Posts Tagged ‘politics’

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end game.

April 18, 2010

It sounds silly to say, considering the last 8 months that I’ve had, but sometimes I still feel a waste of space.  I get down sometimes and I feel so indecisive, so useless… I don’t know what I want.  I have made huge changes and huge improvements in my life, and I am so grateful to that and I appreciate things like I never used to, so I don’t feel I’m being ungrateful or taking anything for granted.  It’s just that despite everything seemingly going my way for once, despite the career change I’m making and the reasons I have for doing it, I still wonder… what is it all for?

I always hated the question “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” I’ve never had any idea, apart from when I was a child and I used to fantasise about running away and catching a plane to America at age 13, so I could be a superfamous pop singer by the magical age of 17.  Needless to say, that didn’t quite pan out (although I am very proud of my latest album Quiet Storm) and since then, I’ve felt at a loss, and somewhat a failure, for not having achieved that ridiculous and yet wildly romantic childhood dream.  In much the same way as I’ve been academically brilliant, I have always been able to sing, dance, write songs and play instruments because I just always assumed that I was capable of those things.  I never doubted myself, and through sheer force of will and plain naïve arrogance I turned out to be really good at all of that.  The only time I’ve ever failed any kind of test was my driving test, and 5 years on I’m making moves to finally erase that failure.  Generally, I’ve believed in myself and it’s pushed me to the top.  So why am I not famous, successful, rich and happy?

I look to my twin Ciara. She was born on the exact same day as me, and in her life she’s accomplished exactly what I wanted to but never did. Where did I go wrong? Did I ever have a chance, or was it just luck?  If I had my life over again, what could I do differently to end up where she is? Does that mean my achievements are nothing? I’m not going to brag about anything I’ve done in my life (the last paragraph sounded plenty up myself for this entry) but I know that I’ve achieved things which are pretty decent, some would say admirable.  But it means far less to me than perhaps it should, because it’s never really gotten me anywhere that’s mattered to me.

But then, looking at what the music industry is, especially now, I think perhaps I was naïve in believing that I could give up everything and just be famous.  Having the talent is one thing, but I don’t know if I have the stamina to stick out the years of churning out radio-friendly fodder to get to a stage where I can call some of the shots and have any sort of creative control. Especially now, where I’ve got to the stage of clearly becoming an “adult” (i.e. old) because I find 90% of what is played on the radio recycled garbage.  As I’ve grown my musical identity, I have gained more fixed ideas of what I want musically and who I am, and I certainly don’t fit into any of the current moulds.  I would not last five minutes on X-Factor and similar programmes, because even if I have the talent to make it, I don’t have the obedient personality which can be crammed into a shiny black suit and forced to sing mundane cover versions with choirs and key changes.  Frankly, I’d rather die.

But then, we all end up dying anyway, right? So I have let’s say, 65 years, to make something of my life.  Ideally, I want to have a life where I’m remembered for all time, but that doesn’t seem to be too likely does it? Either I go on a killing spree (which is a little bit messy for my liking), or I become a leading politician (I’d rather go on the killing spree), or I do something incredible on a grand scale.  This incredible thing was going to be the super-influential singing career idea, but I guess I’d rather sing for my friends and those online who appreciate my music (THANKYOU ALL btw!) and get to write, produce and sing the music I want, which means sacrificing the fame. Oh well.

My logic for going into Careers Guidance was to do an incredible thing on a smaller scale.  If I can’t have / don’t want the burdens and trappings of fame, I could still touch people’s lives as an individual, because doing Good Things gives meaning to my life and my actions, and it’s the meaning that I truly seek.  Just as my friends and I influence each other (again, thankyou all of you! YOu know who you are), I would like to be a good influence in people’s lives when they need it most, to enable them to progress and achieve what they want.  If it’s a less grandiose dream, it still has its heart in the right place, I feel.  And perhaps one of the people that I advise, that I support, that I help, will become the superstar I always dreamed of being.  That would make me feel incredibly proud, and perhaps that would be enough. I just hope that I do get a job as a guidance worker somewhere, because I finish this course in 2 months (it’s flown by, hasn’t it!) and I need the money, I need the experience and I also need to get my own place and not waste any more time!  Otherwise I will end up dying, and not having made anything of my life on whatever scale.  And that would be a disappointment and a waste of myself.  I need to make my life a life worth living.

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Alicia Keys – The Element Of Freedom (album review).

December 6, 2009

Alicia Keys’ new album The Element Of Freedom comes after her biggest success so far, As I Am, in a career which hasn’t had any troughs or lows to date.  Every album she’s released, from Songs In A Minor to the present has explored depth and soul, has combined traditional elements of R&B with current, up to date production and lyrical exploration of love, loss and self-esteem in a genuinely mature fashion that is beyond Keys’ years.  She’s consistently walked the fine line between critical and commercial success, effectively having her cake and eating it since 2002.  Alicia Keys plays the piano like a professional, but is not an entertainer who hides behind her instrument – she takes risks, sings and dances on stage, and has always commanded respect with an element of political and social awareness to boot.  So what does her new album bring to the table?

Like Rihanna’s Rated R, The Element Of Freedom is impossible to divorce from the singer’s personal life context. Keys has suffered some backlash for her love affair with separated-but-not-divorced super-producer Swizz Beatz.  Fans have turned away from Keys’ maturity and moral standpoints expressed in her material to date, saying that she was phony, that she was no better than the singers who dressed and acted like hos, and the lackluster success (i.e. it didn’t shoot straight to #1 as people presumed it would) of first single “Doesn’t Mean Anything” is perhaps because of this.  Despite a simple yet effective video which sticks to the album concept of being free of material things and going beyond all boundaries, the song was solid but seemed like a softer retread of her previous hit “No One”.  Nevertheless, especially since I’m certainly not in a position to judge Keys’ being in love with a man who is attached, the music is far from bad, and second single “Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart” as well as her collaborations with Jay-Z, “Empire State Of Mind (Parts 1 & 2)” seem to be coming closer to replicating her usual success.

Here’s to hoping that The Element Of Freedom continues Keys’ string of successes.  Alicia said of the album that “”The way that the songs progress are gonna take you on a natural high. I just want you to feel a sense of freedom, I want you to feel out-of-the-box, feel inspired, You’re definitely going to be taken on a trip, I know you’re going to be shocked, you’re going to hear things that you probably didn’t think that I would sound like. It’s a journey.”  Some of this I agree with, some of it I don’t hear myself.  “Doesn’t Mean Anything” and “Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart” both build to exhilarating climaxes, not because the music is especially bombastic (it’s anything but, though “Broken Heart” has a compelling drum loop that comes closer to bringing Kanye West’s 808 fascination into the 21st century than he himself seems to be able to manage).  Standout tracks “That’s How Strong My Love Is”, “Love Is My Disease”, “Distance And Time” and closer “Empire State Of Mind (Part II)” all employ soaring melodies that propel the listener to think and to ride their own emotions; Keys’ production and piano backing compliment each song without ever taking centre stage (as happened on occasion in her first two albums).  Its undeniable that Alicia Keys knows how to write a song, knows how to sing a song and knows how to express a song even with a voice that sometimes is limited – she wrings the emotion out of every syllable be it with a whisper (“Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart”) or a throaty, heartfelt plea (“Love Is My Disease”).

So the album is solid – but is it really that different?  As I Am saw Keys taking risks and incorporating traditional pop and even rock elements into her smoky R&B soul with stellar results (as well as a couple of lackluster songs), and that sound continues here, but in places incorporating 80s drums and synths – this sound is definitely in vogue (I still struggle to understand why), but at least Alicia Keys sounds less like she is pandering to fashion than most artists – again, this is tribute to her genuine musicianship.  I find it hard to say that I am “shocked” by anything on this album – ok, for the first time her intro is a spoken-word explanation of the album title and concept rather than a pianist showcase.  Her collaboration with Beyoncé, “Put It In A Love Song”, is fun and the closest Keys has ever come to club-ready, and Beyoncé’s voice and swagger doesn’t dominate the song as I might have feared – the two artists compliment each other perfectly and adeptly ride the compelling bassline. But here is where the surprises end – opening track “Love Is Blind” performs the same function as previous opening tracks “Go Ahead”, “Karma” and “Girlfriend”, in that they are uptempo, loop-driven productions that display the singer’s confidence before she delves into her vulnerability later in the album.  “Unthinkable (I’m Ready)” sounds almost too similar to The Diary Of Alicia Keys‘ “Slow Down”, and while “This Bed” provides an interesting diversion on Freedom, its The-Dream-esque synths and piano are really echoing Prince (which is 80% of what The-Dream does anyway) – and Alicia Keys already covered Prince at the start of her career (“How Come U Don’t Call Me”).  The album ends on a legitimate high with “How It Feels To Fly” and “Empire State Of Mind” exploring her ideals of freedom, exhilaration and expressing her love for New York – but she’s even played those cards before, at the end of As I Am (“Sure Looks Good To Me”) and The Diary (“Streets Of New York”).

As stated earlier, the most interesting aspect of the album, lyrically speaking, is matching the songs to Alicia Keys’ newly revealed love for Swizz Beatz, never mind his marriage.  Her feelings about it resonate through the titles – “Love Is Blind”, “That’s How Strong My Love Is”, “Love Is My Disease” and particularly “Unthinkable”.  Lyrics such as “Some people might call me crazy for falling in love with you” (“That’s How Strong My Love Is”) and “I’m wondering maybe could I make you my baby / If we do the unthinkable, would it make us go crazy? / If you ask me, I’m ready” (“Unthinkable”) speak for themselves.  Obviously, as members of the public there’s only so much we know about the situation, and only a certain percentage of that is remotely true – but the artists put their souls on a record and we can’t help but speculate, at the same time as we feel the songs and apply them to our own lives and emotions.

So The Element Of Freedom is, generally, more of the same from Alicia Keys.  It’s not nearly as risky as Keys herself might proclaim, and it’s not the best album of 2009, but it does provide some moments of genuine exhilaration, and there are plenty of strong tracks to make the weaker ones (“Like The Sea”, “Wait Til You See My Smile”) nothing to gripe about.  What’s more, Keys has found some freedom in being brave enough to write about her love and experiences in a new way – and if there’s anything I’ve learned in the past three months, it’s that love is stronger than anything and I can feel most of what she’s singing about.  Her piano playing compliments the songs without ever becoming a gimmick.  And anyway, after all, if Alicia Keys is providing more of the same, she’s still doing a damn sight better than your average R&B chick.  The lyrics are still simple but deep, the music is still soulful yet current, the songs are still well-written and hooky.  I believe Keys has a better album in her yet (The Diary Of Alicia Keys is still my personal favourite), but I thoroughly commend her for not dipping in quality throughout the past 7 years.

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imbecilic.

August 16, 2009

Another thing from the wedding yesterday that I wanted to touch upon was the fact that depending on whom you are surrounded by, your every action can be made into a big mistake or faux pas.  For example, we were lining up for wedding photos, and I somehow ended up at the front (which was not where I wanted to be, nor where I thought was appropriate for me to be).  Other people weren’t really getting the hint that we were assembling for this mass photo, so for a while I was stood at the front by myself, because I am one of the tallest and therefore stood on the front / lowest step.  After a while, Aiman (the bride) stood next to me, and I said “I shouldn’t be standing next to you!!!” Everyone was like “OMG WHY?” My response: “Because that is Phil’s place, not mine! He’s her husband!!!” It makes sense, non?  So I tried to step backwards, despite people being stood behind me, and some of my friends were like “Alan, what are you doing?” a) My bag was quite robust, filled with my necessary stuff, and it was that, more than me, which was hitting their feet.  And b) It should have been pretty obvious what I was doing: I was trying to get out of the way of being right at the front of the picture, and allowing the focus to be on whom it really should have been on, considering it was not my wedding day.  So why was I made out to feel foolish and melodramatic?  Was my train of thought really so illogical, so difficult to understand?  I don’t think so, and even typing out this paragraph, it makes sense to me.

My university friends, by and large, make fun of: my proclivity for designer things and large black sunglasses (two of my friends laughed when I put them on.  I pointed at the emerging sun, and then also at another guest across the car park who was also wearing sunglasses.  Nobody was laughing at him.); my vanity; my ability to spend money.  They genuinely think that I am funny (and they also laugh at the joke-ish things I do on purpose), but I don’t think they realise that they sometimes hurt my feelings.  This is the way that I am, and I’m not constantly trying to amuse anybody.  It doesn’t seem to strike any of my other (read: Bristol) friends as hilarious that I put Prada sunglasses on when the sun is shining, nor that I get nervous anticipating an important life event for one of my friends.  It’s just me, and I don’t know why, coming from Oxford university, some people are so insecure that they want to try and put me down to feed into their own intelligence.  I know that I’m not bookish, but I also know that I’m not stupid.  So why does making me feel bad (or trying to) make them feel good?

Today I met up with two of my friends whom I haven’t seen for a good while: Mel and Erum.  They’re both making moves: Mel is in the middle of her Scandinavian Studies degree and currently working in the Cabinet Office on a summer internship; Erum is a law graduate about to start her LPC.  We were in Starbucks pondering school, relationships, jobs, politics, the economy & swine flu, among other things.  We also discussed current fashion, including those ridiculous visor sunglasses as worn (but not invented) by Kanye West.  In case you don’t know what I am referring to, I illustrate:

Okay, they are impractical, which is a major con.  But then so are Beyoncé’s “Diva” sunglasses which employ gold tassels hanging from a minimal frame, and I like those (plus, the fact that they hang vertically and move with the body means that you do have more of a chance of seeing where you’re going).  What I don’t like about these is that a) they are really quite ugly, and b) they are being sold everywhere as the “new biggest trend”.  Not just in white, but in neon colours.  People are wearing these to clubs (I have seen pictorial evidence, as well as witnessing it myself) where normal sunglasses would be ridiculed, despite the fact that normal sunglasses generally look 100% better.  And just because Kanye West wears them?  I have of course been inspired by various celebrity fashion statements, and seeking to copy that is perfectly understandable and acceptable; that’s what inspiration is.  But this is something else; it’s taking something quite clearly idiotic and pretending that it is cool and intelligent.  It feels like a conspiracy that everyone is in on, and I take a stand against that because if I don’t like something, I am not going to wear it and that’s that.  But don’t ridicule me for wearing fashionable designer glasses that look great, when there are people wearing these venetian blind things who can’t even see where they’re going!  I mean, wtf?

Who decides what is “foolish” and what “isn’t”?  I do what I like, and I use my common sense, and I think that everybody is entitled to do that.  But what irritates me is when I make decisions that to me seem logical, and others want to pick on that for whatever reason, but they are quite happy to ignore / accept other things that are clearly beyond sensible.  Are we, as the general public, really that insecure that we’re willing to knock down one person just to make ourselves feel better, but then able to pass an imbecilic trend just because it was started / revived by a celebrity who has more money / status than the majority of us, the general public?  If Madonna jumped off the Empire State Building, would we all climb up there to follow?  (The paparazzi would certainly be crowded around at the bottom, snapping the impact point to make numerous tributes in special-edition magazines… just look at Michael Jackson).  I guess that it all depends on how caught up we are in appearances, and I am very conscious of the way that I look.  But the final decision is made by me, and if others want to try and knock me down for doing something that I choose, or for not following a herd of sheep, then let them; I have my insecurities, but one of them is not following the crowd when I would prefer to follow my instincts.

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the end of an era.

July 1, 2009

Obviously, with the recent death of Michael Jackson, a lot of people have been using the phrase “I feel like a part of my childhood has died”.  As a fan not of Michael (the only album of his that I bought was Dangerous, and I still play it but don’t feel any pull to purchase any of the others) but of his sister Janet, I didn’t echo the sentiment in that particular case (although obviously his death did sadden me), but the following news does make me reminisce.

VIBE magazine is shutting down next month.  For those who don’t know, this is a magazine from the US that covers R&B, hip hop and occasionally other genres of music.  There are also urban fashion spreads, and the odd political essay covering both American politics and the treatment of racism and sexuality in both the US and countries such as Cuba, Mexico and Jamaica (to name but a few).  In short, the magazine is aimed at “black culture”.  I bought my first issue when I was 13 and have been following it ever since (that’s 10 years! which has just struck me, as I think about it.  A decade is a long time!), buying more often than not, though occasionally leaving it on the stand if the cover story didn’t attract me and there weren’t any articles inside to pull my wallet out my pocket.  Here is a picture of that first cover:

TLC VIBE Cover 1999

TLC VIBE Cover 1999

I remember having just purchased TLC’s album “FanMail” (one of my ultimate favourites to this day!!!) and it had rocked my world.  Looking back, I always had liked R&B music but I was only becoming conscious of it, and therefore purchasing Vibe magazine allowed me to begin exploring the genre and fed my mind.  As I expanded my tastes and learned of new artists (some of whom I listen to on the regular now), I also appreciated the long interviews which were actually informative, as well as the more mature articles. And some of the clothes were ridiculous!  At 13, reading a magazine where profanity was used not purposely to shock, but just because that was how people spoke was an eye-opener to me (hence shocking me all the same, haha!) but also refreshingly honest and mature.  In short, it opened my eyes and became part of my childhood, my adolescence.  Of course, carrying around such a magazine at that age raised the eyebrows of some of my peers at school, who had never heard of most of the artists and had no interest (this was the time when indie was in, and most teenagers in the UK were more into the Offspring and Travis than TLC, Puff Daddy, Mariah Carey and Aaliyah) beyond Eminem, who had just come out and caused quite a stir!  (doesn’t that take you back!?)

I did get comments such as “Alan, you’re not black, why are you reading that?” “Who are they? Never heard of them…” “Is that a porn magazine?” (ok, that was one person who got excited by the bikinis but there was occasional nudity, though it was tasteful and could never be termed pornographic, not in a million years) To people who didn’t understand why I listened to the music that I did because I was “white”, I have two responses: a) I’m half Italian, so technically that makes me mixed race anyway (though to look at me I am very “white”-looking so I don’t usually tend to argue! I can understand the mistake and usually accept it). b) Though music is certainly geared towards certain demographics, there are no laws saying what I can and can’t listen to, what genres I can and can’t buy.  It’s a free country, at least in that respect.  Open your minds!

So this magazine did form a large part of my growing up, expanding my musical tastes well beyond Bristol radio and UK music channels (which have a pretty narrow selection IMO, excluding MTV Base), and opening my eyes to both decent journalism and fashion!  Without VIBE, I would be a different person, without a shadow of a doubt.  Music is so fundamental to me, and VIBE certainly fed my need to grow and to expand and to learn about music that I was becoming interested in.  And I am sad it’s closing, despite the fact that I can’t deny it has recently lost its allure.  The articles were more glossy and less probing, the magazine had become half the size it used to be, comprising both less adverts and less articles.  The editorial staff seemed to change every few months, and the variety of features that used to be present in the magazine when I first bought it had been rejigged and slimmed down so much … In a way I am not surprised at VIBE’s closure, because it’s become a diet version of the magazine it used to be (I don’t believe I’m wearing rose-tinted glasses on that one), but I am saddened nonetheless.  Here is a picture of the final cover courtesy of Toya’s World:

Christina Milian & The-Dream VIBE cover

Christina Milian & The-Dream VIBE cover

It’s eye-catching, but hardly iconic in the way that Toni Braxton and Foxy Brown’s nude poses, TLC’s cover dressed as firefighters, Jennifer Lopez’s see-through dress and Tupac’s strait-jacket cover were.  Nudity by this point is passé, and though Christina Milian is undeniably a hottie, for a last issue this cover comes across as a slightly bizarre choice.  Nevertheless VIBE will be missed, despite recent racist accusations by peeps such as Robin Thicke who deserved one cover story at the very least, being one of the best new urban artists to come out in recent years despite not being black!  When he was refused the cover story, his light skin was largely assumed to be the reason why and that was a big shock to me as a non-black reader who thought that as a magazine that very much fought for racial equality, this was backwards.  But for the R&B / hip hop journalistic arena to be reduced solely to The Source, that makes me sad because I’m not a black thug (the audience The Source exclusively seems to aim for) and the features are more geared towards a revolving-door cast of rappers (both washed-up and too new to have earned their stripes) rather than respecting true talent and people who can truly sing as well as spit rhymes.  But maybe that’s just me growing older, and all I can hope is that 13 year olds picking up that magazine are as inspired and intrigued as I was 10 years ago buying my first issue of VIBE.