Posts Tagged Pretentious
This is the best thing I’ve seen on TV for a long time: a documentary of the British coastline (both on- and off-shore), soundtracked almost exclusively by re-arrangements of British Sea Power songs.
Gentle, fascinating, touching, and (towards the very end, in something close to modern-day Blackpool) mildly profane.
Just beautiful, and absolutely essential watching.
Do you ever get that odd sensation when you suddenly become aware that, for a while, you’ve been aware of something without really realising it?
Right, just me then.
Anyway, this happened to me most recently with The Artist and particularly its lead actor, Jean Dujardin. Over the last six months or so I’ve been (mostly subliminally) picking up bits and pieces about the film, and had this nagging feeling that I knew Dujardin (by name at least) from somewhere.
If you rewind about 13 years, you’ll find me in a small flat in a small town in France going through what, in hindsight, was somewhere between acute home-sickness and a mild borderline nervous breakdown, induced by a strange kind of loneliness, shyness, and inertia. I am of course making far more of this than I should, but I was very stranded in a very small town, and, with too much time on my hands, and most of that spent on my own, I turned a little eccentric. But not even in a particularly good way, I just did things like buying a house plant and naming it after France’s most recognised living cultural icon. Despite being a student at the time, there wasn’t even any smugly self-conscious ‘irony’ about this. It was genuine. Fucking hell, I’ve just remembered that before I left France I actually planted ‘Johnny’ somewhere where I thought he/it would get plenty of sunshine and rain (I don’t know whether the correct response to that sudden, unexpected memory is to blush, laugh, cry, or shudder. So I just did a bit of all four).
A couple of years later, my Mum breezily said “we did wonder if you were ok” which is my Mum’s way of saying “we thought you might have been going batshit mental”. Thing is, this was before the internet was anything like embedded in everyday life, so Christ knows what I would have been like with the facility to easily and, essentially, freely document my thoughts and ruminations at the time. Frankly, I’m quite relieved about that. Can you imagine?
So, yes, I spent a lot of time doing not very much, and a good portion of that was spent watching TV. Now, to be fair, I genuinely consider TV to be a cultural boon, and being isolated (etc etc yawn whinge whine) it was a brilliant way of exposing myself to something approaching the French way of life (much better than, say, going to a bar, buying a beer or two and saying a simple bonsoir to the locals).
In all the many, many hours of watching French TV, a favourite of mine was Un gars et une fille (A Guy and a Girl), a series of slices (dare I say vignettes? I do) of domestic life which I saw from its very first episode. Imagine a French version of Men Behaving Badly, with just one couple, without the god-awful laddish elements, and with a surprising amount of slightly-clichéd charm. Anyway, its two stars were future spouses (in hindsight, this seems inevitable) Alexandra Lamy and, yes, Jean Dujardin. And 13 years later, out of nowhere (from this uninformed idiot’s perspective, anyway), Dujardin has won an Oscar. Fair to say I didn’t see that one coming (Johnny the house plant may have done, but I could never tell what he was thinking. Inscrutable, you see).
I find it almost painful to watch these back; it reinforces my habit of allowing myself to act and think as if places and people don’t change when I leave them (for example, ex-colleagues’ children are, in my mind, the exact same age now as when we stopped working together five or more years ago). And so if I’m not careful France, to me, is still a place where they’re about to switch from one currency to another, where male politicians carry on like rutting chimps, and where the party of the extreme right is led by a bigoted fool by the name of Le Pen.
In effect, I’m instantly taken back to the time in question, and want to tell myself to get a grip, and get out of the flat.
And to stop watering that bloody plant.
If Air achieved huge success with the ambient, relaxed, soothing Moon Safari (or “Smug Aspirational Property Show Original Soundtrack” as it is surely known within the BBC and Channel 4), they unleashed a rather different vibe on an unsuspecting audience with 2001’s 10,000 Hz Legend.
I can’t claim to love this album, and I can’t claim that it’s an all-time great, but it manages to both possess and obsess me at times. It paints an aural picture of a world which is bleak, alien, robotic, cold, and touched by ghosts, but at the same time unsettlingly familiar and comfortable. This could represent 20th century fin de siècle ennui, it could reflect my latent misanthropy, or it could just be the inevitable consequence of locking a couple of talented, arty Frenchmen away in a recording studio with a frankly obscene amount of electronic equipment.
Basically, the whole thing is weird, but in an electronic, Gallic, slightly bleak, slightly pretentious way. Which I like.
The openers, Electronic Performers and How Does It Make You Feel? set the tone with otherworldly mixes of swiping percussion, piano, keyboards, disembodied lyrics, and chain-smoking computers. Radian continues in a similar vein, ghostly and pulsating, before unexpectedly going all pleasantly flutey, while Don’t Be Light buzzes in a cheery, perky, schizophrenic kind of way.
My personal highlight is People In The City, which I’m certain is a story of daily city life being torn asunder by a nuclear apocalypse. At least, that’s the story it seems to tell me at 3 in the morning.
I don’t like to subscribe to the “of course, I really like their older stuff” school of music appreciation; no matter how genuine or well-intentioned, you can’t help but come across as sounding like a bit of a purist snob. That said, I happily recognise that so often a band’s earliest recordings are among its most vibrant, vital material (who was it once said “you get 21 years to write your first album, 18 months for the next”?), and that there’s nothing quite as exhilarating as opening with a bold statement of intent.
I took this theory to a logical extreme when reflecting on the first three songs of the first album from British Sea Power (yes, them again, sorry to surprise), The Decline Of British Sea Power.
It opens with Men Together Today*, 40 seconds of Gregorian Monk-esque harmonies: however this track is intended, it manages to disarm the listener of pretty much all their pre-conceptions of what this reputed post-punk/indie/art-rock band are supposed to be about.
* this somewhat bizarre video also has Apologies to Insect Life on it – for a much more authentically bizarre video to accompany that song, please see below.
Apologies to Insect Life then takes over, its creeping bass and drums giving way to jagged, self-consciously messy guitars and lyrics which barely tumble out of Yan’s mouth in time before moving on to the next line (and which appear to contemplate Fyodor Dostoyevsky, infection-ridden prostitutes, and cruelty to insects. Naturally).
A discordant squall of noise joins Apologies to Insect Life to Favours In The Beetroot Fields, which, somehow manages to be even more breakneck and breathless than its predecessor. BSP’s periodic allusions to the military are manifest here, with talk of a “little Caesar” taking on the world and breaking all records (the title itself referring to the rumoured extra-curricular activities of soliders serving under Field Marshall Montgomery in the British Army and the local working girls).
Most intriguingly for me is the line “The universe is a record of everything you see and do”, which appeals to the most arty-farty element of my brain, in terms of the nature of ‘reality’, its social construction, and the multiple perceptions thereof (I find myself musing on these issues in a work context quite often, which, on reflection, may explain quite a lot of my ‘professional career’ (ha!) to date). By my reckoning, this is a fair amount of ground to cover in little more than a minute. The song ends in a similar way to its beginning, that is with a squall and a crash, leading to a few precious seconds of respite and relief, before moving on to a more restrained song, and the rest of the album.
In terms of an opening gambit and a declaration of intent, this is pretty heady stuff. Of BSP’s early work, I really like their older material.
“‘November Spawned A Monster’ lies at the imaginative centre of Morrissey’s writing. ‘It was a pinnacle’, he has said. ‘In its invasion of the mind of a “poor twisted child, so ugly”, trapped and unloveable in its wheelchair, it expresses me most accurately. It’s the record I have striven to make’. Why is the song central to Morrissey’s work and what is it about the song that ‘expresses [him] most accurately’?
Monstrosity is the other of normality, and in its various senses is one of the most persistent subjects in Morrissey’s lyrics. One sense of ‘monstrous’ is ‘a huge or outrageous thing’. Typically, of course, it is understood in a physical sense (Frankenstein’s monster, it will be recalled, is a being of ‘gigantic stature’, whose ‘yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath’). But it clearly applies to nonphysical ‘things’ too, such as feelings or affection. (The real tragedy of Frankenstein, to stay with this example, is that ‘monstrous’ ballooning of the creature’s emotions that results from their lack of reciprocation.) And Morrissey, more than anyone in pop music, is the chronicler of ‘oversized’ feelings – of emotions that exceed articulation but defy containment, and overwhelm the experiencing subject; of feelings, as in Frankenstein, that find no response and as a result swell gigantically to fill the space of the absent object; of embarrassing feelings that make their audience flinch and squirm, and are a scandal to ‘polite’ discourse.”
“Earlier in the chapter, a distinction was made between ‘unmarked’ and ‘marked’ interruption – that is, between utterances which are simply abandoned and etceterising gestures which describe this abandonment. Such etceterising gestures are common in Morrissey’s work: ‘I could say more / but you get the general idea'; ‘And there is no point saying this again'; ‘from difficult child / to spectral hand / to Claude Brasseur/ blah, blah, blah, blah’.
Usually, as in the foregoing examples, they play a fairly minor part in the song, ironising the song’s subject, the singer’s own practice, or the conventions of the medium. In ‘Dagenham Dave’, for example, the obviousness – which is emphasised by the singer’s litotes – belongs to the subject of the song (Dave), whose unreflective predictability is communicated by the interruption of his description. (Commentators on the song tend to criticise it for its lightness or vacuity – having first of all assumed that lightness is a fault. Rogan, for instance, characterises it as ‘tired’ and ‘insubstantial’. However, it seems to me, firstly, that the song’s foregrounded vacuity – witness the degeneration of its outro-chorus into a playground chant of Dave’s name – effectively and amusingly conveys the character of its subject; and, secondly, that this is quite an achievement. It is hard to write about things that lack depth; yet they also have their place in the world. And it is to Morrissey’s credit – and a sign of the breadth of his sympathy – that he wishes with affectionate irony to document their existence too.)
In ‘At Last I Am Born’, on the other hand, the singer’s etceterisation – ‘ blah, blah, blah, blah’ – seems to be at his own expense and a yawn at the familiarity of his own story. But, as in ‘You Have Killed Me’, it also appears to involve a metafictional dimension as well; that is to say, its yawn is partly directed towards the act of narration as such (in ‘You Have Killed Me’, this is more obvious, and ironic rather than weary, in that during the final chorus – conventionally a space of repetition – Morrissey sings (and indeed repeats) ‘there is no point saying this again’).”
“To call the singer’s use of flowers parodic is to recognise that it is no longer innocent. And how could it be? For it doesn’t only come after Wilde, it comes after the parody of Wilde (one thinks of The Green Carnation by Robert Hitchens, George Du Maurier’s sketches in Punch or the famous lines from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience: ‘Though the philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle in the high aesthetic band, / If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your mediaeval hand’).
His back-pocket buttonhole additionally follows on from Baudelaire’s famous association of flowers with ‘le Mal’ – which the singer seems comically to reperform, in having flowers appear to sporut out of his backside. Morrissey’s ironic posture may also owe something to Dame Edna Everage, who used to encourage interaction with the gladiolus.”
“It is possible to discern an ‘oxymoronic’ conjunction of anithesis in the singer’s vocal habits: in his tendency towards a dandyish refinement as well as the carnivalesque; in the conflicting claims of the mind and the body that are figured in his falsetto; in the opening up of a ‘third’ space that conjoins both masculine and feminine codes; and in the often inseperable fusion of seriousness and play that is apparent in his more ‘eccentric’ gestures (on the one hand, his straining and ‘breaking’ voice has a serious ideological dimension, whose advertisement of ineptitude and vulnerability is implicitly but crucially a flag of the human, whilst on the other hand the ‘doodling’ of his melisma and yodelling is an example of the singer’s wonderful light-heartedness, which springs up all over the place like flowers through marble).
And finally, a ‘deconstructive’ tendency has come into view, both in Morrissey’s adoption of a ‘borrowed voice’, which in its performative constitution of identity within ‘a stolen space’ points towards ‘the imitative structure of gender itself’, and also in his travestying of his own lyrics, which opens up a space between the speaking subject and what is said, and in doing so fundamentally destabilises its meaning.”
“And here we come upon what it perhaps the most surprising ‘oxymoronic’ aspect of Morrissey’s work. For, in spite of the sense of pathos and privation that pervades his lyrics, they are filled with moments in which everyday things and experiences are affectionately preserved, and elevated by their preservation; moments which, if they are not epiphanies, nonetheless allow such phenomena to ‘put off’ their ephemerality and exceed their commonplace appearances in the direction of an epiphany.
In fact, I’m not sure Morrissey has ever sounded so full of affection as when, apropos of nothing, he sings of ‘loafing oafs and all-night chemists’ – an affection he transmits to the listener and which is of itself transformative; for in loving such things, he makes them loveable. In aesthetically celebrating the kitsch, the everyday and the ‘lowly’, and in the process uncovering what it is that makes them loveable, Morrissey is, we might say, glorying in their infirmity.”
Despite the damp squib that was my last theme week (if you weren’t around at the time, don’t ask, I’ll only get upset. What? No, really, I’d rather n… Oh, ok, it was cricket alright? Yes, yes, bloody cricket. Happy now?), it’s time for another.
Morrissey: The Pageant Of His Bleeding Heart really is a spectacular book. Describing itself as “the first scholarly study of Morrissey’s work” it is determinedly academic and literary. Author Gavin Hopps’ fierce straight-facedness manages to be both consciously serious and unknowingly hilarious.
I’ve had it about a year, and in that time have managed to get through only 80-odd of its near-300 pages. It’s hard work, laugh-out-loud funny, genuinely thought-provoking, slightly ridiculous, and, best of all, extremely insightful. I love it, and one day I might even finish it.
This theme week will pull out some personal highlights from the book. Such as…
“Morrissey is, I believe, the greatest disturbance popular music has ever known, who has an instictive sympathy for the marginalised or excluded (however unpalatable these may be) and a suspicion of all that seeks to establish itself as ‘normal’ (however worthy such things may appear), and whose favoured sport, like the decadents before him, is épater le bourgeois“
You see? The author even uses unnecessarily florid French phrases. To describe Morrissey’s work. This book could have been written just for me.