Monday, 14 September 2009

Peter Mandelson breathes some much needed life into Labour

In a brief note: For a minute I thought I was going to lose it… too be drifted back to the traditionalist side of the Labour party, which places an overwhelming focus onto the lower paid and away from the other portions of the nation. This is not a note to disparage members with alternative views completely – after all they are still decent and totally principled people whose contributions are utterly valuable to the party as a whole. However the merciless poll ratings, slaughters on the death of New Labour and revivals from Cruddas and others characters harking back to Hardie and Attlee seemed to convince me that New Labour was, well and truly, dead.

I have thankfully performed a u-turn thanks to Mandelson’s excellent speech on how New Labour has to fight back briskly and unashamedly against the reactionary forces of Conservatism, led with vigour by Cameron, Osborne and Gove. He reaffirmed New Labour’s commitment to balancing choice and diversity with a wise and flexible state – the most ideal way of performing politics.

Take it for granted, it was certainly a typical Tory-bashing speech in many ways, but it was packed with the energy, evidence and vigour that made New Labour so exciting in the first place. What made Mandelson’s speech even more impressive was his successful demonstration of one of New Labour’s core values – reshaping the state to contemporary needs – in the fiscal stimulus which has saved this country and the world from diving nose-first down under the deep sea of depression. The fiscal stimulus, which has been effectively emulated by Obama across the Atlantic, was pivotal in rescuing a system so interwoven into our socio-economic fabric that without it, there would have been a crash of business and employment unseen since the 1930s. The most recent memory of a similar contemporary crisis occurring in Britain was the recessions in 1980/81 and 1990-93. In the first wave, the experiment in monetarism was taken to the level of sado-monetarism by the Thatcher government; a decade later, Thatcherite Chancellor, Norman Lamont declared that high unemployment was a “price worth paying” for enduring a recession as deep as that one.

The enduring sign that the Tories have not shifted their skin and ideas is how they still pay tribute to the Thatcher years almost unapologetically, whilst Labour was bold enough to take a break from our history – appreciating what the previous governments of Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan had done, yet we managed to break the old mould of thinking to provide one new and fresh. What’s more – the presence of Daniel Hannan, a vituperative, NHS-hating neo-liberal MEP, as a favourite amongst the grassroots of the Tory party demonstrate how unreconstructed and outmoded socially, culturally, politically and economically they are. Even recent surveys in publications like the Economist of many Conservative Parliamentary candidates’ views predict many are more right-wing and reactionary than the 1992-2005 intakes.

Mandelson’s words are of valuable progression, especially in the face of such reactionary forces.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Classic Book Review – When Shrimps Learn to Whistle by Denis Healey (1991)

In a new century faced with a new set of daunting international political and economic problems, politicians of all colours are frequently told to look back at history to gain an idea of how to prevent ourselves from repeating the same cycle of events again. An excellent book extolling this learning from history virtue is Denis Healey’s almost forgotten work, When Shrimps Learn to Whistle. Prior to the contemporary works of former Conservative MP, Chris Patten, Healey, a former Labour Defence Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, held the mantle as the most authoritative Westminster voice on foreign affairs, effortlessly gracing many prominent themes with grace, wit, intelligence and common sense. Wisely printing this book as a historical reference for the challenges of the 1990s, it is necessary to look at it for the 21st century.

This book is a collection of essays written over a 44 year period from 1947 till 1991 covering, Communism and Social Democracy, Nuclear Weapons, Gorbachev’s Russia, The Gulf War, European Unity and the then new age neo-liberal economics pursued by the United States and Great Britain. He works out a great understanding in foreign affairs, getting down to the nuts and bolts of a problem effortlessly – detailed while not overbearing.

The chapters on the neo-liberal economic revolution (written before and after Black Monday of 1987) and the 1991 Gulf War waged by then-President George H.W. Bush against Saddam Hussein seem eerily prescient in the light of the 21st Century War on Terror as well as the contemporary credit crunch. In the midst of the 1987 crisis, Healey aptly describes the crash as the combination of ruthless globalisation, innovation and deregulation “operated by a mafia of gilded young lemmings… interested only in numbers and never relate the numbers to the economic realities which lie buried at the bottom of the heap of numbers”. In the wake of the merciless recklessness of bankers and financiers of more recent years, one can notice a distinct parallel with today’s crisis. Likewise his commentary on George Bush Snr’s “unwise” Gulf War which threatened to “produce a worldwide holy war against Anglo-Saxons” unfortunately came true with George Bush Jnr’s escapade in Iraq in 2003.

The other chapters, noticeably on NATO, non-nuclear weapons and international diplomacy show that there can be a world without war and rhetorical aggression, replaced by humane understanding and pragmatism instead of ruthless, uncompromising dogma and ideology.

After the advent of 9/11, we as a world society find ourselves trapped in another West vs East battle of political values – replacing Communism with Islamic fundamentalism. Do we dare continue to engage in violent rhetoric and botched invasions (Afghanistan and Iraq) as well as a useless stalemate? Or do we contemplate the pragmatic diplomatic options Healey witnessed and helped to create after the darkness of World War Two? Read this book to help make up your mind.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Michael Jackson – Music and Entertainment Icon

Two months have passed since the tragic death of the one and only Michael Jackson, one of the last of music’s great, genuinely innovative children. He was the last great multi-global pop sensation to break multi-cultural and international status as a timeless pop icon, and the only one since Elvis to transcend racial barriers and musical genres so seamlessly and convincingly.

His death has once again allowed a narrow clique of pretentious, self-righteous music journalists, many of whom have gleefully seized the moment to proclaim Jackson’s only real triumphs to be Off the Wall and Thriller before then writing him off as, amongst other things, a phoney, hypocrite, sell-out, second-guessing opportunist who had ‘lost touch’ with his brilliant talent. These criticisms are not only arrogant and daft, but they seem very ironic to any listener who listens to Jackson’s post-Thriller material in contrast to his pre-Thriller material – people notice how Jackson transcends the old sounds of pleasurable soul to create a richer, more powerful and original sound than before.

The group recordings at Motown and CBS as well as his early solo material from Got to be There till Off the Wall were all decent recordings and material, but at the same time very generic versions of 70s soul music suited around and straight jacketed to Jackson. From the Motown Corporation writers to Gamble and Huff to the sounds utilised on Off the Wall, the songs featured none of the grandeur and genre blended, heartfelt honest, truly individual and original output that Michael imprinted on his music when he took full control of his output from Bad onwards. When Off the Wall went to the Grammys, it only won one trophy – Best RnB vocal performance for Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough – the album’s sole nomination. It was clear from this reception that Jackson musically had not come of age – rather than the all-embracing King of Pop, he was simply another token black (style music) artist.

Thriller started the process which blew the doors off Jackson’s corporate straightjacket. It’s singles Thriller, Beat It and Billie Jean ruptured the nature of genres of soul, dance and rock, blending them seamlessly in all three cases, alongside revolutionary music videos. The sound of the album was not as conservative as Off the Wall, with Jackson testing moodier and pop-esque soul songs, Baby Be Mine, Human Nature and The Lady In My Life. The album went on to win an unprecedented 8 Grammys and over 100 million copies to date.

Bad, the follow up to Thriller, was pleasingly as different sounding as it could get – it signalled the real coming of age of Jackson as an artist who would innovate and revolutionise genres of pop, soul and rock music to fit his grand vision of music as a supremely colourless entity. Why should Jackson just be a ‘black artist’ in music terms? He rightfully freed music from the reigns of colour and broadcast it to everyone. Man in the Mirror set the standard for healing anthems, sending a good message to the world, accentuated on a grander scale; Smooth Criminal felt like a Broadway number, except with a funky dance beat – nothing in Motown or Off the Wall could match this.

It only got better with the 1990s releases of Dangerous and HIStory – his main masterpieces. Both albums are the most complete and most honest albums Jackson ever recorded. Dangerous’ brilliant experimentation ranging from Teddy Riley to Heavy D to Slash (from Guns n Roses) only confirmed the freedom that Jackson had to interpret and innovate styles of genre he had once Bad confirmed his total control of music. The gritty, edgy, blockbuster feel of Dangerous, heeding kick-ass compositions, Who Is It, Give In To Me, Dangerous, Jam, Black Or White, Will You Be There and Why You Wanna Trip On Me. Jackson Had truly become the contemporary Beethoven to Prince’s Mozart.

HIStory applied his groundbreaking approach to the sickening injustices he felt in the period of Dangerous. And it created the angriest record of his career which redeemed him in the music world. Ranging from Scream to Earth Song to Smile (amongst many other hits) his musical legacy since Bad was in effect complete. The follow ups, Blood On the Dancefloor and Invincible though not as solid brought joy to many who saw a mellower version of his early 1990s works.

Live shows were part of Jackson’s extraordinary staple. Again, by his best performances occurred during the Bad, Dangerous and HIStory tours where he combined wizardry, superb choreography, magnificent costumes and pure showmanship surpassing anything he did before.

Unfortunately, people still tend to get hung up about this so-called idea of his adhering to ‘whiteness’ following the paling of his skin colour. British actor Kwame Kwei-Armah even went on so much as to suggest the nonsensical view that Jackson was the ‘white Frankenstein that white America created’. Lionel Shriver said that Michael Jackson was a study in the apparent ‘shame’ of being black. The plain fact about this, however, is that Jackson had a severe case of vitiligo, and simply went far the other way after the blotches became too much. And for the shape of his nose, he was already having plastic surgery in that part of his face prior to the paling of his skin, so that criticism is automatically out of the equation.

His biggest gift though was creating himself not just as a talented human being but establishing Michael Jackson as an inimitable brand similar to James Brown in the 60s and 70s – an immortal figure/persona with an inimitable style of music who has an eternal belonging to the masses of the world as an icon for progress and supreme change. Just as James Brown recorded Don’t Be a Dropout, Say It Loud I’m Black And I’m Proud and King Heroin, Jackson released Man In The Mirror, Earth Song and They Don’t Care About Us. He even set up the Heal the World and Heal the Kids Foundations non-profit organisations he funded during his peak years

Of course there was prescription drug abuse, scandals, merciless hiring and firing and all sorts, but, at the end of the day, isn’t that just typical Hollywood show business? What Jackson dealt with as far as nefarious habits (drugs) is no different from the vices of James Brown and Ray Charles before him. And in an environment where tragedy is commonplace, Jackson is surely, habit-wise, another tear in Hollywood’s rain?

Altogether, this is my personal tract on Jackson. The eternal legacy in the man has been written into his music, live performance and the great example he tried to show us all, no matter what vices occurred. Michael Jackson was one of the most decent, yet (commonly flawed) humans of the Hollywood age. Let his great presence in the late 80s and 90s be his epitaph.