The world of cabaret in 2012 going into 2013 is a wide one - eclectic, diverse and spanning continents. Yet for all of that, it’s a loyal and pretty tight community. The writers and critics who care about cabaret are on speaking terms with the artists who work in it, and there’s a general sense of good naturedness about it all.
For some years, however cabaret hasn’t had the kind of cachet that something like jazz enjoys. In fact, if you want to know how many people feel about cabaret, think about what the word ‘folk’ used to conjure up just a few years ago. The moment folk was mentioned, someone would throw on a sweater and mime a finger in their ear while singing in a nasal voice, while some other scamp would say ‘Morris dancers’ and everyone would guffaw with laughter. Not anymore. Now folk is dead cool. And let’s not even think about what has happened to sweaters; two words: The Killing.
Cabaret hasn’t had any such luck. It hasn’t so much been talked down, or laughed up; its been given a kicking. A serious, frontal, Reservoir Dogs-type kicking. And from whom? The judges on American Idol, The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. I know. You’re thinking, ‘You’re kidding? They’re kicking cabaret? Is that even humane?’ The answer is yes. Recently, Gary Barlow was taken to task by the musical duo Frisky and Mannish, a comedy cabaret act, for his comments as a judge on ITV’s The X Factor, where, like other judges on similar shows, he frequently criticises acts with the words, ‘It’s a bit cabaret’. Immediately, Time Out writer Ben Walters took up the baton and wrote at length about why Barlow needed to rethink, followed by Dillie Keane of Fascinating Aida, a satirical cabaret act, who used her Stage column to fight the good fight right back at Barlow.
But let me backtrack. Cabaret. What is it? What does it mean to anyone? Right here, right now, underneath its large umbrella, it is many things. At its furthest poles, it touches jazz, comedy, stand-up, storytelling, theatre, pop, performance art, burlesque and songwriting. Its roots are European (political and dark) and American (Great American Songbook), with a dash of good old British music hall and Australian fearless bravura.
It happens in jazz and supper clubs, underground secret haunts, East End working-men’s clubs, gay nightclubs and pubs, concert halls, roving tents, festivals and arts centres. Its audience and its performers span young to pretty elderly. They all get along fine. And they all think that cabaret deserves the same attention as an artform as everything else. They know that it’s as guilty as jazz or pop or any other genre for having rubbish elements, while equally encompassing great artists and wonderful exemplifiers of the form. But since it has become a dirty word, there are movements afoot to rename it, reclaim it, and beat the bad mouthers and naysayers into submission by art, wit, skill and class. Look out world, once again cabaret is becoming vibrant and political.