Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Inventory of Normality

in “The Winner Stands Alone”, by Paulo Coelho

1] Anything that makes us forget our true identity and our dreams and makes us only work to produce and reproduce.

2] Making rules for a war (the Geneva Convention).

3] Spending years at university and then not being able to find a job.

4] Working from nine in the morning to five in the afternoon at something that does not give us the least pleasure, so that we can retire after 30 years.

5] Retiring only to discover that we have no more energy to enjoy life, and then dying of boredom after a few years.

6] Using Botox.

7] Trying to be financially successful instead of seeking happiness.

8] Ridiculing those who seek happiness instead of money by calling them “people with no ambition”.

9] Comparing objects like cars, houses and clothes, and defining life according to these comparisons instead of really trying to find out the true reason for being alive.

10] Not talking to strangers. Saying nasty things about our neighbors.

11] Thinking that parents are always right.

12] Getting married, having children and staying together even though the love has gone, claiming that it’s for the sake of the children (who do not seem to be listening to the constant arguments).

12ยช] Criticizing everybody who tries to be different.

14] Waking up with a hysterical alarm-clock at the bedside.

15] Believing absolutely everything that is printed.

16] Wearing a piece of colored cloth wrapped around the neck for no apparent reason and known by the pompous name “necktie”.

17] Never asking direct questions, even though the other person understands what you want to know.

18] Keeping a smile on your face when you really want to cry. And feeling sorry for those who show their own feelings.

19] Thinking that art is worth a fortune, or else that it is worth absolutely nothing.

20] Always despising what was easily gained, because the “necessary sacrifice” – and therefore also the required qualities – are missing.

21] Following fashion, even though it all looks ridiculous and uncomfortable.

22] Being convinced that all the famous people have tons of money saved up.

23] Investing a lot in exterior beauty and paying little attention to interior beauty.

24] Using all possible means to show that even though you are a normal person, you are infinitely superior to other human beings.

25] In any kind of public transport, never looking straight into the eyes of the other passengers, as this may be taken for attempting to seduce them.

26] When you enter an elevator, looking straight at the door and pretending you are the only person inside, however crowded it may be.

27] Never laughing out loud in a restaurant, no matter how funny the story is.

28] In the Northern hemisphere, always wearing the clothes that match the season of the year: short sleeves in springtime (however cold it may be) and a woolen jacket in the fall (no matter how warm it is).

29] In the Southern hemisphere, decorating the Christmas tree with cotton wool, even though winter has nothing to do with the birth of Christ.

30] As you grow older, thinking you are the wisest man in the world, even though not always do you have enough life experience to know what is wrong.

31] Going to a charity event and thinking that in this way you have collaborated enough to put an end to all the social inequalities in the world.

32] Eating three times a day, even if you’re not hungry.

33] Believing that the others are always better at everything: they are better-looking, more resourceful, richer and more intelligent. Since it’s very risky to venture beyond your own limits, it’s better to do nothing.

34] Using the car as a way to feel powerful and in control of the world.

35] Using foul language in traffic.

36] Thinking that everything your child does wrong is the fault of the company he or she is keeping.

37] Marrying the first person who offers you a position in society. Love can wait.

38] Always saying “I tried”, even though you haven’t tried at all.

39] Putting off doing the most interesting things in life until you no longer have the strength to do them.

40] Avoiding depression with massive daily doses of television programs.

41] Believing that it is possible to be sure of everything you have won.

42] Thinking that women don’t like football and that men don’t like interior decoration.

43] Blaming the government for everything bad that happens.

44] Being convinced that being a good, decent and respectful person means that the others will find you weak, vulnerable and easy to manipulate.

45] Being convinced that aggressiveness and discourtesy in treating others are signs of a powerful personality.

46] Being afraid of fibroscopy (men) and childbirth (women).

47] And finally, thinking that your religion is the sole proprietor of the absolute truth, the most important, the best, and that the other human beings in this immense planet who believe in any other manifestation of God are condemned to the fires of hell.

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I do like the way Paulo Coelho writes.

There's a whole module in A-Level psychology I've taught, all about Abnormal Psychology. One of the acknowledged problems psychologists have is the very act of defining normality. How does science create a benchmark for what is considered 'normal' behaviour?

I had a t-shirt that posed the question: Are you normal?

As some of us used to say when I was younger - 'normal is boring'.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Fuck You I Won't Do What You Tell Me!



A triumph.

Fuck all the naysayers.

And I don't mean those people who love X-Factor.

I mean those people I spoke to who were too cynical to join in.

Those who were unwilling to give it a go.

Those were thinking that their contribution wouldn't make a difference.

Those people who said it would be pointless.

Well.

Yes We Can!

Now read my in-depth thoughts behind it.

Raging.

I have been raging this week.

In the sense of joining the Facebook campaign to get Rage Against the Machine's 'Killing in the Name' to Christmas Number 1.

I mean - I'm actually old enough to remember when the race for Christmas No. 1 was a race, a novelty and exciting in the media. (Actually, fuck that - I'm old enough to remember when there was a race for any No. 1. It was exciting seeing a song climb the singles' chart).

Nowadays of course, it's very different. I suppose music always was product mixed with entertainment and it was always designed to sell, but artistry is somewhere in there. Even more scary is the level of control the mass-media and money actually has. This is why I really do think there's a whole lot more to this. This particular battle for the top spot (and it really is a battle) is a metaphor on many levels. Here's my take on it, which includes my reason for going on about it to everyone this week.

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1) Music industry vs. Musicianship
Simon Cowell may be a cunt but he understands what sells and how to sell it. He understands the music industry. But to say he's talent-spotting and giving people a chance to 'make it' is being naive. He's only interested in making money for himself - from phone-ins, from his production company and from record sales.

And the people who go on the show are more interested in the Cult of Celebrity rather than genuine musicianship.

Last time I checked, music wasn't only about singing! It was also about instrumentation and songwriting. Rage Against the Machine represent true musicianship and what it means to be in a band. There's something magical about creating music with other people in a room, and then going on to perform it. The whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts.

I talk about the reporting in the media below, but the some of the shit spouted by the mass-media is shocking. Rage play their instruments with skill and express an emotion very clearly. That's all music is - an expression of emotion. But to call Rage 'decrepit heavy metal' is lazy journalism - in fact it's probably a deliberate attempt to discredit the campaign. It's fucking ridiculous!

The all-to-common argument against Rage being no. 1 is that they're signed to Sony. And Simon Cowell's label SyCo is an imprint of Sony. Therefore buying the Rage single as a protest against the music industry and Simon Cowell is pointless because it benefits Cowell and Sony anyway.*

Point of fact: Rage signed with Epic Records which was then bought by Sony. Additionally the band saw now ideological conflict with their politics because they maintained complete creative control.

Besides, this particular campaign is about so much more than just Simon Cowell (that's of course the whole scope of this post!)

Will Joe McElderry maintain complete creative control? Do any of the X-Factor winners have the musicianship to actually have any creative control over their music?

Of course they fucking don't!

In the (now infamous) Radio 5 Live interview with Rage, Tom Morello explains how the song Killing in the Name was "written in a small industrial slum in Los Angeles. The X Factor song is written by a cabal of overpaid songwriters to shove the schmaltzy business down your throats. So there is two very different choices." One is exciting and exhilarating. One is bland and boring.

Instead the winner of X-Factor sings a song that is not theirs and seems to think that a number 1 single in the charts is their right. Nope that's the music industry manipulating you. The singer is just a puppet. I mean it's not like Girls Aloud profit of any of their music - no the true pop-genius behind them is the production team Xenomania - the girls are just a front! Which is why Cheryl has to whore herself around all the time (and to cover up what a racist bitch she is).

The thing is, Cheryl Cole and Joe McElderry are just victims or puppets of the music industry. It's not their fault (directly) that they chose to sell their souls.

Even more interesting, the founders of the Facebook campaign set up a link to donate to charity - specifically Shelter. Last time I checked over £60,000 had been donated. Not bad for a grassroots campaign. In keeping with this, and their principles, the windfall profits from the single that Rage stand to gain are being donated to charity. Rage are a band, of course, that regularly practise the politics they preach with charity work and donations. Tom Morello (Rage's guitarist) will be donating his personal profits to a charity that does music out-reach with the youth in the UK.

Will Simon Cowell be giving any of his personal gains to charity?

Now what kind of person calls this Facebook campaign cynical and mean?

So getting Rage to Christmas No. 1 would be a victory for musicianship.

2) Old Media vs. New Media
The internet is a new medium. OK so it's maturing really quickly (some might say it already has) but I can remember a time without the internet and mobile phones (let alone the mobile internet!) Access to such vast quantities of information was never as easy as it is today.

Equally, social networking is new phenomenon.

In contrast, X-Factor is old media: the Television! It is the biggest programme on TV in the UK. Something like 20 million viewers tuned in for the final last week. That's a lot - and harking back to an age when that many people would regularly tune in for programmes as families.

As the different types of media have splintered, it's made it more and more difficult for television. The proliferation of choice for how we consume our media has made it easier for us to avoid watching something like X-Factor.

Which is why it's become even more of a circus. The Cult of Celebrity has become more extreme and the 'traditional' media have pulled together to hammer even harder from the top down. Television, newspapers, radio and magazines seem to spout the same drivel. It's impossible to avoid X-Factor (or someone talking about it).

And not only the programme itself, but also related programes (X-tra Factor?) and the news devote space and time to it until is seeps into everything around us.

We are force-fed the minutiae of the lives of X-Factor contestants, judges and even presenters.

It tastes fucking horrible and makes me want to puke my guts up.

So, I just settle for screaming at the TV, anyone I talk to, the people I teach and ranting on my blog.

This campaign has been driven by social-networking. This battle signifies the importance of social networking. Instead of the top-down traditional media force-feeding us, this is a bottom-up, people working together and expressing how they feel.

It's fighting fire with fire. In the mass-media fuelled environment we live in, it's so difficult to get exposure and fight back. Bloggers are useless unless they get read. Instead, Facebook has mobilised hundreds of thousands of people. It's delivered a giant middle-finger to traditional media.

New media and social networking has come of age.

I joined the Facebook group when there were 60,000 members on a Friday night. A week later there were 600,000 members. Now there are something like 950,000. The group was generating so much traffic on Facebook that it kept crashing. So, the original founders set up a back-up group. That second group has something like 100,000 plus members!

What Facebook has enabled is mass-mobilisation of people. People can start a revolution from their computer. As someone posted - the Facebook group is HQ - the real action happens everywhere else.

What's really interesting was the response from the traditional media. At first it was almost a complete black-out. Zane Lowe played the censored version on his radio show after he received a huge number of texts and emails (but he didn't plug the group!) Then when Rage came in at no. 1 on the mid-week chart things started to pop-up. An item was shown on BBC News 24, various internet articles appeared. Later on, Simon Cowell waded in, and so did Cheryl Cole with disparaging comments about the campaign - perhaps in recognition that the X-Factor single might be beaten as a result of a social-networking-based campaign? Then the X-Factor winner himself got to comment - by throwing darts as Zack de la Rocha's picture!

This is fighting fire with fire. It's what Rage have been doing for nearly 20 years - using the mass-media against itself. With the publication of that article, it generated the media-circus that the Facebook campaign truly needed. The battle for Christmas no. 1 has become a battle again.

Additionally, the mass-media were truly terrible at getting facts correct. It really seemed like deliberate misrepresentation to discredit it. For example, the Facebook campaign was not started by the band as some Guardian writer seems to think...or that the money made from Rage going to number one would be going to Simon Cowell's record label as a Mirror writer thinks.

The point that really fucked me off was that the £60,000 donated to Shelter as a direct result of this Facebook campaign GOT NO MEDIA MENTIONS AT ALL in the write-ups of the campaign - except by the band in their articles and interviews! Simon Cowell has branded this campaign 'cynical'. Cheryl Cole called it 'mean'.

Oh dear, oh dear.

To me this highlights the state of journalism today. Forget the facts, just push a particular viewpoint to influence people. That's why the internet, new media and social networking are so important nowadays. They level the playing field from traditional information-asymmetry** to a much more aware and informed citizen.

The problem is, ignorance is bliss - and it's much easier to stay blissfully uninformed than to take the time to find out and take action...

And it all started with a member of Facebook.

Even if Rage doesn't make it to Christmas No. 1, the rules of the game have been changed forever. Social networking has proved its worth. There's a reason why advertisers are paying to be on Facebook. Now it's even more compelling - can the big companies afford not to?

The problem of course will be that campaigns like this come along only rarely. I can now expect social-networking sites to be re-appropriated by 'the machine' to push out their message. I can quite easily imagine marketing budgets to include a section for social-networking spending, and marketing plans to include a Facebook and Twitter strategy.

Either way, we're still fucked.

Still, getting Rage to Christmas No. 1 would be a victory for new-media.

3) Capitalist Profits vs. Grassroots Cooperation
Of course related to this idea of Old Media vs. New Media is the old Capitalist vs. Communist debate. Except I hesitate to use the word Communist because of all the negative connotations.

I prefer to think about it in terms of the profit motive - which is essentially what the music industry, and old-media are driven by. But on a deeper level, X-Factor and the music industry as a whole is indicative of the whole system rotting from the inside.

And the reason for it is the profit motive.

Simon Cowell is an entrepreneur. He is an effective businessman. He understands his target audience. He understands his product. He understands what will sell. He knows how to manipulate the mass-media. He puts it all together to make himself a pretty penny. He is (in effect) creating a monopoly on the charts. (Where's the competition commission?)

But he has no interest in (real) music.

He's only interested in product. ITV is an ad-revenue driven channel. It doesn't have the security of the licence fee the way the BBC has. Therefore, it has to go mass-market to the lowest-common-denominator. Without Simon Cowell, ITV would be struggling to maintain it's revenues. Companies were paying significant amounts to advertise during the X-Factor final's ad break.

Cowell is driven by the profit-motive.

So when he goes on record saying the campaign to get Rage Against the Machine as 'stupid' and 'cynical', what he really means is that he's worried about his revenues and profits.

I would have much less of a problem with him if he was open about his motives the way Sir Alan Sugar is. He not being something he's not. Zack de la Rocha (on the now infamous Radio 5 Live performance***) described Simon Cowell as "an interesting character who has profited greatly off humiliating people on live television and has a unique position of someone who can not only capture the attention of some people on television but also on the airwaves."****

The thing is - Simon Cowell is really just the poster-boy for profit-driven industries. He's a victim to the system of incentives that values profit before people. Just like the bankers getting ludicrous bonuses.

On a bigger level, the entire system of risk and reward doesn't value cooperation and working together. It's more about destroying the competition. This is because it's all founded on the idea of scarcity. In fact there are enough resources and technology to feed, clothe and shelter everyone on the planet.

It's just humanity can't share.

Instead we have a situation where one part of the planet is dying because it has too much, and the other part of the planet is dying because it doesn't have enough. Everyone else is scrambling for everything else in the middle.

What a fucking mess.

So, for me - this Facebook campaign is a metaphor for capitalist profits vs. grassroots cooperation. Especially when all that's required to sort out the planet is a bit of agreement, cooperation and sharing.

Therefore, Rage at Christmas No. 1 would be a victory for grassroots cooperation.

4) Dictatorship vs. Democracy
Some people say that the charts indicate what the people want. These same people often say that if it's in the charts it must be good because it's popular.

Scratch the surface and the idea that the charts represent what the people want seems a bit ludicrous. Historically, as people began to make enough money to be able to choose what to buy rather than having to buy from necessity, the idea of advertising appeared. Competition forced producers to think about how to make their offering different from everyone else's.

The thing is - even if a product is not different from any others, advertising is designed to make the consumers think that there is a difference.

Controlling the mind of the consumer becomes the biggest priority for most companies now.

Theoretically, the consumer is king because consumers will choose what they want to buy, and that influences what gets produced. In other words, if people don't buy, it doesn't get made. If there's no demand for a something, no company will produce it.

Unfortunately, this ideal of a democratic market doesn't quite work. Companies pump millions into advertising to influence consumer thinking.

And most people lap it up.

X-Factor is nothing more than a long advert.

Digging deeper, the idea of consumer sovereignty is intimately linked with the expression of democracy. A free market capitalistic system (related to my previous point) tends to be associated with a democratic political system. Freedom of choice is what politicians and economists talk about all the time.

Except it's not really like that. Control the media, you control the way people think.

The way X-Factor works in the music industry is a metaphor for the way politics works. As my old economics teacher used to say - the one who pays the piper calls the tune. Simon Cowell is now talking about doing X-Factor style political debates. No I'm not joking! That's no fucking coincidence.

The way this campaign has grown, using Facebook, has been in a very grassroots organic way. The people who joined the group didn't have to join - they chose to. The people who downloaded the song didn't have to - they chose to. (The fact is that out of all the people who joined the group only about a third actually bothered to download the song - such is the apathy of humanity).

As Tom Morello said (you gotta love this guy's ability to express himself) this whole campaign has been a 'wonderful dose of anarchy.' He goes on to say that until now, people haven't been able to vote against the show - it was only about voting for contestants on the show.

I completely agree. I (have always) felt as if I was being dictated to by the mass-media (I've already commented about old-media force-feeding me shit).

Where was my freedom of choice? Choosing not to watch? Oh yeah ok. Then what about the radio adverts, the internet links, the news stories, the books, the magazine front covers, (which in turn generates workplace conversation) etc. etc. How could I avoid it? Oh yeah - it's impossible to.

To my mind, this is exactly how a dictatorship (oops I mean democracy slip of the keyboard there) wins elections...

At the end of it all, Rage at Christmas No. 1 would be a victory for democracy.

5) Boring Christmas No. 1. vs. Hilariously Interesting Christmas No. 1
Regardless of everything, when it comes down to it, I think it would be fucking hilarious to have Rage at No. 1. Making the chart race fun again! Yay!

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All of these points overlap, intermingle and can get entangled. We live in an interdependent world. I like to think I've separated out some of the main arguments - but it's really difficult to do so because of the inter-relationship.

Many people have joined the Facebook campaign for many different reasons. The discussion board on the group is full of differing opinions, ideas, thinking and expressions. I haven't been around a more interesting, enlightening, self-aware, entertaining and deep-thinking group of people in a long time.

But what works in the world we live in are the big expressions. The only way to effect some kind of change is a big gesture. A big communication. Something that is going to capture a LOT of people's attention. The vast majority are quite happy to go about their lives without devoting a lot of time to think about anything. Keep people fed on a diet of TV and junk food, and they're no trouble to govern. If they're thinking, that's when the problems start.

It might seem like I'm reading too much into this whole campaign. But to me, it's a palpable expression of what can be achieved when people work together.

I can't think of a more incendiary, rabble-rousing, visceral, passionate, rallying-cry call-to-arms type song than Killing in the Name. It's the perfect song to capture people's imagination, get their attention and achieve maximum awareness at a time when it's most needed.

Christmas is meant to be a time for family, reflection and happiness. Instead it's been re-appropriated by the profit motive and has become a time of over-indulgence, over-spending and over-consumption - at least in our culture (never mind acknowledging the existence of any other culture!)

For me, a song like this being no. 1 at Christmas will make people think.

That's what I'm most proud to be part of.


Footnotes:
* My fellow (and much more prolific and wiser on these matters) blogger The Sloppy Dog puts it more eloquently by saying:
The "ooh, Sony are the real winners" debate carries no weight whatsoever. About 95% of modern music is owned by the big three labels, and you'd be hard pushed to find a song that wasn't in some way linked to one of them (be it in distribution, publishing, etc).

** This term is used in Freakonomics. Go read it.

***The link to the video on the BBC website is only going to be up for another 4 days. There's a version on YouTube but it has no video...

**** I absolutely love the way Tom Morello and Zack de la Rocha handle the media - they refuse to get drawn into slagging of Simon Cowell or X-Factor!