Sunday, July 11, 2010

Don Cherry: Canadian Patriot

Since I am off to Canada quite soon, I have decided to do a post about the country's most prominent patriot, the legendary Don Cherry.

For anyone who doesn't know, hockey is a Canadian obsession. By coaching the NHL's Boston Bruins (with its legendary player Bobby Orr), Cherry managed to earn himself a footnote in the national myth. He expanded upon that by being sports commentator for CBC and growling the macho catchphrase "Rock em, sock em!"

Slowly but tenaciously, Grapes, as he is known, took up his place beside Pierre Trudeau and Wayne Gretzky as a national cultural icon.

... So why the cult of Cherry? The truth is that if Don had been born an American, he would probably have sunk without a trace. What matters is the way he contradicts Canadian notions of national identity: the way he flatly ignores his country's reactive, introverted, intellectual, multicultural, ironic, anti-American wilderness mythos; the way he chooses to forthrightly pursue an unusual, viking version of Canadian nationalism. Those are what matter, because Cherry speaks directly for a mythic, beer-fuelled, hockey-obsessed common Canadian male. In doing so, some might argue that he simultaneously acts as a jaw-dropping curio for the rest of the nation.

Some key elements in the Don Cherry phenomenon:

1. Staunch patriotism (fighting for the underdog):

2. Occasional absurdist old school sexism ("You women are gonna get mad at me out there"):

3. Willingness to be a sport and make techno records (a bit like a Canadian Muhamed Al Fayed):

4. He can effortlessly wear a pink suit (while retaining his mythic aura of masculine power):

In a sense, then, Cherry's mythos centres around the strained couplet of "Canadian patriotism"; a phrase that seems contradictory in the context of a country defined by its subdued multiculturalist humanism. When read in that way, his hypermasculinity arguably articulates a sense of national insecurity that can only be quelled, temporarily, by talk of past victory and present braggadacio.

As Cherry's own commentator said, “He often has awkward moments, because he invites them.”

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Frank Sidebottom, RIP

Tonight Manchester is staging a live tribute to Chris Sievey, the recently deceased creator of one of the city's most-loved comedy characters, Frank Sidebottom. Sievey made his career by donning a papier machee head that made him look like a kewpie doll, and then exploring a kind of happy northern amateurism. Predictably, it was not long before Frank disappeared into his own parody. From the 1980s onwards the big-hearted, big-headed figure straddled a line between underground and mainstream media. In his heyday he appeared on national TV shows like The Tube. Indeed, Frank's forays into comedy, TV presenting, cabaret and popular music were ongoing. Sievey had been in a band called The Freshies and there is now a campaign to get Frank's recent football song to the top of the charts.

Hailing from the mythic town of Timperley, Frank was already the stuff of nostalgia. He will now be able to take his place alongside Tony Wilson and others to become part of the cultural pantheon of the city. The character's larger than life head branded him as an icon, and now he can begin to find his place as a minor but very welcomed legend. Tonight's tribute show is being headlined by fellow Manchester eccentrics Badly Drawn Boy and John Cooper Clarke.

The odd thing about Sievey's death is simply seeing the man behind the mask; during Frank's heyday you never did. Credit must go to the late Mr Sievey for his struggle against the slick professionalism of the corporate media to construct what became a genuine folk legend. One wonders if, like some mythic superhero, the character might return with his huge head on fresh new shoulders, propped up by a heroic yet anonymous citizen who agrees that entertainment should remain a genuinely public service.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Metal on Metal: Notes on the Crash in Popular Culture

James Dean, Jackson Pollock and Princess Diana died in them. Jim Morrison was supposedly traumatized by watching one. JG Ballard thought they were sexy. What am I writing about? Car Crashes. I can remember some years ago there was a headline in my local paper, "Double Death Smash: Wall of Silence." Since then, I have been interested in the social symbolism of these violent accidents and the way they resonate in popular culture.

I should say right from the start, this has nothing to do with the immense personal tragedy of real crashes; real horrors that nobody wants and that have touched the lives of many I know. Ironically, popular culture glamorizes what in real life can only be experiences of deep personal shock, pain, loss and bewilderment.

To focus instead, then, on the mythos...

Catastrophic, momentary and spectacular, car and motorcyle accidents have inspired stories, films and many, many songs. So how do we explore this complex subject? I want to argue here that the mythos of highway crashes romanticizes them as tragic comments on modern society.

To understand the crash, we have to start with the car. Cars are, in some senses, the ultimate symbols of modernity. They are machines for living in which represent the triumph of Enlightenment science and the will to create new technology as vehicle for social progress, but also the flip side of the era too: alienation, the belief that science can solve human problems and the submission of the individual to mass consumerism. Henry Ford's famous Model-T is still resonant here as symbol of massification and advanced form of industrial cloning.

As expensive commodities, cars have become both gendered and sexed up by the advertising industry. They have also been customized, used symbols of individualism and personal style. In America, they represent the steel horse: a vehicle for men to negotiate the new frontier. The pleasure of driving a car on the open road marks an obsession with power, control and speed. To recklessly and aggressively push the limits is a characteristically masculine response... In a sense, then, the car crash can be read as a catastrophic implosion that is actually an inbuilt in contemporary society. The mythos of the car crash therefore positions it as burn-out: an ironic fulfilment of patriarchy, the military-industrial complex, and commodity culture.

On top of this, there also is an inherent ambiguity in crashes: was the glamorized tragedy a complete accident or macho suicide? The way that celebrities die is often taken to be an indication of how they lived. James Dean's troubled mind was projected into the violent crumping of his Porsche Spyder. Diana's last moments already placed her as a victim hounded by the paparazzi. In the same way, car crashes in popular songs and biographies have become symbolic of their era or particular. Take Jan and Dean's famous surf tune 'Dead Man's Curve' from 1964: the song is about wreckless, adolescent boy racing in the face of mortal danger. In a similar way, The Shangri-La's 'Leader of the Pack', from the same year, paints the death of a motorcycle gang leader as a romantic melodrama. The ideological message in these tunes suggests that those who epitomize wayward youth will come acropper before they can enter the more mundane realm of adult responsibility. Two years after 'Dead Man's Curve', Bob Dylan's motorcycle accident near Woodstock was represented as an epiphany which alerted him to the absurd pressures of the celebrity machine: "I realized, " he said, "that I was just workin’ for all these leeches." The smash jolted him into a moment of personal authenticity that was represented by the spartan folk of his LP John Wesley Harding.

Another high watermark in the cultural history of the traffic crash was in 1970, when JG Ballard released The Atrocity Exhibition: a bizarre, fragmentary novel that made reference to President Kennedy's televised motorcade assassination, from which the author drew emotional intensity because he indirectly associated with the death of his wife. That book, and the 'Crash' story that came from it (made famous later by David Cronenberg's screen version) featured the idea that car crashes were orgasmic experiences. Ballard's perverse metal-on-metal sensuality combined an air of futurism with a cryptic critique of modernity: the end point of all this fetishization of logic and machines, he said, would be pornographic. It would be about as human (or rather as dehumanizing) as an alienated sexuality. Ballard's tactical implosion inspired a wave of creativity in postpunk music led by both Bowie and, more famously, The Normal's missing-link electro track, 'Warm Leatherette'. The cover featured crash test dummies, which in turn vouched for crashes being a normal part of the industrial process (and of course crash test dummies then being idealized as post-human citizens).

That shock wave, I think, pretty much brings us up to the contemporary era, where the road is no longer entirely real. If we live in the era of the "information super-highway" (already a tawdry cliche), then the crash is now between the virtual and the real. As we implode across the unnatural terrain of cyberspace, we will encounter unforseen curves and new injuries to our humanity.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

What are imagined memories?

Yesterday I had fun talking to Matt Grimes, a music industry lecturer at Birmingham City University who is starting a PhD on canonization and fans' memories of Crass. Matt is writing up a blog post about our day of discussion. He is particularly interested in the idea of 'imagined memories' that I developed in 2002-2003 in a pair of articles about Paul McCartney's webcast from the Cavern. At one point Matt asked me to explain how imagined memories come about. What I will do in the rest of this post is to define imagined memories and answer that question.

Seeing the Beatles early live shows at the Cavern and seeing the Sex Pistols taunt Bill Grundy on The Today Show at the end of 1976 are classic examples of imagined memories. The first thing to notice is that these incidents really happened: they can be located in time and place. For any individual audience members who experienced these, they were supposedly transformative moments. Yet there is also a mass of fans who never had these experiences but wished they did. In that sense they are investing in imagined memories.

Each imagined memory is the thing you wished you had experienced, but never did. It is not exactly a fantasy, because it really happened to someone else. However, it is not your memory either, because it happened to someone else. By a process of valorization in the narrative of history and in the media it is therefore a kind of fantasy which authenticates itself as a (false) memory. The term points to the paucity of phrases like 'cultural memory' in describing popular music's past: for a few people these memories are real enough (although, even for them, the memories have been inflected by the subsequent success story of the performers). Imagined memories are spaces of emotional investment that are necessarily contradictory since they only matter because of what came after them. In a sense, then, they are memory commodity templates: they are both valorized (made to matter by stories) and characterized by their own rarity value. Not everyone has the 'real' memory. This is precisely why they become starting points for further commodities (media documentaries, heritage tourism, anniversaries, re-enactments, etc).

So imagined memories are like fetishized moments of fan subject-positioning from the early career of iconic artists, but how do they come about? What is the socio-cultural process through which they are fabricated?? Perhaps they emerge through a four part process of collective appreciation:

1. Mass performance: A classic performance (live or on record) marks a new peak of an artist's mass adulation.

2. Historic Narration: Band biographies, etc, are created to contextualize, romanticize and therefore extend the pleasures fans have invested in the artist or piece of music. These narratives say things like "It all came about by accident" or "It almost never happened" or "There was a unique confluence of circumstances." They are designed to show that the emotions motivating the performance are 'real' (phew!) rather than fabricated by technicians or commentators in the culture industry.

3. Recognition: Cultural entrepreneurs recognize the moment in the narrative that appeals to fans because it shows the artist at their rawest and seemingly most powerful (not yet diluted by the industry). The moment becomes a touch-stone in retellings of the narrative. The template now complete, fans begin to fantasize, fetishize and discuss these historic moments. New cultural products are formed around the reminscences of those that experienced the moments. They are given a mediated chance to speak about what happened.

4. Extention: The imagined memory can now become a generative resource for other narratives and commodities.

In time, of course, even the mass performances (in step 1) can themselves become imagined memories as more people start talking about their previous viewing experience and fewer fans have access to a real memory of the event. (I note, too, that the idea of "real memory" is itself a contradiction, as all memories are invented by the ways in which the brain interprets, records and remembers events.)

I want to briefly mark out some subtle differences between imagined memory and myth. The key thing to say here is that imagined memories and myths are not quite the same. Myths are ways to tell an artist's story that satisfy the public. A star's mass performances (step 1) can still help to generate myths, but those myths need never actually have happened. In theory, imagined memories may be based on myths, but usually they are not. Also, myths don't have to be imagined memories: a myth can be almost anything, whereas an imagined memory is a specific moment of performance in some sense, a time and place when fans begin to wish they had been there.

Finally, this idea is still in a process for formation. There may be interesting work to be done on the intersection of imagined memories and various fan practices. One example is the question cultural capital. Given that imagined memories are invitational containers for affect that are retrospectively recognized, in what ways does their construction invite the collection and display of cultural capital? I don't think that fans need much capital to locate these moments, since they are usually prominent in discussions of music phenomena. Nevertheless the moments may become a focus for the collection of facts and stories that allow fans to play further games of distinction.

What I hope to have shown here is that although narratives of popular music history move forwards in time, we create them by looking backwards when we are steered by the affective attachments that come from our engagement with crucial performance. This process generates imagined memories of earlier times, the significance of which gets fully recognized only in retrospect.

My thanks to Matt for making me think a bit more about this. I hope other researchers like him can now find new examples of this phenomena and take the theory even further forward.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Without Fathers: John Lennon and Jim Morrison

Tonight I got round to watching two biopics of 1960s icons, BBC4's Lennon Naked and the new Doors feature documentary When You're Strange. What unites these films is their father and son rejection narrative. In Lennon Naked, Christopher Eccleston does a fine job of playing Lennon at his most acerbic and asinine - an angry and creative man who constantly walked out on his own family. Variously that family was represented as Cynthia and Julian, the Beatles, his fans, his home in Great Britain, and, ultimately, his absentee father (played by a Christopher Fairbank).

The film climaxes with Lennon finding his rawest feelings of abandonment in the context of Primal Scream therapy, then recording 'Mother' as a record of his pain, and - in what may well be a fabricated dramatic moment - using the recording to directly confront his wrinkly old codger of a dad about his dereliction of fatherly duty.

As an aside, I have to add that Barbra Streisand, whose own father died when she was about a year and half old, recorded a showy version of the tune:

While Lennon's life story was ultimately about abandoning the parents who originally abandoned him, the Doors' film (which contained no actors, only footage of the band) showed how frontman Jim Morrison reported his entire family were dead. Morrison's claim was a lie of course, but in a way it was also true: his father George was ideologically dead to him. While Jim was spreading a gospel of free love, free drugs and hedonistic pacificism, George was fighting for his country. He was an Admiral in the American Navy.

There are multiple levels in these narratives. Both stars emerged in an era where a generation gap was establishing itself around the formation of a counter-culture. Both men rejected their fathers and joined that culture, becaming its icons.

In the familial rejection argument - which seems reductive but still convincing on many levels - Lennon's personal struggle is projected outwards to become his political protest. The confrontation of his childhood demons is also the culmination of his quest for musical authenticity.

Jim's loss of intimacy with his family, meanwhile, becomes a desperate quest for something that he can never quite find. He is let down by the hypocricy of the media, the falsity of stardom, the vacuuity of his fans, the cheap thrill of casual sex, and, ulimately, the false comfort of drugs and alcohol. Morrison's chronicles his lack of trust and a failure to find true intimacy. Despite having more adulation than most people can dream about, he is therefore romanticized a tragic rebel whose dreams were never fulfilled. Indeed his personal quest for freedom from the shackles of society was miscarried because it was pursued in the absence of any rewarding sense of intimacy.

Of course their struggles feed back into their own myths. After all John and Jim were just eligible and troubled young men begging to be loved. Meanwhile, fatherhood is the missing term from the lexicon of rock'n'roll. It is the present absense around which the adolescent ego pleasures of the form cohere. The 'double fantasy' of popular music is that fans sometimes dream they can create the intimacy missing when their heroes engage with the alienated process of stardom. In this context evidence of the celebrity's tragic childhood act as vouch-safe for an ego need which is taken to drive their quest for fame.

Psychologists say that we learn more in the first four years of our lives than in the rest. Jim Morrison often said that when he was four he witnessed a traumatic road accident where some Native Americans were killed. I doubt it ever took place. More likely, Jim created a glamorous poetic mystery by fusing a crucially early but mundane failure of parental availability (like his mother being ill or in grief) with one of America's most potent myths: the car crash as a masculine metaphor for the frenatic, breakneck pace of life - the obsession with speed symbolized in James Dean's death smash and chronicled by Paul Virilio and others.

So, then, what can we say of these bad boys of rock? They lost their parents at a young age, lived fast, died young, and numbed the pain with the playful outlets - sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. If you don't want to end up like them, just keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Jews, Race and Popular Music by Jon Stratton (2009)

I was recently asked to review Jews, Race and Popular Music by Jon Stratton for the journal Popular Music. The book is an interesting case-by-case study of the Jewish input into musical performance, from torch singing to Amy Winehouse. Stratton suggests that dominant WASP culture has positioned Jews as neither black nor fully white, but oscillating in a kind of cultural transit somewhere in between the two. The argument neatly avoids issues of essentialism and self-definition by focussing on how Jewish performers have then manipulated their role to act as racial go-betweens: privileged interpreters of black identity for a white audience. One of the pleasures of the book is simply the roll call of Jews in the music industry: some obvious, some obscure, and some whose Jewish identity was never a big part of their image (Malcolm McLaren, for example).

Covering Australia, the UK and the USA, Stratton's ambitious volume defly combines gender and racial analysis to explore the predicaments of several crucial artists, including Bob Dylan, Bette Midler and the Beastie Boys. In a sense, by positioning their play with identity as a function of white hegemony, Stratton is really contributing to whiteness studies. His book is a worthy addition to the literature.

Fiske Matters Conference, 11th - 12th June 2010

I must be getting slow - I just spotted that Madison, Wisconsin recently had a conference in honour of the work of John Fiske featuring keynotes by Fiske and Henry Jenkins. As I'm sure you know, with their emphasis on the 'active' audience, these two scholars defined a turn in reception studies that aimed to restore agency to fans... Click here for the keynote audios!

Thanks for making it such a great day!

'Popular Music Fandom: A One Day Symposium' took place last Friday and was a great success. Speakers from as far a field as Brazil arrived at the Binks Building and Matt Hills gave a really interesting and dynamic keynote speech on 'post-popular music' fandom.

Another speaker, Tonya Anderson, has just been on Laurie Taylor's long-running Radio 4 show Thinking Allowed to talk about nostalgic Duran Duran fans. The show also contained a discussion of metal's female fanbase and a commentary by Angela McRobbie.

Matt Grimes, who came along and is starting a PhD on anarcho-punk fandom, has just posted an interesting review of the symposium.

Some comments from our speakers:

The conference was a truly terrific event, and I'm so glad to have had the opportunity to present and to visit Chester. Wonderful experience overall... Again, an enormous congratulations on a terrific conference. I had a wonderful time, and will certainly recommend its next iteration to my colleagues.

I really enjoyed this event and hope there will be another one in the future!

My experience of the conference has been great. I really couldn't imagine a better start for my move to UK. I had pleasing chats and the atmosphere was very friendly, so I really hope there will be a second edition.

I felt really good about the amount of discussion and feedback that was going around at the conference. I have been to others where that was not so and I felt finally like this was what these things are meant to be doing.

... I enjoyed organizing the symposium and talking to those who came, both at the event and down the pub afterwards. I'd like to say a big thankyou to everyone who attended and helped to make the day a success.

As Brendan O'Sullivan, our Dean of the Arts and Media - who opened the day - said to me afterwards, there was "a strong international and UK presence... this was another feather in our cap."

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