Since my last New Years Eve song had a chorus of “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me”, I thought I’d go with a something a little more, well, upbeat. Hope you all have (or had) a fine end to the year.
[And yes, I wrote this in the afternoon and scheduled it for now. I'm hardly going to sit behind a computer when there's cider to be supped, am I?!]
Sensitive thugs, y’all need hugs
Since we’ve already discussed what a bunch of callow indie rockers can teach the rest of us about blogging tribalism, I wondered whether there were any other pop cultures which could explain our strange little ways.
A non-blogging friend of mine once asked “why do you bloggers seem to spend half your time attacking each other? I thought you started blogging because you had something constructive to offer.”
It was a good question for which I had no simple answer, so I decided to explain things by comparing the blog game to the rap game.
Because it’s an aggressive, proud and often quite vain genre, ‘beef‘ and rivalry between rappers is as old as hip hop itself.
There are two categories of beef. The first is basically a personal vendetta which snowballed out of a few slights (either real or imagined). For example, Tupac’s beef with Notorious BIG started because Shakur thought Biggie had tried to kill him.
But it’s also created by market forces. Feuding is the rap game’s equivalent of quantitative easing: if your sales are sloppy & your commercial stock is low, the best way of getting back into the game is by calling out another rapper. This is why the lowly (but fittingly titled) Game has spent half the year trying to get the better-selling Jay-Z to respond to his disses. If Jay responds, Game’s commercial stock soars. Always has, always will.
To show how this applies to the blogosphere, here’s a useful recent example. You can decide for yourself which category this particular beef falls into:
What you have here is a diss; an example of one
rapper blogger trash-talking somebody from another clique. To people from the same clique, this diss may be flippant or a little risque. However, to people from Rush Limbaugh’s clique, it’s a grave insult and enough to start a beef.
Soon the game was ablaze with recrimination. As with any rap beef, the frayed tempers produced a raft of daft accusations, from the mildly amusing (Lib Con has become ‘plain nasty’) to outright lies (“most days you can read bile rejoicing about the day Margaret Thatcher dies”). Unpleasant stuff, but it’s all necessary for the
rapper blogger to succeed in persuading his own clique that beef is necessary. Demonise your opponent, and all that.
Thankfully for Mr Dale, his plan had worked; his clique was down to ride:
So you see, for all our fancy words & hyperlinks, our blogwars really aren’t much more sophisticated than your average rap feud; we just use CAPS LOCK AND RIDICULOUSLY OVER THE TOP STATEMENTS instead of hip hop beats. It’s not enough to merely better our opponents in debate; we have to actively show them up and stoke antipathy. This is true of folks on both the left and right.
So how to resolve this particular conflict? Unlike a rap beef, we can’t send for Jessie Jackson & Louis Farrakhan to help cool the tempers, and just think how bad things will get when election year rolls around!
I have an idea. I suspect that much of Dale’s mischaracterisation of Liberal Conspiracy comes from the fact that – as he recently admitted – he doesn’t actually read it. Sure, he’ll read Sunny (despite saying he doesn’t), but that’s because Sunny is the goateed blogging boogeyman who stalks his dreams. And so all the analysis, news articles & wonkish thinkpieces on the site get ignored.
So the solution to this problem is really quite simple; just follow this advice that Jay-Z dished out to his own haters:
You ain’t feelin’ me? Fine. It costs you nothing; pay me no mind.
Given he’s mentioned Hundal in no less than 7 posts this month, that might be a hard habit to break. Still, it is a time for resolutions!
I’ve never been able to get worked up about class and its distinctions, but then I’ve never felt the conventional three-tier account of social divisions has much to do with the case. [...] My mother’s scheme of things admitted to much finer distinctions than were allowed by the sociologists. She’d talk about people being ‘better-class’, ‘well-off’, ‘nicely-spoken’, refined’, ‘educated’, ‘genuine’, ‘ordinary’ and – the ultimate condemnation – ‘common’.
In a happy coincidence, a few days after the Prime Minister uttered the jibe which started a class war, the BBC ran a repeat of Alan Bennett’s glorious Dinner at Noon. Part documentary, part voyeurism and part personal reminiscence, Bennett guides you around the stately surrounds of Harrogate’s Crown Hotel, eavesdrops on other people’s conversations, shares stories about his parents and muses about what place class has in contemporary society.
Made at the end of a decade marked by union-busting, industrial decline and emerging consumerism, Bennett uses the people-watching habits of his parents to demonstrate how our rigid definitions of class tell us little about the people wearing the labels. What he prefers to observe are manners, behaviours, embarrassments: “Not class, which I don’t like, but classes, types“.
His preference for thinking of people as ‘types’ rather than ‘classes’ reminded me of a family gathering I attended a few years ago. It was the funeral of a patriarch who was much loved, as evidenced by the fact that his passing had managed to draw a greater number of our extended, estranged family members than other functions of this sort.
The church was like a sweetshop of different ‘types’. You had the emotionally distraught, the jolly reminiscers, the tanned couple who’d just got back from Tenerife and ‘you know, we wouldn’t have come back if we’d had the choice’. There were the self-conscious mums who checked every 10 minutes that their husbands or children were dressed correctly, behaving appropriately & grieving at acceptable levels. You had the step-family who weren’t welcome but felt like they had to turn up, so fidgeted quietly at the back of the church, speaking only to themselves. You had the proud veteran who refused his war medals because ‘you shouldn’t be rewarded for doing your duty’, and the boisterous old busybody who flashed her own accomplishments (holiday in Corfu; new fitted kitchen) as tactlessly as youngsters flashing their bling. It was a church filled with hundreds of years of collective experience, dozens of unique, eccentric, exciting types, and if you could find one thing which united them all, it was that their social class had little importance. Because class really can have little importance. Well, sometimes.
The real solvent of class distinction is a proper measure of self-esteem, a kind of unselfconsciousness. Some people are at ease with themselves so the world is at ease with them. My parents thought this kind of ease was produced by education: ‘your Dad and me can’t mix; we’re not educated.’ They didn’t see that what disqualified them was temperament, just as, though educated to the hilt, it disqualifies me. What keeps us in our place is embarrassment.
A few months after that funeral took place, I moved down to Cambridge for my first term as an undergraduate. For someone who’d never lived away from home before and was completely unused to its customs & traditions, the first few months were an exhausting experience and a period for intense self-criticism. I always assumed I was at ease with my self; that I knew who I was, where I’d come from, how events and places and people had helped to shape me. I soon found out that not only was that just a flimsy edifice, but, like Alan Bennett, I was embarrassed by everything: my birthplace, my accent, the fact that most of my clothes were from Matalan, my schooling, parents & former school friends. I was embarrassed that people whose parents had spent tens of thousands of pounds on their education (and, unwillingly, on mine) were now sat next to a podgy northern dilettante who hadn’t a clue what to do with all these bloody knives & forks. I thought, this can’t have been what they paid their money for.
I felt like an imposter, and because I desperately wanted to belong there, I tried to fashion myself into what I thought was expected of a Cambridge student. I decided to dress like I was in The Strokes; tried flattening my accent; I ate out regularly and expensively; I over-compensated for my low cultural vocabulary by bingeing on records and books; I started getting drunk. I must’ve spent a whole year trying to escape my class.
Of course, when I realised that no amount of styling would fashion me into one of those well-spoken, confident Home Counties kids I used to envy from my smoke-filled corner of the college bar, I reacted violently against it. I started inventing reasons to dislike people: a love of rowing or rugby, a posh accent, a fondness for Cambridge’s antiquated little traditions, membership of the Conservative Party. I started acting like my background made me one of the few ‘authentic’ kids in a university teeming with pretence, entitlement, self-importance & sycophancy. First my embarrassment made me want to change myself; next it made me want to change everyone else.
Thankfully, each passing year brings with it just a little more experience and wisdom. Thanks to my many embarrassments (and the counsel of some quite wonderful friends), I did eventually reconcile the class-based insecurities of my background with the immense privilege that I had the fortune to enjoy. I realised that most of the public school kids weren’t quietly sneering at the commoner in their midst, and that people from very wealthy backgrounds could be just as prone to embarrassment & self-doubt as I was. I no longer had anything to be embarrassed about, either before the people back home who warned me not to ‘forget my roots’ or those whose roots were already sunk deep in privilege.
I suppose one of the purposes of coming to this hotel in Harrogate was an evangelical one: I wanted to find people who were as awkward as I used to be in these surroundings and show them it didn’t matter. Only I didn’t find them, and besides, quite sensibly, everybody seems to know that it doesn’t matter. I wanted to revive or relocate some of the embarrassments or awkwardness I felt when I was younger. I didn’t. I’m older, the world has changed, and maybe it’s the businessmen who’ve changed it. Class isn’t what it was; or nowadays perhaps people’s embarrassments are differently located.
Some will clumsily paint the wealthy as airheaded, workshy toffs or bankers as cash-gobbling spivs; some will generalise the working class as uncomplicated & honest or as crass, boorish chavs who rock in the hammock of the welfare state.
Those who prefer their data will seek empirical markers which indicate dividing lines between rich and poor. They’ll study education, inherited wealth and earned income and use those findings to determine where an individual lies in the social hierarchy.
Whilst there’s some populist utility in the stereotype and an analytic function to quantitative research, what these very different approaches have in common is that there’s no room for the vast breadth of difference. They can’t factor in all our strange little sayings, habits, accents, slang, likes, antipathies, old wives tales & folk legends which people from similar backgrounds often share.
That’s a shame, because it’s in these details & this difference where a most personal part of our identities resides. They can influence the way we look at the world or deal with problems, the way we relate to and interact with others, the types of work we choose, the types of hobbies we pursue and the different ways we seek to enjoy ourselves. These differences are also, in many cases, fixed. Many of our traits are inherited; bequeathed to us by the process of socialisation and impossible (no matter how hard I tried) to reject, disown or erase.
My advice to those who wish to exploit the seemingly self-serving aspects of Tory policy to promote a more progressive agenda is this: by all means, go ahead, but please take the language of class out of it. Our politicians will not possess the authenticity, subtlety, sensitivity, respect for difference or understand the deeply personal attachment that people have to their backgrounds. I don’t want to see a succession of well-heeled Labour cabinet ministers clumsily trying to ingratiate themselves with the ‘common man’ anymore than I want society slandered as ‘broken’ and working class communities rendered as stark, dystopic hinterlands populated by perverts & slobs.
But whilst I don’t particularly want to see politicians talking about class as a means of getting elected, I still think we should be prepared to talk about it. If Alan Bennett is right and ‘class isn’t what it was‘, then it seems that we’d all benefit from speaking candidly about what it is - only free from the firing squad of front-line politics. If our backgrounds have helped form our characters, beliefs and positions, then – providing it’s done in good faith – we should be open to making that a part of the conversation. It’s perhaps a sign of my own faith in politicians (or lack thereof) that I’d rather they stuck to arguing about policy.
“Not class, which I don’t like, but classes, types“.
There were two eulogies given at this funeral I referred to earlier. The first, delivered in an unmistakable Barnsley accent, described the deceased as ‘a smashing chap'; a loving father and husband who would ‘do anything for anyone’. The second was a theatrically-performed reading from Shakespeare’s Tempest.
Mingling around the wake afterwards, I overheard two elderly ladies discussing the passage.
“Well love, I must admit that a lot of it went right over my head”
“Yes, yes, there was a lot of old words in it, weren’t there?”
There was a brief silence, as if both ladies worried that they weren’t showing enough sympathy in a time of mourning.
“Ooh, but didn’t she read it beautifully though! And just look at this grand spread!”
Older & somewhat wiser, I know now that we can’t ever really escape our backgrounds. Better still, I don’t see any reason why we should try.
On Christmas Eve, a time ostensibly meant for peace & goodwill, the New York Times ran an epic op-ed arguing for military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear technology. Should you have the stomach to endure Alan Kuperman’s belch of war-baiting, you can go here; it’s some real ‘Deck The Halls’shit.
Because I’m not particularly interested in the substance of Kuperman’s argument (there are already some excellent rebuttals by the likes of Marc Lynch & Matt Duss), I’m instead going to note Stephen Walt’s reaction. For Walt, this is but the opening salvo of a concerted campaign to pressure President Obama into taking military action. He warns that opponents of this action should start refining their arguments now because the march for war may soon become a deafening din.
Now, Walt does occasionally overstate things, but it’s still true that for as long as the diplomatic wrangling continues, the media will continue to give space to those who’re keen to tell us what to bomb when (not if) it all fails. So I think it’s worth reflecting on what kind of shape our side of the debate is in, and to be honest, I think we could use some work.
There’s definitely a tendency to blithely assume that advocates for military action are just raving mad Bush-era leftovers who never stopped to acknowledge how their rabid war-mongering has diminished both America’s economic prosperity and its effectiveness as an international actor. Whilst that’s true in many cases, although the pro-bombing crowd has the weaker argument, it could still have the winning argument.
First, opponents of military action should acknowledge that the negotiations/sanctions tactic might fail & that Iran might succeed in developing a nuclear deterrent. When people like Kuperman accuse us of ‘appeasement’, it’s partly because we write as though negotiations will end the diplomatic stand-off. That could happen, but I’m not betting any money on it.
So we should write with the assumption that Iran could one day have a nuclear deterrent, and that even if that day came, bombing would remain a bad idea. To do this, there are four arguments: that a strike would have negative consequences for the US & its allies, that it would stoke massive instability in the region, and deal a damaging blow to whatever remains of the green revolution. The fourth argument is that Iran is a rational player in international politics, and that building a bomb doesn’t mean they will use it. That last one’s going to be the toughest for folks to accept.
If a country like Switzerland was in the process of building a bomb, there’d be few people flinching with fear. Sure, that’s partly because the Swiss are friendly, democratic & secular, but also because we assume they would adhere to the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction. In contrast, one of the consequences of 9/11 and the ensuing war on terror is that it’s left the impression that Muslim states, societies & citizens have such a reflex for martyrdom that the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction has no weight. If this were true, then being hit with a retaliatory nuke would be a glorious event for it would further the jihad and bring the Iranian dead closer to Allah.
If people believe that the Iranians are prepared to use a nuclear weapon against Israel – or anyone else – then they’ll be much more amenable to the idea of making the first strike. The way we win the public debate is by demonstrating that whilst Iran may have a vile regime, it’s not being led by suicidal lunatics. Sadly, I fear that might not be an easy argument to win.
His name is Frosty Bojangles, and yes, it reveals much about the maturity of my brother and I that we’re still making snowmen in our mid-twenties…
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you’ve already demonstrated such a heightened intellect and refined tastes that you probably don’t need a post from me to fluff your egos. But, since it’s the season for giving & all that…
Many thanks to anyone who’s stopped by here either regularly or by accident, left comments, made links or cross-posted my stuff to one of the more better-known outlets for lefty-liberal comment.
Hope you all have a fantastic Christmas (or whatever), and that 2010 brings nothing but Good Stuff.
I should still be posting bits & bobs here over the holiday, so feel free to come back even if you’ve overdone it on the sherry.
All the best,
I apologise for going all Geldof on you this Christmas, but I think it’s worth noting the anniversary of an event that’s led to some grim consequences in The Republic of Guinea.
Last year, Guinean President Lansana Conté died after a long illness. He’d held power since 1984, and whilst there wasn’t much of a democracy during that time, there was at least a procedure to ensure a succession and swift elections.
Moussa Dadis Camara had other ideas. Just hours after Conté’s death, army captain Camara went on state TV and announced a coup d’état. Fresh elections, he warned, would not be for at least two years, rather than the constitutionally-mandated 60 days.
On 28th September – the anniversary of the referendum which won Guinea its independence – supporters of the opposition filled a football stadium to demand Camara’s resignation. And all hell broke loose.
Security forces stormed into the stadium and fired on the crowd, leaving 157 dead and over a thousand injured. Now the UN’s report into the events seems to confirm many of the horror stories which were reported: Camara’s men went on the rampage, committing murder, rape and torture against people inside the stadium and nearby villages. The accounts [pdf] of these acts are heinous and gruesome, and the descriptions of sexual violence could turn even the strongest stomach.
The UN claims there is clear evidence of crimes against humanity, and has referred the case to the ICC. The report names three men as directly responsible for the violence: President Camara himself, his chief aide, Lt. Aboubacar Chérif Diakité, and a third officer who is in charge of the special services.
What complicated matters is that two of these suspects are rather indisposed: Camara is currently recovering from an assassination attempt after Diakité worried that he was being set up as the fall guy. All of this has led to yet more instability & violence, as observers warn that a power struggle between rival commanders could lead to a civil war which would destabilise the entire region. West African regional group ECOWAS – which suspended Guinea’s membership after Camara’s coup – is so concerned that it’s already called for foreign troops to prevent violence from escalating further.
Now, Guinea isn’t yet on the brink of civil war – it’s suffered instability even during President Conté’s reign and managed to recover – but the current power vacuum, the army’s rank indiscipline & the country’s parlous financial state all add up to the perfect conditions for conflict. Given this, the international community should be vigilant of the dangers in Guinea and take as many diplomatic steps as possible to encourage some measure of stability for its people.
They had also better move quickly – as last year’s events showed, they don’t stop to partake in much festive cheer.
Update: This video illustrates some of the violence that the UN went to investigate. I know that feminist blogs have a trigger warning when it comes to this sort of stuff, so I thought I’d better put that in there.
(Fat Cat; 2006)
The most distinctive thing about Nina Nastasia is her brevity. No fan of choruses, middle eights or instrumentals, most of her songs clock in at under three minutes. In lesser songwriters, this might suggest a lack of ideas, or show that her songs are underdeveloped. On the contrary, it’s the leanness of Nastasia’s compositions which lends them their power. In On Leaving, she will reel you in; sing you into silence and then cut off your supply. And she will repeat this trick on every single track.
Whilst that’s irritating on the first listen, it’s not long before you appreciate her grace, her discipline and the beautifully sparse soundscapes she fashioned with producer Steve Albini.
The biggest compliment you could pay a musician is to say you’ve never heard enough. In that respect, Nina Nastasia is beautifully cruel.
Key track: Treehouse Song
It might be this generation’s ‘Dusty in Memphis’. Before Chan Marshall released this gloriously tender, soulful piece of music, she was merely a beguiling but erratic singer whose shows could either be transcendent in their venue-shushing beauty or an awkward, rambly, intoxicated mess. As for her recorded output, it was telling that her previous best album was a selection of cover versions.
Quite what went right in Memphis may remain a secret, but The Greatest completely shattered expectations and provided Cat Power with the finest record of her career. It was an album where she departed from the brittle indie rock arrangements that had been her stock-in-trade and embraced the rich musical history of the south, teaming up with a cast of seasoned session musicians who added trumpets, organs, pedal steel and cello to her smoky-voiced reminisces. The songs themselves sung of dating game disappointments, her battles with alcoholism and that end-of-an-evening wistfulness you get when you go home to an empty house.
On The Greatest , Cat Power finally struck the perfect sound for her voice and developed a set of songs full of pathos, longing & ache. In a decade where many artists tried to update the blues for modern times, this record showed that its roots were still firmly lodged in the heart of the American South.
Key track: Lived in Bars
The Hold Steady
Boys & Girls In America
“There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right”, begins Craig Finn on the opening Stuck Between Stations; “boys & girls in America have such a sad time together”. The words were borrowed from another place and another time – Kerouac’s On The Road, to be precise – but the sentiment remains an evocative description of teenage drama & farce both in the United States and beyond.
They are also the words Finn uses as the theme which unifies each narrative of midwestern misadventure: the guy whose girlfriend’s gambling addiction is paying for her drug habit; the girl who’s gotten bored of her boyfriend & just wants to get high alone; the couple who meet whilst recovering in a festival’s chill-out tent. The stories are sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but never show anything less than the empathy of someone who has probably got many more where these came from.
Meanwhile, the music shamelessly pillages American rock’s storied history: there are Replacements -style guitar jams, E street piano riffs, key changes and sing-a-long choruses. In lesser hands it either be cynical or trite, but the enthusiasm this New York band puts into each perfomance (their live shows are a sensation) makes it sound both sincere and exciting.
Written when Finn was well into his thirties, Boys & Girls in America is not a soundtrack to youth, nor even an attempt to revisit it. Rather, it’s an attempt to recollect youth; to pick over what at the time may have felt momentous & dramatic and rewrite them with the benefit of experience as funny, farcical or sweetly romantic subplots to the long slog of life.
Key track: Stuck Between Stations
Let’s Get Out Of This Country
In some ways, Camera Obscura weren’t made for these times. At the decade’s end you can look at the likes of The Strokes, The White Stripes, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse & Death Cab For Cutie and conclude that indie could be a commercial as well as a critical success. Their songs appeared on adverts & film soundtracks, were multiplied millions of times over the internet and they even had some low level contact with celeb mag culture.
It’s worth remembering, though, how different things were at the start of the noughties. When Camera Obscura dropped first single Eighties Fan in 2001, the indie scene was still a marginal & cultish genre which – when compared to the commercial behemoths of Britney, Eminem & Limp Bizkit – must’ve looked like the pasty, sick-looking kid in the corner. When they first arrived, the Glaswegians made the kind of music which was increasingly unloved; their quaint, bookish & polite songs about dilemmas & embarrassments were sung with quiet, reserve and almost apology. It was the kind of stuff which was raved about in the fanzines that nobody read and the twee pop club nights that fewer people were attending. If indie was going mainstream, Camera Obscura looked set to remain on the margins.
But rather than being a secret shared by a devoted few, the band’s career was ascendent for the rest of the decade. On Let’s Get Out Of This Country the band threw off their twee pop comfort blanket & the constant Belle & Sebastian comparisons and produced a record rich in energy & musicality. The production values were dramatically scaled up, with Spector esque arrangements, boistrous brass and glistening strings, whilst Traceyanne Campbell’s voice and songwriting had become much more confident, ranging from sparse, wilting laments to country-tinged swooners and even a few high-tempo romps.
Ever fond of self-deprecation, the band’s previous record was called Underachievers Please Try Harder . When they took their own advice they produced one of the best pop albums of the decade.
Key track: If Looks Could Kill
(Kill Rock Stars; 2005)
The picaresque novel (Spanish: “picaresca”, from “pícaro”, for “rogue” or “rascal”) is a popular sub-genre of prose fiction which is usually satirical and depicts in realistic and often humorous detail the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his or her wits in a corrupt society.
There is no central character in this album. Not content to fixate on one anti-hero, Colin Meloy instead sings about a whole parade of malcontents: a ghostly barrowboy who just longs to by his love a fine robe; a writer who’s trying to rid a strayed lover from his thoughts; a sportsman who’s just been humiliated on the field and is haunted by the disappointment on his friends and family’s faces; a forbidden couple in a suicide pact.
No, instead of constructing a character for his audience to follow, Meloy invites the listener to become the picaro, venture through this richly imagined, vaudevillian world and meet all it’s varied, striking characters. Lyrically, there were few albums this decade which could match the imagination this Portland band’s third record, and it was made all the more impressive that Meloy was able to use such unique characters to speak of the more universal themes of embarrassment, sorrow, escape, revenge and love. Musically, it was all very melodic, enjoyable but unremarkable indie rock fare, but it was his skill as a storyteller which elevated his band far above the also-rans.
Key track: The Engine Driver
If you ever come across a problem that you can’t ‘get tough’ on, I’m afraid you’re probably not cut out for politics. If one thing has been drearily consistent in this breakneck decade, it’s the sense that the root of all our problems can be found in someone, somewhere being too ‘soft’ on something. If we really are in danger from all this softness, then the only possible solution is to replace it with something ‘tough’, and so our politicians have ‘got tough’ on crime, drugs, immigration, asylum seekers, benefit claimants and even bankers. Well, almost.
But whenever someone calls for politicians to ‘get tough’ on something, it’s usually followed by a doing word. For example, were I to run as an MP, I might promise to “get tough” on dumbing down in schools by making all 8-year-olds recite the Iliad in its original language. Or if I wanted to ‘get tough’ on drugs I might wish to punish offenders by making them spend an entire month in the company of someone who’s high on cocaine.
So ‘getting tough’ usually means a person has an idea of how it might be achieved. Unless you’re Luke Bozier, who spends over 400 words on LabourList positively shitting himself about the “new Iran N-bomb evidence” and worriedly asking when the West will wake up and – yes, you guessed it – ‘get tough’.
I highlight this not out of antipathy towards Bozier’s rather innocuous piece, but to demonstrate that Iran is one of those strange policy areas where people can get away with demanding action without offering any proposals for how our apparently ‘soft’ policy can be made tougher. In fact, because Bozier doesn’t demonstrate any evidence that he’s even considered the alternatives, I’ll have a go on his behalf.
There are, as far as I can see, three ways the West can deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The first is to negotiate a peaceful settlement wherein Iran is only able to ‘go nuclear’ for the purpose of heating the stoves in Tehran. This has been the policy since President Obama was inaugurated; it has seen its share of successes & setbacks and it may well end with Iran having a nuclear weapon.
The second possibility is to impose sanctions with the hope of either materially crippling Iran’s weapon-making capability or hoping that internal dissent would eventually topple the government. The problem with this is that you’ve got to get China and Russia to play along, and whilst the Kremlin’s stance on sanctions has softened, I wouldn’t expect them to agree to any sanctions regime which would satisfy the ‘get tough’ brigade. There’s also no guarantee that it’ll stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon anyway.
And so the third possibility is military action. This could conceivably stop Tehran’s ambitions once and for all, but would also serve to rally a previously disgusted public around its government. What’s more, we simply do not have the resources, will or public support for anything other than a few finger-crossing bombing raids based on the available intelligence. And how good was our intelligence in the last war of choice?
Critics of the current policy towards Iran are entirely free to characterise the Obama administration’s position as being one of quivering vacillation if that’s what they truly perceive. But by trying to frame this as an argument about what is ‘soft’ or ‘tough’ you give the impression that there are simple solutions and any repercussions of our new ‘toughness’ will only be felt by the Iranians. This is simply a fiction.
The truth is that there are no guaranteed ways of persuading a paranoid & cantankerous crank state that it has no need a nuclear deterrent, especially when it has spent most of the past decade feeling threated by countries with nukes of their own. ‘Getting tough’ isn’t a policy; it’s a slogan, and one wielded enthusiastically by those who’re either too timorous or entrenched to consider all points of view. That’s something we can do without.
Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
(New West; 2008)
At the start of Drive-By Truckers’ 7th album, its main songwriters are in two very different predicaments. On the first track, Patterson Hood plays a man surveying the end of a life cut short, and counting his richest blessings: the domestic bliss of having “two daughters and a beautiful wife.” In contrast to this gates-of-heaven contentment is the ever ramshackle Mike Cooley, who we find wrestling with a gas station condom machine in “Three Dimes Down “. The contrasting personas of Patterson & Cooley – one reflective & wistful, the other witty but self-destructive – have long given Drive-By Truckers records an extra depth and bite that has kept them interesting long after their peers ran out of things to say.
But it’s not just the lyrical content that’s kept the Truckers interesting throughout their prolific decade; they’ve gradually stripped away their more garagey origins and have embraced the sounds of Muscle Shoals. The result is a record which might have lost some of the raucusness of the past, but makes up for it with the ability to express a broader range of moods & emotions. With tracks as delicately precious as “Purgatory Line“, as mournfully angry as anti-war lament “The Home Front” and as straight-up vituperative as “That Man I Shot “, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark may not not quite be the Truckers’ best record, but it is their most complex, dense and musical.
Key track: A Ghost To Most
Night Falls Over Kortedala
(Secretly Canadian; 2007)
For an album about the strangeness of love, what I remember most is its showreels of odd, eccentric images: the Friday nights spent at a drive-in bingo in the Swedish countryside; taking your sister to the ocean and making a mess of giving her advice; being introduced to the parents of a lesbian friend as her ‘lover’, leaving ‘out of office’ auto replies to unwanted emails; falling in love with a girl running an underground hair salon; spending part of your adolescence refusing to speak to another soul.
With all this idiosyncracy, you’d think Jens Lekman’s second album would be too individual for the rest of us to relate to ; that his quirks, however charming, just bear no relation to the way many of us think or live. And yet at each stage in this splendid, joyous record, Lekman’s is an utterly compelling voice. Maybe it’s due to his jokes & self-deprecation. Maybe we identify with his child-like need to be loved. Maybe it’s because everything else on this record is so amplified – the orchestral arrangements, the doomed romanticism, the detours into fucking disco – that the lyrics seem tame in comparison.
Or maybe it’s because Lekman reaches for that part of his audience which is similarly eccentric. Whilst our own tales may not be quite as tragi-comic as anything crooned over these twelve tracks, we’ve all done daft things in pursuit of happiness, we’ve all overreacted to misunderstandings, we’ve all cringed in darkened pubs about the strange young men and women we are, or used to be.
By achieving all this, on Kortedala, Lekman manages to channel everyone from Bacharach & Brian Wilson to Morrissey & Stephin Merrit: forever a dreamer about the ideal of love, and forever a pessimist about the chances of achieving it.
Key track: Shirin
Lifted or The Story is in The Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground
(Saddle Creek; 2002)
There is petulance, pomposity, purple prose, a lack of perspective, vanity, self obsession, naivety, navel-gazing, bed-wetting & self-indulgence. Conor Oberst was that person once. So was I. So were a lot of us. Thankfully, that’s not all there is. There’s also romance, wonderfully imagined writing, honesty, hope, friendship, medication, defiance, a burning conscience and an open heart.
Lifted can veer between extremes. It can alienate in one listen & invigorate in the next. It is ambitious, epic and uneven; it contains moments of brilliantly mature songwriting and tracks where you just want to to tell the singer to grow up. But grow up he did, and by doing so in the most public way possible, he found admirers who might otherwise have dismissed him as as just an attention-seeking sob-smith.
Fractious, unstable and powerfully imperfect, Lifted may well be the most fitting testament to growing up in this mad new century.
Key track: Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love & To Be Loved)
Towards the end of his mostly abysmal Encore, Eminem boasts that he “spoke to a generation of angry teenagers whom if it wasn’t rap to bridge the gap maybe raised to be racist”. It’s a typically grandiose statement, but not without some truth to it: Marshall Mathers’ records sold to a demographic far wider than a rap audience, and there will have been many a teenager’s record collection which never included any rap music until ‘The Slim Shady LP’ dropped. If music can help introduce people to new sounds, worlds, words, cultures & attitudes, then perhaps he really did make a small contribution to racial harmony.
But if Mathers really did “break down barriers of language & races”, he didn’t do it nearly as dramatically as was heard on Bubba Sparxxx’s second album. By the time ‘Deliverance’ was released, Bubba had already been downgraded to a one hit wonder; his tune ‘Ugly’ was just a fond memory from the time when radio would play anything with a Timbaland beat. But the collaboration between Timbaland & his southern, white protege was better – and more inventive – than anything either had done previously.
Deliverance was a fusing of hip hop & country; a brew which merged Southern accents, fiddles, banjos & Skynrd guitar hooks with rapping and hip hop beats. It was an idea so brilliant you wonder why nobody had tried it before: Jimmy Mathis was an infectious hoedown which would’ve stormed any dancefloor, the title track was stirring & reflective & Coming Round managed to ruminate on themes of poverty & rural decay. Whilst Sparxxx wasn’t a particularly great rapper, he was still an interesting & compelling voice who seemed to take it upon himself to demonstrate why the ghettoes in East & West Coast rap really weren’t that far removed from the disrepair you could find in the small town southern states.
Before Deliverance , you could not find genres more different – and dismissive of each other – than hip hop and country. After Deliverance, you were left thinking they were symbiotic. Whilst Radiohead & Animal Collective may win the plaudits as this decade’s most inventive acts, nothing they have done could match the audacity of Deliverance .
Key track : Comin’ Round
Badly Drawn Boy
The Hour of the Bewilderbeast
(Twisted Nerve; 2000)
Whatever happened to Damon Gough? However did a man who won a Mercury Music Prize & produced one of the most inventive debuts of the noughties end the decade so creatively diminished that he’d been reduced to babbling drab Springsteen truisms and copying his old songs ?
For a brief moment, Gough’s versatility, subtle songwriting & rich arrangements had some of us excited that he might be Britain’s answer to Beck or Elliott Smith. His mastery of wistful folk & effervescent guitar pop, his DIY ethic and the glistening beauty of tracks like ‘The Shining’ and ‘Magic in the Air’ had us convinced that there were even better things to come.
Of course, that never came to pass, and each subsequent record has produced ever decreasing levels of joy. But however much of a creative ditch Damon Gough seems to have driven himself into, it shouldn’t detract from our enjoyment of Bewilderbeast as one of the best debut albums Britain produced this decade.
Key track: The Shining
The Undisputed Truth
Though he doubtless hates when writers bring it up, you can’t really talk about Brother Ali’s music without first mentioning the ways he’s unique. A blind, albino Muslim from Minnesota, Ali’s entire output has been shaped by the fact that he won’t fit in any of the little pigeonholes music journalists like to stuff artists into. Stridently anti-bling and about as far away from a gangsta as the rappers who like to play the part, Undisputed Truth finds Ali taking in everything from the mundane to the profound. Just his sheer enthusiasm inflates a rap about domestic bliss & assembling Ikea furniture (Ear to Ear) with almost as much joy as a gushing ode to his son (Faheem); his political tracks (Letter from the Government, Uncle Song Goddam) are fused with the fury of a street humanitarian and his description of the collapse of his first marriage (Walking Away) manages to be hurt, hopeful and honest, but never nasty. Of course, Ali’s identity and lyrical content would all be irrelevant if his rapping was poor or if he rode weak beats, but the combination of a disciplined delivery, multi-layered rhyme schemes and classy 70’s soul & funk samples mean that it’s never a toil to wade through. Never mind debating whether the best rapper alive is white or black; Undisputed Truth makes a strong case that the accolade belongs to someone who’s albino.
Key track: Take Me Home
The Dirty Three
She Has No Strings, Apollo
(Touch & Go; 2003)
One of the best gigs I’ve ever seen happened in a venue not fit for livestock, never mind humans. In 2003, the dank, humid squalour of the Camden Barfly was the setting for a sold-out secret gig by cherished Melbourne trio The Dirty Three. They’d been together for 10 years at that point, graduating from playing local pubs to being one of the premier artists in a genre which became known as ‘post-rock’. They were an absolute sensation live: Warren Ellis treated the violin as if it was sexier, more thrilling and glamourous than any guitar, and would flail and sway and thrash through each song with the zeal of a zealot. Or a madman. His between-song banter was legendary; full of mostly improvised stories about ‘real’-life events which related to the titles of their songs. If they were playing in your town, that really was the only gig in town. On She Has No Strings, Apollo, The Dirty Three were more restrained & polite, but the mix of violin, guitar and free jazz drumming still made for some achingly beautiful music. Ellis had a fondness for saying “you are never alone with The Dirty Three”, as though their music wasn’t an act of commerce – or even art – but of friendship. They were good friends to have.
Key track: No Stranger Than That
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
It bulges with riffs and melodies, mistakes and regrets. It insists on belligerence through the bad times and arm-flailing abandon through the good. It acknowledges character flaws, awkward moments and ill-fated embraces. It understands the routine defeats that make up life in the noughties, but encourages its listeners to make every day an act of defiance. Above all, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is the sound of a band empathising with its fan base, demanding they dance through the bad times and make the best of what they’ve got. That all makes for some awfully good rock & roll.
Key track: The Underdog
The Stage Names
“What gives this mess some grace unless it’s kicks, man? Unless it’s fiction? Unless it’s sweat or it’s songs?
That rhetorical question, shouted over driving guitar chords at the start of “Unless It’s Kicks”, actually epitomises this thrilling record better than any review ever could. On The Stage Names, Okkervil River manage to produce a dynamic rock & roll record which is also deeply literate; stitching together narratives about the treasures and tolls of toiling in a “mid-level band”. The hunger for attention, for love, for food and money and, yes, kicks is all narrated brilliantly, but propelled by a band which joyfully pilfers the best tricks of the American rock canon.
For all the allusions to theatre in the title, it’s a record which is far more influenced by movies than the more mannered, pondrous stage show; the words to A Hand To Take Hold Of The Scene or the incredibly clever Our Life Is Not A Movie (Or Maybe) could almost have been written by a cinematographer or screenwriter, so aware are they of the conventions, manipulations and roundabout truths of cinema. Narrating all these tales is Will Sheff, a man for whom singing doesn’t come easily: his voice is either a perpetually unsteady, off-key croon or a exorcising howl. But great rock music has never required great singers, and the fact that he has a fan in gravelly mumbler Lou Reed says a lot. In a decade where the worlds of literature & indie rock started to overlap, The Stage Names proved that you could make music which could be primal, urgent and thoughtful all at once. That’s a lot harder than it looks.
Key track: Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe
Letters From Sinners and Strangers
(Signature Sounds; 2007)
It’s a record which reaks of the past. From the antiquated song titles (Heartache Boulevard; High Shelf Booze) to the old time country arrangements, Eilen Jewell’s second album wouldn’t have sounded out of place purring out of a tinny AM radio in the early ’60s, just before America discovered The Beatles, Stones & Beach Boys, and pop was changed forever. But whilst styles can flit in & out of fashion, the themes which are mainstays of country music (despair, self-doubt, heartache) have permanent resonance, and Jewell’s respectful appropriation of sounds gone by means she broaches them with understatement rather than melodrama. Much of this is down to Jewell’s voice; her retrained, matter-of-fact delivery makes the heartbreak she sings of seem mundane, even routine. And therin lies its power.
Key Track: High Shelf Booze
Stars of the Lid
And Their Refinement of the Decline
Ambience is an acquired taste; there aren’t many of us who would buy an album full of synthetic drones and not feel ripped-off. Even for those who enjoy the mind-altering, mood-changing peace and delicacy of the genre, we couldn’t listen to it all the time. Everyone needs a varied diet, and sometimes you’d rather have a good singer, a funky beat or some crashing drums & violent guitars than sit through an hour of intense laptop twiddling.
But this is a record everyone should make time for. Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride have been sculpting beautiful sounds for some 15 years now, and this is probably their most gorgeous peace of work to date. Across its two CDs, fragments of sound drift in and out of view like a trail of slow-moving transit. The textures created are warm & serene, and the modified cellos, horns & violins all merge together to create a soothing blanket of sound. If this all sounds a bit like Music For Art Installations, you’re not wrong, but when played in the confines of a bedroom, it can be a glorious and strangely moving listen.
We Got It 4 Cheap (Vol 2)
At the start of the decade, Clipse were the darlings of rap. Their collaborations with The Neptunes had managed to merge high experimentalism with commercial appeal, and they’d even bagged a spot on Justin Timberlake’s first single. But then, as often happens, conflict arose with the record label, release dates kept getting knocked back and the group were consigned to semi-obscurity.
So Pusha-T and Malice went back to the mixtape circuit, enlisted Philadelphia rappers Ab-Liva and Sandman and produced a series of mixtapes as the ‘Re-Up Gang’. Like the other two volumes, We Got It 4 Cheap rode a bunch of well-known beats and featured Clipse’s tales about their former lives as drug dealers. It’s a lesson in how to produce a perfect mix-tape: the beat choices are excellent, the MCs are hungry to outdo each other on every verse and they often to a better job of the track they cover than the rapper who first had it. It’s a record by men whose time in major label wilderness had left them craving for respect, and by the time listeners had discovered this fierce, pulsating & unrelenting piece of work, their time in obscurity was well & truly over.
Key track: Hate it or Love it
Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
It’s a shame the term ‘overrated’ is used more as a criticism of a band or artist than of the ridiculous, overwhelming hype they attracted in the first place. The Monkeys’ debut was hardly a perfect record, and there were at least a dozen albums released that year which were superior. In that context, the fawning & sycophancy from the music press & broadsheet culture supplements was embarrassing.
But when you judge the album on its own merits and ignore the hyperbole it was lumbered with, Whatever People Say I Am remains an impressive achievement. Alex Turner’s tales of scumbags, riot vans, wannabe rockstars and dodgy bouncers are brilliantly told and his lyricism could shame songwriters twice his age. But although Turner’s sharp eye and keen ear are mentioned most often, one shouldn’t forget what made the Arctic Monkeys such an exciting, attention-grabbing listen in the first place: the presence of probably the best rhythm section a British band’s had since the Stone Roses. It’s not just the fidgeting guitar lines which make tracks like I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor or A Certain Romance, but the ferocious drumming and hyperactive bass lines. Distinctive, dynamic and determined to subvert all the media’s expectations, the Arctic Monkeys were one of the better things to happen to British music this decade.
Key track: When the Sun Goes Down
For a record preoccupied by thoughts of love & wilderness, it’s fitting that Neko Case’s voice is like a force of nature. A gloriously versatile instrument, she can shift from a gale-force holler to a seductive, sweetheart whisper – sometimes in the space of the same song.
Backed by some of the best musicians in alternative country/rock, Middle Cyclone is both Case’s strongest collection of songs and her best produced. There’s romance and heartbreak, longing and loss, and it’s all delivered by a singer who could blow the doors from their hinges. “This tornado loves you”, she teases at the start of the record. I’ve still not figured out whether it’s a chat-up line or a warning.
Key track: Don’t Forget Me
It’s the film soundtrack John Hughes never had. Although they vary in quality and style, each of the five records produced by this French dreampop duo have been heavy with romance, melodrama and zest for life. But never before had they so studiously emulated the giddy hormonal highs you’d find in the teen movies of the 1980’s.
Apparently in thrall to the aesthetic which Richard Kelly borrowed for Donnie Darko, Saturdays=Youth is a record which evokes all the right cliches of the American Youth Movie: the graduation ceremonies, forbidden parties, cheerleaders, quiet crushes, stolen kisses & long walks home through picket fence suburbia.
Whether or not those images were ever representative of American youth – either then or now – doesn’t really seem to matter. We have the music for their imagined lives, and if that spills into our own, less perfect, less glamorous existences, then so much the better.
Key track: Kim & Jessie
So where have I been for the past week or so? Submerged under a mountain of lesson plans, marking & university assignments? Restrained from blogging by the amount of tutoring I do?
Well yes, kinda like that. Except for this…
The more perceptive among you will remember me mentioning that before I wrote interminably long, over-caffeinated posts about politics, I used to write interminably long, over-caffeinated posts about popular music. Wasn’t too bad at it, either.
Anyway, I’ve recently had a craving to indulge that part of my writing, and since this is my only blog, I’m going to dump it here. What’s about to follow over the next couple of weeks is an assessment of what I think were the best 100 records I heard during the noughties. Each post will have a few paragraphs on five records, until we get to the top 10 or so, which I’ll try to write about in greater depth. No, I probably won’t finish this list before the end of the decade, but then I’ve never been particularly well organised.
If you’re reading this and thinking “but this is a politics blog! I wouldn’t go to a cobbler to buy a piece of beef, would I?” my response would be.. erm… sorry. I’ll try to split up the musical pontifications with a link dump every once in a while, but I could probably do with getting this out of my system.
Anyway, on with the list…
That Alex Turner recognised as a teenager what many political bloggers still can’t see in adulthood either speaks volumes about his eye for observation or says a lot about political bloggers’ lack of it. In ‘A Certain Romance’, Turner takes us on a tour through the bawdy, boozed-up bruisers of Sheffield’s pub scene: the ‘kids who like to scrap with pool cues in their hands’, and the fellas who, after a couple of cans, “think it’s alright to act like a dickhead.”
But it turns from an almighty whinge to a funny & true observation when he starts making excuses for his own overly-raucus mates. By doing so, Turner outs himself as a hypocrite, acknowledging that there’s probably someone else making the same snide jibes about his friends that he’d been making throughout the song.
For all our elegant words & pristine paragraphs, the political blogosphere is really just as rife with these affectations as some low-rent West Street Wetherspoons. Because politics arouses strong emotions, fierce loyalties & intense antipathies, many of us are guilty of deploring in our adversaries that which we might ignore in our allies.
I’ll wince at the overwrought rhetoric of Glenn Beck, but won’t mock Keith Olbermann when he has his own little melodramas. I’ll happily march a conservative’s factual errors around the blogosphere, but won’t be anywhere near as circumspect at fact-checking every standard-bearing leftie. These little omissions & hypocrisies are probably inseparable from our personal investment in certain parties, policies or ideologies; the most we can do is accept that they do exist, and try to curb our worst excesses.
Alternatively, you could try this brilliantly mischievous bit of writing:
I used to like Sunny. I always regarded him as someone you could do business with. Not any longer. His site, and his Twitter feed have become full of the bile and sheer nastiness that he pretends to deprecate.
Sunny’s crime was to call certain writers ‘fuckwits’ who push ‘global warming denialism’. Now, Iain can’t really complain about the ‘bile and sheer nastiness’ which is meant to be on display here: after all, he’s on good terms with a right wing pretend teddy bear, a right wing pretend devil and a right wing pretend terrorist. For all those bloggers’ virtues, Dale would at least have to admit that they’re occasionally, well, intemperate, and so complaining about strident language would look a little hypocritical.
So Dale opts for a more cunning line of attack: it’s not that Hundal is intemperate, it’s that he’s a hypocrite because he claims to be the font of fair-minded, Socratic debate.
But that’s actually a rather odd misrepresentation. For as long as I’ve read him, Hundal has always been a confrontational blogger. His archives are full of pieces arguing that fire should be fought with fire – or preferably napalm. At a time when Obama was trying to end (or at least diminish) ‘the culture wars’, Hundal was arguing for them to be stoked until they were won.
And yet Dale still characterises Sunny as a man who likes to prance barefoot through the internet like some self-styled blogging Ghandi. Seriously, you can tell that he doesn’t read Liberal Conspiracy often, ‘cos I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about.
Nor does the rather clichéd haw-hawing about LC being illiberal ring true to anyone who’s read it: the site frequently features liberal advocacy on any number of issues: education, immigration, criminal justice, voting reform, prisons, libel, foreign policy and drugs. It’s campaigned hard against ID cards, restrictions to womens’ reproductive rights and the government’s anti-terror detention policies. Are these not liberal? Or are they just convenient omissions that come from ignoring all those posts on actual policy?
Still, we should welcome his call for a proper, calm debate on climate change, and stand with him as he protests the cheap name-calling of people on the other side of the issue. As a show of good faith, Iain will hopefully be equally outspoken in condemning those who slime environmentalists as fanatics, ‘preaching climate change religion bollocks’, enviro-fascists, smug, sanctimonious and hysterical zealots. I hope he’ll also point out that those who describe climate change as ‘today’s religion of choice for the left’ are not really doing much to encourage that ‘proper, calm debate’ he longs for.
I would dearly love for that to happen. Alas, I suspect he’ll find that – in the words of Alex Turner – he “just cannot get angry in the same way”.