What's the matter with Sting?

The singer/performer/actor Gordon Sumner, better known as Sting, seems to be almost universally disliked by musicians of all persuasions. Why is this? For a man who has enjoyed such phenomenal success throughout his long career, he has never quite managed to win people over. I believe the main reasons are:

1. The Rainforest Campaign
2. The Yoga Sex
3. The Jazz Thing
4. The Acting
5. The Pretentious Lyrics

I could add several more but this is enough to illustrate the flavour of public dislike he enjoys(?). Can you look at your own life and make as long a list as this of career moves and personal habits that have alienated you from your friends and family? I doubt it. By the way, in your list I used 'friends and family' in place of Sting's 'public' (well, I presume his family, and, by definition, friends think he's ok).

1. The Rainforest Campaign

The critique here seems to be that during the 80's, when it was hip, Sting got involved with creating an awareness of the rainforest deforestation. This was done cynically, to 'appear caring' and 'further his career'. Since those days he has noticeably distanced himself from publicly assisting charity campaigns.

Last part first: Are we surprised that he has backed off from (publicly) supporting charitable organisations given the enormous backlash against his earlier forays? I certainly might think twice about jumping into a Greenpeace boat if I'd been vilified for something similar.

But did it all come about as a publicity ploy? You may imagine Sting and his 80's spin doctors sitting around swilling Martinis in Kensington trying to come up with a cool cause with which to associate the newly solo artist. Someone says Aids? It's been done. Famine? Geldof! The Amazon? Hmm

In reality, after meeting the leader of the Kayapo Indians in Brazil in 1988, Sting and partner (now wife) Trudie founded the Rainforest Foundation, apparently against the advice of publicists and promoters, who (correctly) predicted that it would take up a lot of the stars time for very little career gain. There is no evidence to suggest that the foundation was created with photo-ops in mind. Isn't more likely that, given Sting's modern-liberal 'New Man' persona, he felt that it was time to use his 'powers of fame' for Good (as opposed to perhaps Fighting Crime)? After what was, by all accounts, an emotional introduction to the dangers facing the Indians habitat, not to mention our global eco-balance, Sting had found his cause.

We should perhaps not so much blame him for getting so deeply involved (read the book) for supposed publicity reasons, but for acquiescing to the howls of the hoi polloi and backing off from getting involved in further campaigns (see Geldof and Bono et al).

Put yourself in the role of rich rock star with a conscience: You know it would immoral to just sit around and do nothing with all that fame and wealth; you find a cause you believe in; you fund it, publicise it, work hard at it, and then? And then you are pooh-poohed (a truly awful fate). How could you have done things differently? You can't be a secret philanthropist if your true power is your fame.

2. The Yoga Sex

Ah, yes the snickering, the dinner party jokes, the many sit-com references. Who can forget the uproar that ascended from the glossy mags when Trudie mentioned in an interview that Sting could 'go' for hours, due to his Tantric exercises.

Public obsession with the sex lives of celebrities is hardly a new thing, but it seems odd that while Michael Douglas, Charlie Sheen, Tom Sizemore, and David Duchovny are given 'poor chap' and tacit approval (even admiration) for being diagnosed with psychological infirmities such as sexoholism (as in: I'm addictied to sexohol. [Thanks, Homer S.]) and sexual priapism, Sting on the other hand, when discovered to be a student of ancient Eastern sexual philosophy, is treated as: A. a freak, B. a bit too feminine, C. (catch-all insult) 'New Age', D. a 'boaster'!

Although it has been reported that the whole five-hour-sex thing was an 'interview prank', a recent article in the New York Post quotes Sting as saying "tantric sex is an opportunity to give devotion. It is the thing that human beings do together that gives them the most joy. It creates life. It's a chance to give thanks to your partner. It is a very powerful thing."

Like it or not, that description is far more accurate than the A. B. C. or D. found above. It is evolved, while ancient, enlightened, while humble, and articulate, while thoughful. And reader, if you are lucky enough to have a long-term partner, I can guarantee that this is exactly the kind of dialogue they are craving from YOU.

I'm still puzzled as to why the public's default reading of Sting's conversation is always the same: 'insincere'.

3. The Jazz Thing

You either 'get' jazz or you don't. If you don't, then none of 'that sort of stuff' is going to appeal to you. Unfortunately, if you do 'get' jazz then you'll realise pretty quickly that it's not really jazz at all–and will possibly complain about it. That's a conundrum for Sting.

During a recent documentary, Sting's erstwhile saxophonist, Branford Marsalis, for all his distain for modern avenues of jazz, such as D.J.Spooky's Optometry or Bugge Wesseltoft's New Conception, asked the age old question What Is Jazz, and managed to come up with a reasonable and succinct definition. It is music that contains and 'awareness' of its own particular history. In other words you can't just bang some pots together and call it jazz, you must have some knowledge of the vast repertoire that come with the territory. Then you must quote from it, reinvent it, reference it, invert it, ignore it (an act of acknowledgement in itself!) but most of all respect it. You may not like the music of Coltrane, Monk, or Mingus but, darn it, they were really clever guys (in all likelyhood cleverer than you) who put lifetimes of work into the genre–you don't dare dismiss them.

If this is jazz, then Sting's music isn't really jazz. Yes, he knows the repertoire. Yes, he has the ability. Yes, he has the performers. But as the liner notes to Bring On The Night make clear, he isn't trying to create pop-style jazz music, but rather pop music influenced by jazz colours. It's an important distinction if we are to critique his music by the standards of jazz. I think a far more relevant question is: Is This Good Music? Although this generally equates to: Do I Like This Music? we can apply some objective standards, such as the quality of the musicianship, the asthetic of the musical forms used, a harmonic/melodic analysis, etc. I cannot imagine how recordings like Moon Over Bourbon Street and Bring On The Night (live) would fail any such test of worth.

4. The Acting

Who's better Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro? Discuss.

Our response to actors is of course very subjective, so it is perfectly fair to criticise Sting's acting ability any way we choose. Although empirically we can analyse his career in terms of box-office, number of positive reviews, number of roles offered, etc. Without doing the math (or any research, in fact) I can state without fear of contradiction, that Sting is a 'bad' actor. Surprised to hear me say that? Were you expecting a defense of his appearences in Brimstone and Treacle, The Bride, and Dune? Not likely.

No, my objection is this: Why do we regularly see Sting singled out for a turn in the stocks over his choice of hobby? Why not worse offenders such as Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, James Taylor, and Flea?

Here is a list of the 25 worst rock actors for you to mull over–it also contains an accurate summation of Sting's on-screen presence (i.e. "visibly smug").

5. The Pretentious Lyrics

Brian Eno has written that he doesn't believe in pretentiousness (Eno? Well how could he!). His contention is that you either are something or you're not. Everyone is playing a game; pretending to be themselves, if you will. All poetry/writing/expression is pretention of some type. Masks, interpretations, fictions.

Consider the excerpts below and (whether they are to your taste or not) ask yourself: Are they pretentious, over-involved for mere pop songs, too wordy, overly intellectual? Or are they by any chance at all, simply good writing? Do you really want everything to be Ob-la-di-ob-la-da, doobie-doobie-doo, sham-a-lam-a-ding-dong, or, God forbid, De Do Do Do De Da Da Da?

I'll leave the last word to the man himself.

[from Mad About You]

A stone's throw from Jerusalem
I walked a lonely mile in the moonlight
And through a million stars were shining
My heart was lost on a distant planet
That whirls around the April moon
Whirling in an arc of sadness
I'm lost without you

[from Consider Me Gone]

Roses have thorns and shining waters mud
And cancer lurks deep in the sweetest bud
Clouds and eclipses stain the moon and the sun
And history reeks of the wrongs we have done
The leavings of a dried up ocean

[from Driven To Tears]

Hide my face in my hands, shame wells in my throat
My comfortable existence is reduced to a shallow meaningless party
Seems that when some innocent die
All we can offer them is a page in a some magazine
Too many cameras and not enough food

[from I Burn For You]

You and I are lovers
And nighttime falls around our bed
In peace we sleep entwined
And your love flows through me
Though an ocean soothes my head
I burn for you

[from I Was Brought To My Senses]

I walked out this morning
It was like a veil had been removed from
Before my eyes
For the first time I saw the work of heaven
In the line where the hill had been
Married to the sky
And all around me every blade of singing grass
Was calling out your name and that
Our love would always last