Category Archives: Television

Why the vinyl revival can sod off as far as I’m concerned

Straight off the bat, for the record, I love Danny Baker as a radio broadcaster; his Saturday morning show on Radio 5 live beautifully demonstrates his story-telling skills, his appreciation of the mythology of the mundanity of everyday life, his understanding of how the format of radio works, and his extensive charm and humanity. It’s funny, and fun, and moving, and I love it.

But last night I watched the first part of his Great Album Showdown on BBC4 and it pretty much infuriated me from start to finish.

I could blame Jeremy Clarkson, one of the anointed foursome discussing what makes a great ‘rock’ LP, but by this point his persona as a caricature of a grumpy old man stuck in the 70s is beyond the worth of criticising. He is who he is, and if you take him seriously, in either direction, you’re an idiot too. I could blame Kate Mossman, for her bizarre assertion that glam and punk were opposites, which is a strange bit of garbled received wisdom that was rightly shot down by the other three (received wisdom being the enemy of criticism and thought in general). I could blame Baker himself, for his unwittingly throwaway sexist remark about not expecting “a woman” to like a particular record (presumably let alone a young, pretty one). Stephen Street, a self-confessed pop fan rather than a rock fan, and the final member of the four, looked uncomfortable, squirmed in his seat when Clarkson anointed Supertramp as the greatest thing ever, and seemed annoyed with the rockism ambushing him from all sides. He was the only one I could really identify with.

So instead, I’ll blame vinyl.

But of course, I’m not really blaming vinyl as a material, or even as an inferior vehicle for the delivery of recorded music (CD has a wider dynamic range when used properly, etcetera); I’m blaming it as a signifier, as a loaded totem of rockist bullshit.

Every time someone eulogies vinyl, they seem to necessarily slag CDs at the same time, and in the process of doing that they’re voiding the cultural experiences and values of a large swathe of music fans.

Because there are lots of people around my age for whom CD was the format through which they experienced music; certainly in our house there are a couple of thousand CDs and barely a hundred pieces of vinyl. Even my brothers, 9 and 11 years older than me, who’ve both been in bands and worked in record shops and so on, have shelves stuffed with CDs rather than crates full of vinyl. We don’t love music any less than the likes of Clarkson and Baker and Mossman, but you wouldn’t think so from last night’s program, or the seemingly endless vinyl-fetishists waxing lyrical about their favoured delivery method online or in print for what seems like the last decade.

Physically, to me, vinyl is an awkward, ungainly thing, difficult to hold in 12” form, easily scratched and made dirty, literally degrading every time you play it (by scraping a needle over a delicate material!), easily warped if not stored with great care. I dislike having to break a mood to change sides, the awkwardness of trying to access a specific song.

In terms of the sound, the warmth that so many people describe vinyl as enjoying just sounds like surface noise to me most of the time, a veil through which detail often has to struggle to emerge. I know a well-maintained vinyl collection and record player can sound superlative, but I prefer the sound of a good CD player; and it’s easier to look after, too. (I use a Rega Apollo for preference; noted for its warmth and detail, if you’re concerned about that type of thing.)

Vinyl’s also expensive and hard to find these days compared to CDs, and in my music-buying history, the last 20 years, has always been thus. Aside from the choice 12” decorations displayed in Urban Outfitters, I literally can’t buy any new vinyl in the city where I live. There is a secondhand shop, catering to old music obsessives and ignoring those after the thrill of the new and the now, but the secondhand market for original pressings and other collectors’ items baffles and disgusts me; scarcity and exclusivity are the two favourite assets of free-market economics and capitalist frenzy. If it’s rare; it’s worth more. Last night Danny Baker mentioned that one LP he had was worth well over £1,000. If you place more onus on the fiscal worth of your music’s format than the emotional and aesthetic worth of your music’s affect, then we’re talking at cross purposes from the very start. I used to deliberately buy debut vinyl singles by indie bands in the 90s and sell them on, circa debut album success and higher profile, for big profits, because it enabled me to buy, and enjoy, more music. The most I’ve ever paid for an album is £36, for the 4CD box set of Zaireeka.

In terms of the wider mythology and affection which surrounds vinyl, the stories people tell about it beyond, y’know, actually listening to it, well; all the things people enthuse about having done with LPs – read the lyrics while listening, studied the artwork, pored over the production credits, even skinned up a joint or chopped out a line on them – people have also done with CDs. These experiences are every bit as valid and meaningful and powerful as their wax analogues, and dismissing them – whether deliberately or as a side-effect of the display of your own preferences – is unpleasant and unnecessary.

Because the discourse which so often surrounds vinyl can often and easily be alienating and elitist and gatekeeperish. Vinyl fans will dismiss CDs as soulless, but the 12” LP evolved directly as a capitalist tool of record companies to increase profits by coercing music fans into paying money for songs they may not necessarily want.

Chris Molanphy gave a presentation at the 2011 EMP conference about the history of the Billboard Hot 100 chart and how it, well, charted the (US) music industry’s tempestuous relationship with the single and the tactics it’s used to make us buy albums (and the way it’s marginalized black and female performers by ghettoizing the genres they often work in as ‘singles’ genres, thus keeping big album profits by and large for white men). I wasn’t at the conference but yesterday Chris kindly sent me a PDF of his slides and notes; it’s fascinating reading. I’ve asked him to put it online permanently for posterity, and if he does, I’ll link it.

My conclusion from Chris’ work is that much of rock mythology is a lie, concocted, like most lies since the industrial revolution (and probably since the dawn of human history), in order to make people part with something in order to benefit the liar. The music industry wants us to worship the LP rather than the single in order to draw more money out of us, and the esteem within which vinyl is held is a part of this mythology. The side effect of this, of course, is a whole heap of wonderful albums that we love, but the application of even the slightest bit of Marxist cultural theory should make us question the ontology of the music that we love; the means of production influences the means of consumption, and vice versa. It’s partly this questioning that makes me favour the CD as my musical carrier of choice. The CD just fits best, for me, right now. And has done for 20 years.

(I got my first CD player 20 years ago this May, for the record; for my 14th birthday.)

The CD has its issues as well, of course – it’s encouraged hideous mastering practices, and made incalculable profits for a greedy industry in the 90s, the fallout of which is being felt now. (Interestingly CD sales, and thus profits, start falling at about the time CD mastering starts going off-the-scale into idiocy, which is also when downloading begins to get a foothold; there’s a PhD’s worth of research and pontification here.)

I asked people on twitter, unrelatedly, just before the program started last night, to tell me one thing that made them love a particular song; I got a dozen and more responses, and none of them mentioned the format it was on. Lyrics, melodies, sounds, specific bits of arrangements, emotions; all mentioned. But no one mentioned vinyl, or CD, or MP3, or Ogg Vorbis or wax cylinder or 8-track or cassingle or anything else. It was the music they were bothered about, not the delivery system.

So I think what irritated me most about last night’s show, and the vinyl revival in general, is the idea and myth of rock music, this hoary, old, patriarchal dog that refuses to die. Vinyl, in its totemic form, is a symbol of that. The people programming the media now – the executives and controllers and senior presenters – are in their 50s and 60s; vinyl is their format, rock is their era, and they wont let us forget about it. But their experiences are not everyone else’s. They’re certainly not mine. If rock was ever about change and energy and youth and the future, it needs to get over its past.

So, essentially, I’m irritated by the vinyl revival, if we’re calling it that, because I often feel like my experience as a music fan is being written off as invalid because it wasn’t mediated with vinyl. I resent being made to feel as if I don’t like music as much as someone else because I was born at a time when the ‘wrong’ format was in vogue. The format itself is fine, and beautiful, and can sound wonderful, and if you prefer it as your carrier for music, all power to your elbow. But don’t diminish my experiences to do so.

Postscript
Purely by chance, Sony have announced that they’ll cease production of their final minidisc player in March, news of which lead me to this old ILM thread from 2003 pitching minidisc against MP3 (minidisc seems to come out best!), wherein Jonesey drops some science about why CDs actually are better than vinyl on a technical level, busting myths about sampling-rates and so on.

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God bless Danny Boyle: the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony


I wasn’t planning on watching the Olympic opening ceremony last night; Emma turned it on, which was unexpected as she’s been a vocal Olympic cynic for years now, pretty much since the day after it was announced, when the London bombings smashed the sense of celebration and positivism that should have resulted.

Living the best part of 200 miles from London, in a part of the country not really associated with sports, I’ve not felt the Olympic spirit. Earlier this year we visited the shopping centre that’s sprung up adjacent to the Olympic Park, and it felt like an awful, crass monument to capitalism, a soulless vacuum of a place. We spent a chunk of the evening in a casino, feeling miserable for the people who were throwing away money. I’ve not been expecting to feel impassioned or involved in what’s going on over the next two weeks at all.

Part of me suspects Emma wanted to watch it to be part of a shared spectacle, something which we’re both seemingly increasingly keen on, in our own funny ways, and which social media is aiding massively. On a Friday evening we’d normally stick a film on or watch aimless American comedy, crack open a bottle of wine, and mentally and physically unwind. Last night we sat on the sofa, drank water, watched a celebration of sport and culture, and tweeted with people from around the world who were all, as far as I could tell, feeling the same way we were.

It seems shallow, but I knew the Olympic Opening Ceremony was going to be… different… the moment that I recognised the sound of Surf Solar by Fuck Buttons soundtracking the introductory film. It wasn’t the Tory-friendly, establishment-reinforcing, monarchist approach I’d expected.

I wasn’t expecting much from Danny Boyle’s ceremony, but it blew me away. It wasn’t about corporations or politicians or even, bar one brief, grand, tongue-in-cheek entrance (as much about frolicking corgis as dutiful monarchs), about heads of state: it was about this little cluster of islands and countries, joined but different, and the people who live in them, and the culture we create together, and the sportsmen and sportswomen, who come from all conceivable backgrounds, and compete not for money or fame, but for glory, and for joy, and for each other.

I could write about everything in great detail and at great length, from the soundtrack, which was wonderful, or the historical references, or the cultural nods to TV, film, literature, or the moving tribute to people who should have been there but weren’t, or the celebration of the NHS, which our current government seem to want to do away with but which embodies the spirit and helps the people of this country far more than our political system or our monarchy or even our sports, but I wouldn’t do it justice. I regularly had tears in my eyes. Even this morning, reading last night’s tweets from all and sundry, or the reports in online papers, or seeing footage of our cycling team talking about riding for each other, I’m welling up again.

I don’t, as a rule, identify as a patriot, instead preferring to trot out a line about where you’re born being an accident, about how you should be proud of things you choose, not random things that happen to you. But actually, last night made me realise that being patriotic isn’t about loving the place you’re from. It’s about loving the people, and the crazy, insane, beautiful, compassionate, ludicrous and wonderful things they do.

God bless you, Danny Boyle, for making me feel humble and proud.

Exeter Shorts Film Festival

About 18 months ago I managed to convince the manager of our local multiplex cinema that she ought to screen the film Splice, because Mark Kermode had made it sound intriguing and nowhere else in Exeter (not the other multiplex, the arts centre, nor the chain arthouse cinema) had it scheduled. Amazingly, for someone who works for a corporate behemoth, she agreed, on the condition that I convince 12 other people to come along so that she could break even (and on the understanding that it would be screened at 11pm). Me being me, I went to Twitter and Facebook and emailed some contacts from when I ran the film department of the university library, and managed to gather 20 odd people for a Friday (late) night at the cinema to watch some schlock sci-fi horror. At least half a dozen people I didn’t know also turned up, and I gather that at least someone went to watch it each night it was on that week. Everyone’s a winner.

About a year later that same multiplex manager, Ros, announced that she was going to run a short film competition for local young filmmakers, and asked me, on the grounds that I’m gobby and not shy of giving an opinion, if I’d be on the judges panel. Of course I said yes; having judged battles of the bands, and both assistant directed and acted in short films by excellent local film makers, it seemed both a pretty logical step and a nice way to return the favour she’d paid me with Splice.

So Ros pretty much single-handedly went about setting up a website for people to upload films to, organising a judging panel (also including the director of Animated Exeter, a young filmmaker on Ros’ staff at the cinema, someone who works for a local film & TV production company and who teaches at Plymouth University, and a local arts education specialist), and soliciting entries from young people across the region in two categories; under 16s, and 16 to 24.

Many months, many emails, many films, and several meetings in person followed, culminating in last night, when the finalist’s films were shown on the big screen in front of a sizeable audience (replete with popcorn) at Ros’ cinema. Each finalist got a certificate and a splice of celluloid from an actual film (frames of Twilight and Sherlock proving unsurprisingly popular – the cinema is replacing all its film projectors with digital over the coming months), with the winners and highly commended choice in each category getting another certificate (we’d have loved to have given something more substantial as a prize, but had literally no budget; website et al was entirely due to people’s generosity) and a day’s work experience at the TV & film production company.

Judging was made difficult by the surprisingly high standard of the entries; every film had something to commend it, and there was significant bartering and opinion-swaying amongst the judges. We had stop-motion animations, experimental black + white mysteries, action films, zombie films, and more – and that was just in the under 16s category. A tight visual joke, an unexpectedly stylish camera move, a sophisticated use of sound – the pleasures of the under 16s films were many and varied, and I can see several of the entrants going on to do even better things in the coming years. In fact, if they don’t, I’ll be having words.

Joe, the u16 winner, submitted several stop-motion animations, all characterised by being very tight, funny, and sophisticated, often fulcrumming on a simple visual joke (often very clever and metatextual in nature, like the punchline of Cat Golf, which revolved around the cat’s golfball not going down the hole because, obviously, the hole isn’t a hole at all, but a black plasticene circle – Magritte-esque) and containing absolutely no narrative or visual fat. He’s 11, and you could see definite progression in the films chronologically as he tried new ideas (lip-synching to audio! Human intervention in his plasticene characters’ worlds!). I suspect that a future at Aardman beckons. This is the winning entry, which we thought combined humour, pathos, and ambition in spades. And all portrayed by a lump of plasticene.

The u16 highly commended entry was another stop-motion animation, an ambitious project from a local village primary school which included almost all the pupils from 7 years old upwards, whether they were scripting, animating, voicing, or filming. The aspiration behind such a large venture, getting a whole primary school involved, and giving kids in a tiny, sleepy, but beatific (I ride through it semi-regularly) Devon village the chance to engage with the kind of creative arts normally reserved for city kids was wonderful. Plus, again, it was pretty funny!

Unsurprisingly there was a quality leap from the under 16s to the 16-24 category in some ways; many of the 16-24 entrants were doing A levels or degree courses in media-related areas, with access to equipment and expertise that younger kids just wouldn’t have. Projects were longer, generally live-action, and ambitious in scope, if often more than a little adolescent in subject matter – there was a raft of horror films (mainly from female directors; it was heartening to have so many female entrants in this category, actually), and some were predictably much better than others. Again, though, there were pleasures to be had from every film; a surreal and effective performance by an actor, a breathtakingly well-composed bit of framing, tight storytelling that managed to convey a narrative without any dialogue, or a genuinely multi-layered grasp of humour.

The winning film didn’t come from someone with the support of a media studies department at school though; the director is from a grammar school which eschews that kind of subject, and this was the first time he’d ever tried to make a film, shooting the entire thing on a DSLR with a 50mm lens, experimenting with lighting and capturing sound as best he could. Talking to him last night confirmed that narrative was almost an afterthought, which we suspected, but nonetheless we felt that Platform One was exquisitely shot and well edited, and felt like the most “high quality” submission we received. As a film competition, we felt we had to reward the best film qua film. That he could so effectively tell a slight story suggests great things in future; give the man a proper narrative and slightly improved pacing, and he’ll make something even more impressive.

It was a close call over which film won, though, and in fact the ‘highly commended’ award was suggested by me as a way of distinguishing between the top two films in this category. Because the runner-up would have won on any other day, I suspect, and only some slightly loose editing and pacing (which, to be fair, was tightened up quite a bit for the screening) cost this spoof music documentary, or rockumentary if you will, the top prize. A film most definitely of the YouTube generation, with its to-camera asides, editing that somehow recalls the humorous use of html strikethrough tags, and gags about inappropriate search-engine-optimisation in song titles, it’s layered with laugh-out-loud moments which come from an array of places; gentle mocking of its principal characters’ pretensions, an irreverent attitude towards both music makers and fans, visual gags, and tiny references and subtleties you simply don’t notice first time around (the hapless documenter being named after Holden Caulfield, for instance). If you’ve ever played gooseberry between a “rockstar” and a female admirer or felt that the depth of your fandom deserved attention from the object of that fandom, you’ll cringe just as much as laugh. Give these guys a budget and a camera crew, and let them concentrate fully on scripting and acting, and they’ll be amazing.

I had a great time being a judge for Exeter Shorts, unsurprisingly, and we’re hopeful, given the success and attention this start-up venture has had (plenty of coverage in local media; a full cinema screen – that picture up top is from the screening; and some amazingly promising work by young filmmakers), that Vue Cinemas will continue to support it, and, with luck, make it a national thing; as far as I’m concerned, it’s exactly the sort of venture that big cinema companies should be undertaking in order to encourage the development of the talent that needs to feed the industry if its to continue to be successful; not everyone who takes part will go on to become Terence Malick (or even Michael Bay), but there are countless editors, producers, cinematographers and so on and so forth who make film & television what it is, and who need to cut their teeth.

There was much applause, as there should have been, for the filmmakers last night, but I need to make a word of thanks to Ros; not only is she the kind of person who’ll challenge her management for the sake of a good idea (be it screening some obscure, atypical-for-the-chain film at the behest of a mouthy customer, or something actually worthwhile!), she’s also the kind of person who gets things done through force of will and energy. She’s given dozens of kids a platform through which they can gain experience and exposure, which is invaluable. Good work.

Writing on Twitter

(I’m helping someone with their PhD research by keeping a writing diary for them about this blog and other writing I do; this post was written for there originally but got so long and seemed like it might be interesting enough that I thought I might as well put it here.)

At the time of writing (7-8am on Sunday morning) I have made 11,418 tweets. Before the day is out I imagine I will have made many more. At an average of 13 words per tweet (which I calculated by counting the words in about a dozen recent ‘average’ tweets) this amounts to 148,434 words. At 300 words per page, a 300-page novel would comprise of 90,000 words. So, since the start of 2009, which is approximately when I started using Twitter, I have written enough words to make a 500-page novel, give or take. Clearly this is a pretty substantial amount of writing, and it should probably be considered with as much rigour, perhaps, as my long-form writing, be that blogging, reviewing, or anything else. Whether or not it’s possible to analyse my tweeting in quite that depth, I’m unsure.

Some quick facts about my tweeting habits. My Twitter account uses the same online identity or ‘brand’ as my blog (www.twitter.com/sickmouthy). I currently follow 533 people and I have 736 followers. I tweet from wherever I am using whatever tools are to hand; often this is my iPhone when out-and-about, my work computer or our home iMac when sitting at a desk, but most commonly it is probably the iPad while sitting in the house on the sofa or an easy chair. On the iPhone, iPad, and iMac, I use the official Twitter app to tweet; from work I use the Twitter website via the Firefox browser for my own account, and software called Hootsuite via the Chrome browser for the work account I run (685 Tweets, probably 600+ made by me, 623 following, 503 followers). I have tried several different Tweeting applications over the last two and a bit years and now settled into a comfortable routine for the time being.

My tweets have essentially four different types: conversations, observations, participations, and repetitions. Conversations are replies to and comments at people I know about subjects I’m interested in – most commonly music, but also film, football, cycling, television, cooking, and anything else you might talk about in person or online. I suspect this makes up the bulk of my tweeting, and most of these tweets are between myself and people I know ‘outside’ of twitter – my wife, two key work colleagues / friends, my brother-in-law, a handful of fellow music geeks / writers / fans who I have met online and in person over the last decade or so, many of whom I consider to be friends, plus a few other friends who use the platform.

Observations are (hopefully) pithy, witty, insightful, or clever remarks made at no one in particular, in the hope that people will find them interesting and/or that they will spark conversations. A recent example is the sentence “I am helping Adele to pay less tax by not buying her records” which I adapted from something someone said on a music forum that I agreed with, in relation to the singer Adele’s recent reaction of displeasure to having a big tax bill due to having sold millions of albums.

Participations can be both conversations and/or observations, but they are related to specific cultural events, usually occurring at the time they are being tweeted about. Essentially they are the Twitter ‘buzz’ that gets talked about in media channels, the ‘flurries’ of comments on and discussions about current affairs, be that superinjunctions, the Arab Spring, X Factor, the European Cup Final, or anything else that happens in the world. If enough people talk about these things, marking their tweets with a hashtag to mak them more easily findable and associable with the given topic, they can become trends, locally or even globally. Trends are exactly what you might imagine; lots of people talking about one issue for a time. Trends, and therefore participations, may not be about current affairs, and may just be random memes that have caught favour and inspired amusement amongst people; I don’t tend to participate in these as much as more current affairs based participations. Emma and I both agree that live TV occurrences, such as X Factor, become almost exponentially more enjoyable if you participate via Twitter, chatting with friends, watching the comments of celebrities, and generally being ‘swept up’ in the moment, in the event. While BBC iPlayer, personal digital TV recorders like Sky+, SkyAnytime, and other internet streaming TV solutions make it possible to watch what you want, when you want, where you want, many programmes totally lose their sense of occurrence and enjoyability if you watch them after the Twitter buzz has subsided.

Repetitions are just that; ‘retweets’ of what other people have said that I agree with, or would like the people who follow me to see; these tweets are therefore not actively written by me. I’m not sure what proportion of my overall tweets this makes-up, but it’s not much – I do considerably more of it for the work account I run.

Why do I tweet? Because I like talking to people, I like expressing my opinions, I have a compulsion to write on the internet in various forms, and I like the microscopic sense of affirmation that comes from people replying to you, retweeting something you’ve posted, or deigning to follow you.

How do I compose tweets? I’ve got pretty good at this, meaning that I seldom have to think about truncating things I want to tweet or even use internet shorthand symbols etcetera; I seem to be able to compose thoughts into 140-character chunks without much effort. I guess I’ve had plenty of practice… I rarely if ever compose a tweet and then fail to publish / send it, which is probably why I have posted so many. It would seem like wasted time to me; and I’m not particularly precious about my writing – once it’s written, it might as well be read. Twitter encourages a definite sense of ephemerality in writing.

Replies in conversations come very organically; standalone observations sometimes occur to me in advance and get mulled around a little before being typed, but not by much – I’ve generally got a device I can tweet from to hand. I don’t think I’ve ever emailed my self a reminder of something I’d like to tweet (except for my work account) or ever made a plan of a series of tweets or tweet subjects I’d like to engage in (again, except for my work account, which is approached more ‘strategically’ than my personal account – although, clearly, the fact that I consider it to be part of my personal ‘online brand’ suggests an amount of strategic thinking!).

I think that’s about it…

What the Fukushima are the media doing?

I was just about to get out of the car to go and talk to an old schoolteacher about the memorial service for a friend who had just died when someone on FiveLive said something about a plane crashing into a building in New York. I assumed it was a microlite breaking an office block window, a stunt gone wrong, and I went and talked about death for 45 minutes. When I got back in the car and turned the radio on again, it became very apparent, very quickly, that the world was changing. I spent the next four hours or so glued to the television.

Since then I’ve barely watched television news. I don’t want to. I’ve seen very little footage of what has happened in Japan over the last 6 days. I get my news from the radio when I wake up and before I go to bed, and, during the day, increasingly from Twitter, be it the news feeds I subscribe to, or breaking trending topics, or friends, acquaintances, and others I follow discussing world events and affairs. I’d rather not see the terror, the horror, the chaos.

When I’ve caught Channel 4 News, or BBC News at 10, I’ve seen live reports from journalists in Japan delivered against anonymous night-time cityscape backgrounds that may as well be Sunderland as Sendai, the reporters deferring back to rabbit-in-headlights academic experts from choice UK universities for comment, and they are sitting, safe and secure, in regional TV studios, away from the terror, the horror, the chaos.

How much did the world media spend on chartering flights to Japan at short notice in order to send film crews, editors, reporters, and producers to the scene; could and should that money have been spent on sending aid instead of rubberneckers-by-proxy? Japan is a developed country with a pretty ravenous media infrastructure; it’s not as if we need to send cameras there like we did to Haiti or the Thai islands.

Why do these people need to be there at all? What if something dreadful happens, if the word Fukushima does attain the same level of associative dread as the word Chernobyl or, heaven forbid, Hiroshima? What if, as posited in conversation with friends last night, Shelagh Fogerty comes back to FiveLive with leukaemia from exposure to nuclear disaster? Is that an acceptable cost of on-the-scene reporting? No. Not in any reality is that acceptable.

I feel like the media are desperate for Fukushima to turn into a new Chernobyl, for the horror to ramp up to unbelievable, nightmarish levels. Desperate to report on it. Desperate for people thousands of miles away to be united in absolute abject terror. I do not want this to happen. I hope it doesn’t happen. But watching Twitter I see people nowhere near Japan, who aren’t journalists, feverishly tweeting links to updates about the situation in Fukushima as if they too are hoping for the worst potential outcome to become the inevitable outcome, and I wonder, frankly, what the fuck we’ve come to. I don’t know much about nuclear power but I know Chernobyl was very nearly 25 years ago, and that the lessons we learnt from it must surely mean that every step has been made to make sure it never happens again. The Japanese are not stupid. Their architecture, their culture, is earthquake-ready (if not quite tsunami-ready; what can be?). Their nuclear reactors are not going to have been forgotten. It can’t get that bad? Surely? We know too much, we’ve seen too much, to let it happen again. Surely?

So, Arcade Fire won a Grammy (and still got nuked out of the news by Radiohead)

Last night we watched the BAFTAs, which is quite a regular occurrence (well, once a year) because Em loves film award shows. And to be honest I like them too: it’s a bit like watching people win medals at the Olympics; as I get older I get more and more of an emotional rush from seeing someone work hard for something and be rewarded for it. Of course there are the off-putting, gushing acceptance speeches to deal with from time-to-time, but that’s par for the course. And occasionally you witness a nice, deserved surprise.

There were very few surprises at last night’s ceremony though, bar David Fincher beating Tom Hooper to the Best Director accolade; as predicted, The King’s Speech cleaned up, with best actor, best supporting actor, best supporting actress, best original music, best film, and a load of others too, I imagine. (Toy Story 3 ended up with “best adapted screenplay”, wtf?)

But there was a surprise when I woke up at about 4.30am and checked Twitter; Arcade Fire won the Grammy for best album. wtf?

I hadn’t even realised the Grammys were on, because I really couldn’t give a damn about them in the slightest. This is because the Grammys give ridiculous awards that make no sense. For instance, in 2011, giving an award for Best Male Rock Vocal (a stupid category to give an award in anyway) to Paul McCartney for Helter Skelter. Now I love Helter Skelter, properly adore it, listened to it very loud just the other day, in fact, and consider it to be without doubt a very great performance by everyone involved. But it’s on The White Album, and came out in 1968, and only a crowd of braindead moronic music haters could possibly even consider giving it a Grammy in 2011.

Several years ago I interviewed a band and the guitarist, who is very English and very Northern, said something along the lines of “every time you sit down to write a song you imagine winning a Grammy”, which I always considered to be a massively odd thing for anyone other than a country singer from Nashville to say. But, you know, people are different and that’s cool.

So at 4.30am I was greeted by various American music people who I vaguely know going either batshit and tweeting shocked responses or else completely insane things like “we won!” and “we did it!”, or, amongst the slightly more sceptical, things like this and this, both of which I agree with way, way more than the outpourings of triumphalism.

Don’t get me wrong; I quite like The Suburbs (which is a lot more than I like Funeral and a little bit more than I like Neon Bible), and I know people who know and/or have worked with Arcade Fire, and it’s a great, massive, career-highlight achievement to win a Grammy, which are normally reserved for the likes of Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Norah Jones, and Steely Dan (i.e. massive irresistible crossover hip hop, straightforwardly massive country, sensitive but popular chanteuses, or horrific AOR), or, you know, The Beatles.

But it’s still a Grammy, and the Grammys are, well… Everett True said it best, perhaps. Although a part of me feels as if crowing about how stupid and useless the Grammys are, from a flat in Exeter, is even more small-minded and indie than the whole “we won” and “we did it” nonsense.

Which is what grates me the most about this, I think. I’m not going to write a think piece about what “indie music” is, because the term is pretty stupid and efforts to define it just make the writer look stupid by association too. But it seems pernickety in the extreme to think of a band whose latest album hit number one on both sides of the Atlantic in its first week of release, who sell out Madison Square Gardens, who are lauded with “album of the year” plaudits all over the shop, as some kind of underdog. This isn’t Mega City Four or even Spoon. (They both have songs called Underdog; dyswidt?)

I suppose I used to feel to an extent, about some bands, that being a fan wasn’t all that far removed from following a football team; the sublimation of self within a crowd, being a part of unravelling narratives that are bigger than yourself, the joy at measurable triumphs (3 points; a top ten single), validation that something you care about is good, is successful, is liked and respected by others. But not all that much and really not these days.

I guess and it comes down to solipsism again. That or age. I grew up discovering music in a bedroom in Devon, on my own, exploring stuff that revealed new worlds to me, which made my existence more beautiful or exciting or mysterious. It wasn’t a tribalistic thing for me particularly because I had no tribe; none of my friends liked Orbital or Björk, even if they did like The Stone Roses or The Verve. And The Suburbs is explicitly about tribalism, and musical tribalism at that, about adolescence and slowly leaving it, about driving from the drive-in cinema to the mall to the middle of nowhere and defining yourself and your friends by what you listen to and what you wear; about feeling outcast by mainstream society by embraced by your own subculture. I’ve read Dick Hebdige. So it’s not surprising that, when a band who makes music about those themes wins an award like a Grammy, it should feel, to some people, like a well deserved triumph, like a mutual success, like a validation.

Which makes it even crueller, or funnier if you’re in that sort of mood, that Radiohead have announced today that their new album will be available to download on Saturday, and thus that, even though it’s only a few hours since the Grammys finished, Arcade Fire’s success is already old news. Because if “indie” fans are anything, it’s fickle. I should now. I’m the ficklest of all.

Show me some Skins…

So the fifth season and third cohort of E4’s notorious sex&drug fuelled teen comedy/drama show Skins started last night. So far after one episode none of the new cast had engaged in brazen sexual activity with each other, but we did get to see plenty of girls in just their underwear (as part of a pseudo-Carrie-homage changing room scene, no less – do sixth formers have to do PE these days?) and a gratuitous shot of a naked male bottom in a swimming pool. And, bizarrely, the little girl from The Golden Compass dressed as an androgynous goth animation-wannabe and pushing a replica handgun into a postbox.

But this is Skins, and strangeness is to be expected. Like English Literature teachers revealing tattoos of Charlotte Bronte on their chest and talking about “post-post-modern identity”. Or Chris Addison as a PE teacher. (And was that John Sessions with a mustache playing one of Frankie’s two dads?)

But the strange caricature cast of adults who surround the primary teen cohort of the show aren’t the main appeal for me, a 30-something man. Nor is the titillation/shock factor of seeing a load of teens get drunk, take drugs, and have sex (all of which are portrayed with much more frequency, drama, and excitement than my own rather staid and dull teenage years, which were much more like those represented by The Inbetweeners, E4’s other great teen show). I’m not even drawn in by the music, by either an impulse to keep up with what’s hip to the kids now or else to reassure my self that I’m still hip myself by seeing how many artists I recognize (last night = 1: British Sea Power).

No, the main pull of Skins is the emotional resonance it sometimes hits. Towards the end of the second cohort’s tenure these moments were becoming fewer and further between, as the production crew mistakely stuck with the Freddie/Effie storyline when both characters paled next to JJ, Cook, Emily, and Naomi. I still maintain, in particular, that the JJ episode in season 3 was one of the most glorious 60-minutes of television I’ve ever seen, a triumph of compassion and sensitivity. The on-again/off-again relationship between Emily and Naomi also produced a number of episodes that had both me and my wife hit hard with emotion. It’s these moments that make it worth trudging through some of the less effective episodes and storylines; when they hit a peak, Skins can become transcendental television. I really mean that.

One thing that disappoints with both the second and third cohort is the move away from untried Bristolian natives as actors; the authentic accents and incredibly natural delivery of the first cohort adding a layer of realism amongst the otherwise surreal adult characters, hyper-bright fashions, and stylized sex&drugs sequences. But, as I said, though the second cohort may not have been locals for the most part they still produced some awesome television. (And some banal rubbish; the final two episodes descended hard and fast.) I’m not bowled over by the new cast from one episode, but who could be? I’m looking forward to getting to know them.

So, Skins is back. I’m glad.