No easy way: Dusty Springfield performing in 1965. Photo: Dezo Hoffmann/Rex
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Good vibrations: Tracey Thorn’s new book crushes our ideas about what makes a good singer

Naked at the Albert Hall is a history of singing that hums with freshness and passion.

Naked at the Albert Hall: the Inside Story of Singing
Tracey Thorn
Virago, 256pp, £16.99

The first time I heard Tracey Thorn, I was ten and tiny at a till in a provincial supermarket. Her voice was a magical portal to a state of sophistication and grace, like treacle over posh chocolate. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she crooned. “If I stay here, won’t you listen . . .” Only my mum wouldn’t let me. That summer in 1988, when Everything but the Girl reached number three in the charts with their sleepy cover of the Rod Stewart hit, Thorn wasn’t singing to me – but that’s how people like us think of people like her.

“When we respond to a singer, often we don’t really see or hear the actual person. We see and hear an imagined version of them, a projection of our own needs and desires.” So Thorn writes at the start of her second book, reminding us that we have lungs, tongues and teeth just like the singers we worship and how, as a consequence, we feel closer to them than to bass or tambourine virtuosos. Hold up, though, writes Tracey. Cut it out. Think again.

Thorn, who has a fortnightly column in the NS, is in the business of bursting pop myths one at a time. Her first book, Bedsit Disco Queen (2013), laid the groundwork. A surprised look at her so-called pop life, it spanned her teens making bedroom tape pop with the Marine Girls (Kurt Cobain was a huge fan, which still shocks her); meeting Ben Watt, who became her band mate and husband (they released ten albums together, six apart, and now have three teenage kids), at Hull University; and their brief, blustery brushes with international fame – one being the song I caught in the queue, the other the transatlantic smash “Missing” in 1995. This was also a memoir by a woman who “wanted to be heard without having to be heard” but make no mistake – there was a streak of stridency behind her subtleties.

In her new book, Thorn debunks the myths of the singer’s instrument in raw, phlegmy detail: the primary function of the vocal tract is actually to be “one of several lines of defence against choking”, for instance. Her style is matter of fact, no nonsense. She laces together references to Willa Cather, George Eliot and Roland Barthes without sounding pompous and is good at presenting arguments in crisp, funny lines. “As singers, we are not only working with a mechanism inside our own bodies, but a mechanism that isn’t even really intended to do what we try to make it do,” she continues, waving her metaphorical chalk. “It’s like trying to use a cheese grater or a vacuum cleaner to make music, and doesn’t this make singing seem both mundane and heroic?” More fresh thoughts follow.

Thorn crushes our ideas about what makes a good singer. She has weak lungs, a pronounced underbite (one doctor suggested that she required a broken jaw) and asthma gained in her twenties from cats. We are told how singers with the greatest voices aren’t always happy with them – Dusty Springfield, for example, used to turn up her voice so loud when she was recording that she was, in essence, “singing into a void”. Meanwhile, Karen Carpenter, who was originally a drummer, didn’t want to go centre stage: “She hadn’t known what the rules were, and had never signed up to them.” Women’s doubts haunt this book like notes vibrating in the air. Nevertheless, Thorn pierces the ideas of stage fright (including hers) being born of vulnerability and of dysphonia – the inability to sing, which the folk singers Shirley Collins and Linda Thompson have suffered from – arising from hysteria.

There are chewy sections in which she meets other singers to debate the craft without pretension. The list is largely indie: the American singer Kristin Hersh, the wayward British pop singer Green Gartside, Romy Madley-Croft from the xx. “A lot of people sing better than me,” Madley-Croft says. Thorn replies, “That’s how I feel, too.”

The book has a searching spirit that feels ego-free, admitting to its flaws, such as when Thorn tries to describe a singer’s voice: “Ugh, all the same old words, and they won’t do, will they?” For me, a critic who barely reviews records any more by choice, that rings too true. She also has a facility with language that makes me want to hand in my freelancer’s P45. “A sneering engine of a voice levelled straight at your forehead” perfectly captures Liam Gallagher. “Gender-neutral, expressive without being melodramatically emotional and rebellious without buying the rock notion that rebelliousness was inherently masculine”: spot-on John Lydon. “Often accused of emulating black singers, but really, who? It’s a cartoon of a black singer, painted on to a balloon and then inflated, then put through a mangle, then through an amplifier”: one of the greatest descriptions I’ve heard of Mick Jagger. Thoughtful, funny, not overthought, just right . . . Bloody singers.

Thorn defends her passions enthusiastically, too – watching The X Factor, or singing in an Americanised accent, things that some people may think are weird. Ditto, not wanting to sing live any more: “I do sing, it’s just that quite often, like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, there is no one there to hear me.” We can hear her now, albeit in a different register. She wants to talk about everything and I’m still listening. 

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.