#nowlistening: a sky full of masculinities. The Ed Sheeran constellation over Ambridge.

Goodness me, the airwaves across Borsetshire have been a-flutter in the last couple of weeks. We’ve been a little quiet over here at Ambridge FM as our new, entirely fictional and completely invisible, radio mast has been installed at the top of Lakey Hill. But over the last few weeks, I couldn’t help but notice a theme emerging: the various colours of masculinity on display across Ambridge and how Ed Sheeran seemed to be at the centre of it all.

As the distance between Toby and Pip became somewhat galactic it was Sheeran’s Castle on the hill that underscored the moment Toby presumed too much of Pip’s affection for him. Ordering a takeaway she didn’t want, as the food chilled, the relationship finally soured and all the while Sheeran nostalgically mused on the rural idyll by singing:

‘I’m on my way, driving at 90 through those country lanes, singing to Tiny Dancer’.

Ah…a lyrical yearning for those teenage years that feel so horribly complex at the time – where danger and youthful exuberance aren’t hindered by Linda Snell lurking in the bushes with a speed gun.

*An aside for a moment…I’m not sure how likely is it that the average person in their mid-20s would have listened to Elton John’s Tiny Dancer, let alone heard it. My theory is that this is one of the only songs where an artist does a little ‘shout-out’ to the owner of his management company. I digress but suffice to say that Sheeran’s presence in The Archers has been much like its been out here in listener-land (is that what we call it?): entirely ubiquitous.*

Anyway, the freedom Sheeran yearns for in Castle on the hill might well seem to be representative of Toby’s laddish optimism but in many ways the song itself speaks for Pip’s obvious desire for a less complicated life away from Toby’s constant stream of half-truths lies.

Recently, Sheeran’s man-of-the-people/ boy-next-door has been problematised by both Chloe Stilwell and Laura Snapes as a specific brand of ‘toxic masculinity’. The song Shape of you is singled out as emblematic of the way womens’ bodies are habitually subjected to the male gaze without question. In Ambridge, many of us have felt this kind of ‘grrr-ish’ toward Toby’s bragging about the way he treats women. Further still, it is interesting that the most notably absent member of the Archer family, young Ben, blasted Shape of you as a means of asserting his youthful masculine presence during a who-sleeps-where debacle in Brookfield a few weeks back too.

To finish up though, it is through Lily Pargetter that Sheeran’s music and masculinity operates as the sun for a number of residents in the village and their preferred ditties to orbit around. I can think of at least five (do drop me a line with more!):

1. In the middle of May, David turned up to Lower Loxley to give Lily a driving lesson.

Lily was prompted to talk about music in response to what she terms David’s ‘seriously retro’ music that was already playing in his car. We heard Deep Purple’s Smoke on the water and it was a bit of a shock to start with. I never had David Archer down as a fan of early heavy metal but actually I can well imagine the dad dancing if I really put my mind to it. Interestingly, it’s a song about a casino burning down, so perhaps it’s a nod of the financially perilous things to come at Brookfield?

2. Lily tells David she’s a Sheeran fan and in doing so, positions songs like Castle on the hill in direct opposition to Smoke on the water as far as she’s concerned. Lily is about the here and now and Sheeran is representative of this. In the last week it turns out that her twin brother, Freddie, is a proud retrophile. A hipster in the making perhaps, he tells Johnny that he not only loves the ‘old skool’ sounds of Run DMC but that the acts playing at Loxfest were ‘lost’ on Lily.

3. Lily tells David that for her, ‘music isn’t really a distraction, it helps [her] concentrate…’ and that Sheeran’s latest album, ‘Divide’, is what she listens to as she revises for her English A Level exam. We know that like Sheeran, Lily is popular amongst her peers and so his music is a nod to how Lily enjoys operating as a kind of social glue between people. And so relatedly…

4. She goes on to tell a entirely disinterested David that Sheeran’s brand of 21st century troubadourism has caught Johnny’s attention too but she suspects its more to do with his eternal yearning for the enigmatic Amber than anything else.

This week, after much soul searching, Johnny eventually plucked up the courage to ask Amber to go to the Isle of White festival. Having received a pair of tickets for his birthday Johnny told Freddie, he was particularly excited about seeing rising star Rag’n’Bone man. In terms of both genre and style, Sheeran’s musical offering isn’t a million miles from er…’Rag’…and so Johnny is a clearly fan of young singers who culturally signify the unlikely ‘authentic underdog’ who hits the big time against the odds. Johnny thinks he’s punching above his weight with Amber, so when she agrees to take up the second ticket, might this music suggest that he’s going to win over her heart after all?

5. Finally, I am interested in how Lily’s relationship with Anisha is indirectly heard through her enjoyment of Sheeran’s music.

The singer recently featured on Desert Island Discs, not only revealing the back story to his extraordinary successes but also sharing insight into his dogged determinism and continued ambition.

In a culture that ascribes these kinds of qualities as typically masculine, to hear Lily’s fighting talk about out-doing Anisha at the single wicket was rather refreshing. With various village dramas being played out through the decision to include women in the Ambridge cricket team, a subtle flash of female masculinity was a delight this week. I’m not sure if we can ever claim that Sheeran brings such queerness to the yard, but I’m intrigued how the single wicket goes this year…and that’s a first!

#nowlistening: Elizabeth’s 50th birthday

abigail2527s2bparty2bdanceFriday night brought a metric tonne of canapés and troughs of fizz on Friday night as the Pargetter and Archer families gathered at Lower Loxley for Elizabeth’s 50th birthday shindig. Earlier in the week, Liz told Shula that Lily had hinted at a music heavy night, but nothing could prepare us for what that actually entailed. I’m sure I can’t have been the only one willing the party to be just like Abigail’s Party – how I longed for Lilian to glide up to Lower Loxley, layered in boundless orange chiffon and all to a waft of of Demis Roussos. But alas, there was to be no soft Greek balladry and no Fag Ash shimmying in the moonlight.

Instead, Lily’s playlist was an interesting blend of pop which chronologically swung through the years with each minute of Friday’s episode. Abba, Marc Almond and Dexy’s Midnight Runners took care of the 70s and 80s, while Madonna, Take That and Lou Bega represented the hits of the 90s. But the feuding Archer family are becoming increasingly fractured in the wake of an outbreak of IBR amongst various herds in the village (we’re still not entirely sure what IBR actually is but that doesn’t seem to matter). Yes, it’s been all ailing beasts and feeble fencing of late – might a spot of muzak be the perfect thing save the village?agnetha-frida-dancing-queen-o

As that iconic piano glissando kicked in, it looked as though Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ might just start a chain reaction of hatchet burying across Ambridge as Kenton and Elizabeth let their rift fizzle away just as the Swedish quartet sang ‘you’re in the mood for a dance…’. This is a song which comes pre-loaded with nostalgia – we’re invited to either identify with, or wanting to be with, the carefree seventeen year-old dancer.

Yes, that’s all of us in that song – we’re dancing, jiving, we’re having. the. time. of. our. lives. I’m exhausted even thinking about it. And that’s because this is a song that tells us to dance like no one’s watching – which is a terrible idea. It’s asking us to recall an earlier time, when life was simple. Remember those days? No, neither do we.

Suffice to say, within the opening three minutes, the dialogue and the disco suggest that reconciliation might be the theme for the entire episode. But while the party music optimistically supports Kenton and Elizabeth’s rebuilding, each song carries a darker side too. Over the course of the next few blogs we’ll be taking a walk with a couple of the pairs of conversations that we were privy to that night because while Lily’s playlist might well begin with a song about not caring about whether you’re being watched, the fact is that the ‘dancing queen‘ is always under surveillance and Lily’s careful curation underscores measured monitoring by all in attendance at the party.

rpnksgSo, rather than go through a song by song analysis – we’re interested in how various partnerships crackle against the musical ‘interference’ in the background. Having said that, as ‘Dancing Queen’ fades away, Soft Cell’s dark new-wave, cover version of Gloria Jones’ ‘Tainted Love’  howls across the awkward familial forum. It is from here that I start by taking a look at one of Ambridge’s most troubled partnerships at present: Pip and Ruth.

Toby Fairbrother?

As avid listeners to DumTeeDum and pottering away as we do on Twitter, I know it’s not a popular opinion to say this but poor old Pip. She’s a young woman in a relationship with an oik who is at best, thoughtless and stupid in a Tim-Nice-But-Dim kind of a way and at worst is manipulative in a Titchener-lite kind of a way. Toby certainly measures somewhere on the narcissistic personality disorder scale. I fear the latter and for that reason he needs a dunking in the sheep dip and should be sent on his merry way.


Either way, Pip is so captivated by Toby’s bullshittery that I do worry that her side of the Archers clan is in danger of watching her gradually drift away in the same way Helen did. We’ve seen (or rather heard) Pip become increasingly isolated, and meaningful relationships fractured, after Toby encouraged her to withhold the truth about fences, cows, that IBR thing and let’s not forget the £5k she foolishly gave him for his gin enterprise. To her credit, she has been trying to confess and last week, finally got a word in edgeways between her parents who were devastated with disappointment. Pip has been trying her hand at bridge-building ever since. As ‘Tainted Love’ pings awkwardly across the room, Pip approaches her Mother:

‘I got you a drink Mum’ (2mins 54secs)

1jyj7ylThe pair exchange small talk but look away from each other and toward the gestures and movements of the other guests. Looking out at the party serves means they don’t have to look in at each other; avoiding eye contact publicly helps in distracting from their private inner turmoil. The twisting strands of dialogue, intonation, musical setting and lyric all wrap around each other here.

As Marc Almond sings ‘…seems to go nowhere’, Pip attempts an optimistic tone by saying how well she thinks the party is going. But as she surveils the room, the backdrop of the squelching synths of Soft Cell, accompanied by a drum machine pattern that doesn’t quite shuffle along in time speak of something different. Accordingly, Ruth’s response is more downbeat and positions Pat and Tony well out of view, while commenting on what she perceives as ‘iciness’ from Brian and Jennifer. More tension is wrung out of the scene with the lyric ‘…once I ran to you, now I run from you…’ takes on familial resonance that speaks for both Pip and Ruth. It is a changed relationship, a complicated one that is in danger of breaking altogether. The complexities of love is, of course at the heart of Soft Cell’s interpretation of the song – an 80s gay anthem and so it is interesting that the next time we hear from Ruth and Pip is framed by another queer moment in pop music history.

tumblr_nj0qa0qvae1tmicivo1_500If the sound effect of a toilet flushing (7mins 29secs) isn’t a sonic cue that all is a bit…well…toilet…then I’m not sure what is. It transpires that Pip has followed her Mum to the loo to finally confront her about the awkwardness between them. Pip wants to flush away…oh never mind…but let’s just say the toilet is the perfect place for this chat and even Madonna agrees as she sings ‘so use it that’s what it’s for…’ from her 90s classic ‘Vogue’.

The scene is relatively short, with Pip pleading for honesty and transparency while Ruth suggests her thoughts and feelings are best locked away, for Pip’s sake. The majority of this dialogue takes place over the pre-chorus of the song, the moment Madonna explains the universality of ‘Vogue’ –  that ‘it makes no difference if you’re black or white, if you’re a boy or a girl…’. And so at a surface level, ‘Vogue’ can be perceived as speaking on behalf of Pip’s longing for openness with Ruth.

tumblr_nr7c7mbdu91uy82zoo1_500But if you’ve seen the extraordinarily important and compelling documentary ‘Paris is burning’ , you’ll know that Vogueing isn’t just about a particular dancing style or merely the action of striking a pose. Rather, it is the dance component of the ball scene in New York, a space made by and for queer, people of colour in the late 80s. In post-Stonewall NYC, this was a highly political and poignant moment in queer history. While vogueing is understood as a kind of posturing, Willy Ninja beautifully explains here that the moves are the manifestation of the practice of ‘throwing shade’ – a kind of dance argument of sorts. As Pip and Ruth arrange to secretly meet in another quiet space in the party, it becomes clear that Ruth is preparing to throw some serious Ambridge shade at her daughter (we’ll file that one under ‘things I never thought I’d type’). And so at 10mins 22secs Pip says it can’t be worse than she’s imagining. In other words, she already thinking badly of herself and is ready for a shady dressing down.

As the scene unwinds, Lou Bega’s interpretation of Perez Prado’s ‘Mambo no.5’ gradually comes into auditory focus. Bega’s monotone voice and sporadic raspy trumpet fanfare occasionally catches our attention, as an anchor point for Ruth’s list home truths. But Pip doesn’t retaliate in the way that ‘Vogue’ or rather, ‘Paris is burning’ suggested she might, instead she is full of apology and sadness. Set against the ubiquitous, light, sort of ridiculous tone of ‘Mambo No.5’, Ruth’s anger is made all the more dramatic by its contrast; a combination of four jabs at Pip with a list of faceless women with nice old lady names;

‘Ruth: You’ve made a fool of me…I’ve been your champion…I kept your secrets…I’m ashamed of you’.

‘Bega: A little bit of Monica in my life, a little bit of Erica by my side, a little bit of Rita is all I need…’

Poor Pip. Don’t you think?

#nowlistening: Take That, ‘Patience’

The assassination of JFK. The moon landing. 9/11. The death of Diana. Everything changes in a moment like that.

Oh, and when Robbie left Take That; that’s another one we’ll never forget. And it signalled in 1996 the end of the group, one of the most successful British boy bands since Jazzer’s uncles formed the Bay City Rollers.

Note: “British” only incorporates “Scottish” when it suits the English. Andy Murray will confirm.

Since then, they’ve reformed as a foursome, welcomed Robbie back, lost Robbie again and Jason too, and enjoyed occasional visits from Robbie. The on-again-off-again history of the band is more flippety-flop than Adam Macy’s sense of fidelity.

Perhaps no surprise, then, that it was Take That’s “Patience” playing last Tuesday (21 Feb) when Tom resisted Pat’s maternal anxiety over his emotional state in the wake of Kirsty’s miscarriage, because she and the Sausage King are also in a perennial state of will-they-won’t-they.

Throughout the scene, the lyrics mirror Tom’s emotions: starting at the second verse lyric “I really wanna start over again”, later lines like “I’m trying to move on” and “I’ll try to be strong” similarly match Tom’s feelings about the situation. This is matched by a mirroring of pitches, as Tom’s voice weaves in and out of the voices of however-many-members-of-Take-That-there-were-that-day. The underlying awkwardness of the conversation gives plenty of space to hear the most anthemic section of the song too, as the chorus kicks in with the crucial sing-along moment. And the gentle clipping of Tom’s voice lends his speech an air of the same slow groove that the song is built on. So his speech altogether merges with the musical frame.

Beyond Take That’s apparently pathological inability to stay together as a band—and probably because of the long hiatus following Robbie’s departure—they operate now not as the boy band they once were, but a “man band”. In the fiction of rock authenticity, “masculinity” is basically left unscrutinised wherever possible, and the narrative is fundamentally about the male ego and the trouble women cause. For the boy band, by contrast, masculinity is far more fragile. Like Rudy Vallee and the crooners of old, the boy band’s narrative is about the vulnerability of masculinity in the face of love. The big rock gods straddle the stage declaring they’re “gonna give you my love” (presumably whether you want it or not…). The boy band instead sing of their heartbreaks, their capacity for fidelity, and their need for women to come and save them. For this boy-band-grown-up, such fragility is still at the forefront; at that anthemic peak, the vulnerable height of Gary Barlow’s vocal pitch plus the lack of discernible words render it more like a wail of heartache than the screaming sexual climaxes of Led Zep et al.

It is this new-millennium masculinity that now characterises Tom, wrestling as he is with his responsibilities and whether he can ever be happy now. His proposal to Kirsty—which once upon a time would have been the Done Thing—was roundly derided by Kirsty, Helen, and all of Twitter. And so he’s a man in crisis, just like men the western world over are—for they are caught between paleolithic ‘programming’, the demands of the patriarchal order, the internal contradictions of neoliberalism where the “do what you like” mantra fails to cohere anything, and the rise of ‘post-feminism’.

To be sure—we might even suggest that Lord Barlow could pop into Bridge Farm if he’s missing a member at any point.