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The Vacuum Issue 6 spacer Issue 6
Problematising Pigeonholes
by Katy Radford
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Stereotyping is great fun. Without it, our ability to laugh at ourselves would be all the poorer as comedy is a delicate combination of timing and caricature. Or, to put it another way, calculating how, when and to whom to play your stereoptype. The success and applicability of this strategy for the comic is a tightrope-walk along a continuum spanning pathos and mania.
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When seen through the format of stereotyping, comedy doesn't need to reside in a performance, but becomes a way of looking at and coping with life. Categorising and labelling then become tools we use to create moments where the misplaced and the out of context provide a degree of liberation from the worthy, the dreary, the same and the sane.
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Names in Northern Ireland, provide the archetypal arena where the stereotype can be both set up and knocked down. (A veil of modesty should be drawn at this stage over the origins of family names such as Hume and Adams - the targets are too soft.) Instead, let's pull into focus the typecasting that occurs with first and chosen names: If we call our children after the great warriors, poets, minstrels and matriarchs of our own or others' tribes, there swiftly follows an assumption of political and social profiteering. The charge of wearing cultural heritage like a banner is levied loud and clear and any aesthetic choice that may have been part of the original equation is diminished. But no matter how we attempt to defy the pigeon hole, it's pretty certain that in the process of resistance, we engage in the creation of another comical stereotype. Self-conscious efforts are made by the chattering classes to cross cultural boundaries by adopting or reclaiming names perceived to fall into a sectarian ghetto. But all too often this results in Oliver and Odhran, the offspring of aetheist West-Brits, suffering the stigma of identities predominantly permeated by an aura of nut-free, fibre-full liberalism.
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Stereotyping is an integral part of business planning. It fuels the niche marketing machine. The entertainment industries in particular thrive and survive on the maintenance of discreet categories, with music as a case in point. Cross-over audiences are rarely sought by the multi-nationals. However, music has a way of seducing strange bedfellows to form absurd alliances. Who would have thought that there could be common ground between punk and country and western? Yet for a short while someone managed to forge a profitable cohesion between the two with the advent of rockabilly Similarly, can anyone yet make sense of the rather droll fact that subscribers to the inherently racist skinhead movement were so closely connected to and jealously guarded their patronage of ska?
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But what happens when the commercial machine becomes greedy is that music no longer fits the stereotypes, and comic relief sets in with the advent of the 'corporate sound', emerging from the process of trying to define a style of music that can appeal to everyone. Consequently the musical mediocre becomes a stereotype in its own right, and one that audiences have no choice in buying into or out of. Through the blanding down and culling of any potential or exceptional qualities a piece of music may have had, the pay off is invariably the dum de dum of the classic fm humalong, or a lacksluster, featureless distillation of rock and pop ballads into banal and characteless instrumentals. The resulting Elevator muzak, teeters between the irritating and the downright silly: Blondie's 'Heart of Glass' reproduced on breathy panpipes in the Europa toilets headed up my personal vile pile for a while, but has recently been replaced by Eric Carmen's 'All by myself' on synthesised keyboard and drum machine on the Royal Victoria Hospital's musical hold for the Intensive Care Unit. (mind you, the original was never all that anyway).
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Problematising Pigeonholes
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There are two businesses where it is easy to stereotype those workers who share, as part of their essential props and toolkit a truly horrible musical style. Hawkers in ethically unsound 'beauty' salons may profit from insecurities about outer image, while those peddlers of quasi-religious feely-touchy new-age healing benefit by the redemption of inner beauty. (I challenge that you do not already have an archetype of both the punters and the peddlers of these industries already present in your mind). Both industries provide fuel for different clichés, but both use the same genre of ambient music to provide the mise en scene for their clients. Beauty salons and centres of alternative healing rely on the musical products of companies like Real Music, the somewhat frivolously named record label that specialise in electronic mediation to produce silken, breathy voices, what it refers to as 'tribal' rhythms, and, according to their pr blurb, 'Celtic, mesmerising instrumental passages to awaken the spirit, comfort, heal and experience the sacred'.
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Problematising Pigeonholes
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Considering that products for the beauty business are available principally due to the decimation of landscapes and the animal kingdom by and for the creation of pollutants, it is perhaps ironic to find the two conjoined in musical bliss. But then I guess following the direction of your own hearbeat must take us on many different journeys. Personally, it all comes across like the sound of a load of old cash registers to me. And as I've just come in to have my legs waxed I'd rather be distracted from excrutiating pain, inner or outer, by Kelly Osborne shouting Shut Up than Enya.
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Problematising Pigeonholes
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