Harambe: The Meme of 2016

Oh Harambe, you really captured the hearts of the nation - once you were dead anyway. Why did the internet embrace Harambe the gorilla in such a strong and affectionate way?

In May, a three-year-old child fell into an enclosure at Cincinnati Zoo, then one of the gorillas inside started to drag the boy around.

Fearing that the boy's life was in danger, a zoo worker killed Harambe with a single shot and the boy escaped without serious injury. 
People were saddened by what had happened but would they have been more upset if it was the child that had died?

Harambe's death began a heated, if predictable, debate about zoo welfare standards and whether lethal force was necessary.

But what wasn't expected was what came next. Harambe became meme.
An image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.
His image was spread across the entirety of the internet. What started as a very real outpouring of shock and grief spawned into all manner of jokes and trolling.

The hashtag #RIPHarambe was alight with comments ranging from people wishing they had been there to jump into the enclosure themselves if that meant saving Harambe, to people declaring that they would have been happier if the child was the one who had been shot.

Were people really that upset, or even angry, at Cincinnati Zoo's decision to kill the animal?

It was clear after several days that people were now just posting about Harambe because it was funny, this was when 'meme status' had been reached. The online community wanted to "keep Harambe's legacy alive" and they did so by trolling Cincinnati Zoo's Twitter feed. Strongly worded messages 
about how wrong they were to kill Harambe and endless photos of the gorilla adorned with crying emojis were spammed in the general direction of Cincinnati Zoo's account.

The situation wasn't helped when Cincinnati Zoo asked Twitter users to stop sending them the messages. In this instance, the internet acted just like a toddler who is told not to touch something because it's hot.

There were those who held vigils and started campaigns targeting the child's parents, things just
 spiralled out of control because it involved an element of supposed animal cruelty. Being in a zoo meant that Harambe was in an unfair environment where he didn't have much of a chance to begin with.

The problem with some people online is that they seem to get off on being mad about things that they don't actually care about. 
For me it was driven to the ground so quickly, it stopped being funny after a day or two.

The only way to understand why Harambe was embraced by the internet as he was is to imagine that people were just tired of the usual media spiel that dominates the news and, in turn, society.

People were bored of hearing the same old stories about war or famine or refugee 
crises that they just wanted some way to vent their frustration with the world.

The only way of expressing this anger was to turn this into some sort of worship of Harambe and then offer up memes to their gorilla god.

Harambe: the meme of 2016.

Guns, Guns & More Guns

I wrote an article back in October 2015 that seems to be garnering rather a lot of attention recently so I thought I'd clear up a few things.

I do not think that all guns should be rounded up and taken from Americans but I do have a major problem with a person being able to walk into a gun store and come out 7 minutes later with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

This is what happened to Helen Ubiñas who wanted to find out just how quick and easy it was to buy a gun where she lived in the States. $759.99 dollars and 7 minutes later she was able to walk away with a fully-loaded semi-automatic rifle. That's madness! That's the same type of gun that was used to kill 49 people in the Orlando massacre, the same type of gun used to kill 20 children aged 6 and 7 in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. 7 minutes!

Are they looking to rival McDonald's with their speed of service? It's as though they want shootings to become as synonymous with their country as the American flag.

When will the next one be? Who will be the personal pulling the trigger? Whoever it is it will only take them 7 minutes from getting an idea in their head to execution. God bless America!

I'm not saying guns cause problems, I'm saying they make up a significant part of the problem. It is insane to have such open and free access to guns.

I made the point in my last article that some people say that cars are a bigger risk to us all than guns. They suggest that we should ban those too if guns would have to go (it's hard to tell if they're joking or not). But cars help to emphasise the steps that should be taken towards better gun control. Cars were never banned, but driver’s licenses, seatbelts, airbags, etc. are all prerequisites. Besides, a car has much more use that a gun. "Oh, go back and tell your ancestors fighting in the war that", they might argue, "you try taking away the M1 Garand belonging to a scared 17-year-old soldier and replace it with a Ford Mondeo, see how thankful he is then". Well that's just a petulant idea that serves no purpose to anyone.

A little side note here: to argue that you need a gun in order to protect yourself because some other person might have a gun is utterly flawed and unwitting.

Other than that you may choose to argue whatever reason that best matches your politics or agenda. But the truth is that people want their guns because of hatred and fear-mongering.

The world is becoming more divided each day, but people seem to ignorantly assume that fear and hatred must be battled with fear and hatred of their own. It's no wonder the human race will end up wiping itself out.

Review: David Bowie - Blackstar

Here is a review that I wrote of David Bowie's Blackstar on 11th January 2016, the day after Bowie's death. It was originally intended to be published in a magazine but for one reason or another it never made the final cut. I had forgotten all about this article until now so I thought I would share it now, on what would have been his 70th birthday. Better later than never, huh?


Bowie’s 25th record will forever be tainted with the knowledge that it was his last. Nevertheless, his creativity and talent did not slip towards his mortal end, instead he made magnificence to delight us all one last time. Bowie was diagnosed with cancer 18 months ago and he knew that his life was coming to an end, but what do you do when your days are numbered? Make an electronic-jazz fusion album of course.

The album, Blackstar, was released on 8th January 2016 - the date of Bowie’s 69th birthday - and it is both brilliant and bizarre. The title track is a mixture of electronic music, jazz and a lyrically complex ballad (and there’s only one man who could carry that off).

Eerie and unearthly; was the album a way of Bowie saying goodbye? The songs speak of illness, death and heaven - and offer intriguing insights about the man himself as he sings, “I’m not a pop star, I’m a Blackstar”. On first listening to the album, it was lyrically confusing but upon reflection, the lyrics can be viewed with a more insightful approach. I Can’t Give Everything Away, the album’s final track, is perhaps the most potent song to re-examine. “I know something is very wrong,” he begins, “The blackout hearts, the flowered news / With skull designs upon my shoes”. The sense that Bowie had an unhappy secret he desperately wishes he could share is reaffirmed in the chorus: “I can’t give everything away”.

There has been an outpouring of shock and surprise at his death, not least because, at 69, he was relatively young, but because people seemed to ascribe higher powers to him. As if this legend of the mortal world would have somehow negotiated a deal with the higher powers for him to never have to ride the pale horse.

Prisoners In a Five Star Hotel

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I have a complicated relationship with zoos; maybe everyone else does too. They're equally wonderful and pathetic. Remember the story of Harambe the gorilla who was shot dead at Cincinnati Zoo after a child fell into the enclosure? Well an odd thing happened after the news broke, people began to take the side of the gorilla and vilified Cincinnati Zoo and the little boy who fell into the enclosure. Harambe was then embraced by the internet and became the biggest meme of 2016.

We wouldn't feel responsible for the death of a human, but we would when an animal is killed because it was "one of us", a human being, that caused its life to end - w
e all feel culpable.

I've always had a fascination with animals and was lucky to go on school trips to Blackpool Zoo and family outings to Chester Zoo. I would lie in bed at night, dreaming of the lions and tigers - and, of course, the orangutans. I dreamed of becoming a zookeeper when I grew up if that meant I could spend every minute of every day surrounded by animals.

However, I began to hear stories about how these wild animals were weary and miserable to be locked up in cage all day. I read up about animal behaviour and saw for myself lions pacing agitatedly up and down in their tiny cell. They are fed, kept safe and warm yet they are not happy - prisoners in a five star hotel.

We all feel guilty about the existence of an animal in a zoo. Whatever an institution does to promote conservation we know those animals simple do not want to be in cages. We feel the frustration of each and every big cat striding back and forth behind the glass window pane.

Each time an animal is shot or put down in a zoo there is an honest and genuine sadness because we've had the 
thrill of seeing these beautiful yet alien creatures in the flesh. We cannot talk to them or interact with them but we can see an individual personality wanting to be expressed in any way possible.

Zoos are wonderful places, I don’t want zoos to close down, but we will always take issue whenever an animal's death is caused in a place where it should be safest. Maybe every zoo should have a statue of Harambe the gorilla or Tilikum the orca to remind us of the central wrong that these animals should have to be here in the first place.

2016 - A Year In Review

As years go, 2016 has been pretty rough - wouldn't you agree? Filled with ups and downs, though largely the latter, it is difficult to feel positive when reflecting on a year filled with events that mainly involved unexpected death or an orange man with floppy hair.

When I try to think what has happened in 2016, I can largely just picture dead people.
Victoria Wood, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett, AA Gill, Prince, Lemmy, Leonard Cohen. We all have a particular "favourite" death of the year; the one we’re saddest about, the one that we can't help but mention to every passer-by in the street. We then seem to have a grieve-off to see who actually cared about the famous person in question the most:

"Oh but I had each and every single one of their records!"

"Well I've read every single interview they've ever done."

"Well I know what brand of underwear they wear - go on, ask me which ones they wear!"

Team the neverending string of celeb death with the fear-filled US election and the constant threat of nuclear war and environmental ruin - and Harambe! - and we're left with a pretty rancid pile of ashes to call a year. Sprinkle a little bit of crusty Brexit crumbs on top followed by an unhealthy dollop of Brangelina and you've got yourself 2016.

Maybe it wasn't all doom and gloom, could it be that 2016 was actually alright but we just failed to notice in fear of Kate Bush popping her clogs next?

Sure, The Great British Bake Off is no longer with the BBC and Channel 4 paid £75 million for a tent with a flour-covered Paul Hollywood inside, but you can be damn sure that there will be a "new Bake Off" for Mary, Mel and Sue. Bake Off too will continue, just on a different channel with a couple of new presenters - maybe it will rise into a marvelous masterpiece or maybe it will leave Channel 4 with a soggy bottom. Anyway, two baking programs for your delight whereas there was only one before!

In other TV news, the resurrection of Top Gear was an utter calamity. Okay, maybe I am being rather harsh when I say that because the only real problem with it was Chris Evans, the gingery-grey toddler disguised as a 50-year-old adult man. Alas, every cloud and all that, the "fracas" between Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear producer Oisin Tymon spawned The Grand Tour. Now this is a show that has, so far, been utterly brilliant, in terms of both entertainment and visual imagery. The same chemistry is present on The Grand Tour between Clarkson, Hammond and May and also Top Gear will be returning in 2017 without Chris Evans! Two motoring-based entertainment shows that you can watch on your tellybox (or internet streaming device) where before there was just the one!

Besides the world of entertainment, the wild tiger population has increased for the first time in 100 years from 3,200 to about 3,900...so that's something positive I guess.

Also on the animal theme, giant pandas are now no longer on the endangered species list. 2,060 giant pandas are currently roaming free in the wild, eating up all the bamboo and not having sex. They're now just "vulnerable", which is better (apparently).

In food news, more than half a million people in the UK alone now eat a vegan diet, and cafes, restaurants and supermarkets have started to up their vegan game, now offering more than just a wilted salad. This means fewer animals had to be killed, again, positive.

Maybe I'm just trying to polish a turd now but has 2016 really been that bad? Well, maybe it's still a yes. I love animals and all but I'd sooner have Bowie still alive than have Pandas move on an arbitrary scale from endangered to vulnerable.

Here's to a better 2017.

Photograph: ITV

Illustration Store Now Open!

I have finally opened up a webstore filled with illustrations that I have made where you can get prints, t-shirt, mugs and more!

Worldwide shipping is available and lookout for special offers which pop up every now and then. There will be plenty more designs coming that will added as soon as possible so keep an eye out.

You can check out what's on offer here: society6.com/jamesbirchall

Where Has The Performance Gone?

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Are the free-flowing, unrestrained, trip-inducing days of music over? They seem to have been exchanged for something rather more bland and conservative, where songs are pumped out of dingy, grey office blocks all following the same set of instructions. Whatever happened to the daring, the dressing-up, the teenage rebellion, the drama and the theatre of music? 

My music library is dominated by artists of days passed, musicians who appeared on Top of the Pops or The Old Grey Whistle Test sporting wild hair and wilder makeup, and costumes that looked like they'd been beamed straight from another galaxy. The likes of Roxy Music, The Tubes, Jethro Tull et al provided a performance masterclass where convention meant nothing. There was a performance-dictated aesthetic, where David Bowie and Bryan Ferry ruled, an old-fashioned air of glamour, pose and performance was put on.

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What happened? Where did the art of performance go? Today’s music scene seems to be all about being “real” and "down to earth", in both the lyrics and the visuals. They want to be themselves and send out a message that says "I'm just like you" and that's how they sell records - people identify with them. 
Sure, all of these artists have onstage personae to a point, but that extra level of artifice is totally absent. Where’s the drama and the style? Have we lost the art of pretentious performance?

Previous generations expected their singers to project something more, they were there to look up to and idolise: Sinatra, Piaf, Davis Jr
 all had characters they put on for a show; it was cabaret, the world of showbiz and theatre.

There are some artists with some air of stage persona; Beyoncé dons her alter-ego Sasha Fierce as she struts around the stage, and Daft Punk wear huge robotic helmets - which does seem as though they're a little shy. There is even still a whiff of theatre from the likes of Kanye West or Robbie Williams, not forgetting the art-vixens Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj who theatricalise their shows. But these people are exceptions which is precisely the reason why they stand out. They are known for being unusual or perhaps freakish but what they are doing wouldn't be called particularly outlandish in the 70s.

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To find true theatre in music, the only reliable place to go has been metal. Ever since Alice Cooper, metal acts have thrived on a theatrical style and presentation that fans have come to demand - from Kiss to Gwar, Marilyn Manson to Lordi, Iron Maiden to Slipknot, theatre is expected and provided.

Maybe pop stars of now could do well to start taking lessons from their metal counterparts. Even at 68, Alice Cooper is still getting decapitated live on stage in front of an audience of thousands. Truly uncommon entertainment.

We need more larger-than-life characters in modern music, not only does it create a much more interesting visual but it produces more experimental and creative music. We need it b
efore we all die of boredom.

My Top Choices From the Early Roxy Music Catalogue

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There are two Roxy Musics, the cultural insurgents of the early seventies and the smooth balladeers of later years, I will be dealing with the former. These are the songs that were created in a time of men in high-heeled boots and cabaret-baroque performances that stopped the zeitgeist in its tracks.


The very first song on their self-titled debut album couldn’t be any less "out of the box". It is clear that there was no songwriting manual used here. It radiates eclecticism and excess yet manages to sound entirely wonderous and enchanting. It sounds as though each musician is playing in an almost competitive manner, trying to outdo one another to create a sort of dadaist playfulness. Dazzling lights and fanciful outfits helped to make this one of Roxy's all time greatest hits.

Virginia Plain

With a breakout first album unexpectedly climbing as high as number 10 in the UK album charts, it was clear that a single had to be produced. There was no obvious choice for a single from the album so the record company executives asked Bryan Ferry what else he had in his bustling songbook. He just so happened to have a fully formed, completely new sounding song called Virginia Plain that was musically light years ahead of anything else anyone had heard. Virginia Plain was, and still is, a bubbling cauldron of musical alchemy: cool, catchy and cutting-edge.

Do the Strand

The so-called 'difficult second album' seemed like a myth for Roxy Music when they released For Your Pleasure, featuring the ebullient Do the Strand. Ferry’s words are daringly dandyish and frivolous, throwing references to every part of the cultural spectrum from La Goulue (the French Can-can dancer) to Nijinsky (the Russian ballet dancer), artworks such as Guernica and the Mona Lisa. When read aloud, the lyrics sound like the spoutings of madness twinned with mild intoxication, it seems like a roll call of pinpoints in cultural history - playful and witty.

In Every Dream Home a Heartache

Ferry's pithy commentary on rising consumerism can be heard here in its full nakedness, only an isolated keyboard wave can be heard at the beginning of this song. From “penthouse perfection”, cracks appear to reveal something more seedy. "Plain wrapper baby," Ferry purrs, "deluxe and delightful, inflatable doll". Upon first hearing this song, I recalled the meshuga-haired Tim Minchin and his ditty about an inflatable doll being all he requires in life. I tried to draw connections and contrasts between the two before coming to the innately obvious conclusion that they are incomparable. There’s a school of thought that Ferry doesn’t get his due as a lyricist; Ferry doesn’t so much write songs as paint them, perhaps Dream Home is his finest work.

The Thrill of It All

In terms of all time favourite, mine has to be The Thrill of It All from Country Life. I love hearing the screech of an electric guitar combined with the musical purity of a violin which creates an unassailable sound. It is beautifully layered meaning each time you hear it you pick up something completely new that you had not heard previously; a background riff from Phil Manzanera or a faint violin hum from Eddie Jobson. The track is enormous in the way that so much of British rock was in 1974. It is a six-and-a-half minute masterpiece complete with Ferry’s signature debonair delivery ringing in your ears.