As of one of the 20th century’s most influential musicians dies, one of cheesy-listening’s most prolific singers trots out more of the same. Naff is unending.
Richard, 73, is a trim, tanned, shiny-toothed figurehead for naff. He is the polyester slacks of pop, the beige leather sofa of easy listening, yet people buy his stuff — how else to explain the 100th album? (It’s an album of cover versions, called The Fabulous Rock ’n’ Roll Songbook, although trading standards might want to look into the misuse of both the terms ‘fabulous’ and ‘rock ’n’ roll’ ).
Everyone knows Richard is naff. Radio stations won’t touch him — he is banned from being played on the BBC, because the corporation does not want to be considered naff, and, in the 1990s, DJ Chris Evans banned him from Virgin Radio, for being too old, despite being younger than Tom Jones and Keith Richards. Perhaps when Evans said ‘old’, he meant ‘radio poison’. He doesn’t mind — a contemporary of Elvis, he’s been around since 1959, predating the Stones and the Beatles, and has sold 250m records. That’s a lot of naff. His non-musical pursuits — tennis, wine and Christianity — fit perfectly.
Irish naff is embodied by Daniel O’Donnell. He has sold 10m records, has an honorary MBE, and a visitor centre in Co Donegal filled with gold discs and his wedding suit.
The origins of the word ‘naff’ are disputed. It may be derived from Polari, the secret slang used by gay men to communicate when it was too dangerous to talk openly. Within gay culture, naff implied heterosexual and unstylish. In Australia, naff is short for ‘nasty as fcuk’. The word may also have mid-20th century military roots: ‘no apparent function’ was army-speak for a piece of equipment ready for scrapping. See Cliff Richard, above (in 1982, Princess Anne gave the word prominence, at the Badminton Horse Trials, when she fell off her horse and told swooping photographers to ‘naff off’).
On the scale of naff, people like Richard, O’Donnell and Michael Flatley score a perfect ten. Yet naff is a fluid concept. It’s cultural range is like opening a peach velour-lined Pandora’s box of cringe — from unadulterated Cliff naff to naff being commodified as desirable: think Katie Price’s pink plastic empire. Sometimes naff can be hilarious — Donald Trump’s hair — and sometimes it can be crass, like celebrity weddings bought and paid for by gossip magazines — Anthea Turner ate a chocolate bar for cash during her wedding photos for OK! magazine. That is the last word in naff.
The concept of ‘celebrity’ is naff, because it creates a false, two-tier system of ‘us’ and ‘them’. It is the scramble to move from ‘nobody’ to ‘somebody’ that results in unbridled naffness in the form of Z-listers falling over themselves to attend envelope openings, and the gossip mags this pursuit has spawned.
Richard aside, naff is a moveable feast — one person’s naff is another person’s cool. A host of horrors lurks under the umbrella of naff. Celebrity endorsements, like Justin Timberlake and McDonalds, or Joan Collins and Snickers, are run-of-the mill naff, yet when Iggy Pop appears in car insurance adverts, or John Lydon flogs us butter, their incongruous transition from cool to naff is more jarring. Many try to pass naff off as ‘ironic’, but most fail. Nor can naff disguise itself as kitsch. Kitsch is an artform — naff is just naff. Are you listening, Jeff Koons?
Deep down, we are all a bit naff, and we secretly love it. We love the superiority of knowing something is naff, because it makes us feel cooler than the uncool; you don’t really do that/read that/watch that, do you? You do? Oh my. The trend for guilty pleasures is the cultural equivalent of wearing pyjamas to the supermarket — you shouldn’t, but you can’t help yourself.
The naffest event is the Eurovision Song Contest — this is consensus naffness. We laugh at countries that take it terribly seriously and are less fashion forward than ourselves. That is what we tell ourselves as we crowd around the telly, shouting ‘nul points’ at Latvia or Lithuania or whatever country we consider naffer than ourselves (you can imagine the French doing the same, pointing at us).
Within popular entertainment, naff has gone from earnest — think of that toe-curling Boyzone appearance on the Late Late Show, and early Take That videos — to knowing. Shows like X Factor — featuring boyband veterans as judges — have taken naff, manufactured it, given it a polish, and sold it back to us as prime time entertainment. What is even naffer is that we have bought it with such enthusiasm — but reality talent shows are naff made flesh.
Occasionally, you can transform from naff to cool — Kylie went from chipmunky soap poppet to slinky pop icon via a hair straightener and a pair of gold hotpants — but this transition is rare. Remember Jason Donovan? Exactly.
The Nolan Sisters tried to transition to The Nolans, but their image remained unchanged, and no amount of nostalgia tours or rebranding could de-naff the majority of 1980s pop fodder. Howard Jones will never be cool, nor will Kajagoogoo. Better to accept your fate if you are naff, and not mind too much. You know, like Cliff Richard.
* Cliff Richard’s The Fabulous Rock 'n' Roll Songbook is out on Nov 11