Monday, July 25, 2011

Amy Winehouse and the tortured artist myth

Everyone is familiar with the idea of the tortured artist. Of course it's a bit of a cliche. But there's also a lot of truth to it. There have been many undeniably talented artists who were deeply troubled souls.

Associated with this is the belief that their talent is commensurate with their inner turmoil. That is, the more of a train wreck the artist's personal life is the more searingly brilliant his art will be.

You can definitely see this in the case of Amy Winehouse. When she was alive, superlatives were often used to describe her work. Now that's she's popped her clogs this tendency is even more pronounced. Hacks, critics, celebs and Facebookers are all saying what a genius she was.

Now, I don't know much about music. But I know what I like. And from what I've heard of Winehouse I would never say she was a genius. You could say that about Louis Armstrong, or Ray Charles. But the chick who sang "Rehab"? She was good. But she wasn't that good.

Frankly, I think this whole tortured artist myth has a lot to answer for. A helluva lot of cultural and artistic taste-makers and trendsetters really seem to get off on it. They'll sing the praises of an artist who is screwed up but mediocre over one who is brilliant but emotionally stable every time. If you're a performer of some kind it's a pretty good career move to have a raging drug habit and a history of failed, dysfunctional relationships. Then all your work will be seen through this "tortured artist" prism. So even if it's just some crap you cranked out in a few weeks to fulfill contractual obligations to your record label it will still be seen as some kind of brave artistic experiment that ultimately failed. 

I'm not saying that this myth causes sane and normal people to go off the rails. But it certainly exacerbates the troubles of those who had some serious issues to begin with. Amy Winehouse was one such person.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Cold Chisel's Don Walker says his tour will be "carbon positive"

Here's a heartening development: Don Walker of Cold Chisel has tapped into the public mood with his provocative claim that the band's upcoming reunion tour of Australia and New Zealand would be "carbon positive".

Walker is interesting. He's scientifically knowledgeable, having completed a degree in physics. He's also known for being attuned to the Aussie zeitgeist: 

Richard Clapton describes Walker as, "the most Australian writer there has ever been. Don just digs being a sort of Beat poet, who goes around observing, especially around the streets of Kings Cross. He soaks it up like a sponge and articulates it so well. Quite frankly, I think he's better than the rest of us."

"Carbon positive" is just a one-liner, but it says so much. Andrew Bolt says that it is a cultural marker and I don't think that's an overstatement. Think how many bands have been touting their green credentials lately, and claiming to be carbon neutral in everything they do. Forgive me for sounding like a po-mo quackademic but that's surely been the, er, dominant discourse in that whole rock music paradigm for a long time.

I suspect that this attitude will gain momentum in popular culture now, and we'll be hearing the proudly expressed phrase "carbon positive" more often. While it won't become dominant itself, it will certainly become acceptable, even a little fashionable.

It will remain verboten in some sections of Artsville, however. That's mainly because they depend so heavily on government funding. Rock music is often actually profitable in its own right, and therefore doesn't rely on handouts. Consequently its proponents are more free to speak their minds.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Comedian and anarchist Johnnie Marbles now a hero to many, no doubt

I'm not surprised that Jonathan May-Bowles, the guy who attacked Rupert Murdoch with a shaving cream pie, is a comedian and anarchist. I've met many such numpties in my years in the arts world. Some have done very well for themselves (on your dime, of course).

His act was so utterly idiotic and pointless that even the former National President of the UK National Union of Students called him a "self-indulgent moron". But in the global collective of bong-suckling quarterwits known as Artsville, that kind of stupidity is often seen as "speaking truth to power" ... or something. He's surely become a hero to many.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Faux everyman Dave Hughes vs Tony Abbott on the 7PM Project

I hardly ever watch the 7PM Project but managed to catch it a couple of days back when Tony Abbott was on. I was keen to do so because I'd read that comedian Dave "Hughesy" Hughes has been paying out on him frequently of late.

It's strange that Hughes is often seen as a "satirical" and "political" comic. From what I've seen his schtick is not remotely edgy. His Abbott jokes, though funny, are pretty benign. They mainly seem designed to make the politician out to look like a bit of a dork. The subtext is: Nah, don't vote for him. Bloke's not cool.

Compare Hughes to someone like Jon Stewart, who is also a leftie. I find Stewart annoyingly smug and arrogant. However there's no denying that he's highly knowledgeable, has balls of steel, and is an extremely polished performer with a razor sharp wit.

The "Hughesy" persona is interesting. Of course every standup presents a heightened version of himself that is inauthentic to a certain degree. Hughes himself is no different.

He is often described as a classic Aussie larrikin, the kind of bloke you'd imagine having a laugh and a beer with. Yet in reality he hasn't had a drink since he was 22. He's obviously clever and witty and that is not out of keeping with his working class persona. Yet his often blokey, anti-authoritarian demeanour seems at odds with the fact that he was at least comparatively studious as a kid and was actually dux of his school. He's obviously conscious of this because he's been at pains to talk that achievement down:

"I was the dux of a very bad year. I swear to God, I was. I was dux of the school, and if I wanted to do chiropractory, I wouldn't have been able to. I didn't get a very good score, but we had a shocker year that year."

And this dissonance came through in another way in the form of a little offhand remark in the actual show. Quite a way into the Abbott episode (just after the 9 minute mark) Hughes remarked that it seemed odd that working men liked the Opposition Leader, saying something like: "I mean, you're a highly intelligent man ... You were a Rhodes Scholar." Hughes is a comedian, of course. But he was clearly not joking here.

The attitude underlying this remark was elitist. He seemed to be implying that the workers were a bit thick. Abbott himself quickly picked up on this, countering with the observation that they were actually pretty smart.

Hughes also presents himself as a bit of a slacker, and if I recall correctly he ribbed Abbott about his fitness obsession. (The panel certainly had fun with footage of Abbott cycling and wearing his infamous budgie smugglers, which is something they've been doing often lately, apparently.) Yet if the Liberal Leader's retort was accurate Hughes is almost as much of a fitness fanatic as Abbott himself. At the risk of sounding like a glib media shrink here, it seems that "Hughesy's" antipathy towards Abott has as much to do with alpha male competitiveness as it does with politics.

The comedian's mild but clear disdain for Abbott, along with the painfully right-on posturing of his co-hosts, is also typical of Australian TV celebrities generally. They really do think they're special and superior to the rest of us. They feel it is their duty to guide the brainless proles towards correct thought and action. Of course, this always involves voting for Labor or The Greens. Such pomposity is always ridiculous, but it seems particularly so when you've built your career on being the Aussie "everyman" who is disdainful of authority. And that's something "Hughesy" has clearly done.