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How I Learned
To Stop Worrying
And Love The Bubblegum


[Commissioned by The Guardian Friday Review, 2000]



THIS MUST be a wonderful time to be eleven years old. Up there with being a teenager in the late Fifties, or a baby-boomer in Seventies America. All of a sudden, the world is yours. Those parts of it you care about, at any rate. There is no commodity so fiercely prized, no prospect so energetically courted, as your undivided attention.
  Lord knows that eleven-year-olds, like teenagers and baby-boomers before them, need no encouragement to place themselves at the centre of the universe. But they're getting it anyway. They've grabbed up the pop charts wholesale. Their choice of reading has made fearsome inroads into the bestseller lists and the magazine market. Across the map of television there lies an empire of vivid, prepubescent day-glo on which the sunshine never sets. Newspapers, especially the weekend editions, are avid to snaffle junior readers.
  Web culture may be dominated by the 20-30s right now, but as more families log on, it's only a matter of time before the Net sees the final, apocalyptic battle between the massed ranks of bumptious pre-teendom and the dark forces of virtual filth. As for fashion, thanks to The Spice Girls' espousal of lurid High Street chic four years ago, most British females between the ages of eight and 25 now favour apparel which varies only in terms of size. The older girls' clothes tend to be smaller.
  It's all looking good for the nippers, and it will continue to do so as they age, because in all but a few respects the changes in taste between primary and big school are minor, albeit expensive. Anyway, the kids can worry about that - not that they'll have to. The question is, how much fun will this turn out to be for the rest of us?


“FUN” is the operative word here. One thing you may have noticed about this sea-change is that everything is required to be fun. Not fun as we might recognise it - fun as in relaxed, freewheeling enjoyment - but fun as in boisterous, bouncing, screaming, gurning, primary-coloured, chimpanzees-tea-party fun. Fun at gunpoint. Fun is now obligatory across the board for everyone under 30, whether toddler, clubber, schoolboy or Lambrini girl. It's there whenever you turn on the radio or television or walk past the magazine rack in the newsagents. The hysterical build-up to the Millennium may have intensified it, but it was there beforehand, and it's not going to go away now that particular party is over.
  Speaking as someone who's too old for this sort of thing, and always has been, it's exhausting merely to be exposed to it. So why am I enjoying so much of it, so much? Simple. I learned long ago to stop worrying and love the Bubblegum.
  It all goes back to Take That. As they approached the cusp of superstardom, Take That released a series of blinding singles, culminating in Pray, three immaculate minutes of heartbreak and regret, accompanied by a video out of Leni Riefenstahl via Calvin Klein. Take That were the seismic event which led directly to today's Bubblegum tsunami, that deluge of kids' stuff which swamps and sticks to pretty much everything this side of opera and performance art.
  For anyone still vaguely interested in pop or pre-watershed telly, there are a number of ways to ride out this wave. One is to treat Bubblegum as a kind of kiddie camp, to crook an eyebrow and snicker in semi-ironic appreciation at the saccharine awfulness of it all. Another is to ignore it in its entirety and wait for it to subside. Alternatively, you could always treat it the way you might anything else, and keep your eyes and ears open for the good stuff.
  Back when television was routinely - rather than periodically, as it is today - dismissed as an inferior medium, Gene Rodenberry, the creator of Star Trek, leapt to its defence. “They say that 90 per cent of TV is junk,” he retorted. “But 90 per cent of everything is junk.” These days it sometimes seems as if 90 per cent of TV is Star Trek, especially if you watch Sky One. But as a general rule of thumb, what we might as well christen Rodenberry's Law holds true. He just got the percentage a bit low. I'd place it around 97 per cent, or maybe 99 for those twin exemplars of grown-up taste, television drama and European films.
  Rodenberry's Law explains why, for one Take That, you get a dozen Boyzones, Westlifes and 5ives; for each animated Tarzan, you get a slew of lifeless Anastasias; for every Britney Spears, you get, so far as I can tell, a whole load more Britney Spearses. It's become as hard to distinguish between the assortment of belly-baring yankee jailbait as it is to tell one blonde television presenter from another. But you don't need to be possessed of such nitpicking discernment in order to know that the single-cum-video of . . . Baby One More Time is a wonderful piece of work. And not merely because it could induce a nonagenarian eunuch to paw at the TV screen like a famished grizzly bear sighting an unusually succulent salmon. Most pop videos have that effect now.
  The fact that Britney had only slightly more to do with conjuring . . . Baby One More Time into existence than you or I did isn't really pertinent. By now, Phil Spector, Tex Avery and Steven Spielberg, to pick three random but salient examples, should have taught us that it doesn't matter who art is made for, or attributed to, it matters who it's made by; and




that the supposedly throwaway and ephemeral will often outlast the solemn and high-minded. Motivation is no guide to merit. Great things are just as likely to be done for money, or by accident, as they are with noble intent.

THIS rationale applies across the board of arts and media. If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences insists on lobbing Tom Hanks another Oscar any time soon, it should do so for his voice-over role as Woody in Toy Story 2. I will be genuinely amazed - and delighted - if I see a better movie this year. It is perfect in almost every respect. In fact, the amount and the level of talent currently devoted to animation in America is phenomenal. I'm not referring only to post-Simpsons “adult” animations like South Park, Family Guy, Dilbert, Futurama and the PJs, excellent though they generally are. If you're lucky enough to receive The Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon on cable or satellite, you may be acquainted with such marvels as Rugrats, I Am Weasel, Johnny Bravo and best of all, Dexter's Laboratory. Created by one Genndy Tartakovsky, this series about a child genius and his nemesis of a sister is more witty, stylish and broad-ranging in its references than most grown-up comedy will ever be.
  If people this gifted are working on stuff like that, then stuff like that is worth your attention. The same goes for the Swedish producers behind Britney's . . . Baby One More Time and Backstreet Boys' Everybody; and for the writers on Sister Sister and Sabrina The Teenage Witch, two of the best sitcoms currently on air. It may be frivolous teenybopper nonsense, but it's very, very good, frivolous, teenybopper nonsense.
  Another reason for Bubblegum's apparent prevalence right now is the paucity of anything both adult and engaging. Four years ago you couldn't hurl a sofa cushion at Top Of The Pops without hitting some bunch of mangy trolls attempting a half-arsed impression of Oasis. The result is that nobody is buying rock records any more, and God-awful combos of Butlins redcoats with stage school degrees and rictus grins have annexed the charts. Each being about as sufferable as any other, the easiest solution is to avoid Top Of The Pops.
  The music business has only itself to blame for having come to this pass. Oasis themselves, it's worth noting, are still doing the Oasis thing at the time of writing (like The Verve, they can and do split up on a moment's notice, so it's always best to hedge your bets.) The gifted, the original or the truly popular will last. The rest will fall by the wayside. In two years' time, half of this week's Top 40 acts will be chauffeuring dirty old minicab passengers to massage parlours staffed by the other half. Here's hoping, anyway. The point being that the charts are always full of drivel; they're just uncommonly full of it right now, and every so often a pearl will surface from the muck.
  Nor is publishing Bubblegum-immune. Harry Potter may not be my idea of a cracking read, but I'd dive straight in were the only other option the whingeing twenty/thirtysomething Hoover-bag of Bridget Jones's carpet-fluff masquerading as the modern novel. “Proper” writing has for years looked drab and unenticing next to some of the top notch genre material on the market. The fact that it's now fallen behind children's books says less about the delights of Harry Potter than it does about the complete lack of delight - or perception, or originality - to be found in general fiction. Come to that, Viz comic, which has been on a roll lately, contains more truth and insight about modern Britain than any recent novel I've encountered. And it's funny.
  Bubblegum is pop culture in its rawest form; purely market driven, completely unconcerned with critical acclaim, seeking to connect directly with its audience and interested only in publicity as a means to that end. The thing about pop culture is that it is just that. Popular. It doesn't make the slightest bit of difference what I think about it or indeed what any other critic does; we're simply fleas on the camel's back. The only good reason to write about Bubblegum is to bring the best bits to the attention of readers who might enjoy it. But critics being an egomaniacal bunch, this is usually low down on our list of priorities. We either dislike Bubblegum because we can't influence it and feed our opinions into its creation, the way we do with other subjects; or we champion it willy-nilly on account of our own peculiar ideological fetishes. Snobbish, selfish disdain or condescending enthusiasm. Not much to choose between them.
  But Bubblegum's imperviousness to taste, and to the notion of tastemakers, is its great strength. Not only is it unaffected by the likes of me, it also never falls prey to official sanction. It may prove to be the last bastion of weirdness and idiosyncracy to hold out against the stultifying blandness that is the government's take on the arts. It's true that Bubblegum is for the most part stultifyingly bland itself; but occasionally it manages to be very odd indeed. And crucially, it neither needs nor wants any subsidy, approval, or pats on the head. Even rock'n'roll - especially rock'n'roll - found itself co-opted by New Labour. There are many things far worse than being force-fed a diet of culture cooked up to Chris Smith's and Tony Blair's hideously avuncular recipes, but they involve electrodes and secret police and all that other foul business which liberal democracy mercifully tends to spare us.
  So we might as well enjoy the Bubblegum boom while it lasts - and it will last, at least until something substantial arrives to take its place. So hit me, Britney, one more time.









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