CMA: cannot mean anything

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Just look at them

It’s time for my annual ponder about the state of country music, based on the snapshot offered by the CMA Awards. This time around, I’ve been unable to catch the whole telecast, but I’m relying on the paltry 60 minute edit offered by BBC4. The problem with this cut-down format is that the broadcasters tend to select the top acts, major awards, household names (yeah, right, I know) rather than the up-and-coming and merely-nominated names. It used to be my main means of discovering new things, but I’m unlikely to find anything new this way. The Beeb did show us the winner of the “New Artist” award, but I had already downloaded Jon Pardi’s 2016 album California Sunrise from YouTube iTunes.

To tell the truth, I really miss the days of the CMA Awards being presented by Vince Gill, which ages me considerably, because I just found a news story about how he wouldn’t be hosting the 2004 awards after his 12-year stint. 🤭

Anyway, there was something off for me about most of the performances on the telecast, and I was left feeling that the show’s format was suffering from an excess of control and that what it was really missing was the sense that something could happen. I mean, it is literally only two years since Timberlake and Stapleton burned the room down, with a performance that you just could not bottle or rehearse into oblivion. This is the thing about music: you can destroy it when you try to bottle it, which is why Bob Dylan has spent his entire career trying to keep it live and spontaneous.

Anyway, something’s gone on. The performers, many of whom are wildly successful and seasoned live performers, seem to find this format intimidating and nerve-wracking. Maybe the show’s producers are to blame, or maybe it’s the record labels, piling on the pressure by pointing out how their Xmas album sales depend on this single performance.

The fact that this is one of the few music shows people actually watch means there’s been a tendency for the labels to sploodge a non-country artist into the mix in an attempt to cross promote. This year it was P!nk, performing solo; last year it was Beyoncé, performing with the Dixie Chicks in an attempt to capture some of that Stapleton/Timberlake magic. But here’s the thing. What worked with Justin Timberlake and his tight, talented band, is not necessarily going to work for artists who are more used to performing tightly timed and well rehearsed shows in a more programmed way.

Which is not to say I’m accusing P!nk (or Beyoncé) of miming (they call it lip synching now, but we always used to call it miming when we watched Top of the Pops and judged people for it). Which is exactly what fucking Garth Brooks was doing when he came on to perform his latest single (and later collect the Entertainer of the Year award). I mean, Garth, you’re in front of an audience of your peers and you do that off to the side of the mic move, and your voice miraculously doesn’t lose any bottom end when you go off-axis from an SM58?

Couple of things about Garth. Slick record production, back in the 90s, and the pick of the best songs, and some pretty spectacular live shows, with you know, fire and rain, and wire work. But he was never much of a singer, and – especially live – he couldn’t really project his voice. And he has never deigned to put his stuff – any of it – on iTunes, so he’s running his current tour on pure nostalgia and niche album sales through his own service, which who can be bothered with that? Worst of all, he’s dragged his more talented wife, Trisha Yearwood into this doomed enterprise, so she’s vanished from the public’s consciousness.

So there was him, but then the actual live performers all sounded tight and nervous and a little bit off-pitch. It was as if they were all singing with a gun pointing at them from the wings. Perhaps memories of the Las Vegas shooting? What happens when a bunch of country fans gather in one place?

So Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini (with Reba) all sounded off key. And then Little Big Town, whose big selling point is their incredible harmony singing, did a lacklustre version of (shit song) ‘Wichita Lineman’ with Karen Fairchild wearing possibly the most ill-judged pair of boots in television history. I mean, just look at them.

Keith Urban’s performance was his new, Instant-Karma type single ‘Female’ was pretty decent, and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill put in a tight, on-key and touching performance of the title song of their new album The Rest of My Life. She’s another one who disappeared off the face of the earth, having last released an album in 2005. But at least this record is available on YouTube iTunes.

The Bros were less in evidence than recent years. Possibly because the BBC didn’t include them, but also because the shockwaves created by Chris Stapleton’s success have made record labels realise that songs about beer, trucks and blue jeans have a limited shelf life.

Apart from Stapleton’s turn with “Broken Halos”, probably the highlight of the broadcast was young Mr Alan Jackson being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and performing two oldies from his back catalogue. In the right key, and without miming. The love and respect for him in the room was clear, with almost every current male singer in the audience singing along with all the words. Apart from Garth Brooks, Jackson’s contemporary, who didn’t seem to know them.

Which sums it up really: stagnation. Chris Stapleton’s stripped back, back-to-basics music hasn’t filtered through too much, although he still scooped key awards. Tim McGraw can still bring it. Alan Jackson, at 59, still does the New Traditionalist thing better than anyone. Garth Brooks won Entertainer of the Year, just as he did in 1991, 1992, 1997, 1998, and 2016. And everyone else is too nervous to produce their best.

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Jason Isbell and Tift Merritt, Birmingham Symphony Hall, 31st October 2017

 

I booked the tickets for this gig in a moment of passion for music, but as the date came closer I was filled with reluctance because it would be a school/work night, and I knew I’d be tired. Of course, I’m glad I went, although the traffic in Birmingham at arrival time was a shitshow, and going home I was tired enough to cause a couple of Google reroutes.

It was the first time I’d seen Jason Isbell live, and the seventh time seeing Tift Merritt, who’s one of those artists I just buy the new record without even thinking about it. Above is my favourite track from her latest album Stitch of the World, which I was disappointed she did not play. Her 30 minutes on stage was fairly low key and subdued, as she picked songs from her repertoire that lent themselves to solo performance and the sound in the room. I also realised that she was being a good support act citizen, and not doing anything that might embarrass the headliner.

The Symphony Hall is a brilliant space for music. Once the Birmingham rush hour traffic and the city centre diversions had been negotiated, we walked into a venue that felt very unpressurised. It’s a 2000+ seater, and although I didn’t spot empty seats, it was pleasant to be inside and very easy to get away from, with none of the interminable waiting for crowds to disperse that you get at bigger venues like the O2. The acoustics in the hall are just fantastic, and the view you get of the stage, even from one of the upper circles at the back, is good. I previously saw Trisha Yearwood and Mary Chapin Carpenter there, but it had been a few years.

Tift Merritt was performing with guitar (both acoustic and an open tuned electric) and keyboard (borrowing the keys from the main act), and her wonderful voice filled the room. Third song in, she stood at the keys and played “Good Hearted Man” and my allergies started playing up.

(Yep, still works – this is from Austin City Limits, a few years ago)

For her final number, she stepped out from behind the mic, as she so often does. She recorded a live album a few years ago here in Buckingham, mainly because she loved the sound of the room. Apart from Jonathan Richman (who I’ve seen somewhere between 9 and 11 times), she’s the only artist I’ve ever seen do that. (When I see these fucking buskers on the high street with their amps and mics and noisy backing tracks, I want to slap them around a bit and force feed them Tift Merritt.)

 

Then came the interval, and we got to see Tift Merritt clearing up her own equipment, before Jason Isbell arrived promptly on stage at nine.

His set was mainly highlights from his last three albums, heavy on the (heavy) Nashville Sound, backed by his band The 400 Unit, who are very, very good. It was the classic line-up: two guitarists (both capable of playing lead), bass, drums, and keyboards. Isbell’s lead vocals were strong all night, and the rest of the band all contributed backing vocals. The only missing element was violinist Amanda Shires-Isbell, who stayed at home with their young daughter. Isbell was wearing a Wonder Woman t-shirt in honour of his daughter’s Hallowe’en costume.

The superb 90-minute set contained light and shade, from the hard rocking likes of “Anxiety” and “Molotov” to the shimmering “If We Were Vampires” (which is not anodyne, thanks, Mr Jeremy “Cunt” Hunt).

 

“Hope the High Road” was delivered with passion, and the powerful lyrics of “White Man’s World” couldn’t have been more apposite. Perhaps he should have played that one into Jeremy Hunt’s face on the Marr Show. But then, he is on the high road.

My favourite moments were when the sound opened out with one of the players taking an acoustic guitar and the other playing (usually slide) lead. Songs like “Stockholm” and “Last of My Kind” were brilliant, but perhaps my favourite of the night was “Codeine”, from his 2011 album Here We Rest:

If there’s one thing I can’t stand
It’s this bar and this cover band
Trying to fake their way through ‘Castles Made of Sand.’
That’s one thing I can’t stand

If there’s one thing I can’t take
It’s the sound that a woman makes
About five seconds after her heart begins to break
That’s one thing I can’t take

She should be home by now but she ain’t
I should’ve gone by now but I cain’t
One of my friends has taken her in and given her Codeine
One of my friends has taken her in and given her Codeine

The final encore of the night (so glad we stayed) was Tom Petty’s “Refugee”, which was delivered with every bit as much passion and commitment as the original. My kid, 17, sitting to my left, had tears in her eyes.

Blade Runner 2049

Blade-Runner-2049-trailer-breakdown-37

I’m very familiar with the original Blade Runner, because I used to teach it as an exam text to my students. And, along with two or three other films (including The Exorcist, The Shining, and The Conformist), it’s a film I grew to love more every time I went through it. So I’d probably rank it among the top ten films ever made. It took Vertigo forty years (or four polls) to crawl its way to the top of the BFI 100 list, and though I can’t see Blade Runner getting there as soon as 2022, it’s a better film, for me, than 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was at number 69 in 2012, while 2001 was at number 6.

So there was no pressure on Denis Villeneuve in making this sequel.

My four five-year social media blackout meant that I didn’t even know Villeneuve was directing. I managed to avoid knowing anything about this film, including its title, until about two weeks ago. I have no idea why Ridley Scott chose not to direct.

I know I’m not alone in adopting this blackout policy. It’s a reaction to the oversaturated media landscape, and a content industry that prioritises clicks above everything else. If you genuinely care about something, it’s painful to hear even the most uninformed speculation about it. Back in the 90s, a “spoiler” was somebody telling you plot details; now, it’s just a feeling of being overexposed to something, so that you feel as if it has been watched for you. You’re overtaken by a feeling of enervation and simply can’t be arsed. I was looking at the iTunes movie store for something to rent last night, and there was nothing I felt like watching. I haven’t seen the most recent Star Trek film, for example, but the thought of sitting through it just made me feel tired. Anyway, here’s what I think all good internet citizens should do: don’t “review” or “preview” or speculate about anything until it’s out.

You can have the Deckard-is-a-replicant or Deckard-is-Gaff discussion as much as you like: but after everybody’s had a chance to see something. Looking at the production history section of the Wikipedia article now, I’m struck by how fucking repetitive and boring all of the reports are. The frenzy of question-and-answer simply revolved around whether Harrison Ford would be in it, and you just wonder why people obsess on such details.

I got something of that feeling sitting through the trailers “specially selected” to play before BR 2049. What a load of old shit. The intelligent and thought-provoking big ideas of Blade Runner wadded up like snotty tissue with the loud nonsense of barrel scraping superhero franchises. Urgh.

The relatively new Odeon at Milton Keynes Stadium is a decent enough venue. It never seems to be horribly crowded, and doesn’t smell of rancid fat, which is a bonus. BR 2049 was playing on multiple screens: you could see it in IMAX (no thanks), or 3D (no ta), or 2D. Sitting in the 2D theatre before the showing, the loud rumbling from the IMAX theatre next door was unpleasantly gut-twisting, that almost below hearing threshold bass making me feel a bit sick.

And because the showings were out of synch, you could still hear the theatre next door during the quieter sections of my showing, which was a bit of a bummer. Some sound leakage might be inevitable, but it’s a complete certainty given the sheer volume at which the film was being played.

I’ve never understood the volume people. I suppose they must be extroverts who are afraid of quiet. The audio volume in the theatre I was in was so extreme that the sound was obviously being distorted. This was a real shame, as one of the key marvels of the Blade Runner film(s) is the soundscape. But here it was being rammed so violently into my ears that its subtleties were being lost. I’m not counting that a black mark against the film, but against the exhibitor, in this case the Odeon.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure the BR 2049 soundtrack is a marvel, but can’t really be sure. The production design, lighting, and cinematography was brilliant, and I appreciated the world-building, which did not patronise or “as you know” the audience. Needless to say, shit had gone down between 2019 and 2049.

The narrative plot was a little bit thin, I thought, but then the plot of the original was also quite slight. What I did find interesting this time was the way in which the atmosphere and ambiguity of the original book was baked-in. The fucked climate and environment of the future was foregrounded, and the rarity and luxury of natural substances like wood, like real animals, was crucially important. So there are moments in this film that go unexplained, just like in the original, which I really appreciate. Ultimately, a film is only great if it rewards further viewings. There’s also a strong similarity between Ryan Gosling’s “K” and the original cop of the novel: his desire to fulfil his “wife’s” every desire, for example. And then there’s that feeling, far more foregrounded than in the original, that literally anybody could be a replicant. A nice reference to the unicorn sequence, too.

So, this was great, I think. It’s almost a shame that there was no shitty voice-over that can be subsequently removed, but at least we can hope that there might be missing sequences that can be put back in. My favourite scene was the bit in the waves, which reminded me a lot of the ending of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora: the feeling that, no matter how much humanity tries to destroy this planet, nature has the power to overwhelm and wash over us.

This was a film that made me not want to reach a verdict or a conclusion, which means I want to watch it a few more times: which is as it should be.

Alien: Covenant

Social-media-blackoutMy media blackout on Alien: Covenant was so effective that its release and reception almost completely passed me by. I only remembered it was there when it showed up on iTunes and was available for rental.

I’m a little aggrieved that the rental price was hiked up for £5.49 — for this of all films, as if the franchise still carried some kind of ‘brand premium’ after the crushing (but not if you run the other way) disappointment of Prometheus.

So, anyway, I rented it last weekend and sat down to watch with low expectations.

And, because my expectations were so low, I wasn’t disappointed.

I’ve got no issues with details like the production design, the cast, the cinematography, or the performances.

I just have an issue with the whole thing.

What, really, is the point of this franchise?

  • People waking from frozen sleep.
  • A space ship.
  • A signal.
  • A planet (or planetoid, or planet-like moon).
  • A robot, who may be good, or may be evil.
  • An alien or aliens.
  • People who act in an irresponsible or bizarre way.
  • A main female character who survives.
  • Returning to frozen sleep.

This is the mix-and-match plot line for most of the Alien films. And it was brilliant in the first film. The second ramped up the budget and the numbers along with the action. The third made it all a bit claustrophobic and intense in a different way. The fourth tried our patience and stretched our credulity.

There may be eight plots in literature, but there’s only one plot in Alien films. These prequels are adding nothing, telling us nothing new, but are simply repeating the same old plot beats (see above) and annihilating logic. If aliens can grow from spores, why are the face huggers deemed necessary? And how can there be baby face huggers outside of the eggs, which until now have been deemed necessary for their production? And why does nobody, ever, say, “Don’t come near me, I’m contaminated”?

Director Ridley Scott is said to be leading up to the origin of the Space Jockey of the first film, but he’s taking his time. And the only reason for taking that time, or that these films seem to exist is not because they have a compelling or new story to tell, but because people keep buying tickets/downloads. Its as cynical a marketing exercise as splitting popular novels into two or more films. Like the fucking Hobbit needed to be as many films as Lord of the Rings. If they were making Lord of the Rings today, it would be nine films, wouldn’t it? And still shit.

So Alien: Covenant passed the time, and if I hadn’t seen all the other films, it would have been all right, though frustrating in not having a proper ending. But I have seen all the other films, and there wasn’t a single unpredictable element. It followed the well-worn path and left me longing for another plot.

Blade Runner beckons.

Star Trek: Discovery

star-trek-discovery-klingonsThis new Star Terk Trek arrived on Netflix UK without much fanfare. There was no more hype for it than there was for The Expanse, and there were no critic previews, so no big reviews dropped in the runup.

All of which makes me, someone who watched first run Kirk Terk on the BBC in 1969–70, slightly nervous about this series.

The double pilot episode of Star Trek Disco did not exactly make clear what the show’s premise is, and I don’t want to look it up, so all I have to go on is that we have a human protagonist raised by Vulcans who, as a first officer on USS Shenzhou is overdue for her first command. I think we’re around the time period of the Krik era, but there’s no sense that the timelines are going to overlap. I don’t think it’s going to be graphic designers in space, though.

But there are Vulcans, including Sarek, Spock’s father, and there are… Klingons.

Original series Klingons were simply heavily made-up white (?) men with fancy facial hair. Then came the brown-skinned people with forehead ridges on TNG. And now we have a range of skin tones including jet black and albino and more facial prosthetics than seems decent. 8 hours in the makeup chair etc.

But here’s the thing. Klingons are the most boring people in the Rats Kert universe. It’s like watching a rugby team play drinking games. And, oh, the subtitles.

Over the two pilot episodes, it felt like 50% of the time a bunch of actors in uncomfortable prosthetics were hacking up phlegm, and you had to read bloody subtitles, which weren’t about anything other than the usual Klingon blach blach blach.

So, the story, about an incident on the edge of Federation space that sets off a war, is a bit of a drag, and the pacing is badly affected by the extended sequences of people in rubber masks with hacking coughs. Groan.

And even after a feature length opening, our protagonist isn’t on a ship called Discovery, and in fact we haven’t been introduced to the ship. Nice title sequence, though.

The Good Place

02-good-place-season-2.w710.h473After watching so much Grim and Gritty TV in the past few weeks, I was so pleased to be able to sit down in front of the pastel coloured comedy The Good Place, starring Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars), Ted Danson (Cheers, CSI) and William Jackson Harper (The Electric Company).

Thanks to my podcast listening, I was aware of this show and its premise, and even knew something about how Season 1 ended, but that did not spoil my enjoyment of this well-written, funny, intelligent show.

Kristen Bell plays Eleanor, a woman who has died in a fairly ignominious way, and now finds herself going through the process of orientation in “the good place”.

“So who was right?” she asks Ted Danson, Michael the Architect, and he tells her that most of the major religions were a little bit right, but that a stoned Canadian speculating after a heavy night managed to be around 90% right.

Essentially, your deeds in life are added up (or subtracted) from your score, and if you come down with a high enough positive score, you go to the Good Place. Eleanor immediately realises that there has been a mistake: she definitely does not belong here. There has been a clerical error. This is confirmed when a note comes under her door with words to that effect. Living in fear of being exposed, Eleanor works with her “soul mate” (Harper), who is not her soul mate, to try to become a better person, and so fit in with her morally superior neighbours.

Each episode manages to be packed with many funny lines and situations as well as philosophical and ethical conundrums, along the lines of, is it ever okay to lie? Or, do motives matter? Or, do the ends justify the means? Such questions are familiar staples of beginner philosophy courses and give the show, which is at root a 22-minute single-camera comedy, a surprisingly intelligent depth.

I started watching in the early evening and ploughed through the whole of season 1 in one night. It’s just so watchable, and after a while each successive episode cliffhanger keeps you hooked on the basis that the next episode is not going to keep you up for very long.

I managed to stop myself just before the Season 2 opener, which I watched the following night. Netflix are dropping new episodes weekly.

Small, but perfectly formed, like its lead actor.

Recent viewings

The-Good-PlaceSeason 2 of The Expanse (finally) dropped on Netflix UK recently, and I struggled my way through it. Never has Lennon’s line from “A Day in the Life” been more germane. I kept watching, had to look, having read the book, but it was really hard not to give up on it because it was rubbish in so many ways.

Viz: 

  • The script was terrible. You can write this shit, but you can’t say it. Apparently. A perennial problem with filmed science fiction. The protomolecule and the asteroid belt and the thrusters and the vac suits. Somehow, saying it out loud makes it seem silly.
  • The acting was awful. Some really good actors can make something of a terrible script, so long as the story was good. But none of these people are convincing. Some are given too much screen time, others not enough.
  • The story was incoherent, fragmented, and slow moving. Nobody has an FTL drive, but they can hop across the solar system in minutes, when it suits them. Game of Thrones teleportation machine suited the plot in the recent Season 7, but in The Expanse, you just ask yourself what slab of rock people are running around on, and forget why.

Norsemen (Netflix), the Norwegian comedy about Vikings is like the old Chelmsford 123 with a bigger set and costume budget and a lot more gore and swearing. I found it okay, because I wasn’t expecting it to be particularly funny. With low expectations and a tolerance for nasty jokes, violence, and juvenile humour, it was watchable. The other members of my family, however, leave the room when it’s on.

Meanwhile, over on the NowTV box, Tin Star (Sky Atlantic) is a vehicle for Tim Roth, who plays a British cop relocating to that Canada for a quieter life. First episode starts off a little Northern Exposure before becoming something akin to the opening beats of Edge of Darkness. But then the whole thing becomes more like Blue Velvet, and any sense of tight plotting of a story arc deliquesces into apparently improvised scenes in which people do things that make no sense without any apparent motivation other than a thanatic* drive towards self destruction. The series had its moments, but I was left with a strong feeling that ten episodes should have been six.

American Vandal (Netflix) as a mockumentary in the style of Serial or Making a Murderer, only instead of a miscarriage of justice about murder, it’s an act of vandalism: spraying dicks on staff vehicles in a High School staff car park.

Hmm. The problem I find with a lot of American humour is that it descends into scatalogical or sexual references that are probably funny if you’re the kind of person who thinks drawing cocks on whiteboards or exercise books is funny. In other words, this sophisticated parody of a certain style of documentary has a platform problem. It wants us to laugh at the serious treatment of a trivial subject — but it has a serious obsession with the trivial subject and not much else. You can’t really poke fun at these people if you are one of them.

Technically, it’s very good, and it was a good idea, but the dick jokes wear thin, and the point was well made after 3 episodes. There are 8 episodes, and the humour, notwithstanding certain reviews, was not subtle. When a reviewer says “subtle humour”, do they really mean, “not funny”? The twist ending was telegraphed too early on, also.

Finally, I got around to watching season 1 of Happy Valley (Netflix), which is well done but unremittingly grim. Like so much modern TV, it leaves you wishing for some escapism from your escapism, which is why I’m looking forward to The Good Place, which appears on Netflix UK from today.

  • Thanatos = death drive. Eros = sex drive. So Thanatic/erotic?

Some book reviews

616aYU-j2ML._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Eleven books so far, in this summer of reading, including Tim Powers’ Declare, which I’ve read before and will read many times more. Here’s something of a test, then. Can I remember much about the others? Excuse the lack of cover images: on borrowed French wifi, which is painfully, rurally, slow.

Borderline – Mishell Baker

The Borderline of the title refers both to a person with borderline personality disorder and the idea that there’s a world beyond this one, peopled by creatures who come to visit our world in the guise of beautiful people who act as muses for people in the creative industries. Protagonist is a survivor of a recent suicide attempt, who has lost her legs and gets around using prosthetics and/or a wheelchair. She’s also has BPD and is approached by an organisation that manages the relationship between humans and the otherworldly creatures. Why do they approach patients in psychiatric hospitals in particular? Because nobody will believe them if they talk, of course. An interesting premise and protagonist, this award-nominated book is worth a look.

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

Hard to say what age group this book is aimed at. Slightly younger than YA, probably, but it was knocking around at work and so I added it to the pile. Is this Gaiman’s best book, as the blurb suggests? Probably not, though it was an entertaining enough read about an orphaned child who is raised by ghosts in a graveyard. Read to me, however, like a collection of scenes rather than a novel. Telling, to me, that Gaiman says he started with the fourth chapter and then went and back-filled. This is not the only novel I’ve read this summer that isn’t really a novel. To be fair, though, it is in the title: it’s not called The Graveyard Novel.

Quite Ugly One Morning – Christopher Brookmyre

I could tell this was supposed to be funny in the vein of Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiasen, but I didn’t crack a smile. An unpleasant story of unpleasant people, with some deeply unpleasant descriptions: avoid reading this while eating. Brookmyre’s an ex-journo, so of course his hero is a journo who is not above a little breaking and entering and is somehow attractive to the opposite sex.

The Fifth Season – N K Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate – N K Jemisin

This was the big one. I knew this was an award winning slice of fantasy fiction, and I’d read something else by Jemisin, and I’d heard nothing but good things about this series but I deliberately waited till this summer to get The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, knowing that the final part of the trilogy (The Stone Sky) would be published in the middle of August.

It’s so hard to describe what this is. The cover illustrations tell you nothing. You could almost say this was science fiction, since it seems to be set in a far future version of Earth which has become (for reasons) seismically unstable — so much so that no civilisation survives long enough to leave much of a mark when it is inevitably destroyed following a cataclysmic event involving volcanic activity, earthquakes, ashfall, pyroclastic flow, poisonous gases etc. But it probably shades into being fantasy because there are people here with abilities which aren’t really explained except in a hand-wavy way. I’d even allow this as science fiction, because we’ve all read about star drives and time machines which aren’t explained. But then I ask myself, why is it so important to you that this could be science fiction rather than “just” fantasy? I don’t know. Fantasy has uncomfortable associations with those terrible Lord of the Rings movies, but then the best fantasy often gives you great female leads (as here and in Katherine Kerr’s Deverry series) and it’s clearly more popular than science fiction, so.

The Fifth Season has an extraordinary three-stranded narrative which when it resolves makes clear that the rest of the series can continue the plot but not this tour de force of storytelling, which is a shame. In that sense, it reminds me of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series, which has a similarly innovative first volume.

So. An unstable planet. A civilisation that barely remembers its past incarnations. People with special abilities who are treated as less-than-human and feared and hated by most people. On one level, this is clearly a racial allegory, which asks questions about why some people need to consider others as less than human? But it’s also a fascinating puzzle and a story of survival and loss. How did the world get this way? Can it be fixed? Is humanity doomed? Do we even deserve to survive?

The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien

Speaking of which. A mysterious stranger arrives in a small Irish community and seduces the inhabitants with his spiritualism and alternative therapies. Turns out, he’s definitely not who he pretends to be, and the consequences of his unmasking are grim. The book is really a series of encounters and meditations and doesn’t have much of a narrative plot. So I’d describe this as a Menippean Satire rather than a novel. I didn’t enjoy it, but then it would have been weird to.

Magpie Murders – Anthony Horovitz

This was more of a blast. I picked this up after noticing that it was a novel about a novel, and included the complete manuscript of the novel-within-the-novel. So it’s a whodunnit about a whodunnit, and it’s entertaining enough, though a long way from being a realistic crime novel, if that’s your thing. It’s more of a pastiche of Agatha Christie hiding inside something that wants to be a modern crime novel, something more like the Cormoran Strike series. Anyway. It’s okay. I’d have liked both stories to be more interesting, darker perhaps, but it was entertaining enough and a relatively quick read. Certainly a palate clearer after The Little Red Chairs.

The Other Side of Silence – Philip Kerr

Ted Allbeury wrote a novel with a similar title – a fictionalised account of Kim Philby’s activities. And Philby’s something of an element in this, which is one of a series about anti-hero Bernie Gunther, a German former cop and intelligence officer, who’s trying to leave his past behind. This is set on the Côte d’Azure in 1956, and features Someret Maugham dealing with a blackmail plot involving the KGB and a tape recording of Guy Burgess. It was okay to read. I didn’t like the hero and the outcome was clearly telegraphed. The whole  thing was a little static, not making much use of the location and a bit disappointing after the extraordinary treatment of spying in Declare.

The Hanging Girl* – Jussi Adler Olsen

Easily the worst book I’ve read this summer, I picked this up because it had a lot of pages. *The original (correct) title in Danish is The Boundless, which in itself doesn’t make for a better title, given the contents, but I feel the English title with its use of the noun “girl” is cynical and exploitative – typical of a publishing industry I have little respect for.

I’m not sure if it was the translation or what, but I didn’t like the dialogue in this, nor the exposition, and I didn’t understand who the characters were supposed to be. This is from a series and is obviously not the first, but that’s not always a problem. It wasn’t with Bernie Gunther, for example. The author usually puts enough in to get you up to speed (even copying and pasting expository sections), but not here. I didn’t like or care about the protagonist, and his colleagues were cyphers. At times this seemed both sexist and racist, and there were confusing moments, too, as when a character is called Assad in one sentence and then suddenly becomes Curly in the next. And I couldn’t believe the British publisher didn’t make some corrections to the bizarre explanation of a cricket match.

So this was a cold case story. A cop who’d been obsessed with a hit and run kills himself and the case falls to Department Q, whoever they are. Cold case unit? It’s not explained. Anyway, maverick cop, at loggerheads with his boss, dealing with broken relationships, blah blah blah. Just because it’s Danish it doesn’t mean it’s not clichéd. So it was long, and not very interesting, and as soon as they looked in the garage (early on) and decided not to search it because it looked dusty, you knew it was Chekov’s garage.

The Stone Sky – N K Jemisin 

No sooner had I ploughed despondently to the end of The Girl with the Hanging Girl than the yellow post van showed up with this. This brings the trilogy to a somewhat tragic conclusion, continuing its barely veiled discussion about race, exploitation, the legacy of slavery, justice, and how to go forward with a society when there is barely anything worth saving or preserving. This makes it extremely topical in this current news cycle context of job-lot el cheapo racist statuary erected at the behest of the Ku Klux Klan or anti civil rights elements: sometimes the only solution is to burn everything down and start again.

My one criticism of this trilogy concerns the map at the beginning, and the other repeated elements (glossary, appendix). The map was useful in the first book, because it showed the locations of the main places visited therein. But the same map then appeared in the second and third volumes, when two different maps would have made more sense, since the action does move around somewhat. As it is, you find yourself staring at the map and wondering where the characters you’re reading about are at the moment.

Worth one’s Salt

soldierWhile I take the point that the paint-by-numbers furore about BBC staff salaries is drummed up by the exceedingly well remunerated Murdoch and Dacre as part of their ongoing destruction of British culture, I still think there are questions raised by the extraordinary figures received by some so-called “talent” who work in the media (not just the BBC).

There are small questions, such as what makes Chris Evans worth £2.5m?

I really don’t know the answer to this. Radio 2 reaches 28% of the age 15+ listening population, and has over 15 million listeners per week. But I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that very few of those people would actually stop listening if Chris Evans was lured away to some other broadcaster, one that had loads of shitty adverts and a far more budgetarily constrained playlist. But even if Radio 2 lost 3 million daily listeners, so what? Who fucking cares? The BBC likes to think it’s “for everyone” and Radio 2 is a good example of that, but a DJ? Really? As history as shown, people can be replaced. Wogan fucking died and Radio 2 still gets 15 million listeners. I simply cannot fathom his worth. It’s not as if he has a golden touch: his Top Gear was an abject failure and he’s clearly not as popular as the BBC think for that to have happened.

Substitute any name, mix and match the programmes/channels, and this is my response to all salaries.

As to the gender pay gap, yep. Big surprise. But also, those “lower” salaries are still way high for reading an autocue, throwing underarms at politicians, or saying things are “cool” at Glasto.

Then there are the bigger questions. The main one, for me, has always been, why are people in the media paid so much? They fit into a special class of people who are apparently worth more to our society than teachers, nurses, firefighters, police, civil servants, social workers, people who collect the bins, people who unblock drains, and even most doctors.

Of course, the pragmatic answer to the question is the same one that applies to the political class, who get to vote for their own pay rises. People who work in the media get to determine the salaries of other people who work in the media. I mean, if teachers got to decide teachers’ pay, we’d be laughing, of course we would.

Laughing.

Yes. One can’t help thinking that all these luvvies are laughing at us, even as they tetchily respond on social networks to snarking from the lower orders.

I once drew a diagram on the board for my Media Studies class. A tiny circle representing the wealthiest 1%: the owners, landlords, CEOs, politicians. And a much bigger circle for the rest of the population who have to share their smaller proportion of wealth. Then I asked the question, why don’t the 99% rise up and kill the 1%?

The answer, of course, was hegemony, and I went on to explain how the rest of us are convinced that violent revolution is a bad idea by TV shows like Strictly. It’s complicated.

In between the big circle and the small circle, I put the security apparatus, the police and armed forces, who are the last line of defence between the two sides in the class war. And the police are indoctrinated in a special way to ensure that they feel a certain contempt for ordinary people, and are not averse to hitting a few of them over the head with batons during protests and marches. That way, going out on a protest march looks sufficiently dangerous and risky to put most people off.

Anyway, I included “the media” as part of the “thin blue line” between the poorer classes and the 1%. It’s important, if you work in the media, that you feel special and different from the rest of us. Enormous salaries and an easy working life which means you never feel like retiring are part of it. So I’m fond of pointing out the enormous proportion of BBC presenters and journalists who are long past the state retirement age. John Humphrys is 73. David Dimbleby is 78. The youthful Chris Evans is is 51.

It’s also important for people who work in the media to feel like they know more than the rest of us. When people can’t be named for legal reasons, they know the names. When there are super-injunctions in place, everyone who knows anyone who works in the media knows (a) the story and (b) the names.

So it’s about being in the know. And it’s about being paid more so you feel separated from regular people and stop empathising with them. So then you can do the job you’re paid to do, which is preventing violent revolution. Because if just one person is discouraged from, you know, putting some oligarchs to the guillotine by a witty link between the news and the next record, Chris Evans’ salary is worth it.

Uncommon People by David Hepworth (review)

coverI have David Hepworth to thank for my podcast habit. It was the flash of insight that went along with listening to an episode of The Word podcast several years ago: I realised that I could listen to people talking about The Beatles forever, and took a mere two-hour discussion in my stride. Whereas, I thought, mainstream radio might offer a 5-10 minute whiz-around of talking heads and that would be your lot. Not since John Lennon died had I been able to indulge myself in hours of nitpicking and train-spotting. Some podcasters apologise now and then for being a little too much inside baseball, but that, for me, is the whole point.

Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars 1955-1994 is Hepworth’s follow-up to 1971: Never a Dull Moment, which I reviewed a while ago. I ended up being underwhelmed by that book because I had little interest in the music being discussed (turns out that 1971 didn’t see much that I like released). I’m underwhelmed by Uncommon People for different reasons.

I just watched one of my favourite movies, Pleasantville, with one of my classes, and when it finished I told my students that I thought it was almost perfect bar two things. The first thing was that it had too many endings. The second was that, for a movie that uses colour as a metaphor for change and prejudice, it neglected to include any actual people of colour.

So here’s what’s wrong with Uncommon People. On the one hand, Hepworth has a tendency to labour the point. He was always the shouty one on the Word podcast, and it could start to get on your nerves. As an editor, I’m sure, he would be able to look at such writing and strike out the third-to-tenth ways in which he expresses the same idea. As an author, one suspects that each chapter needed to be a certain length, and he just couldn’t stop himself from adding just one more pithy way of explaining what he meant. This is the Too Many Endings problem.

When the material is familiar, this starts to grate. I’m sure there won’t be many people reading this who don’t know at least 50% of the lore herein. Which is a problem. Because what can Hepworth say about Bob Dylan, or the Beatles, or Elvis, that hasn’t been said many times before? And while we might enjoy sinking into the warm comfort of this history, it still reads a bit like Shouty Dave trying to bludgeon you with his point.

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This is a bit about Elvis that starts to labour the point

On the other hand, Uncommon People is a victim of rock’s historical sexism and tendency to think colour doesn’t matter. There are chapters on Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt (who I’d never describe as a rock star) and Madonna (likewise), and it opens of course with Little Richard and features Jimi Hendrix. But give or take Michael Jackson (not a rock star) and Bob Marley (*sucks teeth*), the subjects of each chapter are overwhelmingly white and male.

As to the idea that the breed died out after 1994 and Curt Cobain, I’m afraid I lost interest at least a decade before that. He argues that tech and Hip Hop took over from Rock after 1994, which may well be the case. The fact was, nobody was measuring sales properly before the 1990s, and it’s almost certainly the case that Country was bigger than Rock all along. I made the mistake of commenting to this effect on the Guardian review of this book and got shouted down. I didn’t feel like explaining that US charts are based on airplay not sales, and that the absence of Country in mainstream playlists doesn’t mean it’s not outselling other genres. Still, with this book, the idea of a rock star is the point. Sales don’t matter, popularity doesn’t really matter. What counts is the image and the attitude.

The conceit of the book is that he takes a single date for each year and tells a story about a particular star in that era. This allows him to cover Bob Dylan twice, for example, but his choices seem perverse and arbitrary all the same. Bob Dylan in 1961 was not a rock star (though I take the point that his reinvention of himself sets the template). Bob Dylan in 1986 is a rock star, but not really at his peak. Of Dylan the original rock star of 1965-66, or 1975-6, there’s nothing. The sheer charisma of Dylan in white face on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour is stunning.

As to the inclusion of obvious pop stars like Duran Duran, Jackson and Madonna, one wonders why they get in while others don’t. Obviously, everyone will have their own lists/ideas, but Tom Petty (an inspirational figure to many musicians who is name-checked and referenced in tons of songs) is mentioned only in passing. More, um, damningly, Damn the Torpedoes, which is objectively the best album of the 1970s isn’t even included in the end-of-chapter playlist for 1979. What’s up with that? It’s like doing a list for 1967 and ignoring Sgt. Pepper.

Anyway, this is a bit of a grind. Grinding your teeth through the over-egged pudding of some chapters, and grinding your way through chapters about insignificant nobodies later on. I borrowed from the library, so I’m not too disappointed.