“Complete assimilation really means complete acceptance. The immigrant who is completely assimilated has lost the faculty of adding whatever is special about himself to his country; for any artist, complete assimilation means the adoption of an aesthetic where no lines are drawn and no choices are made. That quality of selection, which is what is at stake when an artist comes across with his or her version of anything, is missing. When an artist gives an all-encompassing Yes to his audience, there is nothing more he can tell his audience, nothing he can really do for them, except maybe throw them a kiss. Only the man who says No is free.”
- Greil Marcus, The Presliad, Mystery Train
I thought of Elvis last Wednesday, and what Greil Marcus wrote about him in the 1970s.
It was when I went to the Brits. I sat in a box with other people who also have nothing to do with the music industry, and watched the celebratory roll-call. I watched the haircuts and the clothes and the shoes and the wireless instruments that weren’t plugged in. I watched the endlessly moving lights and the stage that perpetually re-built itself.
Having spent the last 10 years easing backwards from the world of popular music – it’s not on the TV, I don’t listen to Radio 1 or commercial radio – I found myself almost laughably ill-informed about the events inside the O2. I’d never heard Emeli Sande sing. I’d no idea what Taylor Swift looked like. I didn’t even know the guy who won Best Male was.
When you’re this detached from the narrative unfolding in front of you, strange things happen. The performative aspect starts to strike you as weird. It’s like some big club that everyone knows the rules to except you. Without knowing the context or content, you realise you’re watching reputations rather than people. Performances not characters.
Robbie Williams seemed like he saw through the whole thing just as much as I did. Given his irony-drenched 90s, this phoned-in version comes off like an ironic take on irony. Irony eating itself.
His song seems to take an awfully long time.
Writing about the Elvis of the 70s, Greil Marcus noticed that, after losing himself in crap movies and a brief, energised comeback, the great man now “performs from a distance… singing as if there are no dangers or delights grand enough in the world to challenge him. There is great satisfaction in his performance, and great emptiness.” (This is from the same book as the excerpt quoted at the start of this post.)
This was what I was thinking of when I watched Robbie. But it spoke to the complacency that the entire shebang stands for. The breathless and incredulous acceptance speeches couldn’t mask the winners’ sense of entitlement. They knew they deserved to be there. They’d been fluffed for it. Any self-doubt is crushed beneath the self-worth that such a showy display bestows on them.
Somehow, an industry that is on its knees finds the time and the money to be this complacent, this indulgent. It’s like putting on a fireworks display as you re-arrange the deckchairs.
There’s no room at the Brits any more for the wayward, the anomalous, the unscripted stuff of life. Real people are shut out – both on and off the stage.
Strangely, they all accept the rules. To paraphrase Marcus, there’s a great deal of satisfaction at the Brits, and very little No; everyone says Yes. It’s also utterly empty.
I was thinking about all this when, on Friday, I attended The Story. It’s a conference, run by Matt Locke. It examines storytelling in all its forms. It shines a light on disciplines and people that are creating amazing experiences. You buy tickets through Eventbrite.
The Story is not the Brits. It isn’t empty. It’s positively brimming with ideas, with experiences, with life.
At lunchtime I was describing my Brits experience to a colleague. Afterwards she mentioned to me she’d thought of this exchange when the final speaker quoted John Updike. The quote is worth capturing in full.
“Celebrity is a mask that eats into your face. As soon as one is aware of being somebody, to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his over animation. One can either see or be seen.”
This was Rob Manuel, co-founder of B3TA, GIF-celebrant and, at The Story at least, defender of “the bottom half of the internet.” He used the quote to remind us that the people who occupy the ‘top half’ of the internet can sometimes start to get a bit carried away. Media owners and opinion-formers are becoming very superior. Informally they sneer at the ‘commentards’; formally the media likes to demonise dissent as ‘trolling’.
This is a profoundly disheartening development. It’s elitist, anti-democratic. We know best, says the top.
It sounded a lot like the way I was made to feel at the Brits.
Let’s keep the inappropriate and the uncomfortable and the different at bay. Let’s maintain the ‘natural’ order of things.
It’s bad when it happens to music. It will be terrible if it’s allowed to happen to culture generally.
The Brits is what happens when an industry thinks it knows best, despite decades of evidence to the contrary. It’s what happens when young upstarts that don’t fit the conventional or current paradigm have to fight to get heard, before they inevitably prove the industry wrong, take over the world and eventually get co-opted by the very industry that tried to kill them off.
The Brits is what happens when complete assimilation creates an aesthetic where no lines are drawn, because there’s no artistic vision at stake, other than success.
The Brits is, it’s fair to say, the total antithesis of The Story.
What The Story served up was small victories, personal memoir, irrepressible creativity and the passion of real people.
Here was a collection of people who had said No, not Yes. They had refused to accept the rules. And as a result they were free.
It was exciting, vivid, strange, shambolic, and not always the full picture. Sometimes you had to work to interpret the meaning of what was being said. Sometimes it was apparent that having done great work doesn’t necessarily make you a great speaker.
But that was OK. Because asking an audience to work with you can be the most engaging storytelling of all.
This was proper lean-forward stuff. For once I didn’t take notes. I didn’t tweet. But no-one can tell me I didn’t participate fully.
I just listened and then talked about what I’d heard with my friends. The conversations, as much as the talks themselves, led to this post.
With the Brits there are no gaps to fill in, no narrative to be identified with, no insight to be passed on, or misunderstood.
But effective, combinatorial listening in Conway Hall meant you went away far richer than when you walked in.
The point was made indirectly by Rebecca O’Brien, Ken Loach’s producer, when she talked about the challenge of non-narrative documentary. An audience still needs structure even if the film resists a conventional authorial voice. The insight was a useful one. An audience needs just enough scaffolding that it supports what’s built around it, but make it too visible and the audience becomes too passive.
That it was followed by the one ‘bad powerpoint’ presentation – from LOCOG – was unfortunate, but appropriate. The Olympics was a story with plenty of emotion already invested in it by the audience. But the mundane stakeholder presentation behind it showed too much scaffolding. Exposition nearly killed the story dead.
Like the Brits, and 70s Elvis, and as Rob Manuel pointed out, our mass-scale storytelling is in trouble, and not fit for purpose. It’s full of people being seen, not seeing. It doesn’t so much celebrate the unconventional as assimilate it. By handing down to us the things we are supposed to be interested in, it becomes complacent, flabby, and stale with the fixed paradigms of entertainment constructs. It renders audiences passive. It treats people the way children’s media treats children – like someone else, somewhere else, knows best.
But the people in charge don’t always know best.
They’re just in charge.
The Story showed this loud and clear.
We heard about the economists who created the derivatives pricing equation, a self-fulfilling prophecy that led more than indirectly to the financial crisis.
We heard about the inhibition schooled into our children that prevented from then writing freely, from the storyteller making it her business to shake them up a bit.
We heard about the post-war moment when a socialist-minded electorate created modern Britain only to have the narrative wrested from them by future governments.
These stories demonstrated that we identify more with the small and the specific way more than we do with the general and prescriptive. Life, in all its messy, complicated ways, is made up not of media owner narratives but of the stories that emerge from specific individuals, objects, times and places.
Edwyn Collins, who recovered from his stroke and re-built his identity and memories from scratch, only did so because he refused to listen to the doctors who told him there was no point.
Both Rob Manuel and Laura Dockrill, a kid’s writer and the day’s best speaker by a country mile, talked about a more democratic approach to creative expression. Right now we suffer from a top-down sickness, whether it’s Manuel’s elitist media owners, or Alice Lee’s analysis of children’s media – media that tell us more about the adults who made it than the children it was supposedly made for.
‘Commentards’, children, Occupy activists, Paralympic vloggers – given the opportunity, fascinating stories can and should come from anyone.
Somewhere between the Conway Hall and the O2 I learned that, as Greil Marcus said, drawing lines still matters.
Going up against power structures, like the animator who worked with Cartoon Network did, or Ken Loach does, or Occupy, is necessary if you don’t want your view, your story, to become completely assimilated. If you want to retain the faculty of adding whatever is special about yourself to your story.
And, crucially, if you still want something more to tell your audience.
I’ve tried while writing this to come up with the usual, what-this-means-for-us-in-advertising, finishing flourish.
But I’m not sure I can. We’re a very long way from what the Story represents, at least institutionally even if not intentionally.
In advertising, to reach people and tell our stories, we use the very media owners and power structures that The Story asks us to guard against. We try to convince people – who we call consumers and probably think of as children – that we do know best. When we say we want to hear ‘their story’ we don’t really mean it, except in a few, moderated cases.
We can’t do small, messy, or authentic very well.
We sponsor the Brits. Or, as I did, accept hospitality invites. We support the media power structures.
We are the top half of the internet.
On the tube I saw, briefly, a bunch of advertising that, in comparison to what I’d just heard and seen during the day at Conway Hall, seemed superficial, thin, obvious and clichéd.
But this means there is hope.
Brands that do find a way to celebrate the different, the small, the uncomfortable, the specific, and maybe even the inappropriate might start to stand out.
They might start to have something of life about them, rather than the scripted simulacrum that most advertising becomes, despite itself.
Then perhaps we might genuinely add whatever is special about them to a story that feels genuine and real.