The Rambler :: blog
Saturday, August 30, 2003
Yesterday afternoon I had time to kill so I headed out from Liverpool Street, and turning my back on Brick Lane and the Finerati, I found myself in the Square Mile. Before you know it, the newest and most glorious addition to Norman Foster's London is looming over you. The Swiss Re building at 30 St Mary's Axe is gorgeous. I've watched it grow from many points around the city for months now, but this was my first look up close. So I dodged through suits and alleyways to get right up to it, and it' as good up close as from a distance. I've always loved corporate architecture anyway - it's my exotic - but this is a masterpiece. Right down to the details (the cloisters between zig-zag glass shards at the building's base), everything about it seems contained within the logic of a single gesture. Gherkin, zeppelin, the cock to City Hall's bollock? No - it's a fat cat cigar, stubbed out in a giant ashtray, one mile square, transformed into an object of real beauty.
Thursday, August 28, 2003
Yeah, alright. Touché.
As ever, someone manages to better express what I was getting at. And yet again, they're over at k-punk. Mark's correspondent, Jonathan JD2, nails what I was (flailingly) trying to grasp:
"If an iPod can contain 4000 songs, and improved download times, mp3 availability etc are adding to that number exponentially, who is going to have the time to notice which of the songs are the 40 or so truly jawdropping ones? Even if the vastly accelerated and expanded access to music of which 99% is and always has been shite, hasn't irreparably blunted their critical faculties ... What is being heard is: The size of the iPod's database; the sphincter-clenchingly rapid download time; the timbre of our relationship with the screen [Paul Virilio explains this far better than I can in what he says about horizons in 'Open Sky']; the conflation of music with data [and its continuous arrival], such that the listener has no more a connection to a song or its performance than they have with their recycle bin."
That's the thing. The very nature of MP3s mean that one's respect for them (and the poor buggers who actually make them) disappears. I tend to listen (OK, too strong a word, I know) to my iTunes stuff in the background when I'm working, usually on more-or-less random play. At the moment I've just had Kid606, followed by Lutoslawski, followed by the Sea Ensemble. And I do this because it's a way of seeing the music from every possible angle, and it's fun, and it's easy. Yes, I'm injuring the integrity of the original full-length CDs by dislocating tracks from one another (although interestingly these three people/groups probably wouldn't lose too much sleep over narrative discontinuities...), but hey, they're my tracks, on my computer, and I can manipulate them how I like...
And that's the 'risk' with MP3s, as I see it. Whether it's 'fetishism' in the most thorough sense of the word is by the by, I think (although plenty of interesting stuff has been written on this already). What is the real issue is that the download speeds, the contemptuous ease with which iTunes can erase the narrative/structural arch of a work by redistributing its fragments (every so often I get a 2-minute chunk of Penderecki's St Luke Passion), damage, as I say, the respect for the original work (as excess porn damages respect for contact with actual women). Jonathan's friend who no longer plays his records through his hi-fi has lost that moment of connection with a piece of music; that moment of deliberate selection, deliberate cueing up, deliberate play.
And as I sit here, I can only hold my hands up with him - guilty as charged.
Update, 12 Sept, 2003: Jonathan now has his own blog, quarks and charms. Pay him a visit!
Friday, August 22, 2003
k-punk picks up the baton on data fetishism.
I see what Mark's saying here, and the Baudrillard quotation is spot on: the fetishist wants to see everything, from every angle. But I think the idea that pure data such as an MP3 is non-fetishisable is an illusion. To stay with the porno analogy, no-one thinks of the individuals on film as people - they have become just bodies. Just data. (This is what is most offensive about it, and what distances the consumer from his guilt.) Baudrillard's porn consumer is really seeking an infinite database of images which may be infinitely queried in order to create that ideal porn experience. The durability of porn is due to the fact that, like Big Macs and smack (all hugely profitable), and probably hi-fi, you are promised a perfect experience which is designed to always fall slightly short.
Now, instead of porn images, you have MP3s. And the great thing about yer iPod is that now our record collections are queriable. We can instantly compile and edit any playlist we want: in essence get closer to the infinite variety (and dissatisfaction) of porn. Of course, the tracks can be savoured for themselves, but, like the actors in the porn film, we need not actually know or care anything about their 'content', their nature, in order to seek pleasure in them.
The analogy is far from complete, of course, and not particularly robust. But I think the point can be made that there are two modes of fetishization: for the medium and for the data. Cassette lovers fetishize the medium, porn lovers fetishize the data (unless they really like glossy magazine paper - and in which case, why not Auto Trader as well as Playboy?). Do MP3 collectors tend towards the latter?
Thursday, August 21, 2003
National Slacker Day 2003
I heartily approve. Idling is, naturally, something we endorse at Rambler towers. You know what you have to (not) do, people. But if you're stuck, then you could do worse than try here for inspiration.
Personally, I'll be squeezing a pharmaceutical company for an easy few quid on a clinical trial, then settling down to watch an imperious innings from Michael Vaughan at Headingley. I suggest you do similar ;)
I like this. Has anyone else noticed that the Terminator films are basically hi-tech Tom and Jerry? The new one is non-stop slap-stick, so maybe at least Jonathan Mostow has.
Tuesday, August 19, 2003
It seems I was a little premature in my analysis of the origins of Celebreality - apparently Noel Edmonds is nobly taking all the blame.
Joke of the Week, from last weekend's Sunday Times:
'When Brian Sewell, the art critic on the London Evening Standard, was once asked which living artist he would least like to be stuck in a lift with, he replied: “Tracey Emin with a full bladder.”'
'Onward, Britney' is the new 'All your base are belong to us'? ...
Also available as a T-shirt here.
(Thanks to the good folks at It's all in your mind for the spot.)
Thursday, August 14, 2003
I was in the middle of writing a comment on this, but was getting carried away, so thought I'd give it a post all of its own...
Undoubtedly TV has accelerated the sense of 'ownership' between fan and 'celeb', and phone-interactivity is no small part of this of course. But I think the basic decline is older - I remember in the early rise of Britpop someone writing in the NME (or Melody Maker) that part of the attraction, and the fun, was that popstars then (referring to anyone from Menswear to first-album Spice Girls) were only just out of reach*. ie They weren't particularly good looking, or talented. Just lucky - answer the right ad in Stage and Screen and it could have been any of us. That was the mythology then, and it has become our unfortunate reality now. Pop Idol just shortens the process.** The same could be said of the rise of Ladmags at around the same time - most of their cover girls, then as now, were pretty ordinary looking. Nice enough, but hardly Monroe. It's the logical extension of a longer process towards the democratisation of culture in general, and I have to say I'm unconvinced...
*It may have been in the same piece, but somewhere similar this ownership-based relationship was put forward as the reason for Lennon's murder...
**Hmmm - indeed makes the process the whole point. The success of any participants is just a bonus. Maybe more on this at a later date if my head won't let it alone...
Today I embark on another of those 5-day odyssies of pain that is watching English test cricket. If you can't (bear to) watch, you could do worse than follow the Grauniad's infamous commentary here. And you'll be relieved to note (as I was) that the Smiths mentioned are not of the Mozza/Marr variety...
Wednesday, August 13, 2003
Angus @ I Feel Love ponders some string quartet arrangements of songs by someone whose name escapes me at the moment... In a typically blogtastic moment, I read this in terms of k-punk's latest wisdom (see below).
I think Angus is right to an extent - a lot of people buying records like this do so to "inflect their liking of pop music with a bit of surplus capital" (incidentally, I think the same is true in the opposite direction: old-timers trying to be groovy).
I'm not sure I agree with him on the inadvisability of arranging for string quartets per se, though. Yes, good ones are rare, and most are ridden with clichés, but the 'Man-Sized Sextet' (sex-, quar- ... what's a little due- between friends?) off PJ Harvey's Rid of Me is one hell of an exception. What's more, it sounds like nothing in the classical repertoire - grittier than anything I know, and I know some grit. I've also seen the Kronos Quartet do some Sigur Rós arrangements, which against expectations also worked.
What is the problem - and here's the rub - is that in arranging music written for the recording studio it's easy to jettison 90% of that music: the sound it makes. Ask anyone to sing the riff from whatshisname's 'How Soon is Now', and they can't, really, even though it's only two notes. But play them on your stereo, and they'll all recognise it. Any arrangement will just be pale imitation unless it has the balls to recompose the original (as my PJ Harvey example does, in fact).
Brian Eno once said something along the lines that in two-second bursts, all string quartets sound the same, from Haydn to Bartók. But play a two-second burst from (almost) any pop/rock track, and it's instantly recognisable. And that's at the heart of what both Mark and Angus are getting at, I think. 'Tunes', harmonies, counterpoint, 'dull expertise' are not necessary in pop/rock, but the quality of sound is essential. You can do this with arrangements for 'classical' instruments, but it's harder than most record execs think.
As I'm not on my home Pac-a-Mac today, but on a work PC, I see there's been trouble with scrolling down to see the whole blog. I think it's fixed now (may be something to do with my counter), but if you still can't see everything let me know. Ta.
Sound is social. Music, more than any other medium involves people. If you make a noise, people will hear.
"Now more than ever what differentiates one artist from another is vision - and that's what we want from sound, isn't it, not yet another dull display of expertise, but a new way of encountering the world?" - Mark @ k-punk.
Tuesday, August 12, 2003
Incidentally, one of the poster quotes (from the Telegraph) reads 'Good Bye Lenin! recalls Amelie ...'. Well, not really, except in the broadest terms - it's about reality/unreality, and it has subtitles. But it does have very similar (maybe even identical, I haven't checked) music. That noodly, pseudo-minimalist piano thing that we first heard Nyman using in The Piano. Now, I love minimal music in general, but this stuff has become too formulaic, too flattening (witness the effect it seems to have made on the Telegraph's reviewer). An echo of those (necessarily) formulaic live piano improvisations you had with silent films?
Ok, as promised...
What first gets you about Good Bye Lenin! is how finely balanced it is. Obviously it’s a film about nostalgia, and the tensions between East and West Berlin (read ‘Europe’). And yet it never settles on one side or another. Is the West better than the East? Are Coke, cigarette and lingerie adverts preferable to statues of Lenin? And it’s much more complex than that, but I don’t want to reveal any unnecessary plot details, but trust me, it’s beautifully poised. (But if you do want a summary of sorts, go here.
What I like most about it, as I mulled it over with m’Lady late into last night, was the universality of it. Yes, it’s a film about a very specific time and place (Berlin, 1989-90), but somehow its story doesn’t become tied to this. It’s not - to take another recent Central European film - like The Pianist, which is a very Polish tale. Besides the fact that it is set in 1930s-40s Warsaw, the jokes (the first thing to happen to our Polish hero wandering around ‘liberated’ Warsaw is to be shot at by a Russian) are dark Polish humour, and the story is a microcosm of recent Polish history and mythology (you have Chopin, Russia, Germany, the destruction of a country, the Warsaw Uprising, etc. etc). It is a Polish myth in construction.
Good Bye Lenin! is very different. It shows these myths in construction - the Ostalgie for the old Berlin, the events of 1989-90 (events like the Berlin Wall coming down and the World Cup, which are carefully illustrated with archive footage, and thus tug at all our heartstrings) - but shows us to trust and mistrust them in equal measure. Everybody has them - even the West German film guy, with his 2001 hommages - and we all have to sustain them to make sense of anything. And by doing this, it transcends being a documentary film about a place and its people (which to an extent The Pianist is), and allows those people to move on, to live and breathe. As someone with a vested interest in rethinking East and West Europe (more of which another day) this was a relief. Go and see.
Haven't watched the final 24 yet - it's still sitting in the video machine, and may just stay there, I find after 23 episodes I just don't have the energy - but when I get round to it, I might have something to say on that series.
But to be more general.... When this series began on UK terrestrial TV, it was followed by the last, lamentable, series of the X-Files. Which was striking, because here you had two extended US thriller series about government agents and agencies, but from two very different US mindsets. The X-Files is very definitely peacetime TV: government agencies are not to be trusted, they lie, they murder, they conspire, we're all being duped, none of us is safe, the enemy is within. They use technology to obscure, and bury the truth, as well as to create threats to civilisation. Surveillance is bad - trust no-one.
Yet 24 is post-11th September. It's War on Terror, Afghanistan, Iraq. It's wartime TV: government agencies (and agents) are good. OK, the name of the FBI has become so besmirched on TV that they have to come up with a new set of initials - CTU - but the principle is still there. Look how cool all that surveillance technology has become. With their Apple G4s (natch) hooked up, CTU can seemingly access any bit of information about anything, instantly. Forget the sinister warehouses of biometric data cards in the X-Files, this is serious. But never once is the validity of all this data access, liberty infringement, etc etc ever conceived of critically. (Of course, I'm talking here about the CTU side of things here - obviously the Washington administration aspect is more complex in the second series). The whole programme supports the idea that open government access to anything ever is wholly acceptable, and desirable.
And against this vision, the X-Files seems even more absurd than ever, which of course it is. But don't ever stop asking where your liberties are going, because common wisdom is being shifted.
Monday, August 11, 2003
Crikey. You turn your back for a couple of days, and find you've got reader(s). Feel a bit like Richard Tull in Amis' The Information. Still, I'm terribly vain, so it's appreciated!
Off to see Goodbye Lenin tonight, so the Central European word-splurge that has been waiting to come out might just get a chance later... In the meantime, an interesting piece to read.
Sunday, August 10, 2003
I wouldn't call it British stoicism - it's just too hot to think... I was going to post on this yesterday, but couldn't bring myself to do it. Still, here you go.
According to Metro (sorry, no online version), the free London rag, 100 commuters spent 9 hours travelling from Southampton to Waterloo earlier this week. About 70 miles, at an average of 8mph, in 30+ degrees C. Yuck. Apparently, the heat buckled all the track, and they had to switch to three different trains - one of which only had one carriage - pregnant women were fainting, etc. etc.
Now, of course this is a ghastly experience, and the rail companies involved made a bit of a hash of things, but these are extreme weather conditions. Like 3 feet of snow is extreme. So it's perhaps not surprising that some people had a lot of trouble getting into work. My sympathy for these poor sods vanishes completely however when I read between the lines: over the course of nine hours they've been shunted onto three separate trains. And when it came to the final one - the single carriage black hole of Calcutta - they were advised against using it because it would be dangerous. Now by this stage it must have been mid-afternoon. On a Friday. In August. When getting to work is all but impossible. But still these fools press on, imagining that turning up at the office in the early evening is worth it. For God's sake TAKE A HINT!!! GO HOME!!! Relax with your families, read a book, make love to your wife; but don't imagine for a second that the world will end if you stop punishing yourselves day after relentless day.
We're not stoical - we're just muppets.
Ah, well the comments are working now, anyway. Thanks to Angus for the tip-off - en*t*t**n are a Briit company, and what with the weather here, I'm giving all Brits the benefit of the doubt for the moment...
Friday, August 08, 2003
OK, still no comments. Third-party code issues. And me probably being a bit crap with html.
Are nerds always outsiders? Are the two synonymous? Not necessarily. To use Morrissey as a (largely metaphorical) example, versus another archetypal slice of outsider/nerd/misfit music, Radiohead's 'Creep', it seems obvious to me that music - above all other media, in fact - is capable of articulating degrees of outsider/nerdy-ness. Take Creep. Rock track, big guitars. Rode the grunge wave for a bit. Big shouty chorus with simple words and a simple tune, and pretty big signposts pointing out when the chorus was coming up. In other words, you can sing along, in the clubs, at the gig. Hell, wave your lighter in the air if you want.
But listening to 'How soon is now', or 'This charming man', or whatever, is completely different. Morrissey's lyrics and melodies are shaped to be pretty unrepeatable (as a whole): certainly without spending a bit of time analysing and reviewing. You don't tend to get the communal sing-along chorus. They don't scan easily, or commend themselves to memory naturally: 'I'm a creep/I'm a weirdo', vs 'I would go out tonight/but I haven't got a stitch to wear'...
So your Radiohead/'Creep'-type outsider actually finds community in 'Creep'. It suggests participation, shared experience. Morrissey-type outsiders are more likely to find a personal, private pleasure in his music - and thus resist communalism. The relationship is one-on-one.
To be slightly less MOR about this, I'd suggest this is a big difference between Dizzee and the Streets - some kids at Charing Cross last night were swaggering round yelling 'Fix up, look sharp' at each other. Can you imagine the same thing with the Streets' 'Be brave my apprentice/stand tall, clench fists'?
Trying to get some comments linx on here. Did it work?
Thursday, August 07, 2003
There’s a lot of Morrissey going around at the moment. Somehow I missed Morrisey, even though I was exactly the right age at the time. Probably a bit too baggy for my own good. But I’ve been listening to a lot of Gene this week, and one of the things that Martin Rossiter and Mozza do have in common is the ability to play with male sexuality. Speaking as a heterosexual man, one of the things I’ve always found most thrilling about Rossiter’s lyrics is the (to my ears at least) homosexual innuendo running through them. The typically-masculine imagery (fighting, cars, prison) is made damned sexy, and thus subversive.
And actually, I think Loaded was a very different beast around its inception (didn’t Morrissey appear on the cover at some point?). It was capable of wit, and some fine writing; then it became a poor man’s FHM (yeesh!).
OK, so it’s not music, but there you go. I’m still in the first flush of blog, so that’s my excuse. And this has been playing on my mind recently.
Apologies to all non-Londoners - although I did see a TV version of the following, so maybe you know what I’m on about, but... As someone who spends Far Too Long on the Tube, I stare at a lot of ads, and a seemingly innocuous one for a well-known ladies’ deodorant really troubled me. Briefly, the tagline is something like ‘So, you think no-one can see your underarms in the office?’, and there’s a photo of a woman on the phone, with one arm behind her head playing with her hair.
Fine. But bear with me.
Half out of focus, in one corner, is a man - the sort who might look at your underarms, perhaps? with a paunch, moustache and sweat. An unpleasant-looking stereotype, in fact. And then you notice that the whole picture has actually been shot through the glass window of an interior office (the boss’s?). It’s voyeuristic, and you as the viewer, looking at this woman from the safety of your window, are expected to relate to the corpulent peeping-tom character. And what’s more, the advert is intended to appeal to women who, it seems from this ad, should expect and hope to be leered at throughout the day - why else would they want to buy this product?
Perhaps I’m going semiotic-crazy, but it seems very weird to me. It’s too hot to think very hard about these things, but maybe there’s some overlap here with the Female Capitalism talk doing the rounds.
Blimey. [breathes deeply] That took longer than I thought.
Anyway, here we are, a brand shiny new blog. How to begin?
A few words about what might be expected here, and probably won't actually happen.
In the tradition of the good Dr, I'll probably have a crack at most things, but since I'm a music writer/academic by trade and training you can expect some of that, as well as the usual blogosphere mix of cultural-topical waffle.
But enough about me - make yrselves busy and read some of the stuff on the right. It's better than this...
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