Reviews

The Pop Myth: Alex Cameron’s Jumping the Shark reviewed

AlexCameronJumpingTheShark3a5f5fAlex Cameron is a hack. He’s a showbiz guy. He’s a guy who says he’s a showbiz guy. He’s been around the traps. He is exhausted by the world’s ambivalence to his genius and he does not suffer fools. He’s a showbiz guy who knows nobody in showbiz. Alex Cameron is the mythical genius at your suburban RSL, and he is a nightmare. His handsome well-wrought face is peeling and scarred, and he may not be real. You’d better touch his face to make sure.

In his own words, Alex Cameron’s debut record Jumping The Shark “is a story about all which ways [sic] you can fail and believe me you are going to one way or the other. I wanted each track to allow for a story to be told. The music is ground floor. The words take you up to the lookout.”

On his personal website, Alex Cameron often insists that his lyrics are worth soaking up for the philosophical truths they may contain.

In actual fact, Alex Cameron is a Sydney artist who has worked for many years as part of electronic trio Seekae. The trio is not unsuccessful. The trio does not have worldwide kitchen table renown but it is doing okay, for a Sydney electronic trio. Seekae is a capable and enjoyable electronic trio specialising in music which is just nice. Seekae has released two critically well-received records and when they release a new .mp3 people tend to care, which is close to the epitome of success as far as Sydney electronic trios go.

Seekae is Alex Cameron’s biggest failure. In order to appreciate Alex Cameron, you must forget that Seekae exists.

Alex Cameron, as Alex Cameron, strives for kitchen table renown but is the embodiment of failure. His debut record Jumping The Shark, released independently in 2013 but now available on LP through Siberia Records, is a vehicle for a make-believe failure. Alex Cameron is your uninteresting uncle making beats in Garageband, and occasionally namedropping industry powerhouses no one has ever known and who may never have existed. He wears leather jackets indoors and smokes mini-cigars between courses. Alex Cameron probably bought a beer for Michael Chugg back in the ‘80s, only to be ignored. He may have gone on a bender with the guy who booked The Excelsior in the mid ’90s.

‘Alex Cameron’ is a joke, but not a joke Cameron will readily admit to. He is steadfast in his roleplaying. Read through his surreally retro website and you’ll find a compellingly pathetic universe of empty self-affirmation, preemptive artistic defense and lurid self-promotion. When scrolling through his hugely entertaining website it is easy to forget that he is a musician at all. Alex Cameron is a joke. He is a viral marketing campaign. He is a myth, and the myth is probably pissed that AU Review gave him a 7.7 score for his debut record. Ball Park Music’s new one got 9.0.

In light of all this, it feels contrary to say his record is actually good, and it feels more disingenuous to say that it’s good despite the depressing universe Cameron has built around it. The record is not amazing, it’s not something I’d highly recommend to everyone, but it’s a record I enjoy listening to divorced from the myth. Basically: the music is not a mere punchline to the website, which I wholly expected it would be. Overall, the unexpected competence of Jumping The Shark as a piece of music you can happily listen to without applying several layers of lead-strong ironic straightjacket, serves Alex Cameron’s concept very well.

Failure

Cameron recently posted a video (embedded above) tracing his adventures at the South by Southwest festival in Texas. The short documentary presents a day-in-the-life of an aspiring artist at a global industry showcase, desperate to be recognised but resigned to the impenetrable nature of the global independent music hype machine. In the documentary, Cameron’s hotel is a distant roadside dive in an off-the-chart suburb, far away from the throbbing heart of Austin. It sets the scene for a film which bleakly reveals how futile the rags-to-riches pop/rock star myth is: he is far away, hiking on an eight lane highway kilometres from the sex and drugs at the city’s centre. He’s flown eleven hours from Sydney to be close to the oyster of success, but it’s still too inaccessible. On top of that, he’s chintzy. He’s uncool. He’s got no hope. He’s a loser. Alex Cameron sucks. He’s too showbiz. He’s not showbiz enough.

The world of Alex Cameron is very funny but it is also very sad. It is sad and funny in the way that many headstrong yet reputedly lacklustre artists are. People love to poke fun at ‘headstrong yet lacklustre’ artists because it reinforces the genius myth at the heart of pop music, but even the genius myth is a ruse papering over uglier truths.

Jan Terri, for example, is a Chicago-born pop musician who is best known for how reputedly terrible she is. When people share Jan Terri videos on social media, it is often because she is not a conventionally pretty woman. The joke is that she’s not a conventionally pretty woman and yet, there she is, acting like a pop star. Her audacity is the joke. Her hope is the joke. The dissonance is a joke. She is a joke because it is shocking to see someone who does not look like a pop star, acting like a pop star.

Terri’s most famous song, ‘Losing You’ (embedded above), is a gorgeous and infectious pop song, and yet it is not taken seriously because she is not conventionally beautiful. She is not shaped like a pop star. She exists in an errant slipstream of pop, where it is executed by plumbers or tuckshop mums or Brian from accounts. It is an unfathomable underbelly open to ridicule because pop music is not meant to present any blemishes, and it is not meant to be executed by normal looking people. Even a sophisticated 21st century pop artist like Lorde, adored by sophisticated people the world over, is considered a brave deity when she posts Instagram photos of her acne.

Jan Terri released ‘Losing You’ in 1993, but it didn’t blossom as an anti-pop classic until YouTube. Now, we relish the unsuccesses of pop as eagerly as we do the successes. In fact, pop music in the internet age seems to bond people based on what they object to more so than what they agree on. The bad has more stickiness than the good, because badness, mediocrity, patheticness, is virtually the only shock-and-awe tactic pop music has left in its arsenal.

The truly terrible is bracing and fascinating. Watching people fail is gratifying because it redeems those – most of us – who do not try. We can be shocked at someone’s futile audacity, but we cannot be shocked by much else. Why isn’t this arsehole in the trenches with us, and what makes he or she so special that they think they can transcend it? We see an imperfection and we toss a hook into it, and drag them through the muck. Rebecca Black, RAED, Dirty Boyz – they’re all considered pathetic because they tried and failed on our terms, but wouldn’t it have been more pathetic had they not tried at all?

Alex Cameron wields this modern appetite for failure. He knows you’re more likely to listen to him because someone said he’s remarkably shit. In some ways, Alex Cameron the man – ie, not the imagined, mythical, patently pathetic Alex Cameron, but the actual Alex Cameron – is the most canny businessman in pop music. He knows that the only way to drag you into his clutches is to make you ogle at him. You want to watch every permutation of his failure, in all its bloodied, cartilaged detail. You are fascinated by his unfounded self-belief, and by his unhip and arcane approaches to The Music Industry. He knows that the only four-minute bracket in your day he’s likely to gain access to is the one you’ll spend watching something which further barricades the entry points to Proper Stardom. He knows you’ll watch him because someone said he’s outstandingly shit.

And then he goes ahead and sells you a reasonably decent pop record. You just bought into a new pop myth that no one wants to make official.

Success

None of Alex Cameron’s songs are as good as ‘Losing You’ by Jan Terri (because few are), but they’re mostly very good. Sometimes, due to the strength of songs like ‘Happy Ending’, with its immaculately minimal bass lines and the plainly-spoken severity of Cameron’s lyrics, you wonder whether the myth is a cloak for an artist lacking confidence. Maybe Cameron did not have sufficient belief in his ability to write pop songs like this. Maybe he needed to buffer them with this fiction in order to shield himself from ridicule, as a member of a respected Sydney electronic trio. Maybe there’s a part of the real Alex Cameron which fears becoming the fictional Alex Cameron. That would be very sad. I hope this is not the case.

Because as a lean and infectious synth-pop record Jumping the Shark is outstanding, and it deserves to be listened to. One of Cameron’s early singles, ‘She’s Mine’, is a lyrically and musically interesting song if you don’t know about the Alex Cameron myth, but then, it is even more interesting if you do. Alex Cameron recognises that his music will fail on pop music’s terms, and so he focuses on its imperfections. His fiction justifies the blemishes and makes them a story, and yet, without the story the blemishes align him with a milieu of artists whose imperfections are their selling points. He has his cake and eats it too.

In an early ‘album trailer’ for Alex Cameron’s record (a pervasive and transparently amateur Web 2.0 method of promoting music), he is depicted peeling his face off in a shower. It is a grotesque piece of film which undermines any hope Cameron may have of being a sexy, iconoclastic, orthodox pop artist. That’s the beauty of it though: the only hope Cameron has to be that icon, that showbiz doyen, is to peel away the skin and become someone else. You must be beautiful to be important. Alex Cameron could not be himself for this record. Not now. Maybe Alex Cameron’s universe is a charade, and he really believes in these songs. I think he does. I hope he does.

*

Alex Cameron’s Jumping the Shark is available through Siberia Records.

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9 thoughts on “The Pop Myth: Alex Cameron’s Jumping the Shark reviewed

  1. Andrew says:

    Wow I couldn’t not disagree more. I stumbled apon this album through Henry Rollins show on NPR and find it truly great. It’s definitely in the tradition of nick cave while paving it’s own path. The songs are all really strong And the characters he’s created in the album are very well thought out.

  2. Tresa says:

    Hold on… Jan Terri is a joke as a pop star because she isn’t conventionally pretty..? People don’t take her seriously because she is fat? How disgustingly judgemental. Whether it’s his opinion or not (which it seems to be), this guy is reinforcing horrible ideas. What a bad correlation and awfully done review. The album wasn’t even that bad dude wtf. It’s about innovation and doing your own thing as a musician. Not adhering to the idea that pop music can only be made by traditionally pretty people. So can white people not rap? Can northerners not sing country? This guy has lost all his credibility to me. Lame af

    • I’ll take the blame for lack of clarity in this review, but I love both Jan Terri and Alex Cameron. I thought I’d conveyed that in the review but obviously not enough.

      I was making the argument re: Jan Terri that the word spread about her online because her videos are unlike what we’re used to seeing in pop clips. I don’t like that they’re ridiculed. I think ‘Losing You’ is amazing.

      • richard says:

        I didn’t feel like you were hating on anybody. Interested to give this album a listen as I’m intrigued by Alex’s persona, I wonder if I’ll be distracted trying to spot the real person or naturally drawn in to the world he’s created. I understand that’s the key to liking or disliking it, the music is definitely strong…

  3. MickyC says:

    I’m with Richard – came across perfectly well to me that you quite like Mr Cameron, although it seems difficult to do so through several layers or artifice and/or irony. As for Jan, it wasn’t necessarily obvious you ‘love’ her, although it’s obvious you ‘love’ at least one of her songs. It was also obvious you were pointing out other people’s ironic sharing of her music via YouTube was based upon her not fitting the typical pop-starlet tropes, something which you don’t seemingly subscribe to.

    This by the way is a really well written piece. Kudos.

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