Monday, October 28, 2013

Indie in crisis: have all the innovators gone metal?

An aside on metal from Simon Reynolds in Totally Wired: Post-punk Interviews and Overviews.
In some ways, if you can see an inheritor of post-punk's confidence in speaking out and shouting down power and the effectiveness of words, it's heavy metal. Which is not genealogically or genre-ologically part of the punk/post-punk/alt-rock lineage at all. 
Maybe a few genes have drifted over from Goth or industrial, but historically there's really hardly any link. As was mentioned before, metal was the enemy, as far as post-punkers were concerned. 
But now, through its own evolution through thrash and death and black metal, it's reached a place where much of what characterised post-punk - the darkness, the dread, the wordiness - can be found in its vital contemporary form only in the metal underground.
You'll also find there that whole set of ideals to do with musical progression and fusing different styles together. Extreme metal is totally committed to ideas on innovation and genre-splicing

Interesting in light of yesterday's reflections on the NME's top 500 albums of all time. Is modern day indie is so locked into resurrecting the the past that - individual auteurs aside - the innovators, those holding up a mirror to modern life have largely moved on, whether that's metal, hip hop, electronic music or elsewhere?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A wasteland of curators: the NME's top 500 albums and the problem with indie

I know, it's a little unfair to judge the NME's best 500 albums of all time on its Top 10. The full list is a lot more eclectic.* 

And I appreciate the Top 10 will represent an aggregation of music writers' opinion en bloc, rather than what any one of us might individually consider to be truly great albums. Passions are individual, taste is collective.

But if these ten records are the cream of the canon - the set musical texts for indie rock - then we have a few problems.

1. The Smiths - The Queen Is Dead
2. The Beatles - Revolver
3. David Bowie - Hunky Dory
4. The Strokes - This Is It
5. The Velvet Underground & Nico - The Velvet Underground & Nico
6. Pulp - Different Class
7. The Stone Roses - The Stone Roses
8. Pixies - Doolittle
9. The Beatles - The Beatles (White Album)
10. Oasis - Definitely Maybe

The obvious point to begin with is that this top ten are pretty male, pale and stale. For every nine men in the bands, I make it roughly one woman, for example. While the Top 20 is marginally more diverse - bringing in Patti Smith, PJ Harvey and Public Enemy, these are all well-established exceptions to the rule. 

And only one album here was released after 2000 - if The Strokes have made the best album of the twenty-first century then I'll eat my flat cap.

To make these points is not to argue for a quota system. Yet they begin to show how narrow the doors to classic status have become for a magazine like the NME. Or, if you like, indie-rock as a whole. And this mono-culture is symptomatic of a broader lack of ambition and narrowness of taste that the choice of albums displays. 

When the Beatles and the Velvet Underground are as experimental as your Top 10 gets, then you know you've got serious ancestor-worship problems. Especially when another three of your slots are taken up with late 80's and early 90's variations of the Fab Four and NY art-punk templates (hello Oasis, The Strokes and The Stone Roses), you're talking about a very narrow canon indeed.

And if Bowie, Pulp and the Roses are as close as this records get to soul and electronic music, it's fair to ask whether this list is afraid of dancing as it seems to be.

If you think I'm calling this a bad list - you're missing my point. I love Hunky Dory, Revolver and the first VU record. I might feel they picked the wrong Smiths record, and that the Pixies are a trifle overrated, but they're good picks from the 80's underground, allowing for the nature of lists.

What the problem really is here is that the NME is advancing the kind of terrible orthodoxy I'd expect from guilty-pleasure 'old man magazines' like Uncut and Mojo. 

Indie or whatever you want to call it has long risked becoming fundamentally backward-looking - a wasteland of curators - mostly white, male, middle-class - who prize recreating the past over experimentation, style and seeming over personal truth (See Simon Reynolds' excellent Retromania for more on this). Lists like this do nothing to correct the impression of ossification.

* Although: no Stereolab ?!? Seriously? 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Polyester poly

Many are those who come to our town who come to be apprenticed in the dark arts of MAN. MADE. FIBRES.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Local groups, capacity-building and the smartphone analogy

About a month ago I switched mobile phones under some duress to a Nokia 520. It has the traditional virtues of a Nokia - durability and great battery life - but it also has a gorgeous, colourful and above all intuitive user interface. 

Good design makes a device easy and effective to use. But it's still down to the user (plus attendant tech support) to get the most of a piece of kit.

Me, I've downloaded some apps - Twitter, rail enquiries, The Guardian, Foursquare, finally and reluctantly Facebook - but I've tried to keep it simple. To respect the fact that my attention is finite and there's only so many ways I can divide it.

So, what does all of this have to do with capacity-building and local campaign groups? 

Answer: good design + support + empowered user = awesome. Doesn't matter whether you're talking about tech or social change.

Cue Swiss Toni segue.

Step 1 - we give you the phone

Friends of the Earth local groups all come - more or less - with the same basic design and operating system straight outta the Partnership Agreement and the Local Group Handbook, not to mention long years of oral and written tradition.

Making sure all of that is up to date and - kaizen, y'know - is a whole lot of behind the scenes work you don't always see. But it's the foundation of what makes your basic Friends of the Earth group a top-notch, intuitive (hopefully also colourful and gorgeous) change-making device.

Step 2 - we show you how to use the phone

Of course, if we've got the design right, there will be people who don't even need to RTFM but just get cracking - probably coming up with uses for a phone local group we haven't even imagined.

This is why people worship at the altar of Apple. And this is why whatever you think of the strategy the initiation process in Transition is so beautiful it sometimes makes me want to weep.

But most people (myself included) need advice and support to use to its full potential the extraordinary social machine that is a local group. Not so much to tell you what to do as to show you how it works. On a good day, being the small-group equivalent of Geek Squad is what most of my job actually consists of.

That's also why one of the basic principles behind our new Campaign Organisers programme is teach the methodology. We don't really care exactly what you do with your local group, we just want to make sure it can help you achieve wonderful things with it.

Putting smart(phone) theory into practice.

Step 3 - you sort your apps out

Sooner or later, your group is going to want to do more than make calls, text their mums and send their mates artfully posed selfies. And they're gonna need apps for all of that.

Campaigns. Film screenings. Local issues. Parties. Global problems. Council consultations. Publicity stunts. Call 'em what you want - they're all activities groups choose or don't choose to do. And there are as many possibilities as there are apps in the Store, which explains while local groups represent so many different permutations on a basic model.

And just like apps, campaigning and organizing is a meritocracy. People develop and share their own ideas from every quarter and, y'know what, the good ones get used. 

And us? We support and facilitate that choice, giving the best a boost as well as developing our own ideas in house.

Does your local group have too many apps? 

Of course, it is possible to download so many apps that you lose sight of what your phone is actually for. It can allow you to watch the final scores while your brother is getting married (or even while you're getting married) but at the core it's meant to be a social device, not an anti-social one.

And so it is with local groups - we risk having so many campaigns, issues or activities you're committed to that we neglect to pay attention to the social ecology of the group. Such groups burn out; reduce the number of meetings; become more of a closed circle, harder for newcomers to enter.

Alternatively, does your group have the equivalent of a Gangnam Style ringtone? Something which actively deters people from listening and getting on board?

If so, don't worry: you can delete apps. Play Angry Birds less, phone more. You can stop doing things which don't help your group, and just because you used to do something doesn't mean you still have to do it

You can simplify, focus on the basic design again, receive help and support. You can get back to the group itself.

Metaphor ends

Thought for the day: the unperformed life is not worth living

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Chalk is cheap

My town: so polite the graffiti washes away in the rain.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

May young art prevail: Dylan Maconis' Bite Me!

The great thing about early works is that they contain so many possibilities. There's always another idea, another conversational riff, another fruitful aside dropped in until the piece can be fit to bursting. They make up in pizzazz what they may want for in focus and discipline.

And so it is with Bite Me! - a graphic novel begun while still in school by Eisner nominee Dylan Maconis, available to read online and buy here

It's so good, you'll have trouble crediting she produced it so young were it not for the energy.

A piece of screwball comedy with vampires set during the French revolution, Bite Me! is a pile up of le snark, sight gags and physical comedy, poking fun at Anne Rice and A Tale Of Two Cities alike. The gag-per-panel (never mind per page) ratio is ultra, ultra-high and while the story threatens to overturn at the corners it always keeps going on a crest of relentless momentum.

It also manages not one but two strong women protagonists, with Clare, the (anti-) heroine coming along like an undead Katherine Hepburn in a tricolour cockade.

The comic's got great art, kinetic, characterful and at the service of the story. And, if you want to check out how good Maconis has got since check out Family Man (a prequel of sorts to Bite Me with added gravitas) or her short Outfoxed

Bite Me! is a joyful potlatch of excessive inspiration. Long may young art prevail. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

If you were in my movie: Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town

Warning, here be mild spoilers!

We first world narcissists sometimes see ourselves as protagonists in our own narrative. But what if all of this [waves hands to indicate your immediate surroundings, your street, your neighbourhood] was someone else's trip?

Someone comes to town, someone leaves town (available free on author Cory Doctorow's website here) is a haunting book and something of a departure from anything else I've read by Doctorow. 

It takes his usual tech-fetishising milieu, not a million miles away from Douglas Coupland and latter day William Gibson, and adds a dollop of magic realism to create something very strange indeed.

Alan, the lead character and a silver tongued silver fox of a businessman, moves into a bohemian Toronto neighbourhood to write. He falls in with his neighbours, gets involved in their problems as well as a scheme to cover the whole city in free wi-fi, while at the same time confronting approaching nemesis in the form of his symbolic nightmare of a family.

Which includes, for the record, a mummified psychopath, a precognitive, a set of nested Matrioshka doll triplets and a desert island.


Alan appears the outwardly well-adjusted member of his family - the only one to have escaped their backwoods home and to have made a success of himself among 'normal' humans. Yet over the course of the novel, the suspicion grows among the reader that he is the biggest monster of the brood, albeit a relatively benign one.

Indeed, Someone comes to town... achieves the rare feat - especially in SF and fantasy - of creating villains whose motives you can not only understand but even to some extent sympathise with. Doctorow achieves this by casting them as Van Helsings, some of them fratricidal. 

For Alan's power - not spelled out but with given with increasingly strong hints over the course of the book - is to bend reality to his will, to draw other people into his own narratives of business success, of community, even of love, in order to further his interests and ultimately to protect himself. 

Did he even cast his family in roles - killer, seer, symbiote - that they have become trapped in when he abandoned them? Do they need to kill him in order to be free?

Someone comes to town... therefore functions a sidelong comment on how the writer (in the broadest sense of the word) risks power-play, imposing roles and characterisation on their objects of their attention. We all do this to some extent, especially in the family, that crucible of character, but the truly fascinating and dangerous people are those who coerce you into accepting your role in their story, their definition of who you are.

Many political narratives - especially but not only the authoritarian ones - are at bottom about setting limits on definition. Think, to give but one contemporary example, of the struggle to narrow or broaden ideas of what is acceptably American behaviour?

But Someone... also shows how writing can articulate and create a voluntarily shared vision - Alexander Pope's 'what oft was felt but ne'er so well expressed', if you like. To take our example here from the novel, the free wi-fi project is someone else's vision, but Alan gives it a voice, acts as its midwife, inspires others to jump on board. 

Like a cloud of anomie you can't shake, the book has followed me over the weeks since I put it down. With Arthur Lee, it asks you if you like the part you're playing in your own life, and softly asks you whether you need to accept it. 

We have the freedom to choose our own narratives as well as the freedom to share the narratives offered by others, gaining strength and inspiration. We should both of them to their full potential. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

You don't whisper 'fire" in a burning building: Prisoners and its Guantanamo problem

Warning - spoilers ahead.

Here's a curiosity: a film which can't decide if it wants to be an Guantanamo allegory or a police procedural and ends up falling between two stools.

The set-up for Prisoners is simple -  Hugh Jackman's dour survivalist Dover kidnaps the man he believes kidnapped his daughter and tortures him to reveal their location. Meanwhile, Jake Gyllenhaal's detective Loki employs more (moral? effective?) conventional means in his attempt to track the real culprit down.

The film is an interesting genre piece, if a little unrelentingly grim, but its frustrating to see it undercut its promise in two ways, both connected. 

First , it fails to make Gyllenhaal's Loki one of equal force to Jackman's tormented family man. He's a cypher with tattoos, a problem solving device on legs. The viewer knows practically nothing about him save for his job.

Indeed, throughout the film his character makes no claim for either the emotional heart of the film or for its moral compass. In this absence, Dover - fully realised and presented with grit by Jackman - makes an unanswered and undeserved case for both.

This would only be a narrative problem, were it not for the second flaw in Prisoners. It places the Guantanamo metaphor on the board - Jackman's captive is chained and hooded, wears a white T-shirt stained orange by bloodshed, is kept in a box away from sunlight - and then fails to do anything interesting with it. 

This is at least in part because the underwritten Loki, cannot, will not articulate the moral dilemma at the heart of the film by giving it the confrontation - physical, verbal, even metaphorical - it is crying out for. The torturer gets an ambiguous comeuppance, but any case for the rule of law is left unsaid.
To be fair, if Prisoners had confronted the issue more overtly - had put words into the mouths of its leads which framed the debate more clearly - its doubtful it would have got through the studio system. Yet a film which sought to tell truth to power would have been a braver, smarter and better film - and not necessarily a more didactic one - that the one we ended up with.

Sometimes it's the role of art to shout fire in a burning building. But Prisoners just whispers.