Beards, a moustache, a fiddle and a butter churn

So, while most New Zealanders were enjoying a Sunday morning lie-in (or getting up to go to church?), I was having a Eurovision party in my pyjamas on the couch with tea and toast.

It was a great competition, a giant celebration of music and good times and false eyelashes, with the added bonus of the fair certainty that Mr Putin will have been annoyed by the fact that an Austrian drag queen won with her song of strength and tolerance. (Seriously – Russia was desperate to win Eurovision in 2008 and Putin personally oversaw Russia’s hosting of the competition in 2009.)

But it wasn’t all beardy ladies. Along with Ms Wurst’s “Phoenix”, here are my other faves from the competition, all quality tunes and grand performances.

Conchita Wurst “Rise like a Phoenix”

Conchita’s win wasn’t expected, but it wasn’t exactly an upset either. It’s just that no one really thought she’d get all that many points from the more conservative countries of Eastern Europe. As it happened, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia all awarded points, as did Russia. In fact, Austria came third in the Russian phone vote showing that the real Russia is a bit different to Putin’s #nohomo fantasy.

Pollapönk “No Prejudice”

Also bring a message of tolerance to the stage was Pollapönk, a bearded Icelandic band that makes rock music for kids. Like the Wiggles, they dress colourfully, but unlike the Wiggles, their music sounds more like fun indie rock than kids’ music. As it happens, the red and blue Pollapönks were in an indie band in the ’90s who were mates with Blur. Also of note: the groups’ two backing singers are metallers, one of whom is also an Icelandic MP.

Twin Twin “Moustache”

This is the strange voodoo of Eurovision: France placed last (deux points!), but “Moustache” was the third most tweeted performance, the YouTube video is the fifth most popular of the grand finalists, and the single is in iTunes charts all over Europe. But perhaps it’s true that hip hop never does well at Eurovision, and it didn’t help that they followed the show-stopping Swedish ballad. Anyway, Twin Twin brought the fun.

Sebalter “Hunter of Stars”

A week ago I was browsing the #eurovision tag on Tumblr and there were all these girls (and a few boys) fangirling over Sebalter. He is totes adorbs with ridiculous quantities of charisma. But – and this is the most important part – “Hunter of Stars” is a great tune. The slightly enigmatic lyrics are about trying to woo someone but struggling with self-confidence. And it turns out if you sing a hook-laden folksy song with a Swiss-Italian accent, you can get away with lyrics like “I am so wet, I’m dirty”.

Donatan & Cleo “My Słowianie – We Are Slavic”

Heaving bosoms. Heeeeeaving bosoms. This song is a bit of a pisstake – mocking Polish nationalism, but also reinventing and celebrating it on their own terms. It’s a lively song with modern hip hop and R&B themes, but the thing everyone’s talking about is the heaving bosoms of the non-dancing dancers. This sort of performance is known in the world of Eurovision as a “dad pleaser”. It is boobtastic, but also celebrates the skills of butter-churning and clothes-washing. Oh, how it celebrates.


Protest song

In remembering Nelson Mandela, people are sharing links to their favourite memories of his life. One of these things is the video for the song “Free Nelson Mandela” by the Special AKA. I discovered that New Zealand was the only country where the song reached #1 in the pop chart. It was a top 10 hit in the UK, Ireland and a few European countries, but New Zealand was the only country that managed #1 – three weeks straight in the winter of ’84.

The song was the first time I became aware of Nelson Mandela. I was only nine at the time, and even though I lived in Hamilton and had been aware of the Springbok tour protests (and how it was making some of the local dads really angry), I still didn’t know what it was all about.

“Free Nelson Mandela” made me more aware of things. Amid the upbeat music, it painted a picture of someone who was in a bad state.

Twenty-one years in captivity
Shoes too small to fit his feet
His body abused but his mind is still free
Are you so blind that you cannot see?

Was I? I wasn’t sure. But then a year later another protest song came along. The American supergroup Artists United Against Apartheid kept the momentum going and filled in a few more gaps with “Sun City”. Like “Free Nelson Mandela”, the upbeat music contained angry lyrics, criticising the Sun City resort, the cruel fake “homelands” of South Africa and the American government’s response to South Africa. It also urged a boycott of entertainers playing at Sun City – another chink in the decaying armour of apartheid. (The song is also noteworthy as being the first mainstream hip hop and rock collaboration – predating “Walk this Way”.)

It’s easy to think about the 1960s as a golden age of political and protest songs, but the ’80s didn’t do a bad job where it counted, slowly chipping away at the badness.

Also – it says a lot about New Zealand that “Free Nelson Mandela” was followed at number one by “One Love” by Bob Marley.


A journey through saxophone in New Zealand pop in the 1980s

Jerry Rafferty's sax man Raphael Ravenscroft defines the template on "Baker Street

Jerry Rafferty’s sax man Raphael Ravenscroft defines the template on “Baker Street

In 2011, American popstress Lady Gaga released “Edge of Glory” which was notable for its saxophone solo by Bruce Springsteen’s legendary sax man Clarence Clemons. “The sax solo is back,” declared the world of music. Except that didn’t happen. (Or maybe Lady Gaga was so ahead of her time that it’s taking everyone else a while to catch up.)

But this brief rebirth of the sax solo is a good enough excuse to look back at the history of the sax in pop. Patient zero was Jerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” whose 1978 hit found a new place for the sax solo in popular music.

This kicked off a decade-long trend for sax in pop. Notable works included “Who Can It Be Now” by Men At Work (1981), the sun, surf and sax of Duran Duran’s “Rio” (1983), the smooth sax of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” (1984), through to INXS’s epic “Never Tear Us Apart” (1988).

Coinciding with the rise of the music video, I can’t help think that the popularity of the saxophone was in part due to how cool it looked. It was not uncommon for the sax player being the only musician shown playing his instrument in a video. The sax is a great big shiny brass instrument that is played with full body emotion. Put the saxophonist in a jacket with the sleeves pushed up and you’ve got instant cool.

But what of the sax in New Zealand pop? Were the musicians of Aotearoa immune from such trends? Of course not. So to celebrate this bold, brassy period, here is a history of the saxophone in New Zealand pop videos of the 1980s.

Jon Stevens “Montego Bay” (1980)


When the saxophonist only plays on a small part of the song, what do you do with him for the rest of the video? Jon Stevens’ band solves this problem by putting the sax man on cow bell duty, before he stealthily ditches it and lets loose on his sax for the second chorus. Also, the sax cuts a better silhouette than the cardboard palm trees.
NZ On Screen

Screaming Meemees “Stars In My Eyes” (1982)


The Screaming Meemees were the most indie of all the acts to succumb to the lure of the sax, so it’s not your typical sax appearance. “Stars In My Eyes” has more of a funk brass thing going on, but the video goes all out with this silhouette of the double sax attack. See how the saxes tower over the trumpet, asserting their superiority.

Monte Video and the Cassettes “Shoop Shoop Diddy Wop Cumma Cumma Wang Dang” (1982)


Neither the innuendo-laden song nor the video includes a saxophone, but the video is set at a bar that features a neon saxophone light. Proof that by the early ’80s, the sax was a visual icon of cool. You can’t quite see it in this shot, but there are musical notes coming out of the sax.
NZ On Screen

Sharon O’Neill “Maxine” (1983)


This is almost as classic as a 1980s video sax solo gets. But as the vid is all about Sharon (and Maxine), the video isn’t interested in who the saxophonist is. We never see his head, only his hands and his sax, playing in a dark bar. (And we know it’s a bar because there is a neon sign reading “BAR”.) This is cut with footage of Shaz looking sensually relaxed, no doubt being soothed by the sax.
NZ On Screen

Tim Finn “Fraction Too Much Friction” (1983)


The song is full of sax, but I initially thought the video had taken the bold step of being saxless, instead just focusing on Tim strutting his stuff while holding a ghettoblaster. But the lure of the sax was too strong. While the rest of the band might remain invisible, the video can’t resist a few shots of the saxophonist overlaid with smoky, sparkling fireworks.
NZ On Screen

DD Smash “Outlook For Thursday” (1983)


DD Smash have a lot of fun with the ridiculousness of the sax, using it as both a tool of good and evil. So powerful is the DD Smash brass section that it mortally wounds Dave Dobbyn. Later in the video, we see the gentle side of the brass, gently soothing the hottie drummer as he relaxes in the sun. Perhaps he and Sharon can compare notes on the power of sax relax.
NZ On Screen

Peking Man “Room That Echoes” (1985)


A saxophone features in this alternate video for “Room That Echoes”, but here’s the kicker: no one plays it. It just rests on its stand at the back of the room (that echoes), looking all cool while the Urlich siblings dance around it. It’s almost like some sort of pagan ritual, in which the god of ’80s cool is invoked. And for a song that is more about style over substance, that’s a perfectly logical and successful choice.

Left, Right and Centre “Don’t Go” (1985)


When the sax is joined by another member of the brass family, it’s usually a trumpet. But not when Don McGlashan is involved. This protest song against the planned 1985 All Black tour of South Africa features Don on his euphonium and Rick Bryant on sax. In any other video, this might be enough to stand out, but the joyous heart of the “Don’t Go” video is Chris Knox with a giant mullet and denim cut-offs.
NZ On Screen

Netherworld Dancing Toys “For Today” (1985)


For a song that’s jam-packed full of brass, the “For Today” video exercises great restraint, with only a few brief shots of the brass section. Even during the big climatic build-up, the brass players are seen in the background cautiously jumping around with their instruments. The focus is wisely given to the stars of the video – Annie Crummer and the Interislander ferry.
NZ On Screen

Sonny Day “Savin’ Up” (1985)


“Savin’ Up” was a cover of a Bruce Springsteen song originally recorded by his (and Lady Gaga’s) saxophonist Clarence Clemons, so it’s no wonder that the sax player in the video gets the star treatment. Sonny Day’s line-up of backing singers (including Annie Crummer) parts and the tight-trousered saxophonist steps forward to deliver his bitchin’ solo, accentuating the piece with strategic hip thrusts. The backing singers are so impressed they give him jazz hands.
NZ On Screen

Peking Man “Good Luck to You” (1986)



This pouty, urban love letter to pre-crash Auckland begins with an amazing shot. Margaret Urlich sits in the window of the much loved cafe DKD. Below her at the cafe’s entrance, the saxophonist poses in the doorway, while playing the song’s introduction. Despite the bitter lyrics of the song, there’s something rather romantic about this shot.

Tex Pistol “The Game of Love” (1987)


I’m not sure, but the brass on this synth-heavy song also sounds electronic, so it’s further testament to visual power of the sax that it was included in the video. The slick, minimalist video keeps it simple with Ian Morris and Callie Blood having a side-on his-n-hers brass-off (that’s a showbiz term) on the wet, black set.
NZ On Screen

Herbs “Sensitive to a Smile” (1987)


“Sensitive to a Smile” is largely a tribute to the people and environment of Ruatoria. But even the old kuias, the cheeky kids and the dreadlocked bros must step aside for a while to let the sax man have his moment of glory.
NZ On Screen

80 in the Shade “Heatwave” (1987)


This all-star pop extravaganza came together not for charity but to make an ad for L&P with a scorching cover of the Martha and the Vandellas hit. There’s sax all through it, but the saxophonist appears just once near the end. I suspect this is partly because sax was become a bit uncool, and partly because the sax player wasn’t anyone famous, so they drafted in a model to play the part.

When the Cat’s Away “Melting Pot” (1988)


By the late ’80s, the pop sax was on its last legs, with the instrument instead lurking in the background, underscoring the other instruments. But the visual lure of sax was still strong. Near the end of the video, the Cats are seen with three saxophones and two trumpets, showing a much bigger brass sound than what is actually heard. They’re clearly having a ball mucking around with the instruments, which makes me wonder what it would have sounded like during the video shoot.
NZ On Screen

Dave Dobbyn “Love You Like I Should” (1988)


Margaret Urlich makes yet another appearance, this time shimmying around Dave Dobbyn in a midriff exposing bolero jacket. But lurking in the background behind Marg and Dave are two sax dudes, playing the bass honks on cue. They are given a couple of shots early on, but the video’s focus is on Urlich and Dobbyn’s folk dancing.
NZ On Screen

Holidaymakers “Sweet Lovers” (1988)


By the time I came to watch this video, I’d developed an instinct for sax spotting. I didn’t remember there being a saxophonist in this video, but something told me otherwise. And there it was – less than a minute before the song’s end, the fellow who had previously been shaking some maracas suddenly appears with a sax and squeezes out some barely audible notes. By this stage it seems like the sax was well on its way out, being kept in only for its strong visual appeal.
NZ On Screen

Maybe the sax was part of the bright, exciting, affluent part of the ’80s that started to wither with the 1987 stockmarket crash. It’s not so economical to have a band member who spends a lot of the time standing around, swaying from side to side, waiting for his few seconds of glory. The economical grunge era had no room for such excesses.

The sax didn’t totally die out, but rather than being the cool thing that everyone did, it was left to acts who understood the power of the sax and could harness its power. It lived on in the kids of the ’80s who grew up immersed in the sax pop. Acts like the effervescent Supergroove, jazz master Nathan Haines, and genre mixers Fat Freddys Drop all found a place for sax.

So while the full-on sax solo may have tooted its last toot, that bold brass instrument will always have a place in the world of New Zealand pop. *Honk*



All I want for Christmas is [_______]

All I want for Christmas is [_____]

All I want for Christmas is a giant bedazzled green triangle

Five days before Christmas (and one day before the end of the world) I went to The Base, the mega mall on the outskirts of Hamilton that’s played a significant part in sucking the life out of downtown Hamilton, which is such a mid-20th-century thing to do. So retro.

Anyway, it was right in the middle of the pre-Christmas crazy period, when the stress starts with finding a car park and ends with wondering what sort of consolation present makes up for not being able to buy an iPad Mini as they’re all sold out. Not that such issues plagued me, but I like to empathise with the middle-classes, etc.

My issue was the music. As to be expected, Christmas songs were on high rotate. But here’s the thing – I heard four different versions of “All I Want For Christmas Is You”. At one point, I could position myself near the bath bomb selection of Lush and simultaneously hear the Michael Buble version in the store and the original Mariah version in the main mall. It even followed me outside, with a third version playing on the PA in the car park, and another one aurally ruffling me as I passed by a shop.

“All I Want For Christmas Is You” is a great song. As a gift of the ’90s, it’s a far better contribution to Christmas pop than anything the ’60s or ’70s managed. But when it’s coming at me as a quadrophonic retail extravaganza, this does not lead to a pleasing experience.

But here’s the thing. I wasn’t at the mall to buy Christmas presents, but yet I found myself getting a $2 bag of candy canes because it felt like the correct seasonal thing to do. Ach, Mariah – you’ve sucked me into your vortex of glad tidings and good pop.


The passing of time and all of its crimes

A few months ago I learned a new term – heritage rock. It’s the business of old bands who still tour and sell their back catalogue and make a decent sum decades after their initial burst of youthful creativity and success. (I also discovered that heritage rock sounds like a diss, possibly to people who still think Pavement are young, cutting-edge dudes and don’t like the memento mori implications that things have changed.)

So I’ve been thinking about old Morrissey. He’s playing in Auckland tonight. I thought about going because, you know, I really like Morrissey, particularly for the Smiths years. I was thrilled to see Johnny Marr perform as part of Neil Finn’s Seven Worlds rockstravaganza back in ’01, but somehow that enthusiasm hasn’t transferred to 2012. You know what’s changed? I’m older; I’m tireder.

I noticed this in others. The last-minute ticket-for-sale tweets from people who’d excitedly bought Morrissey tickets months ago, but then along comes the week before the concert. It’s December. Work is wrapping up. There are Christmas parties to attend. There’s Christmas stuff to organise. Holidays to plan. Oh God, there’s so much stuff. And then a tweet would appear offering two Morrissey tickets, at face value, because we would love to go but we are so very very tired.

And that’s the terrible thing. When you’re older, you can easily afford the concert tickets, but suddenly going out becomes this ordeal. Tiredness kicks in and even after half an hour, the most uplifting of pop concerts starts to feel like an epic three-hour prog rock torture fest. It’s a lot easier listening to Moz at home, where it’s ok if you doze off mid-miserable.

From the comfort and privacy of my couch, I was looking for some video clips of last night’s Wellington concert. I found a couple, but they had pretty crunchy sound – not what I’ve come to expect from the modern world of concert vids. But instead here’s a rather good quality vid from Moz’s previous New Zealand concert 21 years ago, back in the time where there was youthful energy.

Film & TV, Music

X marks the spot

The X Factor New Zealand has a FAQ. One question asks…

How will The X Factor winner be distinguished from other talent contest winners?

The music industry has changed since the days of shows such as NZ Idol.

Winners of The X Factor have long-running international careers – think Reece Mastin, Stan Walker, One Direction, Guy Sebastian and Chris Rene etc.

Simon Cowell has been developing this talent show format for years; The X Factor is the result of everything he’s learned from earlier formats.

So X Factor NZ is getting it straight: if you win the X Factor, you won’t end up like Michael Murphy, working in road gang, wearing a high-viz vest.

But let’s take a closer look at their hall of fame. Yes, Reece Mastin won his year in Australian X Factor, but One Direction only came third in the UK X Factor. Chris Rene also came third on the US X Factor, but has only enjoyed major chart success in New Zealand (weird, huh?) Guy Sebastian wasn’t even an X Factor contestant – he won the first series of Australian Idol (so ’00s) and was only on the X Factor as a judge. Ditto for Stan Walker – he won the final series of Australian Idol but is on the X Factor NZ as a judge.

For every one of these high-profile success stories, there are the winners who don’t do so well – like Matt Cardle, Random, Leon Jackson, Altiyan Childs and ol’ misery guts Steve Brookstein.

Then there are the ones who don’t win the X Factor still but manage to forge a decent showbiz career from (or in spite of) their X Factor experience, like Olly Murs, Cher Lloyd or my beloved Jedward. And I’m keeping an eye on the extravagant Rylan from the latest UK series.

That’s what makes a series of X Factor work – it’s not just the brilliant singers who deliver every week, it’s also the battlers and the weirdos, the ones who can’t cruise through on talent alone. And that’s why they call it the X Factor.


Let me be your supervisor

For two periods in the past, Eurovision has only permitted songs to be sung in an official language of the entrant country. But since 1999, countries can enter in whatever language they feel like. Most choose English.

There’s a kind of glorious poetry to the way that some non-native speakers of English use it. Even songwriters from a country like Sweden, where 89% of the population speaks English, still have their own ways of expressing themselves.

So I present some of my favourite lyrics from this year’s Eurovision.

Would You? by Iris (Belgium)
Lyrics: Nina Sampermans, Jean Bosco Safari, Walter Mannaerts

But what would you do when my house was empty?

I will cried and was felt sad.

Lautar by Pasha Parfeny (Moldova)
Lyrics: Pasha Parfeny

You have never been at my show
You haven’t seen before how looks the trumpet

How looks it? It looks splendid!

I’m a Joker by Anri Jokhadze (Georgia)
Lyrics: Bibi Kvachadze

But the most amazing lyrics of all come from Anri Jokhadze of Georgia, with his song “I’m a Joker”. The song was originally titled “I’m a Jocker”, which seemed to be play on his surname until someone realised it wasn’t really a word.

Anri makes these claims:

I’m a joker
I’m a rocker
I’m a shocker
I’m a poker
I’m a talker
And straight-walker
I’m a broker
I’m a slaker

And here’s the thing – all these words rhyme.

But here’s the best couplet:

I’m just a womanizer
Let me be your supervisor

Go on, then. I’ll leave my timesheet on your desk.

Film & TV, Music

Euro neuro

It’s hard being a New Zealand fan of Eurovision. I’ve been interested in the annual competitive songstravaganza since 2003 when UK entry Gemini infamously scored nil points for their song “Cry Baby”. But I was born in distant 1974, the year that Swedish Abba won with “Waterloo”, one of the greatest pop songs ever written. And I’ve grown up with snippets of Eurovision filtering through to New Zealand – a bit of “Making Your Mind Up”, some “Hard Rock Hallelujah”, but hopefully not that Cliff Richard song.

The trouble is, Eurovision doesn’t doesn’t screen on the telly here any more. Triangle Stratos did screen it for a while, but since it switched off last year, there is – as far as I can tell – no New Zealand broadcaster for one of the greatest shows in the world. Even Australia does it properly, with a dedicated broadcast on SBS, complete with local commentary and an informal vote for Australia’s favourites.

Fortunately the internet has made it possible for a lone New Zealander to join in the fun. This year the Eurovision experience started for me in around February, with the national selection competitions all around Europe, all of which were available to watch online. The biggest of these is Sweden’s Melodifestivalen, accurately described as a cross between the Olympics and American Idol, only bigger.

Soon the line-up took shape and a couple of weeks ago, the 42 entrants headed to Baku, Azerbaijan to rehearse, rehearse, rehease and reduce that initial group of 42 down to 26 via the semi-finals.

There are serious contenders (Loreen from Sweden with “Euphoria”. Sweden, of course, being to pop what New Zealand is to rugby), the show-stopping novelties (Buranovskiye Babushki, a group of Russian grannies who just wanted to fundraise to rebuild their local church that Stalin knocked down 70 years ago), and of course the Eurovision staple, the OMGWTF songs.

In a way, it’s the crazy entries that are the most fun. They don’t tend to make it through the semi-finals, but they get a few moments of fame and subsequent YouTube immortality. One of my faves this year was Rambo Amadeaus, the Montenegrin jazz poet whose song “Euro Neuro” was a direct commentary on the eurozone crisis – “Monetary breakdance! Give me chance to refinance!”. And there’s San Marino songstress Valentina Monetta, with “The Social Network Song (Oh Oh – Uh – Oh Oh)”, originally titled “Facebook Uh, Oh, Oh” until Eurovision rules on commercialism required a rewrite, but fortunately this didn’t affect the lyric “If you wanna come to my house then click me with your mouse.”

In the middle of all this are the quite-good entries. I was delighted to discover Israel’s entry Izabo, with their song “Time”. They’re a cool indie band with ’70s funk, psychedelic rock and Middle-Eastern flavours. “Time”, with its English verses and falsetto Hebrew chorus, wasn’t serious enough to get the serious votes nor weird enough to get the novelty vote and so missed out on the final. But still, I’ve delved into their previous albums and have a new favourite band.

But the talented underachivers of the semi-finals don’t matter. What counts is the 26 finalists, who’ll battle it out for supremecy at the final on Saturday night. I have my faves. There’s Italy’s stylish swing, the highly danceable tune from Cyprus, Ireland’s explosive pop charms, Moldova’s musical romp and Iceland’s dramatic duet.

Eurovision was created in 1956, less than a decade after the end of World War II. Like the Family of Man photography exhibition, it was an attempt to bring people together, to help ensure there’d never be another world war again. Has it worked? Yeah, sort of.

Politics still skims around the edges. It’s doubtful that Eleftheria Eleftheriou will do well for Greece this year, no matter how seductively she sings “You make me want your aphrodisiac.” There are always accusations of political bloc voting, but I figure that’s no more remarkable than how Australian pop does well in New Zealand. Neighbouring countries tend to be more culturally similar than distant countries.

Since the fall of communism, Eastern European countries came flooding into Eurovision. And here’s the interesting thing – due to the policies of their communist governments, a lot of those countries didn’t grow up listening to the same pop music that Western Europe did. No Elvis, no Beatles, no Abba, no Duran Duran. So today, popular music in those countries tends to be a mash-up of current Western trends and more traditional Eastern sounds. Try writing a song that ticks those boxes and will still appeal to Dutch grandmas.

Eurovision is mainly ignored by the New Zeaaland media. If it gets a mention, it’s either of the “Look at these wacky Europeanz!!!” weird news variety, focusing only on the crazy; or – like the BBC report that One News screened on Friday – it’s a sombre look at the impact of the Azerbaijani political situation on hosting Eurovision this year. But coverage of Eurovision never seems to make it in the regular entertainment news section.

So instead I make my own Eurovision experience. I’ve been watching footage of rehearsals in Baku courtesy of Eurovision bloggers, I’ve watched live streams of the thrilling semi-finals from the Eurovision website, and I’ll be waking up far too early for a Sunday to watch the epic live final, ready for some quality televisual entertainment.



This is a page from Australian Smash Hits magazine, as reproduced in the book “Pop Life: Inside Smash Hits Australia 1984-2007” along with the “David lies about his age” annotation. I remember this page well. It was published in around 1987, which would have made lying journalist David Nichols about 15 years old, had he really been born in 1972. That made him only a few years older than me, and I thought, “Crap, if it’s normal for 15-year-olds to be features editors at pop magazines, I’d better hurry up and get really good at writing so I don’t miss out.” A while later I realised he was a lying liar and that he was probably closer to 25 than 15, but it actually did me good, inspiring me to delve deeper into the world of pop.


The Joy of Jedward

I’m currently obsessed with Jedward, aka John and Edward Grimes, the Irish twin bro pop duo. I don’t think they’re particularly well known in New Zealand, so here’s their basic story:

They auditioned for the UK “X Factor” show in 2009, age 17. They weren’t very good singers, but the judges saw a certain spunk in them and somehow they ended up in the final 12 and made it to week seven before being voted out. The highlight was their highly entertaining version of Britney Spears’ “Oops!… I Did it Again”, complete with the “Titanic”-inspired dialogue.

Post “X Factor”, they toured, released an album of covers and had a couple of hit singles. In May they represented Ireland at Eurovision with their first original song “Lipstick”. They came a very respectable eigth place, but – more importantly – had won the hearts of teen girls all over Europe.

A second album followed – this time with all original songs. In August they appeared on UK Celebrity Big Brother, and seemed to be the only housemates who were always having a good time instead of lying around smoking, moaning, paranoid.

So with this in mind, I present ten things I like about Jedward.

Note: I’ve included lots of links to videos. While they’re not terribly explicit, a couple are probably on the NSFW border. But if you do have the sort of workplace where you can watch saucy YouTube videos, call me.


1. Planet Jedward

One of the best moves – and I think this came from their management – was the concept of Planet Jedward. It’s the world that John and Edward live in, and it’s a joyous world.

Their music is full of up. Their Eurovision performance is packed with energy and exuberance, but yet everything they do is like this. There is no off switch. There is no “being on” for the crowds. Why walk when you can cartwheel?

And on Planet Jedward, the fellows are resilient. They go with the flow, expertly absorbing all criticism and owning it. An example from their recent, hilarious stint on UK Celebrity Big Brother – after failing to clean up the kitchen after being instructed to do so by Big Brother (they slid around in olive oil instead), they were punished by having to dress up like babies, which they actually relished. Goo-goo ga-ga.

2. Twins

As it happens, I’m fans of another couple of musical twins – the Jarman brothers of the Cribs and the Deal sisters of the Breeders. But where Ryan and Gary and Kim and Kelley are very much their own person, the distinction between the Grimes brothers is initially less clear.

They dress identically, have the same haircut, usually styled in the same way, and at first glance, they can be pretty much indisguishable from one another.

But stick around long enough and the differences become clearer. John has a huskier voice. He’s slightly more aggressive. Edward has a softer voice and is more artistic. And they do look different from each other. The consensus amongst Jedicated fans is that John is the sexy one and Edward is the cute one.

And their twinness means they’re always playing off one another, their mutual company giving them endless excuses to muck around in the way that not many people can do on their own or even with a friend.

But the best thing – there’s two of them!

3. Rapscallions

John and Edward are restless. When they’re interviewed, they talk over the top of each other, interrupting and branching off on the craziest tangents (which actually start to make sense when you’ve lived on Planet Jedward a while). It’s not uncommon for even expert interviewers to find themselves trapped in the vortex of chatter, but the best interviewers just accept that things are different on Planet Jedward. When they’re in full Jedward mode, they are joy. Here’s a brilliant interview with Alan Carr.

The energy continues when John and Edward are alone. They make lots of little videos mucking around in hotel rooms and/or involving water (the magic of wetness!). The piece de resistance is this video which involves four minutes and 22 seconds of such activities as discussion of Emma Watson’s hair, lipsynching to Avril Lavigne’s “What the Hell”, toothbrushing, pillow-fighting, shower-dancing, and bed-jumping.

4. Sex and Sexuality

Officially John and Edward like girls, but they don’t have girlfriends because it’s hard to have a girlfriend when you’re famous. There are gay rumours, but pretty much every young-dude pop singer gets that, and some even play up to it.

The pair are famously virgins, doing an Irish-Catholic version of the Jonas Brothers’ vow of abstinence. But, you know, they’re 19-year-old guys.

Jedward’s audiences are tween and teen girls and adults, so they cleverly tread a fine line between the two audiences, both innocent and sexual; not a boy, not yet a man. In one of their YouTube clips, Edward rides a toy car, and it’s really cute. Then he looks at the camera and says, “Wanna beep my horn? You wanna beep it?” Judging by the dozens of comments, the majority of Jedward fans would very much like to beep Edward’s horn.

John and Edward have a certain kind of androgyny. They’re both beautiful boys, and that’s a look that’s always worked well in pop. The lads seem simultaenously bisexual and asexual, but are maybe more accurately Jedsexual. They can play up to the “Hey, girl/boy, maybe I can be your boyfriend” fantasy, without actually having to go there. Their total lack of self-consciousness and certain naivety means they brilliantly get away with doing heaps of cool stuff that would normally come across as really really gay. There’s no attempt to lad them up to not appear too camp. They can even pose for a devastatingly hot photo shoot for GayTimes magazine, without even having to worry about alienating their girl fans.

But even if there were some solid evidence that the pair were “straight” and/or “gay”, that still wouldn’t suddenly clear everything up. They’re still living on Planet Jedward, were sexuality doesn’t matter. It’s quite nice there.

And then there’s this clip, a fan-made compilation of various seductive glances and pouts from YouTube. Either way, the pair have got something that people dream of.

5. Irishness

The brothers are Irish, and largely speak with Irish accents with a slight American tinge. It’s not a full-on American accent, but just a few vowels show up that aren’t Irish. And they’ll talk about their “mom”, even though they still call her Mammy.

But I think back to when I was 11 and used to do reenactments of “Entertainment This Week” with my school friends, complete with bad American accents because it sounded cool. And my inner monologue is usually American accented (or Estuary English).

When most Irish musicians who break into the mainstream do so with a really big “I’M IRISH” flavour to their music, it’s refreshing when someone comes along who’s willing to acknowledge they’ve grown up immersed in American pop culture in suburban Dublin and not in an enchanted glade where the little people dance.

6. Pale

The lads have pale Irish skin – like me! And right from the get-go, manager Louis Walsh advised them to stay away from the spray tan. Fake tans are high maintenance and never quite look natural – especially on pale skin.

This makes me really happy, because over the years, I’ve had pressure from people to not have pale skin. Like there was somehow something wrong with me for not being tanned. I spent too many years as a teen attempting to tan, before I realised it was something I just couldn’t do. All-over pale is much easier. Girls Aloud popstress Nicola Roberts has taken a similar stance, celebrating the beauty of natural pale.

There’s an idea that tanned skin looks better on camera (I used to work on a TV show that had its presenters get regular spray tans), but yet the magic of natural skintones is whenever John and Edward stand next to someone with a spray tan, the other person looks orange.

But it’s not just about skin tone. It’s about, you know, being proud of who you are and what you’ve got. And, frankly, this means more to me than any no-sex/no-drugs stance.

7. Talent

Some people wail, “Jedward can’t siiiing!” And, well, when they were on “X Factor”, they were definitely the weakest singers. But as “X Factor” progressed, and indeed beyond it, their singing technique improved, but mainly through repetition and rehearsal. With a scarily punk attitude, they refuse to formally improve their craft.

On their albums, their vocals are polished, autotuned, but no one’s pretending that’s how they sing all the time. The lads regularly post roughly recorded videos to YouTube of them energetically, sweetly singing their own songs and their favourite pop tunes. Their strengths and weaknesses are laid bare – and their fans love them for it.

But John and Edward’s talent – their skills that pay the bills – isn’t just singing. They’re very entertaining, with genuine stage presence and that elusive, er, X-factor that can’t be learnt.

They also have a remarkable talent as models. As well as both being absolutely beautiful (and this is a large part of their pop appeal), they can channel the malarky into suave, and actually do Blue Steel without forcing a duckface. And they can pretty much look good in anything, which is a skill that few people have.

In the UK and Ireland, the duo have a number of television projects too. And even if the whole pop star thing doesn’t work out – most pop groups get about three years of massive success, if they’re lucky – they’ve got enough going for them to stay afloat in other fields for years.

8. Fame

“Never heard of them,” the old person cries. “They’re just famous for being famous.”

Except there is no such thing as ‘famous for being famous’. Everyone who is famous is so for a specific feat, talent or skill. It’s just that some of these talents are things that many people don’t necessarily value in others (but would like to have themself), like being attractive, living a fabulous life, or just being a really interesting person.

The Grimes brothers have always wanted to be famous (though on their own terms), even practising signing autographs, perfecting their pop star signature. There’s a remarkable clip of the pair performing the Backstreet Boys’ song “I Want it That Way” at a high school talent show. Their voices are wobbly, they get the lyrics messed up, but by the end of it, the teen girls in the audience are screaming with delight.

Hey, if you can make a hall full of girls scream, why not pursue that as a career? Singing and stage craft can always be improved.

9. Albums

Jedward have released two albums. The first, “Planet Jedward”, was their post-“X-Factor” recording, consisting purely of cover versions. There are moments of pop magic, but generally it’s not so remarkable. The production particularly disguises their individuality, but full points to the person who sneakily decided to start the cover of “Teenage Kicks” with the opening riff from “Pretty Vacant”. Oh, yeah, and they also manage to sing the “Give no head, no backstage passes” line from “Rock DJ” without it sounding like it’s about blowjobs, and yet also exactly about that.

The pair’s second album, “Victory”, is a million times better. They have good songwriters on board, and good production that brings out John and Edward’s different voices. The album is full of pop gems. It reminds me of being 12, and how a good pop song can make you feel like everything is wonderful.

Four songs on “Victory” deal with themes of love and fame, both from the perspective of being a fan of a celebrity, and also falling in love with a civilian. The brothers’ number one crush is Britney Spears, so I figure she’s a inspiration behind all of these tunes.

But the songs I like are the sexxxier tunes with killer choruses like “DISTortion“, upcoming single “Wow Oh Wow“, the horribly named but totally brilliant “Techno Girl” and the sheer genius of “Pop Rocket“, a song that is either about sex or music, depending on what takes your fancy.

“Victory” reminds me of the joy of pop, albums with photos of the artist on the cover, that are structured around singles, and have filler tracks.

10. Social Media

I recently attended a mini music conference called Going Global, where music industry people from overseas gave New Zealand musicians advice on getting bigger. One thing that kept coming up was the need to engage with fans via social media, and examples were given of various buzz bands who do relevant tweets. Apparently some musicians are reluctant to do social media; they want to focus on their art and not have to interact with their audiences, dammit.

Well, this is what Jedward do. They have a Twitter account, @planetjedward. They mention their Twitter account in virtually all interviews they do, even on media like the BBC that doesn’t really approve of plugging. On Twitter, they post updates from their travels, photos, news and make brilliant tweets like this:

Hi, we are Jedward. We can make your girlfriend scream louder than anyone can just by hitting her follow button on Twitter

That’s true, you know.

John and Edward will spend an hour doing an entertaining live broadcast showing them opening fan mail, lipsyncing or seeing how many pieces of chewing gum they can stuff in their mouth. There’s no manager standing over their shoulder telling them what to do or say or to call it a night. It feels like they have a genuine connection with their fans, and really enjoy doing stuff for them and with them.

This is the really great bit: when the lads reach milestones in Twitter followers, they post videos to celebrate and reward. The 200,000 follower mark got a video of Edward frolicking in the ocean, while 300,000 followers got the bros dancing to their song “Pop Rocket”… in their underwear. OMJ! They’ve recently hit 400,000 and the fandom is buzzing with anticipation as to what that video will be.

See, beardy indie bands. That’s how you do social media.

So, I celebrate the joy of Jedward. Two dudes working hard, making money, having a ton of fun along the way, and making the girls scream.