Why I regret that I stopped buying records and CDs

Every generation discovers music anew, regardless of the media on which it’s carried or transmitted. It just so happens that the format via which I first encountered recorded music – grooves on a plastic disc – were also those on which music was first recorded. Of course, prior to the advent of recording technology, there was notation: music was etched, scratched onto the page. Beethoven may not even have understood the concept of ‘recorded’ music. I grew up with the performance as central, the production as paramount, mostly focussed on the voice. From the early 20th century onwards, vinyl was the medium for folk, country, blues, rock, punk, hiphop, house, and so forth. Now music can be plucked out of the air, but when I listen to Bob Dylan talking about Leadbelly, there’s a frisson which comes from having experienced music in exactly the same way as he did. I can relate to that; I’ve lived a very similar revelation. I can’t conceive of (for example) hearing certain New Order*, Teardrop Explodes or, for that matter, George Michael songs, music that had a profound emotional impact on me as a teenager, I can’t imagine that without picturing the environmental context for my experiencing of the sounds. I believe that the loss of the physical format partly explains the deterioration of my relationship with music per se. Although I don’t agree with Dylan that downloaded music ‘ain’t worth nothing’, the move from physical to ephemeral shows that Marx had a point when he wrote that as capitalism develops, ‘all that is solid melts into air’.

To quote another prophet of capitalism and culture, everything that was directly lived has moved away into a mediated representation. This now happens instantaneously, live, as, locked into our headphones, we view ourselves walking down the street to a private soundtrack of a film in which we are always the star and hero. I’ve pontificated previously (in relation to the documentary about Zinedine Zidane) about how in an age of intensified self-consciousness of our own performance as social actors, our experience of our lives has become more and more like the film ‘Boyhood’, with every one of our gestures immediately recounted back to us in the form of fantasised cinematography, dramatised by individually-curated theme tunes. 

This is connected to the relationship between music and advertising, particularly the vampiric dependence of the latter on the former. The role of marketing cash in financing or subsidising the lives of those who produce music has meant that music itself is increasingly obedient to an image or logo. It’s true that a lot of art – particularly popular music – benefits from and plays with the tension between the comercial and the artistic, but more than ever nowadays exposure as part of a marketing package means one’s music is experienced as a mere soundtrack to sell prospective consumers an image of themselves inhabiting the world of the given commodity. Music has, in a much more profound sense than with the advent of MTV, become evermore subservient to the image rather than defining its own purpose.

As is the case for any such diatribe against the internet, it’s essential not to overlook the affordances of technology in terms of both production and consumption. Hyper-accelerated access and avid overconsumption is made possible by downloading and streaming. When I first got an MP3 player twinned with a proper internet connection, I quickly discovered that I felt compelled to skim through my exponentially expanding music collection – the prospect of listening to a particular album or piece of music had become a more powerful experience than actually doing so. Once something becomes infinitely available, it’s hard to value a single instance of it. Value is produced by scarcity, not abundance.

I’ve written before about how hard I find it nowadays to commit to a single song, album or artist. Nick Cave Syndrome is the name I give to what I think is now a universal experience: I could, if I so chose, spend a few days immersing myself in the work of the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, etc, but I never actually do. There’s too much digital distraction, too much white noise to engage with newmor unfamiliar music. I’m open to charges of laziness, but I’m by no means alone: the KLF’s Bill Drummond once embarked on a series of experiments to reconnect with music, including spending a whole year only listening to artists who names began with a particular letter of the alphabet. To get that connection back involves somehow making music finite and thus more precious.

Music dramatises space and time but also requires space and time to produce and experience. Mark Fisher and Momus have both written about the restrictions that gentrication and permanent austerity imply for young people wanting to experiment with sounds and images. Early Human League in the documentary ‘Synth Britannia‘ showed some of the abandoned industrial spaces which made their existence possible, while Jarvis Cocker in his ‘Musical Map of Sheffield‘ stressed how important dole money was to his artistic survival. The same goes for the art colleges which formed David Bowie and Malcolm McLaren. They inspired the kind of artistic invention which anyone spending three years on a desultory £9,000-a-year business studies degree course anticipating a lifetime of internships would struggle to replicate.

Of course, no matter how little physical space you have, you can nowadays make and remix music on your phone or laptop while unemployed in a slum or drinking coffee in an airport. Momus makes hugely inventive use of the internet to gather samples and images and Youtube to share it – but then he does have a fanbase built up over more than 30 years. I probably wouldn’t listen to Pillycock or Scobberlotchers if I hadn’t pored over Tender Pervert and Don’t Stop the Night as a teenager. Who’s really going to listen to new music? (Or, for that matter, find the time to read blogs?). It was actually Momus who predicted that on the internet everyone would be famous for 15 people. But what if you can only get those people’s attentions for 15 minutes? That’s a thumb-twitching epoch online.

The human relationship with music is both intimate and (as Schopenhauer argued) spiritual, both individual and social. Having long along lost or given away the tens of thousands of discs I once had, how do I recover the value that music used to have for me? The answer is, of course, to collect it in its physical form. But maybe my relationship with music is too far gone now. Maybe I’ll never get it back. While writing this, listening to an algorithmically-curated selection of tracks by Francesco de Gregori (who has released something in the order of 30 albums, all of which I can access with a tiny gesture of my thumb but none of which I will ever get round to really listening to**), we had a powercut. Although it was mercifully short, it screwed up our Internet connection for a good two hours or so. It made me think of people in Puerto Rico, suddenly deprived by a capricious climate of running water and electricity. If there’s one thing we can predict with some certainty about the future, it’s that we won’t be spending so much time online. The internet presupposes the stability of too many physical, social and economic infrastructures. Even wifi, I once learnt, is vulnerable to climate change. If the only access we have to music is via Spotify, then we will lose access to it whenever a passing storm so decides. Music is far too valuable for that.

*Incidentally, ‘Regret’ is not my idea of a great New Order song, it just tied in with the title, which may be no classic as titles for blog posts go, but is at least hopefully more enticing than the original one, which was ‘Music, technology and spectacle’, which is, let’s face it, shit, although not nearly as shit as either Bad Lieutenant or the third Electronic album.

**His album of Dylan covers is great fun. You can find it on, er, Spotify.

Manu Chao and Momus: Citizens of Everywhere

I first came across Manu Chao exactly sixteen years ago, at which point I’d already been listening to Momus for around the same amount of time. Momus was an ever-present in the UK music press of the late 80s- early 90s*, and as for Manu, it was (appropriately enough for someone of my lifestyle and worldview) the Guardian that alerted me to his existence, in summer 2001. The article focussed on how surprisingly little-known he was in the English-speaking world, given what a superstar his album Clandestino had made him elsewhere, and also mentioned that its follow-up was coming out later that week. Just as it happened, he was also playing a free outside gig in Lisbon (where I lived at the time) the very same weekend. I bought and immediately loved both CDs and two days later found myself in the midst of billowing clouds of weedsmoke bouncing up and down next to the Torre de Belém for three hours (while ignoring the disparaging comments from my friend Andrew about ‘fucking crusties’). Manu himself was leaping around on the stage 200 metres away, wearing an Algerian football shirt and kicking footballs into the crowd with seemingly boundless euphoria and energy. I was enamoured.

Although in the ensuing years Momus has released sixteen albums of consistently excellent original material and Manu Chao (who was previously part of the group Mano Negra) has put out just two**, the two artists have much more in common than being born just one year apart and possessing a shared penchant for unconventionally colourful and extremely baggy trousers. In both cases they have a level of creative energy that seems to increase exponentially with the years. Theirs is making as a mode of being, reminding me of the line from Fernando Pessoa – “I get distracted and start doing something”.  It’s also, in both cases, entirely impossible to predict what they might do next. This year Manu has been posting, from who knows where, new songs (hooray!) which are a collaboration under the name of Ti.Po.Ta) with a Greek actress/singer called Klelia Renesi, while Momus has been traversing Europe by train switching between being David Bowie and various versions of himself.

On the sleeve of ‘Radiolina’ (2007) there was a reference to ‘permanent summer’. Manu seems to be always on the move, from Barcelona to Bayonne to Bogotá. He says of himself that ‘my one luxury is travel’. Both he and Momus migrate instinctively towards similar scenes and people, but while Momus is more likely to pop up at art fairs and residences, Manu is an organic superstar, an incessantly mobile global troubador. The lifestyles of both artists are thus a rebuke to Theresa May’s tiny-minded denunciation of ‘citizens of nowhere’. Their lives and work are a celebration of mobility and migration. Wherever you happen to be on the planet there is an outside chance than one or the other will at some point soon be entertaining people at the end of your street***. Youtube abounds in videos of Manu playing in cafes, strumming and carousing while walking down the street and doing the entertaining at an actual children’s party. Momus’ gigs consist of him and his laptop, so they share a spirit of ‘let’s do the gig right here!’. While Momus’ gigs are spellbindingly intense and entertaining, Manu’s concerts are characterised by exuberance. If you’re at all into bouncing round your living room, whether alone, with friends, or with a newborn baby in our arms, his live albums are a must.

The border-flouting approach of both Manu and Momus is reflected in their linguistic eclecticism. Manu has sung in Italian, Greek, Portuguese and Arabic as well as English, French and Spanish; often he just mixes it all up in what what Diego Marani calls Europanto, often based around Manu’s own idiosycratic international take on English rock n’roll grammar. Sometimes his lyrics sound like stoned nonsense. His core audience is, after all, weed-addled Spanish perroflautas, punkabbestie italiane and French whatever-the-French-word-for-crusties-is. One thing the two artists have in common, lyrically just as much as musically, is inventiveness. Interestingly, in French Manu’s lyrics have a less wacky, more literary bent. Momus is consistently erudite but, with his history of having been big-in-Japan, has a mastery of International English and a strong appreciation of the absurdity and ambiguity of the pop idiom. He’s also a pioneer of using google to write songs in other languages and (akin to Michel Houellebecq) basing lyrics on Wikipedia entries. In a recent interview about his approach to lyric-writing, he talked of using a Burroughsian cut-up approach; not too dissimilarly, Manu’s lyrics often appear to be the result of a collage.

While Manu has lived in Brazil and currently (I think) resides in Barcelona, Europe’s most Latin American city, Momus, after floating between London, Paris, New York and Berlin, has gravitated towards Asia and is now based in Osaka, ‘Japan’s most working class city’. Given that Momus has never visited Latin America, it’s tempting to think of he and Manu as covering different parts of the planet. That may carry colonialist implications -and it is worth noting that as white European men their access to mobility is enhanced – but few make such use of it, and neither is unaware of the contradictions of neoliberal globalisation. As noted, they share an interest in and are advocates of free movement. as a corrective to nationalist and imperialist worldviews. Their magpie approach to sampling is not the mere cultural appropriation that at least one artist of their generation has been accused of. Both reuse source material with irreverence, treating culture as a living, fluid thing rather than a collection of solid museum artifacts. Theirs is not the globalism of Starbucks with its slogan ‘culture is just a flavour’. Hence they have both produced snarling critiques of neoliberalism, the notion of human society as a conveyor belt which stamps price tags on everything it doesn’t simply discard. One of Manu’s most recent tracks is called ‘No solo en China hay futuro’ – it’s not only in China that there’s a future.  Their refutation of the conveyor belt world view lies in the fact that they are both fascinated by what has been or stands to be discarded.

Both Momus and Manu Chao tracks are instantly recognisable as such, despite their catholic approach to borrowing sounds. Momus has invented some genres and pastiched others and ended with something which is absolutely distinctive. Manu’s music combines head-down boogie with ska, funk, punk and reggae; both show a laudable disregard for copyright. Another feature they share is artistic promiscuity, with a constant eye for collaborations. While Momus has made albums with Anne Laplatine and as part of  Joemus and MomusMcclymont, Manu has shared his creativity with Amadou et Mariam and (more recently) Calypso Rose. They both make exemplary use of the internet to try out and diffuse new ideas****. There’s also something similar in form and mood about Momus’ hearspools and Manu’s ongoing work with Radio La Colifata, in which he riffs and quotes from his own music. Both artists also continuously remake old songs for new performances.

There’s also a sense of generosity, not just promoting other artists but also causes. Manu very regularly lends his support to campaigns against GM farming and fights against mining extraction. Momus is definitely not a protest singer (or, it’s important to point out, very much not a crusty) but can, I think, be regarded as an intellectual engagé. Both produced relatively impromptu songs in relation to referendums in Scotland and Greece; late last year Momus released an album lamenting Brexit, while just a few weeks ago Manu (who was born in Paris) posted a short clip against Le Pen.

Both artists have taught me a huge amount. Many people said of David Bowie that he was a sort of proto-google, in that through him fans discovered other artists, writers, etc. Momus’ pedagogical role is now semi-official, in that he has, after a fashion, opened his own university. As for Manu Chao, it was mostly él que me ensenó el casteyano. Gracias, Manu. Cheers, Nick.

*Although his music wasn’t always appreciated by the morons there employed.
**Here is five hours of unreleased material from Manu Chao; you can listen to and/or watch many of Momus’ last few albums here.
***Apart from Mexico, where Momus has never been and from where Manu Chao is apparently banned.
****To get a good sense of what Momus is drawing upon nowadays this is an excellent listen.

“Neoliberalism had some good points”: An interview with Momus about Europe, politics, identity and Japan

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Momus is a polymath: a musician, novelist, blogger, artist and occasional journalist and curator. Unusually for someone who bestrides different fields, whatever he turns his hand inevitably turns out to be absolutely unique and compelling.

I’ve been a fan since the late 1980s, back when he styled himself ‘the third Pet Shop Boy‘. Since then he’s released over 30 albums (all of them unerringly excellent), six novels (every of one of them a cracking and often uproarious read), and several thousand consistently fascinating posts on his now-defunct but still celebrated blog Click Opera.

Most recently he’s opened his own online ‘open university‘ and continues to produce occasional soundscapes called ‘hearspools’, which frankly defy description, but any one of which could change your way of seeing and thinking about the world. Although he lives in Japan, he’s also doing a series of appearances around Europe and I caught up with him in the really quite magical setting of Swiss Institute in Rome, where he was doing a talk on sublimation in his lyrics and a concert, during which he played songs related in some way to Rome and its history.

Read the interview in full at katoikos.eu.

Kate Tempest, Sleaford Mods, Modern Toss, Brexit and the 2011 riots

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It used to take me about 45 minutes to listen to an album; nowadays it takes me at least a week. I find it hard to summon the patience and attention necessary to engage with new music. This would have been unimaginable when I was 15 and obsessed with music. Then the thought of some sort of supermarket sweep in a record shop would have been beyond my wildest dreams. But since the initial smash-and-grab of filesharing in the early part of the last decade it’s become clear to me that music so easily obtained is also easily discarded, and much harder to develop that deep connection with it that came from having invested the proceeds of my paper round. Nowadays even when someone sends me or shares something it often feels like a chore to have to listen to it, and I know the same is true when I share songs with others.

Of course, I could, as most do, walking around listening to music. Creating your own soundtrack to overlay reality often feels like a cinematic experience, one which remakes the world with you at its centre, dramatising time and space with you cast as the hero, or at least the protagonist. As Will Self explores in this Guardian piece, it does so at the cost of setting you apart from your immediate physical and social environment, providing:

…a soundtrack that our walker can choreograph all the traffic to, human and vehicular, her deft, darting eyes seamlessly stitching order out of the chaos so that everything around her skips to her divinely ordained beat.

Also, until very recently I had an ongoing ear problem which made listening to headphones an irritatingly imbalanced experience. Add to this the presence of a new baby who needs to sleep but isn’t always aware of the fact, and my music intake has been severely reduced.

In all this media saturation, with pretty much all recorded music and film available at a twitch of the thumb,  it’s inevitable to have blind spots. I’ve always enjoyed those moments when I realise there’s something or someone – a writer, group or director – whose work I’ve been aware of but never focussed on. It often takes concerted effort on behalf of someone else to make me really listen to something. When a friend told me last summer she was excited about going to see Kate Tempest in concert, it failed to register. I vaguely thought she was some sort of folk singer in the same breed as Mumford & Sons. It was only when another friend emailed last week insisting that I watch a BBC performance of her album ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’ that I forced myself to actively pay attention, and even then it took me a week of interruptions to get through the whole thing.

Over the ten linked tracks Tempest unfolds the story of seven young neighbours on a London street, perfect strangers to one another, each lying awake before dawn worrying about their lives as, unbeknownst to them, a huge storm approaches. She articulates fears that reflect mine and doesn’t shy away from themes that (should) make people uncomfortable: climate change, immigration and racism. She does so in a way which is not optimistic but is certainly compassionate to the plight of her characters. Her tone is impassioned but also thoughtful, and her eye is acutely attentive to those details of our private and shared landscapes which are often overlooked or hidden away. She chooses an appropriate scale for the gravity of her themes, moving vertiginously between the cosmological and the mundane, from images of the wounded planet to the everyday drudgery of worrying about the demands of the working day.

I’ve seen comparisons to the Streets concept album ‘A Grand Don’t Come for Free’, in terms of the scale of the project and the urban themes. There are more recent reference points but I’m only loosely aware of. In a typically vituperative tweet the Sleaford Mods dismiss her as derivative of artists like Jamie T and Lady Sov. I think it’s a shame they don’t engage more with her work as they have a lot in common. I’ve long enjoyed their work but have only heard odd songs. Luckily the release of their new album has coincided with both my discovery of Kate Tempest and the (disgusting) resolution of my hearing difficulty to make a useful comparison possible.

Both artists seek explicitly to accurately represent working class concerns in 2017. Visually the Mods are a punk Pet Shop Boys mixed with the insouciance of the Gallagher brothers. Musically they appear rudimentary in their dependence on beats, basslines and samples, but they make very inventive and compelling use of that limited palette. The ostensive sparseness of their sound puts me in mind of post-punk – a lot of their tracks recapture the sound of 1980, while others make more direct reference to hiphop. As with Tempest, Wu Tang Clan are a direct inspiration.

Like Die Antwoord (another group which I like but rarely actually listen to), they initially seemed to be a novelty act with a limited number of tricks but whose serious intent has become more apparent. Nevertheless there is a strong component of comedy to what they do. There are echoes not only of avin-a-larf late punk bands like Sham 69 but also of K*nt and the Gang and even (when we get to the chants of ‘you fat bastard’ the Macc Lads. Jason Williamson shares some of Tempest’s poetic acuity, with many of their songs picking up on aspects of contemporary British life which it is genuinely surprising and refreshing to hear articulated in song – references to chain pubs, welfare cuts, closed-down shops, stoned trips to the corner shop and military fitness abound. Until recently, the tone has been consistent. It’s one of sneering undercut by anger and sadness. Their default mode is to rant and condemn. On the recent album a more plaintive and oblique mood has crept in, but it remains a very blokish vision, harsh and unforgiving. For all their progressive credentials, it sounds to me very much like the rage and hurt which John Harris identified in this must-see talk as key to the Brexit vote*.

Then there’s the humour, in all its joyous abusiveness. When I first heard ‘Jobseeker’ I thought it sounded like Modern Toss on record. Others have made the same connection. Several characters created by the Brighton cartoonists are present in Sleaford Mods tracks. They are the musical version of the disaffected-to-the-point-of-obnoxiousness figures represented in the Work, Customer Service, Drive By Abuser, Mr Tourette and Alan cartoons. Both Sleaford Mods and Modern Toss present a Britain in which a precondition of almost any job is that you have to regard and treat other humans as resources, and thirty years of neoliberal managerial doctrine in every area of our lives has encouraged us to view each other primarily as means to an end. What results is (in everyday life) deeply unpleasant and (on paper or record) hilarious insouciance, a principled refusal to treat other people and the social roles they embody with due respect.

This is partly due, then, to the alienating effect of bureaucratising language, as identified by Mark Fisher in ‘Capitalist Realism’. It is an expression of what he calls ‘reflexive impotence’, especially prevalent among those who have been educated in a system which emphasises very narrowly-defined notions of success, promoting individual ‘entrepreneurship’ at every turn and dismissing the notion that society has any responsibilities towards its members. It is also related to the spirit that Momus identified in his classic rant about a visit back to the UK, a place where ubiquitous marketing promotes addiction and competition as central metaphors for understanding and responding to reality and treating others:

We stop at a filling station on the Shoreditch High Street to buy some food. A homeless man is sitting at the entrance. ‘Spare some change, please? Spare some change?’ A black man gets out of a BMW and comes over to reform him. ‘Look at yourself, mate, you’ve got to stop using the stuff. Go to a gym, man, do a workout, get out of this state you’re in, it’s a fucking shame on you, man!’ He’s a winner, the junkie’s a loser. Go to a gym, start a business, buy a BMW, join the winners. It’s dog eat dog.

This imperative to think about life as a competition is also present in the lives of Tempest’s characters, but in her case she cares for them and is considerate of their vulnerabilities, unpleasant as the individuals may appear on the surface. This is partly a question of empathy. For all the acuteness of their observations Sleaford Mods don’t have that. Instead they rail against individual manifestations of all they despise. Their songs are mostly directed against particular targets – with scabrous wit and undercut by despair, but without the generous insights integral to Tempest’s work.

Both artists address and articulate the bleakness of a society which promotes consumerism as a means of aspiration, the alienation inherent in a worldview and way of life which regard branded sneakers and two-for-one offers on cans of Strongbow as worth living and dying for. For me, a constant implicit presence in the recent work of both is the riots of 2011, which I believe have a curious and underexplored relationship to the Brexit vote. Zygmunt Bauman attributed them to the phenomenon of ‘frustrated consumers’: mainly young people who had grown up inculcated in the belief that one’s worth and identity is realised through the acquisition of prestigious material goods, but denied the means of acquiring any means of doing so legitimately and blamed for their failure, one which society – in the form of the education system and the media – absolves itself of all responsibility**. John Harris’ talk makes clear how that pattern operated on a larger scale, and with more widespread and long-lasting effects, in relation to Brexit.

Although contrary to what the Guardian review of ‘English Tapas’ says, it is not the first ‘post-Brexit’ album (that honour goes to Momus), the work of both Kate Tempest and that of Sleafords Mods provides a very good guide to what JG Ballard called the ‘unacknowledged present’ of the UK today, to those subjacent pressures, manifest in all of our lives to a hideously unequal degree, that are prone to break through in unexpected and unpleasant ways. While the Sleaford Mods’ vision is conditioned mostly by bitterness and despair, Kate Tempest’s is tempered by compassion and a spirit of goodwill towards our vulnerabilities.

* This post marks the 312th time I have linked to that talk.

** Ditto for the Bauman article.

Shame, Self-awareness and Zinedine Zidane

downloadWriting teaches you some salutary lessons about yourself, the world and the relationship between the two. Last week someone gave me an article about the ten phrases Italians most hate to hear in their own language, the equivalents of ‘literally’, ‘basically’, ‘shouldn’t of’, ‘at the end of the day’, ‘going forward’, etc. One curious example of an infuriating phrase is ‘piuttosto che‘, which means ‘instead of’, but instead of using it to mean ‘instead of’ increasing amounts of people (particularly in the north) use it to mean ‘or’, which causes obvious confusion and widespread rage. I thought it would be fun to write something in Italian which contained all those expressions, partly as a laugh and partly as a means of exploring questions of language and identity: who does a langauge belong to, who has the right to make mistakes, who defines what a ‘mistake’ is, etc. However, I screwed up. I overestimated myself. I didn’t (get Chiara to) check what I’d written properly so it didn’t work, being full of my mistakes, the typical ones that foreigners make. The sixteen people who read it will not have been nearly as amused or impressed as I wanted them to be. Che imbarrazzante! – how embarrassing, indeed shameful. I exposed my pretensions, the gap between what I want to be able to do and what I am able to do, who I want to be and who I am, who I am on the inside and who I am to others.

This often happens when speaking other languages. In making a claim on another identity I risk being seen as an imposter, a fraud, an outsider. (I wrote about how this feels here). A language learner can use this to their advantage – shame can burn itself into your brain so you never make the same mistake twice. Hence self-consciousness can be a source of self-awareness, the former implying shame and the latter a sense of control. Interacting in another language partly comes down to learning one’s lines, knowing how to act in a given routine situation so as not to lose face.

One of the people who has best developed this metaphor is the sociologist Erving Goffman, particularly in his book ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’. His ‘dramaturgical’ analysis of social interaction distinguishes between front and back stage behaviour. The goal of our performance as human beings is to be accepted by the audience.

As we develop we learn to play the role of ‘ourselves’. By the time we become adults we should, in theory, have become aware of who we are and how we should act. Hence being a teenager involves a lot of self-consciousness and shame. Teenagers shame each other, ridiculing each other’s pretensions and pretences. In my own cultural background (the north of England) ‘getting ideas above your station’ was scorned. A common source of shame is being exposed as fancying someone, wanting what you can’t have. Celebrating shame, enjoying one’s exclusion has long been a central element in youth culture, as the deathless popularity of figures such as Morrissey and Jim Morrison attests. Shut out of mainstream society, disaffected teenagers develop their own theatrical rituals and codes.

I have always admired people who surpass those fledgling anxieties about being who they want to be, who write their own scripts and improvise without fear. Two prominent examples died this year: Prince and Bowie. A less commercially recognised example is Momus, who has written very perceptively and eloquently about the English tendency to anticipate and thereby ward off shame by deprecating oneself*. The artist Grayson Perry, in his Reith Lectures of 2013, talked with his customary brazen wit and charm about the risks young people take in declaring themselves ‘artists’. Creating one’s own character can be a hazardous undertaking, but going off-script is essential for living a meaningful life**.

George Michael is a curious case. As he grew older he was notable for his total lack of shame in his private life but he remained conventional and conservative in his artistic endeavours, seemingly driven by fear of the market. Then there’s Trump, who appears to have no shame. It’s shameful to be completely shameless. It makes you look like a very bad person indeed.

Another very interesting case study of the absence of shame and self-consciousness is the documentary ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait‘, in which the camera follows the footballer throughout the course of an entire match, only very rarely cutting away to show the rest of the action. It shows him completely absorbed in the game, caught up in the flow. The footage (which mostly consists of him scratching his nose*** and looking a bit énervé****) is accompanied by his gnomic insights into the profound business of kicking a ball around some grass*****. On one level it’s a study of someone at work, a time-and-motion study of a global superstar. He doesn’t look at the camera; the world is a camera. What’s interesting about Zidane is not his skill but his visibility. His work is not so much trying to create chances and score goals as to be watched. The film is therefore more interesting as a reflection on spectacle and self-consciousness (and, given our awareness of his spectacular headbutt in the World Cup Final later the same year, on shame and its absence). How does it feel and what does it mean to be constantly observed, contemplated, regarded? What is it like to exist solely as an image? What does life as spectacle mean?

Sometimes, when I remember to, I like watching strangers out in public and imagining that they’re acting. People are simultaneously very good and very bad at playing themselves. What they are particularly good at is depicting self-consciousness. Cinema and photography (and now selfies) mean that we are constantly producing and consuming – literally and mentally – images of ourselves. I notice this in myself, when stepping off a plane, or leaving the cinema. Goffman called these ‘dramaturgical moments’. Images, particularly those in adverts, teach us how to act. When consuming products and services we are not just being watched on CCTV, we are also monitoring ourselves. We aspire to be images. We fantasise about being part of the spectacle. Hence the Zidane film is partly a voyeuristic morality tale, about how we are to behave as images of ourselves. It has elements of both going to a zoo and of watching pornography, and is also an anthropological study of spectacle that is itself spectacle.

There is a curious dimension to these issues, which is our use of smartphones. We increasingly use them to escape from awkward situations, ones that could cause us shame. Awareness and awkwardness are closely related, and conversation and eye contact make you vulnerable, potentially involve you in a tangled web of social obligations. Hence we employ our device as a shield and a screen to ward off psychic interference from others.

What does this do to our awareness of our actions? Are we self-aware when we’re online? Do we believe at some level that our devices render us invisible? What happens to our self-consciousness when we’re scrolling through our Facebook feeds on a bus? Does shame exist online? (There’s certainly shaming. One reason I stopped using Twitter is that the medium knows no shame when it comes to lying, being wrong and shaming others). It would be interesting for an artist to make portraits of people absorbed in using their mobile devices. When we do so are we on or offstage? Are we in public or in private? Does Goffman’s metaphor break down at any point? What would a film of someone famous texting for ninety minutes be like? Would a documentary featuring Kanye West playing with his iPhone 8, accompanied by a hauntological soundtrack and captions in which he reflects on fame and self-awareness, be a big hit?

I’m aware that these thoughts are not original. Perhaps I need to read some more Susan Sontag or Jean Baudrillard or something, or maybe just some more books about the joys and horrors of child-rearing. One point of writing these things here is to think things through. Another is to start conversations. I find it curious that people will occasionally praise what I write but rarely respond to the actual content. Maybe that’s because it’s boring, or not very well-expressed, or incoherent******, or blindingly obvious. It would be shameful, mortifying to be told that. But thankfully I’m 44 years old now, so I don’t have to worry so much about such things. Or at least, I shouldn’t. So why am I so excited about getting a new pair of spectacles? Is it about seeing better, or being seen better? Che presuntuoso.

* I would never do that, anyway I’m German.

** I feel very self-conscious about the fact that all of the people mentioned in this paragraph are men. I’m also aware that the last sentence sounds a bit like Alan de Button. I could change it but at the end of the day, Brian, I tend to write these things quite quickly so I can dedicate more time to thinking about what to put in the footnotes. 

*** Although not as much as Žižek, another supposed philosopher whose name also begins with Z and who also had a documentary which was just called by that surname, does.

****https://www.google.it/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=%22pissed%20off%20in%20french%22

***** I wrote about my somewhat ambiguous relationship with football here.

****** Eg. obvious criticism of this article: shame and self-consciousness are not the same thing.