Paul Morley's Showing Off... Michael Nyman and David McAlmontDec 25th, 2009
I don’t know about you, even at this time of the year, or the decade, or the century, but I think you can gauge the extent of my paranoia about the motives, methods and manners of the man still known as Simon Cowell when I admit that I’m not too convinced by all this Rage Against the Machine euphoria. Even at this time of the year, etc, it does not seem quite the moment to drop the wariness and cheerfully embrace the possibility that the Cowell reign is finally over, that his time as merciless, pompous maker of plastic temporary pop stars has come to an end. It seems far too early to imagine that his sickening magic powers have been stripped away thanks to a nicely planned, properly indignant protest campaign that seems to suggest that there are those that still care about pop music and the possibility that it might contain meaning, passions and energy which are not completely locked into its commercial value.
I am inclined to agree with the conspiracy theories, perhaps generated by me, that he, or his shadows, have to some extent set up this whole Christmas No 1 scenario, or at least have spotted ways to fold it into their long-term plans. I’m not suggesting this simply because Rage Against the Machine are a Sony act, the label which also release Cowell’s records, as much as this does take away some of the possible shine. It’s just the way that the whole event promotes the Cowell world, perhaps even more than if his vacant, clean-cut, conscripted X Factor winner had won what became an old-fashioned chart race.
In the long run, not having a Christmas No 1 this year suits Cowell’s relentless scheming, because now he can plot his moves next year as a perverted, rightly aggrieved sort of underdog, as opposed to the power-mad triumphantalist entertainment super-executive who was beginning to irritate even those who have previously found him agreeable, entertaining and fairly harmless. He can now enjoy playing out the idea of being a little flawed as a personality, but he has managed to organise this human sense of weakness and vulnerability without having to be at all Tiger Woods about it.
He had, over the past few years, clearly ruined Christmas for those pop fans who traditionally loved the way that the No 1 tended to be something of a surprise, whether a pleasant or nasty one. The way he’d turned this time of year into simply the inevitable guarenteed payoff to the flaming momentum his talent programme had generated must have even been boring him. Now he can fight back, as if something real has just happened, and not simply a DIY form of hype that has no doubt intensified his own bloated sense of self-importance. People care so much about his influence and presence that they have arranged this opposition. In the end, he has been able to use the occasion to act out statesman-like maturity, and Rage Against the Machine have been reduced to his level, and are now forever a part of the Simon Cowell universe. They are part of his circus, and he can pretend he has been taught a lesson, act a little contrite. Meanwhile, his overall cultural strength is not really weakened and he easily absorbs the solemn, het-up RATM energy.
And, of course, amongt many of his products and by-products perfectly tailored for the gift market, he has the Christmas No 1 album. This is being sold under the now well-known name “Susan Boyle” but it is, of course, another one of those tasteless, creepy albums Cowell tends to organise, manufacture and release, as though he is a sort of postmodern, post-reality TV James Last – a groomed, grinning, gruesome bandleader producing something that merely resembles music. His records, whether Westlife, Il Divo, Rhydian or any young X Factor winner, are always the sluggish works of the Simon Cowell Orchestra, and feature the same musicians and studio technicians designing and perfecting the basic Cowell sound, which is an emaciated, airy but airless, crudely tugging and often quite teary easy-listening formula that will appeal to those whose musical taste settles around Dana, Nana Mouskouri, Val Doonican, Cliff and Donny and Marie Osmond. (A regular member of the Simon Cowell Orchestra is Dave Arch, whose piano playing tinkles, simpers and trickles throughout the SuBo collection, and who leads and conducts the Strictly Come Dancing band, who also have that slick, eerie knack of making sound that vaguely impersonates music.)
But even if the Rage Against the Machine revolt is just another form of inflated internet-era novelty easily transformed into a tabloid shaped pointlessness that will simply lead to more Cowell power, combined with an obnoxious new sheen of mock-humility, it has made me think about the kind of No 1s Cowell’s dominance has stopped happening. The silly, or wonderfully unexpected, or even tackier-than-Cowell Christmas No 1s that never happened because spoilsport Cowell decided the nation should fall in with his woeful, neurotic taste in soft-centred ballads and puffed-up pop carols; taste which suggests he was emotionally stunted as a sulky, repressed teenager watching early 70s Sunday evening religious programmes featuring Harry Secombe and Moira Anderson.
Before RATM caused the rational festive upset and became a surpising Xmas No 1 just like in the old days, I impractically fancied this year’s anti-Cowell Christmas No 1 being the title track from the glamorously unclassifiable Michael Nyman and David McAlmont album The Glare. The Glare features the dramatic torch singing McAlmont taking various instrumental pieces mind-bending, vigilant Anglo-minimalist composer Nyman has written for various settings over the years and turning them into austere, voluptuous songs based on recent international and domestic news stories. The Glare is not quite a concept album, not quite a song cycle, not quite an abstract opera, not quite a surreal musical, not quite a sensual analysis of the function of journalism, not quite a discreetly experimental prog-rock gospel extravaganza, and not quite McAlmont’s eccentric, personal tribute to Nyman’s underestimated, often simply scorned, ecstatically insistent, ancient/modern contemporary compositions. I’d file it under pop, but then I would also file Cecil Taylor, Lotte Lenya, Red Krayola and Terry Riley under pop. McAlmont appropriates Nyman’s themes and structures to psychologically explore a collection of the life stories of the famous and the obscure, using Nyman’s shifting flashing motive music as a sort of protean atmospheric canvas.
Nyman has written instantly identifiable highly charged scores for a number of obsessive Peter Greenaway films, and in a way The Glare is the imaginary soundtrack to an enigmatic, investigative Peter Greenaway docu-fantasy about the strange, hallucinatory nature of a sometimes quite banal news story, and the way even the most trivial and domestic of stories can take on the qualities of myth. The Glare, the title track, is McAlmont’s touching response to the sad, distressing success story of Susan Boyle, and is a song full of life and soul that apart from anything else reminds you how little life and soul there actually is in the wasted music of Susan Boyle, even as the story itself is so curious and disconcerting. The brain-dulling Simon Cowell Orchestra work hard to gloss over and smooth out the edge, oddity, fear, doubt, desperation, loneliness and otherness of Susan in their commercially prudent efforts to tell us not the abrasive, vexing true story but a carefully scented and cloying fairy story. McAlmont and Nyman slip into the disorientating gap between the truth and the fantasy and produce a deeply musical response to a story that touches on music but that is mostly about fame, manipulation, the media and a catastrophic alteration in circumstances.
If The Glare had been a real-life Christmas single, it would have needed another side – let’s say that it would be part of a double A-side. David and Michael meet up one Monday afternoon in December at Michael’s north London house, where there is a convenient Steinway piano in the parlour, and work out what that the other A-side would be. Their choice is not the lacklustre Susan/Cowell choice, yet another obvious, ponderous rendition of Silent Night or Amazing Grace, ending up with exactly the kind of predictability Cowell has now noted he needs to attend to. The McAlmont and Nyman choice for a Christmas song is a whole different way of getting to the tender, wintry heart of things, a whole different way of making up a happy Christmas. As Simon Cowell has just found out, for real, or for showbusiness real, not everyone thinks the same way. And the real beauty of pop and music has always been that not everyone thinks the same way.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009