Tuesday, September 30, 2008

This just in: Cat owners are considered to be nutsos. I was in the utterly disappointing and overpriced Salvos Family Store in the city earlier this afternoon and I noticed the following book was sitting out in front of all the other books.

I was curious about the kind of home craft projects that might be fun for cat owners, but the book turned out to be either a massive practical joke at the expense of people who like cats, or a completely nutty book that anthropomorphises cats and believes they give a damn what stoopid accessories their owners lovingly prepare. There were entire chapters about cat star signs, cat aromatherapy, ridiculously ornate cat beds you can make (and which they will probably ignore to sleep in a cardboard box or your laundry basket) and even cat massage. I didn't buy the book, but here are some pictures I snapped:

No, my cat will not "be grateful for my consideration". Cats don't care about privacy! The point of this litter box screen is purely so you don't have to look at a box full of fossilised cat turds, that is if the cat doesn't knock it over.

Again, if your cat doesn't wriggle out of this outfit it's probably because it's horribly tight. Rather than looking like "a cool dude", this cat looks like a Womble.

I just put this in because I approved of the pun "catlery". There was a whole chapter of recipes for various anthropomorphised dishes to feed your cat. My main problem with this is that I've known cats who inexplicably hate some fuds and like others - what if you've spent ages cooking up this cat feast and the cat won't eat it?

Clearly this cat is thrilled about being "all dressed up and ready to go". Go where? The couch? Your black dress laid out on your bed?

Who is this embarrassing train wreck of a 'musician'? On Sunday I was watching the end of Rove while waiting for Dexter to start, and I witnessed a sight so embarrassing that I could barely look at the screen. It was this creature called Lady GaGa who looks like bargain basement Gwen Stefani and sounds like... whatever heavily autotuned pop sluts sound like without their autotuner. For some reason she was wearing these glasses that looked like twin televisions. Then she said, in a retarded fake British accent like the one Britney used to affect during the dark times of 2007: "Hello, my name is Lady GaGa. And this is Rove."

And then the shrieks of teenage girls rang out like klaxons warning of an imminent pop shitstorm!

This, FYI, is what the song is supposed to sound like:

Watching the original video provides some explanation of why she was spasmodically half-covering her face all the time. It's like a terrible pastiche of voguing, without voguing's sense of theatre or its stylishness. This offends me greatly, that a pop star who owes so much to gay culture (here she is performing at San Francisco Pride 2008) seems so incapable of paying proper homage to gay cultural touchstones. Madonna was accused of stealing voguing, but at least she did it properly! Also, she has ripped off Kylie Minogue's weird hood thingo from 'Can't Get You Out Of My Head'.

I had, in fact, heard of Lady GaGa before, because she totally fucked up an appearance on Sunrise by taking the 'sync' out of 'lipsyncing'. I didn't catch it, but read about the trainwreck on BrizBands. It was bad enough for Sunrise EP Adam Boland to release the following statement by way of apology:

"This morning's performance from Lady GaGa was obviously not live. That is a clear breach of Sunrise policy on music performances. We'd like to apologise for the segment and assure you we view the breach extremely seriously. We pride ourselves on our live music performances and will continue to deliver Australian audiences with the best acts from here and overseas."

I'm definitely a fan of pop artifice - it's not as though I'm condemning Lady GaGa for not strumming a guitar and writing songs that came from deep within her heart, y'know? But what offends me is that: a) she is really BAD at a genre that can be really excellent and transcendent when done well; b) despite her obvious awfulness, the Rove teenyboppers appeared to lap it up. My parents, at whose house I was watching this, commented that it was "just like Countdown", and I felt sad to think that perhaps being shit live is something pop stars inevitably do.

Sarah Baker has written on the stereotypical construction of the 'teenybopper' as a hysterical "screamer", arguing that for pre-teen and teen girls, screaming, creating crowd crushes and acting 'hysterical' is a technique of cultural visibility, of experiencing your body and negotiating public space in exciting ways, and of imposing a kind of order and control on ostensibly out-of-control situations.

I wonder if anyone has done research into how ordinary pop music fans (as opposed to the adult, often gay, and extremely analytical and industry-savvy fans you get in places like Popjustice) decide which pop music they like and dislike. Are the grounds I might use to determine 'quality' simply irrelevant to Rove's screaming teenager audience?

Still, it depresses me to think that anyone would think Lady GaGa was good or talented in any way whatsoever.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Dad humour. Last night I was over for dinner at my parents' house. We were shocked to discover that my brother doesn't know who Sarah Palin is. (I was kind of shocked to discover that my parents did.)

"You need to brush up on your general knowledge," tutted my dad.
"I've got plenty of general knowledge," retorted Matt. "Like... why can't chimpanzees run for more than 100 metres?"*
Dad replied, "Because that's how far you can throw a banana?"

* The answer is apparently: because they have flat feet and it hurts them to run. Why, I have flat feet! My aversion to running, explained! Also, that nickname 'Bonzo'.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Oh, Disney! Ever since I saw Enchanted last Friday night, I've been kinda obsessed with musical theatre. Enchanted is such a smart pastiche; if any studio other than Disney had released it, Disney would've been all over it with trademark infringements. It has so many satisfying motifs from the classic movies: the redheaded, wide-eyed heroine, the evil queen with killer eye makeup, the outfits, the cuddly animal friends, the vain suitor, the fat, buffoonish sidekick to the villain... Amy Adams is perfect in the role: you instantly believe she's a cartoon come to life.

And let's not forget the songs, by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. What I really loved about it was that it referenced the entire Disney history, from Snow White to Mary Poppins to The Little Mermaid, and had old-school stuff like those warbly massed choirs you used to get. 'Happy Working Song' is about as parodic as it gets - for the most part, it's played straight, and the precise fit of the genre requirements is what makes it so satisfying to watch.

The best thing about animated musicals is the setpieces they enable - ones that would be a logistical headache to put on stage. Today I have been obsessively watching clips from the Tony Awards and from various Disney adaptations, and I have to admit, The Little Mermaid is pretty lame as a stage production. One thing I really like about musicals is when they advance the plot and introduce characters in song (rather than expository dialogue), and for that I reckon one of the best is the opening setpiece of Beauty and the Beast, 'Belle'.

here are some of my other favourite movie musical numbers. Irritatingly, I couldn't find any of the Simpsons oeuvre on YouTube, or I'd have the Oh, Streetcar! medley and Stop The Planet Of The Apes, I Want To Get Off. First, 'Up There' from South Park - Bigger, Longer and Uncut.

'As The World Falls Down' from Labyrinth. Even when I was a kid I found this scene weirdly erotic. Also note how much her dress looks like Amy Adams's from Enchanted.

And the part I like most about this next clip is the expository dialogue at the beginning: vintage Broadway!

There are many more, but I am going to try and get to Dainty Sichuan now.

EDIT: FOLLOWING DAY. How could I have forgotten this?

And let's not forget 'I Wanna Be Like You' from The Jungle Book - still my favourite song from a film packed with great songs. (As an aside, 'Hakuna Matata' is a bit of a ripoff of 'The Bare Necessities', isn't it? Except that it has, "When I was a young warthoooooooooooog!")

Communication detritus. I just found a draft text message in my phone - who knows from when. It says: "I just saw a dude wearing a t-shirt that said 'fat peple are hard to kidnap'!"

Also, here are the subject lines of some emails I have sent to Jeremy in recent months. Gmail auto-completes the subject line, which is why I see them.

youtube: Barack-rolled
youtube: Feist on Sesame Street
youtube: Honk fail
youtube: I seen Beyoncé at Burger King
youtube: It's A Knockout from 1985
youtube: World cup-stacking record
youtube: Best Warner Bros cartoon evz: Three Little Bops
youtube: Celine Dion and Anastacia sing 'You Shook Me All Night Long'
youtube: Gloria the ho
youtube: how to sing puppies to sleep
youtube: jerk it
youtube: kylie cracks the shits at stupid radio questions
youtube: levi's ad - dudes backflip into their jeans
youtube: parody of Christian the lion, with Bigfoot
youtube: particle physics rap
youtube: regular everyday normal guy rap
youtube: rondo alla turca played on four phones
youtube: spaghetti cat - the new rick roll!!!
youtube: terrible R&B song "Why Must I Cry"
youtube: the science of getting hit in the nads
youtube: this is why Britney lip-syncs
youtube: welcome to my study

Monday, September 01, 2008

On "quality journalism". I have been following the Fairfax purges and subsequent strike with interest and a feeling of solidarity, even though I haven't written for them since last April. I was surprised by the strength of my feelings on the matter. Determinedly, I refused to read The Age or any Fairfax website during Scab Weekend, and I felt upset to realise that the issue didn't seem to matter to many of my friends and acquaintances. From the disapproving glances I cast at the paper it looked much the same as usual, and people were certainly reading it as usual - some didn't even know there was a strike on.

More naggingly, I felt that a key aspect of the issue was never really addressed. This is the ideal of "quality journalism". Perhaps the striking journos felt the debate over what constitutes "quality journalism" has been rehearsed so often they didn't need to explain it again. They just needed to invoke it a lot.

A tag cloud on Fair Go Fairfax (the MEAA site covering the dispute), yesterday

The striking Fairfax journos argue that "quality" is the historical hallmark of their mastheads and the reason for their public reputation as 'journals of record', and believe the current management's shortsighted focus on cost-cutting is eroding it. MEAA federal secretary, Chris Warren, told Business Spectator:
Everyone accepts that these are enormously challenging times for newspapers and indeed for media organisations generally ... the only way media organisations are going to get through these current challenges is by ensuring that they can continue to provide the sort of quality journalism that will keep people stuck on to these media organisations, either in a online or a print environment.
But what is quality journalism? My former boss Eric Beecher gestures towards the answer in Crikey (subscriber-only) on 27 August. I'd better make sure I don't misquote Eric or he'll call me up in high dudgeon (but dun worry, I'll fob him off by sooking about something Crikey wrote about me long before Eric bought the company). So here's the entire article in question, with the key phrases bolded:
Once you de-code the mangled spin, the real significance of yesterday's announcement is that for the first time in its history, Fairfax has made a public declaration that profits come ahead of journalism. That its role as a major custodian of Australian quality editorial is secondary to its responsibility of maximising the financial outcome.

At one level this is neither surprising nor wrong. Fairfax is a public company whose primary duty is to shareholders who have invested in the company with purely financial motives.

Until yesterday, Fairfax had maintained the pretence that the two aspirations -- profits and public trust journalism -- could coexist. Until yesterday, Fairfax CEO David Kirk perpetuated that charade with his absurd rhetoric about Fairfax newspapers being different to others afflicted by the problems of the collapsing newspaper industry.

Yesterday Fairfax came clean. If you're looking for custodians of high-resourced fourth estate journalism in Australia, they effectively said, don't look here. We're businessmen and our overriding responsibility is to the pockets of our shareholders. Find someone else to deal with the societal responsibility stuff.

At least that's clear. Now the question is: can the quality, well-funded journalism that constitutes a pivotal plank of Australian democracy survive?

Asking whether newspapers can survive is the wrong question -- many of them can, but on a much lower cost base, with far fewer journalists covering politics, business, foreign capitals, courts and the investigative beats. Newspapers like The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age can easily be produced with 150 journalists, not 300. They will be different newspapers, slighter and lighter, but they will carry words and pictures surrounded by advertising and they will dress up like quality newspapers.

The time has come for governments, politicians and other public policy makers who genuinely believe in the place of quality journalism within the infrastructure of Australian democracy to understand that if they leave its future entirely to the marketplace, and to News Corporation, it will almost certainly be gone within a decade.

What will be left will be celebrity/sport/human interest pap journalism and relatively small independent outfits (like Crikey) whose revenues will never allow them to replicate the resources that have made newspapers like the Herald and The Age indispensable partners in the ecosystem of democracy for more than 150 years.
Elsewhere, Eric has summarised the notion of "quality" as "the role of well researched, serious journalism to act as a check and balance in the system of democracy". Meanwhile, besieged Fairfax CEO, David Kirk, is quoted as saying that the job cuts wouldn't affect this "quality" at all:
"Not the ... hard news, not the international news, not the business, sport, local news that is not part of the business that is being affected at all," he told newswire service AAP. "It's really mischievous of people to say that there's going to be a decline in the quality."
And in an editorial by turns spot-on and self-satisfied, The Australian points an accusatory finger at pre-printed lifestyle supplements:
Increasingly, the sparse newsbreaking of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age has been wrapped around pre-printed, stapled supplements, with nothing to do with news but everything to do with the minutiae of home decoration, gardening, style, entertainment, food and gadgets. Such supplements are labour-intensive, drawing staff away from politics, business, sport and general news. They are far more expensive to preprint and insert than traditional newspapers are to produce.

Unfortunately for the 550 people, including 180 journalists, to lose their jobs at Fairfax, lifestyle information, like classifieds, is readily accessible in more user-friendly forms online. Most home cooks, for instance, no longer clip recipes but look them up as needed. The days of lifestyle supplements are numbered. This is demonstrated by the falling circulations of publications that have embraced them at the expense of in-depth news expertise that cannot be replicated elsewhere. That is the real strength and future of newspapers.

Papers such as The Australian, which concentrate resources on breaking news, business, sport, social issues and general reporting, are not only weathering the internet and the downturn, but are also attracting thousands of new readers, mostly in the AB demographic eagerly sought by advertisers. Regional newspapers servicing markets as far afield as Geelong, Townsville and the Gold Coast are also thriving.
So we're getting something of a consensus on what "quality" means in this context: it's a commitment to well-resourced nuts-and-bolts reporting, with a bias towards rendering the democratic process transparent and accountable. However, I think the public's impression of Fairfax's "quality" is quite disconnected from the noble goal of fourth-estate journalism. It's a rather more hazy gravitas stemming from its broadsheet size, from a stable of sober columnists with backgrounds in reportage (rather than the demagogues commonly found in the News Ltd stable), from the remembered scoops of its venerable mastheads, and from a commitment to lengthy features.

Much as I dislike those sectarian stereotypes of "chattering classes" and the "latte Left", I also believe Fairfax appeals to socially progressive, educated and affluent readers precisely because it marries "iss-ewes"-based journalism with a commitment to the transmission of cultural capital. And cultural capital matters. Whether a newspaper actually stands for lofty ideals is pretty irrelevant as long as people have a general idea that the paper will teach them things that will enhance their social status - whether that be politics, real estate trends or which books, albums and films are "brilliant, brilliant".

Furthermore, the paper is actually read in a quotidian context, as part of what The Australian calls the "minutiae" of day-to-day life. Adrian Monck adds to my suspicions on this front by pointing out a 1945 sociological study that revealed people's deep emotional attachment to the sheer routine of reading the paper. If they think something about it is shit, they'll bitch about it or write an angry letter, but they'll continue to buy the paper. Not that I have done any qualitative research about this, but it's been my anecdotal experience that people think of themselves as "Fairfax readers" (as opposed to "News readers") and will buy and read the paper regardless of what's in it - or whether its journalists are striking in support of editorial "quality".

It is dispiriting to realise that there is no public discussion about how to determine "quality' in the sort of journalism I specialise in. I mean, if newspapers (and media commentators) devalue cultural reportage and analysis as mere filler, as "celebrity/sport/human interest pap journalism" to be ghettoised in "lifestyle supplements", then of course readers won't value it either. They won't apply journalistic standards to this content. But that's precisely what needs to happen.

What we need to be railing against is a corporate culture that cuts corners on quality control, lets under-resourced staff regurgitate press releases (aka "churnalism"), and buys cheap syndicated content from international publications rather than commissioning original stories by local writers. We need to condemn Fairfax for making its freelance contributors sign anti-competitive contracts, and for axing their columns without telling them. We need to condemn them for pulling funding from the industry-wide Walkley Awards in favour of an insular internal award, for yanking the Perkin Award and for discontinuing their traineeship program.

Quality journalism should be about rigorous, fair, skeptical, fearless and accurate research, interviewing and writing. It should be about original and thought-provoking story angles, and a commitment to local voices and perspectives - no matter what the story is about.

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