Sunday, September 27, 2009

Nobody human in the charts

I enjoyed listening to chart music between 1988 and 1991. Before that it felt like another language, and I instead found solace in my mother's Abba, disco and Motown LPs (and she was still surprised when I came out to her - how charmingly naive!) I didn't get Culture Club, the Thompson Twins, Wham, Duran Duran or any of the other groups who were around then, with their Lady Di hair-styles, baggy blousons and cheap-looking videos set in exotic locations with saxophone players and bad dancing. For most of the 1980s I felt that the world was having a big party and I had been locked outside with just a tatty Agatha Christie book for company. Then, just as I was leaving school, something clicked - it started with the Bangles (who I loved), and then I got into Marc Almond, Hue and Cry and "House" music. I loved Shakespeare's Sister, U2 and King, and my cooler friend Kathryn got me into The Mission and Deelite. By the time the B52s and REM came along, I felt I knew all about pop music.

Sadly, it didn't take though, and by the mid-1990s, I discovered something called "lounge music", which mainly involved the sort of music that gets played on 1960s detective shows. I turned my back on the charts - and radio 1 had gone all shouty and coarse anyway by then, so that was the end.

I caught an episode of the chart show last week, and felt more like an old man than ever. I didn't know any of the names, and everyone sounded like the robot vocoder voice in Cher's "Do you Believe in the Power of Love". I deduced that it must simply be the "fashion" these days, but then fortunately, The One Show (BBC1's daily 7pm magazine programme for the Elderly at Heart) explained it all for me.

Apparently pop artists are so incompetent at their jobs these days that they aren't capable of singing in tune anymore. So their voices are fed into a computer which corrects them, syllable by syllable. Sometimes, if they are really way off, say by about three notes, then the computer has to work extra hard and what comes out sounds distinctly inhuman - like Metal Mickey.

Using machines to alter music isn't a new idea. This clip from the 1960s film Smashing Time was eerily prescient about "manufactured celebrities" of the time, but seems even more accurate now.

And I remember a late 1980s French and Saunders' skit about Bananarama where the music prodcuers simply turned up the volume of the backing music to drown out their awful caterwauling but apparently, in the 1980s, when Culture Club recorded their songs, if they messed up a note, they just had to do it again until they got it right.

Does it matter though? We live in a world where everything is digitally altered. Almost every profersionally photograph that you see (especially if it's used in advertising) has been changed to make the model look more attractive and younger. It's just the way things are now.

But it does bother me, because if everything original can be put through a computer to make it "better" then why try in the first place? Having played the computer game Singstar, which can tell if you're off-key, I know how difficult it is to hold a tune. It's a skill that you have to practice at - over and over. We risk losing skills and the ability to put in the perserverance to gain those skills in the first place, if at a few clicks of a button we can "fix" things. Put simply, it's laziness.

I suspect if I were a teenager, I'd find pop music even more alienating and weird than I did back in the 1980s.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

I love Jane Lynch

It seems that everywhere I look, Jane Lynch is there these days. She was the hyper-active, over-earnest, reformed addict youth group leader in Role Models "Do you know what I had for breakfast? Cocaine? Do you know what I had for lunch? Cocaine?... I've been to prison... Prison of sick thoughts! I used to have sick thoughts!" She's the gung-ho lawyer in lesbian soap opera L Word (and the perfect partner for Cybill Shepherd's daffy, elitist University boss). And now she's turned up as a moustache-twirling cheer-leading coach in Glee - a sassy high-school "dramedy" with lots of musical numbers.
"You think this is hard - try being water-boarded! That's hard!" Glee would be great without Jane in it, but she's the icing on the cake.

If you don't love her, then we can't be friends.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Falling out of love with cities

I stayed Friday night in the new Crowne Plaza in Manchester. It has a monochrome theme - walking down the dimly lit long black corridors was a bit spooky - like going to hell. It's been built in an area which is undergoing massive regeneration - so there are working-class pubs mixed alongisde trendy furniture shops. There's also quite a large ethnic population there - I wonder whether one demographic will "win" and ease the others out, or whether everyone will reside alongside one another, or whether there'll be some sort of blending process over the decades so everyone becomes indistinguishable.

There was a time, about 5 or 6 years ago when I'd spend every weekend in Manchester, and 2-3 years ago, I seriously considered moving there permanently. The commute was the only thing that put me off. I thought it looked a bit rougher now in places though, and in some areas, like The Triangle, the recession seems to have closed a lot of shops. We'd arranged to meet my fella's cool 20-something niece for a meal on Friday night. However, I'd written her phone number down incorrectly and the restuarant we'd arranged to meet her at - El Macho's - was long gone. By Saturday morning, I'd had enough of the noise and ugly buildings in the city centre (both the dilapidated old ones and the brash modern ones), so I got in the car and spent the afternoon in Didsbury which is a lot smaller and prettier.

I wonder if it's another effect of getting older though - I've had an odd relationship with cities. As a child I hated them all, until I got to be about 16 - then I thought they were great - and the bigger the better. 20 odd years later I'm starting to appreciate smaller places - like York, Durham and Cambridge. Noise and jarring architecture aside, the other thing about big cities I don't like is the people - the fashion leaders with their interesting hairstyles, the loud, over-confident behaviour, the anonymity which seems to mean that people don't have to have as good manners as they would in a smaller community. I know, I sound like a very old man. It there's one city I do still love it's New York. It's so big that it rarely feels too crowded (except around Times Square).

At least Manchester has a big HMV. I got a French film there called OSS 177: Cairo Nest of Spies. It's 2006 a parody of 1960s spy films, starring my new husband, Jean Dujardin. This is him in his 1960s spy mode (I love his hair):

And here he is normally. He's a bit like a french Hugh Jackman.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The feral homes of Detroit

You wouldn't think if from reading the Wikepedia entry on Detroit, but things aren't going well. Wikipedia does tell us that the unemployment rate is 28.9% and parts of the city have vacant lots and buildings. But it doesn't give much of a clue of the extent of the problem.

I've become interested in Detroit lately, partly after watching episodes of the drama series Hung which is set there. Hung stars Thomas Jane (the hero from the recent film The Mist) as Ray Drecker, a washed-out high school coach who becomes a prostitute after a series of personal disasters. Ray is symoblic of Detroit itself - he was once the high school football hero, and now he's stuck in a lowly-paid job, his wife has left him for a richer guy, his house is burnt down and he lives in a tent. Images of once grand, now derelict buildings appeared in the first episode. They were shocking and I couldn't work out whether they had been digitally altered to look derelict - how could anybody allow them to get into that state?

Turns out, they were real enough. The blog Sweet Juniper has been documenting the decay in Detroit for years. He's taken pictures of feral dogs, feral houses (which have been abandoned for so long that they have become like castles of thorns in Sleeping Beauty), abandoned schools that have trees growing out of piles of books, empty zoos, tower blocks containing haunting personal mementos from residents who had to leave. There are stiched-together friezes of streets where almost every home has been abandoned or burnt out. It's one of the most chilling and beautiful websites I've seen.


The pictures remind me of a computer game I was a bit obsessed with earlier this year, Fallout 3 - which is also set in a post-apocalyptic America.

Detroit's population has halved since the 1950s. It's been hard-hit by the economic recession and the decline of the auto industry, and the fact that it is home to a lot of poor, working-class and/or black people has made its fall all the more dramatic. Having grown up in East Durham, which lost its mining industry in the 1980s, I can sympathise - what is happening to Detroit happened to the northeast of England thirty years ago, albeit on a smaller scale. I got out of town in 1990 - just as the drug dealers were arriving. There were so many boarded up shops in our town centre, that the council used to paint pictures of fake shops over the boards - book shops and travel agents, perhaps in at attempt to con casual vistors that things weren't as bad.

But what really affects me most of all, is - how whole communities can go wrong in rich countries. Ultimately it's the social fallout of humans who don't care enough. And while an overgrown building has a certain melancholy splendour, there is nothing beautiful about the decisions that led it to get that way.