Just a little post to mention a few things coming up on The Kiosk — my arts and culture show on Phantom — in the next few weeks.
Emma Donoghue (Room) and Sebastian Faulks (Birdsong) will be in for a chat — they both have new works of fiction coming out over the next while, and Donoghue has an intriguing-sounding play coming up in the Dublin Theatre Festival. We’ll also be reviewing some of the plays in the Dublin Theatre Fest and we’ll have some pretty deadly competitions too.
The Kiosk airs at 11am on Saturdays on Phantom 105.2 — that’s 105.2 FM on the radio dial and http://www.phantom.ie on the internet. There’s also a repeat of the show Tuesdays at midnight and Sundays at 7am. Do tune in — and text me! I love an aul text — it’s 51052. Email the show at this address: kiosk [at] phantom.ie.
Ah, Azealia, you are breaking our hearts. When the news emerged on Twitter late last Thursday night that rising 212 star Azealia Banks had pulled out of her headline slot at Electric Picnic this weekend due to “exhaustion”, fans were annoyed, but also weary.
We’ve been here before, you see. These days, Banks, 21, seems to cancel as many shows as she plays — and when she came to Dublin last February to play a sardines-packed gig in Whelan’s, she refused to give interviews and performed for less than an hour. Her feverishly anticipated new album has been put back until next year, and, while Azealia is still giving good face on Twitter and Facebook (that’s speaking quite literally, her pages are adorned with flashy images from her designer shoots for fashion mags), she’s not bringing the swagger her fans would expect.
But Banks is far from alone on the gig cancellation front. Nicki Minaj also cancelled her Dublin date at the Olympia recently, citing problems with her vocal cords. And Adele – currently the biggest name in music — has been stricken with vocal cord-related gremlins over the past while – the effect, vocal coaches say, of performing too much without having the correct vocal training. Florence Welch, meanwhile, of Florence + The Machine has averred that she is taking the whole of the next year off, to give herself time to recuperate.
So, what’s wrong with our female superstars then? Why are they all so wrecked? Why can’t they, as one Tweeter put it, just do a Rihanna, get themselves a vitamin drip and suck it up? How hard can it be to get paid gazillions to jump on stage and sing a few numbers for us?
The answer seems to be: harder than you’d think. Thanks to social networking devices like Twitter, stars blow up in an instant (I’d wager a few of you are reading this article thinking: who is Azealia Banks?). They go from playing Whelan’s to headlining Electric Picnic in a matter of months, and doing it ages before they’re ready. Long gone are the days when stars (think the Beatles) would rattle around in a mini-van playing in toilets for years before reaching the top. And that is a genuine problem. Without the hard graft, they lack the confidence or preparedness that repetition and gradual progress bring. When they hit it big, they don’t know where to turn.
Look at poor old Lana Del Rey, who went from being kooky-eyed and mysterious to out-of-tune and terrified on Saturday Night Live. The excuse for Del Rey was obvious: she just hadn’t spent very much time performing in front of people. So how was she supposed to do it for millions?
Like Fiona Apple, Del Rey is simply more comfortable in studio than on stage. And in a world where even a gig in someone’s front room can be filmed and put up on YouTube, so everyone can examine the pores of your skin, there is no time any more to get ready.
Speaking of videos, scratchy phone-camera footage of Azealia Banks at Whelan’s is available on YouTube. Performing the gloriously filthy 212. Banks is dancing around, barely even singing, because the pogo-ing audience are doing most of the work for her. She looks excited beyond belief, but beyond that excitement is a dawning incredulity that she has come from Harlem but in Dublin people know her music.
She is just 21 years old, and the future — to borrow an ominous line from that wise man Tom Petty — is wide open.
Expectations were always going to be high for a new novel from Zadie Smith. The wunderkind author of White Teeth, published when she was a jaw-dropping 24 years old and penned while she was still a student at Cambridge University, Smith has blazed a trail in contemporary fiction, and. At 36 she remains significant not simply for the speed of her journey to the top, but for the pearl-bright lustre of her shapeliest work.
At her best, Smith – like her hero Martin Amis – is capable of delivering acid-bright contemplations that delineate life with an almost uncomfortable clarity, like studio lights shone onto a blinking subject where once there was only a dim, swinging bulb overhead.
In many respects, it’s surprising to note quite how long Smith has been away from the publishing fray. It’s seven years since she published On Beauty, a homage to the work of EM Forster that was smart and accomplished, but suffered from a stultifying narrative inertia.
In the novel, Smith was content to have her fictional family, the Boston-based Belsey clan with liberal academic Howard Belsey at the helm, hang about the place for hundreds of pages. Scene after scene unfolded in crisp, warm, tone-perfect prose, but while Smith’s characters were promising, Smith refused to give them enough to do.
Reading the work, you might well assume, in the stark words of one of her critics, that Smith doesn’t give “a fig” for plot. It’s actually a little more complicated than that. Smith’s narrative fug is an unfortunate, but perhaps inevitable, consequence of her approach to writing novels.
In her own words, Smith is a “micro manager”, a writer who does not plan her novels, but simply begins at the first sentence and inches her way through to the last, keeping her gaze averted from the bigger picture and spending years (two in the case of On Beauty) obsessively reworking her first 20 pages, in the belief that in those lines she will find the whole universe of her novel.
“It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels,” Smith writes in her collection of essays, Changing My Mind.
Some of the best literary novels have come from this approach – John McGahern’s Amongst Women uses this technique, and who could forget the wonder of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. But the no-planning approach is a tightrope walk for even the most confident novelist, and sometimes it leads to situations where, to use a metaphor, the furniture inside the house is wonderful, but the house itself has no front door and a chimney where the window should be.
All of which brings us to NW, a book which is not a disaster – Smith is far too gifted a writer for that – but which occasionally strikes you as a waste of Smith’s considerable gifts. The action centres on a group of 30-something characters who grew up in Caldwell, a Willesden council estate in north-west London, and who are all scrabbling for footholds in a deeply class-divided existence.
Leah Hanley is a brooding, inert Londoner who has married black, handsome hairdresser Michel. He wants them to have children, but she is secretly aborting her pregnancies. (“She doesn’t want to ‘go forward’. She wants just him and her forever.”) Keisha Blake is her friend who has grown up to become a lawyer, and now invites them to posh dinner parties Leah can barely endure. Felix Cooper, 32, is a drifter ostensibly in search of self-betterment, but faced with his own rebelling instincts.
Smith chronicles their lives in relentless, stream-of-consciousness-type verisimilitude, piling on detail that serves to exhaust as often as engage. Of Leah, Smith writes, “She sits on a chair in the open doorway between kitchen and garden. Toes in the grass. The skies are empty and silent. Outrage travels from next door’s talk radio: it’s taken me fifty-two hours to get back from Singapore! A new old lesson about time. Broccoli comes from Kenya. Blood must be transported. Soldiers need supplies. Much of the better part of NW went on holiday for Easter, with their little darlings. Maybe they will never return, a thought to float away on.”
Of the old gang, Keisha – who renames herself Natalie – is the most sympathetic, heartfelt presence in the book. She has ambition, but fears she lacks personality, and that in becoming successful, she has become bland. Her adult world has been constructed painstakingly, but she is losing her faith in the virtues of the middle-class.
Class itself is a continually recurring theme in NW: Leah and Keisha continually compare themselves to others – what “our people do” is an oft-referenced subject and their friendship collapses as their paths in life divide. While Smith is too smart to bash the reader over the head with didactic messages, the novel tries a little too hard to be ‘important’ and not hard enough to entertain. Reading NW sometimes felt like a deeply worthy chore, despite Smith’s whip-smart observations and sharply nuanced dialogue.
Still, there are moments – particularly when Smith dwells on the younger versions of Keisha and Leah – when the prose crackles with energy, and you can see the old Smith peeping through, the one who had less to prove.
In her essay Two Directions for the Novel, Smith writes: “All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us down this road the true future of the Novel lies.”
On the evidence of NW, Smith’s ‘road’ has begun to look like more of a cul-de-sac, serving to trap the author and snap her forward momentum, rather than carry her through to the bright lights of the open motorway.
Why do musicians have to be young to be relevant? That was a question that cropped up a lot in Shut Up and Play the Hits, the documentary that depicts the final days of acclaimed American electro-outfit LCD Soundsystem and their sob-inducingly triumphant farewell gig at Madison Square Garden in 2011. The film finally received an Irish cinematic release last week.
For fans around the world, James Murphy, the main man of LCD Soundsystem, is to electronic music what Morrissey is to indie-rock. Murphy’s lyrics are biting, bone-dry, witty and often, as on Someone Great, emotionally wrenching.
All My Friends, Losing My Edge, Daft Punk is Playing at My House and North American Scum are just some of the blistering tracks Murphy has given the world. Once offered a job as a writer on Seinfeld, Murphy’s intent with LCD Soundsystem was to leave “a stain” on culture – and he has done that, and more.
But last year Murphy decided he’d had enough of being a rockstar. It was time to hang up his microphone and spend his days quietly running his record label, walking his French bull-dog and making coffee in his New York apartment surrounded by his beloved records.
The problem, mainly, was his age. Greying of hair and paunchy of stomach, Murphy, 41, would look in the mirror and worry about having a “face like a dad”. And he was far from alone in fretting. If there could be a support group for artists who fear they’re too old to rock out, that group would fill a stadium all on its own: the Rolling Stones, Madonna, the Pet Shop Boys, Elton John, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Tom Petty, Tom Jones, U2 and Cliff Richard are just a few who spring to mind.
These days, AA stands for age-appropriate – and it’s the audiences, rather than families, who are constantly staging interventions, contriving to push the elder lemons off the stage.
Ageism is anathema elsewhere, but it’s tolerated, even encouraged in rock music, where it’s okay to jeer about Madonna’s old-lady hands, Jagger’s dodgy knees and Elton’s fake hair.
In fact, reviewers and fans point-score on this front all the time, dreaming up nasty couplets about mutton dressed as lamb with the eagerness more usually reserved for snatching new version iPads from stores. Small wonder Kate Bush seems afraid to show her face in her most recent videos.
As a culture, we are horrible bullies. We refuse to allow our musicians to age before our eyes. Instead we demand that they clear off. This is despite the fact that unlike, say, Olympic athletes, musicians are not required to run 100 metres in ten seconds. They do not have to do the high jump. They just have to make good music. So why do they need smooth skin too?
Asked in the documentary what his grand failure was, Murphy answered that perhaps stopping was his biggest failure. If he believed in his music, why was he doing this? Sure, he wanted to have kids; he liked an anonymous lifestyle, but was the bigger reason simply that he was being pushed out?
There was a moment in the documentary when Murphy went to look at the band’s musical equipment that had been put in storage and would soon be sold. It was his chance to say goodbye. Standing on the hard floor surveying all before him, Murphy raised his hands to his face and began abruptly to cry.
This was “the controlled ending” he had planned. But who was really pulling the strings: Murphy or the culture that he had begun to fear would soon reject him?
The rumbles of discontent could be felt within minutes. The Rose of Tralee had arrived on the box in all its antiquated, dewy-eyed glory, but it didn’t take long before fans, eagerly awaiting their annual wince-fest, were left reeling. The 32 Roses had gone and shocked all of us, and not in their usual, perfectly acceptable fashion — by simpering at us in weapons-grade sparkly dresses until we begged for mercy. No, things were much worse than that. These Roses appeared to be staging a rebellion before our very eyes.
The tweets came flying in. “Is there a ban on the party piece?” asked mystified tweeter Becky Cawley (@becky_cawley). “What’s the point of being a Rose if you don’t do a party piece?” wondered @siobhansiobhan. Rose after Rose came and went with a flutter of the hand, a swoosh of the dress, a bit of small talk about their career goals and then — nothing. Zip. No song. No dance. No demonstration of `talent’.
The party piece is not compulsory, explained @roseoftralee_ — the official Twitter account — somewhat defensively. “Each gets to pick a party piece if they wish.” But it was a sad state of affairs when the best of the tragically few party pieces in the overstuffed ballroom came courtesy of the Kilkenny Rose, who, like a good sport, agreed to make her trademark dolphin noise (remarkably convincing). Other party pieces included a Maori song, a failed magic trick, an extract from Oscar Wilde and a version of Whiskey in the Jar (let’s just say the Sydney Rose was creative in her rendition).
All the Roses who performed made mistakes. But the mistakes were part of the point. Forget all this nonsense about the “truth in her eyes ever dawning”, the Rose is about so much more than that. It’s about pluck and vim. It’s about saying that one can perform under conditions that are almost impossible and with skills so meagre that only a Rose with the most giant of balls would dare don a sparkly dress and try to sell herself to an audience. The Rose is a metaphor for Ireland itself: pinched into a tight dress, vulnerable and forced to sing for its supper.
Consider the pluck last year of the Dublin Rose, ferociously giving herself over to hip-hop manoeuvres, despite the dress issues, sound glitches and audience of baffled blue rinses in front of her. Now that’s what I call entertainment. Without such events, who would we have to parody? What would Father Ted have done? And how has it come to such a pass that presenter Daithi must don high heels to give us a lift?
It was no surprise that, after the virtually non-existent party pieces, the attendance in front of the telly was low for the second night of the Rose of Tralee festival — the lowest audience that the Rose of Tralee has pulled in for eight years. Frankly, those 32 shyster Roses deserved our apathy — well, at least those of them who refused to perform.
At the end of the two nights, it was the teacher, the Luxembourg Rose, who bravely admitted to giving her teddy bears exams as a child, who was crowned the winning Rose. It was no surprise, really. Nicola McEvoy had a song. She sang La Vie en Rose, and made a good fist of it — not impressive enough to be a pro (no one wants X-Factor), but not bad enough to scare the horses. “Gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous,” cooed Daithi, mopping his brow with relief. At last, here was someone who understood the game.
Did you feel it recently? The flickerings of anger? It came in the past week when several reporters, writing about the passing of the wonderful novelist Maeve Binchy, decided to brand her style of fiction `chick-lit’, not seeming to realise or care that it was a diminution.
Tweeters complained about the term having been used. Radio contributors — including Sheila O’Flanagan on Morning Ireland — also expressed their annoyance. When publications such as the New York Times gave Binchy her due and described her sprawling novels accurately, there was a sense of relief that Binchy had been given the credit owed to her; that they would not dim the bright light of her fiction in her death.
Women have been diminished often over the years for their fiction. Women might read more than men. They might sell more than men. But still, and particularly when it comes to commercial fiction, we’re fragile specimens as authors, with only the cardboard of our self-worth for shields, ever fearful someone will tell us we shouldn’t be at the party; that for all we might care about fiction, we still don’t really count.
Praise from men still counts for too much. At the Dalkey Books Festival (at which Binchy gave her final reading), the Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole was asked to comment on chick-lit. O’Toole said he had found something great in the work of Marian Keyes, and spoke about the qualities that made her fiction rich and compelling.
Later, a breathless Tweeter sent a tweet to report to Marian Keyes that Fintan O’Toole had praised her work. I laughed reading it — I don’t imagine Keyes — and bless her for it — would have been massively fussed about his opinion one way or the other. But it didn’t escape my attention that someone had felt it important she be served notice that a male intellectual had liked her work. Was she supposed to feel good about that? Was she — a bestselling author loved by millions — supposed to feel validated by his recommendation?
Perhaps the reason the answer is `yes’ is because there’s still an intellectual snobbery at work today, even for the female authors we most love.
It bothered me that Roddy Doyle — in his newspaper column on Maeve Binchy — appeared to file her work under a female-only category. For his piece, Doyle conjured up a fictional dialogue between two males, who had never read Binchy’s books, but had partners who did: “Whenever she had her hands on a new Maeve Binchy buke, yeh knew it was goin’ to be a quiet fuckin’ night.”
Maybe Doyle is right. Maybe only women do read Binchy. And maybe I’m being over-sensitive. But it still felt like he was limiting her, and the scope of her fiction, with his generalisations.
Interestingly, on Thursday in the Irish Times, of the eight letters about Binchy, five of them were from men. “I read her work, devouring it, and was shrouded in its humanity, its consideration, its hope,” wrote Patrick Dowling in a beautiful missive.
There is such a thing as chick-lit fiction. I’m not denying that. Chick-lit is plot-driven candyfloss, designed for the beach and the airport. And there’s nothing wrong with that, if it gets a reader through.
But Binchy deserves better than that appellation. A generous writer — in her spirit and her fiction — she was someone who carried the world with her, and who put it into her fiction. Her legacy in writing should never have the word `chick’ in it.