Monday 22 February 2010

Candy and lullabies: new column for Morning Star

I have an itch in my brain. It's called 'Fireflies', it's a twinkly, inoffensive little song by a band called Owl City, and it's been squatting in the radio charts earworming any poor sod who happened to hear it for some weeks now. The song is about falling asleep and dreaming about a variety of friendly invertebrates and, bar a few lyrical contortions, that's about it. Oh, and it's brilliant.

Listening to 'Fireflies' is like wandering through a magical petting zoo made of ambient sound. It's like your higher functions have been handed a glass of warm milk and tucked under a fuzzy blanket. It goes 'plinkety'. People downloaded it in their millions; it soared to the top of the charts in a happy haze of shiny beetleish bleeping, and stayed there for five weeks, and the only thing that managed to topple it from the number one slot was a bunch of dreary, anodine pop stars covering a dreary, anodine REM song in an effort to raise money for a high-profile humanitarian disaster that everyone had seen on the telly. Modern music is a big bag of candies: sweet, addictive and cloying, failing to nourish even as it congeals into a homogenised mass of sugar.

This season's fashion is another huge sleepy faceful of candyfloss. Sugary pastel colours, drapey sportswear, flowing, 'feminine' shapes, curves and softness everywhere, except on the models themselves - if Paris, New York and London fashion week are anything to go by, the brief trend for 'plus size' (size 10) models hasn't lasted the winter. Ruffles, flounces, florals and 'fairytale' styling were all over the catwalks, trends which will soon be filtering down to the high-street; the look is sugar-sweet and high femme, with advertising spreads already begging us to buy branded blush and lipsticks in a variety of candy colours. The escapism was overpowering. Unfortunately, the tragic suicide of designer Alexander McQueen right in the middle of Fashion Week, at the height of his career, belied the sickly fairytale logic of the shows: real life, even for the young and stunningly creative, has few happy endings.

Last weekend I went to see The Indelicates, one of the last real angry, clever, poetic bands, launch their new material. The upcoming album, 'Songs for Swinging Lovers,' is a white-hot work of nihilistic lyrical brilliance with its dark, dank roots in 90s grunge and Weimar cabaret. Be Afraid of Your Parents is a glorious parade of paranoid cadences, whilst Flesh is a jangling, brutal critique of contemporary pseudo-feminism: Hey doc, can you take my skin and melt it into plastic? Beauty isn’t truth, it’s just youth, and it’s adaptive, and it’s elastic. There is no place for this type of songwriting in modern culture, because there is no place for grim, searing originality in modern culture. Anyone who tries to give the lie to bland sex and plastic romance is probably doomed to commercial failure.

Cotton-candy pop culture isn’t nourishing, but it is addictive. In the depths of winter, in the depths of a recession that shows no sign of abating for those of us who are precariously employed or unemployed, with nothing to look forward to but climate change, Strictly Come Dancing and death, there's a part of me that doesn't want to be challenged.

There’s a part of me that doesn't want fire and rebellion and words and images that terrify and energise, that doesn’t want culture to be an acid-etched reflection of a nightmare future. I want the fairytale. I want sweeties, fluffy pastel frocks and pretty, vapid songs to lull me to a sleep full of fireflies and starshine. And that frightens me more than I care to admit. When the world is grey and uncaring, it’s far too easy to find oneself complicit in the chilling, soporific impulse that's slowly strangling contemporary creativity.

[written for Morning Star, 21.02.10]


  1. Your articles have been overbearingly introspective lately. Where's the angry-at-the-world Penny that we used to love gone?

  2. But why do you feel that your choice of clothing or the music you listen to has to be "challenging" and "political"? Isn't it enough for you to wear what you want and listen to what you want whilst you engage in politics?

    PS I like REM.

  3. Fireflies is actually a beautiful ballad about an act of homosexual love, mutual masturbation to be precise. I can't believe you didn't know that, Penny.

  4. I've had Fireflies stuck in my head for the past week too! :oP

  5. This comparison has been made before, at least by Wikipedia, but Owl City seem to me seem like rather a pointless version of The Postal Service. If you don't know them yet Laurie I would recommend them because they have the same relaxing qualities as Owl City but with lyrics that actually mean something. On the front of songs with lyrics that mean something I would recommend the Scottish folk artist Karine Polwart whose songs are beautiful, passionate, feminist and utterly wonderful. IMHO any artist who can write a catchy and affecting song about the international sex trade deserves any prize going. Donds for the Indelicates btw they seem to be exactly what my music collection needs more angry, political satire. The question of political music I come from the perspective of an Alice Cooper fan so I think that you should listen to music with a political purpose, Bragg, Polwart, the Indelicates, but not boycott music produced by people whose politics you disagree with - Cooper was one of the few artists to vote Dubya in 2004.

  6. I'm sorry to say this but this blog isn't anywhere near as interesting and as much fun as it used to be. Why? What's going on? Where have all the lively and salty comments gone?

    In passing I take the liberty of mentioning that - unlike so many other people in the UK - I haven't got Fireflies stuck in my head but have got Marina and the Diamonds' Hollywood well and truly wedged between the back of my head and the forehead behind my beetling brows! I wouldn't advise anybody to listen to this more than once or you may end up junked on this young Welsh lady's music as much as me:

    Marina and the Diamonds - Hollywood

    Don't say you haven't been warned.

  7. Do you want to know more resume words? On you can read some info about it

  8. This is great for kids! Including free coloring pages at hier


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