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Too many genres spoil the plot…

So there’s already a forthcoming biography of Whitney Houston planned and early this year witnessed the disgrace that was the Big Book of Bieber. Recent years have seen a saturated music biography genre bulge with publications like  One Direction,  Amy Winehouse, and David Essex. Rihanna’s biography last year was ‘massive’ (apparently) in its shocking tale of childhood abuse, and even old legends like Ozzy Ozbourne and Keith Richards are getting in on the act of bringing out more books about their present and past. Indeed, music biographies are now amongst the most popular of genre filling the shelves ofBritain’s stores and households.

It’s about time then that Bard and Muse posed the question, what, precisely, is the popularity of music biography books all about? Good question I hear you chant- well, yes it is.

It’s tempting to think these books promise to reveal hidden secrets of the superstars we love; secrets we already sensed lingered deep within their souls, but secrets we need the confirmation of the printed word to finally lay to rest. After all, musicians are bound to be tortured souls aren’t they ( there have been seven Jeff Buckley biography’s in nearly as many years), or wild hedonists, or mental cases- and all the sordid and depraved details of their childhoods will be spilled out in ruthless detail by these books.

Clearly there is something about music biography’s popularity that involves revelation; a step-by-step story of the men and women behind their music image, from the mundane details of boy band’s whose industry-led rise is devoured at Christmas time by teenage girls, or the sobering sadness of tales of individual greatness, such as the popular Nick Drake and John Peel recent biography.

But the greatest appeal of music biographies owes something to the distinct mediums of music and books in themselves. When we see our favourite artist at a festival or a gig or on television, we see them briefly, we see them raw or we see them painstakingly choreographed, and we see them momentarily; albeit at their loudest and proudest. But what we don’t see are the curious details of lives, the story of spats and rifts and self-abuse and pain; the agony and ecstasy. We don’t see the hours of practice, the early days of being in a band, the tide of their fortunes, from early breaks to final bust-up’s. We get all this and more with books. We get the full story, warts and all, and for those desperate to seize every possible detail of their favourite artists, we get the reward too.

But do we? All this presupposes that music biography is a high-quality genre of books. It definitely isn’t. Clearly there are many cynical publishes seeking to bring out biography’s of artists who barely deserve a headline in a local paper. Then there’s the writers of these biographies’s, probably an estranged boffin who dedicated himself to learning every facet of a band’s existence and is looking to cash in on otherwise rather superfluous knowledge. And then of course there are the motivations of the artists themselves; having someone write your biography seems a great way to balance the books of all those expensive studio sessions and tours. It’s also a great way for the families of deceased artists to trade off on the memories of their prodigal sibling.

What is most frustrating about the music biography genre is the hurried feel that a lot of them seem to possess; many are poorly written or exclusively special interest. Few deserve their bestseller status, but this doesn’t stop more and more pouring onto the shelves. And whether you love them or hate them, it looks like every band worth their salt will have a bestselling biography if current trends continue.

Before there were horror stories, comedies, biographies, memoirs and adventure novels there were, back in them olden days, plain old books. What! But what kind of books! Well how am I meant to know?

Well actually the only available read was probably the Bible (part adventure, part betrayal, part tragedy, part inspirational…..) So, as the world modernised, its literature became increasingly categorized, though its difficult to credit the translating monks of medieval abbey’s contributing much to the thrillers, slashers and chillers section at Waterstone’s.

No, for our contemporary craving for genre categorization is a peculiarly modern phenomenon; in books, films, music, you name it, there’s a hybrid inter-genre blend just around the corner.

But is it really helpful? If we see any combination of books under the ‘WW2’ genre, do we immediately think, guns, death and blood?  Yet books about ‘WW2’ could be about anything; a tale of refugees, of concentration camps, espionage, heroism, tragedy- any number of tales of conflict, adventure and love set against number of wartime background’s.  The book could be from the perspective of either gender, from any age, from any country, from any narrator. Yet the reader, without further exploration, is only informed about, quite probably, the book’s most crude feature of categorization.  What is common about these books is not their genre, which is often merely background setting.

Initially, genre labelling was presumably meant to direct us, lo and behold, from idle ramblings around the book shop. We must presumably already know what we are in the mood for when we enter a book shop, just like a DVD store. But even now with browse-based,  internet-book ordering, online categorisation is instant, user-friendly and receptive to a few buzz words of genre, embellished only with a few sentences of description for those who bother to read the blurb of individual books.

So is it really helpful? Is genre a neat tool to negotiate the pitfalls of excessive, nondescript books. Hmmm….. And does it do the author a disservice? Probably.

Perhaps the most frustrating feature regarding genre is its inflexibility. A book which has elements of two genre’s, becomes a hyphenated mishmash or a brand new genre title which is relatively meaningless to the reader. Do we know anymore about the difference between a comedy and a romantic comedy, except that the former probably doesn’t end up in marriage or a relationship?

The memoir genre is a prime example of book categorization gone out of control. With many of Britain’s book stores conceding to celebrity and quasi-celebrity genre’s, ‘impulse buys’ now reflects the outstanding impatience in both the demand and supply of contemporary books, from publishers to purchasers.

Genre has also seen categorisation based on increasingly superficial lines; those same book stores and websites have ‘Russian Literature’ now all collected together, from Dostoevsky to Bulgakov, regardless of the novel. ‘Classics’ of English literature, now essentially means anything produced before we were all born.

For readers, genre-labelling seems to disguise as much as it directs, to restrict as much as it liberates. It inherently makes comparisons with other novels within the same genre and can only embellish on the attributes of any particular book by describing new themes of genre. Come on, give us some credit.

Worst Book In Town

The most significant book since the Bible is…rubbish!

We’ve never been more connected to the world. We’ve never been part of such a network of communication. We’ve never had such a chance to share our emotions.  We’ve never felt more alone.

Facebook is everywhere. It’s a film, it’s a book (kinda); it’s a social network which changed  and changes everything. It put us into around-the-clock contact with our friends (and our damned-exes!) and we can tell the world how we feel through its ceaseless cyber-tentacles. So, how does Facebook actually make us feel? Well, according to recent studies from Stanford and HarvardUniversityrespectively, Facebook’s presence as the connector of our online lives might actually be making us sad.

Facebook creates a kind of play, with actors, dialogue and storyline. It narrates for us how happy and active its cast of characters are.  We can judge which characters are happiest and we can delve into the lives of these characters and compare them to ourselves. But Facebook also offers a kind of limelight to certain protagonists and it is not at all healthy for the hordes of background staff who feel they are alone and not sharing in the happy world which Facebook projects.

We all patrol Facebook’s matrix of mundane messages in a bid to capture how other people are feeling and what our ‘happy’ friends are doing. We then approve or disapprove of the latest newsflash via ‘like’ and ‘comment’ buttons and we post our own ‘status’ to make sure we’re not being left out of all the fun.  But are we all actually having fun?

The Stanford University Research Project found that Facebook facilitates a feeling of being alone in our unhappiness. We only get a glimpse of other people’s lives via Facebook, and this glimpse creates a false impression. Facebook parades a succinct verdict on our happiness via carefully selected photos, biographies and tastes, including fallacious claims of liking the books we’ve never read and the films we’ve never seen. Facebook ultimately showcases our lives in cyber form, it roars along in a river of bullet-pointed verdicts of our lives. It makes you convinced everyone else is having fun. You can’t afford to be left out of this world of fun, so you tell everyone you’re having fun too.

There’s another aspect to Facebook making us lonelier though;  this is that the site can’t actually function without inviting constant comparisons between us all. Dave Hynes ‘is going out to a party tonight’ so clearly you should ‘like’ this because obviously I have my shit together and I’m going to a party.

So, my posting shows that I’m really happy and you absolutely hate it that I am happy because you are not. But I am not happy, I’m simply going to a party, which can’t have been a good party if I felt the need to tell the world about it.

But we are always happy in Facebook, even if there’s a huge disconnect to our happiness in real life. People like (thought silently hate) that Dave Hynes is going to a party tonight, and not that he’s an alcoholic. But if I did post that ‘I’m going to a party because I’m an alcoholic’ you would ‘like’ that I was brave enough to admit it with consoling pictures of water bottle emoticons. In short, I can’t be genuinely sad on Facebook without people liking my sadness. There is no corresponding ‘hate’ button, much to our secret disappointment, and there is no ‘f*ck of and die button’-though there is a content moderator. Why? Because Facebook must be a happy place of communication rather than a network for the real emotions of envy, suspicion and contempt. One feels the ‘liking’ and ‘hating’ of the deaths of our loved ones is a tide of postings not far downstream.

Facebook also makes us sad in a different sense. It simply amplifies the personalities of our friends in cyber-form. Have you noticed how certain mundane cretins monopolize Facebook? Every piece of newsreel is either posted by them or heavily annotated in a tempest of scribble. For me, three grand oligarchs have destroyed  my own Facebook  page with their tirades of bullshit, to such an extent one individual is like my own Facebook’s BBC News  correspondent.

The politican and philosopher Charles de Montesquieu would have ‘hated’ Facebook. In fact, most philosophers would have probably hated Facebook (though I bet they’d have had a profile page like the rest of us) but Montesquieu most profoundly. But he manages to encompass much of what Facebook is about with his aft-quoted ‘If only we wanted to be happy it would be easy, but we want to be happier than other people, and that is the difficulty, since we think them happier than they are’

So we’ve never been more connected to the world. We’ve never been part of such a network of communication. So we’ve never felt more alone.