Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Tracey and Guy and puffballs and me

When I first dipped a digit into social media (as I’m sure we didn’t call it at the time), it was in the form of Friends Reunited, a site designed to help you get in touch with friends and enemies from your past schools, colleges and similar places of incarceration. Each entry had a space to list personal interests and I couldn’t help noticing how many of my contemporaries, asked to identify their favourite music, put “Eighties”.

Well, what the hell does that mean? I can understand someone who wasn’t born at the time investigating the music of the decade as a sort of semiotic archaeologist, just as I bought so-called Sixties compilations as a means of getting my head round the Standells and the Shangri-Las and the Swingle Singers. But these were people who’d lived through the whole 10 years as sentient beings, from post-punk and 2-Tone to acid house and Madchester with all manner of ghastly wrong turns in between. How could they have simply packaged up all the various musics that soundtracked their — damn it, our — growing up into a neat, one-word manifestation of decaditis?

Of course, as Tracey Thorn argues in her recent article in the New Statesman, “Eighties” doesn’t actually mean everything recorded during those 10 years:
Now, personally I wouldn’t mind going to an Eighties disco, all Smiths records and “Coal Not Dole” badges, Go-Betweens B-sides and Red Wedge banners. What’s that you say? You don’t think that’s what it would be like? No, you’re probably right. That was my Eighties, maybe yours, too, but it’s not the official version of the decade, is it? The official version is – yawn – spandex leggings and Duran Duran, puffball skirts and mullets, shoulder pads, Dynasty, yuppies and Tories, Tories, Tories.
Of course, this is all about dominant discourses and cultural hegemonies and, as Thorn says, history getting written by the winners. And it doesn’t really matter whether you lived through a period or not: I’ve written elsewhere about the time I was gently informed that my 1960s were the wrong flavour, or something. And my own 1980s, for example, would involve rather more of Ms Thorn’s work (especially from the early years when she was on Cherry Red records with Everything the Girl and the Marine Girls and as a solo act and probably hovering in the background elsewhere) than would crop up in the puffball version she describes. A 1990s disco programmed by the winners might well include her global smash hit ‘Missing’ but not if I had a say in it; and anyway, as I’ve also argued, the 1990s was the first decade that resisted such a simplistic approach.

It was probably thinking on such lines that brought the House of Love to mind. They’re one of the bands that seems to fall off my personal radar every few years, then leap back with a jolt. I like them for a number of reasons: because they sounded a bit like the Velvets and the Bunnymen and the Jesus and Mary Chain; because the singer, Guy Chadwick, had magnificent cheekbones; because they came up with weird lines like “your face is a foreign food”; because in the face of the Roses and Monday et al they steadfastly denied that there’d ever been a dance element to their music; because the released three separate albums all called The House of Love; and above all because of a gig in the last month of the 1980s, just a few days after they’d fired their guitarist, when they played with the focused intensity of a jilted lover who just has to do this to keep from dissolving into tears. In my memory they only performed for about 25 minutes and left the audience stumbling around as if it had been mugged by plectrums and pain. Someone somewhere can probably disabuse me but I hope they don’t. It was my 1980s and it was my gig.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Fun With Asian Nazis

Probably foolishly, I’ve started a new Tumblr. It’s called Fun With Asian Nazis and it’s about the complex relationship some Asian people have with the trappings and/or ideology of the Third Reich — the sort of thing I covered in this post last year. If you have any relevant nuggets to share (especially from countries other than Thailand and Japan, for which I have a wealth of material) please give me a shout.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

On pubic hair, and/or the absence thereof

I’ve stroked my chin a couple of times (here and here) about the odd reactions provoked by Courbet’s painting The Origin of the World and, yes, we’re back on the vexed question of how we respond to public displays of women’s body hair, with the response to Leena McCall’s painting Portrait of Ms Ruby May, which was removed from a show at the Mall Galleries. The Guardian hedges its bets in its coverage of the story, not wanting to be as prim and silly as the Daily Mail but at the same time not wanting to give offence. (But to whom? Feminists? Puritans? Feminist puritans? Body fascists who think all women should be utterly shorn below the neckline? Tiresome hippies who insist with similar vehemence that all women should be innocent to the attention of waxes and razors whether they want to be or not?) They offer a censored version of the image but allow you to click if you want to see it in all its glory. I don’t have the energy for such things. Here’s the painting, take it or leave it:

Without wishing to delve too deeply into the minutiae of Ms May’s intimate beautification routines, she does appear to have done some tidying down there, although by what means I wouldn’t presume to guess. And of course there’s a whole thesis that could be concocted into our vexed relationship with pubes, encompassing Classical and Renaissance nudes, that urban myth about Ruskin, those pens with pictures of naked ladies who lose and acquire swimsuits depending on the angle at which you hold them and the shifting attitude of magazines such as Playboy, where hair was a proud badge of sexual liberation in the early 1970s, only to retreat over the years to the point at which it’s now as unacceptable as it was when the magazine first launched. And of course, the pubic paradox, that the presence of hair in some ways reveals what it also purports to conceal, which is verging on Baudrillard if you think about it, which I do, probably too much. I think I may go a bit further on this at a later date, although I suspect I’m already attracting some funny looks. Maybe I need to wax my blog.

PS: A photographer’s perspective (and a quirky video, if you speak a bit of French).

PPS: And more censorious silliness, this time about album sleeves. (Do they still exist?)

Monday, July 07, 2014

Irony as a valid lifestyle choice

If there’s really a culture war between clear-eyed sincerity and arch, ironic snark, I know which side I’m on. It’s a pity, then that Worst. Person. Ever., Douglas Coupland’s salvo against this so-called “epidemic of earnestness” is so lame. The central character, Raymond Gunt, is self-centred and monotonously priapic but isn’t even the most ghastly character in the book – that honour belongs to his hideous mother – and ultimately comes over as Coupland’s attempt to concoct a composite Martin Amis monster from the 1980s when these things mattered (and so did Amis).

If we’re going to take on earnestness, let us do it with elegance. Our manifesto could be taken from Christopher Shevlin – a writer who, unlike Coupland or Amis, hasn’t been around long enough to disappoint me – in The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax:
They seemed to feel that discussing actual things was beneath them. Their conversation was an odd, semi-surreal mixture of deliberate banalities, light ironies and playful banter. Jonathon felt at home with this. In a world that obstinately refused to make any sense at all, Jonathon had always felt it was presumptuous to talk as though it did.
But I haven’t read far enough into the book to work out whether this is meant to be a good thing or not.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Postmodern beer and the ultimate death of everything and nothing

The problem with postmodernism is that nobody can really agree what it means. Except that tangled up in it is something about the absence of a fundamental objective reality to which meaning can apply. As such, the labelling of a bottle of beer as postmodern, thus stripping the word of what few tattered shreds of lace ever protected its modesty, is at once the death of postmodernism and its ultimate triumph.

And it didn’t taste very nice either.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Rolf Harris: can we see what it was yet?

So, following the precedent established by Gary Glitter, Jimmy Savile and others, the disgraced Rolf Harris is being written out of our cultural history, never more to pop up on light-hearted, list-based, celeb-sprinkled retrospectives of specific decades or genres. Fair enough: he’s a bad man and footage of his wobbleboard singalongs, or even of him comforting the owners of deceased parakeets, is now impossible to watch without thinking of his misdeeds.

But performance is inextricably linked with an individual’s personality. Other art forms, such as writing or visual art, can more easily be appreciated at a distance from those who created them. This is why we are still permitted to appreciate the sculptures of Eric Gill (who abused his daughters and even his dog) or the poetry of Philip Larkin (racist devotee of lesbian spanking porn) but might have been less forgiving had they sung about kangaroos and extra legs.

Harris, of course, is a more complicated case, because he was also a painter of some fame — yet it appears that he’s not being cut the same level of slack extended to Gill, nor yet to Paul Gauguin, who frolicked with Tahitian nubiles and probably gave them syphilis. The Harris portrait of the Queen seems to have disappeared from sight and owners of some of his other works are desperate to be rid of them. I was especially touched by the anguish of one Cathy Sims, who used to sing to her picture of Bonnie Tyler but now wants to burn it.

Maybe the difference is that Harris’s paintings can’t be detached from his now-tainted public persona; his TV appearances added to the fame and value of his art and now that we can’t watch them without retching, we can’t look at his paintings either. Essentially, without Rolf the performer, Rolf the painter wouldn’t have got a look in. And maybe one day, once the collective memories of his misdeeds are less raw, we’ll be able to look at those paintings coolly objectively, unaffected by knowledge of the artist either as avuncular entertainer or cynical predator. And with luck we’ll be able to see that, in purely aesthetic terms, they’re pretty bloody awful.

PS: The demands for retrospective airbrushing begin...

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Liu Xiabo and the gesture politics of town planning

Anyone who yearns for the glory days of the Cold War, when US foreign policy defined itself by unstinting vigilance against the dread perils of Communism, will have had fun this week. First came North Korea’s reaction to a forthcoming Hollywood movie about a plot to assassinate supreme leader Kim Jong-un. “If the US administration allows and defends the showing of the film, a merciless counter-measure will be taken,” said a spokesman for the hermit kingdom, also promising “a gust of hatred and rage.” Then an amendment was made to the annual spending bill of the US State Department, providing for a street in Washington DC to be named after the imprisoned Chinese dissident and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. Not entirely coincidentally, the street chosen is the location of the Chinese embassy.

It’s a childish but effective stunt, reminding me of the time when the Poll Tax was instituted in the UK and local councils renamed their buildings after Wat Tyler (to align themselves with a tradition of popular opposition to centralised autocracy) or Margaret Thatcher (to remind taxpayers whose smart idea it was in the first place). The Chinese response has been less bellicose than that of the Koreans, calling the amendment “sheer farce” and accusing those reponsible of “meaningless sensationalism”. The question is, how is the People’s Republic going to retaliate? The obvious move would be to make a similar change in Beijing, highlighting an American dissident, the most likely candidate being the whistleblower Edward Snowden. But if they really want to needle the Yanks and remind them of the fundamental flaws in modern American society and culture, they need to be a little more subtle. I’m looking forward to residents of Anjialou Road, home of the US embassy, waking up some time soon to find that they’re now living on Kardashian Street.

PS: And yes, it would have helped if I’d spelled his name right in the headline...

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The green rose

When I was 17 I found myself in a strange land full of strange people. Well, maybe not so strange in retrospect; it was Canada, which some would say is a byword for not-strangeness, although of course the ordinariness of things and places and people can become a bit strange if taken to extremes. And when I was 17, a time when a day trip to London was still quite exciting, getting deposited five time zones away, in a place where I knew nobody, delivered a certain frisson. Even if they did speak English, sort of.

The shock was eased by a number of welcoming souls, including a fellow newcomer, a teacher called Campbell MacKay. It was he who introduced me to James Joyce, including this passage, from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which has stuck in my head ever since:
White roses and red roses: those were beautiful colours to think of. And the cards for the first and second place and third place were beautiful colours too: pink and cream and lavender. Lavender and cream and pink roses were beautiful to think of. Perhaps a wild rose might be like those colours and he remembered the song about the wild rose blossoms on the little green place. But you could not have a green rose. But perhaps somewhere in the world you could.  
I still don’t really know what Joyce meant by this, and there’s a valid interpretation that it’s about a yearning for an independent Ireland. But I interpreted it as a more general yearning for freedom and independence, a disregard for convention in a conventional, conformist world (did I mention that I was 17?) and aspiring to something better. I must have bored people silly with my convoluted ramblings about the symbolism and significance of green roses: at my graduate formal (a high school prom by any other name) I was presented with two blooms, one dyed and one made of fabric, to wear on my tailcoat. Yeah, because an ordinary tuxedo would have been too, well, ordinary.

And now I discover that, at last, there is somewhere in the world you could. And inevitably it’s Japan, a society that’s deeply conformist and at the same time utterly weird. Which kind of makes sense. I just wish that Campbell had still been around to see it.

Hat-tip to Richard Lloyd Parry for the horticultural alert.