Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Lines and Lines and Lines...

I love a list. I’m sure psychologists would have much to say about this, but I’m happy to admit it; I like lists. I like writing lists, reading lists, discussing lists and working through lists. I like shopping lists, things to do lists, favourite things lists, best of lists, worst of lists, lists of names for things, lists of types of things, lists about lists. I like lists.

We list lovers are easily derided; we are control freaks; we’re anal; we’re overly reductive; we don’t like complexity; we’re judgemental; we like things to be black or white; we like to hear other people’s opinions so we can form our own; we crave order. Maybe some of this is true – I admit that even as I write I’m highly tempted to use bullet points list these easy derisions in some kind of order. I won’t go that far but I think it’s fair to try and group lists into a few distinct types; Doing Lists, Preference Lists and what I like to think of as List Lists.

Doing Lists are not for everyone. I like them because my brain likes to wander like Pac-Man in his maze. I can happily spend my hours just floating around and picking up the flotsam and jetsam that come my way, but ultimately not getting anything done. Not everyone needs to plan their grocery shop to the nth degree or studiously plan their every working and waking hours. Good luck to those people I say, but please go about your loose and carefree existences quietly, I’m doing a quick inventory of my fridge and I’m not sure how many potatoes I need this week.

List Lists are the domain of the defiantly anal. They are for the encyclopaedic - the fact gatherers of this world. They are for trainspotters and collectors, for people who choose to remember the name of the fifteenth King of Denmark, the person who scored the most goals in the 2002-03 National Hockey League season and the name of the first woman to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with a penguin. They are the Guinness Book of Records and the Encyclopaedia Britannica and they do well at trivia quizzes. In his book Diaries 1969–1979: The Python Years, Michael Palin admits that many of Monty Python’s most beloved sketches are just lists of things said in silly voices (the Cheese Shop and Dead Parrot sketches being the most famous examples). List Lists exist so that both the world we know and the world we don’t are archived ready for when we need them.

I am a fan of both of the above, but my feelings towards the Preference List are mixed – and herein lies the attraction. The Preference List is a multifarious beast; dough that can be moulded to any shape or a pair of shoes that goes with any outfit. It can act as a genuine affirmation of love or be coldly calculated to promote, sell or put down. At its simplest (and cutest) it can be a child deciding which of their favourite three toys to take on holiday. At its most commercial and dirty it’s the backslapping award ceremonies and end of year Best and Worst lists which (ahem) for better or worse, will come to define what we will remember of our times and signpost our generation’s tastes for future historians.

For the latter it’s important to stay focused on just whose preferences are being offered. Many lists are compiled (read dreamt up) by lazy journalists winding down for the Christmas holidays and in need of copy for their final issues of the year. Does anyone truly believe end of year polls telling us that the best film was the one that most people went to see, or the best music is the one that most people bought. It’s the Michael Jackson theory of biggest = best and it’s always wrong.

Tabloid press loves this kind of snapshot view, and given that its predominance over popular culture it’s no surprise when these five-to-midnight favourites correlate with the concurrent polls drawn from a popular vote via email and text messaging. Tabloid newspapers and magazines are confirming what their demographic wants to know – that their tastes are normal and their opinions correct.

For every broad brush summary though, there are the self-appointed ‘expert’ views. Magazines who can tell you with authority what is officially the best car, film, album, computer game, book or even (see Time magazine’s annual bizarre-fest) Person of the Year. Who cares if Joe/Jodie Public thinks Britney Spears made the best album of the year? Here, discerning reader is the real truth.

Except such magazines also have a mission. They want to be seen as the arbiters of taste and deliverers of the universal truth. It stems from the smug pointlessness of tasteful and highbrow list making – popular amongst middle-aged men as gloriously mocked in the film Hi-Fidelity. Unfortunately for people paid to be journalists that truth also needs to concur with the truths of their readers.

Mojo magazine is a good case in point. Despite offering articles that are on the whole well written, researched and informed, their annual awards ceremony is one of the most embarrassing events in the music calendar. Presented as the thinking person’s BRIT Awards with wit and taste, it is really nothing more than an excuse for the writers and editors of the magazine to rub shoulders with the people they will never be. You can almost hear the writers’ glee as they get their pictures taken with Paul McCartney or Led Zeppelin being presented with an award that they have both invented and allocated. Cast an eye over recent ‘winners
and suddenly even the BRIT awards seem vaguely relevant. At least they only have one lifetime achievement award. Mojo has ten (depending upon your interpretation of Outstanding Contribution to Music, Icon Award, Hero Award, Hall of Fame, Lifetime Achievement Award, Special Award, Legend Award, Classic Album Award, Inspiration Award , Les Paul Award (!), and the Maverick Award) with 90% voted for by the Mojo staffers. For the record, Mojo also publishes a few end of year Best of lists and then follows it up with a readers’ list just so you have a few more lists to digest.

So yes, most lists are pointless and made by wankers. And still, despite myself, I love lists. I think this is because even though we live in an age where wiki-power of knowledge about absolutely everything is but a click away for our own investigation and exploration, we still need reference points. The infinite possibilities offered by the internet are overwhelming to most of us. Lists are like handrails to hold onto as popular culture rushes by us. They let us take stock of what everyone else is saying and give us a chance to blindly agree or furiously argue. They give us a foundation on which to build our views, and a starting point from which to explore.

Lists also offer hope for the fence sitters of this world. We live in a sound-bite world and who are you if you don’t have a sound for people to bite? Maybe it’s just the company I keep but most people I know would rather Sellotape their mouths shut than divulge their honest innermost likes and dislikes.

Whilst there will always be a few hip and arch people who can rattle off an uber-cool list of their favourite things (regardless of whether they have actually read, heard or seen any of them) ask most people to name their favourite anything and they will um and ah for an age. They’ll have a ponder about who is going to hear the answer, maybe recall an established and well respected list that they’ve read, and try and find a nice piece of smooth safe ground on which to gently land their inoffensive opinion. They will tie themselves in knots trying to say the right thing, not miss something obvious out, seem informed and of course make sure they don’t look different. This is because on some level we all need reassurance that our views and tastes are OK.

The Guilty Pleasures compilation series – in which people basically admit to liking the music they grew up with, naff or not – plays directly with this phenomenon. It says ‘sod what the learned people tell you is best, it’s what you like that counts.’ I like this approach - apart from the fact that it’s called Guilty Pleasures and therefore perpetuates the feeling that even though you like it, it’s still wrong.

This is taken to the next level by the author and music writer Garry Mulholland who has taken the vain and yet hugely entertaining step of issuing two books which amount to little more than lists of his favourite singles (This is Uncool: the 500 Greatest Singles since Punk and Disco) and albums (Fear of Music: the 261 Greatest Albums since Punk and Disco) with a lovely turn of phrase to tell you why. Had I a list of List Makers, Mulholland would be #1. This may be to do with the fact that I greatly agree with many of his opinions, but I think it’s mostly because he is unapologetic about what he loves and talks with great devotion about why. Free of any editorial restrictions he has written two perfect diatribes about all that he holds dear. What more can you ask of a list? Honourable mention also to OMG Lists
which, despite the terrible name, offers a weird and wonderful collection of lists that you probably won’t think you need to read, but will enjoy anyway.

Lists don’t matter, of course. They are just other people’s opinions. Or maybe a group of people’s opinions all squished together and put together in numerical or alphabetical or biggest or smallest or best-est or worst-est order. They don’t make something any more wonderful, nor do they make anything any more true. They are just other people’s thoughts all neatly lined up in a row, ready for you to embrace or kick over. Just remember - paid journalists aside - someone had to climb off the fence to make that list so if you’re going to kick, have the courtesy of climbing down yourself first.