Thursday, 23 April 2009

You didn't expect that, did you. Did you? No!

Earlier today on Twitter - and who'd have thought you'd ever read a sentence like that here? - music writer Rob Fitzpatrick tweeted this: 'Why do the sort of bands who get "Record Deals" have to sound so depressingly like the sort of bands who get "Record Deals"?'

He's got a point. But - and you'll be happy to hear I tweeted (twat?) this back - more pertinent is how the sort of bands who get record deals always look like the sort of bands who get record deals. In fact, I'd go so far to say that it's more likely that they'll look the part rather than sound it. After all it's easy to make a bunch of cool looking guys sound great than sell a bunch of ugly-stick-prodded losers who write a good tune. Right, kids?

Well, that's the received wisdom, isn't it? And I have to say I'm as guilty as anyone for subscribing to the looks fascism that has always existed in the music business. Or entire entertainment business for that matter. Half of the reason I was excited about Ride was that Mark Gardner was just so good looking. And the reason I, like a lot of people, passed on On A Friday wasn't that the demo didn't have enough strong songs on it - it was that the singer had a paralysed eye and we just couldn't imagine audiences getting past that.

You can see where this is going can't you? Two words: Susan Boyle. The three of you out there in the world who have not yet heard about this singer or seen the clip from Britain's Got Talent - well, here's your final chance. It's astonishing that her clip (almost 13 million views on Youtube as I write) has become such a global phenomenon so fast. People are clearly angry about the way looks are prioritised in pop - just take a look at some of the comments: "IN YOUR FACE. Cowell!" or this one: "look at that ugly girl in the audience who pulls the horrible face when she says she wants to be a professional singer, take the look of ure face you ugly little bitch"

Whilst it's nice to think that someone who doesn't conform to the stereotypical talent show winner levels of attractiveness can create such an impression it's also worth thinking about why people buy music - what gets them excited about music? I could be wrong but my experience is pop music that works, invariably has a dynamic between the music and the way the performer looks. It's a dynamic that doesn't necessarily depend on the performer being good looking but there has to be a relationship between the two things: the looks and the voice. I always asked myself: does the act look like it sounds? So many demos would come in with a very groomed and styled Walkerprint (look it up, people under 30) and a demo which sounded like a different act - like someone dressing up for a job interview to work in a coal mine.

The acts that made it past this first hurdle were invariably ones who had identified something about themselves and were milking that rather than doing what they thought was the best way to get the attention of an A&R man. The majority of acts were getting it wrong on a basic level - like a writer who hasn't found his voice and slips from funny to angsty with no warning or an artist who draws a painfully accurate sketch of a face except there is something slightly wrong about the chin rendering the whole picture comical. Bad artists make art look hard.

Once past the first hurdle the acts who had something unique about them would then be judged on all the arbitrary and unfair things which people who create new art are judged on: lyrics, trousers, colour of cassette inlay... And very often they would get a rejection letter because despite having a spark they weren't ticking as many tickboxes as the A&R person wanted ticking. Sometimes the A&R person would venture forth and see the artist perform live or in as showcase and maybe the Walkerprint would have made them look better than they looked in real life and despite really liking the song, the A&R man couldn't get over the fact that the singer had a receding hairline, or oversized hands or maybe a mannerism involving his tongue poking out of the side of his mouth while he sang. I'm talking generally here - don't for a moment think I was ever this shallow...

But sometimes there was a a magic from the demo that was undeniable. It normally came from the voice. The Verve came through unsolicited - I phoned them up because I really liked the voice. In the end I just didn't like the songs enough but crucially I didn't see a picture of the band - if I had I think I would have taken the unconventionally attractive Richard a bit more seriously. Sometimes it took a visit from a band to convince - I met Crispin from the Longpigs before he'd even formed the group and not only were the three songs on his tape amazing (On And On, Far and one other) he was also cripplingly cool - even when he was flicking the ash from his cigarette into his top pocket during the meeting "Why are you doing that?" I asked "What?" he drawled. "Flicking the ash into your pocket?" "Oh that - it's just an affectation..." I was sold. It didn't harm him that he was ludicrously good looking too but crucially he knew exactly what he was about.

Susan Boyle clearly knows this too. The Rev. Angela Tilby on Thought For Today this morning isolated the fact that Boyle sang with authority - she knew she had a great voice and no amount of criticism was going to take that conviction away. As she said in front of the judges, she'd just never been given the opportunity. And isn't that the way so many of us feel? Did I write that last sentence? Blimey, stop me before I start openly weeping.

Anyway, you can tell that this woman knows she's good from her eyes - the usual talent show crazy desperation is absent, she's just happy to be on stage singing. And the dynamic, how does my theory fit with her - does she look like she sounds? Well, actually yes. If she was trying to be Beth Ditto or Michael Jackson then her age announement would have warranted the cruel titters she got. In fact after she says she's 47 she does a mock sexy gyration "And that's just one side of me!" and we are briefly back in familiar talent show freak territory. But she's not a freak, she knows who she is, she doesn't want to be La Roux, she wants to be Elaine Page and even though the world of musical theatre that Paige emerged from is just as body fascistic as the record business, you can imagine Lloyd Webber getting her into one of his shows like that. She'd be perfect.

But the people who love the whole IN YOUR FACE, Cowell aspect of the Boyle saga have been fooled. Of course Cowell knew about her before the show was filmed - he was raving to Max Clifford about her a week before it was aired and I'd imagine that most of those involved with the show knew what they wanted out of the performance. I mean listen to Dec crowing to the camera "You didn't expect that did you?" when Boyle starts singing - it's clearly scripted. And Cowell's raised eyebrows of surprise as Boyle's goes into full throttle are about as believable as Roger Moore. He is probably already working on song choices for her album - he's publicly said she could have a number one in the US. The clip is a massively manipulative bit of telly - it lulls you into expecting to see another freak, showing cutaway shots of all those audience members who are not in on the secret rollling their eyes to their neighbours "Who does this old fatty think she is?" then turns on a sixpence using gently lifting ooohs and ahhhs and spontaneous clapping as Boyle starts. Yes, the voice is good but the reaction is too fast. And who started that standing ovation? Some prudently distributed runners? Cynical? Moi?

The IN YOUR FACE, COWELL brigade who want the 'ugly little bitch' in the audience to "take the look off her face" would have done the same had they been in the audience that night. It's human nature, or at least modern human nature; we are a deeply shallow and cynical generation prone to judging people on their appearance. The violent emotions of the Boyle reaction was manipulated by the direction of the show but also by the guilt felt by everyone who would have dismissed Boyle from the moment she bounded onto the stage.

There was a euphemism used in A&R departments about artists who had slipped past the ugly police and made it onto the roster - unconventionally attractive. And actually some of the biggest stars are genuinely unconventionally attractive - Shane McGowan, Jarvis Cocker, Michael Stipe... But more often that not, singers lean towards good looks. Have a look at your record collection - how many unconventionals or just plain old boots can you find? For a brief moment in the Bob Harris part of the 70s there was a value placed on musicianship over looks but mostly pop music is about style, fashion and looks, it's about being young and sticking it to the man and all the other cliches. So even literate, 'serious' pop stars like Dylan, Cohen and Mitchell (J) were supremely attractive - all the icons from Marley to Strummer to Morrison (J) to Gaye were gorgeous but, just for the record, here is a Top 10 of Pop Boyles - but before you read it, remember that whilst none of the below are or were heartbreakers, they all have it - they look like they sound, no one else is like them and all the better for it.

10 Joe Cocker
9 Mama Cass
8 Van Morrison
7 Elton John
6 Shaun Ryder
5 Lemmy
4 Meatloaf
3 Ian Dury
2 Beth Ditto
1 Thom Yorke

PS: Next week, I annexe the Sudetenland.
PPS Check out Mike Skinner's Susan Boyle remix with a Donk on it

1 comment:

  1. There was once a Scottish band not so long back, who had a really visually challenged bass player, they had a couple of majors looking at them, they were getting groomed for the Coldplay, Snow Patrol end and their song unsigned having made the Top 100 singles for the year, during the negotiations it was put to the band that they get a new bass player to which the band called the bluff and said no, the labels walked away and the band spit, what price loyalty.

    A very honest and thoughtful piece xx

    PS you can add Tom Waits to the list at the end