As Dakota and Elle Fanning consider roles in a film about talent-challenged The Shaggs, let's celebrate the best worsts
Reading that the decidedly talented Fanning sisters ? Dakota and Elle ? were in talks for a movie about The Shaggs was heartening. The Shaggs ? three sisters who, despite not having much in the way of musical ability, formed a band because a palm reader told their superstitious father they would ? released one album in 1969, Philosophy of the World. It was quite universally rubbished, but later achieved cult status. The New York Times said that it was "maybe the best worst rock album ever made"; Frank Zappa famously said the Shaggs were "better than the Beatles" and Kurt Cobain quite fancied them too.
Last week, an unknown 13-year-old American teen, Rebecca Black, was afforded similar treatment: her song Friday, produced by the Arc Music Factory became the latest "YouTube sensation". The song, which was to become the subject of online polls such as "Is this the worst song in the world?", received millions of hits, and much mockery and meme-making ensued. Yet Rolling Stone declared that there was something about this strangely intoned bubblegum-ish pop that was "uniquely compelling".
In a time of reality TV dross, when one can get famous by eating beetles in exotic locales or wearing a wedding dress with disco lights on it, you can become immune to the wonder that is the best worst genre. Which is a pity, because the unhinged self-belief and the sheer gumption involved in making it to the world stage without a scrape of talent is surely an enviable talent in itself.
Earlier this month AA Gill reviewed what he officially deemed to be the "worst restaurant in the world". Apparently the L'Ami Louis in Paris is not only enormously popular but is also the sort of joint that people ? celebrities even ? kept up their sleeve to say imperiously at dinner parties: "Oh, I know this great little place in Paris." I took enormous pleasure in reading choice phrases such as "intimidatingly gross flabs of chilly p�t�", "fetid bladder damp" and "gray, suppurating renal brick".
The fact that this restaurant had scaled to such lofty heights is, at first, perplexing. But on reflection, it seems that perhaps L'Ami Louis is really quite inspired. After all, we're doomed to eat meals with faintly sinister sauces, sinewy meat and scaly unidentified objects at some point in our lives. You might as well eat something unspeakably awful and brag about it later. It won't be easily forgotten. In this disposable fame-guzzling world, the last thing you want to be is forgettable. And indeed, while many untalented folk do get their moment in the exquisite limelight, many do end up in the forgotten bin.
Talent, as many a scholar with a book manuscript in their top drawer or aspiring actress pulling pints knows, is certainly not a guarantee for success. Any doughy school careers counsellor will assure you that talent is only a small part of the equation. The rest is hard work, luck, perhaps an exceptional party trick, and just very occasionally capturing the zeitgeist in some completely inexplicable way.
In a Melbourne cinema, Tommy Wiseau's 2003 film The Room, another candidate for the best worst genre, recently celebrated one year of late-night cult screenings. At these weekly screenings, like they do all around the world, the audience throw spoons at the screen. This is the sort of community building and pop culture-defining exercise that even the most brilliant film rarely recreates. And my entire cinema clapped at the end of The King's Speech.
In the hit Chris Lilley mockumentary television series, We Can Be Heroes, talent, or lack thereof, heroism and ambition, is explored in a delightfully cringing way. These ordinary heroes of Australia, all of them played by Lilley (who this week released a teaser trailer of his new show Angry Boys, out later this year), had very unique gifts and ambitions. Such as the schoolgirl who collected sponsor children, or the lady who rolled from Perth to Fremantle. At risk of sounding like an internet guru specialising in dynamic self-empowerment, the key to happiness and success is probably to either make up a talent that nobody else has or to tell detractors to sod off and keep banging on in whatever it is you love doing most.
Florence Foster Jenkins (1869-1944), for whom I have an undimmed soft spot, is perhaps the poster girl for this. A self-made opera singer, her strangulated cat arias and complete inability to hit a right note, pitch and diction were legendary, both in history and in my family who had competitions to see who could do the best Florence Jenkins impersonation. In her career she put on recitals for hordes of amused fans. Aware of people's unkind views on her singing, she once said, "People may say I can't sing, but no one can say I didn't sing." Which, surely, is worthy of a standing ovation.