Three million twats can be wrong | Lily Allen’s ‘Air Balloon’
By Neil Kulkarni (reprinted from F.U.N.K SINGULAR PAGE, MARCH 2014 with permission)
Why just one single this month? Too busy, too knackered, too much to hear, too little time. ‘Air Balloon’ is a handily emblematic release for my purposes. Everything that’s wrong. An invulnerable humourless vanity masquerading as self-deprecation, the endlessly renewable get out clause of sarcasm you’d be idiotic ‘not to get’. You feel like a relic even getting angry these days. Always ‘witty’, a never-off wit too witless to apprehend its own tiresomeness. A ‘character’ – characters are who we’re meant to want in pop, difficult when all it means is being a gobshite, being good for a 10-second celeb-news item or pull-out quote guaranteed to annoy enough people into clicking their way. This is who she is, and who you are. Tethered to this device that so bullies your time it has begun to shape and sculpt your consciousness. When was the last time you dimmed the lights, let music not merely mingle with that panopticon of competing narcissisms you see on the screen, let music expose itself, show the cut of its jib? Listening to ‘Air Balloon’ sans distractions, as pure music, as pure human transmission, as I have been for an hour now, it seems to summate everything that’s broken with my relationship to British pop music, how the affair got broken, how it started excluding me, not answering my calls, notifying security to eject me, how when the middle-class take over pop, when our lives have been suffused and taken over by a kind of media that first postulates a desire for & then enforces an endless gentrification, what’s lost from art isn’t anything so dull as a mere ‘reality’ or a politic or an atittude. What’s lost, fatally, is generosity, real compassion, any sense of giving. All we can give of now is ‘ourselves’. All we can hope for is art that chimes with our own selfishness.
For what it’s worth, ‘Air Balloon’ is probably Allen’s weakest single yet. TOTESHILAIR she’s already tweeted that she hasn’t pre-ordered it! Exclamation Mark! (btw future historians – this age is the age that had an exclamation mark next to it. An endless braying Michael McIntyreish laugh at its own brilliant joke. Future Hobshawms will call it The Age Of Win.) Perhaps it wasn’t her choice to be the next single. But she’s shot a video, is on all available networks wireless n otherwise, talking about it. The vid has funny stuff in it and does the correct job of amounting to nothing, sitting in that same space as the cat pictures and ‘Which Subatomic Particle Are You?’ quizzes that could otherwise be occupying your time. (I got Lepton can you believe it? Always thought I was a Weak Gauge Bosun.) In that purely traffic-directing sense, ‘Air Balloon’ can already be called a moderate success. Three million twats can be wrong. It’s clearly not something made by anyone who gives a shit, or knows shit, about music. It’s calculatedly shite, shite enough to irritate, shite enough to get noticed, shite enough to have done its job of keeping Allen’s brand sufficiently respirated. For those people out there who kind of like M.I.A but wish she’d write way worse lyrics, have way worse production and erase every single nub of interest from her music, ‘Air Balloon’ will be ideal. For adults who dig Bubble Guppies. For those people who had their claws x’d that Lily would one day reach precisely the levels of half-witted cuntdom that had ensured her dad had been such a fucking useless shit-spewing tic on the arse of British cultural life for three decades the lyrics of ‘Air Balloon’ prove she’s catching up in the cuntishness stakes in brave and giggly leaps and bounds. “I don’t like dropping names but Kurt Cobain is all in my face/ How the hell am I gonna tell him Elvis already took first base?” I can only feel pity for the hard of hearing and aurally impaired as well as those with a nasty build up of wax in their ears – your conditions and afflictions must for now prevent you from hearing exactly how those fantastic lyrics sound sung/rapped in Allen’s customary mockney lilt, that particularly revolting strain of smugness & arrogance she’s perfected in order to sound so falsely ‘unmannered’. “Somebody remind me where I am/Miami or Timbuktu?/ Did I ever tell you my uncle’s monkey ran away from the zoo?/ Would you tell me what this all means?“
Yeah, I’ll tell you what this all means Lily, because we speak the same language, we both have the slippery accents of the middle-class, we both need to fit in wherever we go. I went to a private school too. I’ve shouldered it next to the future captains of industry. I know how they blithely destroy while pretending to build. Lil we’re both needy see. We’re both part of a class that have, through nepotism and pure cruel acumen eliminated any chance of anyone not like us being heard. Under the guile of ‘trying our best’ we’ve crowded into pop’s limited elbow room, populated pop to the point where our mealy-mouthed dissent towards our occassional mischaracterisation is the only protest going, where our personal success in love or materialism is all we can agitate for, where the world and what’s happening can only be talked about in vague generalities that never threaten the hierarchy we’re on top of . We’ve been greased to the front of the queue by greasy friends in positions of power, influence, ‘tastemaking’, a phalanx of cultural arbiters from as fetidly limited a class & race base as the schools we went to. Mark well their gaseous ‘tolerance of minorities’, it obscures the glass ceilings they all hide above, the ones they want intact for as long as possible – ask if any of these people dare step beyond their own circles, dare to even imagine that pop isn’t their birthright and plaything to limit and suffocate. You’ll get muteness. A shrug. ‘Trying our best’ aren’t we? What else can we do?
Of course we middle classes ‘listen to all sorts of music’. But only that which has already been targeted at us. We don’t step over the tracks anymore. We like the tracks. Keeps us here, a safely gated cultural community, keeps THEM THERE with their utterly unplaylisted utterly unsupported ‘chav’ and weirdo music, their grime and their rap and their garage and their r’n’b and their d’n’b and their metal and that stuff we might thieve without credit when our own taste runs dry, but all that stuff that we can safely marginalise from mainstream culture for WE ARE THE GATEKEEPERS, the educated curators of pop. So though pop needs diversity to live and breathe, we’ve roped off a VIP area where only skinny white versions of black r’n’b, only plummy indiefied ‘reworkings’ of dance/electronic music can break through, get heard & seen, win awards, make a living.
Because pop often relies on a MIX of classes, on different classes co-existing sometimes in the same band, the ironed-out ABC-NRSgrading of everyone involved in what gets popularly disseminated in 2014 means that pop (as a thing ofpossibility) is being killed, slowly but surely, by the constricted anal and hobbyist habits of the bourgeoise. And killed by that bourgoeise’s permanent underestimations and stereotypings of working class art, the false polarities that emerge as the limitations of what’s possible in pop now.
So gwan Lily, keep taking the piss out of pop, keep treating it like something you’re dallying with until the right offers come in from the right buddies. Those dumb polarities, that insist the middle-class can only ‘pretend’ and pisstake, that the working class are condemned to be ‘real’ and nothing more become the limitations of debate, so if you hate Lily, you hate pop, even if you might want to aver that in being so fkn jokey about pop, in populating her pop with such proudly half-witted ‘intellect’ she’s selling pop’s possibilities massively short. Listening to ‘Air Balloon’s deliberately irritating textures and hooks, its snotty stacking up of the adhesive, the ‘catchiness’ like chlamydia, you realise that it, like all Allen’s work is actually a record utterly scornful of pop, written by someone with no right to so self-consciously deride the form – reminding us all of what she said when Kylie (a true pop star) got the Glastonbury headline slot in ’06 – “To me, Kylie playing Glastonbury would be the ultimate insult to it. It should be about new, interesting music, not mainstream pop.” What the FUCK would you know about interesting music Allen you shit-for-brains?
Christ, I creak. They make you feel like a relic for even getting angry anymore. Got to be happy, or at least be merely amused at your own little daily miseries, upwardly inflect your soul. What fucking young people do these people know? Just the monied-up ones? In the current pop-cultural climate, getting angry about politics is acceptable, just, so long as you keep it away from your art. Getting angry about art itself, getting frustrated with culture? Soooo last century darling, so redolent of a time when everything wasn’t catered for. I’m daft for getting daft, for considering it my job to get angry about the mulch-storm when I should just focus on what I like in my squalid little corner. Space for everyone. So everyone can actually stop talking to anyone outside their own constricted circle, stay on whatever rung is your birthright. A static, stultifying conformity by no means new to pop, but enforced by a cunts consensus whose total control, whose total elimination of even the chance of surprise, has never been more efficiently enacted. Pop’s not the place to talk about gender, race, class. Go keep that boring stuff to 140 characters and whip up a storm. Music isn’t allowed to sustain such thoughts. Music MUST NOT DARE to stop being entirely self-referential. It’s not part of life – it’s my WHOLE LIFE MAAAN. It’s my hobby, my interest, my wallpaper, my background. It can only help in making me feel more secure. Reassuring me, shoring up my taste. Music that threatens anything? Music that tries to change the world? Music that unsettles your categories and confines? Oh come on. Grow up man. Get with your own profile, live with your own profile and STAY there.
Music like Bölzer’s stunning Aura EP – most stunning black metal/death/grind thing this side of Irkallian Oracle’s miraculously fucked up ‘Ekstasis’ LP.
Music like Common’s astonishing No.ID-produced monster ‘Made In Black America’ – fuck I hope the new album is more of the same.
Music like Upfront’s mind-bending ‘Not All Bad’, beautifully measured positive negativity from another acolyte of Bristol’s fantastic Split Prophets camp.
Music like Strange U’s astonishing beats and blistering rhymes dropping a ‘Strange Universe’ on your skull courtesy of those ever-engrossing Eglo loons.
Music like Tinashe’s wonderfully robot-hearted, poignantly cold ‘2 On’ with Schoolboy Q. R’n’B with just the right amount of black hydrualically-tight chrome involved, best r’n’b this spring this side of August Alsina’s sumptuous ‘Make It Home’ and Jhené Aiko’s epic ‘The Worst’.
Music like Boddika & Joy Orbison’s kick-heavy industrial-strength techno monster ‘More Maim’.
or Dag Savage’s woozy, spooky, early-Outkast-style sloppiness on F.U.P.M.
or this sublimely dark, gorgeously glimmering garage mix from DJ Elski.
and before this column becomes overladen and unloadable I’ll leave it at those I can recall offa the top of my head. Like I said, too busy and knackered this month.
Point is, now the industry has failed so massively, so we have to equally turn our back on those who the industry deign can tell us about it. Everything I now know about music comes from blogs, sites like CVLTNation and The Quietus, forums and specialist shops. And for those destabilised by that shift there can be a tendency to lash out, to stop the net being revolutionary and just recast it as merely a more efficient machine for prising money out of music fans, figure out ways to make new technology reassert the business models, shapes & structures of the past. Much of the debate around the changes in music in the past 15 years have been about technology and format, like staring at a barnacle and forgetting the shark it’s attached to, as if the MP3 in itself is somehow to ‘blame’. As if the internet, as the thing that finally wrenched any last power the record companies had out of their hands, is somehow to ‘blame’.
By ‘blame’ I don’t mean that utter bullshit about how music has deteriorated, rather that utter truth that our response to a lot of it, like our response to film and all other media that previously required our full attention to be appreciated has undeniably changed now that everything we hear, everything we see, is simply part of the background or foreground of an ever-present connectivity that saps focus and engagement to a minimum, keeps us evenly spread thin across different senses, mild stimulus (EXCLAMATION MARK) & sedation (SMILEY FACE) gained equally via the hum of screens and the clickyclick business of our agility in the virtual environment.
Going back is the last thing we need or want, I fkn love the internet. There will be trauma while we figure out how music can fit inside and around it. I suspect the best music though is that which rejects an endlessly lucrative (for the industry) agility on our part, the stuff that freezes you on the spot. The best way to listen to music now, to enjoy it rather than just ‘experience’ it, is in finding ways to step OUT of that connectivity, music as an experience that entirely rejects that obsequiosness and diffusion, music that in some way concentrates the mind and body in readiness for the doom that surely lies ahead for us all, or defiantly blisses you out in contrast to the hyperbole-laden ‘satisfaction’ on offer everywhere else.
What’s still emerged from the changes of the internet age is how ill-suited to it major labels and the mags that depend on them for ad-revenues still are, how they’ve reverted to post-war type, to an old pals, talent-school gene pool, variety-show-friendly stageschoolers, pisspoor chain-pubrock pastiche or the ‘quality’ of a well-rendered standard the aim, an essentially elitist network of people in the business of show – an A&R machine that won’t get its arse up and down the street, let alone to a street that isn’t in the capital. A calcification of an auld order, while what’s actually happening in music has totally gone the other way. Their lookout sure, whyshouldwecare sure, but a terrible shame how many kowtow to this, how many acquiesce in this mass cultural stitch up. They’ve stopped looking in interesting places. They’ve nearly completely stopped signing interesting artists and bands, crucially, the odd talents they do have are growing DESPITE their best efforts to categorise, confine and market them accordingly.
A lot of music writers haven’t helped, don’t even consider it part of their remit to seek music that might help change things, music that might move music on. I barely have time to even dip my toe in what’s out there but I’m not a music critic remember? I’ve got a proper job. As a reader now, I read a lot of music writers who seem to think being a music journalist is just about the music you are sent, not the music you go and look for. This laziness and comfort in the tried and tested, this showboating of the mediocre characterises a nervous age. Unlike the best music that characterizes this nervous age – the discomfited music that kicks back, fearless of obscurity, eyes open, music that struggles, that doesn’t just know the right people, doesn’t just use the right relatives, music you feel that doesn’t exist purely and only to get noticed, music that scrapes something out of a fully complex, contradictory human beings, not just a shill, a persona or a walking clickbaiter. Would be good if writers could stop checking their traffic stats and re-engage with sound and how it helps you survive again. Normal service resumes next month. Comment me anything I’ve missed. Just one single this month. Too busy. Too knackered.