Saturday, 27 March 2010

RocKwiz Live Nambour: The Ultmate Pub Trivia Experience

Three successful elements are needed to hold a successful pub trivia competition. A good host is required to move the questions along at a brisk pace, whilst adding a few jokes in order to keep the mood light. The questions must be hard, but not too difficult as to keep the audience interested. Above all, despite the seriousness of the competition the experience must be fun.

RocKwiz takes all these qualities and magnifies them to the extreme. Since the music quiz show premiered on Australian television network SBS in 2005, it has remained a fixture on Saturday nights for people like me: music nerds who don’t get out much on weekends. Hosted by comedienne Julia Zemrio and judged by the show’s chief creator Brian Nankervis, RockWiz is the ultimate pub trivia night shared from the comfort of your lounge room.

The quiz comprises four rounds, and one preliminary round called Ready Steady RocKwiz which happens off air to select two contestants for the show from the crowd. Who Can it Be Now? is the opening round and introduces the show's two musical guests for the evening. Clues are read out in a 'Who Am I' style, and a team buzzes in when they know the answer. Ten points are awarded, and then the guest arrives and performs a song. The first guest announced will join the team that correctly guessed them, then the next guest joins the other team (after also performing a song). Local and/or General is the next round and as the title suggests, this is a general knowledge music quiz section. Million Dollar Riff follows where The RocKwiz Orkestr’a plays a series of notable riffs and a team buzzes in when they recognise it. Master Blaster is the third round which requires the musical guests to answer a number of questions, usually around five, to answer, on a specialist subject they have nominated. Finally, Furious Five is a round involves five or so minutes of fast and furious questions to both teams. Usually, the Furious Five does not quite reach the five minute mark.

As I consider myself to be a musical trivia nut my father and I watch the program every week and often take part in a friendly rivalry to see who emerges victorious. So, when it was announced that RocKwiz would embark on a national tour and stop by Nambour, my parents, friend Krista, and I jumped at the chance to see the spectacle live at the Civic Centre last night.

The first thing to know about the live tour experience is that it was just like the show on TV, including all of the rounds that would normally take place during filming, save for Master Blaster, which was replaced by a round called So You Want To Be A Rockstar? a sort of karaoke round.

A show like this lives or dies by the quality of the performers, and all were in top flight throughout. In particular Brian Nankervis was the standout. Unlike all the others he was on stage the entire time and acted as the perfect compare, garnishing his material with local jokes, playing up to the crowd and making everyone laugh continuously. The questions during Ready Steady RocKwiz were presented at a lightning pace after the contestants were unfortunately chosen at random based on seating assignments, thwarting my ambition to be a contestant. The only brief interruption during this period was where contestants were asked to name the lead singer of Little Birdy at which point Krista (a seriously devoted fan) stands up in front of the crowd of 1000 and screams out ‘KATY STEELE!!!!!!’ I think that just about made Krista’s night.

After the contestants were chosen and a far too long intermission, it was time to get down to some not so serious business. During Who Can It Be Now? the first musical guest to be revealed was the lead singer of Magic Dirt Adalita Srsen who then proceeded to play her band’s only substantial hit Dirty Jeans to a somewhat lukewarm reception, particularly given her overtly bland performance. However this was not the case with the second guest John Paul Young. When he emerged the crowd was divided. All the females over 40 acted like they were on the set of Countdown once more and proceeded to stand up, scream, and wave their arms in ecstasy. The younger ones mostly had quizzical expressions until the opening bars of Love Is In The Air rang through the Nambour Civic Centre. Some still even had to turn to their parents and ask their parents ‘Who is this guy?’ Such is the multigenerational appeal that is the heart of RockWiz.

The rest of the night played out in true RockWiz style. Julia was at her spontaneous best playing off the amateur contestants like they were her high school buddies. The RocKwiz Orkestr’a which comprises ‘Jumpin’ James Black on keys and lead guitar, ‘Mighty’ Mark Ferrie on bass and Peter ‘Lucky’ Luscombe on drums proved to be stellar backup support as always.

Fittingly after the quiz a few songs concluded the show. The trademark duet at the end of proceedings between the two musical guests left Adalita and John to perform the Easybeats 1969 hit St. Louis; which was immediately followed by an encore of Slade’s song Come On Feel The Noise. In an odd choice after several minutes of applause the Orkestr’a returned to perform Tom Waits’s song Come On Up To The House as a second encore accompanied by both Brian and Julia on vocals to put a strangely somber conclusion to proceedings.

RockWiz Live set out to bring the experience of the weekly show normally broadcast at St Kilda’s Espy to a larger audience, particularly throughout rural and regional Australia. The magic of RockWiz was effectively captured in Nambour bringing with it a touch of the Melbourne rock scene to the historical heart of the Sunshine Coast.

Friday, 26 March 2010

'Ah, To Be Young...': The Musical Power of Sweet Disposition

Every time some semi attractive swimmer (or blazingly hot one in the case of Stephanie Rice) with unnaturally broad shoulders and size 16 feet wins a gold medal at the Olympics, the director of the telecast decides to play the same song over and over again. Unnecessarily slow motion footage of a fist pump confronts the viewer as the director cuts to commercial. In 2004, that song was every grandma’s favourite pop ditty Born to Try by Delta Goodrem. Four years later it was the nauseatingly overplayed Clocks by Coldplay. If the London Olympics were held today no doubt the Olympic song of the moment would be Sweet Disposition. If that were the case it would be saturated into my subconscious to the point of indoctrination, and I may in fact grow to hate it. Take heed Nine Network, delete this song from your playlists. Don’t make me loath this aural masterpiece.

The Temper Trap, a Melbourne band I have not heard of before, released Sweet Disposition close to 18 months ago. About three months ago I heard it played for the first time in that god awful movie 500 Days of Summer, the song was possibly the only thing redeemable about that entire production. Then, a month later while watching episode 4x02 of Skins: a discreetly topless Kathryn Prescott (bringing a huge grin to my face) and that unmistakable guitar line that commences the song greeted me as the episode started. From that point, the song has enveloped the public consciousness, even appearing as the soundtrack to a Paso Doble routine choreographed by the ‘Bradman of Ballroom’, Jason Gilkison on So You Think You Can Dance Australia a few weeks back.

It has been said by the legendary Skins blogger Heather Hogan that ‘Every Temper Trap song is basically about losing the love of your life, then re-finding her in a way that is infinitely deeper and more satisfying than you ever imagined.’ However, the one thing that ties all these pop culture references together is passion: be it lost, finally found or athletically executed.

The key moment in the song is the transition between the bridge and the first chorus. The bridge represents the building up of tension:

A moment, a love
A dream, a laugh
A kiss, a cry
Our rights, our wrongs
A moment, a love
A dream, a laugh
A moment, a love
A dream, a laugh

And then comes the releasing of that tension where in the first line of the chorus. ‘Just stay there’ acts as a cry of desperation, which can be interpreting in one of two ways. It can be about reaching the end of a relationship, feeling sorrow and realising it was the best time of your life. Although my interpretation is different: the song describes the first time I saw the girl I am in love with, that moment I always talk about, which is like hearing a record for the first time wanting to repeat it endlessly and wishing that moment to be frozen in time forever.

Just as effective as the lyrics, the song’s composition is absolutely wondrous drawing the listener in upon first listen. As Dom Alessio from Mess + Noise describes:

Sweet Disposition is taut but not ephemeral, a lean song devoid of fat. Its considered pacing and rise-and-fall textures are the real strengths here. When the payoff finally comes in the form of the chorus, it explodes like an ethereal bomb, showering the section with shards of echo and delay while Dougy sings in his unnaturally high male voice, “Won’t stop ‘til it’s over.” It’s like he’s speaking directly to that car full of kids who are bulleting across my mind’s landscape.

Ah, to be young is to be high…

And that really speaks for itself: ’Ah,to be young’. To be young is to be in love. To be young is to be caught in a moment where your emotions are uncontrollable. To be young is to be naive yet optimistic. Sweet Disposition really is the first young adult anthem of this decade, and that may well be its greatest strength.

As Aussie viewers are treated to a slow motion replay Stephanie Rice touching the wall in New Delhi during the Commonwealth Games later this year, chances are Sweet Disposition will accomplish the rare feat of being a battle cry in both swimming and ballroom. Perhaps all the song’s contextual passion will be rendered utterly useless and four years from now Sweet Disposition may go the way of Clocks, and act as the audio equivalent of deliberately burning your genitals. However this is unlikely, because the message of ‘Ah, to be young’ is a universal concept. That and Sweet Disposition is about a million times better.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Skins Second Generation: Teen Drama for This Age

Was the second generation of Skins the best teen drama ever produced on television?


That is the question I asked myself as the final episode featuring these remarkable cast of characters aired this past Friday. To be fair, the original characters that featured during seasons 1 and 2 had their charms, but the second generation seemed far more grounded in reality, and as a result the drama was far more intense. The charming Nicholas Holt anchored the first incarnation of Skins as Tony Stonem (particularly in the first series) and only about four of the eight original characters ever fully grabbed my attention. However, Skins Mark 2 is where my heart belongs, for all the gang have garnered my sympathies somewhere along its 18 episode run.

Effy Stonem (Kaya Scodelario), Tony's younger sister, becomes the lead character for the second generation (after also appearing briefly in series two). Effy is beautiful, popular, and a natural leader like her brother, but also quiet and distant, attempting to keep her own troubles hidden. She is fully aware of her desirability and capacity for manipulative behaviour, but feels expressing her own emotions will show weakness. Pandora Moon (Lisa Backwell) is her best friend, having appeared for the first time in a second series episode. She is innocent to the sexual and narcotic world in which Effy indulges, but is ready and willing to explore it. Thomas Tomone (Merveille Lukeba) is an immigrant from the Congo, with a morally upright outlook and good-hearted nature. James Cook (Jack O'Connell), Freddie McClair (Luke Pasqualino) and JJ Jones (Ollie Barbieri) have been best friends since childhood, known as "the Three Musketeers". Cook is charismatic and sociable, but boisterous and not afraid of authority. His womanising drives many of the events in the series. By contrast, Freddie is an easy-going skater who likes to smoke weed, and as the more sensible and responsible friend, he is often put out by Cook's behaviour. JJ's Asperger syndrome makes it difficult to fit in socially, but he has learnt to use magic tricks to make friends. His friends view him kindly but with a degree of amusement, and sometimes irritation, but he knows Cook and Freddie will always take care of him. Katie (Megan Prescott) and Emily Fitch (Kathryn Prescott) are very different identical twin sisters. Quietly insecure Katie thinks of herself as something of a WAG and wants to usurp Effy's place as queen bee of the group. Her homophobia causes problems with her sister Emily, who is coming to terms with her identity as a lesbian. The quieter of the two, Emily is used to being the shadow of her sister, and is sulky but perceptive. She hugely admires Naomi Campbell (Lily Loveless), a fiery, politically-charged passionate young woman with idealistic views and an abundance of ambition.

Skins Season 3 Trailer

As a self appointed expert on teen dramas, currently watching no less than six shows that could be considered within the genre, and counting a further four in amongst my all time favourites, I contend that
Skins Mark 2 is superior to all of them. Although the tensions may be amplified on occasion, the writers never force the melodrama. Whilst the conclusions on occasion may seem far fetched to some, I believe they can all be explained with rational thought. I think this is at least partly due to the fact that every single member of the Skins writing team are young adults themselves, including the show runner. Skins is certainly not the product of a middle aged writer trying to reclaim memories of his lost youth. Every line of dialogue has a ring of truth.

Personally I have a soft spot for JJ, and not merely because of his disability. His struggles make sense to me not only because he often has trouble communicating with his peers, but also through his inability to find romance. Whilst there are elements of unresolved sexual tension amongst other cast members, JJ’s journey is perhaps the most rewarding because all viewers can relate to his feelings of isolation and loneliness. The episodes with JJ at its centre are unquestionably my two favourite episodes of the second generation.

Then there is Emily Finch. In so many ways Emily is a composite of so many girls I know. She has all the finest qualities that my best friend possesses, the feistiness, mixed with sensitivity. Yet Emily also reminds me of so many girls I’ve fallen for: where a smile can melt both my heart and my mind. Although prone to highly volatile emotional outbursts that too reminds me of girls I have fallen for, and not in a good way. Emily is the epitome of the realism I talk about when discussing
Skins. A complex, deeply flawed character who is positively endearing and who you wish was your friend or lover.

Any discussion of
Skins no doubt focuses on Effy and with good reason. Whilst she may be the most superficially appealing character, she is also the most complex. I don’t think you can ever quite get a read on Effy, particularly during the final episodes as the audience is left to wonder whether the character that we were initially introduced to was in fact her true self. The questions that are left unresolved with Effy have continued to plague my mind ever since the final episode aired.

To me the second generation of
Skins represents in the truest sense what it is like to be a young adult during the 21st century. Whilst naysayers decry my generation for lacking focus and purpose, Skins demonstrates both the good and bad characteristics of this era. Yes in some cases we are impulsive and foolhardy, but we like the Skins cast of emotional misfits are intelligent, engaging, and are built around the sense of positive energy generated from the power of friendship. The second generation may have just finished, but I’m sure its successor in the third generation of Skins will be just as good, perhaps even better, if that is possible.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Defining An ALP Member: What Mike Rann Taught Our Party

For all the bad press Mike Rann has received over the past few months, the South Australian Labor Premier somehow managed to win the state election by the skin of his teeth. Nearly 24 hours after the polls closed, it seems that Rann will form government with a majority of somewhere between one and three seats, securing a third term in office.

However I don’t think that was his greatest achievement yesterday. Amongst the backdrop of uneven swings across Adelaide, no one was quite sure who was going to emerge victorious when Rann took the stage at around 10pm. It is rare that a politician addresses supporters on an election night without actually claiming victory or defeat. Yet this is what Rann had to do.

From these unusual circumstances Rann gave what I believe to be the best speech of his political career. A particular passage of this speech resonated with me when Rann more or less defined what it means to be a member of the ALP:

Don Dunston won by one seat… and John Bannon won his third term by one seat and if we can win by more than one seat it will be history making for the whole Labor Party in South Australia…

I want to thank all of the volunteers who have been out there working tirelessly, because you are the heart and soul of the Labor Party, and that’s because when you look at the Ministry, and you look at the MPs it’s from your ranks that we come, and its your side that we’re on, and we are proud to represent a state that is now a leader, not a follower…

Since Latham left the political stage, Labor politicians have drifted away from defining the unique qualities of their party. It seems they believe that this sort of definition alienates the voters who do not support the party’s values. One can understand this logic, but I think it is nonsense. Rudd in particular has made an art form of adopting non partisan language in the attempt to win the ever prized collection of swinging voters.

This may result in winning and even obtaining government, but such politicking comes at a cost. Political commentators would have you believe the opposite through their pragmatic prose when they suggest politicians who revel in ideological politics are relics from a bygone era. It is in this context one must examine Rann’s remarks. I believe that what sets the ALP apart from other parties is its sense of camaraderie, in which as Rann suggests, all levels of the party work together to achieve an election victory. For all his psychological and leadership failings the positive example to take out of the Latham experience is that he joined his party in his teens, as a precocious outsider and worked his way up the ranks of the Green Valley Branch in Western Sydney. From there he was able to propel himself into the decision making apparatus of the ALP through hard work and dedication, eventually entering Federal Parliament, and finally becoming party leader. Although Latham rejects such concepts now, it is important to emphasise that despite the exaggerated presence of factions within the party (All organisations that fight for power have factions, even the Liberal Party) the majority of its participants come from diverse backgrounds to achieve common political objectives.

The words of Rann do indeed remind me of Chifley’s famous Light on the Hill speech in 1945, which is now the go to cliché for expressing the values of the modern ALP:

I try to think of the Labour movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody's pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective - the light on the hill - which we aim to reach by working the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labour movement would not be worth fighting for.

If the movement can make someone more comfortable, give to some father or mother a greater feeling of security for their children, a feeling that if a depression comes there will be work, that the government is striving its hardest to do its best, then the Labour movement will be completely justified.

It does not matter about persons like me who have our limitations. I only hope that the generosity, kindliness and friendliness shown to me by thousands of my colleagues in the Labour movement will continue to be given to the movement and add zest to its work.

Rann may have barely succeeded last night, but perhaps he may teach Labor to find the light once more.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

How Politics Crippled My School

I’m sure that many readers will expect me to give my predictions regarding Saturday’s upcoming South Australian election. The truth is despite it being in my beloved home state I can’t offer much insight beyond the standard commentary. Much to my own disappointment I can’t even tell you what State seat I lived in for the first fifteen years of my life, beyond the fact that former Premier and Federal Senator Steele Hall was a Liberal Party candidate during one election I vaguely recall.

My South Australian heritage is something I hold close to my heart, I love its football, I love its culture, and the truth is that I was very lucky to be living in Adelaide at a time when South Australia was at the forefront of disability services in this country. I was looked after well. So well in fact that if I moved to Queensland any earlier than I did, I dare say I wouldn’t be as able as I am physically and intellectually. Based on anecdotal evidence, the services I had available to me in Adelaide just weren’t around in Queensland during the 1980s and 1990s.

At a very early age I attended Regency Park Centre School (RPC), which was for all intents and purposes a ‘special school’ for people with physical disabilities like mine. Complete with modified classrooms it had what was then state of the art technology, and support services. Each classroom had ten or eleven students, one teacher and two or three teacher assistants. We were taught a modified curriculum to cater for different ability levels, and for the most part my experiences there were positive. You could say RPC transformed me from a kid who was expected to remain at the school for his entire educational life, to a kid that excelled in a mainstream school setting.

I’ll be the first to admit that my experience is atypical, but I can’t underestimate the effect of a highly specialised environment had on my development. Through RPC I learnt how to interact with my peers and the world around me, skills that I have never taking for granted. Some awesome memories were created playing in the purpose built theme park made for wheelchairs known as ‘Wheelie Park’: navigating my way through mazes, doing burnouts in my very first electric wheelchair on the skid pad, as well as trying to play wheelchair soccer, at age 5 desperate to get a touch against the big kids while we all waited for the bus to pull up to take us home.

RPC was not just a school, but also a combined therapy centre as well: where physio was achingly endured, a rehabilitation centre where wheelchairs were repaired, a swimming centre where hydrotherapy was enjoyed. To call RPC merely a school is simply a disservice. Now though, the South Australian Government are doing just that and relocating its educational facilities elsewhere while keeping the other components on the original site.

Way back in 1989 when I was a mere five years old, The Crippled Children’s Association (CCA) as it was then known celebrated its 50th year. The CCA ran RPC so that year was like mecca for all politicians to come to the school and get good press. Then South Australian Premier John Bannon unveiled a commemorative sign outside the front entrance, and I can still remember the dark grey suit he wore as he gave a speech at the ceremony in front of the kids and the cameras, I had no clue what was going on about, except that I was BUSTING for the toilet. Later that year Hazel Hawke came to visit, the then wife of Prime Minister Bob Hawke. She sat down next to me and asked me my name. At that stage I was only able to speak a sentence or two. I smiled at her and said ‘My Name is Todd Winther, can you please tell Bob I like his haircut?!’ she laughed hysterically. My Mum has dined out on that story for 20 years as I have made my way up through the ALP.

While I don’t know the particulars of the decision that forced the Rann Government to relocate RPC, I am struck by its irony. I found out the information fourth hand last night, during the last week of the State campaign, which I of course want Rann to win. However this decision demonstrates how much the government fails to understand the whole package of disability issues. By separating two components, for what I assume are for economic reasons, they are taking away the essence of what RPC represents: a community. Forget the kids who went there, parents like mine were grateful they didn’t have to make one trip to school and another to a physio when we lived on the opposite side of town. That’s not cost effective, its sheer lunacy.

As I have forged a political career I have thought a number of times about what John Bannon might have said on that hot February morning of 1989. My guess is that he would have said how RPC plays an important part in the community. How it allows disabled children like the ones before him that day opportunities they could not have imagine a generation before, as RPC was being built. How the RPC is fundamentally important for the way the Government tackles disability services in the state. The ironic thing is that Mike Rann was John Bannon’s press secretary at the time. I wonder if he remembers his former boss making that visit and speech? I wonder if he wrote it? I wonder if he believed it? Because he doesn’t now.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

'You May Be Right, I May Be Crazy': The Works of Billy Joel

I was born on November 22nd 1983. The number one single on the Australian charts that week was Uptown Girl by Billy Joel, possibly one of the greatest and cheesiest pop songs every written. In some ways my childhood was always connected to the music of Billy Joel even though my parents only own one of his albums (The River of Dreams, hardly representative of his work). One of my earliest memories of music was listening to Uptown Girl in 1987, as the car headed down the Old Belair Road: a terrifyingly winding road in my three year old mind. I have absolutely no idea why this memory sticks out, but for some reason every time I think of Uptown Girl, I think not of Christie Brinkley, but that trip down those steep curves.

Some six years after, I used to catch the bus to school with this gentle, kind boy who was an old soul. He never said anything mean to anyone. And yet I wasn’t as nice as I could have been to him. Every time he got on the bus he used to request Adelaide AM (then) radio station 5AD because that was the only station that would play Billy Joel. The rest of us liked the mainstream station SAFM. My friends and I used to give him all sorts of shit when he did this ‘Only old people listen to Billy Joel, maybe we should drop you off at an nursing home on the way to school’. Well I’m using this blog to prove that he was right and I was wrong.

Billy Joel was always the kind of artist who was everywhere in my formative years. As the majority of my time away from home was spent with adults: other groups of parents, or pediatric specialists, or staff at the special school. My life was unintentionally filled with a Billy Joel soundtrack. The only other thing these groups of people had in common besides me, was that they all listened to 5AD, a radio station which only played three types of music: the Motown songbook, ‘current’ ballads (think Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton) and Billy Joel’s back catalogue. Thus Billy Joel came to represent the part that I hated the most about my childhood; being poked, prodded and studied which all of the above three groups specialised in.

A period of Joel revisionism emerged within me about five years ago. I watched a 2 hour special on Inside the Actors Studio where the interview concentrated on how he came to write his many hits, and a few album tracks I had never even heard of. It was at this point that I realised that Joel writes great songs, and he is a great storyteller. Sure, he tries too hard with his lyrics, but in one of the many contradictions of his career the melodies just flow in a deceptively easy fashion.

There is also another side to the genius of his songwriting craft. Behind the shiny hooks and pop song structures lies the heart of a lonely soul. I did not understand this myself until a few weeks ago when I read a profile on Joel in the New York Times by Chuck Klosterman. Klosterman first advanced this theory in his book of essays Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs and his argument is quite compelling:

Being depressed was the most normal anyone could be. In fact being depressed sort of meant you were smart. And in a larger sense, Joel’s music was documenting the idea from the very beginning. A song like Honesty (off of 52nd Street) implies that the only way you can tell whether someone really cares about you is if they tell you you’re bad… Scenes From an Italian Restaurant (off of The Stranger) is about how the most perfect relationships are almost inevitably doomed. Joel’s music always has an undercurrent of railing against the desire for perfection. Another song off The Stranger, Just The Way You Are proves that sentiment.

To this day women are touched by the words of Just The Way You Are, a musical love letter that says everything everybody wants to hear. You’re not flawless, but you’re still what I want. It was written about Joel’s wife and manager Elizabeth Weber. The sad irony, of course, is that Joel divorced Elizabeth four years after Just The Way You Are won a Grammy for Song of the Year

It makes me think about the drunken emails I have written over the past twelve years and about all the various women who received them. I think about how I told them they changed the way I thought about the universe, and that made every other woman on earth unattractive, and that I would love them unconditionally even if we were never together. I hate that those letters still exist. But I don’t hate them because what I said was false; I hate them because what I said was completely true. My convictions couldn’t have been stronger when I wrote those words and for whatever reason they still faded into nothingness. Three times I have been certain that I could never love anyone else, and I was wrong every single time. Those old love letters remind me of my emotional failure and my accidental lies, and for whatever reason they still faded into nothingness. Just The Way You Are reminds Joel of his.

Perhaps that’s why I can’t see Billy Joel as cool. Perhaps because all he makes me see is me.

Modern pop culture has cast Billy Joel as the ultimate dag: representing most of what is wrong with the music taste of the traditional baby boomer: the saccharine sentiments and their tendency to gravitate towards the mediocre mainstream (see also Fleetwood Mac). An episode of The Simpsons where Homer becomes a hippy and uses Uptown Girl as an protest song, written in ironic fashion may be the best illustration of this point. However as time goes by revisionists such as myself regard the opposite to be true, and now see Billy Joel as a kind of musical antihero. Despite selling millions of albums, Joel craved critical approval that his contemporaries (Carole King, James Taylor, and of course Elton John) always received at his expense.

Of course I was not around for the majority of Joel's sixteen year musical prime (1973-1989) but I have the sneaking suspicion that he lacked critical praise for the exact same reason I rejected him in the first place. His omnipresence in everyday life during this period and the years immediately after was so overbearing that any decent critical evaluation of his music served as an afterthought.

To me the Joel mystique is best represented in My Life (also featured on 52nd Street), which is a song suggesting that he does not need love. He is better off being independent and free. He does not need sex because ‘...either way its okay to wake up with yourself.’ Superficially the arrangement is light, easy and the song has a great hook. However, on closer inspection the lyrics seem to represent a rejection of his popularity, both with the ladies and with the record buying public. Joel is once again taking on the role of the outsider in what one could argue is one of the most popular songs about arrogance in music. It is a piece that was never critically lauded. Perhaps the degree of aloofness in My Life might explain the disconnect between the record buying public and the music press. It might also be one of the reasons why Joel stopped making pop records after 1993, explaining that he ran out of things to say, but was never fully satisfied creatively.

This is why I love Joel and his music these days. In an age where I am utterly captivated by music criticism and its ability to analyse its own role within pop culture Billy Joel plays against type. Just when you think you have him sorted, another untapped explanation into his psyche emerges. His music I’ve only just figured out has as many twists and turns as that Old Belair Road.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The Important Questions

My life has spanned four decades. The 80s were about surviving. The 90s were about clawing back the time I had lost, so I could act what society classes as ‘normal’ for my age, and the 00s were about ascending to heights nobody expected me to reach. Those first sixteen years weren’t particularly kind to me for a number of reasons I’ve expressed before, but from that point on the first decade of the 21st century was all about looking outwards.

Very few look outwards. Quite possibly because many people largely perceive such thought processes as a luxury. Who cares what’s going on politically if you’re sick, or looking for work? Who cares about society’s cultural fabric if your partner just broke up with you? However, most people don’t see that all these problems are interconnected: big and small. I believe I’m atypical in the sense that I prefer big picture discussions.

As we enter a new decade I actually think about how I will perceive events in the one just past when I reach my parents age, or even my grandmother’s. Will the events matter as much to me as they do now? More importantly will they matter as much to society in the future, when generations not even born yet become decision makers? Was the 00s the decade of lost opportunity? The one where we scorched the earth and did nothing? Where we were fixated on reality television stars whose names will long be forgotten?

It is timely to consider a retrospective quote on what it was like living in the first half of that decade in a country, which was the world’s only superpower.

In November 2000, the United States held a presidential election, and nobody knew who won, so we just kind of made up an outcome and tried to act like that was normal. Less than a year later, airplanes flew into office buildings, and everybody cried for two months. And then Enron went bankrupt, and the U.S. started acting like a rogue state, and The Simple Life premiered, and gasoline became unaffordable, and our Olympic basketball team lost to Puerto Rico, and we reelected the same president we never really elected in the first place. Later, there would be some especially devastating hurricanes and three Oscars for an especially bad movie called Crash.

Things, as they say, have been better.

I'm only 33 years old, so I'll concede that my life experience is limited. But the past five years have been an especially depressing stretch to be an American, and I don't think many people of any age would disagree with that sentiment (except for maybe Kelly Clarkson ... things seem to be working out OK for her). If it's the era of anything, it's the Era of Predictable Disillusionment: a half-decade in which many long-standing fears about how America works (and what America has come to represent) were gradually -- and then suddenly -- hammered into the collective consciousness of just about everyone, including all the people who hadn't been paying attention to begin with.

Chuck Klosterman, 2006

Sentiments like ‘only in America’ will only take you so far when making comparisons. For I live in a country that elected John Howard twice in the 00s and tolerated Pauline Hanson for far too long, actually making her a credible political threat. When studying Australia’s cultural icons, lets look at one example. The two highest rated domestically produced television shows last year (on average) were : a glorified fat camp, and a reality cooking program that somewhat defeats the purpose of the program mentioned above. The same rule applies when looking at music, or books: it is always the lowest common dominator that is the most popular. But, the biggest failing of society is that any time these legitimate concerns are noted critics who make such points are labelled intellectual snobs.

Bare with me while I ask you to participate in an exercise: (feel free to post answers in the comments section if you are inclined to so)

Name the most significant moment in society during the past decade?

Why did you choose it?

When you explain this moment in 30 years time to someone else do you think it will be just as important?

Now do the same with any pop culture moment (books, TV, music etc)

Next time you have a party, this would make a great point of debate. If you have any guests who refuse to participate because they ‘have other things too worry about’ know this:

Political, cultural and personal issues are all interconnected. You should care about all these issues equally.