Sunday, April 29, 2012

Vox Potpourri

Seal prepares to pounce - Kodakotype by Pants

Another autumn, another talent show appears, making fire-tending suddenly seem a fascinating and engaging pastime. Why wait for the ads when the excoriating sight of someone trying to sing their puny little heart out is more than enough to drive you to cinder caressing in the search for a meaning to life, the universe and self-immolation.

The Voice, they tell us, is a cut above the usual bear-pit spectacle we're used to gawping at as our fellow plebs succumb to their own vanity. First aired in the US, then the UK and now the U-Beaut (Australia to non-speakers of our peculiar native language), its aim is not to humiliate fragile fledgling talent, but rather to nurture it with the tenderest of tongues. 'Where's the fun in that?' you may well ask. I know I did, fleetingly, and then immediately resumed my search of the embers for eternal truth.

'And how is this new niceness made real?' you may further ask, if you haven't already wandered off to stoke your own coals. At this point, I normally call upon my esteemed colleague the Question Why, whose wit and wisdom are invaluable in pondering the bleedin' obvious and the unfathomability of its annoying persistence. Pause for applause as TQW enters the equation. You will also be familiar with our, er, familiar, the intrepid Barney, voligarch about town and general factotum here at Seat of Pants.
As Barney prepares us a perfectly chilled glass of his superb Russo-Barnique, we kick back to consider the baffling question of how a talent show modelled on whooping, fawning and the sickly sight of C-class celebs pleading with a will-never-be for the chance to mould him/her into a top recording artiste can possibly sustain interest for more than the time it takes to snap a Kodakotype of Seal's alarming nail job.

The USP of The Voice franchise is that the auditions are 'blind', an element which offered an opportunity for an 'ilarious pun here in Australia when an actual blind person showed up. We shall leave you to fill in that particular blankety-blank yourself as TQW and I are above such things and, besides, our glasses need topping up so we must hit the pause button in order to give thanks for our entrepreneurial house-pet.

The 'blind' initial cull is premised on the belief that it's difficult to develop a bias against someone because of their looks if you can't actually see them. This appears to work quite well as the contestants are spared the fright of Keith Urban, Joel Madden, Delta Goodrem and Seal all together in one horrific frame. That sight alone would be enough to put anyone off a career in show biz. Keith (main claim to fame being Mr Nicole Kidman), Joel (main claim to fame being Mr Nicole Richie), Seal (main claim to fame being the ex Mr Heidi Klum) and Delta (main claim to fame being the ex future Mrs Brian McFadden), certainly do challenge the notion that 'looks matter in the biz'. In fact, the converse appears to apply. Even someone as blessed with such luscious god-given hair extensions as Delta Goodrem feels the need to supplement her natural attributes by acquiring the rights to the hands of Wilhelmina W. Witchiepoo and then waving them around dramatically at every opportunity, neck'n'necking with Seal's jaundiced digits for the honour of being the owner of the world's most horrible hands.

Another departure from the standard baptism-of-fire talent-show format is the styling of the sparsely groomed C-classers as 'coaches', rather than 'judges', very much in line with the 'no-losers' ethic of the present day. Even the singers who don't trigger the big red button that would bring them face to face with a future 'champion' are told 'you're still a winner' - of what? Steak knives perhaps? Although, for some experienced warblers who didn't get picked, perhaps a daggered look would be a more appropriate description of the final outcome.

This gleefully inclusive hugathon would seem to be very much at odds with the reality that exists beyond the neon world of revolving chairs and 'every contestant a wanted contestant' rhetoric. There is still no getting around the fact that, at the end of this tedious process, only one act will win the precious 'recording contract'. By my maths, that leaves 47 people who will walk away with nothing. TQW also points out that if you multiply this number by the hundreds of television talent shows from around the globe and down through the decades, for every Leona Lewis or Kelly Clarkson, there are many hundreds of thousands of canaries who didn't make it out of the coalmine. And we can only hope that there is only room for one Susan Boyle on this beleaguered planet of ours.

These days, anyone can have a recording career simply by acquiring a handful of friends with friends of their own and an ability to upload a file onto YouTube. TQW and I therefore conclude that assembling people to sing someone else's song is probably not the ideal brokerage arrangement to bring us the recording stars of the future. Everyone knows that sustained careers in the music business are founded on writing songs rather than singing them. 'So, where is the contest for original songs?' you may well ask. 

This whole process simply smacks of inefficiency. There are two people in the Australian competition with hugely successful close relations in the biz - Jimmy Barnes's daughter Mahalia and Guy Sebastian's brother Chris. Did it not occur to them to ask their dad/bro if they could have a lend of a few musicians, a little studio time and the iMac for an afternoon? It doesn't make any sense. We are forced to conclude that pointlessness is the point. 

Anyway, now that all these ghastly people are able to see each other - and doesn't that make the world a better place - let's see how long it takes before all that botox-faced awe melts into hardcore, scowling competitiveness. My guess is that it will smell as sweet as last year's toilet-based potpourri by Week 3. TQW and I plan to have the roaringest, most lavishly attended fire in Larrikin's End by then. Barney, another of your classic Russo-Barniques over here, there's a good fellow...

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The quality of mercy is, er, well, it depends...

Asylum Seekers by Pants

We thought we had our attitude to those wretched waifs who periodically fetch up on our shores with some spurious tale of being persecuted, or what not, in their own country... well, we thought we had the asylum-seeker problem sorted. Our strategy was simple - we sent a strong signal out that we are the most stern nation on the planet when it comes to distressed peoples thinking that they can arrive here in a disorderly fashion, having been burnt out of their own home and lost all of their belongings and perhaps a family member or two, and expect a show of sympathy for their extraordinary human effort to survive. Our compassion is at capacity. Everyone knows that the global financial crisis gave us a right battering. We can hardly maintain our own children's obesity levels, much less overfeed extra mouths.

And then, something very odd happened. Recently, a 'yacht' carrying ten Chinese asylum seekers was towed into Darwin after signalling that it was in distress. The passengers were practitioners of the oppressed Falun Gong spiritual discipline. Now, vessels in distress that arrive in Australian waters carrying asylum seekers, are normally referred to as 'leaky boats'. A 'yacht' is something that takes part in a grand ocean race or transports one of our plucky teenagers to global stardom.

These refugees had gotten themselves to Malaysia, where they obtained the 'yacht' on which they set sail, something that would become quite important in the complex picture that unfolded. And 'a yacht' this dubious vessel would remain for the purposes of reportage, even though it had ceased to function as such.

But, I'm getting a little bit ahead of myself. The critical piece of information that you need to know, intrigued reader, is that once these asylum seekers had arrived in Darwin Harbour under tow, they immediately announced that Australia had not been their goal destination. They had set a course for New Zealand, and they intended to put up for repairs, re-provision and be on their way to the land of the long multicultured cloud.

Imagine, if you will, the sound of a perpetually retold tale suddenly disintegrating along with an already shaky national self-confidence. Our gut reaction was to move mountains to enable this desire and make these ten asylum seekers someone else's problem, possibly as payback for some perceived infringement of the MoU in regard to our sporting superiority. Government spokespeople lined up to recite chapter, verse and chorus, articles on mariners' rights. Far from being a 'boatload', (the collective noun we normally apply to asylum seekers who travel together on sea craft as opposed to hiring individual jet-skis to get here), these people were 'passengers' with 'rights'. And, of course, they were and are, just as any people who pay a shipping company for personal passage are 'passengers' with 'rights', no matter how dodgy the company is.

The initial ploy didn't go well. Our compatriots 0'er the ditch were having none of it. In any case, that tactic was quickly overpowered by the rapidly worsening wound to our national pride. You'd prefer to live in New Zealand? What fresh identity hell is this? Well, because they didn't fancy being indefinitely billeted in Darwin, was one reason given. That wasn't so mysterious. You'd be hard pressed to find an Australian who'd want to live there. Don't these asylum seekers know that most New Zealanders would prefer to live here in Australia? Although, possibly not in Darwin. The asylum seekers also mentioned, in passing, that they didn't fancy being locked up for years in detention centres awaiting a residency decision. Go figure.

The slap of rejection resounded around our jagged land. Suddenly, every available resource was being mustered to convince these mariners with rights that their proposed onward journey to New Zealand could be be hazardous. I wonder how many round-the-world, life-changer families with toddlers, dogs, cats and satellite iPads with homework apps on board are so advised when they pull in to Darwin en route to Rotorua. Apparently, these travellers had some help from New Zealand authorities who 'had been able to explain to the group how dangerous the onward boat journey would be'. 'Would be'? Whatever. The persuasion worked and, for once, Australia was jubilant at the prospect of accepting asylum seekers.

After the confetti had been swept away, there remained the formality of weaving this anomaly into the national conversation without disrupting the hard line. Something else, beside the 'yacht/leaky boat' variation, set this particular group of asylum seekers apart. They had not paid any intermediaries to transport them. They had organised and realised their own trip. Crucially, they were not 'people-smuggled'. With that one decision, they had cauterized one of the two main sources of prejudice. Their story could easily be directed on an alternative course from the 'queue-jumper' narrative that we usually deploy to de-legitimise desperate souls fleeing from persecution. These people were not wittingly enabling the dreaded 'people-smuggler business model' to blossom in its tax-free vacuum. They could be recast, in the national consciousness, as freedom-seeking wanderers, pilgrims for a progressive world that respects religions it hasn't even heard of. They were also, most luckily for them, not Muslims.

This variation from the groundhog grind of grim, drenched asylum-seeker arrivals begs a further question. It's well known that Australia privileges individuals who arrive by air and claim asylum. It's also universally accepted that the people who are most likely to be in need of help are those least likely to have the means or the contacts to arrive anywhere easily or legitimately. We've gotten quite good at ignoring people who fly in under the public radar and disappear at the end of their visa period. We're even better at treating already traumatised boat arrivals to extended periods of detention without hope, jeopardising their future use either to themselves or to our society. The general public has been quite happy to fall into these right/wrong camps based solely on visibility. The begged question here is, by what right do we permit ourselves to job-lot human experience?

When a group like the Falun Gong putter in, more or less under their own steam, defying categorisation, it throws into sharp relief the dehumanising process to which we subject those who've trudged the more common trails out of Afghanistan or Iran. Suddenly politicians were falling all over themselves 'to judge each case on its merits' and throwing down welcome mats in every conceivable direction. Or, perhaps, we just can't stand the thought that someone would choose New Zealand over us.

Attention potential asylum seekers - here's a tip for you. When the border patrol boat approaches you as you reach Christmas Island shout out very loudly, 'we're saved - here come the All Blacks!'