Thursday, 22 January 2015

Ed Sheeran has ruined the acoustic guitar.

When not ruining acoustic guitars, Ed likes to smear the entrails of Teletubbies on his forearms.

It is peculiar to hate an instrument. But I do. Well, at least a variation of one instrument, a sub-instrument if you will. The acoustic guitar. Like Carrie Bradshaw's laptop, it is an object which is now almost exclusivley used as a tool for faux-profundity and cringey narcissism. 

It wasn't always like this. The acoustic guitar once retained a cool, stripped down, beatnik air to it. It conjured up images of Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake-types tramping from dank basement bar to dank basement bar, scratching a living. Going back even further, it was the instrument of choice for blues artists like Robert Johnson and Lightnin' Hopkins. They made the guitar howl like a wolf as they spilled their weary souls. 

But now that is all changed and most of the blame can be laid squarely at the feet of one man. Ed Sheeran. Before we begin to dissect Sheeran's pernicious influence on the acoustic guitar, it is important to note that the acoustic guitar's coolness, its air of intrigue, has been on the wane since 1995. A year earlier, the acoustic guitar had its last great moment when Nirvana appeared on MTV Unplugged. While I'll admit to not being as enamoured by Nirvana's musical output as others, Kurt Cobain was coolness personified strumming that acoustic axe. But a year later, the acoustic guitar took a near fatal hit.

1995 was the year Oasis released Wonderwall. It's not that Wonderwall was a bad song, it's fine. It's that it was a sort of Helen of Troy moment for the acoustic guitar. If her face launched a thousand ships then Wonderwall launched a thousand dickheads insisting on playing it everywhere from house parties to barbeques. Its appeal lies in its ridiculously simple chord progression and instantly recognisable lyrics. It is said (by me) that at a music festival, you are never more than 10 feet away from a slightly inebriated, fedora-wearing dickhead playing Wonderwall. 

But the acoustic guitar survived. Barely, but it did. Though wounded, it still retained a whiff of the mystique, the allure that had once made it one of the default tools of the tortured artiste. Then along came Ed Sheeran. Again, similar to Nirvana, the quality of Ed Sheeran's musical output is not under analysis here. I'm not a big fan but that is wholly irrelevant. You can enjoy his music and still agree with some of the points I make. He is undoubtedly very talented and that is not under question here. 

Thanks to Eddie's questionable impact, however, I can't take any acoustic guitar player seriously any more. To me, they all appear the same; a mish-mash of wanky angst and infuriating self-obsession with their own perceived talent. I know it's irrational - it truly is - but I'm not claiming these observations are rooted in logic. Ed Sheeran has done this. He's reached that level of superstardom, in Europe anyway, where his music has genuinely instigated a shift in popular culture.

For some musical 'purists', he is the rose among the thorns of mainstream chart music. Popular wisdom dictates that, while the likes of Iggy Azelea and Justin Bieber use drum machines and auto-tune to supplement their questionable talent, Ed is a natural, workmanlike talent who doesn't need expensive frills to shine. It's an image as carefully crafted as any major pop star's but it is especially popular among fledgling musicians as it gives currency to the flimsy notion that all one needs to make it in the music industry is hard work and talent.  

And so, every spotty, checkshirt-wearing, beanie-wearer and their dog want to emulate Ed. Other major artists have benefitted from the gap Ed has created in the mainstream market. While it would be disingenuous and a tad disrespectful to claim people like Tom Odell, Ben Howard, Passenger and now Hudson Taylor wouldn't have found success in the pre-Ed Sheeran music world, they've certainly profited from the shift in popular music culture that Ed Sheeran has initiated in the last three and a half years. Ed Sheeran is The Beatles in the wake of the British Invasion in 1964, while the aforementioned artists are the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Who, tramping along the trail the Beatles laid, if you want to use a music-based analogy.

The victim? The poor acoustic guitar. It has lost its je ne sais quoi. It has been gobbled up by the mainstream machine, chewed and coughed up ignominiously. It is not the first time a once cool cultural artefact has been ruined by over-exposure; the acoustic guitar has joined a sorry club which includes tattoos, snapback caps and t-shirts with Che Guevara's face on them. Can it be reclaimed? Not in the short term. So long as Ed Sheeran's influence keeps his disciples clogging up street corners and bar stages with their soppy brand of melodramatic shite, the acoustic guitar's coolness will continue to suffer. 

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Why do terrorist attacks like Charlie Hebdo give rise to Western Exceptionalism?

The west should reflect on how its policies can be a catalyst for terrorist attacks like Charlie Hebdo.

When noncombatants are killed in drone strikes then, it is no more an accident than an inevitable consequence of war, and therefore no less intentional than the murders committed in France earlier this week

- Suhail Patel

The RTE 6-1 News had a very interesting montage to accompany their coverage of the horrific attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last Wednesday. After they had reported on the day's events in Paris, they went to a background piece to  contextualise the terrorist attack. This is the "latest in a series of attacks in parts of the world where people are used to feeling safe", the reporter opened with. The language used was interesting to say the least.The report then listed five separate terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic extremists in the West in the last decade and a half or so from 9/11 to last month's hostage situation in Sydney.

It would have been interesting had RTE decided to produce a similar montage on the destruction visited upon countries in the Middle East by Western countries in the last 15 years. Heck, they could have produced one from the last 5 years and it would have been just as dramatic. They could have featured the Yemeni wedding where 12 civilians were killed by a drone bombing in 2013. They could have featured the 11 children killed in a NATO air strike in Afghanistan in the same year. Or they could have mentioned this year's drone hitlist with at least 82 people killed in Yemen, 114 in Pakistan and 18 in Somalia (these are the most conservative estimates). They could have even branched out to the countless Muslims - many of them guilty of no terrorism charges whatsoever - detained, interrogated and in many cases tortured by the US and some of its allies in the last 10 years. They'd have a lot of material to work with, to say the least.

Ah, but there's a difference. The West doesn't intend to harm civilians (Even though it habitually and consistently does). The West is fighting terrorism. Their terrorism is aimed at threatening our way of life and our much vaunted institutions and social freedoms. They're driven by a mindless, autocratic idelogy while we are the benevolent and reluctant soldiers of democracy and freedom. 

What we in the West lack in the aftermath of incidents such as the Charlie Hebdo massacre is a sense of introspection. We almost instinctively revert to an attitude of moral and cultural superiority which helps us explain the roots of the terror imparted upon us by so-called radical Islamists without inspecting whether our own actions might have had a part to play in sowing the seeds of hate which fuel these attacks. Shortly after 9/11, George W. Bush, in a statement to the US Congress, claimed Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda attacked the US because  "they hate our freedom."  This laughably ignorant statement ignored the true roots of the terror attacks on 9/11 which were varied and related mainly to the inflammatory actions of the US in Islamic countries in the preceding half-century. How do we know that? "Because they fucking said it", as David Cross so succinctly pointed out.

We've got a similar situation on our hands with the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The reasons for the Kouachi brothers and Am├ędy Coulibaly embarking on their reign of terror are simplified to their supposed disdain for "our way of life" and "freedom of speech" and because they are grossly offended by publication of images of the prophet Mohammed. We don't pause to consider whether the West's actions in the Middle East have anything to do with it. We don't even pause to listen to what the terrorists say because if we did, we'd have a much better idea of why the Kouachi brothers did attack the offices of Charlie Hebdo and why Coulibaly did kill four hostages in the Kosher supermarket. 

In the aftermath of the killing of Lee Rigby in London in 2013, Glenn Greenwald wrote that, though "Islam plays an important role in making these individuals willing to fight and die for this perceived just cause" that "perpetrators of virtually every recent attempted and successful "terrorist" attack against the west cited as their motive the continuous violence by western states against Muslim civilians."

It was no different this time out. Amedy Coulibaly, in a video hastily recorded shortly after the Kouachi brothers had attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo, gives the reasons for attacking "France, Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish Grocery". He argues, "for what you have done to the Caliphate, for what you have done to the Islamic State, we are attacking you. You cannot attack us and expect nothing back in return." He continued, "You kill there regularly, you use your force, you kill our soldiers. Why? Because we live by Sharia. In our state we have decided that is how we live. We will not let you do that. We will fight, if Allah wills it." 

It should come as no surprise then that when Cherif Kouachi, the elder of the two brothers, first became radicalised by the "guru figure" Farid Benyettou in 2004, America and not France was the target of his ire. This was in the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq a year earlier and Benyettou and members of his Jihadi group were intent on fighting "holy war in Iraq". France famously declined to support the American invasion of Iraq. 10 years later, however, and France is part of the US-led coalition attacking Isis in the Middle East and still has troops in Mali fighting against the local Al Qaeda faction. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to say that these actions played a role in driving these three men to do with they did. 

This tragedy has initiated virtually no mainstream debate about the West's continued - and growing - presence in the Middle East. Instead, the onus has been on Muslims to take the blame for the attack. They're not integrating. Multiculturalism is a failed experiment. They're not doing enough as a community to stamp out the extremist elements. I'm not attempting to justify the attack. Nothing can justify such heinous crimes as those which were perpetrated by the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly. I am simply arguing that we must change the dynamics of the debate if we are really serious about combating Islamic terrorism. There is no secret plan to draw Europe into a global Caliphate, as Ian O'Doherty in a moronic piece in last Saturday's Weekend Review in the Irish Indpendent seemed to imply. The good-evil narrative should not wash this time. 

Because this isn't about ethical or moral values. This is actually how we should be going about stopping terrorism. As Chomsky once said, "Everybody's worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there's a really easy way: stop participating in it." As long as the West continue to kill Muslims in their countries - and I think we're long past the risible notion that we're doing it in the name of "freedom" or "democracy" - extremists will want to kill Westerners in their countries.