Thursday, November 19, 2009

You have to hand it to the French...

I’ve been listening – as usual – to my football podcast this morning as I walked across Brooklyn Bridge to work. The business of the day was an in-depth debate about the blatant handball (or was it a ‘juggle’) that effectively led to the Republic of Ireland being knocked out of the World Cup and guaranteed France their place. What I didn’t expect was to see the issue discussed on Huffington Post once I arrived at the office:
A large part of what I have heard and read centers on whether or not Thierry Henry – a gifted player with a similar talent for keeping his PR stock high – should have done the sportsmanlike thing: should he have owned up? After all, he must have known that the whole sports world would soon be analyzing that particular bit of video. Moreover, he must have suspected that most people who saw it the first time round didn’t need to analyze the video. It was so obvious. Except to the referee.
The problem with this is that it assumes that football is a sport and played for the enjoyment of taking part; when, in fact, it crossed over from sport to business somewhere between twenty and thirty years ago. Henry has since admitted that he handled the ball – he could hardly deny it - but that France are already through and winning is the most important thing. If you can win in an entertaining fashion that is certainly a bonus – after all, football is in the entertainment business. (Or is it in the Sports Merchandising business?). Players are under more televised scrutiny than ever but are still diving, spitting, stamping and tugging shirts. Few players are given time to develop – particularly at the bigger clubs – and need to make an immediate impact – fairly or otherwise. If they don’t they are out. To be replaced by another big signing. And if you don’t have the money to buy these players then you make it known that you may be interested in hearing from any wealthy Arab businessmen and/or royalty who may want a new plaything. The common wisdom used to claim that you couldn’t buy the Premiership. Blackburn tested the theory (with Jack Walker’s cash) and Chelsea have smashed it into tiny pieces (having looked farther afield to Russia). Manchester City are now the richest club in the world, owned as they are by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan whose family fortune is estimated at around $1 trillion. Having already invested around $500 million you would suspect that he will want a return on that investment. The minimum required will be a Champions League place and that requires them to finish in the top four. They will not achieve that by just playing fair and entertaining football.
It would be nice to think that on the International level there may exist some of the finer points of the game where Nation meets Nation to pit their wits against each other and transcend the commercial imperatives. But the players of any top footballing nation are mostly those who are battling it out in a kind of Super League of six to eight teams in the EPL, La Liga, Serie A or the Bundesliege. The National Manager is not necessarily of that country’s descent. Even stranger is the fact that very often the players themselves only have a tenuous link with the team whose shirt they are wearing. I think you could possibly qualify for selection if a distant relation took a vacation in a particular country for longer than two weeks. I suspect that top players are paid so much by their clubs and are asked to play so many games that the thought of playing for their country loses some of its appeal. You only have to look at how many players announce their international retirement these days – almost unheard of ten years ago.
And, of course, there is always the commercial consideration even with international games. The winning country will sell more shirts and other merchandise and will see an increase in attendances, etc.

We may want to see the spirit of fair play and a well-contested game – particularly as an antidote to all of the other things that are going on in the world. I suspect that more often we want to come out on the winning side and there’s nothing wrong with that. But without some sense of fair play what does that leave us with?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

No news.... is good news?

I love music as much as the next man. Maybe more. I love playing it, I love listening to it. I love the moment when I discover something that ‘blows my mind’. This seems to be happening less with ‘new’ music (by which I mean contemporary popular music).But I do discover great old stuff now and then. I sometimes think that I would be perfectly content to listen for the rest of my life only to the music that has already been recorded (which is quite something when you bear in mind that I am really talking about the last sixty or seventy years’ worth or recorded music).

After all, if I could track down recordings of all the music that I think I would like to listen to (notwithstanding that music that I think I wouldn’t like but may actually find that I love) I could probably listen to each piece of music only time only and still run out of my remaining lifetime before I ran out of music. And bear in mind that I was a huge fan of Punk and New Wave which, for me, blew away all of the safe and bland music out of the water. But if I am being truthful, I am probably listening to more of that safe and bland stuff than I am any experimental or ‘new’ music. (Rumours, anyone?)

I’m not really sure why this is…a certain nostalgic familiarity maybe? Maybe it reminds me of a high school girlfriend, a great club I went to in our 20s, a great road trip. As we get older we cling onto things from our youth. Or maybe this love of the music from our past is due to the fact that there aren’t that many new things to say and, for the most part, not that many new ways of saying them. Or to put it another way, I have not only heard it before…but I’ve heard it better before.

Take a contemporary artist that I really DO like: Jack White. Jack White is an enormous talent and I love watching this guy play – especially live. But even in this instance I don’t know how much of his music I will ever get through. A lot of his music is influenced by Led Zeppelin and, as familiar as I am with Led Zeppelin and as much as I like their work, I have not cracked their entire back catalogue. So am I really going to start working through Jack White’s as well as Led Zeppelin’s? And if I did get around to all of that shouldn’t really get started on Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, etc. It is an addictive pastime, trying to listen to all this music.

But maybe I have it all wrong. Maybe the whole point is that every generation has its own way of telling stories and while there only be a few recurring stories in the world they are all valid to be retold as long as each connects to their audience.

I was recently sent a link to Robert Crumb’s Book of Genesis:
A classic example of re-telling one of the oldest stories in existence. Okay, maybe the medium is not the most cutting edge – but given that R. Crumb is responsible, this is a pretty new re-working of an ancient story. I was pleased to see this project. It gave me hope about the endless possibilities of art and it confirmed what is a core belief of mine: that people will always want to hear or see stories. Sometimes people will delve back in time and sometimes they will want it presented in a slightly modernized way.

That's a nice thought.

We are an industry of storytellers of one kind or another and we all know that there are new stories to be told. We also know that sometimes older stories need re-working in order to engage a young audience who is waiting, eager to consume them. We need to be able to connect. Does the message resonate better when it’s delivered by Robert Johnson on a dusty old ‘30s recording than by a synthed-up Lady GaGa? Or when it comes courtesy of Ray Harryhausen’s King Kong as opposed to Peter Jackson’s? Of course not. Different people will have a different response to receiving the same message. Moreover, one person may respond differently depending on what stage of his life he/she is at and what experiences they can draw on. The crucial thing is that we deliver the message in a way which will achieve the results we require.

As storytellers we should be able to do this using our skills with the tools at our disposal. If we’re not then maybe we are no longer relevant. A great example of adapting modern methods of communication to get across historical ideas was recently emailed to me:

Yes, Orchestra Hero…! We’ve had Guitar Hero and DJ Hero is just about to be released…so why not Orchestra Hero? Yes, it is a little incongruous, but at the very least it will serve as a way to expose a group of young people to classic music in a medium that will not make them immediately reject it. This could lead to a greater appreciation of orchestral works. The article suggests that during the time of their original composition, the works of Beethoven, Mahler and Bach, the orchestra was the place where influential statements were made:

statements that impacted the cultural and political dialogues of the West. Unfortunately this is a claim the orchestral world can no longer make. Competing now with movies, television, the Internet and popular music, the orchestra no longer has the platform for cultural dialogue that it once held.

Interesting that a computer game may provide a road for the player to embark on a journey of discovery.

Maybe that is also the point of ‘new music’; while there’s nothing necessarily new about most of it, it can speak to those who are receptive to it but also can provide a bridge to other influences and help to open up a whole new world of discovery.