Sunday, 14 December 2008

A vote with no confidence: the pitfalls of giving the public a say

Sometimes voting is democracy's own worst enemy. When it's not exposing the ill-conceived instincts of the masses it's revealing the shortcomings of those counting the ballots. In the same week that Manchester's driving community voted against being charged more to drive, the BBC yet again 'safeguarded trust' by soliciting viewer votes and swiftly ignoring them. At last, close readers of early Manics lyrics and fans of Tom "Strictly Holby City" Chambers can agree on something: democracy is an empty lie.

This winter, reality TV has filled a hanging chad-shaped gap in voting scandal entertainment, and Strictly Come Farcing has proved a rotten Florida borough. Saturday's maths GCSE brain-teaser of a balls-up sent all three semi-finalists into the final and turned next week's denouement into groundhog day. Coming only weeks after they had to refund John Seargent's voting charges, this is the second time the corporation managed to over-complicate a popularity contest. Repeatedly making a play of interactivity and then telling the audience they're wrong exposes the flaws of the mechanic. Where voting is concerned it takes two to tango - but devoid of co-ordination, both viewer and producer usually end up like this:

A lot rides in the way you pose the question; Manchester was asked if it wanted the congestion charge, so naturally the motorist lobby gave a resounding 'no'. Big Brother asks viewers who they want to evict, so they reject the most potent housemate - who often happens to be the most entertaining. In each case the result reflects the knee-jerk reactions of the most pro-active - more thoughtful questions would prompt a more balanced answer.

Also, you've got to be clear on how much power you give the people. Strictly has suffered from a conflict of interest, with viewers consistently undermined by the peacocks on the judging panel. If the audience's opinion is so expendable then why is it purportedly at the heart of the format? That said, the popular vote gave us a 50/50 chance of JLS singing a cold and broken Hallelujah all over Christmas, so there's an argument for supervision by a responsible adult.

With the participation in the democratic process so fallible, maybe it's time that the public found other ways to exercise their power. Disgruntled Strictly fans could learn a lot from the Barclay brothers, who got all Scrooge on Sark's economy because their preferred candidates didn't get win last week's election. After all, if a dance contest airs next Saturday and no one bothers to vote, does Brucie get a bonus?

Monday, 17 November 2008

We are the angry mob, still baying for a credit crunch blame figure...

So Sergeant hangs up his ballet shoes on the same day the BNP's Christmas card list is made public; it's a wearying sign of the times. I don't just mean the irony that a political editor should be wrestling for top news billing with something he'd once have reported on. No, it's that the revolving doors of the angry mob seem to be lubricating themselves and gathering alarming speed.

As one door of common protest closes, another opens its bulletin boards for the daubing of discontent. John Sergeant's 'undeserved' place in the finals of Strictly Come D-listing has been fueling the messageboards for weeks (in perfect synchronicity with some similar kerfuffle on X-Factor). Now he's decided his day job was less fraught with civic obligation he's waltzed off home. Never fear though, there's a whole cauldron of finger pointing and placard waving to be had with the BNP. Here, mainstays like civil liberties and free speech are spiced up with a bit of social gollygoshing- "OMG one of them was a vicar?!" On the other channel, if human interest is more your blame-game can of worms then there's still Baby P / Shannon Matthews to play pin-the-tail-on-the-devil with.

The issues behind each of these are obviously starkly differentiated rings of hell, though they are linked by our love of scalp-hunting. We've always loved a good old fashioned witch hunt, but ever since our money disappeared it seems that current affairs has become more a pantomime than ever. Blame is the damp firework left behind by the financial crisis and now it's going off in our face. There was no one to hold responsible for credit collapse - the blacked out windows sped away from the City and mammon's architects disappeared in a cloud of 'shhhh'. I guess there's always those who took out their 128th credit card squealing 'free money!' - though the angry mob never points its finger at itself. Basically, unless one of the head gloaters at Goldman Sachs turns out to be on that BNP list, a period of sustained shadow-chasing awaits...

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Who Asked You?

At the risk of provoking the yawns of literally tens of readers, I feel some sympathy for Ross / Brand in their Week of Reckoning. Not that I wish to add my lowly voice to the wealth of comment already; aside from Daily Mail enthusiasts every news fan has a deeper and more complex appreciation of this matter than those lost hours staring blankly at fiscal hieroglyphics. No, I may never have slept with Brand - and let it be said I'd never initiate coitus with a man with a more virile, unruly mop than I - I do have a slightly personal involvement with the story.

Well, that is to say, I was the victim of digital hate campaign wherin a groundswell of criticism of my art resulted in my removal from the BBC's list of preferred suppliers. No I'm not Max Gogarty, but I am Sophie Hammer, the girl who's audaciously verbose review of the Ting Tings provoked a backlash from the 'online community'. Read it, consult your dictionary if necessary, then scroll down for the insults. O.K, so scale is important here - I was paid a very modest sum to write the review and the story didn't make News At 10. However, in the same way as Ofcom officially view one complaint as important as thirty thousand, it is the principle that is important.

The unswerving adulation of garnering 'the people's opinion' by online media has to stop. It is responsible for the distortion of public feeling and destruction of professional respect. Giving too much credence to the unedited and spontaneous reactions of readers to any event or piece of writing is to dangerously prioritise the amateur - a.k.a the half-baked. That's not to say community engagement isn't important - in fact it is vital for the future of online media. However, standards must be ensured. Given that those of us who work for established media outlets are trained in our craft, in what world should this feedback fraternity get more attention from our employers? Most of the time they can't remember to put spaces between words. It's the kind of inverse-snobbery-born-of-jealousy that they drawn upon when asking why it is us on the stage rather than them. Yet it is the same splutter of bitterness that can be heard when the frustrated and ignorant view Rothko and deride: 'My 5-year old could do that'. If that's reasonable attitude, do you really want your next electro-pop review written by the kind of person who claims: 'ive bin rejected from the bbc to write stuff, yet they post this shit. I dont geddit?! lol!'

The floodgates open when comment is solicited and all sides have to work harder to ensure quality of debate. Moderators, editors and the common sense of the community should be deployed. Badly spelt, offensive or baseless rumours shouldn't be approved out of hand by moderators; editors should keep adding back into the debate with their own comments to give balance, answer accusations and keep things moving. Those writing comments should think harder about their input - if writers can't use anonymity to hide behind lazy assertions then why should the audience? If web 3.0 is to really take engagement to the next digit then the community must respect and be respected. Two sides ganging up against each other will only produce more Brands, Rosses, Gogartys and - since I don't plan on shelving my thesaurus just yet - more Ting Tings moments.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Celebrity Mayfly

So another day, another update from Jade Goody's crumbling cervix. "My boys don't know I may be dead by Christmas!" screams the cover of OK magazine. "World exclusive interview" it heralds. Read on, reluctant schadenfreude enthusiasts - there's pictures! So much cynicism is up for grabs here it seems almost too much of an easy target, but it's frightening how ambient public sympathy has been so skewed by her illness. There's no sneering, no disbelief, just the willingness to wave cash-for-tears at a woman most magazines were vehemently decrying as racist at only last year. Jade Goody is back, and she's steering the fame-for-fame's-sake fun bus into even murkier territory.

Given that Goody was reportedly devastated at suspicions that her illness was a publicity stunt, she's made a characteristically brainless job of proving otherwise. Apparently her cancer is the latest product she's promoting, the latest twist in her storyline. With a career on the wane, what better plot device than a serious illness to win back audiences? It's malignant in every way - I'm not disputing the reality of her condition but it says bad things about what people are willing to do to remain in the public eye.

The flattening of the celebrity private-public divide has long been headed for fully 2D status, but this hammers the final nail in the coffin for the life-as-narrative zeitgeist. Jordan threatened years ago to give birth via live online video; the way things are going, it won't be long before Big Brother contestants will getting televised state funerals, like Diana. Though let's really give into nightmares; how long before 'Celebrity Mayfly' becomes the latest reality TV fad, the nihilistic, end-of-days denouement to the genre? In this irresistible, voyeuristic comedy of manners we see fame-hungry larvae gurgle from the loins of star-struck lovers before living their entire lives on screen - for one day only. Only one celebri-fly will be resuscitated so it's a race against time for each to engage the audience in their personal tale. Jade thought she was up against it with race hate, these guys have only 24 hours to devise a capitvating storyline that will keep the other column-inch zygotes at bay. How will our contenders utilise the PR arsenal at their disposal, picking carefully from 'challenge rounds' comprising such mainstays drug problems, genetic revelations and anal endoscopies. Like a game of Risk with more nudity and less geographical awareness, this will be family viewing designed for long winter Sundays, the moral tale of choice once BBC's supply of Dickens has run out. Whatever happens to Jade Goody, one can only hope her sons remain oblivious to the breed of fame she spawned.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Take Good Care of My Baby: The Fans Seek Custody of Music For Good

Look around for signifiers of a forthcoming apocalypse and you'd be hard pushed to find any more shaky pillar of civilisation than the music industry. Each week that brings a voyeurs delight - lurid accounts of a flailing, arcane system struggling with the new world order. Recognising the power of the masses is the name of the survival game here. This week, for instance, we've had the people's record label, where fans act as investors in a new band, thus passing the buck on what to do when piracy voids sale revenue. The industry has become obsessed by the need to include music lovers - but they rarely go about it on terms that'll chime with the instant gratification generation. The real issue is not money, but the time it takes to give fans what they want - or even what we tell them they want. Music PR is essential - but it must engage in a loving relationship with selling records, and stop being a tawdry one night stand.

If time is a conceptual free-for-all governed by corrupt sheriffs of meaning, then nothing is so much a rotten borough as music. Resolution takes longer than it ought, the results are sniffy to the public. Ms Winehouse's creative inertia since Back to Black has gone unchecked, with our heroine deployed on more tactical shock and awe campaigns. Meanwhile, Joe Lean and his band of merry men cancel the release of their slightly anticipated debut because its recording pre-dated their hype and they wanted to have another go. Of course, that's not saying the former isn't a savage affront to integrity, and that the latter is anything other than a brief plug in a burst sewer pipe, but it's certainly admissible evidence.

In music, more than comedy, timing is everything. The standard time between album releases has lengthened as other soul-brandishing PR campaigns take priority. Then there's the sluggish delay as the record label plods in pursuit of a blogosphere groundswell created overnight for Hot Nouvau 2.0. The lust for a new band often races ahead of their appearance in any record shop, public cheer flagging with the fatigue of overexposure - yet the internet is increasingly proving its worth in cutting out this fatal delay.

Critics will claim it was the In Rainbows digital car-boot haggle that won the bitter battle between the masses and the means of production, but Bloc Party won the war. A Thom Yorke pretender on too many levels but one, Kele Okereke rushed his band's third album out to a surprised fanbase last week - thus defining the map for how music will be consumed in our brave new world.

"Intimacy" enjoyed a birth devoid of hype, largely because no one knew it even was gestating, and was rush released online in advance of physical copies available next month. So everyone gets a chance to piss themselves with excitement, mop up the damp patch with their iPod and then move on to the next clean pants. That's the future. In present day, no sooner has a hackneyed couplet been penned by an over-hyped pretender than we enter a bloody season of "brand management". Fans' game anticipation weathers the release of stage-managed press blah - wherin someone from the band touches Peaches Geldof - before they disappear a few months short of release and befriend another hypemachine on Myspace. The effect on sales is achingly predictable - because of the rupture in time between bigups and point of sale, no one has the opportunity to buy anything but fluff.

Arctic Monkeys were probably the last band that could survive this, these days we're seeking escape from this stagnant central venn section. The sight of a lumbering record industry facing off with the instant jurors of the internet is embarrassing - we take no joy in its defeat. Time for digitalism to march to victory - not because it's free, but because it's fast. It can respond to the creativity, impulse and connectivity that musicians and fans have in common and that the industry fears. There's no question for those at the top: your time is up. The fans know what they want, and they'll get it quicker than you can sign a cheque.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Meta-teens: where do I sign up?

A depraved new uber demographic is hoovering up teens and twenty-somethings alike: teenagers-acting-like-adults-living-like-a-fantasy-of-teenagers. Or, The Meta Teen. I used to think it was grotesque anti-intellectual short circuiting of emotional insight; now I'd happily express my allegiance by signing up to it's Facebook group.

Born, raised and sustained online, the Meta Teen is an inane proposition - repelling private contemplation in favour of announcing every neurological flicker in a garish klaxophony. It's lifesource is the stereotypical 15 year old - an inarticulate, frustrated, selfish pubescent purgatory fumbling its way around sexuality wearing stupid clothes. It listens to parent-baiting noise music while mindlessly experimenting with all forms of self-stupefaction. Yet with the help of persistent, pan-media renderings of this master host, the Meta Teen is occupying a larger and larger age base. In an attitude epedemic, those older and younger are being subsumed into its contradictory moral quagmire of superficial engagement and hyper expression.

Thanks to Web 2.0 and artforms bleeding effortlessly and gracelessly into each other we can all be Meta Teens. There are multiple points of access into it's harsh, beautiful fucked-up world - music, TV, radio, fashion, club nights - it's all connected and relentlessly reinforced. Online is its engine room, where everything syncs up and amplifies. Everyone's invited to join the hypermediated, broadcast yourself brat pack: MySpace pages for nu rave bands, for Skins characters, for all of us. The friend trails join hands and, in unison, scream into the abyss.

Because of this, received wisdom tells us that social networking profiles are windows into hitherto closed private moments - whole lives, loves and self-definition on display; Meta Teen culture at large an empowering, expressive community. Yet it's not so clear cut. Yes more people are making more noise in more places, but it's a sound clash. It's not deeply personal and it's not unified - in fact, emotional insights are rendered more inexplicable by their increased visibility. It makes sense that the whole trend is soundtracked by the brainless, inaccessible racket of nu rave.

A perfect case study can be found in the past week's episode of Skins. Screeching Canadian electro outfit Crystal Castles provided the catalyst for a defining moment in Meta Teen in the culmination of a typically miserable storyline. Sid, having found his dad dead in his armchair that morning, had remained catatonic all day - going through the motions at college yet saying nothing - until he found himself at a Crystal Castles gig. They unleashed the sublime, melancholy chaos of Alice Practice - the impenetrable bleeps and screeches sending him into a trance and then, finally, sobbing despair. It was a moment of mesmerising eloquence: amidst an isolating communal experience real feeling is remaindered beneath the surface. Attempts at self-expression are met with a turgid cacophony of other people's ideas... until you give up trying to find the words, embrace the emptiness and melt into the crowd.

One feels no more comfort and familiarity in being a Meta Teen than being part of any other group at any other time. However, it's the explicit rejection of comprehensibility amidst such over-enunciation that is its beauty. Everyone's just staggering around in the dark, unable to make themselves seen or heard. Though if you listen hard you can hear them cry, one-by-one: "Fuck emoting, let's get wasted and make out."

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Big Brother Celebrity Derailment - new breed of dogs, lapping up the same old shit

So after last year's continued degeneration into irredeemable repugnant farce, the Big Brother brand is trying to claw back some of the clever-clever integrity it embodied at the start. This time the kids are skilled and the celebrities are being given a chance to show off without showing themselves up - the sheer ugliness of humanity on both sides kept neatly hidden away. It's supposed to be a self-aware and a bit ironic, passing judgement on previous failings via reinvention. Obviously the whole thing massively undermined itself within minutes, and sent the whole mess shrieking further into cultural oblivion.

The key problem with Big Brother Celebrity Hijack isn't that it's boring, or that it's messed with the formula too much. It's that it blatantly tries to subvert the problem of both celeb and regular BB formats in one, and yet reinforces those very problems with such shambolic glee it's obvious they're just taking the piss.

First they deliberately send in mega-talented housemates as an antithesis to the regular fame-hungry march of the otherwise dammed. This is probably so that cultural theorists can see what it'd be like if reality TV didn't trade off the exploitation of deluded bottom rung dreamers. Shame, because this bunch of glossy, obnoxious prodigies prove even the upper echelons of achievement these days are Hollyoaks formatted. Unfeasibly hot and showbiz-friendly (Miss England! A racing car driver! A dancer! A singer! A boxer!) they are the first concession to the baseline BB audience. Not only do they underwrite the show's frightening insight into the future of the species but if this is what achievement looks like, it's really not giving this summer's Chanelles a taste of a higher-minded societal duty.

What have we learnt so far then? Well, it's nice to be clever, but only when you look good and do things that are faintly glamorous - don't worry, Big Brother won't ever accord value to anything else, even when it looks like it's trying to. 20-year-old John, the chubby, unfortunate looking Scottish Youth Parliament chairman, is the foil for proving this entire premise of the show; his introduction to the house and symbolic ousting to periphery looks like an incredibly deliberate meta play of the whole idea. Celeb Hijacker Matt Lucas (who no doubt identified John as his nearest stunt double match) picks him to be the foil for the first 'hilarious' exercise in manipulation, with a task that sees a stoop to levels of comedic laziness that's inane even by Lucas' standards. It destroys the potential for John to make any positive first impression amongst the clever hotties via a malevolent 'Simon says' routine, where Lucas dishes out idiotic instructions through a hidden ear piece. This gormless, uncomfortable ordeal not only regurgitates the whole Galloway affair (and John should've noted long ago, making a prat of yourself on BB does surprisingly little for one's political credence), but ensures the bar for what passes as entertainment is kept comfortably low. Yep, you're not going to be wishing Fonejacker was on instead - there'll certainly be no talk of Cartesian dualism here folks.

For anyone that was ever worried, it's reassuring. The life lessons Big Brother taught our generation aren't being undermined by Celebrity Hijack, and there's no need to re-write the rule book. It's just here to answer the nagging questions about Britain's celeb-fixated youth and reign all the variables back into the official myth. By the end of the first show everything's resolved and business as usual can be resumed. John naturally took his role as the anti-housemate in good humour, a merry pawn in this cruel cultural satire. A more socially conscious version of the moronic uglies from previous series he proves that if you can't be hot, be clever - and if you want to be popular, you'd better bring the funny too. I mean, just look at Matt Lucas, kids. Meanwhile, those who are burdened with a massive IQ can still be beauty queens. For the rest of you, there's still the summer version.