Thursday, December 1, 2011

In memory of David Sanjek

Last night when I heard the news about Dave, I couldn’t quite believe it. We had a friendly get-together planned for this coming weekend. How inconsiderate: he never said goodbye. But Dave could be sentimental, so I think that if he had to go, his doing it by slipping away was for the best. He died as he lived - a high flyer - and he died in his own native country.

The last time I saw him in the flesh was a couple of weeks ago, when he popped his head into the jazz studies reading group that I attended at Salford. He was organizing another event that day and in retrospect I was sorry that I didn’t go. We stayed in email contact right up until he flew to the USA. He was going to argue the case for George Clinton to be added to the National Recordings Registry.

I first met Dave when he came over to present a paper at a conference in Sheffield in about 1999 - we just said a quick hello. When he got the job at Salford I saw him at another event and suggested that we should meet up: we worked in the same field and lived in the same city. We became very dear friends, partly I think because without any comeback we could hear about what was going on (and sometimes going down) in each other’s institutions, and also because we use each other as sounding boards and strategize together. I always felt we were extremely lucky to have a scholar like Dave in this region. But we became more that professional allies. When I got to know Dave as a person, I felt that I was very lucky to have him in my life. We’d be in contact by email all the time, sometimes go out for meals at the Red Chilli on Portland Street, and he’d visit my place every couple of weeks with a ragbag full of DVDs.

Dave knew as much about film as he knew about music. When you watched a film with Dave he’d always turn to you afterwards and want to know your opinion. He had such catholic tastes. I think he liked quirky, ensemble pieces the best as they fitted his inclusive ethics, but we watched everything - from old film noirs to westerns, films by Orson Welles to Dario Argento, Claude Chabrol and all else in between. I still have a pile of DVDs sitting on my shelf that he loaned me. Beyond cinema and popular music Dave was a cultural omnivore whose interests also extended across theatre, literature and American politics (a little sign of home sickness). Between talking about music research and giving me a priceless education in cinema, Dave would reminisce about his past in the USA: his family life, college days, the summer camps (some of his happiest days) and his time working for BMI… By the end of the night, we’d watched a couple of films, had a few hours of conversation, and it would be getting late. Dave would clap my hand and say, “Alright, man” then be off into the night to get his taxi across town. I never counted how many times we repeated the ritual, but I was always grateful that he’d taken the time. For such a busy person, one of the wonderful things about Dave was how often he found the time to be there with you. He was creative, considerate, compassionate and thoughtful. And I’m going to really miss him.

There are more posts from those who met Dave here.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

CFP - POPULAR MUSIC FANDOM, special issue of Popular Music and Society

Guest editor, Mark Duffett

Popular Music and Society invites article proposals for a new special issue. Fandom is both a personal expression of emotional conviction and a complex, changing, multi-faceted social phenomenon that now encompasses both online and offline activity.

The study of fandom is a scholarly niche that exists at the intersection of a wide range of interests and connections. It can be contextualized by wider media research (theory by scholars such as Henry Jenkins and Matt Hills; reception analysis; celebrity studies; ethnography; subcultural theory) and by direct research into popular music culture (ethnomusicology; research on listening; live music audiences; studies of music in everyday life).

We invite papers with themes that may include, but are not limited to:

· Fans as musicians / musicians as fans

· The consumer marketplace, perceptions of the music industry

· Collecting, listening, and other fan practices

· Live music, local scenes, and fandom as living culture

· Stereotyping, self-awareness, media representation, lit and fiction

· Fandom and social identities (such as gender, age, disability, race)

· Methodology, research practice, cultural theory

· Histories, critiques of fandom as a response to mass culture

· Taste, cultural capital, and the canon

· Online participatory cultures

· Case studies and ethnographies; personal narratives, memories, and investments

· Stardom and celebrity; identification, reading, and textuality

· Legacies of key representations (e.g., Fred Vermorel and Judy Vermorel's book Starlust)

· Modernity, religion, pathology, and the "cult" analogy

· Differing fandoms / specific music genres

· The fan community: insiders, outsiders, and the "ordinary" audience

· Fan culture and the paradigm of performance

· The uses of fandom: political activism, heritage, and tourism

· Fandom, the family, and / or the life cycle

Send proposals of up to 500 words in the first instance.

Contributions will be peer-reviewed for potential inclusion in the main section of the journal. Polemical papers will also be considered for inclusion in the Forum section. Indicate the name under which you would wish to be published, your professional/academic affiliations, a postal address, and preferred email contact.

Deadline for submission of proposals is October 31, 2011. We would hope to commission articles by December 31, 2011, and deadline for submission of the articles will be July 31, 2012.

Please email proposals to guest editor Mark Duffett at

Monday, June 6, 2011

Making Things Whole Again - Take That Reunion Events

My friends Anja Lobert and Dr Tim Wise were busy last week putting on a double-header exhibition and conference on Take That, designed to coincide with the band's triumphant home run of several reunion dates at the Manchester City football stadium.

For American readers who don't know them so well, Take That were a boyband from the North of England who had phenomenal success before splitting in 1996. In their heyday they had a string of chart-topping singles in the UK, but only one hit in the USA. After the break-up, all went their separate ways. The incomparable Robbie Williams went on to have a successful solo career. Gary Barlow became a credible singer-songwriter with a career in his own right. Some of the others - who were called Mark, Jason and Howard - released albums of their own. Then about four or five years ago they reformed as a four-piece without Robbie. Last year he rejoined for a carefully controlled reunion that extended the band's reach to encompass the quality press, giving the Take That reunion mass phenomenon status.

As might be imagined, the Making Things Whole Again conference was rife with discussions of fandom and gender, generational memory, and Take That's in-group masculine dramaturgy. My own contribution explored how we constantly frame boybands and their followers with four interlocking discourses - youth, exploitation, gender and fandom - that collectively function to allay anxieties about us loving music that is undeniably created for the process of commercial marketing. Even in the liberate age of social media, boybands still come in for a kind of mass culture critique.

Anja's exhibition, called Take That Fandom before the Internet is also fascinating. I never realized the extent to which she was a 1990s Take That fan herself. Held in the Northern Quarter, Anja's installation is based on her research contact with around 500 fans. What it shows is that the girls who loved Take That formed a living social culture. They sent each other penpal letters, traded stickers and candid photos of band members, and some made "FBs". Many of the girls would receive pen pal letters on a daily basis.

The "FB" (or "friendship book" to give it the full title) is a hand-made compilation of fans' addresses, circulated between enthusiasts. FBs were often just a few sheets of paper folded or stapled together. Yet they were chocked full of mini-appeals in felt-tip squiggles for girls seeking new pen pals - the one page or less ads frequently featured text-speak teen acronyms for things like which bandmember the girl liked and whether she would accept corresponds from other countries. FBs also contained pictures, doodles, stickers and the like. As Anja shows, there were three types: Slams (get-to-know-yous that feature repeated answers to the same set of questions), Crams (that cram in lots of addresses) and Decos (ornate, heavily decorated lists - in effect, homemade portable "shrines" to the band).

Beyond the FBs and their ephemeral culture of performed self-representation, the currency of the fan community included real life amateur photos of the boys in the band, taken by girls who waited by stage doors or followed them round the country. While presenting a less glossy image that Take That's publicity stills, in effect these candids offered a vicarious back-stage pass to anyone who wanted to see what the boys were like in ordinary life. For most girls, the photos were the only evidence that the Take That boys were "real" lads who goofed around off-duty. Sometimes the photos were also evidence that the pen pal you were corresponding with had actually met a band member and could claim to have got nearer and known about them. Girls would write "no copies" on the back of the pictures to stop others copying them into oblivion as the pictures circulated through the fan community. Take That Fandom before the Internet shows that the 1990s were an eventual, social time in the lives of adolescent female fans from different countries. Before the days of Facebook there was indeed a communicative, living culture of active, producerly Take That fans invigorated through their engagement with what might have appeared to be, on the face of it, the glossy yet glossed over end of teen pop culture.

Friday, May 27, 2011

All Watched Over By Machines - Adam Curtiz, BBC2 documentary

The televisual essayist and social documentarian and Adam Curtis has just slipped out another fascinating series on BBC2. If the first episode 'Love and Power' is anything to go by, it's going to be a great ride. Curtis has a knack of weaving together the big picture of history with the personal struggles of those who made it. To aid him he also infuses some subtle popular music cues, such as Kraftwerk, on the soundtrack.

In this episode Curtis explores Ayn Rand's role as the seismic catalyst to a wave of thinking that propelled the Republican notions of a society made up of independent "free" individuals. Inspired by Rand, Silicone Valley entrepreneurs led to a rush to promote new businesses on the back of a utopian vision of computer-based free market abundance. Yet their social dreams ignored the economic realities of unsound growth and over-reaching national debt. More personally, Curtiz contrasts Rand's unforgiving, Darwinian view of love with her own moribund love life and failed affair with the psychologist Nathaniel Branden. After he finished with her, apparently Rand angrily accused Branden of betrayal. At the end of her life, to her TV interviewer the supposedly loveless free marketeer repeated the cold, steely words of a ferociously self-willed Greek philosopher: "I will not die - it's the world that will end."

One of the most interesting points in the whole episode (7:30 in on the clip) is when we hear the disillusioned words of 1990s online poster Carmen Hermosillo. Her claims are even more prescient to the age of web 2.0 social media as they belie liberal notions of the active audience. We work for capital now, as Hermosillo made clear over a decade ago, even when we don't realize it:

It is fashionable to suggest that cyberspace is some island of the blessed where people are free to indulge their individuality. This is not true. I have seen many people spill out their emotions – their guts – online, and I did so my self until I began to see that I had commodified myself.

Commodification means that you turn something into a product that has a money value. In the nineteenth century, commodities were made in factories by workers, who were mostly exploited, but I created my interior thoughts as commodities for the corporations that owned the board that I was posting to, like Compuserve or AOL. That commodity was then sold on to other consumer entities as entertainment.

Cyberspace is a black hole. It absorbs energy and personality and then re-presents it as an emotional spectacle. It is done by businesses that commodify human interaction and emotion, and we are getting lost in the spectacle.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"I Have Admired You for Many Years": Fandom and the Performance of Identity

Why fans of different celebrities behave in such similar ways? The 1999 documentary feature film A Conversation with Gregory Peck contained footage of the classic screen icon’s retirement tour of America. For much of the film, Peck recounts tales from his working life as an actor to live audiences of his now-middle aged fans. One woman that came all the way from England finally manages to meet her Hollywood icon backstage. The result is a loving exchange that can be found at about 7:13 within the above Youtube clip...
  • Gregory Peck: Hello there. You came all the way from London for this evening, did you now?
  • Peck fan: Absolutely. I’m speechless – I don’t know quite what to say.
  • Gregory Peck: So tell me about yourself?
  • Peck fan: Well, I’ve admired you for many years. I wanted to see for myself whether you really are what you appear to be on screen.
  • Peck: Umm.
  • Peck fan: Tonight has proved to me that you are what you appear to be.
  • Gregory Peck (chuckling): Well I hope so. I hope it isn’t a put on for all these years.
  • Peck fan: No. That’s what I wanted to find out for myself. I thought, “The hell with it: I’m going to blow all my savings and I’m going to going to come here and see for myself what you are like.” And I’m so glad I did; it’s been the experience of a lifetime.
  • Gregory Peck (shaking hands): God bless you. Thank you for coming.
... What is evident from the conversation is how the power relation between star and fan eclipses to the fan’s other senses of personal and social identity for the specific purpose of the forwarding her role in the exchange.

While their encounter was obviously selected by the camera crew and chosen by the editor for inclusion, it is evidently more than the sort of shallow critique of fandom that might have been concocted by some media hack. The female fan is not young, crazy, screaming or hysterical. Uncharitable commentators might lament her "dumb enthusiasm" as evidence of a lack in her life, psychology or worldview. However, to approach this star-fan exchange like that is both disrespectful, reductionist and myopic. Nevertheless, Peck's British admirer is not quite the kind of "active audience" rescued by the last two decades of cultural study, at least from what we can see here. Although she may well pursue the various strategies, tactics and practices outline by Henry Jenkins et al, rather than "textual poaching" Gregory Peck's fan here is placing herself as a fan - colluding with her aging idol to get the most she can out of the encounter. She does not want to treat Peck on equal terms. She does not want to discuss the details of her life with him. Instead she wants to represent herself as a fan, to perform her identity in such a way that Peck acknowledges her fandom itself as form of dedication and commitment. In this sense Peck and his fan are colluding; sharing different sides of a unequal but consented social relationship to unlock its potential power.

As a fan, Peck's admirer's quest began in seeing something in his screen image (creativity, a fragment of an ideal identity, something that was innately for her) and has then gone on a mission to verify its reality. Of course her version of his screen image may be a unique personal construction. We do not know how differently or similar it is from that of other fans, or how her perspective on Peck's image compares to the ideas of Peck might hold about himself on screen. Indeed, while themes, perceptions and interpretations might be shared, Peck's image - like any other star image - is inherently unstable as shared social phenonemon.

Fan studies needs to start asking how we can theorize fandom as a set of power relations while recognizing the agency and humanity of all participants. While active audience theory has represented an advance in that area, there is still an undiscovered continent here, a territory marked out by the role-based collaborations between stars and their followers - collaborations that circulate the power of the stardom even as they reinforce its premise.

In the Shadow of Your Rattan Cane - On Modern Times (1936)

Here is your pop quiz challenge for the day... What have the following people got in common: Nat King Cole, his daughter Natalie, Rod Stewart, Barbara Streisand, Petula Clark, the late great Michael Jackson and cast of Glee? They all recorded a song that had its melody written as film sound track material by Charlie Chaplin. The heart-rendingly mawkish, bitter sweet 'Smile' gradually became an American songbook classic after Nat King Cole added his vocal to its 1954. Chaplin's feature film Modern Times had first appeared nearly two decades earlier, but it was not until the fifties that John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added their lyrics.

Modern Times itself is a classic of the modern era that found Chaplin in an ebullient mood, reprizing his role as the tragi-comic tramp for one last time and suffering at the hands of production line industry in the Great Depression. In some ways the film is a lacerating critique of modernity, with its breakneck pace, urban stress, poor working conditions and potential for accident and mental illness. Modernity, in Chaplin's day, evidently treated humanity with inhuman disrespect. The tramp waltzes through an industrial landscape and continually rejects its demands for responsibility and caution, only to fall victim to its soul-destroying consequences.

With his great and graceful slapstick art honed to its peak, Chaplin could remain in character as a mischievous child, a figure of anarchy in the midst of absurd automation (exemplified by the time-saving machine that finally goes beserk trying to feed him) and extreme poverty (the collapsing shack where he dines with his equally insane street urchin sweetheart). The couple are even punished for their dreams of conspicuous consumption. It's here that we can see the connection to Michael Jackson's image as a Peter Pan character whose tender heart highlights the injustices of modern, adult society.

In satirizing the worst of modern industrial capitalism from within, it is hardly surprizing that Chaplin was also a contested figure, a pop culture icon dismissed by the likes of Thedor Adorno for exemplifying how the culture industry had perverted the possibility of social critique. When Chaplin came to Paris in 1952 to promote his film Limelight, an angry Lettrist International leaflet announced:

"Because you’ve identified yourself with the weak... and the oppressed, to attack you has been to attack the weak and the oppressed - but in the shadow of your rattan cane some could already see the nightstick of a cop... but for us, the young and beautiful, the only answer to suffering is revolution... Go to sleep, you fascist insect... Go home Mister Chaplin."

Of course Chaplin's emotive spectacle did not start any mass revolution any more than the Lettrist's fulminating leaflet. Each form of critique was at the mercy of wider social currents that decided the fate of history. From a perspective that puts both in the past, I love the Lettrist's belligerent rhetoric almost as much as the tramp's graceful on-screen performance... I'm looking hard to see a night stick that history has slipped back behind the shadow of his rattan cane.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Marilyn: The Last Sessions

"I belonged to the Public and to the world, not because I was talented or even beautiful but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else." - Marilyn Monroe

Just when you think TV is dead as a medium, killed by the twin imperatives of cutting costs and maximizing profits, a drama or documentary comes along to make you think again. This month it was 'Marilyn: The Last Sessions' screened on More 4. The sessions in question where not conducted in a photographic or recording studio; they were psychotheraputic encounters.

I knew relatively little of the Marilyn myth before the programme (apart from that mushy Elton John song) and was impressed by its approach and production values. It painted a picture of a woman who blamed herself and never knew how to grow up. In the shadow of her absent father, and shamed by her sectioned mother, she had eternally deferred maturity in favour of the thrill of flash bulb glamour. The movies were no cure for her existential predicament, however, as they simply created a new skin - a celluloid image called 'Marilyn' not Norma Jeane - that acted as both a cloak and a trap. She liked to be reminded that she was desired in order to avoid the question of whether she was loved. Yer as time went on, Baker felt exploited and brutalized by her dependence on Hollywood (personified at one point in the shape of John Huston). She also felt in danger of being exposed by the words she spoke and the emotions she portrayed. Photographic modeling - where she did not have to speak, just be - offered her a sanctuary, a space she could control; as, in the end, did psychoanalysis. Norma Jeane Baker was a bookworm and she read Freud.

In Norma's voluptuous body - Marilyn's phenomenal film star body - men saw only what they wanted to see. Her husbands, it seems, perhaps saw an angel, then a little girl, and eventually a liability. They were not her missing father figure and could not cure her of a struggle with the dark side. While the documentary did not explore all of her theraputic journal, she actually re-entered the process with perhaps up to five people - supposedly including Freud's daughter Anna - none of whom could really help. And finally, made weary by her string of broken relationships, implicated as the troublesome mistress of both Kennedy brothers, and mired in her connections to the mob, she a death of ambiguous intent - an overdose. The overdose that started the sexual revolution. The pills that, quite by accident, ended the era of celluloid repression and pressaged the permissive society.

The Last Sessions documentary might productively be renamed 'Marilyn Unspooled' as it majors on the tapes that Baker made for and with her final psychoanalyst, Hollywood celebrity therapist Ralph S. Greenson. Revealing her private confessions to the devouring public, even a long time after death, oversteps the mark in some ways. The transcript material is made odder by having a grave male narrator read some of it. Nevertheless, a fascinating picture emerges of a therapist who became aggressive and crossed professional lines himself in his efforts not to be dragged down into Baker's existential vortex. Marilyn's unassuming, phenomenal sexual allure hid something behind the looks: a woman who struggled with herself all her life.

Baker came to trust Greenson as their sessions became more intimate, and gradually she unconscioulsy invited him to play the role of a father figure. In his desperation the therapist began using aggressive questioning techniques that sometimes persecuted, pointedly positioning Norma Jeane in the victim role that she had been trying so hard to escape, and to which she was now resigned... Climaxing in a corny analogy to film noir, the documentary asks - as if to reveal its own constructedness - whether pyschoanalysis helped to kill Norma Jeane Baker. Evidently, it didn't and perhaps couldn't have saved her, at last in its early 1960s incarnation. Evidently, too, Baker had a knack of choosing the wrong people to help her, as if to reinforce her own position as the bad seed who could never please absent parents.

What I liked about the documentary was its analogy between Baker's oedipal biography and the pieces on a chess board (her mother as black queen, etc). It was as if the game of psychoanalysis had become adversarial when the patient refused to be cured. In the final flourish of a grand stalemate, Norma Jeane Baker left the board and bequeathed us with Marilyn as the twentieth century's ultimate sex symbol, leaving her tapes as the residue of a final performance in which she reprized the role of an innocent betrayed.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Phonographic moments at the movies

Is it just me, or is everyone else noticing a frequent use in contemporary cinema of the act of placing vinyl records on players to signify a passion for music listening? The latest example of this (after the likes of Tarantino's Deathproof, Lynch's Inland Empire and other films) appears in the basic but well-crafted remake action flick The Mechanic, where Jason Stratham plays an emotionally remote hit man (who else?) called Arthur Bishop with a penchant for Schubert's 'Trio Number 2 in E-flat Major.' So precious is Bishop about his vinyl collection that he boobie traps his phonograph in an attempt to murder a rookie upstart who acquires his property. When the music plays, jets of (CGI) flame roar across Bishop's living room and shatter his windows. (That's a great result for Schubert, I'd say, in the same league as Jerry Lee Lewis!)

So why does vinyl come so heavily coded at the movies? I mean, how often do we see people slip in CDs, click on MP3s or even put on headphones. It is as if the phonograph has a key role in the representation of music at the very moment in which it is becoming a wholly defunct technology. There are, I would suggest, a few reasons for this:

1) Vinyl listening signifies obsessive musical passion nowadays. Apart from unfashionable late middle-agers (who - let's face it - are rarely portrayed as music listeners) it is only audiophiles, DJs and hardcore collectors who are interested in slipping on some wax. The warmness of the sound is also matched here to the idea that vinyl is the 'real thing': music in its authentic form - how it was made to be heard.

2) Placing a record on a turntable is just more visually interesting that pressing click on a mouse. It's a more physical practice, and there is scope for a series of close-ups: the vinyl landing on its platform, the needle as it is placed in the record, the slight click as it finds the groove, the pop and crackle, and then - ahhhh - the music.

3) Hollywood has gone phonographic, perhaps, because unlike MP3s, vinyl records signify both the past and visually segment the flow of time itself. Music is on vinyl is considered to be wrapped up with nostalgia: reiterated, sometimes socially practiced, evocative of the circularity of life, a passage of time passing as the spinning grooves hypnotically reach their centre, and that last glitch as the needle jumps its end point, stopped but not halted - as if the individual's life met its end and yet the world carried on. And on, and on, and on... click.

In Media Res: Popular Music

I like the on-the-fly nature of this particular scholarly outlet. Recently they did a week on Pop music. The themes were:

Monday February 7, 2011 – Ted Friedman (Georgia State University) presents: Tickling the Ivory Towers

Tuesday February 8, 2011 – Gavin Edwards (Rolling Stone) presents: Words, Words, Words

Wednesday February 9, 2011 – James Hannaham (Pratt Institute) presents: Hide Your Kids! Hide Your Wife! Hide Your Husband!

Thursday February 10, 2011 – Marc Weidenbaum ( presents: "…Or Other Visual Media"

Friday February 11, 2011 – Ivan Kreilkamp (Indiana University) presents: Free and Freer: Wikileaks and ViCKi LEEKX

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

In memory of Mick Karn (1958-2011)

Led by the memorable and uniquely fey David Sylvian, Japan were one of the most interesting art pop bands of the 1980s. Yesterday I learned that their bass player Mick Karn - the pink haired musician featured in the video here - had died of cancer about a month ago.

My first real encounter with Japan came shortly after their heyday, when the son of one of my mother's friends bequeathed us his record collection. I think my brothers grabbed some of it. I took a dubby UB40 12" (not great), a couple of Springsteen LPs and one by Japan. Their music was subtle, spacious, melancholic, adept; more than the inventive musical style, though, it was Japan's visual image which drew you in: they had an individualistic style and deformed the norms of gender in a kind of effortless, uber-casual fashion. They had a sheen, an attitude. Just like the weird arty people whose carefully coiffed barnets adorned the monthly cover of Face magazine (style bible of the 1980s), the members of Japan were at home looking strange. Us youngster listeners didn't fully understand that their glam leanings had a heritage stretching back to Bowie and Roxy Music. To us, Japan were Catford bohemians following a bizarre trajectory from the filthy streets of outer London to the blank spaces of some chic white art gallery, and onwards - at least in their own imagination - the other side of the artistic and geographic universe. They appeared at a time when a post-colonial fascination with oriental exoticism was starting to cut both ways in postpunk: Britain got acts like the Frank Chickens. Meanwhile Japan got... Japan... and liked them.

And in Japan - the group, not the country - despite the lead singer stealing his limelight, Mick Karn looked the weirdest of all. He never seemed quite as feminine, fey or pouty as David Sylvian; yet his androgyny was somehow as off edge as his musical and sartorial style. Karn is now recognized as one of the most creative multi-instrumentalists of his era, but I think his unique look was as much a part of his artistic stance as his music.

Perhaps because they worked with the distant legacy of prog rock, the thing with Japan was that they squarely considered themselves artists in the avant-garde tradition. Even when they did cover versions, the idea that ruled their thinking was that each piece of music had to register an unexplored emotion. The band's early sound was sometimes brash and more rocking. My own favourite there was the jarring ode to alienation, Adolescent Sex.

Later they morphed and mellowed into some kind of white geisha fantasy, but when Sylvian went solo he eschewed the androgynous blonde mop that had defined his bohemian look, ingratiously complaining that people hadn't seen past his image and heard his music for its own sound. By that time it was apparent that he had lost the spirit, because the wonderful thing about Japan previously was precisely how their image and music operated together to creatively compliment each other. It was as if (at least in terms of his cultural role) Sylvian became a less intriguing performer after he rejected the peroxide bottle and subtle gender posturings. Unlike, say, Flock of Seagulls - a band whose lead singer's gimmicky new romantic haircut was more memorable than his music - Japan had a creative sound. Nevertheless, I prefer to remember Sylvian as a tentantive blonde sporting a kind of Raffles gentleman's bow tie, sensitively hinting at a different world, one make acceptable by art, where the unusual was more normal. His artistic sophistication gave license to a play with gender that was itself a creative artistic practice.

Call me nostalgic, but however exotic or edgy today's bands try to be, I don't think that Japan's adroit wavelength is something that audiences can access from contemporary music. I think it relied on a personal, social and cultural innocence that is now gone forever, erased in the over-coded maelstrom of a global, commercial digital music scene. We seem to be in a more liberal yet less artistically meaningful space than in the 1980s, for better or worse.

Japan showed that the New Romantics were not all the same. One internet poster on Youtube recently commented on a Japan video, "I've just found these guys - were they anything like Duran Duran?" I think from my piece today, the resounding answer would be a no.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mark's posts on authenticity

Faking it (Lessons on authenticity from Orson Welle's 'F for Fake')

Phonographic moments(Why vinyl works on the big screen)

Mark's posts on age

DJ Mamy Rock (Growing old disgracefully?)

DJ Mamy Rock

Over the festive period, I was surprized that it was my parents who told me about the latest stirring in club culture: the sweet old lady who used to run the haberdashers store in my home town had reinvented herself as an electro-rock DJ! Of course I could hardly believe it, but check this out:

Ruth Flowers (aka DJ Mamy Rock) cleverly plays with our percepetions of age and popular music. She is not exactly a gimmick as she can actually DJ, create and release dance music, impress crowds with her live set, and tour internationally.

Instead of being a gimmick she is a professional DJ act based on a gimmick: the notion that such an old person can be a central part of a youth cultural scene.

Unlike the middle-aged hippies of European fringe culture she claims none of the cultural capital of a counter-cultural old-timer. Instead Mamy Rock is a commercial act, blindly innocent (as her Terminator shades suggest) of the culture of intoxicants that fuel her youthful audience. What we don't understand from all this is exactly how they see her. Young clubbers are giving her a serious listen, so does she indicate a refreshing lack of age-prejudice? What gives Flowers an experiential ticket into their world of youthful hedonism? Does her age not matter because she can really feel the music? ... Also, I wonder, how does her own peer group see her antics?

There are two stories of her emergence. In the one she tells, she gate-crashed a club night held for her grandson's birthday and just loved the music. In another version, she was a model who was put in DJ gear as a joke by a photographer, then made her into a business project by a clubland entrepreneur who spotted the picture. The distance between the romantic and industrial versions of her biography indicate the cultural work upon which her image rests.

While the DJ Mamy Rock phenomenon seems novel in clubland, one wonder whether elsewhere we haven't been here before. Often sporting elements of her combination of chains, shades and wild white hair, several disparate characters spring to mind: Andy Warhol, Phil Spector, Karl Largerfeld, Pete Waterman and, yes, Jimmy Saville. While it seems that style (and product) is what gives the aged their long-stay ticket as celebrities in the glamourous world of youth culture, what Mamy Rock has at the moment is a refreshing lack of a track record. She can therefore enjoy herself as an innocent abroad in the dirty world of electro: growing old, as some might say, disgracefully. This brings us on to a final stereotype that DJ Mamy Rock's image again negotiates with ease: that of the old rebel who stubbornly refuses to face those tranquil, twilight years.

It's an old person's world - expect a movie of Ruth's life story soon!

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