Show Hide image

Branding is more fundamental to the US psyche than the Bible

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

As we drove down the broad stretch of Highway 9, which, under its guise as State Street, forms the main thoroughfare of Hurricane, Utah, my 14-year-old confided that he found the girl on the illuminated Wendy’s sign “disturbing”. I can see his point: with her ketchup-red hair and pigtails akimbo; with the upstanding and presumably savagely starched piecrust collar of her shirtwaist; with her stylised freckles and unbelievably joyful smile, the Wendy’s girl (who, one can only assume, is the eponymous “Wendy”) has the same sinister aura of other humans-gone-logo. Still, she’d probably give that creepy Colonel Sanders a thrashing while beating up on that Chucky-doll-lookalike, Ronald McDonald, with a handy rolling pin.

Demon eyes

The fast-food logo that’s stayed with me most powerfully from the time I spent living in the States as a child is Orange Julius. Originally a fruit-juice stand flogging sugary OJ – hence the moniker – the chain had branched out into burgers and hotdogs under the winking sign of a little pitchfork-wielding demon by the time we were cruising the streets of Ithaca, NY, in the mid-1960s. You might’ve imagined that the marketing of fast food under such a diabolic presence had eventually fallen foul of the religious lobby, but what put paid to it (or him) was a suit by the alumni of Arizona State University, from whose own logo Orange Julius had been freely adapted; thus proving yet again that branding (and associated litigation) is far more fundamental to the American psyche than even the Bible.

Anyway, I never remember being scared of the Orange Julius devil – yet even now, sitting many thousands of miles away, the very thought of Wendy baring her teeth in the desert sunset is enough to bring me out in a cold sweat. Mind you, this could be a somatic memory, because the air-conditioning in the joint was savage. “Quality Is Our Recipe”, that’s the Wendy’s shtick, a perfect little piece of nonsense in its own right. But then once you’re out in the American boondocks, you begin to suspend disbelief in these sorts of things – just as it seems entirely acceptable to bumble along the interstates in an SUV the size of a semi-detached house. Our hire car seemed grotesquely huge to me, until I pulled in to Wendy’s and parked it beside one whose wheel arches arced above it like the flying buttresses of Chartres Cathedral. Inside there was the full-strength mortuary light, tiled dissection areas and melamine gurneys; the troughs full of real plants genetically engineered to resemble plastic ones. In the queue, pimply teens fresh from football practice sported those flesh-coloured and obscenely padded calf-length pants, while jiggling with the effects of a lifelong corn syrup comedown.

My teenager suppressed his fear long enough to order a “Baconator” (“Two ¼lb patties topped with fresh-cooked Applewood Smoked Bacon in between a premium buttered, toast-ed bun. Topped off with mayo, ketchup, and American cheese. Now that’s not just a sandwich, but a tasty treat”). I perused the info boards above the servery. There were scary salads and berry tea infusions – if I didn’t know better I might’ve thought I’d stumbled into a health-food joint.

Hail Caesar

But then this has been the way of it with the big fast-food chains: their response to accusations of super-sizing their customers while etiolating their workers has been not either/or but both/and. Wendy’s is no exception, with plenty of signage about corporate responsibility and donation boxes for worthy causes.

I had the spicy chicken Caesar salad, my wife a cheeseburger. For some dumb reason I also got us two cryogenic storage dewars full of tea the temperature of liquid nitrogen – and when I closed in on the table they top-heavily toppled out of the slots in the cardboard carrier and inundated my wife’s vintage Prada handbag. I’d already scored a perfect zero two days before when I put the open sunblock bottle in a shoulder bag with her vintage Prada bag. Now the handbag was definitively fucked – only Laura Ingalls Wilder’s blind elder sister Mary would still have deemed it stylish.

Inevitably the rest of the meal passed off with a certain froideur. I tried making a few jolly remarks about the square-cut beef patties Wendy’s use in their hamburgers (“We don’t cut corners!”), but these fell as flat as . . . well, as a square-cut patty. The food was the usual dreck but the staff were sweetness itself when it came to mopping up this perfect tea storm in the desert town of Hurricane.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

Youtube Screengrab
Show Hide image

Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis