Blackout and Erotica

A few years after the infamous MTV kiss with Britney Spears (poor Xtina) Madonna revealed how she had explained it to her daughter:

“I am the mommy pop star and she is the baby pop star. And I am kissing her to pass my energy on to her.”

Certainly at the time, Britney Spears was the nearest thing we had to a ‘new’ Madonna and this was reflected in her increasing involvement in her own music. 2003’s In The Zone had featured 8 Britney co-writing credits, easily the most direct creative involvement she had yet had on her albums. Appropriately enough it was also the album to feature Madonna in its lead-single, ‘Me Against the Music’. Truly there was a sense that Madonna was anointing a chosen successor.

It didn’t quite work out as planned. While Madonna rebounded quickly from the failure of 2003’s American Life, it would be four years before Britney Spears released another studio album. And what a four years they were – Britney went haywire, quickly and decisively moving from an American sweetheart to a TMZ poster child for celebrity dysfunction and drama. She went off the rails in a way Madonna never had. However in doing so (and retreating once again, no doubt due to necessity, from creative involvement in her music) she ultimately delivered the album of her career. Blackout, which is five years old this week,is an almost-perfect postmodern pop album. Yet while it is different in many ways from Madonna’s work, it’s impossible for the ‘baby’ to fully escape ‘mommy’’s influence.

Conveniently enough, the Madonna album which Blackout owes a debt to is also having a birthday this week. It’s 20 years since Erotica was released and while time and familiarity has dulled its power, even today it sounds like an odd pop album. Madonna, coming off the back of the mega-selling The Immaculate Collection and the acclaimed Blond Ambition tour, was having one of her imperial phases (as Neil Tennant so memorably called the periods when commercial success and critical acclaim align for artists). She had cuckolded Pepsi with the Like A Prayer video; she had confronted the Catholic Church when it criticised her tour; she had even made MTV look uncool and turned its ‘ban’ of the Justify My Love video into both a money-spinner and an eloquent attack on moral hypocrisy. It’s understandable that she felt untouchable – but even so, few were expecting what came next.

In retrospect, of course, it’s easy to see that having pushed the buttons of the religious establishment and the moral majority, Madonna had to tread carefully. Moving swiftly onto an album called Erotica and an accompanying coffee table book called Sex was supreme, almost reckless, hubris and it led to the biggest backlash of her career. I can remember the period well – the tabloids had anti-Madonna stories on an almost-daily basis while the publishing of a book called The ‘I Hate Madonna’ Handbook summed up the prevailing attitude. Madonna has since said that the overlooking of Erotica amidst this maelstrom of controversy and recrimination is the biggest regret of her career. 20 years later the album is not quite popularly regarded as a ‘lost classic’ but it’s certainly seen as underrated and its influence is undeniable. Few grasped it at the time but Erotica is that most cumbersome of beasts – a concept album. Understanding this goes a long way to putting its strangeness in context – and boy, it is strange. It is difficult in a way none of Madonna’s previous work had been, the pure pop moments such as Deeper and Deeper and Rain sitting alongside jazz and blues influenced excursions which offer little ‘give’ to listeners. The decision was taken to use Madonna’s heavily processed demo vocals for much of the album, causing her to sound detached – on tracks like Bye Bye Baby and Fever she sounds like a sneering impersonation of herself. These sit uncomfortably alongside much more emotionally engaging material like Bad Girl and the gay rights anthem Why’s It So Hard? It all makes for a disorienting experience. Yet it’s intentionally so – as Madonna states in the album’s opening line, “My name is Dita, I’ll be your mistress tonight”’. Shep Pettibone’s ‘Erotica Diaries’ make clear that Madonna was in creative control and the irony of an album called Erotica which deliberately pushes the listener away is a masterstroke. It underlines that the album is not only about sex – it’s fundamentally about relationships and power. Indeed, much has been written about Madonna ‘opening the door’ for subsequent artists with her use of sexual imagery. This is missing the point. Madonna was very careful not to present her sexuality as mere titillation and Erotica’s genius is that she has the bravery to make a pop record which turns expectations upside down. Rather than being a come-on to ‘fuck me’, Erotica could more appropriately be described as ‘fuck you’.

Blackout could be similarly described. Its opening line has obvious echoes of Erotica’s – “It’s Britney, bitch” is an uncompromising invitation – command, even – into Britney’s world. What’s fascinating, however, is that whereas Madonna invented the persona of ‘Dita’ to play with her listeners, the character here is ‘Britney’. This is the fundamental genius of Blackout. At its core is the absence of its main star. Circumstances undoubtedly dictated this yet the producers took the ‘fuck you’ template of Erotica and went crazy with it. The album makes a virtue of her lack of presence, from its ironic almost-mocking title to its production. Britney’s voice is twisted, treated, transformed though-out so that she often doesn’t sound like ‘Britney Spears’. Instead she sounds like a demented robot, another production tool in an orchestra of sonic wizardry that goes far beyond anything on any previous Britney record. If Madonna played up detachment on Erotica, here it becomes the entire focus. In that regard Blackout is also a concept album – one about modern fame and modern pop music. Its power rests almost entirely on the persona of ‘Britney Spears’, not the person. The associations of that persona feed into the music and lend it an uncomfortable power – we know that as a person she is damaged and unhappy, yet as a popstar she is all-consuming. This subverts a dominant notion in modern pop – namely that the context is irrelevant and all that matters is whether a song is any good or not. We are under no illusion that Britney Spears had anything to do with most of this record – but the album confronts that head on and makes it into a dazzling virtue. As with Erotica, there is nothing seductive about Blackout – instead its pleasures lie in the confounding of expectations and the contorting of Britney’s image. “You think Britney and her music are manufactured? Fuck you. How about this?”

The contrast to be found between Madonna’s control in Erotica and Britney’s lack of it in Blackout speaks untold volumes about the differences between them. Yet in both cases the albums use their context as a weapon and make the listener complicit in their message. This more than ever underlines the truth behind the often-trite mantra that ‘manufactured’ music can be dazzlingly brilliant and, fundamentally, speaks to the power of pop music. Perhaps, in some small way, that’s what Madonna was passing on with that kiss.

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Happy Birthday, Madonna

In the recent ‘celebrations’ of the 50-year anniversary of (partial) decriminalisation of homosexual activity, one of the central themes which emerged was the importance of pop culture to LGBT* life. It has provided much-needed recognition and an outlet for expression while helping transform the world. In so doing, and in ways too numerous, too tiny, too enormous to express, it has transformed us. Anyone who knows anything about me knows how large a role Madonna has played in my life. She was there when I started to question the Catholicism I’d been raised with; she was there when I started to realise I was ‘different’; she was there when I started having sex and battled both the religious and societal conditioning that doing it with men, and with many men at  that, was wrong. She provided my own ‘Ziggy on TOTP’ moment, the men passionately kissing during In Bed With Madonna, the first time I can remember seeing not just gay men, but gay men expressing their sexuality. At every step she was there, both as an enormous, alien, mighty figure looming large over (seemingly) the entire world and as a small voice whispering to me, “you are ok, you are going to be ok and you are allowed to be ok.’ And she did it, and continues to do it, with a gold-plated soundtrack which remains an unparalleled testament to the power of pop; one which can still fill a club in Hackney with people dancing joyously; one which still thrills me and shakes me to my core. I love Madonna, and I always will love Madonna, with a sincerity and earnestness which you’re not really supposed to express in 2017. Happy birthday and thank you @Madonna

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Vote Labour

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Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning – Eugene V. Debs

‘And these words shall then become
Like Oppression’s thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain.
Heard again—again—again—

‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.’

– Percy Bysshe Shelley

Unless there is a major upset, the Tories are going to win the election on Thursday. They certainly don’t deserve to – their election campaign has been dismal and contemptuous, demonstrating an arrogant sense of entitlement and appealing to the very worst in us. May called this election solely for her own advantage and clearly didn’t expect to have to do much beyond stoke crude nationalism, inflame petty xenophobia and rely on a largely prostrate media to hammer home that she was The Only Serious Option. Her efforts to avoid interacting with the public and refusal to debate her opponents have exemplified this galling hubris and it’s depressing that she’ll probably still win despite it.

Yet there can be no doubt that May has gotten more than she bargained for in this election. Something remarkable has happened, with the Tory lead in some polls crashing from over 20 points to only 1 to 3. Some of this owes a lot to May’s aforementioned contemptuousness inspiring a backlash, a refusal to be taken for granted; much of it, however, is due to Jeremy Corbyn having the kind of campaign which political wisdom has told us for two years was impossible. Corbyn has been, in stark contrast to May, warm, open, compassionate and reasonable: qualities which have no doubt resonated even more with many people given they’ve been told repeatedly that he is a dangerous, unhinged extremist. His approval ratings have soared over the course of the past few weeks and suddenly all those months of Very Wise People sneering at the notion of ‘media bias’ against him seem very silly indeed. It turns out that when they see and hear him themselves, folk quite like him.

There are, of course, many ‘sensible moderates’ who still refuse to countenance this fact and scramble around for excuses as to why Labour has had such a good campaign. They tell us it’s the manifesto (ignoring the fact that such a manifesto would never have happened without Corbyn), that it’s May’s unpopularity (after spending months telling us she was a safe pair of hands parking tanks on Labour’s lawn), that if Labour had some other leader it would be soaring ahead in the polls (the only other options being uninspiring technocrats whose response to Ed Miliband’s defeat was to argue for a shift right, particularly on immigration). Indeed, some of these ‘sensible moderates’ clearly still want Corbyn’s Labour to do badly so that they can be proved right, to the point that they have shifted the goals as the poll numbers have improved. It is very clear, if it wasn’t already, that all of the talk about how ‘principle without power is useless, we want to win’ has been self-serving drivel – they just hate the left and still can’t emerge from their petulant strop at not being in control of the party.

If Corbyn’s Labour were to win this election, these people would either have to put up or shut up – get behind him and his manifesto, or go elsewhere. That in itself would be a positive development. As it is, however, even if he is defeated Corbyn has changed the game in a way few were anticipating. He has drawn a much-needed line in the sand and shown his critics that yes, left-wing ideas can be very popular when presented by someone who clearly believes them, that a ‘social movement’ is not something to be mocked, that ‘move right, move right’ doesn’t have to be the received political wisdom on how to appeal and that yes, class and ideology still matter as many of us always knew it did.

The odds may be against Corbyn winning but, as far as my words have any value, I implore everyone and anyone who cares about solidarity and social justice to vote Labour on Thursday.  I’m sure no-one reading this would be voting Tory but I’m sure some are contemplating voting Liberal Democrat or SNP. My views on both are well-documented (my most recent blog was about the astonishing hypocrisy of the Lib Dems under Farron) but it’s given me no pleasure to witness the self-serving contortions of so-called ‘progressives’ trying to justify not voting for the kind of Labour Party policies they’ve apparently demanded for years. Suffice to say, if you can’t vote for Corbyn’s Labour because of Scottish independence, you need to face up to the fact that you’re a nationalist before you are a socialist. If you can’t vote for Corbyn’s Labour because ‘Scottish Labour attacked Corbyn’ but can happily vote SNP when it has repeatedly done the same, you probably have to face the same thing. If you ‘want to vote Labour in Scotland but don’t want to split the vote and let the Tories in’, you should ask why splitting the vote wasn’t much of a concern in 2015 when the polls suggested a dead-heat between Labour and the Tories in the UK.

Corbyn and Labour are far from perfect and few would claim that of either – we are electing politicians, after all. Nonetheless, Corbyn has offered a tangible sense of hope. Far from being an unelectable ‘loony left’ faction, Corbyn’s Labour has found its policies on the economy praised by mainstream economists, its policies on housing praised by housing experts, its policies on education applauded by headteachers and is now finding its warnings about police and security cuts, and the UK’s disastrous foreign policy, being widely agreed with in the mainstream media. More than this, however, Corbyn’s Labour has offered hope in ourselves. I realise that sounds trite but as the left has suffered defeat after defeat in recent years, it has been immensely powerful and very moving to see people responding to a platform based on solidarity, on those seen as weak, vulnerable and unvalued coming together and standing up against the powerful. When Corbyn won the Labour leadership, he ended his acceptance speech by saying:

I say thank you in advance to us all working together to achieve great victories, not just electorally for Labour, but emotionally for the whole of our society to show we don’t have to be unequal. It doesn’t have to be unfair, poverty isn’t inevitable, things can, and they will, change.

The emotional victory described her has already happened – people who have spent most of recent political memory being told they were out of touch, crazy, selfish, unreasonable are now on the offensive, strong in the knowledge that their message can resonate and that appealing to fear and resentment is not the only, or even the most effective, way to do things. Such is the audacity of hope and its importance cannot be overstated. This is not going to go away on Friday morning, whatever the result. If Labour were to defy all expectation and win, we would immediately have to get to work. If we lose, however, we do not sit desolate in defeat but rather embrace each other even closer, moving forward with hope, hope, hope, knowing with certainty that together we can make things better and, as a result, with a renewed understanding that we must.

That comes on Friday. For now – vote Labour.

Brexit: The Mendacious Hypocrisy of Tim Farron and the Liberal Democrats.

As British politics sinks further into a hellhole of competing nationalisms and utter bullshit masquerading as ‘being informed’, it’s time for another election! “Yay!” said absolutely no-one. If you’re reading this I think I can safely assume that you know what my views on the Tories and SNP are, though with the relentless Tory march to the right much of what I’ve written on them feels somewhat out of date. It’s been pointed out that the policies and rhetoric of the Tories currently bear comparison with the BNP; I could also observe that upon reading about Marie Le Pen’s platform, I couldn’t see many substantive differences with that of Theresa May. The Tories are a far-right party and it’s only a capitulant media which bafflingly continues to frame them as ‘centrist’ and May as ‘safe’ and ‘competent’ which is stopping more of us from appreciating this terrifying fact.

Let nothing I write here distract from the fact that the prospect of five more years of the Tories is a truly terrifying prospect. Yet the current government did not emerge from a vacuum, and neither did Brexit. With this in mind, I wanted to write a little about a party I tend to ignore: the Liberal Democrats. Following their 2015 election disaster, which saw them almost wiped out, the Liberal Democrats have been bobbing along, barely budging in the polls. They’ve been so irrelevant that the media hasn’t even saw fit to cover their woes, in the same way it’s focused on Labour and Corbyn. Now, however, the Lib Dems have spotted their chance. That rope has been thrown which they hope will guide them back to the hallowed land of people caring again. Yes, the Lib Dems OPPOSE BREXIT!

Anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to politics post-Brexit will be aware that the Lib Dems have branded themselves as ‘the Remain party’. Their victory in Richmond Park was seen as a proxy re-run of the referendum, so it’s unsurprising that they propose a second referendum. This referendum is ostensibly on a Brexit deal but everyone understands it to actually be a chance to re-run the first one and reject Brexit. They’ve gone big on being the ‘real opposition’ to the Tories, based almost entirely on Brexit, and hammer Labour’s difficult position on the issue.

When Theresa May called this unnecessary election, she framed it as being entirely about Brexit. May did this because she knows she will win in an election based on the nationalism, xenophobia and racism she has inflamed and exploited since Brexit, and because she has little record to defend. Unfortunately, it’s clear that many adamant ‘Remainers’ are walking straight into this and framing the election as a proxy Brexit referendum. As most of these people seem to be supporting the Lib Dems, I wanted to make a few observations about the lines which I keep seeing wheeled out.

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First of all, I think few ‘Remain’ voters would deny that immigration, and more specifically anti-immigration myths and sentiment, played a massive role in Brexit. Many profess to wish to oppose Brexit because they are ‘pro-immigration’. Yet if this is your motivation, it’s rather curious to support a party which was part of a government with an absolutely dire record on this matter. The coalition, which Tim Farron voted with in almost every single vote, set an arbitrary target to reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’. made immigration rules stricter and crueler, illegally deported thousands of students and sent the infamous ‘Go Home’ vans around the country. Some Lib Dems justify this on the basis that it would have been even worse if they’d not been present, which is curious to say the least. Nothing and no-one forced the Lib Dems to enter a formal coalition with the Tories and we cannot know what would have happened had they not – we can only judge what actually did happen in its government, as we do (and should) with any other government. We can also note that the Coalition Agreement included a commitment to “introduce a cap on immigration and reduce the number of non-EU immigrants.” So the idea that Farron’s Lib Dems are an attractive defender of migrant rights is…curious, to say the least.

Now, onto Brexit itself. It’s clear that all of the main parties have played their role in fostering the climate that led us here, but given Farron and the Lib Dems now repeatedly accuse Labour of being ‘pro-Brexit’, let’s have a look at some history.

In 2008, Tim Farron resigned from the Lib Dem Shadow Cabinet because he supported a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty but the Lib Dem position was to abstain:

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Given his current position, you have to wonder what Farron would have done had he won a referendum and voters rejected the Treaty but let’s be generous and come a bit more up to date. The 2010 Lib Dem manifesto committed itself to referendums if there was ‘fundamental change’ in the UK/EU relationship, not an ‘In/Out’ referendum.

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In 2011, with the Lib Dems in the coalition, parliament looked at whether there should be a ‘European Referendum Committee’ which would clarify when an EU referendum should be necessary. The Lib Dems voted with the Conservatives against this (and against Labour):

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In 2011 most Lib Dems, and most of all parties, voted against calling for an EU membership referendum. In 2013 and 2014 there were Private Member’s Bills to legislate for a referendum, which were largely ignored by every party except the Tories.

It’s clear that the Lib Dem capitulation to the Tories played a large role in its 2015 meltdown and the Tory majority, which led us to the referendum and Brexit. It’s also clear that Labour in government played a big role in fostering the atmosphere. We can note that, whereas Ed Miliband steadfastly refused to commit to an EU membership referendum at the 2015 election, both Labour and the Lib Dem manifestos included a commitment to an In/Out referendum should there be further substantive transfer of powers:

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Then, following the Tory victory, Farron joined most of the remaining Lib Dems in voting for a referendum (only the SNP voted against it):

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There then followed a series of votes on amendments to the referendum bill. We can note that Farron didn’t vote to allow 16 and 17yos to participate in the referendum (but did later.) In fact, Farron and most of the Lib Dems didn’t seem to vote on a single amendment. This is most interesting when it comes to an amendment which would have required:

…the publication, at least ten weeks before the referendum, of the terms of any renegotiation between the United Kingdom and the European Union and the consequences for the United Kingdom of leaving the European Union.

In short, an attempt to ensure that everyone voting in the referendum had the best possible idea of what they were voting for. Given his current rhetoric around this matter, it’s curious Farron didn’t vote on it. Indeed, no Lib Dem did (Labour and the SNP voted for it):

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If our political journalists were any good, you’d expect them to be raising this with Farron again and again as it rather undermines his current stance. You’d perhaps also expect them to be highlighting this:

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Yes, Mr ‘Second Referendum’ Farron himself openly mocked the idea when it was advanced by Nigel Farage, somewhat hilariously invoking ‘the will of the people’ as a wry aside. Indeed, he went further, labelling the notion of a second referendum ‘pathetic’ in Prospect Magazine:

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If it’s not yet clear that the current Lib Dem position is little more than hypocrisy and opportunism, let’s look at one more thing: Farron’s frequent claims to be the ‘real opposition’ to the Tories. Leaving aside the hilarity of the party which brought us the coalition using this attack, Farron, in leading this ‘real opposition’, has voted in little more than a third of divisions (votes) in this parliament – far less than when the Lib Dems were in power:

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The leader of this ‘real opposition’ didn’t vote on a proposal to limit public spending cuts immediately following the first Tory Queen’s Speech; he didn’t vote on an Opposition Day motion calling on the government to address the housing crisis; he didn’t vote on a proposal to produce annual reports on addressing the gender pay gap; he didn’t vote on targeting assistance at those on low- and middle-incomes; he didn’t vote on requiring schools to include Personal, Social, Health and Economic education at school, including sex education; he didn’t vote on demands for more assistance for refugees; he didn’t vote on the notorious Trade Union Bill; he didn’t vote on attempts to prevent or ameliorate the tax credit cuts, to protect Employment and Support Allowance or against the Welfare Bill which further reduced the benefit cap and cut various benefits; he didn’t vote on an Opposition Day motion on the dispute over Junior Doctors’ contracts; he didn’t vote on the call to reconsider tax credit cuts which even some Tories supported; he didn’t vote on the third reading of the Immigration Bill, effectively extending border controls further into everyday life…

…you get the idea (that’s still only up to the end of 2015). The notion of Farron and the Lib Dems being the ‘real opposition’ is risible and hanging it entirely around the votes on Article 50, where the Lib Dem position was contrary to all that had gone before and where the government was never going to be defeated, is mendacious in the extreme and makes a mockery of any possible ‘progressive alliance’. The Lib Dems know they have zero power to prevent Brexit (and you’ll note the tactics people have to prevent it are never more fully-formed than ‘elect some MPs who don’t want Brexit’), and are exploiting the fact most people don’t pay much attention to politics to offer false hope to those for whom it is now the single most important issue in politics.

Yet however we feel about Brexit, the idea that opposing it should mean voting for politicians and parties with a dire record on immigration, on poverty, on employment rights and so on is at best naive, at worst woefully out-of-touch. We certainly should not reward Tim Farron and the Liberal Democrats for their cheap opportunism, of the kind which has so destroyed faith and trust in politics and contributed to our grim political landscape.