Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Might they be sell-outs?

I went to a great gig on Saturday: They Might Be Giants, in the salubrious surroundings of the Royal Festival Hall. TMBG's witty, catchy and inventive tunes have been amusing me on and off for twenty years and I felt pretty sure they were going to be great fun live. But I have to say my enjoyment came as much from who was in the audience as from what was being played on stage. I was there with my wife but also my two little boys, a four-year old and a two-year old. They'd never seen anything like it: they were bemused at first, but by the end they were clapping along and bouncing around as if they'd found something to compete with the bouncy castle.

As it happens, they recognised a few of the songs: TMBG are pretty much the house band of kids' cable channel Playhouse Disney. We've had many jigs in the sitting room to the catchy and remarkably non-irritating Mickey Mouse Clubhouse anthem 'Hot Diggity Dog' (much missed from Saturday's set). Seeing a two-year old run around in circles kicking his legs out whilst shouting "Hot Dog!" is a sight not to be missed - you really do learn the true meaning of the word 'diggity'.

But the band also has rather more nerdy aspirations than Hannah Montana. You could see it in the parents in the audience wearing TMBG t-shirts dating back several years, showing their offspring around the science exhibition in the foyer of the Festival Hall. And how many bands produce songs called 'Electric Car' or 'I Am A Palaeontologist' or 'Meet the Elements' ("Elephants are mostly made of four elements", don't you know)? A radio-controlled silver penguin, one of the science exhibits, hovered over the audience until the feedback from the radio frequency made the band's mics go all wonky.

All good geeky fun. However, I have to confess a certain uneasiness about the Disney tie-in. You see I suffer from being just old enough to have been indoctrinated by punk. I persist in feeling that rock music should somehow be anti-establishment. I know that particular Fonz jumped the shark a long time ago - the ubiquitous sponsorship of bands and tours, Noel sipping champers in the drawing room at Number 10, Sting performing for a Central Asian tyrant's daughter, and so on. And, of course, one should retain a sense of proportion when we're talking about kids' music. Being played in the Royal Festival Hall. But there's still something that doesn't seem quite right about a post-punk band - I guess you'd describe TMBG as New Wave - jumping into bed with a corporation.

It's perhaps not surprising for me (or anyone of my generation) to have some residual sensitivity about this sort of thing. Being exposed at an impressionable age to the music papers (remember them?) in the late-70s and early-80s made its mark. They were as full of denunciations as the cells of the Lubyanka. Selling out, being a mere poser, being exposed as a fake - that sort of accusation was bandied about on a weekly basis. 

For me, the final sign that those days really were very much over was nailed home when Iggy Pop appeared on the telly advertising insurance. Iggy Pop advertising insurance. I couldn't quite believe it at first: the ultimate outsider rock nihilist advertising what has to be the most boring, conservative and capitalistic product ever devised by The Man. Perhaps it was all a situationist stunt? (It wasn't.)

But then Iggy had always been pretty upfront about the material motivations for performing, remarking before a gig during a particularly thin period (and Iggy-thin really is thin):
Look, you're here to see me, and I can't go on until my dealer is here, and he's waiting to be paid, so give me some money so I can fix up, and then you'll get your show.

Not much change there then, except that now his insurance gigs fund his claret habit rather than anything more edgy. 

So do these left-over hang-ups about authenticity, credibility, creative autonomy, etc. matter any more? I mean, it's not as if Iggy isn't still inspiring rather magical responses like the one recently recounted here. Aren't objections to him making a few bob by working his image on the side just a bit priggish? And who'd begrudge an old feller topping up his pension in these straitened times?

Well, Saturday might have been the occasion when I stopped worrying and learnt to love commercialism. You see, this is a two-way street: what's so wrong with replacing some bland musical rusk-mush with something a bit more sparky, original and stimulating for the kids? What's so wrong about livening up a bunch of pretty anodyne cartoon characters - Mickey and his gang hardly have the edginess of the Warner Brothers' lot, after all - with some quirky post-punk? Certainly, anyone there on Saturday would have to be just plain, er, goofy not to see the good in that.

But what about Iggy and insurance? I think we can be confident that insurance will remain no more than a boring financial product even after the antic ministrations of Mr Pop. Nevertheless, I think we should welcome Iggy as an entertainer who's in the middle of the mainstream now, someone whose totemic presence during the odd ad break might go some way to suggest that there's an alternative to the waves of mass-manufactured Cowellite pop-pap that sometimes threaten to inundate us at prime-time.

Perhaps one day we may even see Mickey, Minnie and Iggy getting all diggity together down at the Clubhouse. Though personally I'd match him up with Bugs, Daffy and that gang - a cooler group to hang with. And he's practically a Warner Brothers' cartoon anyway. Mind you, he is advertising insurance so really I suppose anything's possible. I mean, insurance...


Brit said...

Have you got Here Come The 1-2-3s?

Absolutely ace. Brit Jnr loves it almost as much as me and Mrs B do.

Brit said...

It's not good for your grammar, however.

Sean said...

Iggy for President.

This is a link

Gaw said...

Brit: No we haven't but that will soon be sorted. Thanks for the tip.

I often think spoken grammar looks more comfortable than written. I frequently use 'me' incorrectly when speaking (and probably writing, who knows?). To do otherwise, makes me feel a bit priggish. Probably a residual part of the linguistic self-defence mechanism one adopts as a brainy kid at a comp.

Sean: Nice one! Difficult to judge the level of irony but I can well believe it of him financially (morally, not so much).

worm said...

I've never actually listened to the music of iggy pop, as I had heard it was mostly jangly flapdoodle.

Im never taking my hypothetical future children to see a cool alternative band. I'm going to torture them by forcing them to only listen to classical music, just like my father did.

Vern said...

In Germany Blixa Bargeld of avant garde noisemeisters Einsturzende Neubauten advertised a popular DIY chain. His band used to make music with drills and hammers and electrically powered screwdrivers, y'see.

Frank Key said...

The great thing about the Igster's insurance adverts is that they are for a company that refuses to insure people like him:


Gaw said...

Worm: I think it's more post-jangly flapdoodle.

As they say round my (former) way: that'll learn the little buggers.

Vern: That's pretty witty. Good old Germans.

Frank: There's simply no room for irony any more is there?