Song Of The Day – Sisotowbell Lane by Joni Mitchell

From the album ‘Song to a Seagull’ (1968)

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The NFL – a safe space for Trumpism?

In a moment of serendipity, I went straight from witnessing the unsettling and remarkable, Trump supporters occupying and attacking Congress, perturbed by said scenes and the pedestrian hyperbole of the news, I sought out some real football, only to accidentally happen upon an NFL game, right as the coverage panned over a supposedly ‘socially distanced’ crowd that had clustered together. Here a grim juxtaposition revealed itself, this NFL crowd shared many visual traits synonymous with Trump’s revolutionary loons, goons and cartoons; mostly male, obese, white, sporting trucker hats, shooting vests, some had bad dental hygiene, others held signs adorned with slogans that were trite, incomprehensible or childish, all the while alternating between screaming obscenities and gurning. Sadly, I didn’t observe a Joe Exotic mullet. In life, not even clichés are perfect.

At first this comparison struck me as too convenient and generalised. Is there a significant demographic overlap between those who follow the most corporatized, cynical, exploitative professional sporting league and the gullible, delusional followers of the west’s most narcissistic, puerile, moronic (former) leader? Surely not?

It’s bad faith to take a firm position based on an initial impression (no matter how persuasive it may seem), and then purposely seek confirmatory evidence, rather than letting the evidence sway your opinion. For clarity, there’s no clear correlation between being a fan of an NFL team (or the NFL at large) and voting for Trump.

And using examples from the internet, where anything goes and every fringe has a voice, puts the validity of my assertion on dangerously thin ice. It’s also extremely lazy. But, I’m here to tell you, having selflessly dived down the rabbit hole so you don’t have to, there’s a preponderance of evidence that there’s a sub-culture of NFL fandom which shares many of the sociological characteristics of your average mouth foaming Trump supporter; bloated, arrogant, ignorant, jingoistic, selfish, shallow and belligerently myopic.

First a confession – my extreme distaste for the NFL’s contemporary product and exploitative practises leaves me feeling like a turncoat. Until my mid-teenage years, I watched it, albeit casually, as only one game a week was shown in the UK back in the mid-nineties. I found the NFL highlights show called Blitz, which used to be on Channel 4 on a Saturday morning, usually after Gazzetta Football Italia, if memory serves, with its magazine style editorials, to be more compelling than the fractured drudgery of the live game’s three hour plus duration. Blitz captivated me simply by virtue of its snazzy intro of clever hand drawn animations. The satisfying ingenuity of this creative labour was lovingly extended to reference a mixture of each team’s naming scheme, colours and geography, to signify each team’s involvement in the impending recap of a game from the previous Sunday. Better yet, predating the internet, a magazine show was your lot. You weren’t exposed to any of the grotesque excess that now accompanies closely following most sports; internet forums, fucking Twitter, websites curated by armchair experts analysing junk theories and rumours for content, podcasts, and twenty-four hour sports news full of full-of-themselves talking heads, their bloviating punctuated by hot takes, all of it tinged with and feeding an impatient sense of entitlement, a cultural malaise that’s ruining more than just the sanctity and sanity of sport.

Another confession: the thirty second NFL fan collages Blitz would use for inconsequential levity in their features were a guilty pleasure. The elaborate face paint on adults amused, as did the DIY endeavour of the Oakland Raiders ‘Black Hole’ mob, their leather garb excessively festooned with elaborate patterns of studs and spikes that wouldn’t look out of place on Rob Halford circa 1979. By comparison the fans of other teams were far more reserved, usually settling for generic fancy dress that utilised more spandex than you’d see at an Erasure concert. Speaking of Spandex, in a sweet bit of irony, given its proliferation of sport’s coverage, my interest in the NFL, as well as WWF, or WWE as it is known now, started to wane with the inception of the internet and rapid expansion of satellite television. In the WWE’s case, it’s preposterous and repetitive theatrics, hackneyed rivalries and wooden acting, that made John Wayne or any adult performer look Olivier-esque, may have also been a factor.

Maturity and refinement of taste certainly aren’t givens, but it vexed and perplexed me that the NFL is so popular. However, the rise of Trumpism has presented a cogent explanation.

The NFL has always been one of American culture’s main means of escapism, occupying the place reserved for association football in most other countries. The difference here, in the age of ‘fake news’ Trumpism, is for the NFL to remain at the pinnacle of the ratings in the short term hinges on its ability to appeal to the warped conservatism of Trump supporters, who make up roughly half the population lest we forget. It’s unashamedly posited itself as one of the last safe spaces in the mainstream where tribalism and overt displays of patriotism are virtues (crucial elements of the Trumpist cult), and appeases its predominantly white male audience in other ways. There’s no woke politicism besieging you to ‘fucking wake up and bend the knee’ or LGBT types piously berating you to conform and use the right pronouns. For a start, these ‘right on’ groups know they aren’t welcome in this domain.

Not all NFL fans are Trump voters, but at best they’re complacent about how and why the NFL appeals to these nutters. And there’s always unforeseen consequences for that. “Things are gonna slide, slide in all directions” as Lenny once said. Look, I get it, focusing on the negative is a drag and in a microcosm, it’s understandable that a life long allegiance to a team that pre-dates the current political polarisation, would hold far more sway than focusing on the NFL’s current hypocrisies and problems. Clearly, for some, it’s immense fun watching men crashing into each other at dangerous speed, parlay betting, trying to win your fantasy football league and believing what suits you about the quarterback’s mental state or whining to your mates about how your team of choice needs to make changes to win some fucking games, man.

While Colin Kaepernick’s protest and the concussion lawsuit started before Trump’s presidency, their dismissive treatment by the NFL can be viewed as wins for Trump’s vision of an anachronistic American utopia where everyone knows their place. If we’re being kind, Kaepernick’s blacklisting is instructive that the nearly entirely white NFL ownership cabal feared a significant backlash due to your average NFL fan’s aversion to black political activism, or any kind really, impinging on their sanctuary. More likely, emboldened by Trump’s chiding on Twitter (above), they simply agreed to lay down a marker, that a black man and a lowly player needed taking down a peg or two for getting ideas above his station.

The NFL’s cynical handling of social activism has been very effective, keeping it at arm’s length with lip service and token gestures, whether it was letting the players sort out the sideline protests, implementing the Rooney Rule, which to the unqualified eye hasn’t worked, or the Washington Redskins finally changing their astonishingly racist team name, but only due to external pressure from sponsors who’d rather not be associated with that sort of thing in the year 2021. It speaks volumes, that in the main, the Washington fans were dead against changing it.

That most fans don’t care for player health was equally revealing. Take this NFL blogger with an advert infested, cataract creating, hideously retrograde website, who believes Covid-19 isn’t a big deal, or Fauxvid-19, as he calls it. This despite it currently killing more Americans per day than the 11th of September attacks, and at the time of writing, approaching half a million deaths total in the US. Suitably this lackadaisicalness mirrors the NFL’s approach to Coronavirus, where teams were still forced to play despite outbreaks among their playing staff. As for the concussions lawsuit against the NFL, it was swept aside with an out of court settlement, the rules tweaked to discourage head to head collisions, with a concerted effort by everyone with a vested interest in maintaining the status-quo – the league, media and fans – to collectively forget, removing the concern from public debate. And anyway, what’s a billion dollar settlement when revenues exceed fifteen billion a year?

Even better for business, the NFL players union is so under the thumb that the BLM protests barely permeated the NFL’s stance, especially when compared to the power NBA players wielded over that league’s response to events. And no wonder the NFL found it easier to keep the protest confined to specific parameters (sidelined on the sideline during the national anthem), it’s infinitely riskier for the NFL player to radically revolt in a singular manner, especially after Kaepernick’s treatment. Their careers are, on average, considerably shorter than other sports, they’re mostly black men, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, who reach the NFL in the hope of being paid millions of dollars, and even if they manage that they’re only guaranteed to get a portion of their contracts. This after being drafted by professional teams from a college system which doesn’t pay them a dime. Such a systemic exploitation of millionaires by billionaire owners is justified through tradition, and because it occurs in an echelon where its predatory dogma doesn’t seem as egregious as in other spheres.

It’s amusing that a capitalist industry uses egalitarian principles, like a salary cap, to masquerade greed under the guise of sporting integrity and fairness. Meanwhile the fans get gouged on merchandise, tickets and streaming subscriptions to help pay for it all.

This exploitation happens to fans in other sports. So why pick on the NFL? Because it was the first to embrace greed being the ultimate good and offers a depressing glimpse of the future for other sports who are bound to be tempted by the success of its soulless model. In some cases this shameless commercialisation has already spread, the Premier League on Sky sponsored by Toyota, or is it fucking Renault? In a post-Covid EPL, whenever that is, instead of the Bills Mafia breaking tables and obnoxiously loud Trumpers, it’ll be grounds filled with stockbrokers and software developers on six figures with a smattering of Brexiteer gammon who benefitted from it enough to be able to afford the £90 tickets.

In this dystopian present we can take some solace in the NFL’s place as the most popular sport in the US. Trump has been deposed, the televised revolution failed and now one of the last remaining paragons of Trump’s America, the church of the NFL, which, like any good religion, exploits it’s subjects, is the destination his congregation deserves. When sequestered in said confines America doesn’t have to be made great again, because for at least three hours every Sunday it is as it should be.

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Song Of The Day – Winking by Tek 9

From the album ‘Tek 9’ (2019)

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Song Of The Day – Type Zwei by Gramm

From the album ‘Personal Rock’ (1999)

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Essential Listening: The Best Albums Of 2020

Are we all still alive after Christmas with your family? Is your family? Not dismembered among a morass of Turkey bones? I’ve had a stressful Christmas, which I won’t get into, suffice to say Christmas was cancelled and I’ve barely had time to get this column finished, or rather honed into something legible. It took me three attempts to spell legible correctly. My brain’s that fried and pre-occupied.

Anyway, who cares about my tawdry personal problems? If you’re here, likely by complete random bad luck, you might be curious to see if I have decent taste in music! I believe so. As per my favourite songs of the year piece last week, where I explained the reasons for my methodology, I’ve kept this list short too. This list is in alphabetical order and there are no hierarchy or rankings, however, Róisín Machine was the best album of 2020, just wanted to make that clear.

And so here comes 2021. The year of Brexit. Expect the worst, hope for the best.

Bill Callahan – Gold Record

This one makes you wish you had an open fire so you could get your slippers on and sit down in front it. As per usual Callahan finds intrigue in the mundane. His lyrics are dense with sumptuous wordplay, analogy and imagery, interspersing them with sudden moments of introspection and contemplation. Callahan, quietly, has built himself quite an impressive body of work, and he’s on a roll right now, his last four albums have all been excellent.

Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways

There’s always a bit of trepidation whenever His Bobness releases a new record. He’ll be eighty next year (gulp), but may he continue to live and defy expectations of age induced decline that besets so many. This is one of his better records, not just recently, but in his whole catalogue. Still, let’s not get carried away here, it’s not in his pantheon – Blood On The Tracks, Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited – but what it does do is remind us that in an industry which has (mostly) sold out to hackneyed laziness, be it autotune, generic trap beats and other forms of banality, that wordplay, insight, allegory and storytelling still have agency. The epic ‘Murder Most Foul’ has received most of the attention, but I particularly enjoyed ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ which works well as a reprise to ‘Desolation Row’ and Dylan’s penchant for macabre sarcasm on ‘My Own Version of You’.

Duval Timothy – Help

Remember five or six years ago when James Blake was releasing spartan compositions that borrowed inflections from dubstep yet somehow also sounded ephemeral, mesmeric and captivating? Timothy occasionally incorporates Madlib-esque Jazz sampling too. There’s unpredictability, at one point going from a piano only instrumental ‘9’ straight to ‘Groundnut’ which borrows from the Loose Ends 80’s Streetsoul aesthetic. There’s beach funk notes on ‘Morning’, while ‘Slave’ is pointed with its ‘help’, it’s both contemporary but works as a wider historical metaphor, that the exploitation of black musicians signing away their mastering and publishing rights down the decades is a legacy of slavery.

Jon Collin & Demdike Stare – Fragments of Nothing/Sketches of Everything

Recency bias pick, and two separate releases. Both marry Collin’s delicate blues guitar with abstract wintery soundscapes. Sonically dystopian and at times threatening, it mirrors our period of immense uncertainty and concern, but simultaneously its serenity made me relax, offered clarity, and aided a means of escape. It was badly needed.

Róisín Murphy – Róisín Machine

This isn’t supposed to be a list with any hierarchy, but this, unquestionably, was my favourite release of 2020. It’s been on constant repeat. And why not? In a year of bad news and fatalism, and that, even at the best of times, life can be a bit hectic, it reminds you that you need a bit of joy in your life, and there’s nothing more uplifting than disco and dance songs with an abundance of hooks.

Sault – UNTITLED (Black Is) / UNTITLED (Rise)

Even if you’re not sure about or enamoured with footballers taking knees, Antifa blockades and occupations, statues being felled, and what the wider Black Lives Matter movement is and whether it will be effective (surely the most important thing) you can be sure about this compilation. Soul, Funk and Roots grooves galore. Technically these are two separate releases, but we’ll consider them as two parts of the one project. While Rise is a more accessible listen than Black Is, both are worth checking out.

Shit & Shine – Malibu Liquor Store

If you’re familiar with the Shit & Shine project you’ll know what to expect – ironic, drug hazed, abrasive juxtapositions as found on ‘Devil’s Backbone’ and ‘Hillbilly Moonshine’. However, there are curveballs on this one; ‘Rat Snake’ would perfectly score a horseback chase sequence through the Mojave Desert, the cheesy disco of ‘Chervette’ could’ve been the intro to a crap 70’s cop show, and ‘Barbara and Woodrow’ is inspired given the album’s title and concept. The latter evokes sensations, transporting me to propping up a barstool in a dive bar in some warm weather city, clasping a cold drink and the leather cover on the stool doing likewise as my balls sweat profusely.

Squarepusher – Be Up A Hello

So jarring that I rubbished it as kitsch bollocks made using fruit machines (ala the dreadful Crystal Castles), or, to be more accurate, arcade game samples, on first listen, but gradually won me over with each repeat. It’s immense fun. Aphex Twin’s recent releases have reverted back to a retro aesthetic. Whether this approach was inspired by Richard D. James or just a bit of nostalgia, I’m always up for a frenetic bombardment of early 90’s rave sonics and 8-bit Amstrad sequencing which opens the album, ‘Nervelevers’ being my favourite or the Blade Runner inspired ‘Detroit People Mover’, and, for the comedown, it ends with ambient dubstep on ‘80 Ondula’.

Sven Wunder – Eastern Flowers (Doğu Çiçekleri)

First released last year on Bandcamp, but given a full release in 2020, and deservedly so. Swedish produced Turkish and Persian funk, TM vibes, and some awesome fucking guitar work. The wicked bass groves demand (at the very least) a passable sound system. It takes me back to my furloughed summer, getting paid to sit back, relax and do whatever I wanted. 2020 wasn’t a complete write off.

Various – Tribute to Marc Bolan: AngelHeaded Hipster

As with Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, you always gain additional appreciation, perhaps insight, for their song-craft when their work is reimagined and performed by someone else. So what of Marc Bolan? Bolan died so long ago, and well after his early seventies peak, that his songs have seldom been covered in a way indistinguishable from the original and or well – Placebo in Velvet Goldmine tritely covering ‘30th Century Boy’ being an example. While there are straight covers among the twenty-six, Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl’s of ‘Mambo Son’ being one, this is Bolan predominately covered sans the glam rock aesthetic. Highlights include a 80’s pop version of ‘Metal Guru’ by Nena (remember her?), a foot stomping bluesy rendition of ‘Bang A Gong (Get It On)’ by David Johansen and Nick Cave’s solemn take on ‘Cosmic Dancer’.

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