Top 10 Pop Culture Moments of 2011

1. Beyonce at Glastonbury

On 26 June history was made at Glastonbury, not least because it had its first female headliner in its 40 year history, but because that headliner was Beyonce, and she was phenomenal. The mighty Beowulf tore through a back catalogue that anyone else in the business would die for, and she did it all in killer heels. ‘Crazy In Love’ was a trusted opening number, ‘Irreplaceable’ was the surprising sing-a-long of the night and ‘Single Ladies’ was the festival’s anthem of the year – performed with the iconic dance routine perfectly in tact. She threw in a Destiny’s Child medley, for good measure, and covers of Alanis Morissette, Kings of Leon and Prince made sure the broad spectrum of music lovers in the 200,000 strong crowd were all impressed. Her set was perfectly crafted and well polished, as theatrical as a Madonna show, with all the raw energy of Tina Turner – to name but a few of her many influences. This career defining performance made one thing crystal clear: standing out in a league of her own, Beyonce is the only true superstar of our time.

2. Adele at the BRITS

Adele’s second album 21 was already top of the charts in 17 countries when she took to the stage at the BRIT Awards on 15 February. Then she sang ‘Someone Like You’ and the rest is history. With a simple acoustic performance of an incredible song, Adele captured the attention of the entire O2 Arena, and the hearts of millions watching on TV, who saw her raw delivery culminate with a tear at the end. Unwittingly, Adele propelled herself into a meteoric sphere of success. Much to the amazement of the music industry, she garnered as much publicity with a single performance as most artists can hope to achieve with a gruelling promotional schedule. Furthermore, this was the kind of ‘moment’ that the BRITS are made of. The key to Adele’s ensuing international success was summed up by James Corden, as he hosted the BRITS that night: “You can have all the dancers, pyrotechnics, laser shows you want, but if you sound like that, all you need is a piano.” Less than a year on, the video boasts 80 million hits on YouTube, 21 is the best-selling album of the new century, and ‘Someone Like You’ is firmly established as a classic pop standard.

3. The Royal Wedding

They thought a royal wedding might drag us out of economic depression, so on 29 April we partied like it was 1981, and watched Prince William marry his university sweetheart Kate Middleton. There was a triumph for British fashion in the form of Kate’s Grace Kelly-inspired dress, crafted specially by Sarah Bourton for Alexander McQueen. Indeed there was an equally famous fashion faux-pas in the form of Princess Beatrice, who thought she could pull off a Philip Treacy hat, and ended up just looking like a pretzel.  Pippa Middleton nearly stole the show – or at least her bum did – and many wondered if William hadn’t picked the wrong sister. Meanwhile, President Obama didn’t attend, because he’d planned for Osama Bin Laden’s assassination the following evening. Carlsberg don’t do weekends…

4. My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding

“A unique blend of ancient cultural traditions and modern celebrity extravaganza” – that’s how Channel 4 described the spectacle that is the gypsy wedding; the second favourite marriage ceremony of the year. Liverpudlian dress-maker Thelma Madine spoke candidly about how the traveller women may look like “tramps and whores” but they are in fact “the salt of the earth.” The one thing she didn’t speak about was how much money she makes from her consistent production of over-sized, fluorescent pink dresses; so heavy that they have been known to break bones, and often decorated with so many electricals that they must be followed around with a fire extinguisher. The documentary series did provide an eye-opener for the nation on the traveller community, but perhaps not quite the same one the stars of the show may have hoped for – they have Channel 4’s dry, ironic voiceovers to thank for that.

5. Bridesmaids

It was the big movie surprise of the year: that the summer blockbuster was not a 3D action packed sequel with major Hollywood names, but rather a modest comedy, with a cast composed entirely of unknowns. The movie was produced by Judd Apatow, responsible for The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and it was written by Saturday Night Live member Kristen Wiig – who also stars as Annie. Bridesmaids narrates the all too familiar ritual of women preparing a wedding, with all its mayhem, madness, and cut-throat jealousy. Throw in an unusual love story between protagonist Annie, and her local policeman (Irish comedian Chris O’Dowd), and you’ve got yourself a winner. An unlikely star was made in Melissa McCarthy (the slightly more sizeable sister-in-law), whose character and one-liners made her the star turn of the movie. There was even a small cameo from one of our own, Matt Lucas. Considering Bridesmaids took almost $300 million at box offices, I’d imagine we can expect a similar comedy, if not a sequel, from the same production team at some point in the future.

6. The Harry Potter Finale

After 10 years, and $7.7 billion dollars made in worldwide receipts, the Harry Potter film series finally came to an end this summer. The all star cast of the final installment was a reminder of J.K. Rowling’s original wish that the line-up remained primarily British. The films have helped secure Harry Potter as something as ingrained in British pop culture as Shakespeare or The Beatles. It remains to be seen whether or not Warner Brothers’ substantial campaign for Oscar recognition for this final film will succeed. Whether or not it deserves such an accolade remains debatable. If anything, an honorary prize for the overall effort would appear much more agreeable than something like Best Supporting Actress for Emma Watson. The horror…

7. Lady Gaga – Born This Way

You’d be forgiven for thinking Lady Gaga’s hit ‘Born This Way’ had been around for longer than 10 months; not just because of its striking resemblance to Madonna’s ‘Express Yourself’, but because it has been played more times than ‘tag’ in a primary school playground. The Born This Way campaign got off to a rocky start. People were unimpressed with Gaga’s declaration that it was “the album of a generation”, and many of her faithful followers felt her title track was too much of a contrived gay anthem. But, the campaign still managed to go from strength to strength. Some standard Gaga stunts (arriving at the Grammys inside an egg, attending the MTV VMAs as her male alter ego Jo Calderone) were fine accompaniments to a string of hit singles, including ‘Judas’, ‘You and I’ and the wonderful ‘Edge of Glory’. As we enter 2012, the album has sold over 8 million copies, and rumour has it a 450 date epic world tour is right around the corner.

8. The King’s Speech

Speech therapists everywhere rejoice! Your art is suddenly interesting. For many, Downton Abbey was the major success of the 2011 period drama revival, but it was The King’s Speech that kicked it all off. Winning four of the major Academy Awards, it was the biggest Oscar success for the British film industry since Slumdog Millionaire, and it gave Colin Firth the major leading role he’s been waiting on for nearly two decades. Even the Queen was said to be moved by the portrayal of her father on screen. The Queen Mother was given a fierce character portrayal by Helena Bonham-Carter, who demonstrated her famously bold personality and her distaste for Wallis Simpson. And for anyone interested in the Wallis and Edward sub-plot, get ready for Madonna’s exploration of it in her directorial debut W.E, coming out early in 2012.

9. Take That – Progress Live

Following Robbie Williams’ return to Take That, and the band’s hugely successful Progress album, anticipation was high for their reunion shows. Breaking records only previously held by Michael Jackson, Progress earned $180 million with 29 shows, and secured Take That’s status as a stadium act. The boys continued with their famously well choreographed performances, and a stage design by Es Devlin became the most recognisable image of the shows (see above), securing her a spot for designing the Olympic Closing Ceremony and the forthcoming Lady Gaga world tour. It’s true that a few people raised eyebrows at the segregated Robbie segment, which perhaps dwelt too much on his own solo success; but it did mean the other four got to bask in their glory too before the show culminated in all the classic numbers. Isn’t it great when everyone is friends again? Next up, The Smiths…

10. The demise of X Factor

2011 saw the take over of the apparently ‘New Generation’ of X Factor, in the form of Gary Barlow, Kelly Rowland, Tulisa, and still – Louis Walsh. By and large, most of us were not impressed, and the show was watched out of habit, as opposed to any genuine interest in the acts. Gary Barlow used the gig to continue his campaign for national treasure status, and in the process won the hearts and minds (and knickers) of every woman in the country – and quite a few men too. Other highlights included Kelly Rowland’s many ghetto catchphrases (“you put it down!”), her pathetic ‘sick call’, and Kitty Brucknell getting a hug from Lady Gaga. The Voice is coming to BBC1 next year – so let’s never speak of this again.

Noises Off

Incorporating all the classic elements of farce, Noises Off ranks as one of the best British comedies ever written. The new production by LIndsay Posner at the Old Vic is as good a performance of the Michael Frayn script as you can hope to see. Celia Imrie and Amy Nuttall provide a touch of star quality but it’s every man for himself in this raucous romp through the perils of a fast-paced farce, which we get to see rather unusually, from the other side of the stage. All of the behind the scenes action is only made more manic by the off-stage relationships between the actors which gradually break down as the play progresses across the three acts. Expect plenty of slamming doors, mistaken identities, and the unexplained presence of sardines, but all in all it’s one of the best laughs you could hope to have over this winter theatre season.

Noises Off is on at The Old Vic in London until 10 March 2012.

MGM Musical Celebration at the BFI

It is possibly the best Christmas present I could have hoped for – to see a classic MGM musical on the big screen. That’s why I was very glad to find that the BFI in London are hosting a celebration of these movies throughout December. The post-war musicals MGM produced were some of America’s greatest exports – up there with Mickey Mouse and Coca Cola. Seeing them in a cinema is a special treat one can rarely enjoy nowadays, and offers only a glimpse of the excitement and joy that a contemporary screening might have given audiences.

With tickets going like hotcakes, I just managed to get a pair for Singin’ in The Rain – possibly my all-time favourite film. There was a special feeling in the packed full cinema; a particular type of anticipation that comes from watching a film one has already seen countless times, but now experiences for the first time in public, with other such die-hard fans. As the overture struck up, silence fell, and all eyes became transfixed on the screen, like musical addicts allowing themselves to indulge in the purest of drugs. Everyone was keen to exaggerate their giggles, even at the simplest of jokes, to demonstrate their enjoyment, and to make sure their well-worn appreciation was on for all to see.  From ‘Make Em Laugh’ to ‘Good Mornin’ to ‘Singin’ In The Rain’ itself, the songs played out the wonder of the legendary screen actors, classic choreography and beautiful costumes and sets, which look much greater on the cinema screen than they ever could  on a home TV. And like a testament to their endurance, every song was followed by a round of whole-hearted applause – as though it had just been debuted and enjoyed for the very first time. As we stood up to leave I heard one woman say something I’m sure she wasn’t alone in thinking: “I love it every time – no matter how many times I’ve seen it.”

For most people, there is a desperate nostalgia in watching these MGM musicals – like harking back to a time and place that never really existed; an idyllic world that was glamorous and dreamy even when it was new. The visual delights and the simple happiness these films depict are always delightful to audiences; but in a world that is falling increasingly into economic disaster, these wonderful films could be just what we need to perk us up this Christmas – whether you can enjoy them at the BFI, or on TV over the holidays, where I’m sure they’ll all be screened as ever.

Whilst the BFI season is well under way, there are still tickets on sale for screenings over the festive period, of musicals including Annie Get Your Gun, High Society, Kiss Me Kate, On The Town, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and Meet Me In St Louis, which is enjoying a rerelease all over the UK for Christmas. Bookings can be made on the BFI website:

http://www.bfi.org.uk/whatson/bfi_southbank/film_programme/december_seasons/gotta_sing_gotta_dance_the_mgm_musical

The 2012 Grammy Nominations: Thoughts and Predictions

This year the amount of categories at the Grammy Awards has been drastically cut from over 100 to 78, in an effort to restructure the awards. The general consensus is, 78 is still plenty. This year is a great year for Kanye West, who is riding a top of the pile with 7 nominations, and he’s closely followed by Adele, Foo Fighters and Bruno Mars. As per usual with the Grammys, there are some odd choices.

Beyonce, who has 13 Grammys to her name from her solo career alone, has only 2 nominations – one for a collaboration with Andre 3000 and one for a tour DVD; this means her album 4 and its singles ‘Best Thing I Never Had’, ‘Run The World’ and ‘I Was Here’ have all been ignored. It’s worth noting that her first 3 albums all won ‘Best Contemporary R&B Album’, and despite that category being renamed, she hasn’t even been nominated this time. 4 was perhaps Beyonce’s weakest release to date, but surely it deserves a tad more recognition than it has? 

Of the successful pop albums this year, Katy Perry and Bruno Mars fare well (especially considering this is the second year of promotion for Teenage Dreams); but Rihanna is considered only for the highly competitive and prestigious ‘Album of the Year’, with the host of successful singles she released from Loud going unrecognised in the other categories.And then there’s Lady Gaga. It’s only been 6 months since she released Born This Way, calling it ‘the album of a generation’, and her campaign has been tireless, but she’s only received 3 nominations, and they’re in categories so tough, she hasn’t got a strong hold on any of them. Adele, whose promotion this year was mostly done through her performance at the BRIT Awards, is likely to outshine her in all of her nominated categories. However, it could be partly Gaga’s own fault. She’s had strong singles – ‘Born This Way’, ‘Judas’, ‘The Edge Of Glory’, ‘You and I’, ‘Marry The Night’ – but a leaked internet document claimed her record company had only presented ‘Judas’ and ‘You and I’ for consideration in the individual song categories – perhaps to spread the wealth around her less successful tracks. As a result, she has suffered – the only song nominated is ‘You and I’ in the Best Pop Performance category, and she’s unlikely to win that over strong vocal performances by Adele, Bruno Mars, Pink and Katy Perry. Perhaps you should have submitted ‘The Edge Of Glory’ after all Gaga…

Record of the Year

I predict an Adele sweep win this year, and this one will probably go to her whether she wins big or not – ‘Rolling In The Deep’ has had phenomenal success, which far surpasses any of the other tracks. She could have won this category with ‘Someone Like You’ also.

Album of the Year

This is arguably the most coveted prize in music. It’s been given to some classic albums in the past (Thriller, Graceland, Ray Of Light), but it has also been awarded to some strange works (the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, or Herbie Hancock’s cover album of Joni Mitchell songs). It nearly always goes for musical merit as opposed to commercial success – and I’d hazard a guess that because of it’s style, this award would have been Adele’s whether this album had blown up sales-wise or not. I would predict that in the eyes of the judges Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars and Rihanna are all on a par with one another, with Foo Fighters as an alternative choice, with Adele standing out on her own.


Song of the Year

Whereas ‘Record Of The Year’ is a commercial prize, this one is for the songwriter. All of them have multiple writers, including a Cee-Lo Green credit on ‘Grenade’ – which could be Bruno Mars’ big win, but ultimately I think Adele and Paul Epworth will be sharing this one for ‘Rolling in the Deep’.


Best New Artist

It’s been her year, and she’s one of the freshest acts to hit hip hop and r’n’b for a long time, so this one is almost certain to go to Miss Nicki Minaj.

Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album

I would almost certainly say that as the follow up to his highly successful first Duets album, and with a little bit of glamour by way of Lady Gaga and Amy Winehouse, good old Tony Bennett has this one in the bag.

Best Pop Solo Performance

This category is a merger of two awards celebrating male and female pop vocal performances. As a result, it’s possibly one of the strongest categories in the list. 5 of the biggest stars of the year, 5 of the biggest hits of the year, and 5 killer vocal performances. I would imagine that if Adele doesn’t win this (which she probably will), it will go to Bruno Mars or Katy Perry, as both these songs are nominated elsewhere also, and are clearly strong contenders.


Best Pop Duo/Group Performance

Coldplay have a strong tradition with this award, and its Rock equivalent; ‘Paradise’ is full of all the choral swoops that made their previous singles prize winners. However, the success of Tony Bennett’s Duets album, and the obvious sentiment attached to this track – Amy Winehouse’s last recording – means this could very well be given as a posthumous honour for her.

Best Pop Vocal Album

I would imagine this is a toss up between Adele and Lady Gaga. Indeed, it’s probably the only one Gaga has a good chance of winning – Adele sits on the fringes of the term pop, bordering on soul, alternative, singer-songwriter and acoustic territory. Pop is Gaga territory. And her vocals aren’t bad either…

Best Rock Performance

Because of their wealth of nominations across the board, it’s likely that Foo Fighters and Mumford & Sons will dominate the rock categories. Despite Coldplay’s modest appearance in the nomination list it is worth noting that their new album ‘Mylo Xyloto’, which has been enjoyed huge critical praise, was released just after the eligibility period – so look out for its arrival at fruition next year.

Best R&B Album

Suffering from a severe lack of Beyonce…or from any hit albums in general. The Best R&B Album category is usually thriving, and shared a lot of cross over with Album of the Year over the past decade. Is this a sign of the current state of R&B, or just a bad year? The winner is anyone’s guess – I doubt this presentation will even make the telecast this year.

Best Rap Album

Both Watch The Throne and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy have been loaded with critical praise this year, and included as favourites by Rolling Stone and TIME, but it’s difficult to tell which will come up trumps. One thing for sure, Kanye should go home happy. And if he doesn’t, you’ll certainly hear about it…

Best Country Album

The country categories sometimes appear unusual to international audiences, but never forget how important this music is to the vast majority of Americans. With 5 million records sold, and no less than 4 Grammys for her last album, this one looks set to go to Taylor Swift.

Best Musical Theater Album

Despite the success of the two revivals, this is likely to go to ‘The Book of Mormon’, a brand new musical written by the creators of South Park, which has still to tour the U.S. and make its West End debut.

***

The 54th Grammy Awards take place on 12th February 2012 at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles.

Hillary Clinton’s Speech on LGBT Rights

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a landmark speech on LGBT rights to the United Nations in Geneva on Tuesday 6th December. Mrs Clinton’s message was addressed to countries around the world whose social, cultural and religious traditions have long denied the LGBT community their basic human rights. She drove home that their rights were just as equal as everyone else’s, and that any denial of this was as outdated as the denial of rights to racial minorities or women.

Secretary Clinton echoed her historic 1995 speech on women’s rights, when she was the keynote speaker at the United Nations Women’s Conference – even paraphrasing her famous quote “women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.” That Mrs Clinton chose to make LGBT rights the focus of her speech is representative of its importance to the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

Whilst it takes a lot more than a keynote speech to alter the views of the global community at large, Hillary Clinton has a voice with more volume and authority than most, and the importance of her message will be felt far below as she leads from above. And aside from her personal involvement with the cause, she is in a position to tell the LGBT communities suppressed around the world that, “you have an ally in the United States.” Always an advocate for women and for the gay community, Clinton continues to stand up for those who are persecuted around the world for being who they are. For that, I applaud her.

The full transcript of the speech can be read here: http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2011/12/178368.htm

Marry The Night

“I’m gonna be a star. You know why? Because I have nothing left to lose.”

Lady Gaga’s new 14 minute epic music video for ‘Marry The Night’ has been unleashed upon us, and it’s the autobiographical tale most people would quite like to hear about: the creation of Gaga. But don’t expect it to be told straight. In her opening voice-over, Gaga tells us that she loathes reality, and staying true to her artistic manifesto, she insists upon a ‘surreal’ telling of her past. That being said, it’s refreshing to finally see such autobiographical material in one of her videos – however veiled it is. Madonna before her also experienced rejection and lived on cereal (cheerios are apparently Gaga’s cheap fuel of choice), but never wanted, or needed to put it into her art – always aspiring, moving forward and never looking back. Gaga on the other hand needs to make this story into art – she needs to exorcise her past.

The video begins as we are allowed to watch Gaga being hospitalised, but she doesn’t quite explain what it was for (or indeed what it represents). You could read into her apparently meaningless dialogue, but it’s not guaranteed that this will hold the answer either. She mocks the fact that she and the nurses are wearing next season Calvin Klein: none of this is real. She appears to have been treated surgically, but she is almost certainly in a psychiatric hospital. As Beethoven’s Symphony Pathetique strikes up, she imagines herself performing ballet in a dark, empty theatre, and it all becomes very Black Swan. Her deranged fellow patients slowly mould into triumphant ballerinas, looking down on her misfortune. She is however, still impeccably dressed in Alexander McQueen.

When the song actually begins around the 9 minute mark, we see her emerging from the wreckage of a car; or, if you will, the wreckage of her former life. Immediately, there are cultural references jumping out from all the familiar places. Her street dancing is reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Thriller’, and a dance class in a gym recreates exact moments from Madonna’s ‘Hung Up’. Indeed when Gaga boasts that she reinvented her clothes using her ‘bedazzler’, she looks every bit the young Ms Ciccone. Still, ‘Marry The Night’ is quite possibly the Gaga video with the least dependence on these kind of references, which almost entirely comprised ‘Paparazzi’ and ‘Telephone’ – her previous forays into long form video. Interestingly, using a story of her own appears to have given her more than enough food for thought.

The final sequence shows her dancing in her old ‘The Fame’ attire, as interjecting scenes show her lugging around her keyboards and creating her distinctive image that seems classic now, only 4 years later. The note we read from her hand at the video’s end says ‘Interscope Records, Hollywood, CA, 4pm’ – the date that would secure her future as an artist. It claims to provide the answer to the puzzle of the video, almost like the famous ‘Rosebud’ at the end of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Perhaps such self-mythologising is premature (it’s certainly indulgent), but like Welles, Gaga is her own greatest inspiration, and self-belief is her greatest weapon. That’s the one thing in this video you can be sure of.

You can watch ‘Marry The Night’ in its entirety on Lady Gaga’s YouTube channel here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=cggNqDAtJYU#!

On the Sanctity of the Album Cover

Once upon a time, album covers had the right to earn the title ‘artwork’. Records by acts like The Beatles, PInk Floyd and Michael Jackson attained iconic status not only for their musical content, but for the instantly recognisable image that adorned the front cover. The image that would be viewed every time a record was pulled out of its sleeve; the image that would adorn posters on bedroom walls; in many cases the image that would go on to be replicated, parodied, and become a staple icon for countless items of memorabilia for decades to come. Sadly, it appears that this custom has become a thing of the past. Allow me to explain.

Cast your eyes over the top 40 albums in your local music store today – as I did this morning in HMV. Not only are there a distinct lack of recognisable covers on the albums, but much to my horror, quite a few have multiple covers. The new Rihanna album sits as a two-piece; original and deluxe edition, with two covers that have such drastically different moods they were obviously taken from different shoots. The difference between the two albums? About 3 songs. In fact, considering you can also have non-explicit versions of both, effectively there are 4 versions. All were released on the same day, last week. This is an album which has thus far had just one single. This is either obscenely pretentious, or a ridiculous marketing ploy (a pointless one, I might add, if anyone at Def Jam thinks teenage girls are going to try and collect them). Either way, the album is lost on the shelves; it seems unsure of itself, let alone what anyone else will make of it.

But the ridiculousness does not stop there. A crime much worse has been committed, and I am sad to say it has been committed by not one, not two, but three of today’s pop acts. JLS, One Direction and The Saturdays have released multiple covers for their albums, with one for each of their respective members. So you can have Jukebox with Aston on the front. Or Up All Night with Harry on the front. And joy – On The Radar with Molly on the front. Ever wondered what a pop music travesty looks like? Behold – like a grotesque musical pic n mix, here it is folks.

I have nothing against re-releases, or repackaging if an album deserves such glorification. For example, even before her untimely death this year, a deluxe version of Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black was released with an additional disc boasting session outtakes and various cover versions which she performed during the album’s promotion – ‘Valerie’, most notably. Considering this is the best selling album of the 2000s, this was an entirely justified release, with material which could be of genuine interest to people who already have the album, and to those who are buying it for the first time. Everyone’s a winner. As for the cover; did she fuck with the artwork and have new photos taken? She did not. The cover is pure black with nothing but the album title in the white font that was used on the original edition; instantly recognisable as some form of special edition of her album, and yet the original cover remains intact and unrivalled in people’s minds. Well done.

I suppose it’s the ‘take your pick’ element of this that riles me most. An artist is revealed as weak when they give their audience options. Their incapacity to create a unified piece of work for all and say ‘take it or leave it’, seriously diminishes their credibility. In fact, one might say many of the acts who are indulging in this commercialism (some of whom are likely having no say in any of this whatsoever) are not artists at all. They are as much instruments of marketing as are the posters, t-shirts and dolls that bear their faces and names.

But let me not neglect my overall point. Album covers should be treated with the highest integrity. A cover should encapsulate the entire mood of the record as much as the title itself. Artists should aspire to create covers worthy of the iconic stature that have made them a form of art in themselves. In the face of dwindling album sales and the era of iTunes, I beg you, keep the tradition of the great album cover sacred. That is all.