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From the archives: Britney vs The Beatles

I think I wrote this somewhere around 2002, for my first attempt at building a website – in the days when nobody was talking about blogs, MySpace was still just a twinkle in Tom's eye, and… Well, lets just say that my tastes have developed since then. (Back then, putting a date on your posts wasn't considered terribly important. Or if it was, nobody told me...) I think this was my first attempt at writing something for my own website, at a time when all the HTML was hand-coded. I'm putting it here so I don't have to worry about the day when my old website inevitably falls off the internet and goes to the big Geocities archive in the sky.

The reason I've dug it up though: there is a passing mention of Max Martin at the end; the guy who wrote "...Baby One More Time" - which was his first number one. At the time of reposting this, he has now written/co-written more number one singles than anyone in history other than John Lennon and Paul McCartney. If his work with Taylor Swift on 1989 is anything to go by, I reckon he has a pretty strong chance of overtaking them.

What this is all about is Britney Spears, who embodies all that I think is good about pop music, and the Beatles, who have become the embodiment of all that I think is bad about pop music.

Actually, it's not specifically about Britney Spears. It's just that she's another target of venomous hate campaigns that I think are thoroughly unwarranted. It could just as well be about S-Club 7, or Steps, or Bananarama, or any one of countless "manufactured" bands. But Britney Spears sounds like more fun to write about, and gives me a good excuse to put her pictures all over the place...

And it's not strictly about the Beatles either; more about the Beatles fans that still exist in the 21st century but haven't quite managed to move on from the late 1960s.

Firstly, I have to say for the record, I don't think the Beatles were a bad band. That's not my point. I'm happy to say that I've bought a few of their albums, and used to listen to them quite often. I think they wrote and recorded some great songs, did some great things, and although I can't really say, because I wasn't born until 7 years after they split up, I think they probably deserved their phenomenal success.

At the time...

In Christmas 2000, the Beatles released an album called "1", which was a collection of all their number one singles. It went to number one in the album charts for a while, and had people queuing up outside record shops for the midnight release.

Now, this is something that's bothered me for a while, but actually seeing this happen really brought it home to me.

Here's an interesting statistic; Before the Beatles split up, between 1963 and 1970 they released 13 long-playing albums in the UK. Since they split up, they've released no new songs (unless you count what are, by anybodys judgement, second-rate, discarded songs dug out of their rightful place at the back of a cupboard in Abbey Road and dusted off for the Anthology. They weren't released first time round for a reason...) but have managed to put together another 20 long playing albums. TWENTY! With NO new material... Now, I have to admit that if I was in the band, or worked for their record company, I'd love to do the same thing- sell not just the same songs, but the very same recordings shuffled in a slightly different order and watch the ca$h roll in (those country mansions don't pay for themselves, you know...) No, the thing that bothers me is the people out there who will walk into a record shop and out of however many hundreds of records there, what they choose to spend their hard earned sixteen pounds on is another compilation album from a band that split up 30 years ago. I can't help wondering, if someone had told John Lennon that the first Christmas number one of the twenty-first century would be the umpteenth compilation of Beatles songs, would he have laughed or cried? (Considering that Michael Jackson bought up the publishing rights to most of his songs in the 80s- probably cried...)

I can remember thinking how strange it seemed when CDs broke through as the standard format for music and people were spending small fortunes on buying their records again in a slightly smaller, shinier disc, rather than just have a record player and a CD player next to each other. I always thought that was about as pointless as buying a record could get. But buying the same recordings again in a different order? While I'm quite sure that there must have been a fair few sold to kids who never had a Beatles record before, I'm equally certain that wouldn't possibly sell enough copies to get to number one at the time of year when record sales hit their peak.

So, these people don't bother me. If you want to get some Beatles songs in your CD collection, but you don't want to shell out two hundred quid for all of their albums and none of the other compilations are to your taste, this may well be what you're looking for.

No, what really irks me are those people who hold up the Beatles as a shining example of what good music can be, and would be were it not for the hordes of manufactured, talentless, soulless boy/girl/pop bands flooding the charts, who not only don't play their own instruments, they don't even write their own music!!!!!

The horror...

There are two main elements to any band- the look and the sound. And Britney Spears is intrinsically better than the Beatles on both counts.

1) Appearance.

The Beatles, to my knowledge, had one dance move. They played their concert motionless for 95% of the time (except for playing their instruments, obviously) but their one dance move consisted of shaking their hair when they went "wooooo" in the chorus. They couldn't really do much else because they all had guitars to deal with, and it wasn't until later in the sixties that the idea of moving and playing the guitar at the same time would be invented by such pioneers as Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townsend, who then sent Chuck Berry back in a time machine... So the pressure of doing both at once became too much, and George Harrison gave the rest of the band an ultimatum- either they didn't have to play live, and deal with the pressure of shaking their heads and playing their instruments at the same time, or he would quit the band. They quickly realised, however, that they were so ridiculously famous that their records went to number one on pre-orders alone; which meant that no-one really cared what they sounded like anymore because they bought the record anyway, and as their fans screamed so loud at the gigs that they couldn't hear themselves either, they would be better off not bothering to get out of bed. So, in what can only be described as a massive snub to their fans who trooped along en masse to their live performances, they decided not to play live anymore, which meant they were free to have their own individual, non-matching haircuts, grow beards, take lots of new exciting drugs and slowly withdraw up their own arses.

Compare this to the pop stars of today. Britney Spears doesn't play an instrument- she get a professional to do that job. So she isn't restricted by a plank of wood tied around her neck. And the stars are chosen, at least in part, for their looks. And since Madonna, they don't even have to worry about holding a microphone, as its strapped to their heads. So they are free to dance and put on a show that's actually worth watching (as opposed to four motionless blokes that you can't hear anyway.) And when they have their ego-driven temper tantrums, it's more along the lines of "I want a bowl of 1000 M&Ms, and someone to pick out the brown ones" or "I want an entourage of 15,000 stylist, hairdressers, make up artists and a stylist for my dog"- which effectively adds to the show, because you can still be entertained by reading about their off-stage antics while they transform into an untouchable legend living in a parallel popstar universe, which contrasts sharply with just not going on stage anymore because you can't be bothered.

Combine this with todays extravagant stage shows with light shows, smoke machines and pyrotechnic displays, and you have a better looking show. Arguably, this is a result of things advancing with the times, but there were plenty of bands in the 60s playing around with projectors, lights and smoke to give their shows an edge, so that doesn't really hold. I think it's more likely that they simply didn't care. Did the Beatles ever abseil onto the stage or fly in from the back of the stadium on flying skateboards as Five and Backstreet Boys did?

And if you're of the opinion that the Beatles image was all their own, compared to the manufactured images that todays pop bands are forced into, then I recommend you read up on the subject and find out exactly what happened to them in Hamburg that turned them from leather-clad rockers to pop stars with matching suits and haircuts well before anyone other than their immediate families and friends knew they existed.

2) Playing Instruments & Writing Songs.

Some people would have you believe that a band that plays their own instruments and writes their own songs is somehow intrinsically better than a band who doesn't. This is one of those things that, as far as I can tell, is subtly implanted into peoples heads at an early age by people who don't know what they're talking about, and is subsequently taken for granted. It's not true. In fact, if you think it through, the opposite is true.

Firstly, every band needs instruments- whether its a single piano, a couple of guitars, a bank of synthesisers or a full orchestra. But there's simply no reason for the band to play them themselves. What's a better show- four good looking young kids singing and dancing, of four good looking young kids staring at their hands trying not to drop a note or fluff a chord?

On top of that, there's the problem of ego. Musical instruments are there to play music on. Seems like stating the obvious, but a lot of people who play musical instruments seem to think that they're for something different- to show off how well they can play that particular instrument. Which leads us away from the finely crafted 3 minute pop songs that we know and love, and into the territory of extended guitar solos that don't send the audience anywhere other than to sleep. Except, of course, for the schoolboys (always seems to be boys, for some reason) who are learning to play guitar so one day they could do extended guitar solos too, staring in wonder that anyone can play that fast, when in fact just about anyone who can be bothered to waste a few years of their life practising scales can do it.

On top of which, the bands end up being tied down by their instruments. A band with two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer will generally only be able to do drums-and-guitar-based songs without causing rifts within the band (for example, when the drummer has nothing to do in the studio while the guitarist spends hours playing with a drum machine.) Even if they were talented enough to come up with them, they would never allow themselves to do the likes of "Baby One More Time", or All Saints' "Pure Shores", or S-Club 7's "Don't Stop Moving." But there's nothing to stop Britney Spears getting hold of a guitarist and playing a rock classic. (She's already covered the Stones...)

The other thing that every band needs is a song. Preferably more than one, too. This is where the other popular misconception comes in- that bands who write their own songs are intrinsically better than bands who don't. While I appreciate that it can bring more "authenticity" to hear a singer singing one of their own songs, it's not without its drawbacks.

To me, it makes no difference whether the ideas, songs or concepts come from the band themselves or their managers, producers, songwriters, stylists, families or off the back of a cereal packet, so long as they're good. There seems to be a school of thought that thinks that artists who don't write their own songs get them from some sort of machine, or simply plucks them out of the ether, so their songs are somehow "bad", while artists who write their own songs spend months at a time carefully crafting them, pouring their blood, sweat and tears into them, so they're naturally "good". Clearly, that's not true- if anything, it's the opposite. A band with an established following will be forgiven for writing the occasional duff tune, because their faces have had thousands of pounds worth of marketing money invested in them so they have to be kept happy. On the other hand, a faceless songwriter will be dropped and replaced without any need for press releases or newspaper headlines, or just simply not have their "duff" songs recorded. So they've got a reason to make every song as good as they can, rather than just knocking out a b-side in less time than it takes to listen to it. On top of the fact that they're just songwriters, so they don't spend their time rehearsing dance steps or practising poses in front of mirrors or planning what they're going to say to the journalist from NME and whether it's going to be the same speech they gave the journalists from Q and Smash Hits, because they're just learning how to write damn good songs.

And there's no simple formula or set of rules to follow to make a number one song. What will go straight to number one today might not do the same next week, next month or next year. And if a "rule" should happen to come into existence, it will be broken just as quickly. In the late 80s, the KLF attempted to write "The Manual- How to have a number one single the easy way." Although an excellent read, statements like "In this day and age no song with a BPM over 135 will ever have a chance of getting to Number One" show it as something forever set in the days before drum'n'bass, it clearly didn't take long for the rules to transform completely. (Nowadays a final chorus that goes up a note seems to be an appendix to the "Golden Rules".)

And anyway, surely if you love a song, you love the song no matter where it came from? Does it make any difference if it was written by the singer, guitarist, drummer, manager or someone else? It certainly never seemed to bother any Motown fans.

And besides, as much as I love the work of Max Martin (writer of such songs as "Backstreet's Back" and "Baby One More Time"), I don't want a blown-up picture of him on my wall, or his face on MTV. In fact, I don't even care what he looks like. Give me Britney Spears any time...

Turning 30

A lovely set of graphs and charts describing what its like turning 30.

(Reminds me a little of Jessica Hagy's Indexed blog. If you like one, I'm guessing you'll probably like the other.)

An OSX Service to get a web page title

The issue: I have a bunch of services that I use to drop URLs into a journal-type text file that lives in Dropbox, which I then go through to write blog posts, newsletters and the like.

Going through each link (opening up in a web browser, then copying the relevant details from the web page back into the text file) is a boring task. But the real problem is that its a boring task that I only do when I'm in the right mood to be doing the more creative task of writing up whatever it is that I'm writing.

The idea; I want a service, where I can just click on a URL and automatically convert it to a (MarkDown) link, automatically looking up the web page from the URL to get the title of the page.

Turns out that its pretty simple. I set up a Service in Automator, which receives selected text, and output replaces selected text.

All the Service does is run the following Ruby shell script;

require 'open-uri'
require 'nokogiri'
ARGF.each do |f|
  doc = Nokogiri::HTML(open(f))
  print "[" + doc.at_css("title").content.gsub(/\s{2,}/, "") + "]" + "(" + f.strip + ")"

To make it work, you will need the Nokogiri gem installed in your System Ruby. (Nokogiri can be straightforward to install – it can also be a complicated mess, so the instructions are outside the scope of this blog post.)

Obviously, there is room for improvement on this. For starters, it seems like overkill to pull a whole web page HTML and then to use a whole HTML/XML parsing tool like Nokogiri just to get a page title. (readline seems like it could be useful here.) It would also be nice to extract a URL from a selected piece of text – that is, turn it into a service that could be used on a selection of text with multiple URLs in it. And it would also be nice to detect URLs that are already either HTML or Markdown links and ignore them.

But as a starting point, it does the job.

Accuracy vs Precision

Today's XKCD;

I'd be inclined to take this a step further; when you say "people are stupid compared to your expectations", what you are really saying is that my expectations of how smart people are is constantly and consistently wrong, yet I am unwilling to change my expectation to accomodate this information.

One of the things that stuck with me from my degree 1 is the idea of "Accuracy" vs "Precision."

Precision is essentially about consistency – a repeated measurement will give very similar values. Accuracy is about a measurement being close to a "true" value. So, a measurement using an incorrectly calibrated set of weighing scales can be very precise (always reporting the same weight), but not very accurate. Or reporting a figure to a large number of decimal places can be a very precise measurement – but that doesn't mean that it is an accurate one.

So, the "people are stupid" statement could be taken as saying that your views are not accurate, you know that they are not accurate, you know how you could change your views – but you refuse to. Perhaps to maintain your belief in your own level of relative 'smartness'.

Which, I guess, is pretty stupid…

It also reminds me of my favourite George Carlin quote – Think about how stupid the average person is. Then realise that half of the population is more stupid than that. 2

  1. I studied Chemisty with Environmental Chemistry. On one hand, I probably should have switched to a topic I found more interesting when I realised that I wasn't going to maintain a keen interest for 3 years. On the other hand, I'm not sure I would have necessarily made a better choice.

  2. Of course, if you interpret "average" to mean "mean", then this assumes that stupidity/smartness is normally distributed, and the mean and median are the same – which is not necessarily true.

"Your an idiot"

"Your an idiot" – apparently the 'most internet sentence.'

Its a lovely analysis, and 1 I thought I'd have a look at just how 'internet' the phrase turned out to be.

The most retweeted "your an idiot" tweet is a reasonably standard 'step four' response from Frankie Boyle;

614 retweets at the time of writing

I particularly liked the most retweeted 'step three' (ie. non-referential) tweet;

To quote from Wikipedia;

At the bottom of the table, Queens Park Rangers were relegated after a thoroughly dismal campaign in which they recorded the worst start in Premier League history, with not even Harry Redknapp's appointment as manager and a substantial investment in players during the January transfer window significantly improving their fortunes.

The most authoritative news story (according to Sysomos' measure of 'authority') – a story about another 'step four' usage - ABC News - Samuel L. Jackson schools the president;

“I’ll be reading scripts and the screenwriter mistakes ‘your’ for ‘you’re.’ On Twitter someone will write, ‘Your an idiot,’ and I’ll go, ‘No, you’re an idiot,’ and all my Twitterphiles will go, ‘Hey, Sam Jackson, he’s the grammar police,” Jackson said. “Somebody needs to be,” he added. “I mean, we have newscasters who don’t even know how to conjugate verbs, something Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow never had problems with. How the f> *> did we become a society where mediocrity is acceptable?”

The 'most authoritative' tweet;

Again, 'step four' is a popular one – especially when from a celebrity. (Rob Lowe has 815,084 followers.)

Fox News – joint biggest "your an idiot" authority…

Fox News – joint biggest "your an idiot" authority…

A wordcloud of "your an idiot" Twitter mentions isnt particularly enlightening (although the word 'irony' is a nice indication of 'stage 4' popularity…)

Twitter wordcloud

Twitter wordcloud

But looking at volumes over time, perhaps its actually a bit of a 2013 thing – volumes seem to have been steadily decreasing. (The rise of mobile and autocorrect, perhaps?) The 600 tweets a day estimate in the original article seems to be a little high – although its definitely down from about 850 a year ago.

Tweet volume

Tweet volume

Perhaps unsurprisingly, its less of a big deal in the blogosphere;

Blog mentions

Blog mentions

…and, although nowhere near as big as Twitter, still fairly popular on forums.

Forum mentions

Forum mentions

  1. before things went a bit crazy over the last couple of weeks

Mario theme played on… Something.

I don't quite know what this is, but it would appear to be a girl playing the Mario theme tune (as well as a bunch of incidental sound effects) on an instrument that resembles one of the towers from Lord of the Rings.

via The Loop

Fixing a broken key on a Macbook Air

Fixing a broken key on a Macbook Air

A Macbook Air, an 18 month toddler and a moments distraction meant that I had to figure out how to replace a key that had been prised off by tiny fingers…