Reality or RealiTV?

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Made in Chelsea; Real Housewives of Cheshire; The Only Way is Essex; Great British Bake Off; The Apprentice; Strictly Come Dancing; X Factor.

Throw in a few pizzas and bowls of pesto pasta and there you have a week in the life of a twenty-one year old.

We pile into our student lounge sporting various combinations of tracksuits, pyjamas and onesies and settle down for an hour of becoming a little too emotionally invested in the lives of others. We all cheered on Ollie Locke as he put JP in his place on the Henley river bank. We all giggled like school-girls when Selasi piped that icing. We all screamed in outrage when Sharon Osborne decimated the Over 25 category at Judge’s houses. Reality TV continues to be an ever growing phenomenon. But why?

It was not all that long ago that I was spending my weekends at the beach. I was staying out until highly unsociable hours of the morning. I was going to cool clubs with fancy cocktails and swimming pools in the back. I would sit in a room full of girls and spend hours gossiping about people we knew. Living our own dramas. It was not that long ago when a night in front of the TV would have been a welcomed blessing after the never ending birthdays, socials, special events and catch-ups. Now, almost every night of the week I stare enviously at a screen and watch people getting paid to do those things.

I wonder out loud who Nicole Scherzinger is dating, rather than focusing on my own, slightly lacklustre dating scene. I have reached that unfortunate stage in life when reality TV has become my personal reality.

We all know that in recent years there have been many questions raised about how healthy social media is. I know I can’t be the only one whose parents have banned phones at the dinner table. Kate Bush once requested that her fans refrain from filming her show because if people wanted to watch it through the screen of the person in front of them, then they would have stayed home to watch it on TV. We are rapidly breeding a culture of people who struggle to enjoy anything until they share it with the world.

When I was a child, popularity was determined by your Top Trump skills in the playground. Today, ‘likes’ are the new symbol of status. Smart devices and social media have opened up a whole new sphere of connectivity, and not everyone is happy about it. I would argue, however, that we cannot reasonably throw our arms up in exasperation at this and not reality TV. How is it fair to ask someone to look up from their phone and stop talking to their friends in order to spend some quality time with you watching the lives of complete strangers unfold? At least through social media we are, for the most part, keeping in touch with people we know. I once had a friend use my snapchat to check up on her ex. I have known relationships to start through an Instagram. FaceTime is a revolutionary concept that enables me to regularly see friends and family who live on the other side of the world – people that I would otherwise only see every few years. Whilst we may not quite be able to call living through a screen ‘reality’, in my opinion it is certainly more deserving of the title than say Joey Essex or Amy Childs.

My solution? TV dramas! More often than not they give us far greater role models: Aspire to be as witty as Chandler Bing, as successful as Dr Grey, find a love like Marshall and Lily’s. But most importantly, know that they are all fiction and that the best life to live is your own.

Birmingham: Jazz at the Spotted Dog

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Being England’s second city it shouldn’t come as a shock that Birmingham has a historic, vibrant and diverse Jazz scene. A subculture bolstered by the students of Birmingham Conservatoire’s top-class Jazz department – which itself regularly puts on live performances. The scene is probably best showcased by the Mostly Jazz, Funk & Soul Festival held in Moseley Park and the citywide Birmingham Jazz & Blues Festival. Both of which typically book a few big names and international artists alongside wide variety of local lesser-known artists.

But if you really want to get to know the scene, see the city’s musicians in their element and cutting loose, then my suggestion would be to hunt out one of Birmingham’s more informal and free-form nights. There are three such notable events that widely revolve around an ethos of improv and jamming: Fizzel, held weekly at the Lamp Tavern, Bain/Pulsgrove held every Monday at Yorks Bakery and the Tuesday Jazz nights at The Spotted Dog. The latter being the one I most recently frequented having assurance from a friend that the band playing – Zhenya Strigalev’s Never Group – were really quite good.

The Spotted Dog, perhaps unsurprisingly for a pub hosting a weekly experimental Jazz night, is located in what has become Birmingham’s most brazenly hipster district, official known as Digbeth. However, upon entry one is greeted with the décor and atmosphere of classic, if not antiquated, British pub. It is only by wandering out into smoking area that will realize that the pub conforms to Digbeth’s penchant for off-key trendiness. The drinking house’s outdoor decorations include: a gaggle of partially dressed and dilapidated manikins, two oversized lady’s dressers, a large smoking penguin and a bookshelf. On the night in question I got a chance to briefly peruse the shelf only to find it was mainly filled with old business studies textbooks, with one notable exception being a paperback entitled The Art of Zen & Sex, which I gave a quick flick through before I heard that the band was starting to play.

Once the band started performing in the corner of the room it became clear that my friend’s reassurance had not been misplaced. The Saxophonist who I assume was Zhenya took a peculiar stance; his instrument perched delicately between his lips as he stared up to the ceiling as if pleading to be possessed by some unholy jazz demon. The music aptly became wilder and more discordant as the set progressed, only held in by the Never Group’s unquestionable technical skill.

The night continued with me happily bopping along to some unexpectedly energetic and at times even ferocious Jazz. The pub began to fill up until there was quite a crowd and I noticed that many of clientele were carrying instruments of their own. It soon transpired that they were all planning to get involved in the night’s open jam session following the live performance. This was when the night really took off as a collective of shaggy yet jovial music-students bounced off and strained to excite one another, engendering an electrifying sense of anarchic fun. They certainly made me want in. I had once played the trumpet for a time, but last I checked my instrument was out-of-tune and I had been reliably informed that the tuning slider was irreparably rusted shut. Then again this was an experimental night; perhaps one of these Jazz aficionados could figure out something useful for me to do with my old, rusty, out-of-tune trumpet, though I doubted it.

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Later that week I went to see a band called Weave play as part of the Town Hall Symphony Hall’s Jazzlines live performance and education programme. The crowd, who on average were at least a generation or two older than the one in The Spotted Dog, were sat stilly and attentively in an arc around the band as they produced a far more refined and summery version of Jazz than the one I’d heard a few nights before. If I’m completely honest I found it a tad innocuous and I wasn’t quite getting along with Weave’s double trumpet no sax setup. To the side there was a stall trying to recruit people to the Royal Marine’s Band Service, which I perhaps considered with some cynicism.

I realized the Jazz-scene in Birmingham is not homogenous, it caters to a variety of sorts, not all of it will suit everyone, but that in large part is what makes it worth exploring. For myself I definitely feel that, the poor book selection notwithstanding, I will be returning for another invigorating night at The Spotted Dog.

Guest blogger: Stewart Yarlett