'The Great British Bake-Off' and 21st Century Britishness

An unusually cheerful new cooking show is dominating the primetime conversation in the UK, but is patriotism the answer to successful TV?

The Great British Bake Off

Cast: Sue Perkins, Mel Giedroyc, Mary Berry, Paul Hollywood
Network: BBC

The landscape of British TV is becoming greener and more pleasant by the day. It has been a gradual thing, a creeping and joyful presence which has casually manoeuvred itself into the primetime schedule. After decades of miserablism, and in the murky global milieu of Breaking Bad and House of Cards, a new and potentially nauseating theme is emerging. British television is in 2013 a rather patriotic affair: crisp, cheerful and adorned with doilies.

The most prominent of today’s merry exports is, of course, the saccharine Downton Abbey, which has been flag-waving for England ever since it first threw on its handmaiden’s frock in 2010. Julian Fellowes’ ode to soft-snobbery has gripped audiences home and abroad, handkerchiefs at the ready, for four award-winning seasons, and in its orchestral rendering of the Edwardian aristocracy and its First World (War) Problems, it has given us the kind of unbridled throat-lumping we usually reserve for state funerals and X-Factor eliminations. Its England is bonnie and bountiful; a picture postcard from a time before the Mansion Tax, and upper-lips across the land are all a quiver.

Yet Downton is no longer Britain’s only cheerleader. Televisual tributes are cropping up left and right, from the casually chirpy (Countryfile) to the downright partisan (The Great British Sewing Bee,), as the country begins to re-brand itself as an attraction. Britain is back in vogue -- on TV at least -- and among the rabble, one programme in particular is hijacking the conversation. It's a dark horse of a very familiar breed.

The Great British Bake-Off operates in familiar eight o’clock territory. A cohort of bakers is whittled week-on-week down to one aproned victor; it's a breadmakers’ Battle Royale. Competitive food preparation is of course a brilliant, if manipulative, formula when fishing for evening audiences, since with the allure of ‘food porn’ (the cakes are distractingly prominent, drawing the guilty gaze like so many of Robin Thicke’s bimbos), together with the urge to ally oneself with one contestant or another, we are sucked into the weekly clutches of the make-believe kitchen.

But the real engine behind the The Great British Bake-Off is its mood, not its structure. A quintessential cooking competition with a distinct lack of bite, unlike Gordon Ramsay’s aggressive operations, it's all prudence and profiteroles. There is something Wallace and Gromit about the natty precision of frosting on a bun, while Union Jack bunting unashamedly drapes the interiors, and the stately setting (white marquee; country parkland) lends a Jane Austen homeliness to what is in actuality a calculated, dog-eat-dog affair.

Mel and Sue, the resolutely non-foodie presenters (they spend easily as much time eating as they do presenting), serve as a constant antidote to the intricacies of pro-baking and a reminder that the consistency of one’s buttercream is not a matter of life and death. Heavy with innuendo (“..bit of a soggy bottom there”), the show, like the British, teeters between the polite and the comic.

These details are not lost in remuneration, and the The Great British Bake-Off is up 50 per cent in the ratings on its closest rival, Masterchef. The highest-rated programme on BBC2 by far, and gaining considerable ground on evening staples like soap operas and long-standing serials, it's credited with changing the face, not just of baking, but of British television itself.

But what Downton Abbey and The Great British Bake-Off are really cashing in on is something that goes beyond the melodramatics of the upper-middle-classes. These shows are so popular in Britain today because Britain is so popular in Britain today. We are riding a new wave of patriotism which has nothing to do with foreign policy or gold medals -- it's a mushy, ideological thing, an odd sense of abstract collectivism that has been wafting among us of late.

Big on self-spoofing, but secretly bigger on our homeland, the British as a group have long been furtive nationalists. It's a post-colonial hangover thing, I’m told. But married with a tendency for the aloof, in recent decades it had been wont to arrive in our living rooms laced with irony and a thousand apologies. The Britain of Four Weddings and a Funeral was dearly beloved, but it was a restrained and self-conscious sort of love. No gushing or flag-waving was permitted.

If the '90s were aloof, the '80s were positively apathetic. The anti-Thatcher team was the sexier and the more vocal, the establishment having been robbed of an image of dignified fiefdom with the arrival of the Sex Pistols. The Union Jack was about as marketable a brand then as Lehman Bros is today. On television, Yes, Minister was crippling a long and concerted effort to misinform the public on the competence of its own cabinet, while the relentless Prime Suspect followed, exposing the gritty crevices of life on the breadline of urban England. There wasn’t a Victoria Sponge in sight.

Our new wave of jingoism is a good laugh for all concerned, but its roots, and its ramifications, are a little murkier. It might be argued, for example, if one were in the business of political punditry, that Britain is in as ropey a state today as it has been in years, and that with some fairly distressing unemployment figures, and an unfortunate tendency to muck-in on overseas military operations, the time for self-congratulation is hardly upon us.

Yet we have been swept -- presumably in the lingering throws of Olympic giddiness -- into a paradoxical party which grows in scope and sincerity with every Bake-Off. And what is a niche movement on the TV is a bigger deal in the real world.

No one has done better from Britain’s love-affair with itself than the people in charge. The Royal family -- whose last half-century, if memory serves, had been an irksome one at best -- are enjoying an unprecedented level of popular approval. Polls indicate that 66 percent of the British public believe, contrary to whatever formerly dominated popular opinion (“hang the bastards”, presumably), that today we are better off as a monarchy than a republic.

And a more potent winner is the indefatigable Boris Johnson, Mayor of London and general disturber of the peace, whose litany of hilarious transgressions has done nothing to dim his blond mop or his political persona. The most buoyant of Brits, he has laughingly dodged the political dustbin to emerge a conquering national hero. His path from tabloid scoundrel to future overlord has been nothing short of meteoric.

What the Bake-Off represents is an unusual time to be British. It isn’t in our nature to be so openly sentimental; we aren’t a pledge of allegiance kind of place. The irony and self-mockery so enduring in our identity have fallen away in favour of bunting and buns, and what we are left with is a new wave of World War II-ish togetherness. It's a great time to be a monarch or a television executive, but a slightly disconcerting one to be a citizen.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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