The Null Device

2016/5/15

Eurovision 2016 has been and gone. This time, much of the weirdness apparently fell by the wayside in the semifinals, thus arguably making watching the finals even more essential for fans of the Old Weird Eurovision. Further weirdness was lost when Romania failed to pay its EBU bill and was unceremoniously disqualified, depriving audiences of a few minutes of dependable gothic oddity (to their credit, Poland tried to fill that gap, though they didn't quite manage it; Poland, after all, is not Romania). And, for the second time ever, Australia was invited to compete; this time, they almost ended up winning. Also for the first time ever, the event was broadcast to the United States, undoubtedly causing mass confusion there, though perhaps not as much as it would have some years earlier. Also, this year, the voting system was split: first came in the votes of the nations' juries of experts, and then the aggregated public phone votes, a system apparently designed to maximise suspense, something in which it succeeded.

As for the songs themselves: Sweden appeared to walk the tightrope of showing competence whilst avoiding the risk of having to host it twice in a row (something that almost bankrupted Ireland in the 1990s), and sent in a hair-gelled teenager singing something unmemorable. Cyprus brought the hard rock, or at least hard-rock-flavoured dance music, and Georgia went landfill-indie (and got douze points from the UK, the spiritual home of landfill-indie, for their efforts). France, I thought, were decent, and the two Baltic states that made it through were as well. Australia entered with a very competent minor-key electropop ballad about intimacy at a distance, with lyrics about FaceTime and cyberpunk-style visual projections, and for a while, looked like it would win, running away with a commanding lead in the jury vote; but it was not to be: the night belonged to the geopolitical faultline between Russia and Ukraine:

Russia, it seems, tried very hard to win, throwing vast amounts of resources at it, as if it were a matter of national prestige. Their song was, by Eurovision standards, first-rate, and the setting was helped with some impressive projection-mapping effects. It was as if Putin himself gave the directive that Eurovision 2017 was to be in Moscow, and instructed everybody to do whatever it took to make it happen, up to and including having the performer, Sergey Lazarev, butter up the decadent liberals of Euro-Sodom by having gone on record criticising Russia's anti-gay laws and the annexation of Crimea. As such Russia had been the bookmakers' favourite to win, geopolitics notwithstanding. When the votes came in, though, the juries largely snubbed Russia, with them getting nul points from 21 juries. Even the torrent of phone votes, which overwhelmingly favoured Russia (and again, that could be anything between overwhelming apolitical approval of the song and/or Russia's formidable internet spammers taking time out from bank fraud to do their patriotic duty) couldn't reverse this; Russia only made it up to third place, coming behind Australia. To add insult to injury, the winner was Ukraine, whose song, 1944, was a sombre, harrowing and pointedly political number about the genocide and expulsion of Crimea's Tartars by Stalin (and, indirectly, alluding to Putin's annexation of Crimea, sailing close to the EBU's rules against political gestures). Set to skittering dubstep beats à la Burial, it was a decent song, though standing on its own, not overwhelmingly the best in the show. Had it not also served as a middle finger raised at Putin's Russia, it might have languished in the middle of the rankings; but geopolitics is geopolitics. (See also: the Israeli entry, which should probably have also done better. Their song wasn't bad, but voting it down was a chance for the cosmopolitan liberals of Europe to signal virtue and tell Netanyahu where to stick his security wall, so it was doomed from the outset. I imagine Dana International had the benefit of a period of relative calm and optimism when she won.)

Geopolitics may also have a little, though probably not a lot, to say about Britain's dismal result. Their song was not abysmal (the UK has done worse in previous years; there was the jaunty number performed by a crew of saucy flight attendants, or the middle-aged bloke playing a teenage hip-hop gangsta-wannabe, or various times when they barely made the minimum effort. Perhaps Britain lost points because the Frogs and Krauts and their wine-drinking garlic-eating buddies are sick of our ongoing national tantrum about wanting to leave the EU. Perhaps they don't like our aloofness and smug sense or superiority (though, were that the case, how does that explain Sweden consistently doing so well?) Or perhaps we just don't get it; when everybody else does minor-key anguish soaring to triumphantly defiant choruses on a wave of synth arpeggios and key changes, we remain terribly British and aloof, tossing off a cheery singalong, all the better to shrug off as no big deal when we inevitably end up in the bottom five.

After all the contestants had performed and the votes were coming in, there was the usual entertainment. This year, they had Justin Timberlake to perform a medley of his hits, in an event referred to by some as Justin Toiletbreak; this was done either to welcome the Americans tuning in for the first time, or as a showcase for the Swedish pop songwriting and production industry that powered Timberlake's musical career. Sweden's musical history was also showcased in a medley of international Swedish pop hits since the days of ABBA (I had forgotten, for one, that synth-led hair-metallers Europe were Swedish; for some reason I thought they were German). The highlight of the break, though, was this deconstruction of the formula for a Eurovision hit, bringing in everything from bare-chested drummers to little old ladies baking bread and incomprehensible folk instruments.

So: Eurovision 2017 will, it seems, be in Kiev. It'll be interesting to see what happens: will Australia (which, not being in the EBU, has been there on suffrance, though managed to do impressively well) come back for a third time, or take its seat as the Sweden-equivalent of the Asia-Pacific song contest being planned? (Will Eurovision itself, in a few years, pivot away from being merely Europe-plus-a-few-neighbours and become a set of regional contests, culminating in a global final?) Will the Russians compete in front of what can only be expected to be a hostile away crowd in Kiev, or will this strengthen calls in Russia to turn their backs on it set up their own “Eurasian” song contest, one without all that problematic gayness? And if Britain, by then, has voted to leave the EU, will it also take its ball and go home?

australia eurovision geopolitics russia sweden uk ukraine 1

2016/5/12

A few days ago, the hipster-electropop duo YACHT posted a plaintive note to their Twitter feed; the note announced, in a sombre, contrite tone, that, some years ago, the duo (Jona Bechtolt and Claire Evans, who are also a couple) had made a sex tape for their own use; now, apparently, someone had stolen it and posted it online. The note ended, imploring YACHT's fans to respect their privacy and not look at it.

Only there was no sex tape; or rather, there was a contrived promotional video for the latest single, “I Want To Fuck You Till I'm Dead”, from their last album. The whole exercise was a publicity stunt; the following day, they were to, with feigned resignation, put up a website supposedly selling their homemade sex video, though one which always gave an error at the time of payment; ultimately the truth would come out, and fans would push the album to the top of the Spotify charts, all the while praising the artists' clever, subversive conceit. It was to be, in their own words, “a slowly-unveiling conspiracy”, referencing The X-Files and The KLF*.

Unfortunately, they miscalculated. What they weren't counting on was the mass outpourings of public sympathy at them apparently having had the privacy of their intimate lives violated. It turned out that the public, by and large, weren't grabby jerks hungry for celebrity skin; they were strongly susceptible to what millennials call “the feels”, and almost painfully empathetic with their sorry heroes. Which was a problem, as, all of a sudden, YACHT had committed the offence of obtaining sympathy under false pretences. Not quite in fake-cancer-blogger territory, but the difference is a quantitative, rather than a qualitative, one. As the truth emerged, they issued a weaselly non-apology, followed a day later by a genuine apology, for both the stunt and the non-apology. But the damage was done. Perhaps ironically, the exercise has left YACHT revealing a bit more of themselves than is entirely flattering.

While this is the most problematic of YACHT's public projects so far, it didn't come from nowhere; they have form taking hot-button issues and using them as superficial aesthetic elements, much like extreme violence in a Quentin Tarantino film. Witness their most recent album, I Thought The Future Would Be Cooler; it was in this blog's records of 2015, and it is a finely crafted piece of infectiously fun chopped'n'screwed electropop, albeit with pretentions above its station. As its title suggests, it is somewhat of a concept album about technological ennui; the actual execution involves taking a number of ideas about how our high-tech world, you know, kinda sucks, and mashing them together, like a selfie-stick-era We Didn't Start The Fire; thus, the Snowden revelations and extrajudicial executions by drone are mentioned within a breath of crappy ads on the web, corny Internet-of-things gadgets and Tinder being a bit lame, like a focus-group brainstorming exercise of some sort. (Needless to say, there is no time to discuss, say, the issues of privacy or trust in the digital age, the potential implications of data mining, or whether, say, the internet's convergence into corporate-run proprietary silos is bad for human development, democracy or civil society; this is pop music, not a Cory Doctorow blog post. Onto the next snappy soundbite!) The whole point of the song is that our technological age kinda sucks, in a nonspecific way that anyone can agree with. It's pretty close to content-free and a brilliant piece of marketing.

And marketing is YACHT's stock-in-trade. They appear to be relentless self-marketers, classic Frommian Marketing Characters, chameleonically superficial, as sexy, edgy or profound as you read into them. To the Marketing Character, depth is a liability that compromises one's ability to self-promote. This superficial engagement with the world in the mode of marketing also jettisons any distinction between critique and complicity; we have seen this with their marketing tie-in with Uber, making their then-unreleased album streamable when surge pricing was in effect; which is on one level a criticism of Uber's exploitative business model, and yet isn't, any potential critique being defanged into mere “edginess” of the sort ad agencies have thrived on since the days of OK Soda in the grunge era. Yeah, Uber, surge pricing, it says, with an affected vocal-fry of exaggerated ennui: but hey, have a listen to this awesome album! And I'm sure the edgily back-handed endorsement didn't hurt Uber.

From surge pricing to leaked sex tapes may seem like a leap, but it's not a huge one; in both cases, newsworthy exploitation is used as a vehicle for self-promotion; in the latter, YACHT don't merely reference the exploitation, with an edgy ambiguity that is well SugaRAPE, but actively concoct it, leaping onto a topical issue (revenge porn) and using it as a marketing gimmick. But hey, there's no such thing as bad publicity, right?

* Let's see: The KLF came up with a formula for gaming the pop industry, used it to score a hit, then when invited to Top Of The Pops the Brit Awards, got shock-metal band Extreme Noise Terror to play with them, and poured buckets of pig's blood onto fired blanks into the audience, and then finally incinerated a million pounds in banknotes, negating any business value their exploits may have had. I somehow can't see YACHT doing anything so gauchely self-destructive or blatantly anti-commercial.

capitalism erich fromm klf marketing music pranks self-promotion sex yacht 0

2016/5/7

The results are in from Thursday's outbreaks of voting across the United Kingdom, and this is how the picture looks:

Labour's results are looking somewhat mixed; in the Scottish parliament, they lost many seats, placing them behind the Conservative Party for the first time since Thatcher's catastrophic Poll Tax (which, actually, was about a generation ago). A lot of this is undoubtedly due to them having been used as a cat's paw by the government-led anti-independence campaign, and thus becoming the Westminster absentee landlords' good cop; they were caned harder than the Tories because it's hard for voters to punish a party who have next to no seats. In England, they lost councils, which is either due to the public being wary of the possibility of Jeremy Corbyn turning Britain into Chavez-era Venezuela, the Labour Party being riddled with cranks who, ominously, really don't like Jews, or to Labour's local representation being at a high water mark since the last elections (when the Lib Dems got a kicking for selling out to the Tories), depending on whom you ask. Having said that, the Tories lost slightly more than Labour did, though given that they're in the middle of a term, presiding over a harsh regime of austerity and soaring inequality, one could argue that anything short of the decimation of Tory councils is, all things considered, a good result for them.

What this bodes for Labour, and its new, stridently left-wing direction under Corbyn, is very much open to interpretation. On one hand, some are hailing not being wiped out south of the border (despite the antisemitism crisis, Lynton Crosby's barrage of dead cats, and everyone but the Guardian urging the public to vote Tory) as a resounding vindication for Corbyn; on the other hand, others are pointing out that the result is comparable to Labour's local-government results in the middle of its Thatcher-era period in the wilderness. Though it appears that the knives are not yet out for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. For one, the Labour centre-right does not have a new Tony Blair or similarly charismatic figure to present as an alternative; and indeed, Corbyn the old weirdy-beardy socialist won partly because the slate of “serious”, “respectable” candidates he ran against was an eminently forgettable one. The choice for a potential Labour putsch, at this stage, would be Anyone But Corbyn, and Labour's fortunes have not sunk so low as to necessitate that.

The outcome is also a mixed one for the Conservatives. Their campaign for London was led by Zac Goldsmith; youngish, fabulously wealthy and with a history of environmental campaigning behind him. Which could have boded for a hearts-and-minds campaign: promote Goldsmith as a liberal, a broad-minded unifier who cares about progressive causes, winning over the metropolitan cosmopolitan types who don't care much for right-wing red meat, and he could have spent the next four years alternately having photo opportunities with minority groups, making motherhood statements about diversity and the environment, and quietly promoting the transformation of everywhere inside the M25 into an enclave for global wealth. However, the Tories appear to have been seduced by the siren song of roving ratfucking consultant Lynton Crosby. Crosby's dirty tricks did win them the last general election, so presumably early in Goldsmith's campaign the order came down from on high to play the man, not the ball: keep pointing at Labour's candidate, Sadiq Khan, and mumbling darkly about Islamic terrorism, in the hope that the mud would stick. It didn't; Khan won handsomely, and now the political career of Goldsmith, the former golden boy of progressive conservatism, lies in ruins. Perhaps he wasn't actually a bigot, but merely too weak-willed to have pushed back against the bigots, though the result is the same; in any case, it's now his role to serve as an example to other political hopefuls who might be tempted to huff the intoxicating jenkem of bigotry.

In other news, the Green Party did well in London; their mayoral candidate, Siân Berry, came third (overtaking the Liberal Democrats), and they kept their two seats on the council. Labour fell short of a majority on this council, which stands the Greens in good stead to hold their feet to the fire on, say, diesel emissions or cycling infrastructure. As for the hapless Lib Dems, they seem to be gradually clawing their way back from their abyss. Ominously, the hard-right UKIP party seems to have picked up some two dozen seats.

green party jeremy corbyn labour london politics tories uk 0

2016/4/27

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Australia's national broadcaster, is in the process of developing a unified visual identity for its properties; and in doing so, has commissioned a new typeface for use across its online properties; it's named OneABC, is a modern sans-serif , and this is what it looks like with a selection of headlines reflecting the Australian zeitgeist circa 2016:

the war on cycling can be won in our time

The ABC stresses OneABC's true-blue dinky-di Aussie pedigree and characteristics; it was developed locally, by an outfit named the Australian Type Foundry, and is said to be characteristically Australian in its design:

First was the connection to the land with a coastal and outback feel. The open spaces of a wide brown land played a significant role. A sense of contrast that is simultaneously austere and rich. A true sense of inclusiveness that celebrates diversity and multiculturalism. And finally that special larrikin mentality that does not take itself too seriously.

Which are some fine words, though I'm not sure how they relate to the actual typeface, which looks as if it could have just as easily emerged from Berlin or Amsterdam; I can see a bit of FF DIN and Erik Spiekermann's Meta in its heritage; meanwhile, the distended 'k' resembles earlier versions of Google's Roboto. Perhaps, at a stretch, the rounded tail of the ‘y’ could count as “Australian”, feeling a bit more casual than the sharp angles of more geometric typefaces. As for “special larrikin mentality”, I'm not sure I see it, but that may not be a bad thing: the idea brings to mind some kind of Ken Done-themed Comic Sans, with serifs modelled on Dame Edna's glasses or something.

Could one make OneABC look more distinctly “Australian”, rather than generically modern? Perhaps increasing the x-height to be equal to the height of capitals would embody the spirit of “mateship” and the “fair go” (and prompt the typical accusations from the Liberal Party and the Murdoch press of being subliminal Marxist propaganda, thus keeping with the ABC's reputation). Other than that, short of having boomerang-shaped descenders or other tourist-shop kitsch, I can't think of how one would design an “Australian” typeface.

abc australia design oneabc typography 1

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