Whatever | August 2010

Whatever | Guilty pleasures
They’re songs and books. What’s to feel guilty about?

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In May 1933, when the Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund decided to collectively haul themselves out of bed before the Third Reich equivalent of Loose Women and organise a nationwide purge of “un-German” literature at universities across Germany, more than 25,000 titles were burned on bonfires which must have smelt powerfully musty. Around that time and under that particular regime in that particular swathe of Europe, if you chose to leaf through a play by Bertolt Brecht in the park, or a novel by Thomas Mann on the tram, or Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front just about anywhere, you were by definition experiencing the illicit thrill of a guilty pleasure.

Similarly, your enjoyment in the old Soviet Union of The Gulag Archipelago, Doctor Zhivago or Nineteen Eighty-Four would have been laced with that bracing buzz of the forbidden, as each might have earned you the bracing buzz of a KGB show trial. In 2008, South Korea’s Ministry of Defence banned the military from reading an armful of “seditious” books, including that well-thumbed squaddies’ standby Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and The Secret History of Capitalism by Cambridge professor Ha-Joon Chang.

Even today, owning a copy of Dianetics by L Ron Hubbard in the new Russia carries a 3,000 rouble fine and a jail term of up to 15 days. (Most of the arch-Thetan’s canon was banned under a recent law, for “undermining the traditional spiritual values of the citizens of the Russian Federation.”) It remains illegal to read The Diary Of Anne Frank, Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List in Lebanon, all de-listed by the Sûreté General for portraying Jews, Israel or Zionism “favourably”. And The Da Vinci Code is conspicuous by its absence on the streets of Beirut, too, thanks to lobbying by Lebanon’s Catholic Information Center, who officially have nothing better to do.

Bear all of this in mind when you consider that in May 2010, the Guardian newspaper asked various browsers on a knoll at the Hay Literary Festival to reveal their “literary guilty pleasure”. Their willing responses included Marian Keyes, David Nicholls, Zadie Smith, Alan Bennett, “heavy metal biographies”, and The Kite Runner.

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Why should anyone literate enough to attend a Guardian-sponsored book fair in a country that even Mark Thomas would be hard pushed to call a totalitarian state, feel guilty about reading Zadie Smith, or Marian Keyes, or a heavy metal biography? These answers, like the spurious questionnaire standby itself, may be lightly thrown but they reveal weightier truths about our national neurosis: we are rendered daft by keeping up appearances like a bunch of insecure teenagers. Though we have little to fear from secret police or religious junta, we merrily and self-mockingly go along with the flimsy pretext that some books, films and TV shows can be consumed without guilt, while others must be enjoyed behind locked doors. Such as, apparently, the Celebrity Come Dine With Me of literature, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Hey, people might think you’re reading a book about kites, rather than the rise of the Taliban in the power vacuum after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Incidentally, the popular film was banned in Afghanistan, making the DVD a cinematic guilty pleasure in Kabul.

In 2007, commissioned by the Costa Book Awards, a YouGov poll declared Stephen King “the UK’s favourite literary guilty pleasure.” UK readers also “freely admitted” to feeling a bit self-conscious about whipping out a Rowling, a Grisham or a Pratchett without first slipping it between the covers of a decoy copy of Fiesta or Knave. Expert comment on the coffee chain’s press release came from a contributing editor of The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures: 1001 Things You Hate To Love, published in hardback in 2006 and described by the Times Literary Supplement as “something of a guilty pleasure.” Its very opportunistic existence flagged up the phrase’s sudden marketability.

That this sado-masochistic concept should still linger in the popular imagination and across so many artforms is, I’m afraid, rock music’s fault, where lines are forever being drawn and redrawn in the dunes of credibility. It was enterprising London DJ Sean Rowley who first trademarked Guilty Pleasures™, which now covers an entire cheeky empire of club nights, compilation albums, SingStar tie-ins, a Fearne Cotton-fronted ITV1 karaoke show, and a mobile disco available for hire at festival tent, arena warm-up, corporate jolly and private function. Rowley was astute in locating the fecund no-man’s land between cool and uncool a few years back and bagging the salvage rights.

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I don’t wish to poop the party: the pics on the Guilty Pleasures website suggest a sizable slice of ongoing camp, works-outing fun in nightclubs up and down the land – verily, it is the new School Disco. But in taking the notion so irretrievably overground, gurning wig-outs of allegiance to ELO or Journey or Japanese Boy obviate any need for guilt. We live in a world of pop pluralism and Glee glasnost, where nostalgia packages and tribute bands make everything alright and, for anyone over 30, the last vestiges of embarrassment have been cast aside like a pair of crutches at Lourdes. Now is not the time to transfer our guilt to books.

Among the Guilty Pleasures website’s “celebrity confessionals”, Russell Brand cleverly eschews the obligatory Toto or Wham and plumps for Gary Glitter. “I feel a bit guilty about this,” he declares. “What with him being a convicted paedophile.”

In the same spirit of literalism, three cheers too for Alex, 70, retired, from mid-Wales, the sole Guardian respondent at Hay to break ranks and say, “I don’t feel guilty about reading anything.” Nor should you. Now, where’s my copy of Mein Kampf? I need something to wrap around The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures on the bus.

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The androgyny exhibition

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I wonder if he’ll ever know he’s in a best-selling show? Of course he will, you idiot. Just because he preferred not to fly over to London to see the sell-out retrospective exhibition of his capes, heels and notepads, David Bowie Is at the V&A, curated by Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh, has the full blessing of the Dame Himself. How could it not? Most of the stuff here – and boy, there’s a lot of stuff, over 300 items – comes from Bowie’s own archive. I want to go to there. Until that happens, this will very much suffice.

For an artist so iconic, long-lived, prolific and spread enthusiastically across so much mixed media, David Bowie keeps himself relatively to himself. Since his heart attack in 2004, now 66, he’s kept travel and work to a minimum – guest appearances in the studio and onstage with the likes of TV On The Radio, Arcade Fire, Scarlett Johansson – and I for one had resigned myself to a future with no major new release, glad to have seen him at Wembley on the Reality tour which he had to cut short in 2004 after the chest pains.

Where Are We Now? and The Next Day came as pleasant, fanfareless surprises, but despite what Waldemar Januszczak implied in his snooty review in the Sunday Times, the V&A exhibition was not designed as a promotional blitz for the new record, as the new record had no release date when the archive was raided, nor did it feel like an advert. There are a couple of references to the new LP, but if anything, David Bowie Is feels like a memorial, or at least a testimonial. A full-blooded, high-flying, celebratory one, but a testimonial nonetheless. It’s fantastic that he’s been back in the studio, but he’s given us so much already over five decades, it seems greedy to expect more.

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Having booked a 4pm slot at the V&A, we were unaware that this would mean being turfed out of the exhibition at 5.30pm, and there’s enough here to keep a Bowiephile engrossed and wide-eyed for at least two hours, if not three, as you move chronologically and occasionally thematically through his life, constantly distracted by words, music, stills, moving pictures and annexes. Although the vast collection seems to have dummied up pretty much every significant outfit Bowie ever wore onstage or in a video – and, as Peter Contrad observed in The Observer, in an otherwise incoherent review, the costumes operate like the skins he has constantly shed – it’s the details, and the smaller items, that demand your closer attention: a pencil sketch on an opened-out packet of Gitanes; a photo of Little Richard in a gilt frame he must have borrowed off his parents in the 50s that Bowie still apparently treasures; a xeroxed manifesto for the Beckenham Arts Lab which the young idealist hoped to get off the ground in his Kent hometown in the early 60s (and with which Alexis Petredis seemed particularly taken in his uniquely useful, adroit and witty Guardian review); the typed letter to his manager drily announcing the name-change to “Bowie” … there’s even a tissue he’s used to dab his lipstick, although that may have crossed the line from appreciation into idolatry.

I liked the items that aren’t his, but are displayed to add context and texture to his journey, like the pile of science fiction paperbacks, the poster for a Hendrix gig he attended, and the oddly moving cover of the Times in 1969 bearing the photograph of earth taken from space. Again, Januszczak was predictably sniffy about Bowie’s own art, but I loved his painted portrait of Japanese writer and ritual suicidist Yukio Mishima, which he had above his bed in Berlin (there’s a whole room dedicated to what the exhibition calls his “black and white period” in West Germany), and his line drawings of his Mum and Dad were, again, rather moving. More practically, his sketches for sleeves and stage sets, as well as costumes, all of which were realised by professional illustrators, designers and costumiers, showed just how clear his vision has always been. And how hands-on he was, and remains.

The people shuffling round around us were of “a certain age”, and clearly transfixed, as well as taken back to important moments in their own life soundtracked by Bowie. You are forced to wear headphones and to listen to an electronically-triggered soundtrack, but I took mine off (don’t try and tell me what to do, The Man!), as there’s enough sensory information without another layer. I liked that some people were possibly unwittingly singing along to the tunes in their ears.

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There’s not much I can say about Bowie that hasn’t already been said a hundred thousand times. If you can take or leave him, or only know the hits, you may find David Bowie Is a bit much. If, however, you consider him the greatest and most diverse musical solo artist of the last century (and some of this one), this exhibition will thrill you constantly, in miniature, and in widescreen. The final room – a vast hall, really – has floor to ceiling film of Bowie live, projected onto a sort of thin netting that allows further dummies in costume to be illuminated through it. It’s a rock concert finale to a symphony of memory, allusion, art, ephemera, light, shade, tone and poetry that also tells you whose shirts he wears. Because of the venue, most publications have sent their art critics to review the show, and many have failed to take its pulse. It’s art, but not as they know it.

Me? I was excited enough to actually see an original 1975 pack of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s famous Oblique Strategies cards, in a glass case, which influenced Bowie during his Burroughs cut-up stage.

This is what some of them suggest, in order to eliminate creative blockage:

  • Use an old idea.
  • Try faking it!
  • Work at a different speed.
  • Do the washing up.

Here’s the lyric from Blackout, which is displayed in the exhibition. You should try and see it, really.

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Oh, you can buy a publicity shot for the Diamond Dogs album taken in London, 1974 by Terry O’Neill, from a limited edition of 50, for £4,800 from the gift shop, or walk away with a Bowie plectrum for 75p. There’s plenty of other gifts in between, too, many of them V&A exclusives (and you can order online, but I suspect you’d rather handle and inspect them first). I hope they take this show on the road so that you don’t have to come to London to see it between now and August 11 (and most of the tickets have been sold already; the fastest selling show in Victoria and Albert’s history).

This is a show for all – that is, all the tall-short-fat-skinny people with an ear for David Bowie, not just Metropolitan dandies and tourists. Again, Januszczak is plain wrong when he says that the V&A looks ridiculous trying to be “down with the kids”. It’s not really aimed at the kids, although the kids might learn something (that Lady Gaga didn’t think of this, for a start), and I was impressed to see a very young school party queuing up when we popped back for the shop this afternoon. What a cool school trip.

  • Are there sections? Consider transitions.