Thursday, 9 September 2010

Jazz | Music | Jazz = Pedalo

The arts coverage at the Mail and the Telegraph is always extremely good value – one need only look to the now-canonical plays both have resolutely failed to get, and therefore attacked from their familiar shit-smeared moral pedestals, to realise that. Sarah Kane’s Blasted: why, it’s a ‘disgusting feast of filth,’ according to the brilliantly named Jack Tinker at the Mail. Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur: why, anybody who goes to see that is ‘degraded’ by the sight of Ridley being ‘turned on by his own sick fantasies,’ according to Charles Spencer at the Telegraph.

Yes Charles. A play about post-apocalyptic, purchasable rape-parties can only be the product of a man who subconsciously desires to be a rapist. We’d better lock him up. Along with everybody who agreed to act in the play, tech it, produce it, let’s burn the Theatre Royal, Plymouth to the ground as well while we’re at it because, by providing a platform for all the nasties, it was obviously encouraging them. THE THEATRE ROYAL, PLYMOUTH IS A RAPIST! GRAB YOUR PITCHFORKS AND TORCHES AND LET’S ALL MEET ON THE VILLAGE GREEN!

For frankly dangerous idiocy, then, turn to the theatre pages. And the film pages. And the TV pages. And then for something a little more plain, neutral to wash down all the bile, turn to the rock and pop pages. Know what you’ll find there? SQUARENESS. Unmitigated, trudging, soggy, flaccid, Elbow-bumming squareness. The Telegraph and pop music – how could it be any other way? Actually, we can add the Sunday Express to the list as well: I did a couple weeks work experience there two years ago, and one of the three articles I wrote was a review of the (then) new Sharleen Spiteri solo record. Sharleen Spiteri! Remember Texas! Lollocaust.
This is all a very long way of contextualising the glorious Telegraph blogpost that went up yesterday, pithily entitled ‘The Mercury Prize needs an almighty rocket up its posterior. Here’s my plan to sort it out.’ Now, the basic argument behind the piece – that the Mercury Prize is a bit boring and rubbish – and some of Neil McCormick’s proposed solutions, i.e. to scrap the absurd veil of secrecy that hangs over the judging panel, are totally fair enough. Brick-to-the-face obvious, but fair enough. What is particularly, magnificently lame about the article is, rather, the way in which it’s expressed. From the chummy, plummy bullshit of that title to the comment it has hitherto inspired. Here are some highlights:

And where was Plan B, the utterly compelling rapper turned singer who’s Defamation of Strickland Banks has caught the pulse of the nation’s music listeners? Caught the pulse of the nation’s music listeners? What a curious turn of phrase. What on earth does it mean?

It has increasingly led to the notion of a Mercury album, a slightly earnest work that has slipped under the radar of popular culture. And sure, these albums have to be part of the mix, but we need the pop stars and the veterans to participate too, just to put some “oomph” back into the proceedings. Yes Neil, Dizzee Rascal, Corinne Bailey Rae, Laura Marling and Biffy Clyro, popular culture UNKNOWNS all. And that carefully inverted-comma-framed “oomph”: that would be the sort of oomph Paul Weller provided this year, would it? By Waking Up The Nation? You know what definitely didn’t wake up the nation? His frankly embarrassing Lahndahn-ish technophobia on that Julien Temple documentary about the new album. THAT AND HIS STUPID HAIRCUT.

A fun contradiction here: Exactly whose subjective opinion excludes obviously artistically valid creations that have already been popularly selected by the great record buying public (who have voted for Gorillaz and Plan B with their wallets)? Followed by: I don’t think it’s hard to separate which recording artists are pursuing an artistic vision rather than following the basest of commercial instinct. Jokes.

And here’s the one comment poor old Neil received in reply: You lost me at “Plan B, the utterly compelling rapper turned singer who’s Defamation of Strickland Banks has caught the pulse of the nation’s music listeners.” I would expect someone who makes a living from writing to be able to use correctly who’s and whose. And you know, simply sticking to the old rule that says no short forms should be used in writing (he’s, you’re etc) might help you avoid this kind of mistake. Brilliantly, this is ‘Yuko’s first ever comment on a article. To be temporarily fair to Neil, then, this kind of Telegraph-reading pedant bullshit is what the poor man has to contend with on a daily basis.
But that does not excuse the most annoying thing about his shitty little piece. Namely, the way it falls in line with countless other fragments of unimaginative music journalism from the last decade and ‘proves’ its pointless points via pops at the ever-abused ‘token jazz band’ – this year, the Kit Downes Trio – that almost always completes the Mercury shortlist, usually alongside odds of around 500-1. As though Mercury jazz bands, wink wink, are a joke we all share each year, wink wink, a funny little obscure little bit of fun that we’re all well aware, wink wink, are in an altogether inferior league to, wink wink, goddam SUPERSTARS like, I don’t know, FUCKING ELBOW. This, for example, in the third paragraph: It has become so boring and predictable. As I sit there, year after year, in my suit and tie, sipping white wine and watching a token jazz band perform in the corner of the room while music industry representatives chatter loudly over the top…

Later, an altogether more troubling notion: A shortlist that found room for an obscure jazz trio. I’ve got nothing against jazz, by the way, and I totally accept that the Kit Downes Trio are an excellent band who deserve exposure. But they are a peddling along a specialist backwater of contemporary music, and ought to be judged in that context. They just looked out of their depth at the Mercurys.

So much wrong with this. So much. This I particularly like: ‘the Kit Downes Trio are an excellent band who deserve exposure. But’ – but what, you also think they don’t deserve Mercury exposure and Gorillaz do? Right. That’s real committal of you Neil. Also, I love the idea of jazz representing ‘a specialist backwater of contemporary music.’ Yup, that’s jazz, the genre (or, if you prefer, mindset) without which contemporary music WOULDN’T BLOODY EXIST YOU PRICK. And then there’s Neil's characteristically opaque take on metaphor, rearing its head once more: ‘peddling along a specialist backwater’? So jazz is a pedalo, basically? You’re saying all of jazz is, metaphorically speaking, a pedalo? How completely weird. Oh God, and you’re extending the metaphor aren’t you – ‘out of their depth’ – or are you…?

I’m not saying I’m an expert on (or, indeed, particularly a fan of) contemporary jazz – although I’ve been to see the Portico Quartet a couple times and they are extremely rad. In fact, that’s kind of the point: the ‘token’ Mercury jazz nomination is so important precisely because it offers an entry-point into a manifestation of music that, otherwise, even musically-energetic people probably wouldn’t be willing to wade through in their desire to find something good. It’s not a perfect situation, of course, but it’s a much more interesting situation than anything else that goes on at the Mercurys. And for a writer at a publication as staggeringly out of touch with any pop-cultural mindset worth even partially investing in, as the Daily goddam Telegraph, to attempt to smugly put ‘excellent bands’ down on the grounds that they’re ‘out of their depth’ at an awards ceremony that their own article is, in fact criticising – it strikes me as a peculiarly hateful approach to music journalism.

That I intend to counter. Here be a playlist bringing together some of the best Mercury-nominated jazz records of the last decade. Consisting of:

Conversations with the Unseen, by Soweto Kinch (nominated 2003)
Held on the Tips of Fingers, by Polarbear (nominated 2005)
Basquiat Strings, by Seb Rochford & Basquiat Strings (nominated 2007)
Knee Deep in the North Sea, by Portico Quartet (nominated 2008)
Golden, by the Kit Downes Trio (nominated 2010)

Listen to them whilst looking for grammatical errors in Daily Telegraph blogposts – and, obviously, commenting on them in thrillingly conservative and patronising prose. That's what I intend to do with my Thursday evening, anyway.

Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor

No comments:

Post a Comment