This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race

Britney Spears’ previous album, Britney Jean, staggered onto the stage as the pinnacle of ‘zombie pop‘ and was “one of the most depressing albums I have ever heard.” It was so wretched that I thought we might have reached the bottom of the barrel:

…pop isn’t taken seriously as an art form yet a trite populism means that it’s instinctively defended against any and all criticism. When the banal output of One Direction is celebrated as a joyful cultural force, the pressure to do something great is pretty much non-existent. Add to this the fact that record sales are in decline, resulting in labels increasingly relying on their star artists for revenue (which itself comes more and more from advertising and endorsement deals) and you have a recipe for conservatism. The results of this have been unavoidable this year in most of the big pop releases: Prism’s dry self-denial; Gaga and Justin’s need to smother their music in tortured conceits to lend it ‘worth’; Miley’s ‘will this do?’ singles-and-filler effort. There’s been a singular lack of vision and, more to the point, a lack of daring. If Thriller was the music industry’s Star Wars, it feels like we’re at the stage where the results are market-driven dreck akin to Pearl Harbour.

Reading this in 2016, it’s certainly more difficult to complain about ‘a singular lack of vision and, more to the point, a lack of daring” when the pop mainstream is dominated by artists like Beyonce and Frank Ocean. The former surprise released Lemonade with an accompanying feature-length ‘visual album’ while the latter, not to be outdone, preceded his second album with an entirely separate visual album and then dropped blond with international pop-up shops. Both ‘campaigns’ generated enough hyperbole to power a nuclear power station, massive critical acclaim and commercial success. On the more prosaic end of the pop spectrum, teen idols like Justin Bieber and Zayn Malik have been reinvented in collaborations with electronic and r&b producers like Skrillex, Diplo and Malay.

Britney Spears has kinda been paying attention. This week she releases a new album, Glory, and it’s a step away from the formulaic EDM which characterised her recent efforts into more diverse, but not unexpected, areas. It seems a major pop album in 2016 isn’t complete without forays into reggae, hip-hop, minimalist r&b and other ‘sonic terrains’ which would please the Pitchfork and Vice crowd. Glory is miles better than Britney Jean (it would be very difficult not to be) but it still feels dead behind the eyes without turning that quality into a dazzling strength, as Blackout did. More to the point, it feels very traditional, in this age of the pop arms race – it’s just a collection of songs with no particular theme, trailed well in advance and preceded by a single. Perhaps it was felt that ‘the return of Britney Spears’ was a big enough splash on its own but it seems doubtful that this will be the case.

Listening to Glory, a couple of things conspired to lend context and get me thinking about pop in 2016. Firstly, Madonna’s Cherish came on random play soon after Glory ended:

Madonna of course has had plenty of her own creative conceits and bold marketing moves but it struck me, listening to Cherish, that you so rarely hear pop music like it anymore (even from Madonna). It’s guileless, charming and feels unencumbered by an acute self-awareness or concern for a wider context. In an era when songs, videos and albums show an eagerness to launch a thousand memes and our popstars offer carefully curated connection via social media, it seems increasingly rare to hear pop songs confident enough that they themselves are enough.

Rare but not unheard of. My thoughts turned to what seemed to me the most obvious example of this kind of pop in recent years: Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION, which saw its worldwide release one year ago this week. This anniversary was fresh in my mind as Jepsen has announced a companion release, E•MO•TION Side B, to mark it. The five-day gap from announcement to release is as far into the pop marketing arms race as Jepsen has yet ventured and while Call Me Maybe launched a plethora of viral videos, they felt like a cute aside to the song rather than a calculated part of its appeal.

In a review of Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP I once wrote:

…Gaga lacks confidence in pop as an art form in itself, seeming unable to let a song breathe and instead overbearing it with very deliberate efforts to be seen as a ‘proper artist’. Throughout ARTPOP signifier upon signifier is piled on top of sometimes brilliant melodies, creating enough room for breathless readings of Gaga’s ‘art’ certainly, but failing on the more basic level as engaging pop music. One of her early statements was that ‘pop will never be low-brow’, a suggested understanding that the simple pleasures of pop songs like (for example) Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe or Gaga’s own Poker Face were a powerful and admirable art form in themselves. With ARTPOP, however, it instead seems that Gaga thinks pop needs to be smothered in the language and aesthetics of more traditional art forms in order to have ‘value’.

It strikes me that this manifestation of Poptimism, wherein there’s a significant audience which requires its pop to be heavily signposted before they take it seriously, has gone turbo, feeding directly into the arms race of works which drape themselves in signifier after signifier that they are a ‘cut above’ your usual pop. It’s instructive that, for a mass audience, Carly Rae Jepsen is a semi-ironic one-hit-wonder to be enjoyed alongside Gangham Style. For a relatively small but vocal group, however, E•MO•TION marked her out as a pop artist in the most classic sense – someone who takes pop seriously enough to let it do the talking. From that plaintive sax which opens Run Away With Me, E•MO•TION grabs the heart with a charming sincerity atypical of the current pop scene: there is no overarching conceit tacked on, the music is not hinged on ‘Carly Rae Jepsen’ as a personality or cipher and for all the involvement of cool hitmakers like Sia and Blood Orange, it feels like an artist’s labour of love. It’s telling that in an article ostensibly praising the record, Vice still feels the need to observe that “maybe being marketed as a leftfield-leaning pop artist in the vein of Robyn is what Carly Rae Jepsen should be striving for”. It feels like we are increasingly unable to parse pop which doesn’t either make clear that it is SERIOUS AND CREDIBLE or allow itself to be framed as something apart from ‘real music’ which you are very broad-minded for enjoying. We expect the artist, and the marketing, to do a lot of the work for us.  Hence Madonna recently distinguishing herself from ‘pop acts’ and labelling herself as an ‘artist’ – the people have to be told!

This is a large part of why Glory feels like an album out of time. I think it’s largely going for the latter kind of appreciation, relying on Britney as the kind of popstar many will like in a performative way without any real belief that she is an ‘artist’, yet it was preceded by an atypically ‘mature’ single and advance word labelling it a ‘new era’. It’s a mish-mash which feels like it doesn’t understand the current scene or its dominant strain of Poptimism and it will probably struggle to make much impact as a result. If you want commercial success and critical acclaim in the arms race of 2016 pop, you gotta work, bitch.

33 Years of Madonna

In 2012 I wrote the following to mark the 30th anniversary of the release of Madonna’s debut single. To mark her birthday today I present it here again, order rejigged to mark the passing of time and with Rebel Heart added. The loss of Bowie and Prince this year has made it clearer than ever how dearly we need to cherish these icons while we still can.

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October 6th, 1982: I was 2 years old, “Pass The Dutchie” was No.1 in the charts (and Dire Straits in the album charts) and ‘E.T.’ was conquering the box office. With no fanfare, the world got its first chance to hear the debut single by an unknown artist with the striking name of ‘Madonna’. ‘Everybody’, written solely by Madonna, so convincingly blended new wave with r&b and an increasingly unfashionable disco sound that (as the now infamous story goes) listeners thought Madonna was black and Sire capitalised on this by keeping images of her off the sleeve. Although the single didn’t make many waves, it wouldn’t be too long before Madonna’s image was imprinted on our culture as part of a rarified breed of pop music icons.

2012 is a big year for Madonna – her first album in 4 years (the previous, ‘Hard Candy’, was incidentally also released in April), her first world-tour since the record-breaking ‘Sticky & Sweet’ and, perhaps biggest of all, the 30th anniversary of the start of her pop career. In typical Madonna fashion she has yet to acknowledge the landmark – no ‘M30’  or ‘30YO’ for her. Indeed, on the October date of ‘Everybody’s widespread release she is due to be playing a gig in San Jose – as a symbol of her restless hunger to keep looking forward, it’s hard to beat.

Yet if Madonna rarely takes the time to celebrate what has come before (even the self-explanatory ‘Celebration’ hits collection was largely ignored by her), it doesn’t mean no-one else should. Here, in honour of 30 (edit: 33!) years of Madonna, are my thoughts on her albums (presented in reverse order of my personal preferences – today!):

‘I’m Breathless’ (1990)

‘I’m Breathless’ is largely ignored, probably because it’s not viewed as a studio album. Indeed, it was noticeably absent from this year’s ‘Complete Studio Albums’ collection. Yet if ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Parade’, ‘Graffitti Bridge’ and ‘Batman’ are widely viewed as Prince albums, this (with 12 original songs and 6 Madonna co-writes) surely qualifies as worthy of sitting alongside Madonna’s 12 other albums.

The album’s tagline is ‘Music from and inspired by the film “Dick Tracy”’ and, as a result, it’s a bit of an oddity. The predominantly jazz and swing tone of the album suggests it as a precursor to Christina Aguilera’s ‘Back to Basics’, yet it’s far more knowingly camp. It features 3 Sondheim songs which are, predictably, brilliant. They also inspire some of the best vocals of Madonna’s career (and if you haven’t seen her performance of ‘Sooner or Later’ at the Oscars, get over to Youtube immediately). The rest of the album is a mixed bag – fillers like ‘I’m Going Bananas’ and ‘Cry Baby’ sit uneasily alongside moody ballads like ‘He’s A Man’ and ‘Something to Remember’. Then, somewhat tacked on at the end, we have the legendary ‘Vogue’. Suffice to say its shadow looms large over the rest of the album as it demonstrates that Madonna is at her best when she’s doing Madonna, and not doing Breathless Mahoney. The album is a curious failure – one that, bizarrely, Madonna chose as her own favourite when promoting ‘Bedtime Stories’. Which leads us nicely to….

‘Bedtime Stories’ (1994)

Madonna is so regularly and easily mocked these days that the notion of a ‘Madonna backlash’ seems rather quaint. Nevertheless, this album arose from the ashes of the biggest backlash she had faced in her career to that point. This context is key to the record, which must sound rather odd without it. Despite the combative ‘Human Nature’, this is a Madonna burned and cowed by relative failure. She worked with mainstays of the American charts like Babyface, Dallas Austin and Dave Hall, lending at least half the album a glossy, mainstream r&b sound which, at the time, seemed like a radical departure. Still, this is Madonna, so she contrasts the chart-ready material with some of the most unusual and ‘difficult’ songs of her career. Who else would blend r&b, Herbie Hancock and Walt Whitman (‘Sanctuary’) and, more than that, get away with it?! The more experimental efforts don’t always work – Bjork’s ‘Bedtime Story’ is ill-fitting – yet they lend the album a messy warmth that makes it far more interesting than the sales-chasing vehicle it could have been. Madonna doesn’t seem very fond of it herself – 7 of its 11 tracks have never been performed live.

‘Hard Candy’ (2008)

Whereas ‘Bedtime Stories’, Madonna’s previous courtship of Hot 100-pleasing r&b, came from failure, ‘Hard Candy’ arrived as she once again ruled the pop world. Many were confused, then, that she chose to work with ubiquitous producers Pharrell Williams and Timbaland. More than confused, even – there was a real sense of anger in some quarters, much of it founded in the mistaken belief that Madonna has always nurtured undiscovered talent (and, perhaps most importantly, talent rooted in European dance rather than American r&b). As a result this is a much maligned album. However, as the US counterpoint to the far more respected ‘Confessions….’, I find it a much better record. It’s far more personal, for a start – for all the complaints about her latter day lyrics, songs like ‘Miles Away’, ‘She’s Not Me’ and ‘Voices’ give a devastating insight into a relationship in meltdown. Even something like ‘Incredible’, which ostensibly seems to be a sweet celebration of love, carries the weary sense that an end is near (‘I remember when you were the one, you were my friend…I need a reminder so I can relate, I need to go back there before it’s too late’). The ballads are back too, with ‘Devil Wouldn’t Recognise You’ being an instant Madonna classic, albeit one that suffers from Timbaland’s tendency towards generic production. I am definitely in a tiny minority in rating this above ‘Confessions…’ but for me, it’s far more rewarding and a perfect example of a relevant pop album made when the artist has reached middle-age.

‘Ray of Light’ (1998)

‘Ray of Light’ is without doubt one of the most spectacular ‘comebacks’ in pop music history, easily up there with ‘Achtung Baby’ with which it shares much. Like U2 in the run-up to that album, Madonna had remained a consistent commercial force but there was a real sense of decline hanging over her. ‘Bedtime Stories’ and ‘Erotica’ had sold less combined than ‘Like a Prayer’ did and, with ballads compilation ‘Something to Remember’ and the film/soundtrack ‘Evita’, there were worrying omens that she was positioning herself as an MOR artist to compete with then-huge artists like Celine Dion. The gap between this and ‘Bedtime Stories’ was also the longest yet between her studio albums, causing many to wonder if her heart was still in the game. By now we should know that every time we ask this question, she knocks it out of the park. Again like U2 with ‘Achtung Baby’, Madonna had gone away and rediscovered herself – in the process reinventing her music for the 21st century. This album is outstanding – an emotionally honest, sonically radical collection that, crucially, sounds completely liberated from the pressures that led to it. One of the most transcendent moments of her career comes midway through opener ‘Drowned World/Substitute For Love’. The sumptuous electronica was already unfamiliar territory but when her voice takes off in the ‘No famous faces…’ section, it was a Madonna we had never heard before. Against all odds, she delivered the third-biggest seller of her career and this album laid the template for the latter half of her career.

MDNA’ (2012)

I have already written about this here and, happily, the weeks since have not dulled my appreciation. As much of a crossroads album as ‘Ray of Light’, this could so easily have been a disaster. Instead it manages the tricky task of being an album largely packed with lyrics about being a wealthy, middle-aged pop icon who has recently experienced divorce – yet being immensely enjoyable and fun rather than alienating. Fun, in fact, in an endearing way which harks back to her 80s peak – songs like ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’, ‘B-Day Song’ and ‘I’m A Sinner’ sound borne out of relaxed creativity rather than an eye on chart placements (though the presence of Nicki Minaj and MIA show that this is clearly not an absent consideration).  She still manages to surprise – the camp noir of ‘Gang Bang’ sounds unlike anything she’s done before while ‘I Fucked Up’ is one of her most affecting ballads.

‘True Blue’ (1986)

Madonna’s biggest-selling studio album and essentially her own ‘Thriller’ – 5 legendary singles dominate and the other 4 songs feel like filler beside them (and, to be fair, ‘Love Makes The World Go Round’ is one of the worst things she’s recorded). This is where many who had previously dismissed her as an ephemeral pop dolly sat up and took notice – ‘Live to Tell’ announced a new Madonna, with its sombre tone, allusions to child abuse and a singing voice far weightier than the previous coquettish come on. Decades of the singles being presented on hits collections has dulled their impact here and the album almost comes across as its own little greatest hits, yet its brilliance is undeniable. Many other artists would have fought tooth and nail for a pop song as carefree and exhilarating as ‘Where’s The Party?’, possibly the album track least deserving of the phrase ‘album track’ ever.

‘Confessions on a Dancefloor’ (2005)

Like Ray of Light, this album came from a massive backlash. ‘American Life’ is probably Madonna’s biggest commercial failure and (for the hundredth time) detractors were wondering if perhaps her time as a major force was at an end. Madonna responded with her most successful single ever. ‘Hung Up’ is undoubtedly a classic – not only a Madonna classic, but a CLASSIC classic. What’s remarkable about this album is that there is rarely a sense of the other songs playing catch-up – at least ¾ of them could be singles. What’s even more remarkable is that, despite the advance publicity playing up its floor-filling qualities, it lyrically covers much of the same ground as ‘American Life’. Fan favourite ‘How High’ is essentially a much more digestible rewrite of ‘American Life’ (the song) while ‘Isaac’ is as unusual a dance song as has ever graced a 10 million-selling album. Nonetheless, some of Madonna’s persuasive spikiness is lost in a set which aims to please and the absence of a ballad (one of her real strengths) is a sore disappointment.

Like A Virgin’ (1984)

In retrospect, this is where she began her rapid ascent to iconic status – at the time, it was probably just a massive pop album. It builds on her debut but goes ridiculously beyond it, adding Motown riffs, sugar-sweet ballads and that now-infamous knack for controversy. The more versatile sound no doubt has a lot to do with this being her first co-written album – the gorgeously clumsy ‘Shoo-Bee-Doo’ is the last solely-attributed writing credit on her studio albums. The ambition here – to rule the pop world – is clear but it doesn’t detract from the sheer joy that permeates the record. Songs like ‘Stay’, ‘Pretender’ and ‘Over & Over’ still rank amongst her best album tracks – ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’ is, however, one of her worst. It’s the sole misstep on what must be approaching a perfect pop album – indeed, if you remove it and replace with ‘Into The Groove’ (which was later added to the tracklist), the case is pretty overwhelming.

‘Madonna’ (1983)

In light of what came after, it’s impossible to review this record as a debut; impossible to really see if the clues were there or guess how the record would now be perceived (if it was perceived at all) if it hadn’t led to a phenomenon. Reviews written years after the fact almost uniformly declare it a masterpiece yet, at the time, it’s safe to say that it had a mixed reception. It’s easy to see why – it’s largely unassuming, making no huge statements about Madonna as an artist and giving few glimpses into her inner life. However it’s worth noting that this is Madonna before she discovered co-writing – 5 of the 8 songs are written by her alone, including the iconic ‘Lucky Star’. What it does demonstrate, then, is the savvy talent for pop melodies and hooks that has largely stayed with her in the subsequent 30 years. Also present, in songs like ‘Burning Up’ and ‘Think of Me’, is a aggressively independent streak demanding that we pay attention. Perhaps most important is the fact that, despite her thin voice, Madonna owns these songs. No one else could do this.

Rebel Heart’ (2015)

As I wrote upon its release, Rebel Heart was as much as restatement of core values from an ageing icon as Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, Bowie’s Heathen or Prince’s Musicology were. This was a Madonna who understood that she didn’t rule the charts any longer but was determined to remind everyone why she is so special. The lyrics of the (bumped from the official release) Queen are particularly apropos following the death of Bowie and Prince:

Who will take her place?

It’s written on everyone’s face

The truth is slowly dawning

I hear tomorrow calling

Some things can’t be replaced

The realization of a new generation

Still, if the album’s maudlin undertone was a reflection of Madonna’s age and status as an ageing Queen, Rebel Heart contained its fair share of precision-tooled pop. Ghosttown especially was a glorious, haunting anthem which once again highlighted that few pop artists do melancholy like Madonna while infectious, airy tracks like the sitar-driven Body Shop and the Diplo-assisted Unapologetic Bitch showed she could, after all this time, still surprise us. The album’s sprawling diversity (24 tracks spread over various editions) was testament to a still-beating creative heart, though the messiness was reflected in both uneven tone and production. At a stage when most pop icons either fall into kitschy nostalgia or covers album hell, Rebel Heart found Madonna still very much in the game.

‘Erotica’ (1992)

‘The Immaculate Collection’ and accompanying Blond Ambition tour in 1990 found Madonna in an imperial phase, with massive commercial success, huge critical acclaim and a general air of being impervious. It’s understandable, then, that she felt that she could afford to take increasingly radical risks – leading to this album and the ‘Sex’ book. Even in 2012, the thought of the world’s biggest pop star releasing a concept album and coffee-table book about sex, featuring many images of her and her famous friends in various states of undress, is staggering. Yet in the enormous backlash that ensued one crucial thing is lost – the fact that ‘Erotica’ is an utterly brilliant album. It was easily the most intelligent, complex and demanding work she had yet released. The cold production almost deliberately pushed the listener away while Madonna’s delivery on many songs is so detached that it brings to mind a drug-addled drag queen singing someone else’s pop hits. The questions raised about sexuality, commerce and personal identity were almost completely missed (and indeed remain so). It doesn’t all demand effort – ‘Deeper and Deeper’ marries a peerless narrative about coming out with an effortless disco ferocity, while the plaintive ‘Bad Girl’ is just gorgeous (and led the 12 year old me to write a letter to Michael Stipe asking him to sing with Madonna…!) It’s intriguing to wonder what would have come next if this had been a massive success. Instead, we’re left with a record that was her first commercial failure but is undoubtedly one of her biggest creative successes.

‘American Life’ (2003)

A similar context preceded ‘American Life’ – two commercially and critically successful albums of sometimes radical electronic music and a world tour which managed to sell-out despite largely ignoring all her hits, Madonna probably felt she was taking millions of people on a journey. It’s easy to comprehend how pushing further must have looked like a logical step. Nevertheless, this odd album – with its blend of electro and folk, its sometimes self-important and sometimes disarming personal examinations and its over-arching theme of a naval-gazing culture – was a step too far and lost 2/3 of the listeners who had embraced ‘Music’. It was also the first Madonna album not to produce a worldwide hit single – the kiss of death for any global popstar. It’s a shame because this was a Madonna leaping into the void, showing a fearless creativity which her detractors don’t believe exists. It takes either massive chutzpah or titanic delusion to believe that the awkward, absurd title track could be a lead single, though the hilarious rap shows a sense of humour usually missed by listeners (though some missed it even here!) It’s interesting that the fearlessness did not extend to the original, provocatively anti-war video for the song, a stance that was at the time liable to kill careers yet is now the consensus view. Nothing could save the album’s sales after that, though God knows Madonna tried with an air of desperation that was entirely missing from the record itself. For all the headline-grabbing politics, it’s a largely intimate and very adult affair, with little for pop fans of the period (the biggest pop albums of the period were Beyonce’s debut and Britney’s ‘In the Zone’) to grab hold of – and it’s all the more admirable for it.

‘Music’ (2000)

The singles from this certainly didn’t sound quite like anything on the charts at the time – yet they succeeded in re-shaping tastes in a way which ‘American Life’ could only dream of. With characteristic restlessness Madonna largely ditched William Orbit and instead collaborated with the (still) relatively unknown Mirwais. So successful were the results that a slew of imitators followed. Madonna is at her very best here, bringing innovation to the mainstream with a gold-plated commercial nous and combining the sounds with peerless pop lyrics. ‘What It Feels Like For A Girl’ is a perfect representation of why she’s so valuable, accessibly communicating complex ideas regarding gender identity and roles in a moving, warm pop song that sounds quite unlike any other pop ballad of the period. The title track, her last American number one, is as much a manifesto as ‘Everybody’ was 18 years later while ‘Don’t Tell Me’ is surely one of the most interesting massive pop hits ever? ‘Impressive Instant’ is a great lost single, rightly chosen for release by Madonna but thwarted by her label who wanted the fun-but-derivative ‘Amazing’ instead. Here also marks the beginning of the ‘Guy Ritchie songs’ which have recently climaxed with ‘MDNA’.

‘Like A Prayer’ (1989)

Every pop fan by now surely knows the famous Rolling Stone quote claiming that this album was ‘as close to art as pop music gets’. I couldn’t put it any better myself. ‘True Blue’ may have made critics start to take notice but with ‘Like A Prayer’, Madonna surpassed even the kindest of expectations and ensured that she would never again be seen as ‘Minnie Mouse on helium’. It’s here that she first exposed the brutal honesty that has largely dominated her best work since and saw her lyrically more comparable to rock singers of the period than to Michael Jackson or Prince. It is, in fact, her most ‘rock’ album in that it is largely based on a traditional band sound and not disco or dance music. The legendary title track’s blend of gospel and rock, the sacred and profane is obvious. She called the wonderful ‘Oh Father’ her ‘homage to Simon & Garfunkel’ while the influential ‘Express Yourself’ was conceived as a tribute to Sly and the Family Stone. Prince himself pops up on ‘Love Song’, as unassuming a duet between icons as you could ever hear. ‘Cherish’, meanwhile, is a gorgeously sincere frolic of the kind she has (sadly) rarely returned to since. Aforementioned ‘Oh Father’ together with ‘Promise to Try’ (about her mother) and ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ (about an abusive marriage – never explicitly commented on but rumours abound that Sean Penn assaulted her) form the emotional core – popstars of Madonna’s level simply weren’t expected to turn their inner lives into pop songs. It’s an album she will never surpass – but in her defence, almost no-one will.

 

Lisbon 2016

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We can hardly move
with so much music.

We are, therefore, here
to serve an exact purpose.
We look like generals
on horses.
Here’s the battlefield
where defeat awaits us:
the street corners that wind
till our last yawn
and people listening
to their own story
in the songs.

Music, not time,
can heal certain wounds.
– Rua Diário de Notícias by Vítor Nogueira

Photos are here.

This is Much Bigger than Jeremy Corbyn

It’s rather ironic that the Labour right eagerly embraced one member, one vote because they felt that Ed Miliband had cheated his brother out of the leadership on the basis on union votes. They thought OMOV would ensure their future dominance of the party, one of a dazzling array of analyses they have completely fucked up because they’ve still not grasped that politics has changed. It’s very evident that they STILL regard post-crash politics as some bad dream which just needs the right leader, their leader, to push the reset button on. That was the mentality which drove Jim Murphy in Scotland and it’s the mentality which is driving this.

This week we see that much of the PLP are absolutely terrified of one member one vote – terrified of party democracy – because they fear that Labour members will again elect Jeremy Corbyn. If you tell them ‘if you want to get rid of Corbyn, hold an election’, they react with barely-concealed fury. Because the ‘democracy’ was only ever a tool to them, wheeled out for their own gain after decades of hollowing out the party. When some voices on the fringes previously advocated mandatory reselection of Labour candidates, the shrill howls of the Labour right that this was an affront to democracy resonated across the media. How laughable they seem now, when they’re looking at legal challenges to keep Corbyn off the ballot and, failing that, looking at stealing the party from under its own members, like it’s a fucking brand name rather than something which should be a political movement representing the masses.

Aside from the indefensible horror that is their efforts to associate Corbyn and his support with fascism and the murder of Jo Cox, they are also wheeling out lines about the ‘national interest’, Labour being ‘bigger than its members’, the need for a ‘strong opposition’ (a line, hilariously enough, wheeled out by David Cameron today). They appeal to a mandate from ‘voters’ rather than the party. Anyone who’s been paying the slightest bit of attention knows that these are all proxy arguments for the Labour right’s petulant entitlement, which hasn’t abated even slightly since Corbyn’s election. If these people are so certain that their voters, their actual voters as opposed to an abstract conception which neatly serves their own interests, will support them against the mass Labour Party then they should resign their seat, resign their Labour Party membership and stand for re-election under whichever banner they choose.

They won’t do that, because they know that most of them wouldn’t be re-elected. So instead they seek to bypass the membership entirely. If they go down this road, anyone who remotely fancies themselves as ‘left-wing’, who remotely fancies themselves as a democrat, should fight them. Because how do you row back from ‘the national interest as we have defined it demands that we subvert the democratic processes we previously agreed to”? How can you ever put a cap on that? It’s revealing a vicious and dangerous belief in oligarchy which can never be excused or forgotten. And for what? To stop a mild-mannered man advancing some pretty milquetoast social democratic policies.

This is much bigger than Corbyn now. This is about the party system itself, about our democracy and about whether a party in the UK can ever elect a socialist as leader ever again.

Edit 8:15pm: It appears we finally have our election, with the reports that Angela Eagle is going to launch a leadership bid. No-one should be under any illusions that Eagle is intended to take us into a general election – she is a compromise, stop-gap candidate whom the coup plotters hope is safe enough for at least 50% of the membership to rally behind. Eagle will apparently pledge to ‘reunify the fractured party‘, with not a hint of shame as to the fact that she has helped to irrevocably divide it. An ‘ally’ also states ‘we’ve got the big hitters’, underlining once again that these people have not the slightest clue what is going on in politics at the moment. So, who is this compromise candidate who can reunite the party?

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Oh. If this doesn’t illustrate that this is a coup against the politics Corbyn represents, and another attempt by the Labour right to get back to ‘business as usual’, I’m not sure what is.

If you support the principle of one member, one vote; if you support the idea that a party belongs to its members just as much as its politicians; if you support the notion that MPs should not attempt to subvert the democratic choice of members as soon as it’s made; if you support ever being able to elect a socialist leader of Labour ever again and if you support the idea of making Hilary Benn cry, you can join Labour here.

Why We Still Support Corbyn

This coup has been planned for months. It was going ahead whatever the referendum result was, which makes the cynicism of the plotters in exploiting a national crisis to pursue their long-held ambition to depose Corbyn even more astonishing. The government is in meltdown, the economy is tanking and the far-right is surging, both as an organised group and in terms of rhetoric. It is unforgiveable that so many Labour MPs have chosen this moment to indulge their games – and make no mistake, as the coordinated drip-feed of resignations has demonstrated, this is political game-playing to many of them.
It seems clear that one of the main tactics of the coup, in the absence of actually being able to defeat the ‘unelectable’ Corbyn in an election, is to smear a lot of shit and hope some of it sticks. So we have claims that Corbyn voted ‘leave’, with ‘proof’ which suddenly dissipates overnight. There are claims that Labour members making their disappointment in their MPs clear is somehow comparable to an MP being murdered on the street by a fascist. Activism of the kind which has massively contributed to every victory the left has ever had is reframed as ‘threatening’ and ‘bullying’. JK Rowling has drawn a clear equivalence between Corbyn (and his supporters) and the people who murdered Jo Cox. It’s risible and disgraceful stuff.
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One of the big attack lines is that Corbyn supporters are a) largely not Labour party members and b) in a cult. The former is easily tested – hold another leadership election. The plotters are trying to avoid this because they know it’s not true. The latter is an appealing position because it means no-one actually has to consider why he has enjoyed such massive support amongst members, both old and new.
Yet it’s also nonsense. To be clear, I’ve not encountered a single person who is slavishly devoted to Corbyn as an individual. People are well aware of his personal limitations. I’ve said quite a few times over the past 9 months that if the Labour right had simply sat on their disappointment, worked with Corbyn and helped to get the message across while fighting the Tories, the grassroots would be far more willing to ditch Corbyn if election results made it look like he was a non-starter. Instead they’ve not only repeated the mistake they made with Ed Miliband but gone nuclear with it, openly and constantly trying to undermine Corbyn to the extent that his support has adopted a bunker mentality and only grown more and more determined to support him. We aren’t stupid and we can see that even in the face of a PLP doing everything it can to make his ‘unelectability’ a self-fulfilling prophecy, and hammering home the ‘we cannot do anything without power’ line at every opportunity, the reality has been rather different:
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Even in the above context, however, it’s clear that the Brexit crisis has massively changed the context of politics in this country and if there were some ‘slicker’ Corbyn who had similar politics but could command more confidence from the PLP, many Labour members would seriously consider supporting them. But there isn’t. The people attempting this coup have again and again been asked who their alternative is and again and again they have said ‘we don’t know’. They ‘don’t know’ because they understand that, as Hilary Benn, Tom Watson and even Owen Smith have made clear with their support for opposing free movement in the past few days, this coup is not only against Corbyn but against the politics he represents. That any politician who calls themselves ‘left-wing’ thinks that now is the time to (again) be throwing migrants under a bus is not only astonishing, it’s completely inexcusable.
These people want a return to (their) business-as-usual where ‘connecting with people’ means feeding ignorance and lies about immigrants, about welfare, about Europe and refusing to even begin to stand up to the powerful forces which are *actually* harming people. That’s the politics that got us to this point in the first place and we have to completely oppose it. Corbyn represents the red line against this for many and that is a major part of why he continues to enjoy support from members. Now, more than ever, we need a progressive politics that is anti-racist, pro-immigration and which addresses people’s ‘real concerns’ by saying that it’s not immigrants or the EU which are to blame for the housing crisis, for insecure and low-paid jobs, for the attacks on our health service, for austerity, for the redistribution of wealth upwards. These are matters of ideology actively pursued by our own government in their efforts to bolster and build on an economic system which works against the interests of the many. Anyone who is progressive needs to stand against the rhetoric which elides this in order to point the finger at easier, far more vulnerable targets.
We cannot return to the days of immigration control mugs. Yes, times have changed. That politics has got us this far – no further.

The Death of Solidarity

This feels like the nail in the coffin of any notion of ‘solidarity’ across these isles. The surge of competing nationalisms has been clear for years now, and much of the left has been happy to indulge and even feed it rather than fight it, rather than make the case for us standing together, rather than saying that our enemy was not some conveniently identifiable ‘other’ but a neoliberal ideology which by all reason should have died following the global crash. This felt like our last chance to draw a line in the sand, to recognise that we had to step up to the plate with regards to anti-racism, with regards to anti-immigrant sentiment, with regards to populist anti-intellectual movements which brand facts as ‘Project Fear’. We’ve failed.
Scotland and London both voted massively for remain. Having argued against Scottish independence in significant part because I thought it fed nationalism and destroyed solidarity, today I feel sad but resigned to Scotland becoming independent. Who could blame anyone voting for it when faced with this? There are already increasingly loud calls for London to split off from the UK. The economy is tanking and the far-right is celebrating not only here but across Europe. I never thought I would see the day where my reaction to David Cameron resigning was sorrow rather than joy and that is a mark of how dark this day is.
There are, right now, millions of EU migrants in the UK who now have no idea what will happen to them. There are millions of UK citizens in the EU who have no idea what will happen to them. And there are millions of people who, as one friend told me yesterday, look at this and see the familiar politics of a brick in the face just for the colour of your skin. Those of us who are privileged enough for this to be an existential defeat rather than one which is going to destroy our livelihoods or our homes need to stand with these people now. It’s the least we can do. I have cried too many tears over too many defeats. We need to stand against the calls, which are already coming and will only increase in volume, for tighter ‘immigration controls’. We need to stand against the nonsense, unchallenged for far too long, that it’s ‘not racist’ to blame housing policy, employment policy, health policy etc on ‘immigrants’ without having the slightest clue what you’re on about. We need to stand against our country becoming a small, angry and pathetic place, even though it feels much too late for that. We need to join trade unions. We need to support local struggles re: housing, health and austerity. We need to support migrant rights. We need to organise to fight racism on our streets. We need to support Jeremy Corbyn, one of the few politicians who has stood against this hateful tide, from those in his own party who would have us believe that competing with UKIP and the Tories on anti-immigration sentiment is the way for ‘progressive values’ to win.
It’s London Pride tomorrow and people have been fond of using ‘love wins’ in recent weeks. But the sad, scary fact of the matter is that love doesn’t win. Action wins. The kind of action which understands that fighting racism and the far-right means not capitulating to them or aiding their normalisation (hello, “I’m not UKIP but…” people arguing for their inclusion at Pride) At the moment the hard right are a hell of a lot more organised than we are. We need to begin to change that if ‘solidarity’ is to be anything other than a distant memory.