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Archive for the ‘Pop Culture’ Category

Noted festive faves Nirvana

And a yo-ho-ho to you too, Nirvana...

The UK Charts can be a rum old affair. Back in 1991 Nirvana peaked at #7 with Smells Like Teen Spirit. Among the songs that outsold it that week were Ride Like The Wind – a dance cover of an old Christopher Cross song, and When You Tell Me That You Love Me – a decidedly gloopy effort from a past-her-prime Diana Ross. Even the most hardened grunge-hater would have to concede that Nirvana’s record has endured far better. But the singles rankings are no meritocracy, and the near unimpeachable status that …Teen Spirit now holds was not reflected in its mediocre six-week chart run.

The history of the hit list is full of stories like this. Whether it’s Joe Dolce keeping Ultravox’s Vienna off number one, or the fact that AC/DC never achieved a top ten single while 2 Unlimited enjoyed eight, the singles chart does have a tendency to favour the ephemeral over the enduring. Nowhere is this more clearly expressed than in the battle for Christmas number one, held for five of the past six years have been held by the incumbent winners of the X Factor. Can you remember them all? Probably not. I can, but then I am quite tragic.

To a large, vocal portion of the British public, this is not an acceptable state of affairs; hence the annual campaign to artificially push an ‘alternative’ song to the top of the festive charts. In 2009 Rage Against The Machine managed to ride a wave of X Factor antipathy to hold the hapless Joe McElderry off the all-important Christmas #1 (though he moved into pole position the following week). This year the aforementioned Nirvana hit has been anointed as the potential dragon slayer, and with the endoresement of the surviving members of the band, plus the obligatory charity angle, it has a good chance of challenging whoever emerges victorious from the ailing reality titan this weekend.

Personally, I find the whole thing dreadfully tedious, and quite hypocritical to boot. Buying a song you already own because a bunch of people on the internet told you to doesn’t exactly strike as the greatest blow for individualism. Besides, much as I respect …Teen Spirit as a song, I fail to see how a depressing, twenty-year old grunge snarlathon is any more festive than an aspirational ballad by a dead-eyed reality show winner. If the sanctity of the Christmas number one is so important, surely the best anti-X Factor campaign would be one that involved a current chart act releasing an original Christmas song that’s actually any good? The last original Christmas track to get anywhere near the top spot was the dreadful Darkness with Don’t Let The Bells End. The only (outside) challenger this year is Justin Bieber’s latest effort. Hardly inspiring.

As things stand, there’s an unpleasant undercurrent of musical snobbery to the whole campaign. Needless to say, the dread phrase ‘real music’ has been bandied about more than once – as if pre X-Factor the Christmas number one spot had been routinely fought over by the likes of Billy Bragg and Bob Dylan as opposed to Mr Blobby and Bob The Builder. (Dylan, coincidentally, released a fantastic version of ‘It Must Be Santa’ a couple of years ago which would have been a far less po-faced choice of people’s champion if we must go down that route).

Don’t get me wrong, I have no interest in whatever drippy cover version the X Factor victor releases this week either, and I certainly don’t think they ‘deserve’ a number one single – although the very concept of a number one single being deserved for any other reason than having sold the most records that week is more than a little absurd – but the fact is that their annual storm to the top spot has become a self-fulfilling prophecy; no other major event singles even try for the top spot any more. Where are the twenty-first century Spice Girls, who held three consecutive Christmas number ones with three consecutive marvellous wintery pop ballads without being fuelled by reality TV or a protest vote? I’d like to see some fun back in the Christmas charts, and having them hijacked by a bunch of pompous Q Magazine readers who don’t even care what’s at number one for the other 51 weeks of the year isn’t my idea of a good time any more than surrendering to the Syco machine is. We need a third way. Somebody get Girls Aloud back in the studio.

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If The Wedding Singer taught us anything, it is that the only thing funnier than frail old women talking explicitly about sex is frail old women laying down some phat beats – as veteran character actress Ellen Albertini Dow gamely demonstrated with her enthusiastic take on the Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight in the aforementioned Adam Sandler Rom-Com.

So perhaps it was inevitable that former Golden Girl Betty White – currently enjoying a late career revival based on her willingness to send up her previously cuddly image with some spectacularly foul-mouthed movie cameos and an Emmy winning role as a stoner housekeeper in the US sitcom Hot In Cleveland – would take the logical step into the murky world of novelty dance.

Teaming up with London born singer Luciana – one of those Kelly Llorenna types who pops up on massive club record every few years, and who has been knocking around for so long that I suspect she may be the older half of the pairing – the redoubtable Ms White raps (well, speaks) about her enduring hotness (and her penchant for ‘Rockin’ the world with my cheesecake’, which I really, really hope isn’t a euphemism) over a filthy electro-house beat.

It’s better than anything on Madonna’s last album.

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Dannii MinogueSo it’s finally happened. After surviving years of rumours about her supposedly imminent departure and months of exhausting speculation about the line-up for this year, Dannii Minogue is officially off the X Factor. Did she jump or was she pushed? We don’t know yet, but one thing is certain – the show is going to be infinitely poorer without her. For me it’s probably the final nail. No Simon? – meh, he’s been a pale imitation of his former self for years now. No Cheryl? – no loss. But no Dannii? Unthinkable!

Being a Dannii defender isn’t always easy. Her credentials as a judge have always been the subject of some derision. This largely seems to be down to the fact that she’s scored a mere fourteen top twenty chart hits, compared to the forty-seven her sister has achieved. God, what a loser.

There’s also the allegation that she can’t sing, despite the fact that she cut her teeth on an Australian variety show, starred successfully in a production of Notre Dame De Paris on the West End, and could sing absolute rings around the tone-deaf Cheryl Cole, who somehow even manages to sound flat on record, never mind live.

Nepotism-fuelled pop singers of the kind poor Dannii is so often and unfairly associated with are ten a penny, from Julian Lennon to Willow Smith. The vast majority of them don’t last five minutes. It should seem obvious to anyone that a woman who has survived for over fifteen years in the harsh pop landscape is perfectly placed to mentor the hopefuls of the future.

In her time on the show, Dannii proved just that. Where the other judges relied on soundbites and meaningless platitudes, she was the only one who offered genuine constructive criticism. Last season her advice to One Direction that they needed to watch their harmonies was on-point and entirely fair. It was, of course, drowned out in a sea of boos, an indignity Dannii frequently suffered for committing the terrible crime of doing the job she was being paid to do.

Her relationships with her own charges was the most enjoyable part of the show for me. While other mentors transparently barely saw their own acts between shows (several weeks into the Finals last year, Simon Cowell could not – when pressed – name all five members of his aforementioned group One Direction) Dannii seemed to genuinely care about her acts, forming lasting bonds with many of them. To this day she regularly tweets motherly updates about the achievements of long forgotten contestants such as Lucie Jones and Daniel Evans, even if these achievements are largely limited to the world of regional theatre.

She was by far the most daring in her song choices too. For all his bluster about wanting to find a relevant, new pop act, Simon Cowell gives the impression that he doesn’t actually like any pop music released after 1988. While he was content to let his acts bellow out karaoke covers of pub rock standards like Unchained Melody and Crying, Dannii tested her acts with edgy recent hits by Robyn and David Guetta. These risks didn’t always pay off, but they always made for interesting performances.

Her greatest match was with the Spanish firebrand Ruth Lorenzo – in my opinion the most exciting and subsequently squandered talent the show has ever discovered. The developing friendship between the two was truly heart-warming, as was Ruth’s battle to remain in the show without the benefit of any of the regional or teenage support that her competitors enjoyed. It took Dannii a little while to figure out what to do with Ruth, but after the latter’s stunning rendition of Purple Rain in the sing-offs, everything fell into place. Her decision in Take That week to pair Ruth with their little-remembered hit Love Ain’t Here Anymore was a gamble that resulted in one of the greatest performances ever seen on the show. It’s that kind of genuine narrative between mentor and artist that makes Dannii so eminently watchable, and what makes the other judges so desperately boring by comparison. Cheryl Cole’s song choices are frequently so predictable and lacking in strategy that during artist theme weeks I often found myself wondering if she actually knew more than three songs by the likes of Elton John and The Beatles.

My one consolation is that Minogue ended her tenure on the show with a high. Her popularity soared in the final season and she came into her own as a beloved TV personality and fashion icon, with a best-selling autobiography and highly successful fashion line. She carried herself with grace and dignity, subverting the expectation that she would be as threatened by Cheryl Cole as the embittered Sharon Osbourne was by her. Under her guidance, and again with the help of some leftfield song choices, Matt Cardle sailed to victory against the might of Simon’s One Direction and Cheryl’s Cher Lloyd.

So what now? Personally I hope the rumoured return to music bears out. Her last full studio Neon Nights was for my money a more forward-thinking and cohesive long player than her sister has ever managed and, despite yielding four top ten hit singles, unfairly overlooked at the time. The 80s-influenced electro sound she was toying with way back in 2001 is now routinely heard in the upper echelons of the charts from the likes of Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Ke$ha. But then that’s Dannii all over, quietly defying expectations and generally being much better than most cynics think she has any right to be. I suspect the X Factor Producers have no idea what they’ve just lost…

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