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Fabulous nobodies

He dobbed me in, my own f. and b. ‘Da-ad, she’s been shouting at the telly again,’ he said as soon as my husband walked in from a hard day’s being flattered at work. I was surrounded by disapproving family males, all two of them.

‘I thought we’d agreed you were going to give that up,’ said the old one, more in sorrow than in anger.

‘Only for Lent, dammit, and by the way, you snitching young yobbo, “she” is the cat’s mother.’

‘Quick, give her some chocolate, she’s resorting to cliché,’ said the young one. I snatched it and went snarling into a corner to reflect.

What is it about some aspects of our viewing culture that gets me so pen-snappingly cross? Perhaps I should start at the beginning, with a small Spot Quiz, folks. OK: are the following statements true or false?

(a) invented singing, indeed all music, in the early 1900s in New York, Chicago or the deep South;

(b) won both World Wars single-handed;
(c) has three in every hundred people in jail;
(d) has more guns than people.

Hollywood and the White House tell us (b) and Michael Moore (recently and amazingly on Oprah) tells us (c) and (d) but it’s left to The Voice to tell us (a). The ABC ran this documentary on Sundays in August at 7.30, in a timeslot competing with Ten’s Australian Idol. What a choice. Poisonous and cruel destruction of fragile youthful self-esteem on the one hand and fake history on the other. Perhaps that’s rather harsh, but I kept waiting for the programs to explore that extraordinary instrument, the human voice, and was disappointed. Alan Lewens, a London-based authority on popular music, was the series’ creator.

Two years ago he created the series Walk On By, which tracked the development of popular music in a somewhat idiosyncratic but always interesting way. It became compulsory viewing in our music-mad house. But The Voice seems to have been cobbled from fag-ends of the previous series. There are a couple of throws to opera singers, but the faults of Walk On By were well in evidence without its saving virtues: maddening voice-overs, endless talking heads and not enough performance footage. Lewens seems to have a genius for ripping the climax out of an archival performance of someone like Ella Fitzgerald doing ‘Summertime’ to cross to some obscure American saying something along the lines of ‘Ella was really really good. No, really. What a voice.’ Or ‘Judy/Aretha/Mahalia was really really fantastic, wow.’ Or ‘Ray/Satchmo/Bing/Frank was a legend. Wow. What a voice.’

It wasn’t about the voice at all, it was just more potted social history (blues-gospel roots, social change, invention of radio/cinema/TV/yada yada yada). The opera stuff was a brief afterthought, and consisted of wafer-thin profiles of people who had sung in America. The list of omissions is longer than this column’s word limit, but try a few examples of what was missing from a documentary series that might deserve the title of The Voice: No European music (Maria Callas, the one diva whose voice was examined, was described as ‘New-York born’ and presumably Caruso got a mention because he emigrated to the US).

Talking heads everywhere and very little information. Nothing about early music, Umm Kulthumm, Nusrat
Ali, South African choirs, Bulgarians. No Kodaly choirs, no folk, no lieder, no art song, no Broadway, no Tanna Tuva throat singing, no Sutherland, no Tibetans, no Gregorian, no Mozart, Handel or Bach, no Yma Sumac and no vocal technique discussions worthy of the name. The last episode, on close vocal harmony, suffered from Lewens’ tunnel vision and narrow knowledge base again, as it concentrated on the doo-wop groups in the style of The Platters and The Inkspots and drawing the tradition through The Everly Brothers and The Beach Boys to Westlife. Yeah, forget Palestrina, Allegri, Dowland, Purcell …

As for Australian Idol, aargh. If you want to watch kids trying desperately to please some dead-eyed pundits, and either being bollocked and humiliated or glutinously over-praised for bellowing in a fashion that would seriously damage a young voice if persisted in, then let’s agree to differ. Jamie Oliver had some difficult kids to deal with in Jamie’s Kitchen (on Ten during August), and seems to have done the right thing by them. The restaurant business is every bit as cutthroat as the music industry, and yet there were allowances made, chances given and some useful careers launched. Good on him.

And while we’re thinking of nurturing the young, don’t forget to watch the ABC’s Platypus: World’s Strangest Animal (Wednesday 10 September, 8.30pm). David Parer spent three years trying to be the platypus’s Big Brother, and succeeded thanks to some state-of-the-art snooping cameras that could poke into the burrow and wiggle about getting pictures of the elusive little cusses. It seems that platypuses are dedicated to giving their young the best start in life, supporting them devotedly until they’re ready to get out on their own. Sort of like us, really, if we’re like Jamie Oliver. Or not, of course, if you are of the idolatrous persuasion.       

Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer.



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