-worth is an understandable extension of that if we are not given the opportunity to grow and develop ourselves as individuals. Though it is considered heterodoxy, work and toil is not the default position of humanity or nature at large. The insistence by governing parties that it is the “hard working” families that must be rewarded (with a pat on the back and a pittance of benefits) and that the wealthiest work the hardest and therefore should be rewarded with the most luxury is a myth. Not least because wealth is not accrued by hard work in a Capitalist system but by birth, but also because work as Lifestyle is a relatively modern invention. It is only since the industrial revolution the recontextualization of people in society defined the majority as The Working Class. The inherent implication of this class strata is that ‘They work, we don’t’, sowing class division by implying those that are unemployed are so of their own volition and the lack of work time is very different to an almost identical lack of work time the wealthiest in society possess. If we had the guilt of our free time removed, along with the absolute demand for the most amount of time possible spent working, I think you would see a drop off in popularity in these resource management games. With the ability to manage our own resources and develop ourselves so we are personally fulfilled and not just scrabbling to survive, we would not need to find justification in toil via a medium of play or seek to understand the inner workings of THE MARKET via game mechanics.

This form of Wage Slave Play that has developed, to me, is really unhealthy. We are having the idea that work is the only true validation reinforced to us in our free time that could be better spent not worrying we’re going to get fired from an imaginary job dictated by a game engine. There are LOTS of games I love and I love to play videogames and board games as often as possible (which isn’t very often as I have no one to play with *sad face*) but these are games that foster creative thinking, storytelling, abstract puzzle solving, atmosphere and so on. Not ones that demand my attention every few hours so I can maintain a fictional status quo. Some games are deliberately designed to be addictive through their reward system, akin to gambling and slot machines, so by engineering them to revolve around a form of toil that society should be moving beyond, it reinforces the idea that Capitalism and the world of work is a Good Thing and we should all be grateful for the world we live in. A good game should help you think and see outside of the world you live in, not re-establish your walls.