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My songs haven’t been on a radio playlist in 20 years, so I have to admit I’m punching the air

It never stops being exciting hearing yourself on the radio. 

It never stops being exciting hearing yourself on the radio. Often, for me, that means walking into a shoe shop where “Missing” is playing. I don’t notice at first, as I’m too busy concentrating on looking for an ankle boot with a zip, but then I feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and I’m metaphorically sniffing the air, thinking, “What is it? I detect something, but what? Where? Oh, it’s me.”

At the moment, though, I’m having the joyful experience of hearing something new on the radio. My single, “Queen”, was recently added to the BBC Radio 6 Music playlist. To put that in perspective, I haven’t been on a playlist in probably 20 years, so I’d be lying if I said I didn’t punch the air.

Many aspects of the music business have changed over the last two decades, but airplay still matters. Video didn’t kill the radio star after all, and even the internet hasn’t, quite. You can do as many interviews as you like, tweet till your thumbs are sore, but often you’re still only talking to the people who’ll buy your record anyway, whereas radio play means reaching out beyond that crowd, catching the ear of the casual listener who has never heard of you before but hopefully likes the sound of your voice.

So at promo time, artists dream of getting on playlists, and nowadays that also means the ones that are created on sites such as Spotify, and which people use so much to filter and curate their listening. There’s a list to suit every mood – allowing listeners to hear individual tracks rather than full albums from artists, flitting from voice to voice, revelling in the variety – and their popularity makes me wonder whether people ever liked albums as much as the music industry thought they did.

Still, I know from bitter experience that, while playlists are a help, they are no guarantee. In 1986, our single “Come On Home” was played incessantly on BBC Radio 1 for a couple of weeks, but stalled at number 45 in the singles chart, and for a while after that the deciding committees looked askance at us, and we’d get rejected on any number of grounds – told that a song was too fast, too slow, too obscure or just plain wrong in some unspecified way.

And it used to be the case that if you wanted to check whether your record was being played you had to put in the hours, listening to the radio all day long, which could sometimes be gruelling. In 1987, when our single “These Early Days” came out – a track that had been rewritten, reworked, and re-recorded to within an inch of its life, in an under-pressure attempt to have a hit – I spent days glued to Radio 1, only to hear Kylie Minogue’s “I Should Be So Lucky” on the hour, every hour.

Things were different when we recorded a cover of Rod Stewart’s “I Don’t Want To Talk About It”. I wrote about the moment in my book, Bedsit Disco Queen, describing how, “on its release, the record leaped out of our hands and on to the Radio 1 playlist as if magnetically attracted. This was something we had never achieved before”. It worked and we made the charts, proving that sometimes the equation worked: song + radio = hit. Even on those occasions when it didn’t, I was still grateful for any airplay. At least it made you feel heard.

People often ask, “Who do you make your records for?” and the cliché answer has always been, “We just please ourselves and if anyone else likes it that’s a bonus.” Which is sort of true. But honestly, you don’t make records solely for your own amusement, and you do want people to hear them. Whatever happens after that – whether people buy them or not – it at least feels fair, like you were given your chance.

So I’m happy that I’m being played. And in some respects things are easier now. On Twitter, little bots pop up and kindly tell you every time you’re on the radio and so you can mentally add another tick to the scorecard. Although, in a bizarre example of musical déjà vu, here I am with a new single out at exactly the same time as Kylie. Hers is called “Dancing”, and mine is called “Queen”. I honestly think someone, somewhere, must have fixed this. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game