Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Why Taylor Swift’s ‘Innocent’ is not about Kanye West

At this year’s MTV Video Music Awards back in September, Taylor Swift premiered the song ‘Innocent’ from her new album ‘Speak Now’.

The song was claimed to be a letter of forgiveness to Kanye West, who stole her Best Video moment in 2009. But in all the talk about the performance and motivation behind the song (as well as the terrible live performance Swift gave, which funnily enough cannot be found anywhere on YouTube), it seems not to have been considered who the song is really about.

The lyrics do vaguely refer to someone who has wronged her, whom she pities and is offering forgiveness to. But I see very little evidence that this person is Kanye West, however much it is claimed by Swift’s people and the blogosphere as a whole.

Consider the following lines:

Lost your balance on a tightrope
Lost your mind tryin' to get it back

Have we really seen any evidence that West has been wallowing in regret and self-questioning since the episode? There’s nothing to suggest that this was a tipping point in West’s life, which he has desperately been trying to restore.

Next let’s take the second verse:

Wasn't it easier in your firefly-catchin' days?
And everything out of reach, someone bigger brought down to you
Wasn't it beautiful runnin' wild 'til you fell asleep?
Before the monsters caught up to you?

This sounds distinctly (as does much of the song) like it is sung to a young adult struggling with grown-up life, wishing to return to the innocent days of their childhood – a topic incidentally covered much better on the album on the song ‘Never Grow Up’. For Swift to be writing this about West seems a bit of a leap into his psyche; again, it’s not something an impression that’s ever really been given.

Furthermore, the song strongly implies it is sung about someone whom Swift looked up to and respected, perhaps even idolised – “Your string of lights is still bright to me”. Kanye West doesn’t really seem to me like a convincing idol for a girl like Swift.

Overall, what I’m saying is that there are several logical fallacies in this song that don’t make it sound like it was genuinely written about Kanye West. But what about the points that bloggers have raised, that do seem to be about him? His age is cited, and reference is made to September, when the incident happened. But personally I feel that either of these points could just as easily refer to someone else, or have been changed or added to fit.

So, if this is true, why let it be believed that a song is about a topic it is not? The answer to that is very simple: publicity. With Swift given a performing slot on this year’s VMAs, finding a way to reference last year’s incident was an effective way of providing a hook and getting people to tune in and listen to the song. And of course, it’s also then promotion for the album. One of Swift’s trademarks is that her songs are always ostensibly about the boys she’s dated, but that she never tells who (and incidentally, I’m pretty sure the Kanye West line was never stated by Swift or her people directly). It’s an effective promotional hook and it works for her – it’s natural that people would expect a song about West, as an important influence in her life, which fans feel they are entitled to be involved in. 

And that's what they've been given, on the surface - a tactic Swift and her producers have become very good at. And based on the fact that I've just written a 600 word blog article on the subject, it seems to work.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Why I Hate Foursquare

I suppose the title of this post is a bit of a misnomer. I don’t really hate Foursquare itself; in fact, I’ve never actually used it. And it’s not just Foursquare, but it’s the biggest example of a growing irritation – no-content posts cluttering up my Twitter feed.

To explain, when one ‘checks in’ to a location on Foursquare, one has the option to post this to Twitter (at least, this is my understanding; please correct me if I’m wrong). Some users clearly take advantage of this feature more than others. And while I’m sure it can be a valuable addition, and a shortcut to posting the same thing again, it risks creating the very thing that Twitter-critics bring up time and again – that Twitter is boring because it is full of boring people shouting out boring minutae of their everyday life.

New users of Twitter (and Facebook to an extent) often make the mistake of posting everything they do. Mostly, they learn quite quickly that nobody cares that they’re going to Sainsbury’s or to bed or having a cake and stop posting about it. These things aren’t interesting in themselves - they’re only relevant when some context or comment is added. So give me something else in addition to this bland statement; make your post unique and interesting to read. Twitter is often cited as ‘micro-blogging’, and this is how I choose to use it, both as a follower and poster. I wouldn’t want to read blogs devoid of any actual content, so I don’t post them either. And sites like Foursquare are driving us back to this trend.

It’s not just Foursquare either. GetGlue is another example - ‘I am watching X-Factor’. Whoop. So are millions of other people. Say something interesting about it! I have to reassert that I’m not against either of these sites as a concept – I think they’re both useful when used properly. And sometimes, and in moderation, simply driving a check-in from one of these applications can be beneficial, particularly when it’s something a user would have tweeted anyway, and is something interesting in itself. But using them as a substitute for writing actual Twitter content is neither useful nor interesting.

Overall, I think the main crime of using applications like this is that there is no personalisation to a tweet, and no thought has gone into it. The best use of Twitter, and other social networking sites, is when a post has been carefully written and considered, with a target audience and purpose in mind. When used as a means of spitting out automated posts, it’s of little benefit to anyone.

And this is before I even get started on my biggest pet-hate – the automatic cross-posting of Facebook posts!

Friday, 13 August 2010

Mass Observation

In the 1930s, a UK social research organisation commissioned a program of Mass Observation. A panel of volunteers was encouraged to go out and write down and describe all that they saw in great detail. The result was a detailed and layered portrait of everyday British life.

In 2010, the University of Sussex, having revived the program in the 1980s, is promoting the topic once again. You probably couldn’t do the program on the same descriptive detail as in that past survey without being labelled a terrorist, or at least being accused of invading someone’s privacy. Instead, ordinary people are being encouraged to take six photographs of the community they live in on one specific day and upload them to a website, in order to capture a snapshot everyday life once again. One could argue that this has already been achieved by Google Street View, but the hope is to gain a different perspective than a camera on top of a car can, and to create a tapestry of community life as it was in Britain on 12 August 2010.

The experiment is being run through local community blogs, of which there are surprisingly many, and I came to it through Brockley Central, and you can read the post here. Unfortunately, I was leaving early to catch a flight, but I managed to get a few pictures before I left (on my way to the station!), which you can view below (click on them to make them bigger and see the detail). I would ideally have liked to get more of people going about their everyday life, but there wasn't really anybody about, so I focussed on locations and snapshots reflecting the community.

For more details on the scheme, see:

Monday, 9 August 2010

The effect of emotion on memory and personal narrative

From time to time, I intend to write about my own impressions and experiences, bouncing off articles I read online. I saw this article today, from Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian: This column will change your life: How real are your memories? The title is a little misleading, but the subtitle reflects more accurately what I wish to write about: When it comes to recalling experiences, intensity matters more than duration.

Burkeman in his article is writing about the ‘peak-end effect’:
a now well-established psychological phenomenon whereby we remember and judge our experiences, whether good or bad, not in their entirety but according to how they felt at their emotional peak, and at the end.
By the emotional peak, which is where I’m choosing to focus this blog entry, he is referring to the time of the greatest emotional intensity. In particular he makes reference to holidays, that we remember trips away as good or bad based on the most intense emotion we experience during that time.

I can vouch for this from my own personal experience. My trip to Oslo in May for Eurovision was filled with fun experiences with friends, and I know in my head that I had a great time. But my instincts tell me otherwise, because the sharpest memory is of one night when I was tired and wanted to go home to sleep. I was then told by a friend that I was boring to be around, and didn’t know how to have fun. That down period was strong and intense, and unfortunately it coloured my perception of the weekend so that now, looking back, my first instinct is that I didn’t have a good time. Rationally though, I know that’s not true.

The same is true of a previous holiday in Stockholm, when one night I just could not get into the clubbing mood and felt down and alone until rescued by a good friend. The remainder of that night was great, as was the rest of the holiday – but the moment that sticks in my mind is of being down and alone whilst the world had fun around me. And it’s made me strongly question whether I want to go again next year, in case the weekend is as ‘bad’ as that base part of me feels it was last time. I know it’s not rational, but memory and recollection are strong things, as Burkeman writes in his article, and those peak memories shape the recollection of the overall experience.

A friend asked me today if I could think of an example where I felt I’d been attacked or ganged up against on an online forum. I could, I gave him a firm example of the conversation and how it made me feel, and how it still makes me feel; that experience has since made me reluctant to speak up. He then asked me to give an example of a time when my friends there stuck up for me and supported me. I couldn’t give one, not a specific example. And what does that say about me? Am I a negative person, only retaining those negative memories and shaping my impressions on them? Or is it that those negative emotions were stronger for me at the time, and therefore have been the ones that have been the most clearly retained?

It’s a case here of memory forming one’s personal narrative, a topic I’ve always been very interested in, both on a personal level and an academic one, examining war experiences, for example. My personal narrative of these experiences has been negative, because of these memories and their associated emotions. Of course, this begs the question of what it says about me that the negative experiences are the ones that provoke the strongest emotion, and that the negative emotions are stronger than the positive ones, a level further than Burkeman goes in his article. Is it actually to do with the experiences themselves, or does the individual’s own psyche further contribute to one’s personal narrative?

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Song Review: Sunny Sweeney - From A Table Away

I don't intend to make this blog a music reviews blog, but from time to time I intend to write about songs I absolutely love, or ones I despise. The latter's a lot more fun to do, but I'm actually going to start off on a positive note. Shocking, I know.

'From A Table Away' is Sunny Sweeney's first single in several years, and marks a change in direction from the traditional honky-tonk sound of her first album, Heartbreaker's Hall of Fame. The production here is more modern country, and Sweeney's voice has echoes of Natalie Maines', which is certainly no bad thing indeed!

The song tells the story, in the first person, of the 'other woman', who finds herself at the next table in a restaurant to her lover and his wife, and listens in on their conversation, in which she realises they're still very much in love, and confronts her man afterwards. There's several ways this song could have been taken by a lesser vocalist, and that's where my admiration for both the song and singer comes in. The song doesn't tell us how to feel, it doesn't tell us all the background, and lets us fill in the gaps for ourselves. Did this man lie to her? Did he ever intend to leave? Or have his feelings changed? And then there's the fact that we are hearing the song from the perspective of the other woman, the potential homewrecker. Is that where our sympathies lie?

There's slight echoes of anger and resentment in the song, but they don't take over at any point. I'd say the main emotion here is sadness, and of a realisation. In overhearing and watching their conversation, the narrator realises that her lover is still in love with his wife, or is at least prepared to make another go of it with her ("I heard you tell her you still love her"), and that this spells the end for her relationship with him. Then there's the line "I guess that means that things are better", could be interpreted in several ways. It could be sarcastic, bitter or desperate, and there's possibly even a little bit of pleasure, that the man she loves, even though she cannot have him, is happy.

I guess that's my overall feeling with this song, and the reason I like it so much. There's so many lines that can be read in many ways, and Sweeney interprets them beautifully, managing to bring across all of these emotions without letting one dominate, giving the song an ambiguity that demands the listener think, consider, and listen again.

The multiple layers of the lyrics can be summed up in the final line: "You're gonna stay a table away". This could be anger, pushing the man who has hurt her away. Or it could be sad resignation, developing the metaphor of a crowded restaurant to where she realises she will never share a table with the man she loves.

Listen on MySpace

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

"80,000 people stole my song!"

A few weeks ago, I read a quote from country singer James Otto over on The Boot. He says:
This week I sold 7,500 singles (which is pretty good), but 80,000 people stole it. No wonder so many of my friends in the business are losing their jobs. Kinda scary. Half the [song]writers in Nashville can't get a job anymore because of this. People pay five bucks for a cup of coffee, but not 99 cents for a song?
I commented on that blog at the time that, while I don’t disagree with the spirit of his comments, I do wonder where this figure of 80,000 copies comes from. A lot of the problem with illegal downloading is that it's not trackable and not public. It's not like you go somewhere official and allow the illegal downloading to be counted when you do it. So, where has Otto got this figure from? 299 subscribers have listened to it, so it’s not that. Has he uploaded it to Rapidshare himself and pushed it around the net in order to see the result? Or is he simply making up a figure to boost his argument?

My other problem with Otto’s statement is that the song he’s referring to, his single Groovy Little Summer Song, is only the second single from an album that is not yet released. Personally, I wouldn’t pay a dollar for a song if I were then planning to shell out for the whole album, essentially paying for the same song twice, and, in that scenario, I might well download it illegally to listen to until I obtained my legal copy on the album.

In this case, I haven’t, since I’m not a big fan of Otto’s. However, one album that came out earlier this year was Whitney Duncan’s nearly two years since the first single, and since several of the songs were released as a ‘selections sampler’ on mp3 download. I refused to pay for these songs at the time, and knowing I was always planning to purchase them as part of the album, I enjoyed them illegally. So, now the album’s finally been released, I’ve bought my copy, right?

Actually, no. Because it’s not available on mp3 download in the UK, or on a physical CD that isn’t an overpriced import. In these days of digital sales, there’s no excuse for an artist’s material not to be available everywhere, and, when it’s not, it simply encourages piracy. This is an issue that the music industry desperately needs to sort out, as, when given the choice between paying £21 for a CD they can see their US peers paying $5 for or simply hopping on to a file-sharing site, it’s often not a hard choice. And in this way, record companies, artists and songwriters are losing sales and losing money that should and could have been theirs.

There are far more detailed issues to be looked at regarding piracy and the music industry’s antiquated and ill-advised methods, but I’ll save that for another post.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The myriad rules of Formula 1

This weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix featured yet another example of a problem that I feel has the potential to cause many issues for Formula 1 as a sport, and that’s the way that small infringements and the resulting penalties can decide the results of races.

When following teammate Mark Webber behind the safety car, Sebastian Vettel slowed considerably, backing up Alonso and the rest of the pack, allowing Webber to get a lead, which he needed for his upcoming pitstop. Quite rightly, this is against the rules, as it could be abused and, while Vettel and Red Bull have claimed that there were no team orders involved, it is right that a punishment was given. However, this penalty cost Vettel a likely win, and certainly cost viewers an exciting race.

The main issue I see with this is not with F1 die-hards, but more for casual fans, and particularly those who are fans of a particular driver. For fans of Sebastian Vettel, seeing him penalised on what may seem like a silly technicality would be a bitter pill to swallow, and would potentially raise accusations of favouritism and race-fixing. Seeing a race effectively decided in the stewards’ room, rather than on the track, is damaging for the sport in the long run.

Another example of this happened earlier this year at the European Grand Prix, when several drivers were penalised five seconds after the race for speeding under the safety car. Fortunately, this didn’t change the outcome of the race, at least at the front, but potentially could have done, which would have again made a mockery of the previous two hours fans had invested watching the race. And that’s before we even get to the inevitable jokes about racing cars being penalised for being too fast!

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t feel for a moment that these drivers shouldn’t have been penalised. After all, a footballer who has played well but fouls another player is still booked or sent off. The rules have to be enforced otherwise there is no point in having them, and these rules are there for important reasons, as outlined above. However, I do think there is a problem with how things stand at the moment, when F1 could seem to some to be all about the technicalities and the rules and less about the actual racing. So maybe the solution is to try and instil better racing into F1.

Which, of course, is a whole other problem. To which I certainly don’t have the solution.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

No Eurovision in the UK charts?

One measure of the success of Eurovision entries, and the contest as a whole, is how many entries end up in countries’ own official charts, tracking how many people actually bought the entries after the contest. Yesterday it was mentioned that several entries had already gone on to the iTunes charts of some countries, like Sweden and Ireland. I decided to have a look and see if any of Tuesday’s competitors had hit the UK iTunes chart.

The answer was, effectively, no. The only one that did was Iceland, right near the bottom. Wondering why, I went to the album page, and got my answer. About ten of the songs are listed as ‘album only’. This means that you cannot purchase them separately, you only get them when buying the whole album. The same is true on Amazon.

Unfortunately (though presumably by design), this affects several of the favourites, and some of those more likely to chart in the UK – Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Azerbaijan, even the UK. Some of these may well be available elsewhere on download sites, but some aren’t, and even if they are, people are unlikely to go delving further. This happened last year too, but with fewer of the favourites involved.

The entire point of digital music purchasing is that it allows consumers to cherry pick what they want to buy, and with ease. If it’s complicated, they just won’t bother. And people are unlikely to want to buy the whole album too. It’s really frustrating to see how Eurovision is, yet again, falling behind the trends of the modern world, and showing itself as a dinosaur, out of touch with modern music, in more ways than one.

I’m not holding my breath at all of there being several hits in the UK charts from this year’s contest. And that’s a shame, because it can happen, as seen by Rybak and Yohanna making it last year, and because entries charting can add a bit of credibility to a contest sometimes sorely lacking it. But if the organisers and the distributors cannot get simple things like this right, it’s not surprising.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Some thoughts on Melodifestivalen 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about MF this year, more than other years, so I figured I may as well write those thoughts down in a blog. For those who don’t know, Melodifestivalen is the Swedish festival, held over a period of six weeks, which eventually selects their Eurovision representative.

There’ve been a couple of big changes this year. The first is a shift (probably conscious) away from the schlager entries to a greater variety of genres and styles, debatably more relevant to the general music scene. Whether the entries themselves are better or not is a matter of personal taste.

What has resulted is quite a variety of qualifiers to the final. Of the eight entries there already, only one could really be described as the kind of schlager that normally dominates this contest (Eric Saade's Manboy), with one other skirting the boundaries, being closer to the more old-fashioned dansband-schlager type of music (Timoteij's Kom), which would nevertheless be a different kind of winner for Sweden. The question is: does this mean more of a chance for Sweden to finally choose something different as its winner? Statistically, it does, but some have argued in previous years that if there were just one schlager to choose from, the voters that would normally be split between those entries will all gravitate towards one.

Then there is the change in the announcements of the qualifiers from the semi-finals. In a break from tradition, this year we know which of the two qualifiers won the first round of voting each time. Some might consider that the winner would definitely come from these four (which are Salem Al Fakir's Keep On Walking, Anna Bergendahl's This Is My Life and the aforementioned Kom and Manboy). Will fans of these songs realise they have a big chance of winning, and vote for them more vehemently? Or will they relax, feeling that they’re already popular and their vote isn’t needed? And will fans of the songs and artists who qualified in second place not bother voting, because they feel their favourite cannot win, or will they vote more, knowing their favourite is in greater need of their votes? It’s a difficult question to call, and it will be interesting to see if any conclusions can be drawn from the televoting results next Saturday.

The final change that’s been made is on the juries. Instead of eleven juries based in cities around Sweden, there will be just five of these, with the remaining six calling in their votes from around Europe. It’s hard to predict what difference this will make (if any), but it will be interesting to see if they differ from their Swedish counterparts – and especially the reaction if they happen to swing the result away from the Swedish choice!

It remains to be seen, then, whether these changes will result in Sweden choosing something different and fresh as its Melodifestivalen winner (and Eurovision entrant). One thing that is clear is that the contest definitely feels different this year, and is fresher and more varied. Personally I like this change (though not necessarily all of the songs), though I know many, suffering from schlager withdrawal, would disagree with this. My personal prediction is that Eric Saade will win the final, which would really disappoint me after all the potential of several of the other finalists (though the blow would be softened somewhat by the winnings from the bet I’ve put on him). Regardless, I’m really looking forward to the final!