Sunday, 28 June 2015

The Bygone World of Britpop

2015 is turning out to be a big year for anniversaries. The one most in my mind on January 1st was Back to the Future Part II, which was set in 1985 and 2015 (and I feel it's a shame I'm not visiting Vietnam this year to commemorate that poster in the background of one of the shots).

But more recently I read something that reminded me of a more personal anniversary. 2015 marks two decades since the apex of the Britpop movement of music, which was so important to me as a teenager. December 26th will also mark the twentieth anniversary of my first time stepping on British soil (at least outside Heathrow), which was accompanied by a frenetic CD-buying expedition to pick up the exciting new albums by Blur (The Great Escape), Pulp (Different Class) and... er... Menswear. Guess they can't all be winners.

So when I realized that, I decided to reread The Last Party, John Harris's account of the Britpop years, informed by his own experiences in the thick of it, when he was a music journalist. But the interesting thing is, as I read, it occurred to me that not only was I reading a chronicle of a bygone time, I was also reading an artifact of that bygone time's last gasp.

I got the book in 2004, toward the end of my first stint living in Britain. Despite the fact that we were then almost a decade removed from Britpop's glory years, it didn't feel like 1995 was that remote. For a couple of years, for instance, I'd revived the old Blur v Oasis debate with my flatmate Ian, who claimed to be northern (despite being from Telford, in the Midlands), so he was an Oasis partisan. My next flatmate, Dave, was a few years older and had the original LP singles off Suede's first album, which I remember handling with the due reverence the one time he brought them out to show off.

More importantly, 2004 was before YouTube and Facebook, and before iTunes had effectively killed physical music sales and the album as artistic statement. As such, it was also the year I bought the most CDs I've ever bought before or since - 48, to be precise. I once held the lofty ambition of averaging a new CD each week, but I don't think I ever achieved it. More to the point, I spent 2014 (and all of 2015 so far) without buying any new music, so it's unlikely I ever will hit that magical number of 52.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that 2004 had more in common with 1995 than it does with 2015. Listening to Radio One on Sunday mornings with the paper, poring over the Observer Music Monthly's list of the 100 best British albums of all time, seeking out those British albums whenever I went to Camden Town or Oxford Street... these are all activities that I had long ceased to participate in by the time my second stint in Britain came to an end two years ago (although I do still have a look at that Observer list from time to time).

The way The Last Party talks about the music industry, it's clear that those dynamics were effectively still valid - guitar bands could still storm the charts, and it mattered when they released an album, rather than a bunch of singles. And it was possible for mainstream British culture (which I guess means white people) to coalesce around this shared musical heritage that drew on familiar sources like the Beatles and the Kinks and the Rolling Stones.

In fact, 2004 and 2005 were effectively the second wave of Britpop, when a bunch of bands (eg Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party, the Futureheads) drew inspiration from the likes of Blur and Pulp to once again emphasize the importance of Britishness in their music.

Now it's hard to see anything like that happening again. I mentioned in that previous blog that most of those bands from 2004-05 failed to live up to early promise. At the same time, the indie network that made possible the rise from nowhere of Blur and Oasis is long gone - and nobody's willing to throw stupid money at guitar bands because there isn't any money left to throw.

What's equally disappointing is that even if such bands could break through, there are no places for someone like me to encounter them, at least here on the West Coast. I first heard Pulp's single Underwear on Live 105's Import Cafe, and sat wide-eyed watching MTV videos of Common People and Blur's Country House. Now Live 105's new music is all shoved into the Sunday evening ghetto, and MTV realized long ago that nobody watches music videos.

Britain is also, I think, a very different country than it was eleven years ago. Back then you could talk about Suede's inspirations, which were the crumbling parts of the country ignored by over a decade of Thatcherism, and people knew what you were talking about. Now Britain's back in the hands of the Tories, and will be for at least another five years, and those old politics are coming back. It may be more inclusive of people of color or of the LGBTQ community, but Maggie Thatcher's spiteful treatment of the poor is back with a vengeance, thanks to David Cameron and George Osborne's austerity politics.

The difference between now and the 80s, though, is that 30 years ago there was a welfare system that budding musicians could sign onto. Without glorifying dole culture, it is worth noting that a lot of the music that came out in the 90s had passed through life on welfare - these were effectively marginalized people. Now it's hard to see where the next Pulp or Oasis will come from - the next version of Blur should be okay, because they represented a very middle class type of Britishness that was the opposite, in many ways, of the bands from the north.

But who knows - maybe in a couple of years another Labour leader will come along who, like Tony Blair, headed up a band in college. And if he or she draws from this decade's dubstep, rather than guitar-based music, maybe it'll be the key to breaking British music out of its current doldrums.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Charleston: Take it Down

John Stewart may have gotten the most attention for his monologue the day of the shooting at AME Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, this week, but his colleague Larry Wilmore, on the Nightly Show, had the best response:

Going straight after the limp-wristed and offensive coverage from Fox, in which they tried to spin it as an attack on Christians rather than on African-Americans, Wilmore put together a panel to try and make sense of the killer's motives and of why it seems to be so hard for the American right to take responsibility for its extremist wing.

The main thing, of course, is the fact that the Confederate Flag still flies over South Carolina and other parts of the South - the same flag (along with that of Rhodesia) that the shooter had sewn onto a jacket to show how serious he was about fomenting race war. A couple of Republican figures have come out and said the flag shouldn't fly over the state house - Mitt Romney, most notably, has been saying since 2008 that he doesn't recognize that flag. This is a nice step up from Jeb Bush, who called for it to be taken down but has hedged disgracefully about whether the shooting in Charleston counted as racially motivated.

Which is, of course, the point that nobody seems willing to acknowledge. In addition to the fact that it stands for racism and the degradation of an entire race - a degradation, moreover, that still echoes today, as we can tell from all the shootings of unarmed black men by police in the last year - that flag is a flag of treason. Most of the generals and politicians who supported the South during the Civil War were either executed as traitors or exiled, and the fact that it's inexplicably considered a cultural symbol should hold no water: just burn the fucking thing.

I'm reluctant to invoke Godwin's Law here, but no state in Germany is interested in flying the swastika, no matter how conservative they may be. There may be Germans who consider it a "cultural symbol", but those people are neo-Nazis, and are so far out of the mainstream discussion that they may as well not even exist.

So why do American Southerners cling to the Confederate flag, and why do the rest of us let them do it? You can bleat about states' rights all along, but the whole fucking point of the Civil War, beyond slavery, was that we aren't a collection of mini-nations with their own rules - there's a law of the land, which is applicable from Maine to Florida to California, and it trumps the laws of the states. To pretend otherwise is an insult to the nine victims at Emanuel Church, as well as to all the others who died trying to achieve civil rights throughout American history.

And it's not a free speech issue, either. There's a shibboleth among white right-wingers that minorities and the poor are only interested in having their rights recognized, and don't face up to their responsibilities. I'd like to submit that it's the most vocal members of the Tea Party and other hard-right groups who ignore their own responsibilities - in claiming that they aren't being heard, they forget that the speech they're trying to protect is in many cases hateful and degrading to other Americans. Nobody wants to hear that speech - and if they do, they're not the people you should be courting.

The first thing we learned in our media law class back in journalism school was that the First Amendment isn't an indiscriminate permission to say whatever you want. There are limits to what can be said, and we need to highlight these lines much better, because as long as the bloviating windbags of the hard-right continue to spew their hatred with impunity, the killing won't stop.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Champions League 2015: Cruel Old Game, Mk II

This year the Champions League final closed off the European football season, falling a bit later than usual. The competitors were Barcelona and Juventus (which happens to be my team), and it came out 3-1 to Barcelona, who were heavily favored to win it. 

The scoreline notwithstanding, it was an entertaining enough game - Barcelona scored with pretty much its first attack of the game, on 4 minutes, and this spurred Juve to mount attack after attack, until they finally drew level on 55 minutes. But of course, that woke up Barça, and they scored a further three (of which one was disallowed for coming off Neymar's hand rather than his head).

This is why I chose to reuse the title from last year's write-up. Then, it was cruel because Atletico Madrid had scored early and been in control for most of the game, only to concede at the last minute and go into extra time, which is when Real Madrid pulled out all the stops and won 4-1. This year, the cruelty comes from a slightly different source, namely the way that Juve had hopes of actually winning, only for those hopes to be dashed late on in the second half.

I'm fond of trotting out the old Yogi Berra adage, "That's why they play the games" when Italian teams are involved, typically because they're so easy to write off. The national team frequently starts tournaments off quite badly, but if they get to the knockout stages they always seem to beat Germany. At club level, Italy may have lost its fourth Champions League place to Germany, but Juve managed to hold on over two legs against Real Madrid, who've been having a stormer of a domestic season, with Cristiano Ronaldo keeping pace with Lionel Messi as they both break records left and right.

All of which is to say that while I expected Barcelona to win, I wasn't willing to rule Juve out completely. Which was probably why losing by that scoreline was so disappointing.

And now, the stats

There were some other good talking points from the match, of course. First is my annual (and somewhat desperate) search for patterns into whether a given country is dominating European football. Last year saw off my previous year's claim of Germany starting to come into its own; I was hesitant to claim an impending era of Spanish dominance, because I suggested that Barcelona was on the wane.

That was, of course, before Messi, Neymar and Suarez scored around 120 goals altogether this season. I should probably be more careful about making predictions like that, but where's the fun in that?

So yeah, roll on more Spanish teams to win the Champions League next year - Barça's losing two influential players in Xavi and Dani Alves, but that front line isn't going anywhere, since they're young and versatile (unless Suarez decides to go full Dracula again). And while it's likely that Ronaldo's going to slow down as he gets older, it's hard to see him falling so completely off the pace in the season to come - with an archenemy like Barcelona and Messi, I fully expect Ronaldo to keep banging them in, and possibly for Real to win La Liga.

I was, however, pretty accurate in my assessments of English chances in this year's tournament. None of the four teams made much of an impact, and Liverpool's exit in the group stage underlined how bad their season's been. I suspect Manchester United may do slightly better in the year to come, as Louis van Gaal seems to have spurred them on to greater things despite a pretty slow start to the season; along with Chelsea, I wouldn't be surprised if they got to the knockout stages, but I'm wondering if English teams have the skill (and more importantly, interest) in going much further next time.

On the question of Germany vs Italy, I don't think Serie A will be dislodging the Bundesliga from the Number 3 spot for a while. Sure, Juve got to the final, whereas Bayern only made it to the semis, and more German teams made it out of the group stage than Italian teams (in fact, Juve dispatched one of them on its way up). And equally, there were two Italian teams in the Europa League semi-finals, but neither made it all the way. Sevilla aside, I suspect it's hard to build dominance in that tournament, given that the Thursday games make it harder to recover for the weekends and the domestic leagues.

What would be fun is if some team from outside the top 4 countries made it through, but that probably won't happen again for a long time. In fact, it's been 11 years, when Porto beat Monaco. As I mentioned elsewhere, money has a gravitational pull, and as good as the second tier gets, they'll still always be feeder leagues for Spain, England and Germany - and this is likely to be Italy's fate for the next couple of years.

And the elephant in the room

Oh, and I might as well throw in some discussion of what's happening over at FIFA, right? It's certainly been a fun week - bunch of arrests, Sepp Blatter gets re-elected as president, then he resigns two days later when his aide Jerome Valcke gets caught pocketing $10 million or so.

My favorite aspect of this has been the role of the US in chasing these folks down. As a number of outlets have noted, the fact that the US doesn't care as much about soccer means its law enforcement officials don't have to worry about looking like spoilsports and can just throw everybody in jail. My only regret is that the Department of Justice hasn't been quite so dogged in its pursuit of corruption in the banking industry - maybe European authorities can return the favor by arresting everybody at Goldman Sachs?

Which isn't to trivialize the current investigation of FIFA, by the way. The Economist pointed out that corruption in sports isn't as benign as a lot of observers would like to have us believe - there are actual criminal networks involved, so cleaning up the sport will turn out to be worthwhile. If the US can, for example, clear out the match-fixing rings operating in Italy, Eastern Europe and Asia, then I think we can all agree it'll be a good thing.

But will anything change? I'm going for a cautious yes, simply because FIFA will now have to make decisions with the knowledge that the US is paying attention. Maybe it's too much to hope that World Cups won't come with such enormous price tags in the future, but at any rate cleaning up the sport may make it easier for countries that aren't kleptocracies to host the tournament.

And as far as Russia and Qatar hosting the next two World Cups, I hope both are stripped. Qatar's obvious, because it's roughly the size of a bathtub and has no soccer culture to speak of. The fact that it was even in the running to host a World Cup on its own should have been a red flag.

Russia's more difficult, but the fact is that, between their complete lack of cooperation in the investigation (hard drives conveniently wiped and documents conveniently being shredded) and the fact that they're throwing their weight around in an unseemly manner, they're not in any position to host an international tournament. And the fact that Putin's come out in support of Blatter should be a final indication that these people aren't to be trusted (if, y'know, invading neighbors and shooting down civilian passenger planes wasn't enough for you).

I just think it's a shame that it's taken this long for FIFA's sponsors to speak up. While some question the figure of 1,200 deaths among workers building stadia in Qatar, the fact that the debate has gotten to this level should have prompted some action from the likes of Visa and Coca-Cola long before now. Same with Russia's appalling record on human rights (particularly for journalists and the LGBTQ community) and its destabilization of Ukraine - it's hard to see how the sponsors were okay with that, but not with Sepp Blatter's worldwide bribe network.

Still, at least now the sponsors are involved, and that was the only thing that would make FIFA pay attention. It'll be interesting who comes in to replace Blatter, and whether they'll also be resigning in disgrace a few years from now.