Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Fourth Most Depressingly Influential Record Ever

4. Bob Dylan- Blowin' In The Wind

"How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?" How many, Bob? Say, about, ooh, six? What's that? The answer is blowing in the wind? Well, thanks for that, Bob. Not at all wasting my time, then.

I've always been suspicious of lyric-heavy music. Music, for me, is about feel first, and if the words make you think well, that's a bonus. Poetry simply set to music feels forced or jarring. And musicians don't seem to be best qualified to tell me about the world - a coke-addled hedonist is more than welcome to cheer me up or bring me down with a well-executed chord change, but get them to try to explain my existence in the universe and they're on pretty rocky ground.

Not that I don't love Bob Dylan. "Subterranean Homesick Blues" is a brilliantly surreal string of non-sequiturs, and his later work is wonderfully curmudgeonly - is there a more world-weary chorus than "I used to care, but things have changed"? But "Blowin' In The Wind" was the first in a long line of cod-philosophical yawners, the first link in a chain that ended with Sting singing about blue turtles.

My main problem with this song is that it inspired many, many oh-so-earnest singer-songwriters with lesser talents to have a go. Chris Martin, a would-be philosopher who contributed to Q magazine's recent Dylan tribute issue, sang "Climb up, up in the trees, Every chance you get, is a chance you seize." (Speed Of Sound). Which may apply to monkeys but says nothing to me about my life. Coldplay understudies Embrace are currently boring the arse off the charts with "Nature's Law", which features such platitudes as "you should never fight your feelings, when your very bones believe them... You have to follow nature's law." Yes, I'm sure that will stand up in court.

Alanis Morrisette, Oasis, Pete Doherty, all are guilty of producing lyrics which intend to be profound but in the end signify nothing. And it all started with Bob, and lines like, "how many times must a man look up, before he sees the sky?" Well, that one's easy. Assuming he's outside, just the once.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Stand-Up Misery

The Distractor is a keen friend and supporter of The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and this August, as last year, we will be reporting from the festival, recommending what we think are the stand-out shows and warning you of the ones to avoid. So a film all about the festival should be right up our street, shouldn't it?

Annie Griffin's Festival is possibly the most depressing film about comedy ever made. Tackling subjects as varied as post-natal depression, child abuse, suicide, alcoholism, adultery and fisting, it follows various characters performing in and working around the Fringe. Altman-style, they interact, mostly either arguing with or shagging each other.

Two characters come off worst - the attractive, ambitious and fantastically untalented female comic, and a complete arse of a successful comic who just has to be based on Steve Coogan. But in truth, no-one comes off well. Comedians are variously depicted as whiny, self-obsessed, manipulative and generally dysfuctional. Journalists are world-beaten cynics, critics are self-important tossers (one lambasts a comedian for openly "trying to get a laugh"). The only vaguely sympathetic characters are the young drama students: innocent, passionate about their work, and performing the most pretentious bollocks you can imagine.

The talent on display is certainly impressive. Writer and Director Annie Griffin continues to show the mix of subtlety and surrealism she displayed on the fantastic "The Book Group", and the cast is made up of pretty much every up-and-coming young comic actor. It's an engaging story, and it does have some interesting things to say about how comedians, and in particular comedy promoters, have hijacked the festival. It's an accurate, if very glass-half-empty representation of what the festival is like. But it does forget that it is entirely possible to go along to the festival and actually, you know, enjoy yourself.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Fifth Most Depressingly Influential Record Ever

All that is bad about music today is a result of the records we're about to count down - not necessarily the worst records of all time, but those that exerted the most negative influence. The world is a slightly poorer place for each of these. Feel the heckles rise...

5. Starship - Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now
The three components of this particular axis of evil had been around for some time: the "rock ballad" had festered since the days of Stairway To Heaven, had the life sucked out of it by Chicago and been pummelled into submission by Jennifer Rush's "Power Of Love"; the movie tie-in, or the song which tells emotional cripples how to feel during the soppy bits of an action movie, had spawned Berlin's "Take My Breath Away" from Top Gun; and Diane Warren was but a jobbing songwriter penning fun stuff like DeBarge's "Rhythm Of The Night".

But in 1987 these planets became aligned and catastophe followed. What surprised everyone was how much of a success Diane Warren's composition "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" was, given that the movie from which it was taken (Mannequin - tagline: Just because Jonathan's fallen in love with a piece of wood, it doesn't make him a dummy) was shockingly awful, and that Starship were pretty much washed-up hacks. The secret was an unholy synergy: the film advertised the record, the record was an advert for the film, and, like turds polishing one another, both became a success.

So, as usual, the formula was repeated ad infinitum. Diane Warren became a specialist in weepy widescreen schlock (Aerosmith's "I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing", Leanne Rimes, the whole Celine Dion back catalogue) and, worst of all, inspired countless copycat atrocities (there's one in every single Disney film since). Because it was a doddle to write one.

Really. Here's how. Find a generic, meaningless yet vaguely positive title, preferably using words like "wanna" or "gonna". Start your first verse slowly and relatively quietly - your "artist" is going to want to save something for later. Use a minor key, as your shift into major for the chorus is going to be the bit when the hero pushes his way through the crowd to get to the heroine, so you want full tearjerk potential. Under no circumstances should you include a middle 8 - that's just confusing. Then a brief pause, a descending drum fill (you know, the one Phil Collins extended and made a career out of) and then into the final chorus. The artist loves this bit as it's where they can show off, doing all sorts of vocal gymnastics while leaving the basics of the song to the hired help.

So, to summarise: generic, unchallenging manupulative songs sung to order by people who'd be better off in Blood Brothers. Today, they live on in the likes of Westlife, as well as inside every X Factor auditionee. If and when Jordan and Peter Andre carry out their threat to release "A Whole New World", we will be able to play it to Diane Warren and say, "This is all your fault. Happy now?"

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Point

After a brief but necessary period of reflection, I thought it worth re-stating our manifesto. We like to think of Popular Culture as an errant child. Because we believe in the principle of positive reinforcement, we occasionally like to point out the things it does well, and praise it generously for them. But sometimes that isn't enough, and an errant child sometimes needs stronger discipline.

We like to think of ourselves as a Young Offender's Institute for Popular Culture.

So welcome back to the Distractor: a place to think, a place to rant, a place to shelter from the deluge of excrement, a place to celebrate those little beacons of light in the dark, dark night. A place where it is never, ever, Chico Time.