One of the reasons I always enjoy watching Glastonbury is that it introduces me to music I wouldn't normally listen to. Friday night, I settled down and watched the BBC2 late night show, not knowing what I was going to see but unsurprised that I found so much to like. Though they're not a band I've ever listened to except, perhaps, at a previous Glastonbury, Florence and the Machines surprised me with a fantastic set. It might have been a bit happy clappy for my tastes and all that nonsense about grabbing the person next to them sounded like the prelude to charges of public groping but, as headlining acts go, it was impressive. Florence earned an extra fan on that performance alone and should clearly be promoted to a proper headline slot at a future festival.
Even more impressive, to my ears, were the bands that came after. Wolf Alice really seriously impressed me with their thick grungy sound. I then found myself doing a Google search for Sharon Van Etten after a good solo performance on the BBC stage. Hot Chip were good but I'm not sure I'd go out of my way to buy an album but the opposite is true of the Kasai Allstars. The Allstars were sublime and precisely the kind of thing that sticks in my mind as being the very best of Glastonbury. Not sure what it says about Glastonbury being a music festival when they performed to a relative small crowd but they made a fantastic sound and conveyed real passion for their music that transcended language. Definitely a highlight of the festival so far.
Not performing to a small crowd last night was Kanye West. I'd read somewhere that Ron Mael (of Sparks and currently FFS) said that he was a fan of West. I couldn't tell if Ron was serious or not but I thought this was a chance for me to see what West is about. I went into it not knowing a thing about West except that he's married to a Kardashian about whom I know even less except for the 'break in the internet' photo of last year. I have never ever heard Kanye West's music. I don't know his back story except that I know that he has a high opinion of himself and some people have protested his invite to Glastonbury.
I watched the entire Kanye set and, I confess, it was a struggle. The person I was watching it with even had to leave the room after I said I'd like to see it through to the end. The performance was making her so angry. I shared the sentiment but I knew I wanted to write something about it today and it seemed only fair to watch the entire thing before making a judgement.
It began well. Visually the single figure of West under the bank of lights was striking. West's backing tapes (no sign of any musicians in any of this) were catchy but that was true throughout. Perhaps I'm not postmodern enough to appreciate this but I'm not entirely sure you can claim to be a musical genius when the best parts of your act are samples ripped from catchy songs of the past.
After a strong beginning, the performance settled into a pattern and really didn't develop. The lights would change occasionally but the whole thing was either a muffled rap or a middle of the road soulful croon. The crooning was better than the rapping but I wish I could say something about the lyrics which were largely incomprehensible to me and hard on the ears. Nearly everything was pushed through some kind of vocoder, which too often made him sound like a dolphin farting in a bathtub. Occasional phrases stuck out but it was usually the word which caused Jeremy Clarkson no end of trouble when he was thought to have barely muttered it a year or so ago. Last night, the BBC delighted in the fact the word was broadcast a few hundred times and at one point was being chanted by the crowd. It's a point that's not always picked up and I do wonder if critics are right when they argue that West is given a far easier time by a largely white press who are so desperate to emphasis their liberal credentials they won't condemn a performer who is crass, disrespectful of his audience, and utterly unworthy of praise.
Not that bad language bothers me and I've heard much worse. Yet what really bothered me was the sheer banality of the performance. The worst thing you can do as a Glastonbury headlining act is be boring but Kanye West was precisely that. I've never been so bored watching a so-called 'superstar'. Perhaps I'm just old but I doubt if that's it. I like difficult sounds. I embrace challenging music. This wasn't even that. It was just bad music and far below the standards of Glastonbury, which elsewhere is a serious music festival for people serious about their music.
One other point: I've never seen such a grumpy person in the business of entertaining people. He stopped songs perhaps two or three times, occasionally muttering rebukes to his team. He seemed constantly unhappy yet at the same time believing that he really is the 'the greatest living rock star on the planet'. I hope to God he was saying that with his tongue firmly in his cheek because, in truth, he wasn't even the greatest living rock star at Glastonbury. I'm not even sure he was the greatest living rock star on that stage.
The whole evening was perhaps best summed up when the gawping fool Gemma Cairney came back on screen and was breathless with praise for what we'd just watched. She praised him for being unpredictable (being hoisted into the air on a cherry picker being an example of that) but what I saw was a performance only remarkable because it was completely unremarkable. If you want stage presence and invention, go watch the last song of the Kasai Allstars' set as they all mount an invisible motorbike and dance off the stage.
I've written before about Cairney being the most high profile representative of a new brainless BBC but her performances at Glastonbury usually sets a new standard for being witless. I'm sure she has equally witless defenders inside the corporation who believe she appeals to an important demographic but any demographic that identifies with Cairney is a demographic that needs immediate remedial help and checking for brain leaches. She splutters and gasps and groans in the place where you'd hope for words and each appearance makes you seriously wonder if the BBC aren't suffering an outbreak of the living dead. If you do a Google search for her videos, you come up with her playing 'Innuendo Bingo' on Radio One, which I'd not seen before but pretty much sums up this lamentable side of Aunty Beeb's attempts to appeal to 'yoof'. It involves two people, mouths filled with water, poised over a dustbin. The presenter then plays clips from shows containing filthy double entendres and the point of the game is to avoid laughing. Of course, the player who doesn't laugh will get the other person's mouthful of water spat into their face.
Spitting water in somebody's face is about the level of Gemma Cairney's skills as a presenter. She might be ideally suited (and, indeed, I think she is) to children's TV, but anybody over the age of 13 must get slightly pissed off at her infantile style. 'Gormless' is the phrase that keeps coming to mind when she speaks. She has a wide eyed passion for everything, as though seeing everything for the first time, but it quickly turns into a spluttering inarticulate shower of stupidity and I find it hard not to turn it off.
She's the worst aspect of the BBC's otherwise superlative coverage. They don't cover any event with quite the same brilliance as they do Glastonbury. They have presenters like Jo Whiley, Mark Radcliffe and Lauren Laverne who are simply stunningly good at their job because they match their knowledge of music with genuine wit and a relaxed presenting style. Yet the whole thing is brought to its knees by Cairney who seems to be there only because the BBC are desperate to get the affirmation of the dumbest segment of its audience. If the BBC ever lose the license fee, it will because people like Cairney have radically undermined what the BBC should represent. The license fee can only be justified if it's a tax we pay to produce a cultural product that sets a higher standard for thought and action than would be possible when striving to be competitive in the commercial marketplace. Cairney doesn't even aspire to a mediocre standard for thought and action. She makes you resent putting money in her pocket. Her inverted donkey laughter is like the death knell of the BBC. It leaves you wondering how much the BBC pay this fool and how we can demand a portion of our license fee back.
Now, I'm off to finish watching today's set by Patti Smith. So far she's been everything that Kanye West wasn't last night.