On a cold night in Rotterdam, the familiarity of Dutch "Take Me Out" is comforting

Television might be considered "low" culture by some, but the universality of certain formats - such as <em>Take Me Out</em>'s formalised dating rituals - is a wonderful thing.

 

Earlier this week, I was in the Netherlands on a flying visit for work. Commitments duly met, I retired to my hotel room (which featured an overwhelming and unsettling smell of bleach, triggering my CSI spidey-sense) and turned on the television. I once read a piece in the now defunct Jane magazine in which the writer said she always visited a nail salon whenever in a new, unknown city to get a taste of local life. I have adopted this philosophy enthusiastically, but modified it to include using the public transport system and watching local television. From this fleeting visit, I can give you two bits of information in these realms: one, trams are excellent, and should be adopted in far more places in the UK; and two, the Dutch have no problem with topless ladies after a certain hour.

I speak no Dutch; despite being a Yoruba speaker by virtue of Nigerian roots, I am peculiarly British in all matters of language i.e. talking a bit louder in English and gesturing like a mad thing. Television being a visual medium is a great leveller, therefore, and I took full advantage of this. And so it came to pass that at 1:30am in a sterile hotel room in an unknown city, I settled in to watch an episode of Take Me Out, in Dutch. Are you a fan of Take Me Out? It’s cracking good telly, I can tell you that. It is a magnifying glass, further exposing the love and sex lives of a large swathe of young heterosexual people in Britain. It’s hosted by Peter Kay’s old pal Paddy McGuinness, who spouts inane catchphrases (“let the winkle see the picker!”, “let the treasure see the chest!” etc.) that make the audience – surely the easiest in the UK today – splutter and laugh wildly. And now we’ve exported the format, like we did with Strictly Come Dancing (sold to over 30 countries so far, and by far the BBC’s greatest export), but not Big Brother (technically, that was Dutch to begin with, fact fans). 

Dutch TMO works on the same principle as its forebear. Thirty or so women stand in the studio and wait for a man to come down the "love lift" (this is not a euphemism, sadly). He selects the music he descends to – one guy in this epispode chose Kanye West and Jay-Z’s "No Church In The Wild", which to my mind, is not exactly conducive to romantic inclinations. But what do I know – the young man was rewarded with a sun and ski date with a beautiful woman. How he got there remained largely the same as the UK version: he stood before the women, they did an instant judgement and those who found him wanting switched off their lights.

Then there was "banter" from the Dutch Paddy: in this case he was younger, fitter-looking, and objectively speaking, more handsome. He also exuded that vaguely oily charm that certain men just can’t help. I watched him, smiling and sliming his way around the women, asking why they had turned off their lights and my lips formed into a moue of disapproval, a cat’s bum of a mouth. At one point, he reached a very tall woman who had switched off and asked why she had; the words "giant woman" leapt out in English at me. The audience roared, the woman laughed. But even in Dutch, it was easy to read “look at this jocular douchebag” in her eyes. It all felt very familiar: the host mugging to camera, the tiny dresses made of stretchy fabric, the over-animated facial expressions, the willingness to be made a gentle fool of, the sheer terror in some of the men’s eyes... And it was subtly different too: the women waited until the end of segments to turn off their lights, like a polite university admissions panel. The paired off couple got to pick the destination of their date from a handful of options, like old school Cilla used to do on Blind Date. And the send-off music for the dateless man was Blue and Elton John’s "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word", on which I have two thoughts: Blue was robbed at Eurovision 2011, and this is a much less cruel song than our own "All By Myself" (Celine Dion's 1996 edition). 

From the information in this piece, you may draw your conclusions about my life. I am obsessed with telly, and strangely unashamed of writing as much. But I found it oddly comforting that I could switch on and despite a distinct and unbreachable language barrier find something to watch and engage with. Globalisation is often talked about in terms of commerce and business, and only sometimes culture. It seems to me that culture, especially the "low" status of television is producing a very different kind of TV viewer. You could argue it’s no great thing that we have the same old shows everywhere in the world, but that would be to ignore the inevitable. Human beings live in tribes, and we tend to like the same things. But thankfully, there are also enough of us to keep things diverse and interesting. For me, brushing my teeth in the small hours of cold night in Rotterdam, it was a pleasure to see if not a familiar face, then a familiar format.

 

The "Take Me Out" format has now been exported to other countries, including the Netherlands.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

Marcelo Krasilcic
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“I don’t want to burst into tears on stage”: The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt

The cult chamber pop curmudgeon on the process of writing a song for every year of his life – and how he avoided soul-searching.

Stephin Merritt has a stye. Sitting in a hushed greenroom at London’s Barbican, he presses a hot mug of tea against his left eye and winces.

An enormous Steinway grand piano shimmers by the wall, reflecting the room’s sparse glow from an electric candle and mirror framed in fairy lights.

“Have you ever had one?” asks the 52-year-old musician, after bowing in his chair in greeting (to avoid germ contact).

No, I reply.

“Don’t.”

Set against the grandeur of his surroundings, it’s a fitting introduction to The Magnetic Fields frontman and cult chamber pop curmudgeon.

Medical complaints are just one theme in his painfully personal new album, 50 Song Memoir. It’s an epic, genre-bending variety show with a song for each year of his life, performed in two halves. The 1992 track “Weird Diseases” cites an ear condition that confines him to a soundproofed shelter from his band onstage – and means he covers his ears when applauded by the Barbican audience later that evening.

Waiting for his soundcheck in his signature brown flatcap, a beige and turquoise argyle jumper and fawn trousers (he only wears brown – it’s hard to get dirty, and matches his eyes, hair and beloved late chihuahua Irving), he’s about to perform the last show in The Magnetic Fields’ first tour in five years.

“I hate touring,” he tells me in his baritone drawl, his head cupped in one hand. “I can’t wait to get home.”

Before he returns to Hudson, New York, he’s taking a week’s holiday in London, which he first visited at 15. As he wrote in the song for 1980, “London By Jetpack”, its blossoming New Romantic scene passed him by.

“I was here at the right time, but I was not in the right places to experience it,” he sighs. “So I was doing touristy things and going to Madame Tussauds. Eating English pizza. I bought a Sherlock Holmes hat and London trenchcoat for my costume, I guess which was fun.”

Merritt went to high school in Boston, where he founded the revolving gaggle of musicians that make up The Magnetic Fields in 1989. The album 50 Song Memoir is their 11th. It’s an eccentric, dizzying journey from Merritt’s nomadic childhood of cults and communes with his bohemian mother, via a cockroach-infested ménage à trois and the 9/11 aftermath, to writing a silent movie score for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

But it has the regular stuff too. Break-ups, unrequited love, absent fathers and all too present ex-boyfriends. In scope and ambition, it’s similar to The Magnetic Fields’ most famous work, 69 Love Songs (what it says on the tin), but it’s the first time Merritt has written a first-person, autobiographical album.

We hear bitterness and mockery in equal measure about his beatnik upbringing (“My mama ain’t no nudist/Except around the pool/She’s a Tibetan Buddhist/Like Catholic only cool”), dark musings on the AIDS crisis (“We expected nuclear war/What should we take precautions for?”), and the final song, 2015’s “Somebody’s Fetish” – like a filthier version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” – acts as Merritt’s self-deprecating justification for finding love (“Nothing’s too strange for somebody’s palate/Some spank the maid and some wank the valet”).


Stephin Merritt. Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic

Like the Stephen Sondheim of New York’s underground scene, or a rock ‘n’ roll Noël Coward, Merritt’s acerbic observations and camp brand of miserablisim have established him as an extraordinary lyricist over a quarter century of music-making.

Throughout the 25 albums he’s made with different bands and as a solo artist, Merritt’s words are brought to life by theatrical scores and an experimental use of instruments – but nowhere more celebrated than with The Magnetic Fields.

“I keep wondering if this album has been so well-reviewed partly because people think it would be boorish to question bearing my soul,” he says. “Because reviewing it is like reviewing a person.”

Although 50 Song Memoir seems like a highly revealing “audio-biography”, Merritt insists: “I am against soul-searching in general. I don’t believe in souls in the first place – and if I did, I don’t know how one would search them.”

He points out that these songs are more likely to provoke laughter than tears. The “psychoanalysing” by critics annoys him. “I have to perform these things and I do not want to burst into tears on stage,” he says, his eyes widening. “I don’t want to stand on stage humiliating myself and the audience.”

Merritt recalls crying while performing The Magnetic Fields’ classic ballad “The Book of Love” at the funeral of a friend who died suddenly. “That is the last time I will ever do that,” he smiles drily.

The 50 Song Memoir show is more of a revue, with wry narration by Merritt between each song, and band members playing everything from the omnichord to a saw. The singer himself sits in his pastel-hued soundproof booth, surrounded by 16 dolls houses and other trinkets from his own home – Hooty, his stuffed owl, little wooden animals, quirky instruments and “some of my lunchbox collection”. It makes him feel “weirdly” at home.


Before releasing these songs, Merritt contacted every person he names to run the lyrics by them – including his mother, who burst into tears when he played the music for her in his studio.

“What I’m saying about her is not necessarily criticism on her terms,” he says. “So she should not feel insulted, and I said that. She agreed and said in fact [she didn’t] feel insulted.”

You get the impression Merritt enjoyed the mechanics of writing 50 Song Memoir more than the emotional vulnerability. It pieces together lyrics and music he had written back in the Eighties and never released, and even a guitar solo he wrote at the age of 11. It features 100 instruments, many from his own collection. He also notes the challenge of finding rhymes for so many proper nouns. “I usually let the rhymes lead the narrative,” he says, calling them, “the automatic plot generator”.

Merritt mostly wrote this album at a couple of bars in his neighbourhood, filling around five notebooks overall. He buys expensive pads – to try and guard against losing them – which look as different from each other as possible, “in the hope I will be able to find a song or a thread more easily with visual help: ‘this was the piece of music I wrote in the flowery notebook with a robot on the cover’”.

A useful system for when he returns at the age of 100 to fulfil his vague ambition of adding another 50 songs to the piece (“I have quite a while to decide.”)

It’s soundcheck time. After admiring my rucksack (it’s brown), Merritt says goodbye without getting up, apologising again for his stye.

Never mind, perhaps we’ll hear about it in a song in 50 years’ time?

He gives a rare chuckle. “48, actually.”

The Magnetic Fields performed both halves of 50 Song Memoir at the Barbican. Listen to Stephin Merritt discussing the show on the Barbican podcast here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.