Serial: a fitting end to the crime drama that wasn’t

**spoiler alert — go and listen to the final episode of Serial before continuing**

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Serial – the twelve-part whodunnit phenomenon that put the word podcast back in the popular vernacular – has come to an end. There’ll be no more Mailchimp, no more prepaid prison calls and – crucially – no more questions from the show’s host, This American Life journalist Sarah Koenig. It seems unlikely, however, that the show’s fans will forget it in a hurry. What set this murder mystery apart was that it both respected the fifteen year old cold case at its centre in a way that true crime shows so often don’t (Crime and Investigation Network, I’m looking at you) and brought it to life.

In Serial – the story of an honours student imprisoned for life on a weak testimony and circumstantial evidence – notions of good and bad, guilty and innocent, were placed in apposition rather than opposition over and over again, a chiasmus of contradictory character traits. Profiles of human beings with thoughts and feelings were crafted through a sophisticated narrative that often included big, searching questions about the universality of the human psyche. Could a young man from a religious family also dabble in theft and drugs, or was it a sign of his duplicitousness? A teen fundamentalist with scores to settle would make a killer TV plotline, but for Koenig a killer it did not (necessarily) make. Ripping apart the version of events presented at trial meant casting aside caricatured notions of psychopathy or even sociopathy, dealing solely in fact, and bringing in new experts including the Innocence Project, a legal organisation who review cases with DNA testing.

Some listeners may have felt cheated by this week’s final instalment, however. After all, Koenig promises an ending about two minutes in, only to return to the same brand of wrangling which has underpinned every single episode. Whilst new infomation is revealed, her final conclusion is the opposite of the dramatic “no-sliver-of-reasonable-doubt” denouement. It is, however, the only kind of ending that is authentic with regards to such a complex case. The truth might be stranger than fiction (god knows that Criminal Minds has never dedicated an entire episode to cell phone tower pings), but it’s often messier and more elusive, too. Thus, she concludes, that although she cannot be 100% sure of exactly what happened that day, there was certainly not enough evidence to lock a 17-year-old away for life.

So, what exactly happens in episode twelve? Koenig delves back through the evidence which she and her team have collated over the past fifteen months, checking out the inconsistencies in the case of Adnan Syed – currently behind bars for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in Baltimore – one last time. It’s a process that’s nearly as frustrating as Syed’s repeated inability to remember anything but the most pedestrian of details from the day that Hae went missing, as Koenig and her two producers – Julie Snyder and Dana Chivvis – talk cell phone calls and legal loopholes once again. This being Serial – cerebral, solid – the final look at the details of January 13th 1999 had a serious purpose, however: reaffirming the ambiguities at the heart of the state’s case against Syed once more. Koenig admits to exploring new avenues right until the end (what if there was something they’d missed?) but the main point of retracing their steps was to show that even if a new version of the truth was yet to transpire, the accepted version of events was undeniably flawed. From the Nisha call to the Best Buy payphone: they were all ultimately jokers.

Hae Min Lee’s brother Young took to Reddit back in November. “TO ME ITS REAL LIFE”, began his distressed missive. “To you listeners, its another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI”. The post goes on to talk of his family’s grief, before concluding that Koenig was either biased or gunning for a big ending. His suspicion and hurt were understandable, especially when you consider the thousands upon thousands of posts which have appeared alongside his own on the site’s Serial subreddit over the past three months. From potential libel to downright dangerous vigilantism, there was many people in this online community who were playing an unethical game of Cluedo from behind their screens. The same can’t be said of Koenig, Snyder, Chivvis and co, however, who built up an intricate narrative that eschewed speculation in favour of cold, hard, fact. That the big, sensational shocker of an ending Mr Lee and so many others expected never came is a testament to the fact that this hugely popular show was a dispatch from reality rather than a masterclass in voyeurism.

A bad musical feminist?

*Whilst I’ve had releases from Sleater-Kinney and Girlpool on repeat of late, I’ve been teetering between riot grrrl and girly girl for as long as I can remember. The top comment on a new SK track on Youtube (“welcome back ladies… save us from beyonce, j-lo, nicki minaj, taylor swift, and the rest of these pop ho-bags.”) got me thinking about whether it’s possible to embrace seemingly opposing cultural output. (Clue: it is) This is also the question at the centre of Roxane Gay’s half-memoir/essay collection ‘Bad Feminist’, which I highly recommend.

Am I a bad musical feminist? A little bit of context: at 11, I had convinced myself that I was a half-decent songwriter. Every echoey middle eight, however, betrayed a love of the bubblegum pop of Britney, Xtina et al. Even when I was ploughing through visceral chords – stripy rayon tie and twelve Claire’s Accessories crucifixes around my neck – my lyrics were all based on my maths class crush, the Aaron Samuels to my Cady Heron (minus the Lohan looks and plus a little caustic acne). I was effectively a one-woman Xenomania.

Somewhere between 13 and 14, I started listening to the kind of XFM-endorsed Noughties indie which makes me highly nostalgic nowadays. I had a nu rave phase along with half of the free world, followed by the obligatory Converse-and-Nirvana era, followed by a few months spent lurking around Camden Market chowing down lukewarm curry. Somewhere along the way I even got into Joan Jett. I had a guitar, an amp…and neighbours who probably wanted me dead.

(I looked like a bit of a wee rebel didn’t I?)

And YET, I couldn’t quite shake off my frivolous, whimsical, girly self, nor my acute awareness of my love/hate relationship with my gender. My MySpace page was a homage to Donnie Darko and Oscar Wilde (cool) but also featured copious paragraphs on my love for miniature Japanese toys (not so cool). And then it happened: I stumbled upon (via MTV2 maybe?) the duality of the riot grrrl sound, the not-so-latent anger that came with a side order of heartbreaking harmonies. Plus, ripping to iTunes was all the rage, so you could pick up a lot of quality cast offs at charity shops and the second hand section of HMV.

I wanted to be like the L7 girls, Veruca Salt, Bikini Kill, Sleater Kinney, even Courtney Love (my first blog was, of course, written anonymously by a Miss Love-Cobain), but even when I saw the subversive femininity of these artists at work, I struggled to reconcile this with the part of my being that unironically owned a dance mat.

In the end, I grew up, started writing this blog, listened to everything going and somehow avoided making a proper decision about it all. Oh, and the great postmodern vortex that is the internet continued to mess with the idea of “high” and “low” culture. Latter obsessions with Elliott Smith, Suede and Aztec Camera coincided with an interest in following every two-bit talent contest going, obvs.

I do sometimes still look at myself in the mirror, however – head-to-toe Topshop, a couple of unrebellious piercings – and feel as though I could have made a choice. I could’ve got better at the guitar instead of spending my late teenage years listening to Pitbull remixes in sweaty West End clubs. I could’ve embraced the “unnatural” hair.

But hey. “DO I REALLY GIVE A FLYING FUCK???”, I think, downloading the new Taylor Swift album, and giving female peace a chance. Being a full time Riot Grrrl would be too contrived and maybe a little exhausting. You’ll find the real me reading books with titles like ‘Bad Feminist’, teetering precariously between Joanna Gruesome and Little Mix, and having occasional existential crises on the internet. I wouldn’t – and probably won’t ever – have it any other way.

Full Time Hobby at 10

It’s been a good little period for the record label anthology. Hot on the heels of XL’s two-disc 25 year anniversary release “Pay Close Attention” which dropped at the end of August and artfully segued from Tyler The Creator to Adele, comes Full Time Hobby’s 10th year compilation, another two-disc effort featuring the likes of Tuung, White Denim, School of Seven Bells and The Hold Steady. “What The Hell Are You Doing?” – a question which co-founder Nigel Adams encountered when he and fellow Mushroom Records compadre Wez channelled Creation, Elektra et al. and set up the label back in 2004 – is an ideal introduction to the label or an ace companion for the already initiated.

Full Time Hobby’s new compilation “What The Hell Are You Doing?” is released today. 

Gigs I went to and liked*

*Not quite gig reviews, not quite blog posts

Sinkane album launch party, Shacklewell Arms, September 12th

Around a week before I go to see Sinkane at the Shacklewell Arms, I sum up his latest release “Mean Love” as “”groovy pop-rock”, if groovy didn’t conjure up images of Austin Powers and bell bottoms”. Thankfully Sinkane (born Ahmed Gallab), is the antithesis to this poor description: nonchalant, the UK born, US raised one-time Caribou and Of Montreal collaborator leans against the merch table watching support band Swim Mountain (recently praised by 6Music) just moments before he’s due on stage. His Soulja Boy-esque Twitter handle (Sinkane Tell Em!) oozes swagger, but standing on stage he has a calm class to match his sound, which – over the course of his past two releases – has grown in range. Gallab’s role as musical director of “ATOMIC BOMB! The Music of William Onyeabor’” – a supergroup honouring the music of the Nigerian synth legend – seems telling of his current guise. With “Mean Love”, he too has painted futuristic strokes onto a Pan African canvas. Joined by guitarist Jonny Lam, bassist Ish Montgomery and drummer jaytram for tracks from “Mean Love” as well as 2012’s “Mars”, he takes the crowd of his first sold out London show on a soulful voyage, from the breathy vocals and reggae beat of “Young Trouble” to the East African-inspired pulse of “New Name”, which on record comes complete with the coolest horns since St Vincent’s Digital Witness. There are ethereal moments, like the hypnosis-inducing synth line of “Young Trouble” (Gallab’s also commanding keyboards). The Sinkane live experience is varied and uplifting, a United Nations of groove which – thankfully – comes minus the bell bottoms.

Sinkane tours Europe before returning to the UK for a show at Hackney venue du jour Oslo on December 1st.

Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, Bristol Exchange, September 4th

“It’s Lennon!” squeals my friend, pointing to a fellow with a headband and circular specs and doing her best impression of a Cavern Club reveller. As it turns out this is not John and Yoko’s son Sean – rather it is one of the troupe who accompany him and partner Charlotte Muhl on tour. He’s a slightly taller, more imposing version of his bandmate, although the glasses. Powering through tracks from Midnight Sun, which was released back in April, they refuse to falter even when Lennon’s wah pedal gives up the erm, goastt. From mafia-themed Seventies throwback “Poor Paul Getty” to the sprawling psychedelia of “Too Deep”, it’s wall to wall rock, full of screeching guitars and choral harmonies. Cutting and pasting the best parts of the 70s but remaining distinctly modern and self-consciously East Coast, there’s no chance you’ll confuse “Animals” with “All You Need Is Love”.

 

 

Animals In The Wall exhibition

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Last Thursday, I went for a sneak peak of the Animals In The Wall exhibition, which is on until September 7th at Shoreditch’s Londonewcastle Project Space. Alongside 40 pieces of art by Beat icon William S Burroughs (1914-1997), there are original new works by contemporary artists which engage with the – still pertinent – areas of counterculture/rebellion, anti-consumerism and skepticism of political intrigue. It’s an intriguing mix of visual works including film and two installation rooms, one of which houses a dreamachine (a zoetrope-type device created by Burroughs’ contemporary Brion Gysin).

Other notable pieces come from Bolivian “enfant terrible” Gastón Ugalde, pithy Brit graffiti artist Mobstr and Australia’s Ben Frost, who once faked his own death in the name of art.

Here are some bits by Burroughs himself (copyright of his estate):

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And here is my favourite piece he inspired (by Ben Frost):

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Animals In The Wall is a free exhibition, curated by James Elphick (Guerrilla Zoo) and Yuri Zupančič (William Burroughs Communications), and you can find it at 28 Redchurch Street, E2 7DP.