Thursday, 27 August 2009

Big Brother is Dead

It wasn’t until Michael Jackson’s drugged corpse was found splayed on an incontinence mat in his four-poster bed that we remembered him as the innovator he once was. The images re-circulated of his sexy silhouette pulling implausible shapes and the radio once again remembered the sharp sounds that had defined him. Big Brother is dead. I hope the wounds aren’t too fresh. It is easy to dismiss a programme that has been so irritatingly ubiquitous for so many years, a programme that has thrown so many vapid wannabes onto the pages of magazines (*shifts uncomfortably*). From the first time I stood underneath the live feed from the Big Brother house as it twinkled on an oversized screen in Leicester Square, I was a fan. The pretentious teenager that I was would overuse words seldom applied to any other pub-talk subject. ‘Microcosm’ had a good year in 2000. But behind my waffling was an enthusiastic belief in a truly groundbreaking innovation in television.

Gone was the hulking camera and the hulking cameraman that reality often found hard to ignore. Gone were the cooling down times, the phone calls to mother, the days off. We made friends with people we always assumed we would hate. We hated people we always assumed we would hate. And by dialling five numbers God had a direct line from heaven to earth. The human chess element was a crafty way of creating a feedback loop that made viewing essential. We didn’t want anyone to get away with ANYTHING. And they didn’t. Liars were outed and the nice guys were vindicated. For the first few years Big Brother was an irresistible innovation. Then the housemates started getting horny. There was something reassuring about watching romantic encounters culminating in awkward fumbles between sweaty duvets in a strip lit box room. Arguments were void of clever put-downs and never resolved. This was reality.

I walked through those set doors in 2006 during what I predictably think of as the golden age of Big Brother. I had been sworn to secrecy, punishable by banishment, and told nothing of what I was to expect. I read the rumours religiously and had convinced myself that Anna Nicole-Smith and Boy George would be nervously watching the door as I swung it open. They weren’t. I was amazed at the lengths the production team would go to to remain true to the concept and to keep us, the contestants, in a state of total confinement. Although the Celebrity edition of the show is a quarter of the length of the summer stint, it seems celebrities crumple in a quarter of the time. My no-list status allowed me to keep my head and I treated my position in the house as ‘interactive spectator’.

The symptoms of Big Brother’s terminal illness started in a world separate from the compound in Borehamwood. Fresh reality ‘stars’ fought for precious column inches in glossy magazines alongside pop, sport and movie stars. Contestants were no longer interested in winning on the inside, their sights were set on the prize awaiting them on the outside. The show itself quickly and inevitably became a formality as competitors adopted personalities that had proved popular during previous series. This steered the show into an echo pattern from which it is struggled to recover, ultimately affecting public opinion. As people lost interest the media scramble dissipated and both legs buckled. In many ways the moribundity of this summer's installment has been its saving grace. With no glossy career goals to think about beyond a few free glasses of champagne, the contestants are driven by a love of the format. This has given the penultimate summer a classic feel but will the damage prove too great?

The solution? Heat magazine pick twelve good-looking, slightly unstable bi-curious ‘people like us’ and plaster them directly on to the front page of the magazine. Then we can sit back and watch the real competition unfold. The cat-fights for columns. The boobies. The irresistibly steep, derailed decline. The initial success of Big Brother launched the reality genre. A genre which rarely shared any of the charm and intelligence with its… Big Brother. I have every confidence in the production team to deliver a new ground-breaker; it just feels like the ideas factory needs a new machine. Now, as you lie back and draw your last breaths, Big Brother, we can remember your best bits.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

An Open Love-Letter to Philadelphia

The plane wrenched itself skyward leaving London shrinking behind it until it was a road map: a destination that I was moving away from. With it I left a failed marriage, three friends that I once called the Ordinary Boys and a life that had skewed beyond recognition. Waiting for me in Philadelphia were old friends, family and the chance to reflect, or, more appropriately, to ‘think about what I had done’. It was na├»ve for me ever to imagine that I could scale the walls of the glossy magazines. I imagined myself shining from the pages of OK with a love of art and literature, the country guffawing in unison at my laboured puns. I had planned a mini revolution in bi-weekly installments. Of course when the interviews came out they had been edited to include only the lines when I mention that “I like cats” and that “my favourite colour is royal blue” (it is). This coupled with a colour photograph of me awkwardly straining my mouth into a gurning smile. Not the system smashing that at first had seemed so plausible. As the plane's engines let out a sigh, as we levelled out in the high silence of the clouds, I felt a great sense of release. To make a bollocks of one's life in private is a shame; to do it in the white glare of the camera flashes was truly mortifying.

So with the divorce papers sitting on the mahogany desks of damp-palmed lawyers my plane glided into land at Philadelphia International. My first stop was the Rodeway Inn. I spent my first weeks in a grotty little room with a shared bathroom in the heart of the ‘Gay-bourhood’ and I was instantly hypnotised by the uniform buzz-saw bass-lines that would zip from the clubs attacking innocent passers by and wind up shaking my hotel walls late into the sticky summer nights. This was not the sweet Philly sound that I had been expecting, but I liked it. I watched a lot of late night movies that summer and as I moped back to the single bedroom that was my home I would pause to jealously watch the hipsters dancing through sweaty club windows. After a week of wallowing it was decided that I should be given a medicinal dose of nightlife and I couldn’t have been keener. I had heard that Diplo, the DJ who had collaborated with M.I.A. on the Piracy Funds Terrorism mixtape was a key figure in the social circle that my friends were now involved in. Stories circulated of Hollertronix, the Diplo run ‘parties’ that gave birth to the scene, I was told about his trips to baile funk parties in Brazil and how he would return to Philly armed with new sounds. A Mad Decent (Diplo’s own record label) warehouse had been set up for parties, after-parties and, it seems, pretty much anything. This was how to start a revolution.

I met a rapper called Amanda Blank in 2007, who was then working on her debut record. Talking to her it became instantly clear why the Philly music scene worked. I watched her long, Frenc h-manicured nails gesticulate wildly as we chatted about various records she had guested on (see Lindsay Lohan’s Revenge) and the producers and DJ’s that she had already worked with. The longer she spoke, the longer the list of names of people integral to the growth, creative growth and general success of the music scene which bore her grew. When Amanda wasn’t busy with the dizzying schedule of an artist creating her first record, she somehow found time to tour with her friend and fellow Philadelphian Naeem aka Spankrock and play shows with her side project Sweatheart. In Sweatheart with Amanda is artist Thom Lessner who works out of an art space called Space1026. Thom and everyone else at 1026 make posters and t-shirts in their spare time for Santigold, Hail Social, any Philadelphian who is a friend of a friend. Sometimes these artists will perform spontaneous shows at 1026, that is if it is not being used to host an art auction or a night of stand up comedy performed by its artists. And every summer Diplo brings everybody together for a Mad Decent block party. DJ’s fill the street along with the people who keep helping the scene to grow, along with the fans of the music (that is the category I was now happy to be in), along with the neighbourhood kids and anyone else who just …showed up.

I always loved Philadelphia. My mother was born and raised there (yes, like the Fresh Prince) and I had made several unsuccessful attempts to relocate there throughout my life. The longest I had ever lasted was a year in my late teens. One of my closest friends was, then, in a hardcore punk band called American Nightmare and I had been struck then by the cooperative spirit. Going to a punk rock matinee felt like a community outreach project. Or something Claudia Winkleman might present for BBC3. It was that sensibility that had first endeared me to Philadelphia Punk (see Kid Dynamite). After being elbowed to the ground in the wall of death (it’s a dance move …don’t ask) you could guarantee that someone would immediately pick you up and dust you off. The electronic music that is currently coming out of Philadelphia is contemporary punk rock. It is community spirited. It at first appears offensive and aggressive yet is ultimately intelligent. It embraces art. It celebrates its multiculturalism. It shouts in your face before putting its arm around you. It exists to excite you! I suddenly, as though remembering that I had left the iron on, realised that I needed to start creating music again. I had thought that I was bored with music but I was just bored with the constant pissy stream of post-Libertines indie drivel that seemed to be stuttering in a loop on British radio. To my delight that era seems to be over.

It is comforting to see how much of what is now fluttering around the airwaves stems directly from that organic Philadelphia scene. Diplo and British DJ Switch (of M.I.A. notoriety) created the collaborative project Major Lazer on which, amongst Jamaican toasters and ragga artists, Santigold and Amanda guest (although Amanda’s rap was taken off at the last minute). Diplo produced tracks on Amanda and Santigold’s albums. Switch was responsible for the perfectly produced Mpho single Box and Locks having previously twiddled knobs for Spankrock. When not organising block parties and inviting people to his warehouse parties in Philadelphia Diplo has remixed songs for Britney Spears and Kanye West. And whether consciously or unconsciously everyone from Lady Gaga to JLS has borrowed bleeps and thumps from Philly electro. My year in Philadelphia opened my heart to music again, as the Bad Brains had done for a teenage me. I gained perspective on the Mickey Mouse life that had snowballed around me in England. I learnt that I love punk rock no matter what it sounds like. I saw people enjoying the malleability and control you can have with electronic music (I have been remixing under a pseudonym). And I became a music fan again, enjoying a place at the foot of the DJ booth staring wide eyed upwards in adoration (taking notes).