Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Rainy Night in George Lucas's Imagination

I am in the middle of writing a mammoth post concerning the Song of Ice and Fire novels and the fantasy/sci-fi genres generally (of which - spoiler alert - I'm not a fan). It is nudging me towards thinking about fictionality and, hopefully, the issues I dealt with in my long-neglected thesis, which I need to return to.

But first - this. Below is a still I saw ages ago in a magazine article about the forthcoming Star Wars prequel (you know the one I mean – the one that was so bad it made your shit itch):

Bigger image here. Ewan MacGregor in the guise of a rained-on Noel Edmonds, acting badly in a bad film. What interested me was the rain - it struck me that, fantasy/sci-fi being what it is, this scene must take place on a planet where it always rains. 

A month or so later, as I walked out of the cinema in a cascade of obscenities and disappointment, I was at least gladdened to have been proved right - Obi Wan had visited the World of Always-Rain.

My question is - what property of fantasy/sci-fi made this predictable? Why would we think (or why did I think) that a planet of constant rain is appropriate to the genre, but a passing rain shower not?

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Monarchist or republican?

The Guardian website has a 'Monarchist or Republican?' filter on their front page for those who don't want to read about the royal birth. Click 'Republican' and everything Windsor-related vanishes, leaving the reader to concentrate on the real Guardian nitty-gritty of flaccid left-wing pieties and posh food (as well as, perhaps, etymologically spurious reasons why we shouldn't use the term 'nitty-gritty')

It's an either-or gimmick, and, ever the contrarian, I'm ambivalent about it. It's certainly a smart way of drumming up publicity - a few US news websites have picked up on it, possibly because anti-monarchism is a curious anomaly according to the American idea of Britain. It also builds on the Guardian's liberal brand, and on this specific topic the paper has a certain amount of deserved credibility - they challenged the law that makes it illegal to advocate the abolition of the monarchy in print (the Treason Felony Act 1848) and established that the law is, in a judge's words, a 'relic of a bygone age' which would not stand up to the Human Rights Act.

But on the other hand, it's blatantly a bit weaselly. There are any number of divisive, column-inch-hogging stories where they could have offered the same service - the Olympics, party conference seasons, elections (here and in the US), death of Thatcher, etc. (It's possible that they did offer the same service in these instances and I haven't been paying attention - in which case everything that follows is irrelevant). There was no 'no Thatcher for me!' button, say, because newspapers are not user-generated content: one of their functions is to reflect and also determine a sense of what is newsworthy, and once that is abdicated to readers newspapers no longer do what newspapers are supposed to do. They take a stand on what they think is important, and we readers respond to that proposition. Thatcher's death was an important happening in the world, and to have allowed readers to screen it out would be to tear up a newspaper into solipsistic rags. I'd prefer a news agenda that never ever involves Ed Balls' unfortunate face, but it would be foolish were Fleet Street actually to indulge this immaturity of mine.

It seems the Guardian acknowledges that the royal birth is important - and while the UK is a constitutional monarchy, regardless of whether or not that is a good thing, it surely is. But they also want to simultaneously backtrack on this - the story is, apparently, trivial enough that readers can still get a good sense of what is going on in the world with it excised. They want it both ways - to weigh the story's objective importance equally with its putative (and incompatible) moral importance. Like I say - weaselly.

Why abandon usual newspaper style - i.e. why not tell the story and then slam the royals in the comments page and the leader? Is the 'Republican?' filter just a wish-fulfilment, picturing the news agenda republicans want but are failing to create? I wonder if the Grauniad has been led to commit such a large, over-the-top misstep by their own anxiety - the anxiety that the republican movement is not merely losing the argument but failing even to make its case heard. And there's no better way to make it clear you've lost an argument than raising your voice.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

And how should I begin?

Hello, dear as-yet-hypothetical reader. I have decided to start a blog. There's no theme other than whatever is on my mind, but I imagine literature, film & TV, music, language, and whatever's in the news will crop up more often than not. The impetus for setting up this blog was my fondness for argument - which I tell you, I suppose, to both encourage and warn.

I am woken up each morning by music on the radio and a shrill alarm clock (thankfully it is the music that stays with me for the rest of the day - that ringing is just tinnitus, I think). So I'll start my blog as I start my day - with music.

Specifically with the question - why so much pastiche? Why over the past five years or so have artists achieved so much success imitating defunct (maybe 'historical' is kinder and less question-begging) styles and genres? Amy Winehouse (jazz-lite / soul), Duffy (soul, apparently), Daft Punk (disco), Jake Bugg (Johnny Cash?) - and an enormous amount of pseudo-Motown stuff. 

I'm not particularly exercised as to whether it is good or bad, nor is the fact of its existence anomalous - this stuff has always been around (The Commitments, The 'British Blues Boom', etc.). What is curious, however, is that pastiche seems to be becoming more popular at the same time that new media (esp. YouTube and Spotify) make the originals being imitated ever more easily accessible. Given that it is now just as easy to get hold of some Etta James as it is some Paloma Faith, why are the original artists not crowding out their latter-day copyists? Now that blues, soul, country, jazz, etc. have ditched those off-putting muso trappings (out-of-the-way record shops, obscure labels, bad or bare-faced deceitful packaging, the painful prose of Mojo magazine) for the more level playing-field of online platforms, one would expect pastiche to become less rather than more popular.

Okay, so I'm presupposing that Paloma Faith, say, is musically redundant if put together next to Etta James - clearly not true or fair. My thwarted expectation only requires further attention, you might argue, if it is a valid expectation in the first place that, given a straight choice, a non-perverse listener would always prefer Etta James to Paloma Faith. I'd rather leave that question aside, for now.

I'm also, admittedly, skirting close to a wish-fulfilment fantasy in which, rescued by the internet, the original artists reclaim the glory, not to mention royalties, stolen from them by their pygmy imitators (or, if you will, Little Richard finally has his revenge on Pat Boone).

So what is the argument I am making? That latter-day imitators outsell the artists that inspired them for the same reasons they always did, and the hope that the internet might overturn this state of affairs is just another of its delusory promises.

On the one hand, it seems likely that the appetite for these pastiche acts has been sparked by newfound access to their predecessors – with Spotify and iTunes playlists replacing radio playlists, it becomes easier for disco and country stylings to enter the mainstream. On the other hand, however, the grassroots rediscovery of these older acts is merely prompting music labels to respond by appropriating them and repackaging them as pastiche – the hope that the world wide web’s vast potential for individuals to make new, ever freer cultural interactions might, correspondingly, make our collective cultural space wider and more pluralistic is a false one. It merely provides raw material that the music industry casts into a newly homogenized, marketable format. 

There is nothing wrong with this, in some ways – it’s what people want. It’s more fun (I can only assume) to follow a living artist than a dead or ageing one, one who is releasing new material, living his or her cultural moment along with fans. Record companies know this and so push Seasick Steve rather than the blues artists he imitates.

But this is not the best we could hope for from the defining tool of the age. In fact, isn't the world wide web so often disappointing, and much less transformative than it promises to be? The musical mainstream is responding to new influences, but through an antagonistic, conservative form of containment - which is hardly what we value in the WWW. The freedom we have as individual consumers of music is much enlarged, and improved, but this has not translated into a freedom to determine which acts get the breaks, or to enlarge correspondingly the musical mainstream. This is because, I suppose, the internet is little more than a telephone line: it does not in itself possess or confer any agency, or means of social social empowerment, and so cannot on its own change the power relationship between us and the music industry. Despite the intense narcissism of this particular medium (the Arab Spring was the ‘Twitter revolution’ in a way the Prague Spring was never the ‘telephone revolution’) it is still just a conduit for non-digital intentions and actions. And it is clear that record companies looking for bankable artists act more coherently and with greater intent than music lovers sitting at their laptop ambling through Spotify.