Saturday, 7 September 2013

Bread and circuses

God only knows why, but tonight I sat down to eat my delicious dinner, switched on the TV, and found myself watching the steaming pile of shite which is "The X Factor UK." I should've switched to something else immediately (eventually I settled on an unwatched DVD, the excellent documentary "Blank City"), but for some unknown reason, I stuck with it for a few minutes. One hopeless middle-aged Scotsman and one very promising teenage singer-songwriter from Middlesbrough later, there appeared on my screen this man, Colin Stacey.

I recognised him immediately, not only because I've seen him several times recently on the streets of East Dulwich, where we both live, but, more to the point, because we lived across the street from each other for a decade.

Once upon a time, in a different life, I owned a house on the decent part of Upland Road in fashionable SE22, and Colin Stacey lived just across the road, a couple of doors down. He lived with his elderly parents, and seemed to dutifully drive off to some job, somewhere, every day, sporting short hair, a suit, and a briefcase, and always talking to himself incessantly (though inaudibly - maybe he was singing). I never got to know him, because in the many times I passed him on the street, he didn't give the impression that he was particularly open to expanding his social circle.

Now, in 2013, he appears with long hair, a stud in his ear, as a minicab dispatcher with a passion for singing. And unfortunately, no musical talent.

Not that this should matter to the predatory producers of "The X Factor UK." Their sole agenda is to deliver this year's crop of disposable musical heroes, punctuated by a plethora of possibly deluded, almost certainly troubled, and undeniably freakish, audition victims, which the judges, themselves ghastly caricatures of humanity such as Sharon Osbourne and Louis Walsh, can snigger at.

I think that most people watching the show dismiss all this as an abstraction. It's just some fat loser from Birmingham who has no business in show business, or some sweet, but tone-deaf, no-hoper from Liverpool, who should really just focus on his job as a quantity surveyor. What hit me tonight was the fact that I have observed this man first-hand for many years, and I think he's probably vulnerable. I wonder if he realises he's a figure of public ridicule across a country of 61m people tonight, and how that would make him feel if he knew it.

This is a truly insidious industry, in that Cowell and his minions would, no doubt, only argue that someone like poor Colin ended up on the show because he signed up to audition. Therefore they are innocent. But the mere existence of an audition in this desperate and star-struck economy will inevitably draw all sorts of desperate and hopeless candidates. There's certainly no artistic grounds to show this on TV, and the very fact that it's available to "go viral" on the programme's YouTube channel within an hour of broadcast is a very pointed indication of what exactly is at work here.

So, what's next? Paraplegic children, thrust onto the floor from their wheelchairs, singing "Crawling from the Wreckage," while Ashley Banjo and his crew street dance inventively around their writhing bodies? Maybe Cowell can find a modern equivalent of Joseph Merrick, but with a beautiful voice? Or maybe one of the humiliated tops himself once he realises he's been played like a violin on national television. Cruel and exploitative. I'm afraid it's a "No" from me.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

¡Viva la musica Norteña!

Though I call myself a Memphibian, it is not by birth. My family comes from Texas originally - indeed almost all my extended family still lives there - and I was born in Fort Worth and lived in Arlington until 1970. We then moved to New Haven, Connecticut, for four years, before moving to Memphis. One set of my grandparents lived in the (then) overwhelmingly white northeast Texas, not far from the Louisiana/Arkansas border (the "Ark-La-Tex"), and the other set lived in Fort Worth, which had a significant Latino presence.

Back in the 1970's and early '80's, when we would make fairly frequent trips down to Texas at Christmas time and in the summer vacations, one thing I would look forward to was switching on KTVT, Channel 11, in Fort Worth (which was just around the corner from my grandparents' house, and I thus imagined that the signals were coming directly from there) early on a Saturday evening, and seeing mariachi and Norteño groups performing in the studio, on very low-budget music shows. And there were radio stations which played nothing but cumbias, rancheras, polkas, and all the other styles associated with this music. I remember beach holidays in and around Galveston where I would entertain myself out on the breezy deck at night (this was lonnnnng before the advent of the internet or satellite TV) with my radio, scanning up and down for Mexican stations, and immersing myself in hours of accordion fuelled musical revelry.

This felt very exotic to me, as Memphis, at that point in history, had a Hispanic population which could be counted on the fingers of one hand (this is no longer the case). I thought at the time, and I still do today, that I could listen to this music every day and never tire of it. And there is no better representative, in my book, than Flaco Jimenez, featured in performance in San Antonio (where my Fort Worth grandparents were from) in this segment from the excellent documentary which follows.