Tuesday, 11 October 2011

How would online voting affect the Eurovision Song Contest?

This week, the Azerbaijani delegation has reportedly put forward a new proposal for changes to the Eurovision Song Contest voting system. Their concept would see viewers being able to vote for their favourite entry online, in addition to the current methods of telephone and SMS. While this is just a suggestion at the moment, and a rumoured one at that, I thought I'd take a look at the possible motivations behind it, as well as the consequences for the contest as a whole.

Why would they even want to do this?
The Eurovision Song Contest has notably been skewing younger in recent years, as can be clearly seen from the following gained by acts like Eric Saade and Jedward, the latter of whom were met by crowds of screaming girls on a visit to Estonia. The contest is no longer seen as a fuddy-duddy 'light entertainment show', but rather as a popular family entertainment show, enjoyed by all ages. Comments on the official site by teens and tweens are growing, as are the number of profiles set up on the site's social networking function (at least, I hope they're by young people – if not, I despair for the continent's grammar).

Encouraging votes online would be a further way of engaging with this valuable demographic who, it seems, live their entire lives online. It would also provide a means of voting for those who do not have access to a landline to televote; this could include these young people, but also those who have simply made the choice not to have a fixed line telephone for whatever reason, a growing group. While many countries allow SMS voting at Eurovision, some, such as the UK, don't, due to perceived difficulties in counting votes – a telephone vote from a mobile will commonly cost well over €1, so online voting would reach out to this previously disenfranchised group.

Isn't that open to abuse?
The most common complaint among fans on the ESC Nation Message Board when this development was rumoured was that it would be open to abuse, with all those bloody East Europeans using it to vote for each other. These conclusions assume of course that internet voting would be free, as it currently commonly is during early stages of various national finals, but there's nothing to say that this would automatically be the case.

One thing that's evident is that the EBU would not be keen on losing potential televoting revenue – to the contrary, any change to Eurovision procedures would necessarily have to be to the financial benefit of the participating TV stations, and that means that there would almost certainly be some payment mechanism involved, if online voting did go ahead. There are working examples of this, as the production company Endemol has struck up a relationship with Facebook that will see voting in the company's Big Brother series all over Europe take place on Facebook; indeed, this is already the case in the UK, Turkey and Germany, the latter of which reportedly had 10% of its total eviction votes come from Facebook. Votes are paid for using Facebook credits at a rate set by the broadcaster, and 70% of monies paid revert back to the broadcaster – a comparable amount to premium rate televoting.

Of course, even if voters are paying, there's nothing stopping them voting multiple times, or even embassies and TV stations mass-buying Facebook credits as has allegedly been the case in the past with phone cards. So there would clearly still be security issues, which the Azerbaijanis are reportedly still working on.

Cost recovery and policing the voting wouldn't be the only concern for the EBU. The next issue to address would be how to ensure that every vote was properly counted in the country of the voter. IP addresses can be easily faked, proxies can be used, and smaller states and border towns would have further problems with this. It could be incredibly difficult to allocate every single vote, with certainty, to the correct country of origin, and could definitely be open to abuse - or just plain error.

But how would it work?
Once all of those issues are taken care of, the Reference Group would then have to decide how to implement the changes. Would the internet voting be added on each country's televotes, prior to combining with the jury votes? Or perhaps they'd instead form a third 'category' in the calculation of each country's vote, with an equal weighting to televotes and jury. Or it could even be the case that online voting would form one large, completely separate vote at the end of the contest.

Whatever's decided, if the EBU do decide to take this any further (and it very much is only a rumour at this stage), there's obviously a lot of work to be done, and a lot of factors to be taken into account. The EBU have a history of piloting potential changes to the voting system at the Junior Eurovision Song Contest, so keep an eye out for next year's contest in the Netherlands as the first potential opportunity to try all this out.

And what would be the consequences?
Other than thousands of Armenians around the continent repeatedly clicking vote next to that red, blue and 'apricot' coloured flag, what would this change accomplish? It could well engage more younger voters and viewers in the contest, boosting both voting and advertising revenue. And who would it benefit among the acts? I'd suggest it would be those who appeal more to younger people, like the aforementioned Jedward and Saade, but also any act with a big hype on the internet before the contest would likely see this converted into online votes.

I'm not sure personally that I want to see it happening. I think it's far too open to abuse, and I don't have enough confidence in the EBU to ensure that it's a fair system. I don't think they care enough to make sure that it won't just be fans hammering the voting button for their own country for hours and, if that's going to be the case, I'd rather the voting be left as it is.

A slightly different version of this post originally appeared on ESC Nation. I do a lot of writing there (most of which I don't cross-post), so check out the site to read more from me.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

An elderly lady in a blue Sunday dress and hat

I've been thinking a lot recently about memory. It's a fragile concept, and one that's so open to interpretation and can never, however much we might believe otherwise, be relied on. Court cases are full of accounts by witnesses that turn out to be full of inaccuracies, even though they swear blind by them.

Memory, or some topic related to it, is likely to be the theme of my thesis that will never get written, mainly because I will never have the time, resources or motivation to undertake a postgraduate degree. But the theme of memory, and an individual's personal narrative, intrigues me, especially how we shape whole storylines and concepts in our memories from a single image or idea.

My great-grandmother, the mother of my paternal grandmother, died when I was very young, and I have no actual memory of her. What I'm thinking about here goes beyond my non-existent memories of times with her, but rather is to do more with my potentially inaccurate memories of even photographs of her.

In my Nan's dining room, on the lower shelf of the dresser, underneath the portable TV my Grandpa uses for watching cricket in the summer, sits a small, black-and-white photograph of my great-grandmother and great-grandfather. At least, I think it's black-and-white. In reality, there's no reason it really should be. Judging by their ages in the photo (or at least, how I remember the photo, which brings in another variable), it would have been taken well after the invention and widespread use of colour film cameras. But in my mind, I'm sure the picture is black-and-white.

Despite this, however, I'm sure that my great-grandmother is wearing blue in the photograph. Why is this? Because there's another photo, taken years later, where she is holding me as a baby, possibly at my christening, and is wearing a blue Sunday dress and hat. So therefore I've transferred this one image on to her in general, so in my mind, and in these memories, she's always blue.

The thing is, am I convinced, absolutely sure, that she's wearing blue in the photo at my christening? No. Possibly she's wearing green, or purple, or a flowery dress. Possibly I'm confusing Nan Fletcher with the Queen Mother. In truth, I really have no idea. So where have I got this image from? An image I've projected onto an elderly woman I never truly knew, now consigned to be wearing a blue Sunday dress and hat and taking part in a Queen-Mother-lookalike contest for all eternity.

I'm not sure. But that's my image. And, even confronted by proof to the contrary, I doubt that picture in my mind would change.

I'd love to illustrate this entry with one of the photographs in questions. But of course I can't - I don't have them, that's the entire point. But the next time I visit my Nan's house I shall be taking a good long look at the photographs, trying to take in something more than just my shallow, long-held impression. And maybe, one day, I should investigate getting a copy of the photographs for myself.

Monday, 12 September 2011

An evening at the Lewisham Literary Festival

Tonight I went to a locally organised event, part of the Lewisham Literary Festival, which is running throughout this week. It's something I'm very happy to be supporting, as I try and get more involved in my local community.

Tonight saw discussion and readings from two authors, Samantha Harvey and Jake Wallis Simons. Simons spoke about his newest book, The English German Girl, which sounded interesting, but I don't think I'll be rushing out to buy a copy. The last book I read that involved Jews escaping (or not escaping) from Nazi Germany, The Novel in the Viola, was rather a letdown, so I don't have much appetite at the moment for that genre. But it was Harvey's book I'd really gone to hear about.

I read The Wilderness last week on holiday, and thought it was absolutely wonderful. The novel tracks the character Jake through four years of his later life, as Alzheimers sets in and takes over his mind. It's a harrowing read in parts, but extremely thought-provoking and involving, so I highly recommend it. Harvey spoke eloquently and engagingly about the book, and the topic as a whole, even entering into an extremely touching dialogue with an audience member who had personal family experience with Alzheimers.

As you may know, a topic that's always been of great interest and curiosity to me is that of memory and narrative. This book is an excellent channel for that, as Jake, suffering from Alzheimers, is very much an unreliable narrator. I remember at university learning about unreliable narrators, and they always intrigued me - the ways the author can use them to create as many questions as answers throughout the text, leaving the reader wondering what's real, and what they can trust. Which then of course leads on to the bigger questions about literature - does it matter what's real? Are you truly expected to construct a narrative outside what is presented to you by the narrator? There are two types on unreliable narrator. The first is one who is fully aware of the world around them, but is dishonest or dissembling for one reason or another. The second is the type who is disoriented by the world, and doesn't have all the facts at their fingertips themselves, and therefore is not even capable of presenting the reader with a full picture. The character Jake in the novel is very much of this second type, and he becomes less reliable as the novel progresses along with his illness. It intrigued me as I read, and Harvey clearly felt the same as she spoke about her novel.

Aside from the topic of the narrator, I even asked a question, something I almost never do at this kind of event. I asked Harvey about the setting for her novel. It's located on the peat moors of Lincolnshire, a flat, occasionally barren landscape, and I wanted to know why she chose it. I'm from this area myself, and whenever I return home I always find something slightly mystical almost about the countryside. I felt Harvey brought across these images and emotions extremely strongly in the novel.

Away from speaking about their books, the moderator also asked the authors for their thoughts on cover blurbs. Neither of them had particularly strong thoughts, but it's something my literature lecturer at university spoke about once. He said that they should be irrelevant, and should not be read. The same in his opinion even went for cover designs. After all, they're something that's not written by the author, and is not part of the actual work, and therefore they're something 'outside' the book; therefore they can colour your reading of the novel by giving you an impression of what's to come, giving preconceptions and therefore changing how you actually read the book itself. I do feel this is true - the picture on the cover of a book will almost always influence how you read and how you see the characters, particularly if one of them is portrayed on the cover, and the blurb really can change your reading, and even give things away. One of the reasons I found the aforementioned The Novel in the Viola a letdown is because the cover blurb really gave away something that didn't really happen until the last fifty pages of the book - so I was always expecting it and thinking ahead. It's a shame, and just one example of how publishers affect how we read and affect the author's work.

Tonight overall was an excellent evening, one which I thoroughly enjoyed. I shall try and attend at least one more of the Festival's events this week (perhaps the one about London on Thursday night), and am very much trying to commit myself to supporting more local community projects such as this.

And I fully encourage you to read Harvey's book The Wilderness. It's an excellent read, not as dark as you might expect, but definitely very touching, and will both challenge your thinking about reality and how the mind works and give you more of an understanding of the life of those suffering from Alzheimers. It's obviously available from all good bookshops and there's sample pages on Amazon, and if you're reading this in Lewisham, then the main Lewisham Library has a copy available for borrowing (or will do when I've taken it back tomorrow!).

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Thirty years - a long time to live a lie

Recently, the country singer Chely Wright (right), whom I follow on Twitter, was doing a Q&A with her fans. Wright is perhaps better known these days for her sexuality and gay rights campaigning than she is for her music, and unsurprisingly many of the questions and discussions reflected this.

Wright leapt to fame in the '90s with successful singles like Shut Up and Drive and Single White Female, but slipped from the limelight in the last decade. Last year she made a comeback, which was timed, some might say cynically, to coincide with her coming out. In doing this she became the first country singer to be out in the public eye – a brave and controversial decision in a traditionally very conservative market.

During the Q&A, one fan asked Wright at what age she realised she was gay. The answer was 9. Another question asked her age when she came out. The answer, which I already more or less knew, was 39. That's thirty years difference. Thirty years of living a lie, of pretending to be someone you're not.

It's something I really can't imagine. I realised I was gay at the age of 15, sometimes towards the end of my Year 10 school year. Eight weeks later I was back at school after the holidays and, within a week, I'd already told a couple of my closest friends about my sexuality. It took just another two months before everyone knew. You could say it was brave, but I never really considered it in that way. To me, it was something exciting, something that was totally a part of me, and I couldn't think of how I could live without people knowing. I wanted people to know – even if they hated me for it. Perhaps there was a bit of adrenaline in there, a bit of the risk-taker in me showing his face, but overall I just wanted to be able to live my life openly and freely, and that's what I've done ever since.

That means that I can't imagine what it must have been like for Wright to know that she was gay, to have accepted this fact and to have embraced it, and yet to not be able to live her life according to this. It must have been so difficult, and so confusing, to have to live a life that was contrary to what she felt inside, partly because of being in the public eye, but even more so not being able to be open and honest with friends and family. Indeed, Wright refers to this "lying and hiding" as causing damage to her life.

I hope for her sake that her life since coming out to family, friends and the public has gone some way to easing the damage caused by those thirty years. Indeed, she's now happily married and is very much living life, it seems, as a confident and proud gay woman. And I'm very, very happy for her. I just can't imagine how those thirty years must have felt. It makes me very glad that I am who I am, and makes me thankful that my situation in life, as well as my friends and family, has let me be who I am. Some people aren't as lucky as I've been, and thinking about Wright's statement, literally those few words about her age at key points in her life, gave me reason to pause and consider this.

Listen to Heavenly Days from Wright's latest album, Lifted Off The Ground:

Monday, 29 August 2011

Eurovision goes country

Those of you who know me will probably know that my two great musical passions are country music and the Eurovision Song Contest. Not two genres that naturally fit well together, I admit, but in this blog entry I'll take a look at nine of the songs that were entered for this year's contest (though didn't get there), which wouldn't necessarily sound out of place on US country radio.

Babel Fish – Depend On Me
Who'd sing it? Rascal Flatts

The first time I heard this song, I was immediately reminded of the group Rascal Flatts. The slightly straining falsetto in the chorus and the sentimental lyrics are very reminiscent of their work, and this song would fit right in on one of their recent albums. I'm not sure they've ever had a stage show that involved looking through the window of a cardboard house though.

Dalma – Song for Him
Who'd sing it? Gretchen Wilson

Dalma puts on the growls a little too much for them to sound authentic, but there's a decent country song at the heart of this – or possibly two or three different country songs. There's a bit of a kiss-off and there's a couple of broken hearts; I'm not so sure about the silliness at the end though – it works well enough as a song without having to be a pastiche.

Evija Sloka – Don't Stop the Dance
Who'd sing it? Pam Tillis

The lyrics are a little questionable, and the accent is all over the place, but there's no mistaking the country influences on this song that never really stood much chance of making it through a Latvian selection. Sloka lists Brad Paisley and Alan Jackson as her dream duet partners.

Hanne Sorvaag – You're Like A Melody
Who'd sing it? Jewel

In 2010, Eurovision fans were comparing Swedish singer Anna Bergendahl and her song 'This Is My Life' to Jewel's earlier work, but nowadays she'd be more likely to record songs like this Norwegian finalist. It's very much at the pop end of pop country, right where Jewel's recent albums have positioned her, and the feelgood similes hold together very well and would fit right in on contemporary country radio.

CH – Gid nif uf
Who'd sing it? Keith Urban (he basically already did!)

Other than being sung in Swiss German, this song sits right in the Keith Urban-school of country music, with pumping beats and a prominent electric guitar line, but it's grounded by the fiddle that runs right through the arrangement. The song's so committed to sounding like Keith Urban that it even steals the entire chorus melody of the Australian's 'I Told You So'.

Yohanna – Nótt
Who'd sing it? Carrie Underwood

It's not really country, but this track would fit right in on a Carrie Underwood album, particularly in its English version, with its considered lyrics and a silky melody that takes off into a crescendo for the last chorus.

Carmel Eckman - Nosa'at el ga'agu'ay
Who'd sing it? Sarah Jarosz

To be honest with you, Israel is more or less the last place where I'd expect to find a song like this. It's a gentle, acoustic ballad, with a lovely strummy guitar and a fiddle break in the middle. Unsurprisingly, it came almost last.

The Lucky Bullets – Fire Below
Who'd sing it? Justin Townes Earle

I was absolutely astounded when I first heard this in the Norwegian preselection, as it sounds so authentically rockabilly – not a hint of the slight 'foreignness' that often blights Eurovision songs that are trying to be very American. I was even more impressed when the Norwegians voted it into third place in the final, and I even got to cheer for it in person!

Pernilla Andersson – Desperados
Who'd sing it? Kathleen Edwards

Perhaps less country and more Americana than some of the songs on this list, 'Desperados' was one step away from making it into the Melodifestivalen final. The gentle chugging beat, the savoured chords and Andersson's velvety voice combine to make this my favourite song of the Eurovision season.

I'm sure many of you will disagree with the singers I've chosen to record these songs, so I invite you to post your suggestions below. And clearly, some of them would need quite a bit of changing and improvement before the singers mentioned would even consider going near them, and they might not take too kindly to being connected to them (sorry Pam Tillis!). But this is Eurovision, I have to take what I can get!

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Discovering Tanya Tucker: a personal Top 10

I recently decided that I knew next to nothing about Tanya Tucker, one of the big female country artists throughout the years, and that it was time to educate myself. So I listened to several of her Greatest Hits albums; like many artists who've had long careers, Tucker has been released by several record labels, all of whom have put out their own collections of her work. So after listening to around 70 of her (supposedly) best recordings, I've chosen ten that were my favourites. It's by no means a comprehensive list, as I don't claim to have listened to all of her extensive catalogue, and I'm certainly no expert! It's just a summary of what I listened to.

And if you'd like to listen along with the list and you have Spotify, click here for a playlist.

#10 – Down To My Last Teardrop

An enjoyable example of pop-country done well, Tucker's character has cried all her tears over her man, and she won't cry anymore. Despite sounding from the title like it might be quite a sad song, it's actually a fun kiss-off number with a catchy melody, a great example of the genre.

#9 – Baby I'm Yours

This song comes from Tucker's sole release for the Arista label, 'Changes', the cover of which features her wearing the ugliest jumper known to man. Tucker sounds surprisingly childlike considering the date on this straightforward song of eternal love, with its simple call-and-response structure, but her performance is emotional and convincing.

#8 – Spring

Released by Columbia in 1975 after Tucker's move to MCA, this song was presumably recorded and not used on a previous album. It has an unusual narrative structure for a three-verse country song, but the optimistic ending works, as does Tucker's interpretation of both the good and bad times.

#7 – Strong Enough To Bend

A simple metaphor, executed simply. The tree in the backyard is never broken by the storm, because its limbs bend with the wind. The same is true of a good relationship, where both parties learn to compromise – an important lesson to be learned, that can be applied in many situations. The minimal arrangement and uncomplicated melody line complement the message well.

#6 – We Don't Have To Do This

The characters in this song would do well to learn from the lessons of 'Strong Enough To Bend'. Both partners are too proud to put aside their differences, even though the narrator agonisingly recognises that she doesn't want the relationship to be over – “Tell me where it's written that we can't change our minds”, she sings. Tucker's performance is exquisite, bringing across the despair and sense of horrible inevitability in the song perfectly.

#5 – What's Your Mama's Name

The painful story of a man who spends thirty years trying to track down his lost love and their child, going to prison for child-grooming and being driven to drink in the process, this song manages to be catchy and sing-along despite the dark subject matter – a frequent theme of much of Tucker's early work.

#4 – Texas (When I Die)

An iconic song that really set the scene for some of the singers who have been popular in recent years, like Gretchen Wilson and Miranda Lambert. This song's just a whole lot of fun to listen, and shows a different side to Tucker's voice to many of the songs on this list.

#3 – Delta Dawn

Tucker's first single, and reflective of the complex material she would tackle during her career, particularly during her younger years. At the age of just 13, Tucker's already found her distinctive, mature voice on this recording and it's incredibly powerful. Perhaps best known to international and younger audiences as the song where Monica's shirt goes see-through at the piano bar in Friends.

#2 – Two Sparrows In a Hurricane

A beautiful song, one that could have just been a standard 'lovers making it against the odds' ditty, but is set apart by an expressive performance and a skilful use of the three-verse structure, juxtaposing and comparing the youth and age of the characters through the near-identical first and third verses. The end-result is something that feels almost quite life-affirming, and always makes me feel happy and content.

#1 – Lizzie and the Rainman

Easily top of my list before I even started putting it together. The characters in this song are so strongly drawn that I even looked up the song to see if it was based on a true story. Tucker's performance is brilliant, with strains of a gospel preacher complemented by the choir behind her, and the arrangement is exquisite. Try listening to it through headphones to hear the sounds of the rain, the violin glissandos and the beating of the drums going around your head that uses the best effects of stereo to make the whole scenario feel real and present. All the elements come together to produce an excellent song.

So, do you agree? If you're a fan of Tanya Tucker, would you have put different songs on this list? And if I've managed to introduce you to her music, would you have ranked them in this way? I'd be interested to see what people think.

How not to thank me for my donation

A couple of weeks ago, I read a powerful piece on the website of a prominent UK mental health charity (I shan't name and shame them here). I subsequently made a one-off donation on their website, and yesterday I received a thank you letter for that donation. At least they're thanking their donors, which is allegedly more than some UK charities manage sometimes, but the way they've gone about it has destroyed a lot of the goodwill I had towards them.

The actual thank-you letter is decent enough, apart from unnecessary shoe-horning-in of Gift Aid regulations. I would generally prefer to be thanked for an online donation by email though - it just makes more sense to me to thank through the same channel as the gift was made - but I accept that's a personal preference, and isn't a big deal here.

What perturbed me was the accompanying literature included alongside the thank-you letter. A small postcard with the story of a service user would normally be acceptable, if it were telling me what my donation has achieved. It's not: it's telling me what a donation of £200 would achieve. The next item I picked up was an envelope. On closer examination, it's a donation envelope. So that's effectively a second donation ask in what's ostensibly a thanking package.

The last item included in the package is a 12-page leaflet detailing the charity's work. Or rather, six pages of it are about the charity's work. The remaining six pages provide a plethora of ways I can give money to the charity, from making a simple donation, to leaving a legacy, to getting involved in a marathon. The latter I mind less; it's perfectly acceptable to try and convert a donor into doing an event for the charity, but the others are inevitably going to be far less effective. I'm a one-off donor who has given £25 because of an article I saw on your website. I'm extremely unlikely to want to include your cause in my will, or ask my company to provide corporate support. It's just completely the wrong forum to be making this kind of ask. And then, of course, at the end of the booklet is another donation form.

And just when I thought that was the pinnacle of the over-asking, I've now noticed while writing this that the headed paper the letter came on also tells me that the charity relies on donations to continue its work (no shit!) and invites me to call or email them to make a donation.

Going back to the booklet and its pages on the charity's work, I was dismayed at how badly the cause is presented here. It takes until the seventh page (by which time it's making an ask) to mention the word 'you'. I've always been taught that in the act of soliciting a donation, the most important factor to consider is the donor. Instead, the booklet is full of the work that 'we', the charity, do, and the ways in which 'we' help. As a (prospective) donor, I don't care about the charity itself, I care about the difference I can make. And I don't mean that I can make a donation to the charity. To prompt me to make that donation, I need to be told that I will be helping people with mental health problems, and the ways in which I will be helping. It's not about the charity; it's about the donor. The problem is that this leaflet is trying to accomplish too many things at once, and is not succeeding particularly well at any of them. It's probably also used for information at events, for example, or for community fundraisers to present to contacts in order to support their ask. There's nothing really inherently wrong with the leaflet itself, it's not suitable as part of a thank-you package.

So, to sum up the overall problem: in a mailing from a charity that's supposedly thanking me for my donation, I've also been directly asked three times to give more money (along with several other soft asks). And while asking, the charity is completely failing to explain to me how I can help. I suppose I really shouldn't be that surprised. When I initially went to make the donation on the charity's website, upon clicking the 'Donate' button, I was presented, not with the donation form, or perhaps with a page explaining what different levels of giving would provide, but with a page inviting me to consider making a donation in memory of a loved one. Completely inappropriate - I've already considered and decided to make a donation, and the inclusion of a reference to donating in memory is, happily, not relevant to me. It was almost enough to stop me giving there and then; after this 'thank-you' letter, I'm sorry to say I probably won't donate again to this charity. It's a shame, and a difficult decision, because it's a cause I really identify with and want to support, but at the same time I have no desire to support bad fundraisers. Fortunately, there are other charities in the field whom I can switch my giving to.

Just to end this entry on a positive note, I'd like to praise another charity thank-you letter I received recently. This one was from WaterAid, in response to a regular donation I'd set up. The letter itself is clear and concise and repeatedly tells me what my gift will achieve. The four accompanying postcards (below) are also much better executed than the one mentioned earlier. They allow me to send them to my friends, with space for writing a message and an address on the back, and are therefore a great tool for me to solicit donations to the cause if I chose to do so. They also provide a brief story to go with the picture on the front, and, importantly, don't refer to what WaterAid has accomplished, but rather what WaterAid supporters have accomplished. The distinction is very important.


Thursday, 28 July 2011

What do I know or care about your backwoods?

A recurrent theme on country music blogs in recent weeks has been debating what makes country music truly country. One criticism often levelled is how obligatory it has become in the last couple of years on country radio to shout out about how country you, the person, are, and how artificial and forced this is.

"All day, you've been singing rock songs to me about how country you are. And even country songs about how country you are. It's been 'dirt road' this and 'back road' that, and 'party in the woods' this and 'redneck, hillbilly' that.
"I don't believe you"

To me, it's perhaps less about the issue of the music itself 'not really being country' (or rather, while sometimes it is, that's not what I'm going to focus on in this blog entry). It's more about how this focus on 'being a real country boy' excludes people like me. I'm a fan of country music, and have been for a few years (though not as long as many), but I'm not from the country. Hell, I'm not even from America. Therefore, I don't really care much about that big green tractor you probably didn't actually drive around, or the backwoods you've probably never driven out to in your pick-up with a keg on the back. Because I can't identify with that. And I really don't appreciate being told that 'the countryside is the only place you'll find people who pray, feel proud of themselves, and hold doors open for old women'*.

What I can identify with is stories. Stories about real people and real emotions. Stories about life's struggles and dilemmas, about loss and heartache, about what's wrong but feels right. It's what Reba McEntire does so right. So many of her songs are identifiable to so many people, and she sings them like she's experienced them, like they're her own words of wisdom. She doesn't need to shout at me about how she's so country. She just is. I can tell that by listening to her music. Someone else who is clearly identifiable as country, from her own songwriting this time, is Taylor Swift. Sure, she's basically a pop singer – again, it's not about the music 'not being country' here. It's about telling those stories about real people, and that's what Swift pulls off every time.

But, you could argue, why is it a problem? Why can't I just ignore this music that I don't like? And it's a fair argument, I really could. But the problem for me is, I know country music can do better. Sure, I could hunt it down on the dwindling independent recordings, but I don't want to have to do that. I want to be able to hear it on the radio, and in the mainstream. I don't want to go to a bar in Nashville and effectively be insulted for being who I am.

In addition, I know that the artists themselves can do better. Blake Shelton's first few albums are great, full of complex themes and strong melodies, before they degenerate into the Hillbilly Bone posturing of the last few years. Jason Aldean's The Truth is an excellent song, passionately delivered and full of real emotion that anyone can identify with (and he even pretends to be away in the city!). Effectively, it's a selfish wish on my behalf: I want country music to be what I want it to be – the real people and the real stories I fell in love with.

I'd also add as a postscript that much of the problem is that I feel these songs are relying on the hook of 'I'm a true country boy and I'm proud of it, the country is the best place on earth' to substitute for actually having a good song. Because there are songs that play on this and also have engaging melodies and arrangements that build to a crescendo to really engage the listener and complement the lyrical themes. An example I'd give (and I know this is where I'm going to lose a lot of people) is Jason Michael Carroll's Where I'm From. The song is sappy, completely typical and predictable once you know the formula and even mentions the big C word (Brad Paisley would be proud). But I love it. The emotion in it gets me every time, even if that emotion is totally manipulative. And that's the key for me – country music is about emotions, and it's about people and it's about storytelling.

*this quote is stolen from CM Wilcox over at engine145.com. Thanks for summing up how I feel so succinctly!

Some thoughts on my own writing and why I do it

These days, I often think about what I'm doing with my life. More specifically, I often think about my writing. Obviously, I enjoy writing. That's why I set up this blog, so I could write about various things that interest me. That's why I write articles and blogs over at ESC Nation, so I can write about something that particularly interests me.

When I was younger, one thing I always wanted to be was a journalist. Clearly, that didn't work out. I didn't particularly pursue it. Part of me isn't really sure why. On the other hand, I can't imagine myself as some super journalist working for a national newspaper, under pressure of getting scoops and exclusives, with a demanding boss on top of me and the spectre of losing my job if I don't deliver the latest crime, celebrity or world events story first. Similarly, I don't see myself interviewing disgruntled local residents about the amount of dog poo on the pavement on the street outside their house (though sometimes I think it could be a lot of fun). Neither of those things is me, so I'm glad I didn't go down that road.

I do write a lot in my job as a fundraiser, composing application documents to try to convince funders that our project is worthwhile of their donation. The parallels of successful writing are evident in both applications and blogs and articles - a well-written article will engage the reader, draw them in and perhaps even make them laugh. A well-written application will hopefully allow the reader to identify with the beneficiary and the cause and convince them of its worth.

One thing that's therefore very important is the standard of my writing. That’s perhaps a problem I have, both at work and in my more recreational writing. It's not so much that I don't have the ideas; it's putting those ideas down on paper in an eloquent and engaging manner. One problem I often have is timing. When I'm at work, I often think of an article or blog entry I want to write, and start to formulate it in my head. When it comes time to write it down, I'm devoid of inspiration. Similarly, lying awake in bed I often think of great application ideas, but when I'm at work, they've gone from my head and it doesn't flow like it should.

I know I need to improve the standard of my personal writing if I'm going to make more of it. I’m enough of a realist to know that, the way it is now, I have no hope of taking it any further, if I decided I wanted to. And obviously, the best way to improve is to keep doing it, to practise. Clearly, I don't do that enough, as can be seen from the amount of content on this blog. And I know I should write more, and I do have the ideas, but that lack of inspiration hits all too often. Not even lack of inspiration necessarily, more a lack of motivation. I can't think how to phrase something succinctly, and so I give up. I lay about on the couch, put the TV or watch videos of kittens falling down on the internet. If I'm serious about this, I need to, well, get more serious. I need to get off my own backside. I need to care. I need to stop letting small setbacks get me down and frustrated.

And more than anything, I need to decide what I really want. And what I'm willing to do to get it.

Friday, 24 June 2011

The pattern of sitting down on a train

There's a certain pattern to the way in which people will sit down at a group of four seats on a train. Next time you get a train, particularly a commuter train, watch and see if this is true.

The first person to get to the seats will almost invariably choose the one next to the window, facing the direction of travel. Because the seats on a commuter train are too close together, and everyone wants to be able to relax a little, the next person to sit will take the seat diagonally across from the first. This allows both passengers to spread out both sideways and in front of them.

At this point they're both pretty comfortable, and hoping the train will leave before anyone else needs to joins them. If a third person does come, they will take the other aisle seat. The reason for this is simple: nobody wants to have to climb over other people in order to sit down.

This is however exactly what the fourth person is going to have to do. In addition, because the second person had already claimed their bottom space, this last person is going to have to wedge themselves into whatever room is left between the second person's hip and the wall of the train.

There you go. There's the pattern of how people sit down on a train. Of course, because it's a pattern, it's also etiquette. Violate this sitting down system and you'll be considered rude or, worse, a bit weird. If you're second to arrive, don't sit directly opposite the person who's already there. There's plenty of space on the outside, nobody wants to sit with their knees in their chest when they don't have to, and you can see out of the window perfectly well from over there. And you take this journey every day - there's not going to be anything new to see. And don't even think of climbing over people when you don't have to!

Note: this pattern is based solely on observations in the UK. Perhaps people in other countries sit down on their trains in a different manner. If you've spotted some different systems abroad, please do let me know.

Monday, 16 May 2011

I was right and you were wrong!

There's something very satisfying about being right in a prediction at Eurovision, and finally it's actually happened! I quote from my blog entry after the final dress rehearsal:
"And I suppose I have to choose a winner from these ten... Hm... Azerbaijan. There. I've said it."
I think that's the first time in a while I've predicted a winner, and certainly the first time I've had the courage of my convictions and put some money on it. So I now have £18! Hurrah! I'm also very pleased with my allegory of how Azerbaijan came across after Austria, and I stand by that now. It really came across as something real and as something already successful, as did all the Top 3 - a very important aspect to a Eurovision song these days.

Of course, it doesn't all go so right. Ever since New Year I've seen Romania as a bit of a dark horse. Engaging, poppy, not really my kind of thing, but he's charismatic and it reminded me a bit of Take That. Seeing the dress rehearsal with it in its draw position convinced me even further that it might have a chance, so I put £4 on it each way at 200/1. I was pretty convinced I might even be a bit rich after the final. As it turns out, not really. Hm.

So where else did I go right and wrong? Once Georgia got that draw in the final I was pretty sure it was ending up more or less as it did. By the final I was having similar feelings with Ukraine, though it still did better than I expected (and I still really don't get it - the whole thing just doesn't catch my interest at all). I thought Italy could do 'surprisingly well', but I can't claim that I thought they'd come second! But from how it came across in the draw and on the night, I fully understand it now. I'm glad Russia didn't really work, as I suspected, contrary to Denmark, which clearly did come across to the audience at home.

There's another aspect to 'being right' at Eurovision, and that's when you manage to ignore certain hysteria around the press centre and draw your own conclusions. One of those was around France. There was mega buzz, particularly in the last few days, though admittedly much of that was from the French media, but there were certainly those from the fan blogs and Eurovision sites who had already booked their hotels in Paris for next May. Some hurried cancellation going on now, I suspect!

Moreso than France, however, was the hysteria around Sweden. One dodgy first rehearsal, complete with technical tryouts and a tired Saade fresh from an early morning flight, followed by a surprisingly competent Cypriot one, and suddenly Sweden were going to fail to qualify and be totally overshadowed by Cyprus, there'd be complete meltdown in the Swedish tabloids and SVT would have to completely rethink the whole Melodifestivalen format. On the night of the semi-final... not so much. Cyprus scored a mere 16 points and Sweden? Well, they only won the semi. It was a case of the Sweden/Estonia 2006 syndrome which I wrote about on 4th May.

It was all the more satisfying having been present during the hype around Sweden's upcoming implosion, and seeing the inaccuracies, gossip and complete mistruths thrown around by people within the press centre solely in the name of adding weight to their point. From the talk around the reason for the delays to the press conference to the conspiracy theories on Twitter of how Sweden were getting a whole extra rehearsal (they got one technical run-through) and how they were cutting Ireland's time short for doing it (it wasn't even on the same day), it was both amusing and frustrating, especially knowing what the truth was, almost directly from the horse's mouth.

So, to put it mildly, I was pretty pleased to see Sweden coming third. I hadn't particularly liked it back when it won Melodifestivalen, and didn't predict good things for it at the time, but by the time we got to Düsseldorf I'd seen what a strong song it is, particularly given the rest of the line-up. They solved the problem of the backing vocals very cleanly, my main issue with it, and a strong pop song will always come through a slightly ropey vocal performance, as long as it isn't totally decimated. But most importantly, it emphasised the importance of recognising that a rehearsal is just that - a practice - and that a first Eurovision rehearsal is very often more a rehearsal for the production team and camera crew than it is for the acts themselves.

All in all, a successful Eurovision. I'm happy with the results and, as always, I got some predictions right and some very wrong! But that predicting is always part of the fun!

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Six Things I Learned This Weekend

1. It is really, really cold in Oslo in February.

2. Taking photos of performers on stage is really difficult.

3. I always assumed I didn't like gin. Turns out it's the tonic I don't like! (Probably the most important knowledge gained over the weekend.)

4. Wearing the same outfit for every broadcast, interview, rehearsal and live performance will make you start to smell after a while.

5. If you decide to have a small gathering in your hotel room prior to going out, prepare for lots of people you don't know to pay a visit.

6. Oslo airport is LONG.

I like learning stuff. I shall be retaining all this new knowledge for future weekends, and making use of it when applicable.
I also like the African influences.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Why do I let them do this to me?

This post involves a lot of self-pity and soul searching, so if you aren’t really up for that, look away now.

I have problems with people. I have problems with a lot of people in different ways, but this post is looking at one type in particular. When I go to gay clubs, there’s a certain type of person who really annoys me with their actions and their attitude, and I would go as far as to say that I actively hate them.

I’m not going to go into a lengthy description of the type of person I’m talking about, as it’s immaterial to the rest of the content of this entry, and it’s also very hard to nail it down exactly. Needless to say, if you’re my friend, then you don’t fit into this category, since I probably wouldn’t have made friends with you if you did. So don’t go thinking that I’m talking about you. Because I’m not.

The problem is that these people always deeply annoy me, and it completely flips my mood around. I can be having a great time with some great friends, but if there are other people like that around, I find it very hard to keep my mood up.

Why do they make me angry? I don’t know really. Maybe it’s something I don’t like about myself; maybe it’s rather that they represent something about being gay that I dislike and don’t want people seeing me as; or perhaps it’s envy, that they are able to act like they do.

Either way, somehow I let people like this destroy my fun nights out. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been enjoying myself with friends, only to get irritated, angry, and eventually actively feeling down and depressed and wanting out. It hurts me, because I lose good times, and it hurts my friends, because I’m no longer fun to be with. It’s got to the point where I’m actively trying to avoid nights where people like this are likely to be, and where the situation is therefore likely to occur.

The question is: why do I let them do this to me? They aren’t doing it deliberately, they’re surely not even aware of my presence. But I let them bring me down. So in effect, I am doing this to myself. The arguments are all there: I’m out with friends, having a good time – why would other people, whom I don’t even know, be allowed to overshadow great company and great music?

But it does happen. It messes with my head and I find it incredibly hard to see beyond it, to the good time I was having and the great people I’m with. It's not something I can control, and it feels like it's something that happens to me that brings a 'fog' down in front of everything. A fog I’m all too familiar with. I don’t want to call it ’depression’, because I feel that cheapens what other people are going through, since it’s short-term and shallow, quite frankly. But it feels like I’m in some dark, desolate hole, and that darkness just covers and smothers everything else.

It’s something I wish I could get past. I’ve changed a lot in my life since I was 17, and but there are still things like this. Is the problem my negativity? Do I need to stop ’hating’ people, holding grudges and seeing the worst in people? And... can I do that?