It may come as a surprise to Kanye West that he would have got a nod of approval from Samuel Johnson. The literary titan of the Enlightenment was, by all accounts, not averse to the odd bumper of grog, and he had this to say about alcohol consumption: “Claret is the liquor for boys, port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.”
Mr West clearly agrees. He loves a drop of brandy. He brings the names of his favourite ones into his songs. In “Bittersweet Poetry,” he mulls over the decline of his problematic romance. Although his close personal friends (if I’ve read the lyrics right) urge Mr West to take solace in the arms of accommodating horizontales among his social acquaintance, “I been thinking, and it got me back to sinking and this relationship it even got me back to drinking all this Hennessy/ It’s gonna be the death of me.”
Hmmm. I don’t know if the owners of Hennessy, one of the world’s finest cognacs, are overjoyed about this endorsement. It suggests that if you’ve “gone back” to necking the blissful 18th-century eau-de-vie, currently retailing at £27.85 a bottle, you’ve no further to fall, degradation-wise. You’d think Kanye was talking about Thunderbird wine or methylated spirits. But clearly he meant to suggest it would be a negative move.
Not negative enough, I’m afraid, for James Sargent and Brian Primack, two American academics who’ve conducted a survey into songs that name-check alcohol brands. They warn that kids who can remember the brand names of drinks referred to in song lyrics are twice as likely as their brand-clueless peers to drink to excess.
Things were easier in the days when rappers regularly name-checked Roederer Cristal champagne as their tipple of choice; pimply teens probably felt disinclined to shell out £50 a pop for the stuff, just to feel more like Jay-Z (until, of course, Jay-Z switched to the Ace of Spades marque.) But this multiple-naming stuff is a recent phenomenon. In 1968 Jerry Lee Lewis recorded “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me,”) a song which alluded to Schlitz beer - which was advertised with that very tagline - without actually mentioning it. I can’t, however, recall many songs that refer to Guinness or Lagavulin 12-year-old.
What’s to be done about it? Looking at recent alcohol-related ditties, I wonder if the problem, and the solution, is simply the search for a rhyme. In 50 Cent’s song “In Da Club,” he promises, “We gonna party like it’s your birthday/ We gonna sip Bacardi like it’s your birthday,” and the rhyme of “pardy” with “Bacardi” is irresistible. Would it be so bad if we changed the words to something less harmful to teenagers? “We gonna chat and banter like it’s your birthday/ Sip Orange Fanta like it’s your birthday.” How about that? Would that work?
Rihanna’s catchy song “Cheers” is regrettably full of stuff about “getting a round in” and threatening to pay for drinks on the house. There are specific mentions of Irish whiskey: “Cheers to the freaking weekend/ I drink to that, yeah yeah./ Oh let the Jameson sink in,/ I drink to that yeah yeah.” We can’t have that, can we? Whiskey indeed. How about re-writing it as “Oh, let the Evian sink in”? Or, if we want to be more edgy, “Oh, let the Seven-Up sink in”?
Rita Ora had a hit not long ago with “How We Do,” in which she expresses a desire to “party and bullshit” all night long. In the song, she opens the curtains one morning to discover a young companion (details are sketchy) and remarks: “You look so sweet while you’re dreaming/ Holding your bottle of [itals] Tan [italsoff]-quer-ay…” Why her boyfriend, or whoever it is, should drift into slumber clutching a bottle of gin goes unexplained but, for the sake of innocent youngsters, shouldn’t the lyrics be altered? “Holding your bottle of Ap-ple-tise”? Maybe. “Holding your bottle of Ir’n-Bru”? Nah, too Scottish. “Holding your mug of O-val-tine” doesn’t scan properly (and is distracting, if you imagine the mess everywhere.)
Or should we just accept that the impressionable young are probably not going to be led into a hellish downward spiral of alcoholism just because some singers sing about drink as a feature of parties or depression? In my experience, the young already have strong, and unalterable, views about how to manage both.
Higgins? We go way back
I’m not one to brag about my close personal connections to heads of state, but I can claim a familial bond with Michael D Higgins, the Irish President who has been visiting the UK this week. When I was 21, he and I (*pause for effect*) attended the same wedding, in a town in Galway. OK, we didn’t actually meet, or talk, but during the post-reception hoolie, Michael D danced with my Aunt Dolly. There now. I’m not surprised you look stunned.
Many, many Irish people have met him, or think they have, or are sure that if they ever met him, they’d get on famously. The gnome-sized, white-haired poet and former academic has acquired a persona in the Republic somewhere beyond a “national treasure” – as an approachable public figure, a decent skin, a listener, a sincere laugher, a chap never massively keen on fame. But as secular saints go, though, he’s an effective operator whose victories are under-praised. When he joined the Irish Dail, or Parliament, in 1993, he immediately scrapped the controversial Section 31 political censorship law, re-established the Irish Film Board and set up an Irish-language TV station. Now that’s what I call a Culture Minister.
Overindulge! Or else...
An unusual light is cast on American values with the news that Frances Chan, a 20-year-old history student at Yale, was told she faced being kicked out of college if she didn’t put on weight. Ms Chan, five-feet-two and six-and-a-half stone, explained several times that all her Taiwanese family are naturally skinny and that her size is the result of genes, not anorexia. The college said her body-mass index (BMI) was unacceptably low. She underwent a series of tests that revealed she was healthy as a butcher’s dog. No, said the college, you’re still too teeny, you’ll have to leave. She went on a strict regiment of junk food and ice-cream, and put on two pounds. The college retorted that it just wasn’t enough…
Coming from the land where scoring “overweight” and “obese” on the BMI scale has become tantamount to being “average,” doesn’t this sound like a cry of dismay about those awkward people who just won’t join in the national pastimes of grazing and gorging?