Friday, December 12, 2008

The Celtic Tiger

So the Celtic Tiger is gone apparently: There's even a graffito on the wall outside the George Bernard Shaw on Camden Street to prove it: It has pictures of two waify-looking famine victims and the words "Hard Times" written in bold black letters. My suspicions were further confirmed by walking into a Spar the other day and hearing the ads on the radio over the speakers: All of them were ads for frothy, frou-frou Tiger-ish services, all having special sales, or 50% off reductions: Breast enlargement surgery, spa weekends and, my favourite, puppy grooming. You could hear the desperation in the ads: "Oh shit, all the fake money is running out! People are going to start spending their cash on double-glazing and good durable shoes again!"

Now, just as a Dublin Taxi driver will precede a racist tirade with the phrase, "Im not a racist, but..." , I feel the need to qualify my statements: Im not an economist, but: Didn't it seem a bit obvious that this was going to happen? I mean, even in the years when our economy was booming like the bass bins on a pimped out Ford Cortina, wasn't it plain to see that it was all a bit of a collective delusion?

We were being told we were one of the richest countries in the world constantly and that our standard of living was second to none. But sparing you the obvious tirade about Ireland's crappy food, weather, house prices, and so on, wasnt there a feeling in the air that none of this was particularly deserved? I mean we never seemed to be a hard-working, organised country like the Germans, or an innovative and powerful one, like the US, or any of the things that make a country "the richest country in the world". We mainly translate software for people brighter than us that actually make the damn stuff, put pills in bottles for the people that actually research them and um, sell houses to each other.

We seem to be, as a country, rather like a not particularly talented rapper from the Bronx, plucked from nowhere and given a shedload of cash on the strength of his single "Back Dat Shit Up (Niggaz Git Crazy)". Behind the gold rims, the smoked glass windows, and the Rent-A-Booty hoochies on each arm, the guy has basically just made out like a bandit for doing very little. And all the Faberge eggs and taste for Cristal Champagne just screams at you: "I grew up poor and Ive got a huge complex about it!"

So here we are. The bubble has burst and you just paid 400,000 Euros for a house in a depressing windswept housing estate in one of the more squalid corners of Northern Dublin. And there are several million Indians who would probably do your job better than you. If this were a movie you'd have streamers on you face and your party hat would have slipped down to a droopy angle.

The recent Christopher Guest film "For Your Convenience", shows a group of veteran B-Grade actors engaged in shooting a mediocre film on a Hollywood backlot. Out of nowhere a rumour spreads that the lead, played by the wonderfully homely Catherine O'Hara, is to be nominated for an oscar. Overnight the atmosphere changes, the actors start getting an overinflated opinion of themselves and a buzz spreads throughout the set. Catherine O'Hara gets herself remade in the image of a hollywood star: A total plastic surgery makeover, Bee-stung collogen lips, horrendous beach ball boobs and a completely refurbished face. And she looks, well, monstrous, her ordinary charms obliterated by the Hollywood star-machine.

And of course, inevitably, the Oscar nomination never arrives: The whole thing was simply a twitch on an internet message board with no basis behind it. The buzz dies down, but O Hara is left with a face like Lola Ferrari left out in the rain, a job teaching acting and no self-esteem. It seems the perfect metaphor for our little Emerald Isle.

Ireland was never, and still isn't, a dynamic and important centre of anything. It was always a cosy little Northen European backwater, the kind of place that Germans would come on their holidays and feel like they had travelled back in time. And like Catherine O Hara's face, we have ruined our homey charms with a huge and expensive makeover. We have tried so hard to be America, that we forget that America is already America: Ireland is a tiny little country, about as important in the grand scheme of things as Wisconsin, and hey, that's nothing to be ashamed of.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

On Premature Curmudgeonhood

In the godawful 80's Brat Pack Flick St Elmos Fire , there is at least one scene that made me laugh out loud - Demi Moore, in her role as Wild-Child of the suffocatingly clingy group of friends chronicled in the film, has a cocaine induced nervous breakdown of sorts, and locks herself in her swanky pink apartment as a self-conscious metaphor for the dying dreams of youth and the 80's. Or something like that.

When her friends finally manage to coax her out of her Drugs Hell , she delivers one of the "Message!" lines of the movie. She says to her friend with a deep wistful sigh, betraying her years of souless one-night stands and drug-addled parties in the maelstrom of Reagan-Era America and says: "I just never thought I'd be this tired at 23."

I laughed out loud. Not merely because I was never lucky enough to be that unlucky , having grown up in Ireland, lived on 20 quid a week for most of college (which made drugs stronger than Bavaria 8.6 out of my league), and sex was certainly never something I got enough of to get tired of it. . But mainly, because I was 32 when I was watching this sub-John Hughes schlock. Nearly 10 years older than our poor over-experienced heroine.

Well , I havent quite hit the age of Christ yet, and I am not about to go all Thomas Kinsella on you and start counting grey hairs in mirrors. However, I have had to admit that I have reached the age where the vast majority of popular culture is alien to me. In those hairy old Amristead Maupin books Tales Of The City, there is a part where the two 1970's libertines Michael Tolliver and Brian Hawkins are discussing what life will be like when they are old. They fantasize about a future where everything is reversed: Where they are the libidinous, feckless, pleasure-seeking ones, and their children have all become stone-faced Calvinists.

And I find myself thinking that for many of those of my, ahem, generation, there is something of the same feeling in the air. It is a cliche that every generation thinks the one after it to be more ignorant, lazy and shit-stupid than their own and it is not worthy of me to repeat it. But, it is hard to avoid the creeping suspicion that my generation seems to be the last one that was in some way kind of , dare I say it, cool.

It seems that in the 10 years since I was (oh God no) young, whatever remnants there might have been in the Mainstream mass culture (By which I mean TV, Radio and Movies , not piddling little corners of the Net like this) of some sort of independant spirit, have been totally wiped away. And I know it makes me sound like me da to say it: But I really do despair at times.

MTV, for example, though always a globe-straddling corporate channel, used to actually show music videos, quirky little offbeat cartoons, and live shows featuring geeky dorks like Ray Cokes. Could it ever in your worst nightmare have turned in to what it now has? It has actually turned into a propaganda mouthpeice for the worst kind of Selfish 'Fuck All Y'All' Capitalism imaginable. Endless Reality about unreal people, the Dumb and the Brainless, models, 'stars' and slowed-down, Steadycam wanderings through the diamond-studded fridges of the barely literate: "Dis here, bruh, Iz where ah keep mu Gatorade 'n shit."

And the pop charts. (Im sorry but I cant avoid it). I mean OK, my parents could despair of me and my friends rocking out to Slayer and Napalm Death back in the 80's. Sure the lyrics were all about rape, torture and ritual sacrifice -but it was plain to see that the guys singing it were harmless: Mostly fighting-fantasy geeks who were actually shy and polite under all that frizzy hair. How I long for the days when ugly people made music. Van Morrison? Way too ugly for MTV now, would probably have spent his career singing at team-building seminars and weddings had he been born 40 years later. And so on into tedium.

Well here, for what it's worth (Probably the paper this isn't written on) is my rocking-chair's-eye view of the state of the music the kids are into this days:

From what I can see, it is as if, like the massive conglomeration of corporate buyouts and takeovers that now leave us with 5 or 6 corporations owning 95% of everything. (Or something, this isnt Indymedia) - the pop world has resolved itself, after years of turmoil to essentially 4 'artists' , who are essentially avatars, who can take 100s of different forms, but whose essential being remains unchanged.

And they are:

(1) 19 Year - old blonde nymphet shakes ass and sings songs about money and fucking. All of the lyrics can basically be boiled down to "Buy my overproduced album and I swear Ill suck your cock." Sometimes this kitten is cloned 5 times and made into a group, but the content is largely the same. All are indebted to whichever genius it was that came up with the idea that there was something feminist and empowering about writhing around in undergarments for men's pleasure.

(2) Big black dude with lots of money. He would like to find as many ways as possible to tell you just how much money he has, how many things it can buy him (with brand names included), and how attractive this makes him with the ladies. He probably has a few stories about being shot to make him sound 'street' as well. This resonates with his target audience: Young overpriveleged kids, ashamed of growing up in plush suburbs, who wish to walk on the aural wild-side for 50 minutes.

(3) Young twig-like men, skinny, in skinny jeans, skinny ties, amd skinny haircuts, play skinny tunes on skinny guitars. They find it hard to see their fretboards cause their fringes get in the way. Most of the songs are about how difficult it is to have to go out drinking in nightclubs all the time.

(4) Sensitive emotional guy, has found a way to moisten gussets from Johennesburg to San Francisco, by singing songs that are designed by teams of highly-trained psychologists to be EXACTLY what any insecure young woman from 15-40 wants to hear. Thus lyrics are usually about both how beautiful the listener is, and (paradoxically), how it's inner beauty that really matters. Some of these guys are so sensitive and melancholy, that they remain melencholy even after becoming a multimillionaire and marrying Gwyneth Paltrow.

Out of Ones Head - the persistence of bullshit.

I had ambled into a second hand store the other day and picked up a copy of Sam Harris' "Letter to a Christian Nation" , which I have been flicking through in the idle moments before bed.

And for me, as an atheist, it read as a statement of the obvious. Stuff that, to me at least is so clear as to be boring: God doesnt exist, the Bible is full of contradictions, there is no parity possible between science and religion: One is a truthful and honest way of looking at the world, and the other simply isnt.

But it set me to thinking as I was on my way to work the next day: People like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, and all the rest, spend an awful lot of energy trying to show us how ridiculous and self-contradictory religion is. Of course they are correct: The core beleifs of Christianity can be punctured by any reasonably bright 10 Year Old - the interesting thing however is this: Atheists already know this, and religious beleivers are not likely to be convinced by any arguement, however clearly laid out. Ok, but , so what?

Well then it occured to me: Maybe religious beleivers are attracted to religious ideas, not in spite of their ridiculousness, but because of their ridiculousness. Let me explain: There seems to be some inate human desire to transcend rational thought: At times, all human beings try and find ways of not making sense just in order to feel free: Think of that Police Song "Doo-doo-doo-dah-dah-dah.", for example: The Lyrics being about how sometimes, Sting feels like just singing a nonsensical song cause "logic ties me up and rapes me." (I apologise for mentioning Sting in polite company.)

Doesnt this desire find it's way into so many things that human beings do ? (including religious belief). For example, we look at somebody hammered out of their gourd on rotgut booze and think "So sad, why would somebody want to get in that state...talking rubbish, making a fool of himself..." , when really, it's being "out of it" that many of us seek, that's the fun of getting drunk: "Oh man, I was so smashed last night I took a whizz in the tumble dryer."

Or look at most contemporary art: Everybody knows that 99% of it is pure bullshit and makes no sense, yet many of us are transfixed by the idea that the artist may be creating "new ways of speaking or expressing themselves" , and we love this idea and are willing to give millions to people who can embody it.

For all that logic and reason has built the roads and hospitals and schools and democracies that sustain us, most of us want to escape it for some of the time. That seems to be something that people like Sam Harris miss. Their arguments are solid, but they are arguing against people's inate desire for bullshit.

Think of it this way: If Jesus was a matter of historical record: This guy did these things, wrote a book, and died, he would be simply an interesting historical figure. Its precisely because the stories about him are shady, full of conjecture and self-contradiction, and huge parts of it blatantly made up, that it has become something it is possible to be 'religious' about.