Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Be like Ed?

Want to be more popular? Ask yourself: what would Ed do?

If we acknowledge that the current criticism of Mr Sheeran may be, at least in part, due to jealousy, is it better to wonder what lessons Ed can teach the music industry and musicians generally?

He is clearly the right man for these times, one who can straddle pop and ‘RnB’ whilst keeping a semblance of credibility, hanging with the right icons and failing to offend the majority.

That’s the superficial stuff. He is a singer-songwriter in a singer-songwriter dominated industry. One who understands the power of song to make connections, a story teller with a populist eye.

His songs resonate with a wide audience, old and young. Universal themes and generic melodies that are standard and traditional. The big selling stars of the current music business are those who have cross-generational appeal, something achieved by acknowledging the past-masters.

To some people, I know that will seem like an apologist’s summary for trite and all-too-familiar songs and structures. It is no exaggeration that I listened to ‘Divide’ once and recognised similarities with many pre-existing hits.  Accusations of plagiarism are best left to lawyers, for now we only need note that Ed rules the roost and that should be good news for British music.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Familiarity breeds content

“If you recognise an animal or plant, then it hasn’t killed you yet.”

In Derek Thompson’s new book, Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular, he explains, in evolutionary terms, why we prefer things that we already know. It’s an interesting lesson in how the familiar will always triumph.

Ed Sheeran’s domination of this week’s singles chart  has provoked much chatter, most of it about whether the charts are ‘broken’. The inclusion of streaming stats, meant to reflect the growth of hearing over owning – following in the footsteps of airplay stats, has led to Sheeran owning the top five and the bulk of the top 20.

Streaming was included to give stability to a chart that was adequately reflecting the death of physical product purchases. I’m slightly more interested in what Sheeran’s domination means for the album format. On one hand it shows that, for those who are popular, it is valid. If people are listening to all the songs then the album has a future. Conversely it suggests that for some others, failing to dominate the singles chart in a similar way, possibly means that few people are consuming the whole album however famous you are.

It’s all Ed’s fault

There is a certain strand of commentary that seems to be blaming Ed as if it’s a crime for being popular. In this instance, it should really be a case of don’t hate the player, hate the game (to adopt popular parlance).

Ed Sheeran has simply proven, as has Adele, that it is still possible to be a huge recording artist with significant impact – and sales.

As far as I know, on one listen and a quick scan of reviews, Ed set out to make a huge hit album. He nailed it.

If ‘Divide’ is commercially crafted and predictably populist it’s hardly hurting anyone, no-one expected free jazz. Sheeran isn’t pretending to have artistic pretensions or a desire to be the new Leonard Cohen. Aside from that, he has time to develop that artistry and to diversify should he choose to do so. He could also now afford to give away his artistic experiments if he goes in that direction.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The ruling asses

There’s an easy conclusion to be drawn from our political woes. We love to be ruled.

It’s 2017 and we still support and fund the monarchy, so that points towards this supposition. Far more relevant though is the obvious realisation that we like all of our politicians to be cut from the same ermine cloth. 
It is, to a degree, logical that we warm to the bright, smartly-dressed, well-raised and educated in society, that we should want them to lead us. Is it logical though that most of them should’ve studied at Oxbridge establishments and an overwhelming number have the same degree – Oxford’s Philosophy, Politics & Economics? There’s a good reason why The Guardian called it the degree that rules Britain.

It is still painfully hard for children from poorer families to achieve high standards of education and getting to Oxbridge is such a pipe dream that those who do so are still likely to be featured in their local newspaper. It’s an achievement. If you’re from the northern half of the country even more so. The Daily Mail, whom I hate to link to, even notes that ‘five top schools send as many pupils to Oxford and Cambridge as 1,800 state schools put together’. This is inequality and we continue to vote it in.

Monday, February 13, 2017

We can't handle the truth

The truth is subjective it seems. Mine is different from yours. What we want to believe greatly influences what we will. We are each living in our own version of reality.

Facts are incidental since we all find our own, only accepting the ones that support our world view.  We want to live in the bubble of perpetual affirmation, sharing our righteous views with the lovely and like-minded. Stepping outside your own worldview is an uncomfortable thing to do, so we don’t.

In my own lust for logic I have been bewildered why those who have a duty to do so, frequently fail to give us the real story however unpalatable. The truth is that it is not in their interests, hence they choose not to. Teresa May can’t tell us that we’re going to hell in a handcart as people might hold her at least partly responsible. Any decisions that might be in our long-term interests but cause some short-term hardship are blatantly avoided. This short-termism has got us to where we are today, but some of us seem to like it that way.

Funding the NHS? They dare not raise taxes because people don’t like that. Instead they blame GPs for not operating a 24/7 service, whilst knowing that this is impossible. Nor will they ever admit to underfunding health, education, the prison service, policing, etc. even when it seems transparently obvious. Instead they’ll point to the money (or occasionally some ‘miraculous’ extra money) that they have ‘promised’.

We all know what Government promises look like. Many unaccompanied young refugees know it far too well. Abandoned in France during a bitter European winter they may wonder how the tide turned so quickly against them. It was essentially the tale of two photographs. A dead boy on a Greek beach had even the Daily Mail in their corner, some months later and a photo of a few arriving refugees who looked older than 10 led the borders to be bricked up again. Politicians promised to honour their duty to these unfortunates, it didn’t last long. Who wants to be led by those who abandon the less fortunate for the minor political gains in appeasing the ignorant?

Facts are often uncomfortable. They conflict with the stories we want to hear. We want to know how fabulous our country is, how brilliantly our economy is performing, how we lead the world and are so ridiculously independent. The age of spin has led us to a darkened corner of alternate facts and blatant lies. Those who’ve led us there have a duty to do better but they never will unless we hold them to account.

We must decide what kind of world we want to live in: blinkered or open, kind or cruel, real or fake. Do we want big ideas or tiny tantrums, future-thinking or history-worshipping? Logic or spin, fact or obfuscation, rationality or rigidity? Do we yearn to be led by those with massive brains or little hands, passionate optimists or vicious bigots?

Nothing is as simple as that. It is no left or right, yes or no. We have forgotten how to compromise for the greater good. Instead we have become polarised, rigid in our opinions and unflinching in the face of alternate arguments or opinions. It doesn’t matter how we got here, we just need to find the way out.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Thinking without the box

It’s easy to be narrow minded. Dig a trench and fill it with those who agree with you, don’t accept any arguments or alternate viewpoints, defend your right to an opinion without caring for those of others.

It’s harder to be open-minded, it takes effort and few of us have the time or energy for that. It starts by trying to accept that there are always other ways to think about something. I was prompted to explore this concept having heard a Ted Talk by Rory Sutherland. He was arguing that money spent in one way could be better spent in another if we thought about the experience in a different way. His argument was against speed and for comfort but the hypothesis applies in a lot of different areas.

Looking at the desperate plight of Syrian refugees it is easy to take sides pro and anti but the situation is inevitably more complex. Our government seems pitifully bad at taking responsibility for crises that it had a role in instigating. It’s sometimes as if the consequences don’t enter our thought process. We’re always looking for the right and wrong, the black and white. Perhaps there’s another reason it’s called grey matter.

Those that were able to flee Syria and get any distance did so with luck, and money. A great number were the intelligentsia, the middle-classes, those that could afford to pay traffickers. The vast quantities of money that entered the black market as a result of this conflict is frankly disturbing. Paying crooks absurd sums to get aboard overcrowded dinghies because the west couldn’t face up to its responsibilities.

When thinking about the plight of refugees it seems that the English (and our media) think only of them as a drain on resources. Aside from the moral viewpoint Germany may have had different reasons for accepting more of them. Apparently they could see an ageing population and a declining workforce, a demographic vacuum. Do we not have those issues?

Imagine instead, morals aside, that the money paid to traffickers had instead been filtered through a central European fund to re-house and re-establish the individuals concerned. Instead of an immediate (or short-term) drain they brought wealth into the countries that chose to take them.

Ignoring the obvious and oft-spoken truths that migrants often contribute more to the economies of countries they take residence in, this simple move would’ve prevented money being in the black-economy and instead been used for humanitarian purposes.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Post-truth politics, rise of the clowns

There are lies, damned lies and politics. We have arrived in the age of deceit, where elected figures now behave in the exact ways their worst critics always alleged that they were capable of. Distortion and twisted interpretation are no longer sufficient, politicians have learned that they can use blatant lies to suit their aims and that there will be no repercussions. It’ll even get them elected or promoted.

It’s very dark out there, bleak in fact. Where do we go from here?

Envisaging a world where our leaders are so divorced from reality that they believe their own blather means we’ll end up with legions of Trump-a-likes. Cartoon characters who dominate the media because they say outrageous things and polarise opinions.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe we live in a civilised society, the evidence firmly suggests otherwise. Our representatives in power bicker over who can be the most extreme, pandering entirely to a small section of society who once lodged a protest vote because they have no understanding of the real world. Rather than rise above it, they embraced the distraction and relished the opportunity to blame someone else. Claimed it as a mandate when it was the scarcest majority, influenced by distortions and lies.

Once we leave the EU and barricade all ports and other points of entry, who will we have to blame? Our Governments are so short-term in their thinking that they’ll no doubt have engineered another media-dominating crisis for us to argue over. Perhaps the Russians are coming, the ones that don’t already own all our property. I wonder if we’ll expect an EU Army to defend us

We’ve allowed this to happen. Giving our attention to legion upon legion of scare-mongering prophets of doom declaring the end of times without ever being challenged on the actual facts. These grey blaggard under-achievers getting in our heads with their insane and inane ranting, blurring the boundaries of truth because they were never anywhere near it.

We’ve already moved so far from reality that we will have trouble finding our way back. Once upon a time there were joke candidates on ballot papers, like the Monster Raving Loony Party. Now they’re all raving but it’s harder to tell the real ‘loons’ from the criminally deluded.

Monday, October 10, 2016

In the court of the lizard kings

It is tempting to think of the elite as reptiles, particularly politicians. Thick skinned, cold blooded, forked tongues, they have all the characteristics. Unfortunately, the truth is much worse. To comprehend that they are human, like you or I, but still choose to behave and act in that way really defies comprehension.

Even given that they are Tories, the behaviour of the right wing during the EU Referendum, the ensuing leadership hogfight and party conference was amusing and depressing simultaneously. It’s a hard feat to achieve but it showed the depths some are willing to plumb in their caustic passion for power.

Unfortunately, the Labour Party has been worse. Sacrificing stalking-horses, denying legitimate members a vote and arguing childishly. All whilst trying to provide a legitimate candidate to challenge Corbyn. For his part JC has been successful at motivating a social movement but woefully lacking at strong leadership, conducting a sharp anti-government dialogue and forming a coherent and supportive cabinet - areas that are fairly essential when we need a credible and effective opposition.

I don’t know what the roadmap to becoming a politician looks like but I imagine it takes a lot of tedious graft. An interest in news and political theory which perhaps develops into some desire to be of greater use to society, percolated through studying politics and history at a Russell Group University, most likely Oxbridge.