Woebegone

sam-smith

Don’t worry son the bus will turn up soon

During a recent interview warbler Sam Smith explained the naming of his debut album (In the Lonely Hour) and he could not have not sounded more pitiful, “I wrote about being sad. Hopefully I’ll be happier soon and I’ll write about that.”  Colin Vearncombe who briefly enjoyed mainstream success under the moniker Black was equally despondent with his miserably infused 1987 hit single Wonderful Life, but unlike Smith, Vearncombe was making a not so subtle reflection of the times he found himself in where yuppies scoured the earth like apologetic zombies swigging champagne from Berluti handmade shoes. The Welsh band Racing Cars plunged the depths of misery in 1977 with their one and only hitThey Shot Horses Don’t They.’  The song, which is  based on the film of the same name concerns itself with a man who in his youth saw a horse break its leg, after which it was shot and put out of its misery. Arguably the accolade for most miserable song ever recorded would properly go to Buddy Holly for his 1959 effort ‘Raining in my Heart.’  The Beatles paraphrased ‘Raining in my Heart’ in their song ‘Dear Prudence’ as “The sun is up [instead of “out”]; the sky is blue.”  In 1978 self styled sad clown Leo Sayer had a hit with ‘Raining in my Heart’ and to cement the songs claim Robert Wyatt included a piano based instrumental version on his 2003 album, Cuckooland.

Recorded in 1990 and initially hidden away on the box set Tracks (1998) the Bruce Springsteen song ‘Sad Eyes’ takes some beating. The song was produced at a time when Springsteen was apparently re-evaluating his life. Enrique Iglesias covered ‘Sad Eyes’ in 2000. Sadly, Inglesias’ video for the track failed to capture Springsteen’s original intent. The video was shelved due to its sexual content. It depicts Iglesias alone in a motel room indulging in erotic fantasies about a girl he sees in a phone-sex ad. If you have just ended a relationship and you are surrounded in downcast misery I suggest you avoid at any cost Dusty Springfield’s version of “I Just Don’t know what to do with myself.”  First recorded by Tommy Hunt in 1962 Springfield recorded her version two years later with heart shattering effect Springfield delivered misery that has not often been matched, “I just don’t know what to do with my time, I’m so lonesome for you it’s a crime, going to a movie only makes me sad, parties make me feel as bad. When I’m not with you I just don’t know what to do.” The song reached number 3 in the summer of 1964 and remained Springfield’s highest charting UK hit until she reached Number 1 in 1966 with “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.”  

clown_468x582The point being made is the maze of love, hate, loss and fear we humans are required to navigate has and will always continue to provide creative output. It is the story of our fragile existence. It has been played out in classical operas, Shakespearean plays, sugar coated pop hits, movies and novels. Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave have cultivated misery into an art form, but unlike the phoney sadness often portrayed in today’s onslaught of manufactured pop stars Cohen and Cave have dragged the essence of misery from the bowels of their human frailty into carefully crafted stories and songs.  This is in contrast to the pity seeking artist feeding an equally self pitying audience, which we can increasingly witness today via disposable pop stars. The result is an overflowing eco-system of self flagellation between artist and audience, although there is of course benefits to an artist being in this predicament given they expect nothing good to happen in their miserable lives they will never feel disappointed or disillusioned by criticism.  It is not the art of creating a carefully crafted song of heartache that should be of worry, but the sheer quantity of banal misery based entertainment currently being manufactured and pumped out to an absorbing audience that should be of concern.  At the point of writing this blog of the top 25 chart singles 15 of the songs listed concern themselves with failed relationships, heartache and lost love with titles such as ‘me and my broken heart, love runs out and only love can hurt like this’.  

Fear in particular is a powerful and primitive human emotion. It alerts us to the presence of danger and was critical in keeping our ancestors alive. Fear can actually be divided into two stages, biochemical response and emotional response. The biochemical response is universal and the emotional response is highly individualised.  Whilst the majority of people will avoid situations in which there is a high risk of actual injury the experience of being scared in an environment that is actually safe has enabled an entire industry to be built. Horror films and violent video games are examples of this phenomenon, but repeated exposure to similar situations leads to familiarity. In turn this greatly reduces the resulting elation, leading people to seek out new and bigger responses to satisfy their needs. Sound familiar? Well, if you reflect upon the entertainment business over the past 30 years it tells its own story.

By the 1970s the tone towards more realism in motion pictures started to produce some harrowing films. Solider Blue was the third most popular movie at the British box office in 1971. Directed by Ralph Nelson and inspired by events of the 1864Sand Creek massacre in the Colorado Territory,USA. Released during the Vietnam War, shortly after public disclosure of the My Lai massacre, the film was controversial at the time not only for its subject matter, but also for its graphic depictions of violence. Nelson pushed the depiction of violence to explicit levels, showing nudity during rape scenes, as well as realistic close-up shots of bullets ripping into flesh. By 1992 Quieten Tarantino was shocking cinema goers with his debut film Reservoir Dog. The film received substantial criticism for its strong violence and language. One scene that viewers found particularly unnerving was the ear-cutting scene. It was reported that the actor Michael Madsen, who carried out the scene reportedly had great difficulty finishing it, especially after Kirk Baltz (playing the victim) ad-libbed the desperate plea “I’ve got a little kid at home.”  Meanwhile It took several complaints before a poster campaign advertising the film The Last Exorcism, which featured an image of a girl in a blood-soaked dress to be removed because it was deemed unsuitable to be seen by children. The adverts were posted on bus stops and on the sides of buses. Optimum Releasing, which ran the ads, said that the campaign was designed to target a broad, mass-market audience and intended to position the movie as a mainstream horror release with imagery “within the fictional context of this genre”. Once it learned of the complaints the company instructed its media buying agency to remove any ads displayed near schools. Last  year was a bumper year for horror films with the release of sequels, remakes and original materials with such titles as Dead before Dawn, Nothing Left to Fear, I Spit on your Grave 2, No One Lives, You’re Next, Evil Dead, etc.

Atari set the whole videogame craze in motion with its 1972 coin-operated arcade game Pong. During the arcade years that followed, Atari made several coin-operated hits: Breakout, Atari Football, Asteroids, Battlezone, Missile Command, Centipede, Dig Dug, Pole Position, Marble Madness, Gauntlet, and even a Star Wars arcade game. While the graphics seem rudimentary by today’s near photo-realistic 3D gaming standards, when consoles were first released in the late 1970s it was revolutionary to be able to interact with your TV set in such a way. The simple aim of the game Pong is to defeat an opponent in a simulated table-tennis game by earning a higher score. Allan Alcorn created Ponga as a training exercise assigned to him by Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell. Bushnell based the idea on an electronic ping-pong game included in the Magnavox Odyssey, which later resulted in a lawsuit against Atari. Surprised by the quality of Alcorn’s work, Bushnell decided to manufacture the game. Pong quickly became a success and is recognised as the the first commercially successful arcade video game machine, which helped to establish the video game industry along with the first home console. The violence in the 1997 Carmegeddon video game comes from the sheer ability to run people down in the most imaginatively brutal ways possible with a multi-purposed road hog reminiscent of those seen in the 1975 film Death Race 2000.  What separated 2000s Soldier of Fortune from the others in the field of violent video games was the use of the GHOUL System, a physics-based game engine that enables the player, for a lack of a better term,torture and brutalise enemies at your most sadistic desires. By 2001 the video game Grand Theft Auto 3 was offering gamers the opportunity to be entertained by barbecuing prostitutes with flamethrowers. The top selling video games last year included Grand Theft Auto V, Assassin’s Creed V and the Last of Us.  

‘A Child Called It’ was published in 1995. Written by Dave Pelzer it is a brutal book concerning his childhood of being beaten and starved by his emotionally unstable, alcoholic mother. As one review highlighted, “Dave’s bed was an old army cot in the basement, and his clothes were torn and raunchy. When his mother allowed him the luxury of food, it was nothing more than spoiled scraps that even the dogs refused to eat.”  Dave went on to pen:

  • The Lost Boy: A Foster Child’s Search for the Love of a Family,
  • A Man Named Dave: A Story of Triumph and Forgiveness,
  • Help Yourself: The Privilege of Youth, Help Yourself for Teens.

By 2009 Dave seemed to have addressed his demons in his book, Moving Forward.  Richard Pelzer (Dave’s brother) shared his demons with ‘A Brother’s Journey’ detailing his experiences of witnessing and participating in the abuse of his older brother. He also penned A Teenager’s Journey. Both Dave and Richard are available for hire as motivational speakers. The tortures of human existence expressed through the medium of book shows little sign of slowing down with anybody who has managed to garnish 15 minutes of fame and willing to share their unique sadness. The top selling 2013 book on the Amazon website were The Fast Diet. Whilst real life “tragedy” biographies were dominated by the author Cathy Glass and her offerings,

  • Cut: The true story of an abandoned, abused little girl who was desperate to be part of a family. 
  • Damaged: The Heartbreaking True Story of a Forgotten Child and
  • Another Forgotten Child. 

Whilst an epidemic of similar books sold in their millions including cheerful titles like,

  • No One Wants You: A true story of a child forced into prostitution.
  • Shattered Lives: Children Who Live with Courage and Dignity.
  • Nobody Came: The appalling true story of brothers cruelly abused in a Jersey care home
  • Handstands In The Dark: A True Story of Growing Up and Survival. 

On the opposite shelving from the ‘truth life stories’ the would be customer can also find an array of ‘self help books’ too. Should we even be bothered about the entertainment industry funding and commissioning such a high supply of  doom ladened, miserable, violent, emotionally heartbreaking material? After all would it be to sinister to suggest the entertainment industry is seeking to manipulate your emotions……….

Facebook, the world’s biggest social networking site faced a storm of protest after it revealed it had discovered how to make its users feel happier or sadder with a few computer key strokes.  In effect what Facebook did secretly, involved a study involving 689,000 users in which friends’ postings were moved to influence moods. Facebook were caught redhanded conducting a mass experiment in emotional manipulation. If government had been caught in the same way the outcry would properly have caused far more angry reaction. If manipulating our emotions is as simple as changing a few postings on our Facebook page what impact is the collective onslaught of misery based entertainment having on the populous in general? The key worry about the Facebook story is just how quickly it disappeared from the headlines and our subconscious.  When did we become comfortable and accepting of big business holding so much personal information, which we have given up voluntarily and then enables them to utilise this information to manipulate our emotions?

Culture is of course the manifestation of what we do, think and feel. It is vital because it enables us  to function with one another. Our culture is a way of life. It concerns itself with our behaviours, attitudes, beliefs, values, and symbols that we accept, generally without thinking about them, and this culture is passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next. Whilst violent force may win wars those who can influence a culture are more likely to have a bigger and more sustainable impact.  Manipulating culture for a defined end, or to secure an interest is nothing new. Hermann Wilhelm Göring was a German politician, military leader, and leading member of the Nazi Party. He founded the Gestapo in 1933, and later gave command of it to Heinrich Himmler who was the psychopath behind the final solution. In 1941 Adolf Hitler designated Göring as his successor and deputy in all his offices. So altogether not a vey nice guy. Goring made the following observation, “Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America nor, for that matter, in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”  

The sheer quantity of misery induced products being consumed may represent a race to the bottom of the entertainment barrel, whilst its creative producers are desperately mining  our sensitivities trying to discover new ways of stimulating our increasing fatigue. Certain trends in society, which run alongside the increased level of misery induced products being consumed are interesting to read:

  • Research in the USA provided data indicate that the percentage of people treated for depression tripled in the early 1990s with a more modest increase in the early 2000 era. About 75% of the patients who were treated for depression received antidepressant medications. (Eugene Rubin MD, PhD and Charles Zorumski MD, Phycology Today)
  • The number of young people aged 15-16 with depression nearly doubled between the 1980s and the 2000s. (Office for National Statistics (1997): Psychiatric morbidity among young offenders in England and Wales).
  • The proportion of young people aged 15-16 with a conduct disorder more than doubled between 1974 and 1999, (Nuffield Foundation 2013 Social trends and mental health).
  • 39,518 suicides were reported in the US in 2011, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for Americans.
  • Suicide is a significant national social issue in the UK; 6,045, 5,608 and 5,675 people aged 15 and over committed suicide in 2011, 2010 and 2009 respectively.The number of male suicides in 2011 was the highest since 2002.

There is of course no scientific evidence linking the onslaught of misery produced entertainment with the statistics set out above. Our ignorance will be our ultimate downfall.

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