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BORED OF THE DANCE - PODGRAM
STEPHEN FRY - 07 MARCH 2008
Hello there. Firstly may I thank all of you who have downloaded and listened to my first podgram. Since it was little more than an incoherent stream of reminiscence poured into a microphone by a man with no functioning right arm with which to type, the piece was not available to be read as a text blog. From now on, however, always assuming I am careful enough not to incapacitate other useful parts of my body, podgrams will also be accessible in classic text-blessay form at www.stephenfry/blog. The choice is yours – eyes or ears. Or both. Or indeed all four. You may have noticed too that the podgram was delivered through a heavy cold and a fog of sleeping pills and analgesic opiates: apologies for the concomitant croaky dopiness.
You may wonder why the podgrams can’t, like the blessays, be downloaded directly from www.stephenfry.com. Why must one go through the leviathan that is the iTunes store? I am afraid that no host that we can find is capable of dealing with the 1 terabyte plus of traffic engendered without crashing. And so we turned to the might of Apple to help us out. The problem we always return to is bandwidth. Bandwidth, bandwidth, bandwidth. Who would not prefer to pootle along the country lanes in a flowered gypsy caravan, rather than blast down the motorway in a colossal juggernaut? Trouble is, when you’ve a certain number of deliveries to make a van just isn’t big enough. Bandwidth, bandwidth, bandwidth. I sound like a 30s schoolgirl with a lisp. Bandwidth, bandwidth, bandwidth. What is she saying? Something to do with sandwiches perhaps? Or bandits. Bandits eating sandwiches and wearing bandages? We’ll never know.
Americans are no more irony illiterate than Britons or anyone else
Well. So. Thus. To the substance of this podgram. Since October 2007 I have been travelling around America making a documentary for the BBC. The idea is to visit every one of the 50 states that make up the great Union. We started six months ago at the top right hand corner in the state of Maine and will finish, in May this year of grace 2008, in Hawaii. Part paean to the continental Unites States and its matchless variety, beauty and almost preposterous grandeur, part journey of discovery through 50 entities, so diverse, proud and individual as almost to deserve to be considered nation states in their own right, part attempt to discover the nature and characteristics of the fabled “real America” whose citizens are so much more than the sum of wearisome cliché: red-necked gun-toter, bible-thwacking faggot-hater, egocentric freak, camp Hollywood gossip or ludicrous military figure shouting in sunglasses. We see a lot of New York City and Los Angeles on British television, and we see a good deal of sneering at religious cults, eccentric sex therapists and semiliterate politicians, but for those of us who have spent any time in the country, these are no more indicators of life in America, or conclusive characteristics of Americans than films about braying dukes and vomiting ladettes are clinching definers of all things British. If you are confused about what a ladette may be you can look it up (http://www.wordwebonline.com/en/LADETTE). God help you. Anyway. That is the idea. Not a propaganda piece for the America Tourist Board, if such a thing exists, but not an attempt to seek out the stupid, the mockable and the obvious.
Incidentally, forgive a detour here, but if there is one misapprehension about Americans that annoys me more than any other, it is the lofty claim, usually made by the most dim-witted and wit-free Britons, that America is an — ho-ho — “irony free zone”. Let it be established here, this day, that no one, on pain of being designated fifty types of watery twat, ever dare repeat that feeble, ignorant, self-satisfied canard ever ever again. Americans are no more irony illiterate than Britons or anyone else and the repeated assertion (and it is no more than an assertion not a demonstrable provable fact) is no more than a pathetic symbol of a certain kind of Briton’s flabby need to convince themselves of their sophisticated superiority over the average American. Now, don’t feel bad about the fact that you, dear listener/reader have, at some point in the past been guilty of repeating and transmitting this feeble myth, we all have. It’s lazy, easy and gives us a warm glow. My war on the lie begins now, and is not retrospective, so you need not feel ashamed. Only promise never to repeat it. Actually, even if you think it’s true, have the grace to recognise that such a clunking, tedious, oft-repeated cliché is so dull and well-worn that it almost doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not, it’s just plain tedious and only bar-stool bores and dull-witted gibbons would ever think it worth trotting out. Besides, it is ugly, graceless and rude.
Some American landmarks may be obvious and yet for all that impossible to ignore. The Grand Canyon for example: for our film crew to pass it by would be silly. And there are cultural equivalents. Most obviously perhaps musical landmarks. You cannot really travel through the Appalachians in Tennessee and Kentucky for example, without wanting to sample the clog dancing, banjo-strumming, guitar picking, fiddle-scraping, bass-slapping Hillbilly music known as bluegrass. Then there is the Mississippi River, from its mouth in New Orleans where jazz, zydeco and cajun music were born, through the Delta whence came the blues and up to Memphis, Tennessee, which styles itself the birthplace of rock and roll, and thence to Chicago where house music was first heard, a city that also has its own tradition of blues, jazz, swing, funk soul and rock. A few hour’s ride east will take you to Detroit, Mo’town.
If you add to this the rhinestone country music of Nashville, the gospel tradition abounding throughout the south, the Tin Pan Alley achievements of Broadway, the cowboy music, the West Coast sound and Seattle grunge, it is easy to look at a map of America and see an atlas of music. What a treat for me then to take those legendary trails.
Oh dear, this is an odd but, and I really must get it right.
I cannot BEAR …
No, that isn’t right at all.
I just don’t GET …
No, that isn’t it, either.
The thing is, trusted listener/reader, I have a problem with popular music. A real problem. It marks me out as an inadequate citizen of my time. I like to regard myself very much as a lover of the modern, a neophile, if you will. I like cars, computers, digital doodads, television, movies, just about anything new and shiny enthrals me. But, I …
It isn’t really to do with ancient versus modern
No, you see, I’m getting it wrong again, it isn’t really to do with ancient versus modern. It’s about something else, something quite other, something perhaps more profound.
Let me tell you about a moment, if you don’t know it, in a most excellent film called Running on Empty, made by the great Sidney Lumet, who has never really known how to make a bad film. It stars Judd Hirsch off of of of Taxi. I don’t know why people say “off of”. “You’re that Stephen Fry off of QI, people say to me.” And once, “aren’t you off of of the telly?” Two ofs. Anyway. Judd Hirsch off of of of off Taxi, Christine Lahti of Golden Globes lavatory fame, Martha Plimpton and the effulgent River Phoenix. Oh and Steven Hill, an actor with whom I’m ever so slightly obsessed, has one scene as Christine Lahti’s father … quite brilliant. The premise essentially is that Hirsch and Lahti, as Arthur and Annie Pope, once blew up a napalm factory as a protest against the Vietnam war, they thought the factory was empty, but there was someone there who was mutilated in the explosion and the FBI has been on their tail ever since. River Phoenix is their musically very gifted son, born on the run, who practises piano on a dummy keyboard, so unsettled are their lives. So, we witness them escape one near FBI bust and they arrive in a new town with new identities, River dyes his hair and enrols in the high school in this new town as Michael Manfield. He is destined to fall in love with the music teacher’s daughter, Martha Plimpton, but that’s later. We see him arrive, slightly late, at the music class. He gives Ed Crowley, who plays the teacher, his registration documents and is told to find himself a seat. Crowley continues with his lesson: he plays two pieces of music through speakers. One is classical, the other is, I think, a Madonna track. Crowley asks the class what the difference between the two is. There is the usual dumb silence you get when you ask a class of teenagers anything. Eventually one kid sticks up his hand and suggests, “one of them is good and the other is bad?” Crowley isn’t having that. “A matter of opinion, surely?” River shyly puts up his hand.
“Yes, Mr …. Manfield?”
And this is River’s answer: “You can’t dance to Beethoven.”
Crowley is delighted by this.
You can’t dance to Beethoven.
So there we have part of my problem. Dance music. It is not that there is classical or modern, serious or popular, the division is between music you can dance to or music you can’t.
I know that much of what I am about to say is wild exaggeration, but bear with me. I want to address a terror that lurks within me, a huge beast on my back, a great maggot in my brain. You cannot expect too much rational talk from a fellow who is unburdening himself of his deepest fears.
This is not a blessay or a podgram in which I reveal that I prefer classical to pop music. That is a) dull, b) over-familiar, c) as mad as saying that I prefer air to food: both food and air are necessary and besides they each use different pipes, so preference doesn’t enter into it, and d) it isn’t true anyway even if it could be, which it couldn’t so there.
All that music I talked about in describing a journey around America? I love it all. Or can love it. I love country, blues, rock and roll, gospel, zydeco, jazz, swing, Tin Pan Alley, roots, bluegrass, hillbilly. Less keen on the West Coast sound, on funk, soul, mo’town, rap, hip-hop, house, R and B. Don’t hate them, just don’t like them quite as much. Outside America I have gone on record as to confessing a weakness for Led Zeppelin and Abba twin poles on the Euroglobe, but each as splendid in their own way as the other.
But this is not a Nick Hornby Man List in which I show off my knowledgeable, insightful eclecticism. I know a great deal less about popular music than almost all of my contemporaries. The point is that I do want you to understand how much I love, or can love, this music. It is important when I try to explain to you how much I hate, or can hate, this music.
It’s all dance music. Give or take. I mean, yes, some tracks are dancier than others, some styles are dancier, but essentially they are all about tapping those toes and swinging those feet.
I hate doing it myself
I hate dancing more than I can possibly explain. I hate doing it myself, which I can’t anyway, but I loathe and resent the necessity to try. I hate watching other people do it. I hate the way it breaks up conversation. I hate the slovenly mixture of sexual exhibitionism, strutting contempt and repellent narcissism that it involves. I hate it when it is formless, meaningless bopping and I hate it (if anything even more) when it is formal and choreographed into genres like ballroom or schooled disco. Those cavortings are so embarrassing and dreadful as to force my hand to my mouth.
If I listen to music, I like either to do it completely alone, so that if I am taken by the desire to move my feet and body (which is inevitable with so much music) I can do it unwitnessed, or I like to LISTEN to it, to hear the line of it, to follow the lyrics and to allow it work inside me. I do not want to use it as an exercise track for a farcical, meaningless, disgusting, brainless physical public exhibition of windmilling, gyrating and thrashing in a hot, loud room or hall. I do not want to use music as the medium for a mating or courting ritual. No one would ever select me as a sexual partner on the basis of my ability to froth, frolic and gibber in time to music anyway, and nor would I ever choose a partner by such desperate and useless criteria.
I can’t dance. It may well be true that guilty feet have no rhythm, but it is also true that perfectly innocent feet can also be unable to move persuasively or happily to the beat. I can’t dance and I SO do not want to. Or is it that I don’t want to because I can’t? No, I don’t think so. I can’t play football, golf, cricket to anything like a human standard and I want to desperately. Desperately. It really isn’t a question of being truculent and captious about it. I really, really, really hate dancing and have not the slightest milligram of envy for those who can do it. If there is such a thing as ‘being able to do’ the kind of dancing people routinely engage in. Not so much an accomplishment as an affliction.
The unhappy self-consciousness of the adolescent on the dance floor at school, or in the village barn dance or local disco is too well known a standard hero of rueful dissection for me to need to describe myself in that guise in too much detail. Here were boys and girls my age twisting, spinning and jumping at each other and they all seemed to know what they were doing. Had I been confined to the sick room with an asthma attack the day disco dancing was covered in the syllabus? How did they know which way to move,when to fling up a hand, when to spin, when to jump? When to look into their “partner’s” eyes, when to look at the floor? There was nothing written down, did it accord to some chord change or eight bar measure that I, in my hot discomfort And pop illiteracy simply could not hear?
Dancing around a handbag
Yes, it was true that the girls often danced with each other, or in desultory fashion around a handbag and yes it was true that some boys were gawkier, jerkier and less convincing than others, but that didn’t seem to worry them too much, they just got on with it. They had jumped in and they were being born along the current of the music. I was hanging on the bank, gazing in … what? Envy? Disgust? Misery? Scorn? Hungry sorrow? Actually, none of those things, I just wanted to be somewhere else. If I had been offered the skill and dance charisma of …. I don’t know, John Travolta, say … I would have turned it down. I found, from the get go, that a dance floor was a place I never ever wanted to spend any time at all. Not so much as a second of my life.To this day I cannot abide so much as a minute in a place where people are dancing. I find it simply unbearable. Think of it as an allergy. I hate films set in such places. Have never sat through all of Saturday Night Fever, Flash Dance, Dirty Dancing or any of those. I feel ill just picturing them: the leg warmers, the tights, the stretching and leaping … ugh…. And how people love to try and drag me to the floor. Just as I am tired of people saying to me “I’d really like to see you drunk one day, Stephen” I am tired of them saying “I’d love to see you dancing your head off.” Grrrrrrr.
Nowhere to run
There is a celebrated moment in Pride and Prejudice where Darcy squashes the blandly pompous Sir William Lucas, who has said something like, “There is nothing like dancing … I consider it one of the first refinements of polished societies.” To which Darcy replies, “and it has the advantage of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies. After all, every savage can dance.” We overlook the less than respectful language of the day, but actually the ‘savage’ element of dancing, the primal nature of it has returned to our culture and is the basic form enjoyed by most people in our “polished” society. At a pinch I would welcome that over the continued existence of endless long ballroom routines in which you have to be taught the steps of quadrilles, cotillions, gavottes, waltzes and so forth. I suppose the descendant of that ghastly form of entertainment is the vile terror known as Line Dancing, a proceeding so fatuous and horrible as to defy language. I have twice been caught with nowhere to run in one of those events. It was like being on the gymnastics mat at school, or in the infant Music and Movement room. The sweaty, ghastliness of it all and the silly hats and embarrassing clapping. Oh god, I’ve given myself hives just thinking of it.
And hell, that reminds me of childhood Scottish dancing lessons, hopping over swords. Or more recent holidays with friends with Highland Reels promised as an after dinner treat. ‘In this life,’ Sir Arnold Bax is reputed to have said, ‘you should try everything once, except incest and folk dancing.’ Eightsome reels. Stripping the Willow. The Roger de Coverley, whoever the arse he was. Morris Dancing, which is fashionable to loathe, I really don’t mind at all. In fact I quite like it, because there is never the faintest chance of being invited to join in. Organised dancing and disorganised dancing in which one is supposed to participate. Both of them fill me with dread and disgust. Yes, probably self-disgust more than any other kind.
Maybe it all springs from having to sing at school the Worst Song Ever Written — Lord of the Dance. ‘Dance then, wherever you may be, for I am the Lord of the Dance said he. I’ll dance with you if you dance with me, for I am the lord of the dance said he.’ And so bloody on. If ever a song were guaranteed to create a generation of atheists and non-dancers it is that one. ‘I danced for the sun and I danced for the moon. I danced at night and I danced at noon.’ I mean, come on. Seriously shut up. Shut so up and go so dreadfully and entirely away.
Classical music, we might as well use the term, is of course descended, like all music, from forms of dance. Even the most classical classical music has its roots there. Sarabands, gigs, minuets, galliards, pavanes, mazurkas, schottisches, waltzes, polkas and reels have informed the repertoire from the very beginning. You would be hard pressed to dance to a gig from a Bach partita however, or to boogy on down to the Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde. River was right. You can’t dance to Beethoven. Time signatures change and shift, there is no back beat, what dance rhythms there might be are played with in such a fashion as to discourage a tapping foot. Classical music is there to be listened to. It doesn’t make it better. I really, really mean that I do not believe that it makes it better, and I despise the snobbery and ignorance that is convinced otherwise. But it does make it better suited to Stephens. I can follow the line, lose myself in the music’s conflict and dialectical struggles, dive into the textures, surge with the ebb and flow of climaxes and surface again, all without pumping, primping and body popping. Again, I am aware that many of you, no matter how many times I repeat this, will think I am being all superior. So let me be absolutely clear about this. This is all a weakness, failing, problem, phobia, hang-up with me. It is something to do with physical shame, clumsiness, self-consciousness, pride in privacy, lack of co-ordination, all of which have culminated in a huge and insuperable hatred of losing physical self-control, in jumping in and joining in. The once sappy bendy young tree is now too old for anything to be done about it without his gnarled distorted shape cracking with a puff of dry dust, so it is too late to change.
It is more or less certain, statistically, that the vast majority of you listening or reading will love dancing and will be annoyed and upset to think that I am contemptuous of your adored hopping and bopping. I am not contemptuous. I think less of no one for loving to dance. I am fully aware that, from the most polished society to the most, hem, savage, it is what humans do more than writing, ball games, praying, knitting, riding, singing even. They dance in the mornings they dance at nights, they dance in their trousers and they dance in their tights. The whole world dances. Except Stephen and a few others. So do believe this. I am not in any way, not in ANY WAY scornful of those who dance, I am merely describing my allergic response. I am allergic to champagne as it happens, and this has given me a very healthy and natural distaste for it. I could describe the loathing and fear I have of the drink, but it would in no way implicate champagne drinkers. So let it be with Terpsichore and her art. I am allergic to it, but I do not despise those who are not. I can’t go so far as to say that I envy them, but scorn and derision? Absolutely not. Just don’t ever look for me on the dance floor.
And so when people ask me what I think of pop music, or folk music, or rock and roll, or whatever other kind, I never quite know how to answer. I like listening to it, there is much of it lifts my spirits, that speaks to my deeps, that cleans me out, cheers me up, flies me away. But as for going to concerts, being in rooms where it is playing, hearing it on television, at parties, in the street, having it pour from hairdressers, clothes shops and bars — well no thank you.
And if you think that means I’m an enemy of the people, an elitist, a snob, then I’m sorry I haven’t explained myself properly.
Thank you for letting me leak my unlovely torment all over you. Thank you for listening/reading. Until the next time. Fare well.
COPYRIGHT - STEPHEN FRY