On Age, Empathy and Class – Billy Bragg, in review

As Billy began to approach the chorous of  ‘Scousers Don’t Buy The Sun’, audience members rose to their feet and at the songs end, Bragg showed his trademark compassion by raising a fist of solidarity for those affected by the Hilsborough disaster, “Justice for the ’96!”

Sporadic standing ovations were a footnote of the evening. When Billy Bragg’s name is on the ticket, every utterance gets an enthusiastic response.

Sexuality’ had been repeating on loop in my head ahead of gig day and as fate would have it, it was his opening number. He squeezed in a cheeky “Don’t threaten me with Morrissey” lyric-change to keep things topical and segway into Brexit talk when the time was right.

There’s a distinct lack of social commentary in today’s music so thank Marx he doesn’t rely on his prior success to sell tickets. Once musicians reach super-stardom, they go one of 2 ways: exclusively play new material and only begrudgingly play old hits, or try to incorporate as many fan favourites as possible inbetween the new tunes. Of course, the bard of Barking went the way of the latter. Most of his new set was proceeded by succinct explanations of the recent political motivations behind their inception: King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood came about after recent Climate Change discoveries, and Saffiyah Smiles was inspired by a muslim counter protestor at an EDL rally in 2016.

When he did mention Thatcher it was a clever recontextualisation of the phrase ‘it doesn’t feel like my country anymore’,

“I can understand that sentiment because that’s how I felt in the 1980s when Thatcher got in again, and again, and again.”

The sincerity of his down-to-Earth demeanour is transparent by the pathos of his speaking voice: he hasn’t lost his Essex accent! None of his impassioned words tugged on my cockney heartstrings more than his send-off, “I’m Billy Bragg from Dagenham, Essex. Goodnight”. I grew up a stone’s throw from his hometown so I was most looking forward to basking in the nostalgic comfort of over-pronounced d’s and t’s. And I was by far the youngest face in the crowd. My sister and I guessed the average age would be 46 but we were as misguided as my attempt to locate the toilets after 2 cocktails and a fruity cider.

“At one of the gigs the crew were handing out bottles of water and I thought ‘Hmm. It’s a 2 hour show, and well… my audience…”

He’s genuinely funny. Like any outspoken activist with the audacity to care, he balances self-depreciation with earnest ruminations on the big stuff so as to avoid the inevitable eye roll of the cognitively dissonant. I nodded ferociously as he highlighted how unpopular it is to be empathetic and the absurdity of cloaking yourself in cynicism so you can appear ‘cool’, “the enemy isn’t the Daily Mail or conversativism – it’s cynicism.”

It’s difficult to vocalise these thoughts without facing the obvious backlash of being ‘on your high horse’ from people who would rather protect their insecurities and project their fears. Again, Billy pre-empts such judgement in his re-telling of a forward-thinking environment he played in,

“I was disappointed because it really took away from my moral superiority.”

It’s very clever how our self-serving society has shamed us into complacency but for those few hours we were free to care as much as we wanted about things that matter, yell out ‘there is a power in a union’, and there was no defender of stagnation present to sneeringly say ‘get over yourself’ as if the ‘self’ is the operative point. He also waited until the very end to play ‘A New England’, with a loving inclusion of Kirsty Maccoll’s additional verse to commemorate his friend.

In the words of the middle-aged balding man behind me, “Nice one Billy!”

 

 

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Buffy Turns 20 This Year; 8 Reasons Why We Love It.

Another win for our old friend Time.

Irony aside, a Buffy birthday is something to celebrate. Why? I polled a few friends of mine to ask why the show has a special place in their hearts and came up with some pretty unaminous answers… but you can’t have a blogpost that just says ‘BECAUSE IT’S REALLY GOOD‘, so let me expand.

Buffy Summers

We love to watch Buffy because she’s a multi-faceted heroine. Joss Whedon’s empathetic depiction of a female character enabled him to create a strong woman that anybody could admire. Her physical and emotional strength coexist with her interest in beauty and relationships, she can defend herself without being portrayed as a ‘bitch’ and her quips are just as loved as her looks. She’s interesting. She’s enviable. Or as mi amigo Adam put it,

‘Buffy is a kick-ass lady. And is hot.’

Big Bads: Vamps’ and Violence

Every episode delivers some fast-paced fight scenes courtesy of Mr Pointy and the Scooby gang. Vampires are textbook cool creatures: immortal, pretty and nonchalant, however they’re the arrogant enemy in a universe where ordinary humans are heroes. The Big Bads are often disguised as harmless, like ‘the trio’, who Whedon uses to highlight the threat posed by narcissistic entitlement.

Most of the fight scenes take place in the graveyard so we get a double scoop of spook, and you can often see the microphones in shot. So ’90s.

Coming of Age: The High School Setting

It’s the perfect platform for a lot of heart-wrenching character development, as my friend Bridie pointed out, and it enables us to look at the ‘cool kids’ dynamic with a fresh pair of ambivalent eyes. We follow Buffy on the familiar journey from angsty teen to reluctantly responsible adult and we watch her grow as if we’re holding a lens up to our own past.

Life Lessons

Buffy is so beloved due to its’ thematic variety. Some episodes are non-stop comedy, some are quasi-horror shows and others simply break your heart. The wisdom sieved into the making of each story arc (beyond the first Season perhaps) is Whedon’s way of sharing his own story in a way we all find accessible. He pinpointed the more discrete feelings we bury under the surface as though he was our personal psychologists, and that’s a big part of what gives Buffy meaning.

From depression to grief to unrequited love, no avenue of human pain was off limits.

LGBTQ Representation

My friend Bridie articulated it’s importance beautifully when she said ‘the relationship between Willow and Tara was the first instance of a female same-sex relationship I’d ever seen on television. I know a lot of queer women my age credit that as something that helped them feel comfortable in their own sexualities.’ Even now, onscreen lesbian love is often sexualised. Tara and Willow were so beloved because of how tender they were to each other (we’ll glide over the obvious error he made when dealing with a certain character’s treatment).

Spike

Spike isn’t really a villain because we don’t love to hate him, – we just love him. His aesthetic is based on punk rock Londoner Billy Idol and his personality reeks of a man trapped in the toxic masculinity of pretending to be tough when all you want is to feel love. We hate the things he does but only sometimes. His backstory shows us the sensitivity his current incarnation denies him and his flawed relations with Buffy are ultimately endearing.

He’s there to remind us that nobody is entirely evil/give many fans a sexual awakening.

Five By Five

Quips and puns line the mouths of each character, whether part of the Scooby gang or not. Whedon has the talent of any hugely successful writer in that all Sunnydale residents speak with alien vernacular, where phrases like ‘totally wigging‘ and ‘five by five‘ apparently make sense. Despite this, every piece of dialogue is paced to perfection so it never feels stilted or unrealistic.

Once More With Feeling

The musical episode is one of the greatest pieces of television aired to date. Importantly, the show doesn’t take itself too seriously and thus throwaway humour and cheesiness is imbued into each installment of the chosen one. The musical episode is masterful because it gives us a dose of something different while proving that experimenting with format can pay off.

The list could go on and on….

It’s camp, dated and hugely sentimental but still it stands the test of time. Buffy is the show that inspired lots of young women and made many alienated young people feel as though they weren’t alone after all.

Netflix Recommendation: Jen Kirkman – I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine)

As the flippant title of her stand-up show suggests, Jen Kirkman isn’t afraid to get real with you. She speaks candidly about topics such as sexuality, married life, divorce, age, masturbation etc. with a clear foundation of autobiography. Anecdotes in comedy can border on boring when a comedian doesn’t know which bits to cut, but Kirkman’s delivery is concise and acerbic with frequent pay-offs. Plus, there’s nothing affected about her persona.

I confess to becoming aware of her through this special, possibly because she isn’t as famous in the UK yet. Only some sections of the hour-long set are observational, allowing her cynicism to sidestep any sense of superiority.  While watching, I kept imagining her as a sarcastic work friend whose dry wit spares you from small talk. It’s frequently said of performers that ‘you want to be friends with them’ and this was the likely capacity in which I pictured our interaction. This may be due to her insightful perception of the everyday and her sharp analysis – she’s matter-of-fact without being crass and her viewpoint is especially accessible to deep-thinkers and realists.

An inexplicably flattering shot from this angle, kudos to her cheekbones.

Before we see the main show, there’s a naturalistic short depicting show preparation whereby she sits with a friend. The comedic tone is subtle and the audience experiences the first slice of her ‘show, don’t tell’ style. The same goes for the final 3 minutes of faux ‘behind-the-scenes’ footage, verifying our impression of her comedy as exploratory and nuanced. I also recently discovered her Twitter and Instagram pages are worth following if you want more truth-telling interspersed with silly jokes.