Wednesday, 28 September 2011

-Music Videos on my Mind- College (feat. Electric Youth) “A Real Hero”

Despite film critics praising Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's new movie Drive, which stars Ryan Gosling (the only actor of his generation who is adored by both men and women, equally); its pulpy mix of existential solemnity and tonally haphazard scenes of ultra-violence left me weary.

Drive makes a conscious effort to create a modern LA setting that has elements redolent of the 1980s.

From the credit titles, cinematography and music choices, Drive tiptoes on the precipice of period and present, though why it does this is never clear other than a blatant desire to be pretentious.

For all of Drive's faults (of which there are many), one thing you're guaranteed to remember is its inspired use of College and Electric Youth's gorgeous synthpop song A Real Hero.

A Real Hero has a timeless quality, so much so that you'll swear you've heard it countless times before, only it just came out this year.

Winding Refn's front and centre use of A Real Hero is surprising considering neither College nor Electric Youth are signed to a record label, meaning the song has no music video to promote it.

Instead, those who liked Drive, and loved its inclusion of A Real Hero, have created their own music videos for the song.

The internet has a number of bootleg versions effectively packaging and selling A Real Hero at no cost to either the artists or studio. It's a clever move and may set a viral trend for how some independent songs are marketed from now on.

Upon hearing the track I'm sure you will agree that the potential music video possibilities are endless. To me it screams out a thousand Diet Pepsi™ ads, garish neon lights, off-the-shoulder tops and a smiling Molly Ringwald all in one stunning montage.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

-Music Videos on my Mind- Sara Bareilles’ “Gonna Get Over You”

What can you say about Sara Bareilles?

Well, she's a singer, she's American, she has brown hair, she's unusually pretty and she has a nose to marvel at... like staring down the barrel of an exquisite shotgun.

As you do, Bareilles decided to approach comic actor Jonah Hill to direct the video for her new song Gonna Get Over You because getting hold of seasoned music video directors in the US remains a pretty tall order.

Gonna Get Over You is a spanking addition to the treasured American sub-genre of pop stars singing and dancing in the aisles of their neighbourhood grocery store, joining the esteemed music video ranks of Nerina Pallot's Everybody's Gone to War and The Mavericks Dance the Night Away.

Blame it on the British psyche, but can you honestly imagine wanting to film your à la mode music video at the local LiDL or in Mr. Singh's overpriced cornershop?

 It'd never happen.

Friday, 23 September 2011

-Music Videos on my Mind- Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Otis”

If two middle-aged black men were seen recklessly driving an unroadworthy car with a bunch of underage Puerto Rican girls in the back seat, the public would rightfully lose their minds and report it to the police.

The situation changes when the men in question are Jay-Z and Kanye West, whose track Otis, taken from their collaborative effort Watch the Throne, came out last month and featured a music video directed by A-list filmmaker Spike Jonze.

Now that the VMA's are over, which Jay-Z's solipsistic wife shamelessly used as a platform to theatrically announce her pregnancy (wouldn't a simple press release have been more graceful?), it's clear that Otis was little more than a vanity project for all those associated with it.

Watch the Throne had moderate success outside of US markets, and even in the US it sold less than half the amount Lil Wayne's Tha Carter IV shifted in its first week of sale.

Not to rumour, but is the lucrative trinity of J, K and B (the Lady Macbeth figure in this scenario) losing its sheen, or will the arrival of Jay-Z junior next spring boost revenues for all involved?

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

-Music Videos on my Mind- White Man Walking

British white guys with guitars must really like walking.

Seriously, you can't get more rock'n'roll than a moody bastard trying to walk in a straight line while crazy shit happens around him.

Richard Ashcroft did it in The Verve's Bitter Sweet Symphony, and Harry Potter actress Emma Watson walked the streets of New York in One Night Only's Say You Don't Want it.

Massive Attack recruited Shara Nelson to walk the streets of L.A. in Unfinished Sympathy, and Radiohead hired an actor to lie in an unnamed street while angry pedestrians fretted around him in Just.

Coldplay's Chris Martin walked forwards in both Yellow and Fix You, and then decided to walk backwards in The Scientist, ensuring he had all directions of physical movement covered. (He even went all-sideways in Strawberry Swing.)

This year has given us two distressed white guys with guitars walking down a street with mad things occurring around them.

First is Liverpool's The Wombats with Anti-D, an indie tune in which lead singer Matthew Murphy, dressed like a mortician's assistant, walks out of his house looking like a barrel of laughs while a barrage of cheery folk try to make him smile by being hyper-happy.

Next is Scotland's answer to R.E.M. (maybe that's too high a praise), Twin Atlantic's Make a Beast of Myself, in which lead singer Sam McTrusty upgrades the walking experience by strolling down a street in Berlin, causing people to freak out upon seeing him. (I think it may be because he's meant to be conceptually dead or something.)

As you know, the plight of British guitar music is a cause close to my heart, but the current crop of videos is letting the scene down badly.

Neither of the above songs are bad melodies. They are, in fact, good songs with both substance and meaning. Matthew Murphy is obviously singing about his own battles with depression, while Sam McTrusty has a stunningly emotive voice that's rife with anguished feelings.

The videos may be concept-driven but the execution is pretty lousy and that encumbers the overall effect. I think that both songs will have pleased me more if I had heard them on the radio first as opposed to watching them on television.

Walking down a street is all fine and well, but shouldn't we demand more from our white guys with guitars?

Saturday, 17 September 2011

-Music Videos on my Mind- Sak Noel’s “Loca People (la gente está muy loca)”

If memory serves me right, there's a passage in Brett Easton Ellis' novel The Rules of Attraction, and most definitely in the movie adaptation, where an American character called Victor says that sex with European girls is basically a numbers game: The logic being if you stand on a street corner of any major European city and consecutively ask every girl you see if she'll 'fuck you', one out of twenty will say yes right there and then.

This seems more like an American (and probably global) fantasy about the loose moral decline of European women, but in some ways it has been exploited by the very people who ought to be denouncing it.

Spanish producer Sak Noel has directed a music video for his dance track Loca People (la gente está muy loca) that mercilessly panders to the perception that all European chicks are promiscuous nymphos.

He must be doing something right because the song and video has charted at pole position across numerous European territories.

Loca People is shameless in pretty much every way, including its annoying catchiness. No doubt it serves as great promotion for the Mediterranean sex tourist board.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

-Music Videos on my Mind- When it Pays to be Rupert Wainwright

There are some big questions in life for which there remain no clear answers, like:

  • Why do lots of Oriental guys always make peace signs when posing for photographs?
  • Why do lots of black guys mispronounce the word 'ask'?
  • Why does only one highly educated British white guy like Rupert Wainwright end up on the FBI's radar for making a rap music video?

You see, Rupert Wainwright is a middle-class bloke born and raised in the leafy Cotswolds.

After graduating from Oxford University, Wainwright tried to earn some money by becoming an actor but couldn't cut it.

Stuck in a rut, Wainwright upped sticks and went to UCLA on a Fulbright scholarship to study film. To make ends meet he started directing music videos.

By this point it was the late-1980s and Wainwright struck gold by getting the gig for directing NWA's title track for their hugely controversial Straight Outta Compton video.

With Straight Outta Compton, the appointment of Wainwright as director was an inspired choice. He knew exactly which buttons to push in order to get Caucasian consumers from middle-America to buy into the forbidden appeal of NWA.

The maelstrom of political hullabaloo that followed ensured NWA's debut album sold in excess of 3 million units, making both the group and Wainwright overnight millionaires.

Wainwright's vision for the Straight Outta Compton gave West Coast rap a visual reference point. He took a seemingly dangerous scene and turned it into an accessible and saleable entity, resulting in 80% of Straight Outta Compton's sales coming from the lucrative suburbs and beyond the boundaries of black neighbourhoods.

Straight Outta Compton's music video was about as shit as everything else in Wainwright's career (he also directed MC Hammer's You Can't Touch This), but the idea that a posh kid from the serene English countryside could be identified as a national threat because of his involvement with a rap group, astounds me.

Straight Outta Compton may epitomise the worst of American gang culture, but perhaps it demonstrates the best in British marketing.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Where Have All the White Guys Gone?

White guys with guitars are in crisis.

The once prevailing species of chart domination is now crawling along the streets of Britain, forlornly congregating outside the decaying doors of record labels, scratching at windows and grunting through letterboxes. They moan like members of the walking dead, seeking a revival of the long gone halcyon days when rock'n'roll music was mainstay in the British charts and insipid urban music was nothing more than an underground niche activity practiced by young offenders.

Times have changed and the smug nature of white guys with guitars has taken a severe beating. Last year saw the number of rock songs in the singles chart fall to its lowest level in half a century, with only three tracks appearing in the top 100 best-selling hits in the UK. The percentage of rock songs plummeted from a lacklustre 13% in 2009 to a despairing 3% in 2010; far behind hip-hop/R'n'B at 47%, pop at 40% and dance 10%.

To add further woe, the most successful rock song of 2010 turned out to be Journey's Don't Stop Believing. This was further indication that the only way to save rock music is to have it filtered through the Glee cast.

So how has it gone so wrong for white guys with guitars? How have they managed to ruin such a great run that's lasted almost 50 years?

15 years ago Britain was in the frenzied grip of a movement known as Britpop. Britpop was seen as a shining moment for the British music industry; a leftfield reaction to the American grunge scene that preceded it and the manufactured pop confections that came after. It was during the Britpop phase we saw bands like Blur, Oasis, Suede, Pulp and countless other guitar groups that cherished both lyricism and melody. Britpop was huge and for the first time in years provided Britain with a cultural backdrop that burrowed its way into film, fashion, journalism, politics and pretty much every aspect of 90s British life. The cornerstone of Britpop's success lay in guitar music and white guys were at the forefront of this mighty force.

Then everything sputtered and stalled. Guitar bands became interchangeable, producing transposable rhythms and styles, making everything sound depressingly familiar and dull. Added to this was the proliferation of illegal filesharing which effectively destroyed the established hegemony of big record companies. Labels became greatly perturbed and sought safer investments, turning to Svengalis like Simon Cowell and Simon Fuller to provide them with reliable products.

Now the music landscape in Britain has altered in ways we never saw coming. Urban music has metamorphosed into pop music, losing much of its perceived danger. Furthermore, generic pop acts sprung from televised talent shows like X Factor and Pop Idol have become the biggest selling sounds, dominating all the top chart places. More importantly, American pop music has become ever more ubiquitous in the British charts; a far cry from the 1990s when even the biggest US acts failed to chart well in the UK top-40.

Despite the doom and gloom there are some guitar acts still flying the flag for British music, but even they are witnessing diminishing returns.

The Arctic Monkeys are arguably the biggest thing in contemporary British alternative music, but their sales have receded badly. 2009's Humbug sold only a fifth of the amount their 2006 debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. Their latest album Suck It and See fared even worse, shifting only 154,000 units worldwide, a far cry from the 360,000 copies their debut amassed in the UK in just its first week of sale.

Arctic Monkeys - The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala

Other guitar acts like The Fratellis, The Rakes, The Twang, The Rascals, The Pigeon Detectives, The Wombats, The View and Hard-Fi have all returned in the last few years with new albums only to see their efforts flop, ultimately convincing some of them to either keep on idly persevering or to get real jobs.

On a cultural note, the death of guitar music certainly bucks the notion that austere times produce more meaningful songs. After all, the economic hardship of the late-1970s produced British bands like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Joy Division, The Cure and The Smiths.

Despite the British economy suffering its longest period of economic fallout in a generation, there have been no new bands that are creating music that reflects the pained mood the country's feeling. Despite experiencing the worst social riots Britain has seen in a generation there are hardly any songs that echo the brooding unrest and fury the country is obviously feeling.

Even the US recession of the early-1990s gave voice to angry American bands like Mudhoney, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, L7, Riot grrrl, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Dickless and Pearl Jam to name a few. America was caught in a depressive quagmire and was ready to feel miserable about itself, hence why the songs of Paula Abdul and Wilson Phillips were no longer relevant to a new generation of kids growing up during hard times.

I will argue that America is in an even worse state right now yet its charts are dominated by vacuous pop acts like Black Eyed Peas, Bruno Mars and Katy Perry: acts that have nothing to say about what the nation and its people are going through.

To bring it back home, British white guys with guitars are trying to get their act together and launch another assault on the manufactured pop dominion festering at the top. Bands like Joy Formidable, Foals, Everything Everything, Bombay Bicycle Club, The Vaccines, Yuck and Two Door Cinema Club are hanging in the ether, biding their time, waiting for people to bore of decks and embrace electric stringed instruments again. If there's one thing any British music aficionado knows it's that our music press, which is dominated by middle-class Caucasian men, feels uncomfortable writing about black music or unworthy pop acts. They in particular are aching for music consumers to get real and start buying records by bands that reflect the truth, if only to keep them in work.

If You Wanna by The Vaccines

Get Away by Yuck

They may be waiting a while because it's hard to see Britain tiring of pseudo urban culture or reality television pop gods any time soon. The demographics of Britain are seriously changing and ethnic prominence is becoming harder to ignore. It's difficult to see how a bunch of largely affluent white people who yell out their lyrics can reflect the experiences of an increasing young black and Muslim population in Britain. The only way around this is for adolescent minority groups to take an interest in rock music and for radio stations to broadcast their creative output. After all, the lyrics to a song like The Smiths Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now or Pulp's Disco 2000 are relevant to all cultures residing in Britain, yet one cannot think of anyone other than white acts writing such music.

The guitar may be the providence of rich white kids who prefer to dress like they're poor, but British urban music has become increasingly about white kids acting like they're black. Therefore the only way to shake things up is for an elemental act of assimilation whereby guitar music gets some colour and ethnic groups―probably the very ones who have the most interesting observations about modern life in Britain―take arms and reinvent guitar music in fresh, exciting and truly wondrous ways.

If there's one thing I know about Britain it's that we have some of the most amazing bands ever and create brilliant songs that travel globally. Unlike America where angry people have the option to pull out a movie camera and make a film about their experiences, we pick up our guitars and sing about how crap everything is.

Meaningful song writing is in our blood and the guitar is our weapon of choice. It's a shame to lose that.