The Awkwardness Exchange: Boy George at EMI

This video (of unknown provenance, AFAIK) of Boy George and his manager Tony Gordon going in for a meeting with Daniel Glass has been doing the rounds. It’s worth dwelling on this, watching and rewatching it, just to try and pick apart the discourse of awkwardness which so often characterises this kind of encounter.

What is it about this exchange that’s so excruciating?

The art versus the commerce? (YouTube commenter mystic23LanaD: “if this is what one has to endure to create art and music i’d rather be tortured”)  – maybe, but tedious by now, surely.

The friction of cultural norms? (Plain-speaking Brits up against the ebullient vegetable-loving MBA positivity of the US exec) – definitely some of that in there.

Something about (in)authenticity? (George: “the music starts to sound weird, it doesn’t sound as good as it did when you made it”)  – closer to the mark, I think.

There’s something there about the music – and the ‘mere artist’ (if you can describe BG as such) – displaced and out of context, that gets us.

“It’s just so weird”.

Peter Szendy, in his book Hits (2012:74), describes the difficulty of translating lyrics that are ‘both so banal and remarkable’ (and I’d add: this also goes just for writing them down) – the ‘ridicule’ and ‘awkwardness’ he exposes himself to, by trying to capture on the page something that only exists in the moment of listening to words and music together; by ‘exchanging the unexchangeable’. We don’t really hear the lyrics as they are performed, not in the same way that we read them. More properly, we experience them affectively and physiologically, more than we do intellectually (the hit song ‘speaks and survives all the better in us because its words are so easily forgotten’, Szendy writes).

Perhaps this is why George feels like he’s going to throw up in these meetings, and why we recoil, physically, at Glass feigning utter disbelief at his good fortune, like the DAT he’s holding is a golden piece of the ark of the covenant, mouthing across the room his devoted commitment to the album. When the shoulders start slinking, Glass’s eyelids close, and the other executive (‘Francis’) he’s called into the room fiddles tetchily with her bottle as she struggles to emulate her boss (presumably, judging by the implicit power play going on). It’s Tony Gordon who wins the prize for most uncomfortable member of the consortium though: looking around the room and suddenly realising he’s stuck in the middle of the whole performance, this intermediary who’s part of both worlds but not fully either, and containing his bemusement via a single faltering thump on the arm of his chair, showing he’s out of time as much as he’s out of place.

It’s only Glass who feels at home here (at one point, affirming his command over the room by literally conducting). It is his office, after all – replete with all the era-appropriate signifiers of liberal creative professionalism, over which the camera is invited to linger: Clinton flag; basketball hoop; gold discs. He’s only able to express himself through a barrage of well-rehearsed emotivity (“This is super!”; “I LOVE this!”), and quantifiable data (“The Crying Game is still one of the most requested videos”; “why don’t we get this out for Christmas?”), rather than forming any sort of meaningful connection with his guests. He is Steven Stelfox, the psychopathic ’90s A&R protagonist in Kill Your Friends (Niven, 2009:12):

What kind of music do I like? Asking a major label A&R manager this question is like asking an arbitrageur what kind of commodities he likes. Or saying to an investment banker, ‘Hey, what’s your favourite currency?’ I have very wide musical tastes. ‘Eclectic’, as spastic musicians say when they’re trying to sound clever in interviews. I don’t care which genre something comes from – as long as it’s profitable.

The air in the office is one of probing calculation, searching for ways to convert affect and emotion into sales. Opportunities to exchange the unexchangeable. Another profession is called to mind, by Niven (201) again:

Everyone is smiling and laughing, but, to the trained eye, to the practised ear, there is a marked difference in the quality of the happiness: that of the band and the manager is of a genuine, top-of-the-world, time-of-your-life quality. They’re thinking that they’ve won the lottery. The laughter and smiles of the executives is brittle and plastic; we’ve done this so many times. Ours is the forced jollity of the whore, cracking a joke as she tiredly addresses herself to the fifth or sixth cock of the evening.

Except the tired and cynical (British, maybe?), self-loathing distance of a Stelfox is not present in Glass; the dissonance is smoothly harmonised, the opportunism is not desperate but delivered with a confident and well-practised ease. His talent is in demonstrating the unforced jollity you can derive from a total alignment of artistry and business, brand and personality. His naivety is empowering: yes, he looks like a fool but it is the artist, not him, who feels foolish. He shows why creative capitalism ‘speaks and survives’ so well in the Americans (twenty years ago, at least), while their British counterparts’ inability to ‘forget the words’ has prevented them from submitting to the libidinal urges of business.

This whore is in the service of nobody but himself.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s