Archive for ‘music’

June 5, 2013

Carl Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste

I think I first heard of this book in an interview with Mark O’Connell, author of Epic Fail. Which makes sense because they’re both very personal meditations on how we interact with particular forms of art; almost interactive themselves in the way the reader (for values of The Reader equalling me) is implicated and forced to reexamine her own position. I really enjoyed it, anyway.

From this week’s column:


Among the most chilling final lines in English literature are those of George Orwell’s 1984. “But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.” It’s the ultimate negation of both free will and the self—the power (that of the state, in this case) to not just make people bend to one’s will, which only needs force, but to control what they love or hate.

In Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, Carl Wilson attempts a similar, sinister thought experiment—upon himself. Can he think himself into a position where he can love the music of Celine Dion? Dion is the sort of singer who shows up on “most annoying song” lists all the time; when an elevator full of strangers begins to play “My Heart Will Go On” we silently bond in our disgust. And yet this highly successful pop star must have fans; so who are they?

Wilson examines the context from which Dion’s music emerges and interviews fans for a fuller understanding of what there is in her music that draws them to it. But more importantly he asks questions about his own dislike of her music, the factors that form his aesthetic judgements, goes as far as re-examining the whole of the aesthetic framework within which he judges things. As a result Lets Talk About Love becomes a meditation on taste, and one that is both incisive and deeply personal.

Because these are personal questions, particularly to those of us who make artistic judgements for a living. We’ve (mostly) as a culture outgrown the notion that our aesthetic standards are completely objective and universal, that there exists some platonic ideal of good art. Yet we continue to write reviews and columns (like this one) that rely for their very existence upon the idea that such a thing as critical judgement can exist and can have meaning—that some things are ‘better’ art than other things.

But the personal nature of our tastes isn’t confined to professional critics. Our tastes are more malleable than many of us are comfortable admitting; they depend in large part on things like class, exposure, our peers. A column in this paper last week discussed the new Daft Punk album and the critical to-ing and fro-ing with which it had been greeted as people waited to work out what opinions they could be seen to have. This is a particularly visible example, but we live in a time when a new album is immediately available to us along with the hype leading up to it and the reviews that follow it. If our tastes, in music, movies, art, are one of the ways in which we signal who we are and what identities we wish to construct for ourselves, I don’t know if it’s possible in the twenty-first century to divorce personal taste from social dynamics. I don’t know if it ever was. Wilson’s discussion of taste here moves from Kant to Bourdieu to the trend of reclaiming and finding value in music that was dismissed by critics when it was first released.

Perhaps the sentimentality of “schmaltz”, as Wilson categorises Dion’s oeuvre, is its biggest strength and its critics’ biggest weakness: “isn’t it equally plausible that people uncomfortable with representations of vulnerability and tenderness have emotional problems?” Wilson is able to squeeze out a few tears during a Dion concert, but the most emotionally powerful moment in the book concerns the use of “My Heart Will Go On” in an episode of Gilmore Girls. It’s when Wilson is twice removed from the song (analysing its use in a programme that also comments on its use) and the reader thrice removed (we’re reading Wilson’s commentary on the show that also comments on the song) that for the twenty-first century writer and reader it has most meaning. And perhaps we finally love Celine Dion.


January 29, 2013

Simon Crump, My Elvis Blackout

Someone I know read last week’s column and complained I hadn’t said whether or not I liked the book in question. I should probably make that clearer next time. (I did like it, if by “like” you mean feel unsettled and not really enjoy it but admire it and think it worked).



As I read Simon Crump’s My Elvis Blackout, the internet was venting its excitement and anger over some of the revelations thrown up by Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey. The outrage over Armstrong is an indicator of how disappointing we find it when the people we look up to and idolise turn out to have feet of clay.

So how do you write about celebrities who are probably really awful people in real life? Crump’s solution – fictionalised accounts in which the celebrity in question commits crimes, acts of violence, and other grotesque acts. It’s as good an answer as any.

My Elvis Blackout has had an odd publication history; as Crump notes in the afterword it has, since its creation in 1998, been “a chapbook, a hardback, a trade paperback, a tee-shirt, a short film, a CD and even a band”. It was published in 2000, was out of print for many years, and has recently been reissued as an ebook by Galley Beggar Press. In the interim Crump published Neverland, a lurid, fictionalised account of Michael Jackson that, the author claims, was finished mere hours before the singer died and was probably a rather startling contrast to some of the fawning accounts of his life that followed.

In My Elvis Blackout Crump gives us a series of short stories (some are less than a page long) in which Elvis Presley is reimagined in a number of startling ways. He murders other celebrities, including Dame Barbara Cartland and “Lady in Red” singer Chris de Burgh – though de Burgh comes back as a zombie to complain. He stands up his high school girlfriend on the night of a dance, only to confess to her later that he has murdered a classmate and become obsessed with human hair. We hear of his adventures as a foetus, when he would escape his mother’s womb, dress in the poodle’s tartan coat and go shoplifting. Of the time he was drugged on a cooking show with hilarious results – until all those associated with the show were fired. Many of these stories are told in a matter-of-fact tone that is completely at odds with their subject matter. “It was pretty soon after the time when Elvis had been abducted by aliens and he was still very touchy about the whole topic of intergalactic space travel.” Or “convinced that Led Zeppelin had sabotaged his plane, Elvis was now on his way to teach them a lesson.”

Violence is a constant throughout the collection. Often it’s casual; out of nowhere a character’s throat will be slit or giant ants will eat the flesh off her. It is even tender; Angie Crumbaker describes the boyfriend who has just committed murder as “so handsome that my aching heart began to bleed”. Sometimes it is visceral, as when we read of cannibalistic rituals at Graceland, where “human entrails had formed a thick crust on the surface of the pool”. It’s never played for laughs, even when it could be. The abovementioned Led Zeppelin revenge plot goes terribly wrong, but it seems more to draw attention to its lack of humour than anything else.

As someone with only a mild interest in the musician, I often found names and associations that seemed vaguely familiar; such as a reference to Presley’s having to shave off his sideburns to enter the US army. This feels in some ways like a pre-internet book, pieced together from what scraps we do know about a celebrity. Crump says it was written in the mid-1990s, before the internet was quite as big a part of our lives as it is today.

But much of this, particularly what it obliquely says about celebrity culture, feels new and fresh. In his introduction to the book Jon McGregor tells an anecdote about another of this year’s “fallen” celebrities, Jimmy Savile, and his sexual harassment of a young woman who was subsequently fired for retaliating. “We used to think this was a funny story” he says, after a beat.


May 22, 2011

Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Rob Sitch, Molvanîa: A Land Untouched By Modern Dentistry

My Left of Cool piece this week was about the travel guide Molvanîa: A Land Untouched By Modern Dentistry.
Here is a famous citizen of Molvanîa:

And here is the column.


One of the many wonderful things that Youtube has given me over the years is “supersonic electronic”, a song about romance and interstellar travel by Zlad!. (Sample: “Hey love crusader, I want to be your space invader; for you I will descend the deepest moon crater”). At the end of the song Zlad! salutes his supposed homeland, Molvanîa. I was curious about this country and wished to find out more.

Molvanîa is the subject of a 2003 travel guide (of the Jetlag Travel Guides series), Molvanîa: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry. In this volume, experienced travellers like Philippe Miseree and Andy ‘The Animal’ Wilson explore the major cities of Molvanîa, providing prospective tourists with useful information regarding the hotels (equipped with spittoons and occasionally furniture), the cuisine (centred around pork fat, beetroot and garlic brandy) , and cultural activities (consisting in the main of pornography or peasants beating donkeys).

Located somewhere in central Europe, the country features some diverse geographical features. The Molvanîan Alps to the South, the Steppes to the East, the Great Central Valley (home to the capital city of Lutenblag) and the Western Plateau. It has a fascinating past. During its eventful history this small country has been invaded by Goths, Tatars, Turks, Huns, Balts, Lombards and militant Spanish nuns (the Romans were scared off by a description of Molvanîan women). In the 20th century, buoyed by liquorice and parsnip production, Molvanîa entered World War II on the side of the Germans. In the post-war period it came under Soviet control. That all changed with the fall of the Lutenblag Wall (due to shoddy construction) in 1982.

Molvanîa has had its share of great personalities. Djar Reumerten, the country’s most famous philosopher, is known for having proved conclusively that he did not exist. There is scientist Willjm Krejkzbec, a Nobel Prize near-winner whose “academic fame has been largely overshadowed by his much-publicised interest in sado-masochism (see ‘Museums’ section p106)”. Szlonko Busjbusj, the father of modern Molvanîa, reduced the alphabet by 33 letters, made wheelbarrows legal tender, and has a number of bridges, rivers, roads, and a communicable disease named after him. The country’s patron saint, St. Fyodor, is best known for drinking an entire vat of communion wine, and occasionally fasting for up to three hours.

Molvanîa is fictional; a hodge-podge of clichés and jokes about Eastern Europe. This is certainly not the first travelogue to focus on a fictional country. A notable predecessor is Malcolm Bradbury’s Why Come To Slaka?, purportedly written by the politburo for travellers to an imaginary soviet state (Slaka had previously been the setting for Bradbury’s novel Rates of Exchange). Bradbury’s travelogueis about satirising propaganda quite as much as it doesthe genre of travel writing. Molvanîa: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry is less ambitious, taking its format from the more easily recognisable travelogues with which we’re all familiar. Chapters on the major cities are divided into sections about transport, accommodation, dining, shopping and entertainment, and these are all subdivided into luxury, mid-range and budget options. The back flap carries a guide to the symbols used in the book, which include such markers as “Nudist camp” (symbolised by a pair of binoculars), and “Devil worship” (a pentacle) as well as more ordinary ones such as “entertainment” (a hangman) and “public toilet” (a lit cigarette). The last pages of the book also advertise other works in the series, such as Let’s Go Bongoswana, Viva San Sombrero! and Surviving Mustaschistan.

The book never seems sure what sort of humour it is aiming for. It careens wildly between hilariously earnest praise and snarky comment – the latter generally beating the reader over the head with its humour. The spoof titles above are an example of what’s wrong here: Surviving Mustaschistan? Was that really the best they could do? It’s things like this that keep Molvanîa: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry merely amusing instead of outright hilarious. The Zlad! song was better.


March 26, 2010

More F words

Earlier today Adam Roberts mentioned on twitter that he was at a primary school production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. He said that the school had chosen to change some of the lyrics in the Potiphar song – instead of inviting Joseph to “come and lie with me, love”, Potiphar’s wife now desired him to “come and have some tea, love”.

My own primary school changed the line to “come and BE with me love”, but did this merely by crossing out the word “lie” and substituting “be” on the sheets of lyrics. Amazingly, we caught on, but beyond a few giggles and some puzzlement there was nothing.

However, a year or so later I was in a choir doing Oliver! and whoever was in charge decided to modify the song “I’d do anything“. In the song (skip this bit if you know anything at all about musicals) the Artful Dodger is claiming that he would, in fact, do anything for Nancy, and she is giving him lists of specific tasks to see if this is the case. So at one point, she asks him if he would “Even fight my Bill?” to which he replies “What, fisticuffs?”

Unfortunately, whichever adult it was who decided this sort of thing thought that “fisticuffs” was not a word s/he wanted a bunch of kids to sing. I don’t know whether it was considered to be too difficult a word, whether the implication of violence was the problem (surely not) – but we were condemned to sing that line as “what? … *empty space, filled up by some la la laing*” for no discernable reason.

Result: for many years I thought that “fisticuffs” was a dirty word and have never been quite able to rid myself of the association.

Fisticuffs. Giggle.

February 10, 2010

"There are so many funny videos"

“…but why we laugh at them nobody knows”

It seems redundant to share a video asking you to check my blog…on my blog, but I have just realised that many people (otherwise well-informed in most areas of popular culture) still have not encountered the genius that is Wilbur Sargunaraj. And this must obviously be put right.

July 29, 2009

I am by no means a biased nixwilliams fangirl…

…but I think everyone should listen to this because it is hilarious.

April 13, 2009


The problem with reading books about people to whom books are important is that I’m tempted to drop everything I’d planned, and just read what they’re reading instead.

Hence, Persuasion. It’s been a couple of years. It’s still excellent.

Have some music instead.

February 26, 2009

PIOs and pride

My countrymen (or just the Indian media, possibly) generally make quite a fuss about people of Indian origin, whatever their official nationality may be, who Do Things and Get Famous abroad (except Bobby Jindal, of course; no one wants to claim him).
So why have we never appropriated this guy?

(This surge of musical nostalgia brought on by Queen Em)

September 21, 2008

What duck?

This + this + this?

= win.

June 22, 2008

What I’m listening to

…because Natalia wanted to know.
In no particular order,
Hold On, Hold On by Neko Case. This was the first song by her that I ever heard and I’m not sure if that’s partly why I like it so much.
Valerie by Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse. I suspect that I overplayed this in Calcutta and poor Supriya will wince when she sees it.
Closing Time by Leonard Cohen. Staple.
Heer by Sukhwinder Singh. A few years ago Sandeep Chowta released an album titled Mitti with a number of different singers on it. I don’t think I ever heard the whole album, but the few songs I did hear were really good. This was one of them. I’m now looking for the whole album. Chowta then went on to make the Mallika I Hate You song, for which he will be punished by vengeful gods.
Truce by The Dresden Dolls.
Death Song by Sigur Ros. This is something of a comfort song for me.
Succexy by Metric. I don’t know. The video is amusing.

And (a bonus song!) since last night when a friend made me think of it, the Kabhi Kabhi Aditi song from Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na. It makes me happy.
I tag Nobody.