Category Archives: Ramblings

PURITY, PASSION or PAIN? The X Factor final decoded

PURITY PASSION and PAIN

There’s no way to get round it; every X Factor final represents a significant choice in the symbolic life of the nation. Who can forget 2010’s battle between coolness, cockiness and “credibility” (the Fergo/1D/Cardle showdown) or when Shayne Ward led cheekiness to victory over cleanliness AND cheesiness in 2005? Here in 2012, times are more austere and the UK’s choice is a solemn one between almost religious virtues: PURITY, PASSION or PAIN…

(NB Not to be confused with Trey Songz’ very good 2010 album Passion, Pain & Pleasure. If only.)

PURITY

PURITY

Cherubic reflex-giggler Jahmene is a role model for all those cautious kids you see hanging around drinking milkshakes outside Morrisons these days. Well I don’t see anything like that in the slightly stabby neighbourhood I live in, but I hear it goes on elsewhere. What with calling for a Gospel Week, admitting he’s never been kissed and saying he won’t sing any songs with swear words in them, he’s set a new gold standard for non-threatening behaviour in a reality show. Whether such a gentle soul will get very far in the music industry remains to be seen, but you know, there was, er, Dana.

Jahmene’s favourite virtue is his chastity, and I say favourite because it’s the one he aggressively advertises via the constant public display of a purity ring. I have begun to suspect that the power of his alarming falsetto is linked in some way to this holy ring, like a sort of anti-Sauron. Bust the ring and the spell is broken. But hasn’t that always been the way.

PASSION

See no Maloney, Hear no Maloney, Speak no Maloney

See no Maloney, Hear no Maloney, Speak no Maloney [screencap by @baradar85]

No-one has brought raw emotion more firmly back into British public life this year than Christopher Maloney, as he stands on the stage each week violently shaking, sobbing or generally collapsing (Popjustice has a nice gallery). He only seems to find equilibrium when he’s singing. Famously, the great love of his life is his nan, who’s been passionately deployed as a bargaining card right from the start. Originally viewers were urged to vote amid grave concerns for her health, but now she’s more prosaically invoked with Chris saying he hopes to buy her a new kitchen.

The best thing about Christopher’s presence on X Factor is how completely it undermines his mentor, pompous control-monkey Gary Barlow. Gary’s preferred quality in a protégé is laddishness, which is why he picks acts like Kye Sones or Frankie Cocozza in some sort of attempt to vicariously relive his youth – or at the very least snare a “Robbie-I-can-control-this-time”. And as all the acts Gary chose for this year’s live shows were eliminated in the first few weeks, he’s been left politely endorsing someone he rejected while saving his most lavish fawning for rival James Arthur. So allow any smugness on Barlow’s part if Christopher wins.

PAIN

PAIN

The public’s final symbolic option is pain. Week after week James Arthur has taken one cheerful song after another, slowed it down a bit, unsheathed the Acoustic Guitar of Authenticity, and proceeded to sing with the sort of anguish that makes me wonder if he’s suffering from hard stool syndrome.

Oh he seems like a nice fella but you won’t get any sympathy round here for thinking that great pop songs need smothering with torpid angst to make them somehow worthwhile. Last year’s winners represented FUN after all. But the country gets the X Factor finalists it deserves and it’s been a fucking miserable year. So what’s it to be? It’s time to face the music.

Available from Greggs. I know.

Available from Greggs. I know.

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Five December talking points that aren’t Kate Middleton’s uterus

At the moment you can’t move on Twitter for people talking about Kate Middleton’s pregnancy and even more people talking about not wanting to talk about Kate Middleton’s pregnancy. So here are five alternative conversation starters to get you through the month.

Pantone book

On 13th December Pantone will announce their latest Color Of The Year. That’s right, just one nail-biting week until we finally find out if African Violet can piss all over Tender Shoots or if Linen will beat off Grayed Jade. The Citrus Sarcophagus’s sights are firmly set on Lemon Zest or Nectarine, but there’s some rather more considered analysis over at Re-Do it Design.

Nick Lachey The Winner Is

On 15th December if you’re in the Houston, TX or Philadelphia, PA areas you could go and audition for NBC’s new singing gameshow “The Winner Is. I like the name, and the convoluted phrases it’ll lead to host Nick Lachey having to say.

“And the winner of The Winner Is is…”

“Sorry, the The Winner Is winner isn’t you.”

“The The Winner Is winner Ida Winner wins Winona Ryder’s rider!”

And so on.

The Krankies and John Barrowman

19th December will be the first anniversary of our hearing the Krankies’ revelations about their “any time, anywhere” sex lives, tourbus shenanigans and swinging sessions. Oh it seemed shocking at the time, but against the increasingly unpleasant reports about other children’s entertainers this year, perhaps we can just celebrate the consensual joy of it all now. My favourite detail remains Janette’s fling with the leopard tamer and Ian’s wry comment that he knew what she’d been up to when she came home smelling of leopards. Brilliant.

the-end-of-the-world-2012

21st December is, of course, the end of the world. But let’s not let that get us down. Britney’s shown that we can dance right through it and Jay Sean’s said it might not happen at all.  And as it marks the winter solstice it’s also the traditional day for an annual viewing of K9 and Company (see last post). I don’t know about you but if we’re facing apocalypse I’m going out with an unexpected karate chop and a “Put THAT in your leader, Mr Tobias!” too.

Joey McIntyre

On 31st December Joey from New Kids On The Block will celebrate his 40th birthday. I know! The passage of time, there. Why not use the last day of the year to think about YOUR lost youth, abandoned dreams, inevitable mortality and roads generally not taken? And don’t have nightmares, readers; on the night itself – in a special government initiative – Olympic songstress Emeli Sandé will visit every British citizen’s bedside to aid restful sleep with a soothing dirge. Happy 2013!

Save the Surprise: Kat Slater and the Hand of Fear

Over in EastEnders, Kat Slater (yes, technically Kat Moon now, but like all soap characters her true name remains the one she had when the public first fell in love with her – you can keep your “Bet Gilroy”s and “Dot Branning”s, thanks) is having an affair.

Affairs are a soap’s bread and butter (check: mixed metaphor?) and so to make this one more memorable it’s been decided we shouldn’t yet find out who the secret shagger is. Instead there have been a series of remarkable scenes in which Kat pouts and drops her knickers for an unseen force. Particularly startling was the one in which it appeared as a silent shadow on the walls of the Queen Vic’s cellar. Even allowing for the ludicrous idea that any of Albert Square’s gobby residents could shut up for more than a couple of seconds, it lent the affair an odd air of telefantasy – like Sapphire and Steel if they’d left boxes of cheese and onion crisps lying around.

Since then we’ve seen her simpering at a disembodied, twitching hand and glancing guiltily at a sinister creeping FOOT from beneath the bedclothes. It’s all very exciting. Or it would be if, as viewers, we had any investment at all in wondering who it is. We’ve been presented with a series of suspects, each of whom keeps smugly fondling their phone whenever Kat composes a saucy text. But the mystery’s meaningless. ‘It’s been an affair that has left EastEnders‘ viewers playing detective,’ wrote the Daily Mail this week in a tedious article that I shan’t link to. Nothing could be further from the truth. There’s no detective game to play because there are no actual clues – each suspect is shown to be as equally likely as the others. Sure, we can guess at who it might be, but our guessing is based on what we think producers’ intentions are, not on anything generated organically from the characters. It’ll be much more interesting once it’s all out in the open and poor Jessie Wallace – an excellent actress who deserves a lot better than this – has someone to play against.

Secrecy’s pretty big on the telly this summer. EastEnders have loved a whodunnit since their first and best – the Who Got Michelle Fowler Pregnant? saga, which this current plot harks back to with the phonecalls business – but now it applies to big public events too. The audience at the dress rehearsal for the Olympics opening ceremony were asked to #SaveTheSurprise, and I’m glad they did – the two long hours of contestants proceeding in was sorely in need of the clever and moving pay-off it got with the metal petals. Meanwhile, those who saw the preview screening of Doctor Who‘s season opener were begged not to reveal that new companion Jenna-Louise Coleman appeared in it. I’m not so sure about that one – it’s not like her appearance was a big twist at the end of the episode, like River Song’s in A Good Man Goes To War or Rose’s in Partners In Crime; she was in it right from the start, and knowing that much counts as no more of a spoiler than knowing that the Daleks and their Asylum were too. The real surprise was in the exact nature of her appearance, and a press release along the lines of ‘You’ll meet the Doctor’s new companion too, but maybe not as you’d expect’ (and cue speculation) would cover that.

I don’t know, I think we’re too twitchy about spoilers generally, not that I’d ever deliberately spoil something for someone else if I could avoid it. If something’s worth watching then it can’t hinge solely on its surprises, and it should be just as enjoyable if not more so the second time around. That was true for Asylum of the Daleks, and for the Olympics opening ceremony, but sadly not, I’m afraid, for Kat Slater secretly shagging a silent cellar shadow.

This used to be the future… Fear Her today

The Olympic stadium imagined in 2006 for Doctor Who, and as it actually turned out

Six years ago, Doctor Who broadcast the episode Fear Her. It’s set today, on Friday 27th July 2012 – the Doctor and Rose arrive in London on the day of the Olympic Games opening ceremony. Hi-jinks ensue, naturally, and the whole thing was an exciting glimpse into the future a shoddy and much-derided mess.

But how well did the 2006 production team imagine the world of today?

Shayne Ward had a few hits after winning X Factor in 2005, but mostly disappeared from view after his second album and was finally dropped by Syco last year. There’s no Greatest Hits compilation – Rose would be more likely to see a poster for Rock Of Ages, which he’s been starring in recently.

There’s no sign of a Dame Kelly Holmes Close in London yet either, though it was a reasonable assumption. Dame Kelly has had to make do with a guest appearance on an Absolutely Fabulous Olympic special instead.

Rather than relying on coloured pencils, Chloe Webber would be firing up Draw Something on a Samsung Galaxy Tab. But who could have seen Draw Something coming? Touchscreen phones didn’t take off until after the launch of the iPhone in 2007. This really is the future.

As for the tv coverage, here’s really no need to turn to BBC News 24 for a ‘Countdown To The Games’ as Trish does. No need at all. It’s far harder to find a channel that isn’t breathlessly building up to the event.

Speaking of the news coverage we see, ‘the queues started a week ago’ for the opening ceremony, apparently, which doesn’t seem quite right when everyone’s bought their tickets in advance. Mind you, maybe it was simply people who’d ordered their tickets from CoSport.

Then there’s security. In this story Rose steals a big axe from the back of a council van and starts swinging it wildly in the middle of a residential street. By the time she’s pushed her way brusquely through the crowd on the Torch route, ignored a warning from a police officer, shouted ‘I can stop this from happening!’ and thrown a metal object into the air at the torchbearer, I’m very sorry to say that Rose Tyler has been shot dead by G4S snipers.

And the weather? It’s ‘a wonderful summer’s day’ according to the news. But by nightfall the Doctor senses a storm’s coming. Accurate? We’re about to find out…

The Olympics opening ceremony vs Richard & Judy

Four billion people are expected to tune into the opening ceremony of the London Olympics this Friday. Massive numbers like that are hard to process so let’s compare it with some other globally important TV moments and their reported viewing figures.

(click it for full size)

There you go. It’s on the large side. It’ll influence how the rest of the world sees the UK for many years to come. But maybe you still don’t want to watch. So how are the other channels competing? Well BBC2 have got Hermione Norris narrating a documentary about isolation in Snowdonia, which seems like quite a pointed attack on anyone not interested in the Isles Of Wonder show.

ITV1 has pretty much rolled over and surrendered, with a repeat of the first episode of Vera, while Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky 1 are going for business as usual/heads in the sand with The Million Pound Drop, Big Brother eviction night and Stella respectively.

Well done to those channels offering something genuinely different on the night then. BBC3 are turning their backs on Britain with dog frolic pic Beverley Hills Chihuahua (in which Drew Barrymore voices a spoilt lapdog who runs off with a gruff, sexy German Shepherd). BBC4 are celebrating Irish rock with a profile of Thin Lizzy. And best of all, the gold medal goes to ITV2 who have an episode of The Only Way Is Essex prepared – it’s a genuine alternative to national pride.

Amy Winehouse: music fan

What does it mean when a pop star sings about other artists a lot? Once in a while and it’s a nice shout-out, an acknowledgement of influences. But when your work is as strewn with references as Amy Winehouse’s was, it becomes something else.

I’ve been immersing myself in Amy’s albums again since she died, and it’s one of the things that’s jumped out at me afresh. Time after time she namechecks the people who’ve made the music she loves. I hate it when artists are interviewed and they say ‘Oh I haven’t really been listening to any other music, just concentrating on my own stuff.’ BLAH BLAH BLAH. Amy was the opposite. Open up her debut album and you’ll see a picture of piles and piles of CDs along with a list of thank-yous in which musicians she’d never met outnumber family members by 29 to 2. And we hear stories of her going down the pub, putting the jukebox on, just standing in front of it, drinking in the music. She’s a proper music fan alright, like us. Let’s look at who she loved.

It starts just a couple of tracks into Frank, on You Sent Me Flying: Amy’s got a crush on a guy in a Beastie Boys tee and she lends him some Outsidaz and (new!) Erykah Badu. She understands how sharing music with someone you fancy makes things personal, and about how carefully you choose what to share, knowing it’ll inform what they think about you and how you hope it’ll forge a link.

Moody’s Mood For Love, as a James Moody cover, is a reference by default, but Amy’s delivery of the line ‘Would you come on hit me,
you can blow now if you want to, I’m through,’ brings an unmistakeable brassy innuendo into the equation. She understands that music can be sex.

In the aching break-up swoon of Take The Box, angrily returning gifts to her man, Amy sings ‘Frank’s in there and I don’t care’. Of course she does care, as her beautiful, conflicted delivery makes clear. We know that the name Frank refers to Frank Sinatra — we’re always hearing about Amy listening to his records with her dad. And we can assume that calling the album Frank is a reference to him as well as to the raw emotional honesty in her songwriting. Although you could also point out it’s the name of the government’s high-profile drug awareness campaign which was launched earlier the same year. Or that it’s also the name of Amy’s little doggie who features in the cover art. Anyway — she understands how music becomes a part of you and how giving it up is a powerful token.

October Song, now, and a rare chance to hear a popstar singing about a dead pet. Amy imagines her late canary ‘reborn like Sarah Vaughan’ while interpolating the melody of Lullaby of Birdland. You can see what she’s done there. She understands how music can be a eulogy but be as light and happy as the life you’re celebrating too. Adele paraphrased a line from this song to pay tribute to Amy on her death. Make of that what you will.

In Rehab, Amy famously tells the world that she’d rather stay at home listening to Ray Charles than change her waysand that there’s nothing anyone can teach her that she can’t learn from Donny Hathaway. She understands how music is something you can lose yourself in, and how you can use it to self-medicate a broken heart.

And finally the big one: Me and Mr Jones is about how much Amy’s looking forward to seeing Nas at a gig in Brixton (she never uses his first name, but references his surname in the title, along with their shared birthday ‘9 and 14’ and his daughter Destiny in the lyrics). Amy and Nas are already linked behind the scenes by producer Salaam Remi, to the extent that the same Incredible Bongo Band-sampling beat underpins Nas’s Made You Look and Amy’s In My Bed. But this song is all about Amy the fan. No man’s going to stand between her and the music she loves, not like when she missed Slick Rick. And along the way she compares Nas to Sammy Davis Junior, too.

Amy’s proud of the music she loves. She understands how it defines you, how it arouses you and becomes part of you and pays tribute to you and heals you and compels you. And the music she made herself did all those things too. You can’t ask for any more from a music fan.

Back to Black

The first I remember of Amy Winehouse is seeing her on Popworld with Simon Amstell, around the time of her first album Frank. She was immediately memorable: funny and fresh and down to earth. There was a cheekiness and cleverness about her that shat all over the media-trained popstars that Popworld (much missed) regularly took the piss out of.

Well I bought the album, and I liked it, but it was her second album Back to Black that really got under my skin. Passion and defiance, good times and pain, all wrapped up together on one intoxicating disc. I’m listening to it now. It’s the pain that shines through.  That record got me through some terrible times. I’d fallen for a guy who turned out to be a criminal, the police caught up with him, he went to prison. Sequence shortened, as they say in the iPhone ads.

I stood by my boyfriend through the best part of a year. Everyone’s good, underneath it all, aren’t they? Everyone has their problems! I went to see him in prison a lot. It was awful. Amy stood by me. She went through some similar shit. She seemed to understand. He left no time to regret! Me with my head high! Get on without my guy! I died a hundred times! I really did.

Well he came out of prison eventually. And we split up. We still hung around one another though. It was hard to let go. Then he did some more shit and went back to prison again. And in 2008, while I was still mooning over my ex, I finally met the love of my life. I was DJing at a karaoke night on Saturdays. He walked in and he sang You Know I’m No Good. Brilliantly. At the end he called “Shout out to my boy Blake in Pentonville!” Yeah, he’s an Amy fan too.

“Hey,” I said, sidling up to him on a break. “I’ve got a boy in Pentonville myself, sort of.” We’ve been together ever since. That’s what I’ve got to thank Amy for: her troubled life and her brilliant work, completely indivisible, providing me with the chat-up line that got me together with the man I love.

Let me share a story with you, via my ex, of an afternoon in the Pentonville visiting room when Amy went to see Blake. It’s not the sort of thing people generally get to hear about, unless you’ve led a complicated life like hers or mine. Amy was trying to spend some quality time with her man, and believe me it’s hard work getting those visits booked, and an upsetting environment when you get there. Every prisoner in North London started singing Rehab at her, the whole room filling with her own words thrown back at her. When you’re powerless, mockery’s all you’ve got. “Fuck you!” Amy shouted back at a room full of hardened criminals. “I’m rich!” And she was.