Alan Moore

DEFYING HOMOGENOPOLIS

The picture heading this piece up is one of several I took of a guy dancing to the music a talented saxophonist was playing, as he busked outside a store that had closed in the centre of Nottingham. A new shop has replaced the failed one, with peristaltic inevitability. Just don't ask me what it is. All I can tell you is it's one or other of the branded stores that you can find anywhere round the world, for the convenience of consumers who believe that a familiar logo will present them with peace of mind in whatever transaction they want to make.

A brand is a promise and a promise is a lie, more often than not. Back in the day, if you wanted a pair of shoes you'd go to whoever made them in your area. There might only be one provider, and hopefully they'd know what they were doing. Maybe there was more than one, each offering something the other couldn't. Now, it's a different story - and remember that word story. There are many shoe shops in town, differentiated by arcane marketing methods according to the demographics of the area. Somewhere down the line, data has been crunched and a customer profile concocted, and lo and behold - you're no longer a fully fledged human being. Instead you're a consumer, noteworthy only for how you spend your money, and funneled by the full panoply of advertising and marketing techniques to the right shoe shop for members of your tribe. You could be in Brussels or Los Angeles, and much the same would apply.

This process of homogenisation is predicated on a lie, remember?  Brands promise consistency - of service, of outcome - when neither are possible in the world we inhabit. We want to believe that, and to do so we get involved in creating distortions, using additives to ensure our company's sauce has the same colour and flavour throughout the year even though the provenance and quality of the ingredients changes. I read recently about some customers of an American food chain called Chipotle complaining about leaves in the food they ordered. Which there were. Bayleaves. To create a particular flavour. I wonder if Chipotle will acquiesce and remove the bayleaves or use a powdered form in future, so customers aren't troubled by reality. The customers themselves are blameless - it's not typical in the experience of eating at a takeaway you're presented with bayleaves. Bit by bit they've disappeared from popular consciousness, like the rosemary bush that grew outside the McDonalds near where I live and then wasn't there one day.

I don't know what store has replaced the one in the photo. I do know I'll remember the saxophonist and the dancer for a long time. They made me smile. They were a beautiful interruption to my day. A spark of humanity and humour, something unprogrammed and all the more delightful for that. Sure, the busker was asking for money - but he wasn't promising or implying that my earnings would increase as a result, that my cholesterol would decrease, that relationships within my family would improve. That's the branding lie, the one we hear countless times every day here in Homogenopolis.

There's a book. Spirits of Place, edited by John Reppion. And it explores a whole variety of places, from Rajagiriya in Colombo, and the various places in Iceland where elves are discussed with more seriousness than they tend to be elsewhere, to the sea forts of Southend and the streets of Mexico City. It's a rich and rewarding collection of essays from a variety of contributors, the most celebrated being Alan Moore. Thanks to this book I'm now eager to explore more of the work of Vajra Chandrasekera, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Damien Williams and others. In very different ways, they all succeed in excavating the intertwined histories and mythologies of areas they have a connection with, and how those intricate stories affect the way people do what they do, irrespective of the ravenous ticktock of the branded world.

You are who you are in large part because of where and when you are. Pay attention to the pulse of what's happening around you. We've been deceived, told that what is presented on screens by some or other organisation that you matter to only as a consumer is more important than what's unfolding at the end of your road. And it's simply not true. Not far from the end of my road is Rachel, who in the course of running a charity to support women and children refugees vulnerable to sexual exploitation has made media appearances. On a tv show she spoke on Rachel was asked not to say words like terrorist and ISIS, which limited what she could speak about and made her message more generic, less likely to scare advertisers or bring truth into someone's midday viewing. 

It might seem that Starbucks has existed forever, but it's just another coffee shop among many. Go there by all means, but ask yourself why you've chosen that place to have your morning pick-me-up and not the cafe nearby run by a local family. The fact that Starbucks occupies a lot of your cognitive real estate doesn't actually make the coffee there any better. Maybe the local cafe will write your name on the cup, if that really matters to you. And sometimes locals will find a way to adapt the branded world to the way they like to do things. Cigarette papers are used just for that by everyone I know. But for some griots in Africa, putting a cigarette paper in the neck of their instrument gives kora strings a touch of distortion that's effective in some songs the wandering storytellers play

Interesting that one aspect of service Starbucks hit on was that - personal attention is something people will pay for, even if the truth of the matter is more complex. There are a couple of cafes in town which trip all the switches that say handcrafted and unique, but are owned by a conglomerate that's realised the value of not having a brand. And that McDonalds, which used to have the rosemary bush outside? Walking somewhere helps to stir my thinking, and sometimes it's to the McDonalds. I've spoken to a few people there, and heard their stories, like the woman who was planning her brother-in-law's funeral and turned 60 the same week.

A blue-haired teenager works there, with bright eyes that drink the world in. She grew up in Dubai, to an Egyptian/Palestinian father and Welsh mother, going to an international - ie American - school where when she left the librarian gave her a censored copy of 1984 with all the references to pigs and pork whited out. She saw me reading Spirits of Place, and liked the cover, and she was fascinated, growing up part of several worlds as she has, and with a copy of Bulfinch's Mythology at home. I popped in a couple of days back, and she told me she expects her copy of Spirits of Place to arrive any day. The rosemary bush is gone, but not the memory of it - the herb improves memory after all - and next time I see her I'll tell that tale, and ask for one of hers. It's what people do, and when we do it just because we can, and not with an eye on profit, we recover a little bit more of our humanity outside the reach of spreadsheet entries or MRI investigation, and which might lead you too to dance outside a vacated shop one day when you hear music that makes you shine.

When the weather is good, I walk further up the road, to a Portugese cafe, and though the original owner has moved on it's still a place I treasure, and remember my father taking her by the hand and dancing with her as Frank Sinatra played. Next time I tell that story, I might instead say a rhumba was on the radio, and that's fine too. Part of the beauty of stories, is that - unlike brands - there's never even the pretence of consistency.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us (and a quotations website reminds me) "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds". Think about that next time you pass another shopfront promising familiar names at a newly opened store in Homogenopolis. 

 

 

THEY'RE JUSTIFIED, AND THEY'RE AWKWARD, AND THEY KNOW WHAT PRICE IS MONEY

Prince was active in controlling his music so he would be involved in determining its availability both to fans and in commercial contexts such as soundtracks - it's not just about the money. Since his death a gaggle of his relatives in association with a bank have been working to maximise the revenues of his estate and as a result you will soon be able to stream some of his music. It's what he'd have wanted. Well, actually not. But in a consumer society people have a 'right' to more stuff because...well, because, OK?

Situations like this help me understand the stance of the KLF who in metaphorically torching their back catalogue ensured that such an outcome would never happen with their hugely popular repertoire. In doing so the financial loss dwarfed the million pounds they actually torched - and they got to control their legacy in a way that fits their stance as artists. The buzz about their return in some cryptic form in their Justified Ancients of Mu Mu guise 23 years after they went out in a blaze of something more chaotic and interesting than glory wouldn't have the same magic if their music was just another commodity to be plundered for the sake of a fill-the-airtime dance music retrospective for aged DJs to chat about on Channel 4.

Think about that should you hear Purple Rain in a burger commercial in the next couple of years. And be thankful the death of idiosyncratic creators removes the obstacles to accessing their creativity for exploitation across all media channels for your benefit, and the continued prosperity of the world economy.

When decisions are made solely on the basis of commerce, more often than not bad things happen. The distinction between Jefferson Airplane and Starship - their ultimate branding after being Jefferson Starship for a while - makes that very clear. In their first incarnation, their psychedelic take on the Alice In Wonderland story resulted in a song that's intricately woven into the history of late sixties American culture, Grace Slick's vocal on White Rabbit exactly the kind of thing many record companies would have wanted to moderate so as not to upset radio audiences in the midwest. A couple of decades later, their proclamation We Built This City was a statement of corporate intent, and had the sweet mystery and erotic allure of a spreadsheet.

We Built This City is itself about the desire of Slick et al to be recognised for their part in creating the musical landscape that record companies profit from, and is the sound of musicians crushed by that industry wishing they'd made some better deals back in the day and hadn't taken every opportunity managers lined up for them. Frank Zappa noted that the musical variety of the sixties didn't happen because of the execs at record labels, but in spite of them - old hands took chances on new music, and some of it became massively popular. Things went downhill when those execs hired people who at least looked like the bands and audiences of the day, whose typical desire was to put out pretty much more of what they liked when music was just entertainment, and not what they got paid for. Not that musicians have any sense of what will sell - one of Zappa's biggest moneyspinners was a whimsically created recording of daughter Moon Unit parodying the way her friends talked over a musical backing her dad concocted. Valley Girl led to marketing deals and a proposed animation series, demonstrating once again that pop will eat itself.

PWEI famously declared that Alan Moore knows the score, and that knowledge led him to run screaming from the mainstream comics industry and concentrate on work that he could not only create, but own. He'd signed a deal that made sense at the time, meaning the rights to Watchmen would revert to him when the comic went out of print. Only, it never has. And now it never will. Collecting it in graphic novel form wasn't enough for DC - more recently they've put out hardback editions of each of the 12 comics of the original series. Giving up on making amends with Moore, DC are now reinventing their superhero mythos once again, and this time embedding Watchmen into the core of that fetid lore.  It's the comics equivalent of Donald Trump's preference for being photographed in front of gold drapes at the Oval Office, heritage and status a frame signifying class supposedly shared by the subject of those images - the Vatican's been using that shtik for centuries.

With humungous corporations controlling the rights to more and more of the work creators have generated for decades, and digital media contracts typically set up to ensure the same continues to happen in new forms, the opportunity for artists to put out and control work they've cooked up diminishes, at least if they intend to make money from it. The question then becomes about goals and strategies, and pop having not only eaten itself but served itself up as next day's leftovers, weird mutations are happening. 

At some point, money ceased to be a measure of worth, and instead became something that could be gamed by elites to create more money. When people are getting rich on the basis of the possible future value of a hypothetical commodity, something strange is happening. You could argue it's decadent, only there's a lot of baggage around terms like that. Apply the same mentality to intellectual property, and you end up with Lego Batman - a digitally animated version of a plastic construction toy, used to tell a story about a billionaire who victimises mentally ill criminals concocted as pulp entertainment a few generations back. 

It's hard enough supporting yourself being creative. Stories about Van Gogh being valued only after his death get wheeled out at this point. Quite what he'd made of Sunflowers being available as a fridge magnet we can only guess. And why wouldn't it be? I saw a booth at a creative industries trade fair licensing images of Che Guevara after all, which helps explain why he's such a perennial icon, the Batman of revolutionaries. And Lego Batman? Against all the odds, it's a hilarious and sweet tale taking full advantage of the madness of that proposition. Inevitably, the soundtrack features a remix of We Built This City. It's a sign of the times.