Britpop and Robson and Jerome

This was the biggest selling single in the UK in 1994:

And this was the biggest selling single in the UK in 1995:

We could continue. The biggest selling singles and albums of the period were made up of acts like Meat Loaf, Celine Dion, Simply Red, Take That, Bon Jovi, The Beautiful South. Now, whatever the musical merits of these acts (I attended a Celine Dion night at an East London pub last year and it was incredible) no-one could possibly claim that they were diverse or radical, in any sense. It was one big gloopy mass of MOR. It’s been quite hilarious, then, to see pieces likethis appearing to mark the ‘anniversary’ of Britpop. It was a “cultural abomination that set music back”, apparently, leading to “unrelentingly pedestrian bands (which) ditched everything that once made British pop music interesting”. Woah! That’s quite the claim isn’t it? There’s a lot of it about too: attacks on how‘rubbish’ it all was, confused musings about its ‘conservatism’ (except for the bands/albums which the writer liked). These pieces tilt at the windmill of Britpop ‘celebration’, of which there’s been very little (an incredibly half-hearted BBC season being the only effort of note in that regard). Instead, Britpop has in the past 20 years become an embarrassing and much-maligned period far more likely to inspire ire and ridicule than misty-eyed nostalgia. This interpretation has evidently taken hold to the extent that critics can completely rewrite history, removing Britpop from its chronological context and blaming it for anything and everything they didn’t like about the 1990s.

It’s important, then, to remember the climate in which Oasis and co first came to prominence. It was ridiculously conservative and derivative, all power ballads and shit cover versions and semi-ironic one-hit wonders. Robson and Jerome sold millions of records entirely on the back of World War II nostalgia, at a time when John Major’s Back to Basics campaign was reeling from scandal after scandal. Were Oasis really more damaging than this comforting retreat or, just maybe, have they become the whipping-boys for a mainstream conservatism which everyone seems to have forgotten existed before them? I instinctively dismissed Definitely Maybe at the time – I was a 14 year old starting to realise I was gay and my brother played Oasis constantly – yet even then I could see that it had an energetic swagger which had largely been missing from the British mainstream. It felt exciting and it came from a recognisably, assertively working-class place. The opening lines of Oasis’ debut single are ‘I need to be myself/I can be no-one else/I’m feeling supersonic/give me gin and tonic’, for God’s sake. ‘You and I are gonna live forever’. “Is it worth the aggravation to find a job when there’s nothing worth working for?’ This was a band upending the defeatism of a class pummelled by almost two decades of Tory government and capturing the sense of dynamism and hope which was leading to a Labour government.

That government, of course, would turn out to be a shattering disappointment. This plays into contemporary responses to Britpop, as of course does Oasis’ decline into cocaine excess and disconnect. Yet the class dynamics which made Oasis seem revolutionary at the time still instruct responses to Britpop today. It’s notable, for example, that critics almost uniformly pick out Pulp and Common People as worthy of praise amongst the detritus. Yet the irony of praising a band singing about patronising responses to the working-class while slating the gobby working-class kids who took it too far (ie didn’t know their place) is completely lost. Michael Hann writes that Britpop “resulted in a generation of bands and fans who resembled nothing so much as a parody of the football hooligans of a generation before.” Just read that sentence again. It drips with a class hatred which Guardianistas would be quick to leap on if aimed at a less acceptable target. ‘We don’t talk about love, we only want to get drunk’, indeed. It’s easy to toss up a few signifiers of what ‘Britpop’ was and appeal to caricatures of violent working-class excess. It’s also lazy and utterly meaningless, failing to understand the musical period as a lived experience involving pride, self-discovery and a healthy lack of deference.

The media pieces slating Britpop are further bemusing because, it cannot be stressed enough, the ‘genre’ was almost entirely a media construct (hence why my use of it in this blog is so all over the place). While Britpop as a term may have only become commonly understood in 1994, it very quickly was being applied to preceding acts like Happy Mondays, Stone Roses and even Morrissey (who had been embroiled in a racism storm in 1992 for draping himself in a union jack in front of a backdrop depicting skinheads). Again, the past 20 years has seen a hardening of opinion on what constituted Britpop which simply did not exist at the time. Dance acts like Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy were drawn under the umbrella at the time, as were Portishead, Tricky and Massive Attack (with trip-hop becoming a ‘thing’ in 1994). The intellectual, anti-sexist/homophobic/racist, cross-dressing Manic Street Preachers were included with aforementioned A Design For Life being as much an  ’intelligent Britpop anthem’ as Common People. Then there were the swathes of bands drawn into the fold yet kicking against it: Skunk Anansie’s Skin declared they were ‘clitpop, not Britpop!’ while the Manics-endorsed Asian Dub Foundation complained of the ‘mythical whiteness’ pushed by the Britpop label. These were the bands which spoke to me, an awkward queer teenager at the time, and as far as Britpop means anything I would identify them as part of it. This isn’t to say that I buy into the ‘Oasis fans are awful’ stuff which The Guardian has previous form on – my 18th birthday was spent with my brother and a bunch of his mates, all of whom loved Britpop and called me ‘Jarvis Cocker’ for  the evening. None of them ever gave a shit about my sexuality. But this doesn’t fit into the trite narrative about Britpop being conservative, sexist, racist etc so it’s all completely abandoned. So, in essence, the media reframes its own creation to argue against itself. It wasn’t, after all, Oasis that led to the creation of Loaded magazine, or Suede who wrote the ‘Yanks Go Home!’ cover.

Michael Hann’s hatchet job underlines his complete lack of understanding of the period with this observation:

Indie had ceased to be an alternative. And if it was no longer an alternative, but a hegemonic force of its own, then what was the point of it?

It’s important to note that he completely overstates the case. Even at its peak, Britpop was largely confined to the lower reaches of the charts and was still being outsold by the Celine Dion and Michael Jacksons of the world. Yet as far as Oasis, Blur, Suede etc did become big-hitters, this didn’t close down the opportunities for difference and diversity. Precisely the opposite – they opened the door to acts you previously couldn’t have imagined competing with Meat Load et al. What were Spice Girls if not a part-response to, part-expansion of Britpop? Yet as an unashamedly POP act, free from all the dreary anti-guitar, anti-‘authenticity’ rubbish which currently dominates music criticism, they’re still widely celebrated today. It wasn’t a BAD THING that Oasis again reminded people that some passionate working-class people could become one of the biggest bands in the world. In fact the media seems to accept this when engaging in one of the endless ‘the charts are now dominated by posh people’ tirades – it’s only when you mention ‘Oasis’ or ‘Britpop’ that the Pavlovian responses kick in and thought goes out the window.

None of this is intended as an argument that Britpop shouldn’t be criticised. If anything, it demands criticism as one of the final big musical periods where a substantial audience intersected with massive media hype and eager critics. Acts like Shania Twain and James Blunt would sell heaps in the years after but you’d never find them on the News at Ten, while the rise of Popstars/Pop Idol/X Factor in the early 00s would soon change the game again. If everyone seems to have an opinion on Britpop it’s because everyone of a certain age feels that they lived through it. It’s expected, then, that there will be different voices and criticisms. But let’s not just accept the vapid consensus that Britpop was horrible and ruined everything for everyone. Let’s remember Wet Wet Wet and Robson and Jerome.

A Moment

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I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, if there is a current debate within the trans community about language and offence, it probably doesn’t need cis gay male viewers of Drag Race to butt in. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this debate certainly doesn’t need said gay men to use it as an excuse to mock ‘cis’, ‘privilege’ and people ‘taking offence’. Seriously, you sound barely a step removed from Richard Littlejohn bleating about ‘political correctness gone mad’. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that whether or not Ru Paul and co should use ‘she-male’, you probably shouldn’t. The fact that the show depicts drag queens doesn’t give it a free pass. The fact that you watch a show about drag queens doesn’t give you a free pass. This could be extended to the odd and distasteful impersonations which have been adopted by many white gay male viewers. I am not your ‘gurl’. You don’t speak like that. Stop it.

The fact that we experience oppression and discrimination doesn’t mean that we can’t perpetuate it ourselves. This is one of the fundamental points of intersectionality. Mocking it (and trans people who disagree with you) is oppression. Simple as that.

Here’s some Audre Lorde for you:

Tom Daley, Jessie J and the Certainty of Boxes

We really, really don’t like it when people don’t fit neatly into boxes we understand. Boxes which, for one reason or another, we’ve been led to believe are ‘acceptable’, ‘normal’ and ‘the way things are’. Without wishing to downplay the very deliberate uses of power and historical processes which lie behind so much bigotry, it can be said that any identity deviating from straight, white, masculine, conservative, materially privileged male has to varying degrees suffered in our society’s past (and present). This fact has inspired great liberation movements, most notably centred on gender, race, sexuality and class, which have had made palpable gains and resulted in a UK where almost everyone is seen to be formally ‘equal’.

A lot of my writing, focusing on the LGBT movement, has attempted to parse this formal equality and ask if our liberation has become a barrier to lived equality. Much of the thoughts and ideas I draw upon are taken from feminist and anti-racist circles, where debates about the nature of equality and critique of mainstream movements which are ostensibly ‘on their side’ have a more notable and vocal modern history. The most obvious current example is the concept ofintersectionality which has so vexed many feminist writers with platforms. Despite its rise to prominence in the past year, the term was coined in 1989 by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and specifically arose from (and was applied to) black feminism. You can read more about it in this Bim Adewunmi piece. It’s interesting and not a little ironic that the current ‘debates’ about intersectionality have served to highlight how apropos the theory is. Oppressions and discriminations are not experienced identically by all members of any minority group and, indeed, can be actively perpetuated within these groups.

While it’s clear that the issues raised by intersectionality show no sign of being resolved any time soon, at least the theory has broken through in feminist discussions. The same cannot be said about the LGBT movement, which remains highly monolithic and stuck in its ways. There is next to no mainstream discussion (including within the mainstream LGBT media) of how our communities may actually perpetuate oppression. It was noticeable how swiftly Lily Allen’s gay fanbase attacked the notion that her ‘Hard Out Here’ video was racist, while consideration of wider racism within the LGBT community is largely confined to whether or not it’s acceptable to specify colour ‘preferences’ on Grindr etc (clue: it isn’t.)  The recent Rohin Guha piece on gay male misogyny was met with derision and condemnation, even when its assertions were being borne out by high-profile aspects of ‘gay culture’. As a community we don’t seem keen on self-examination, preferring instead to be validated by condescending marketing and anything we can grab hold of which assures us of our victimhood.

That piece on victimhood arose from consideration of biphobia and the supporting columns a sexual identity required in order to be viewed as ‘authentic’. What do people have to have experienced before we accept whichever label they’ve chosen as being truly them? As I noted in that blog, it’s fascinating how differently this plays out with women and men and this week has given us great illustrations of this with Tom Daley and Jessie J.

When Tom Daley made his video announcing that he was in a relationship with a man, I said that his sexuality immediately wasn’t his any more. Despite his care not to label himself and to state that he liked both men and women, he was widely reported as having ‘come out’ as gay. Even though some quarters corrected this, the overwhelming response from within the LGBT community seemed to be a very familiar one (seen in the Andrew Sullivan blog linked at the end of that piece)- that he was really gay and was just saying he liked women to make it a bit easier for himself (and for people around him). It was not only dishearteningly biphobic but seemed determined to shove a teenager into a neat box in order to make him more gratifying. It was with interest, then, that earlier this week I read various headlines announcing that Tom had said he wasactually ‘a gay man’. This, of course, doesn’t excuse the initial response for one second but it was impossible to begrudge the guy the chance to feel comfortable in his own skin.

It took me a few days to actually get around to reading any of the pieces and when I did, I was quite confused. I had previously assumed that Tom had given an interview but it transpired the headlines had come from Celebrity Juice, a supremely dumb show broadcast on ITV2. When I watched clips of the show I was even more dumbfounded: the words ‘I am a gay man now’ don’t actually leave his lips. Instead the very loud and overbearing host tells a clearly nervous Tom ‘you’re a gay man now’, to which he replies ‘I am’. And that’s about it. The word ‘gay’ is mentioned by the host a few more times and Tom seems unphased but he doesn’t make any point of renouncing any previous words. In fact he states again that he made the Youtube video to “be able to say what I wanted to say on my own terms, without anyone twisting anything.” From these spectacularly nebulous seeds came stories asserting that Tom Daley has admitted that he isn’t bisexual at all, declaring ‘I am a gay man now’“Tom Daley isn’t bisexual”Tom Daley has officially come out as gay”“‘I am a gay man now’, Tom Daley admitted” and perhaps best of all “I”m definitely gay not bisexual.”

Notice the use of ‘admitted’ there, from both mainstream and LGBT sites. His statement that he still fancied girls, made only 4 months ago, is treated like some flimsy pretence that everyone knew was just a bunch of lies really. To make it clear, I couldn’t care less what Tom Daley labels himself as – but taking the words ‘I am’ on a comedy panel show premised on the host taking the piss out of the contestants and turning them into the stories above is absolutely absurd. It underlines the urge for neat boxes and a narrative we understand – and ‘gay man says he likes women but actually only likes men’ is one we understand.

Contrast that with the response to Jessie J saying that she now only likes men,labelling her attraction to women as ‘a phase’. The liberal Guardian printed a column calling this ‘a shame’ (and hilariously asserting “I would never deny Jessie J, or anyone else, the right to define themselves, identify with whatever sexuality they want or reject labels altogether” – no, that’s what you’re doing in this column.) Jessie J’s full response was apparently penned after a furious online response to her initial declaration that she only liked men. I saw many responses stating that she had ‘betrayed’ and ‘exploited’ the LGBT community – this gay site says she used sexuality as ‘a fashion accessory’ and like The Guardian says that she’s fed the idea that bisexuality is a phase.

Are we seeing the fault lines here? Because they are really instructive as to how fucked up even ostensibly ‘progressive’ attitudes towards sexuality are and how powerful the grip of the victimhood narrative is on the LGBT identity. If Jessie J had written that liking men had been a phase and she was now gay, we would have accepted it in the blink of an eye. No-one has attacked Tom Daley for ‘undermining’ the bisexual identity, after all. I also suspect that if Tom later said he was straight the response wouldn’t be fury but pity – people would think he was lying to himself, not that he had tried to make himself seem more interesting by pretending to like men. We don’t even have to make that assumption – straight male celebrities do not receive furious backlashes for flirting with bi/homosexuality:

Instead they are fêted by the LGBT media and much of the community, treated as icons and allowed to pump us for all we’re worth.

When people assert that Jessie J has ‘betrayed’ the LGBT community, they should first stop and ask why said community is so quick and eager to elevate anyone and everyone who either lets us think we might be in with a chance of a fuck or simply says they like us…they really like us! They should ask why we’re so celebratory about straight celebrities who make the right noises about being receptive to same-sex advances. They should ask why we’re so tolerant of these ambiguities when we’re so insistent that anyone who ever feels a same-sex attraction CHOOSE THEIR LABEL and stick to it (though if they say they’re bi we’ll probably just ignore that anyway).

There is evident sexism in these differing responses, yes. There is also a modern and unhealthy relationship to celebrity, where we feel better placed to comment on the ‘real’ nature of these people than they do. There is an unappealing, immutable attitude towards sexuality – it’s presented as something we’re working towards, something we discover and come to terms with and then do not alter in any way for the rest of our lives. The ‘Born This Way’ idea. Who cares if we’re not? Are people any less deserving of respect, of happiness, if they ‘decide’ to switch sexuality at age 45 or have sex with a different gender, or people who don’t identify as traditional genders, each week?

That final point isn’t entirely facetious because the fixation on an immutable, clearly defined sexual identity seems interwoven with the dominant concerns of the modern LGBT movement. If we can get married, we can ‘settle down’. You don’t get a much more easily understood box than ‘married couple’ and that ‘respectability’ ties in nicely with the LGBT movement’s adoption not only ofdeeply conservative companies but of a wider anti-radicalism. Groups likeAgainst Equality which stem from at least 50 years of queer radicalism are ever-increasingly viewed as bitter cranks by the movement. And so we buy further into the racist, sexist, capitalist mores of mainstream society while becoming less and less tolerant of any critiques which might make us feel uncomfortable about this.

Yet as the different responses Tom Daley and Jessie J underline, it’s imperative that we ask difficult questions of ourselves and debate what ‘liberation’ and ‘equality’ mean. The certainty of boxes might help marketers and make us a bit more palatable for homophobes but it makes us blind to our problems and diminishes us as people.

And it Feels like Home – 25 Years of Like A Prayer

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“Did this actually make you think or are you just trying to be cool?’

My first high school English teacher didn’t much care for my essay about Madonna’s Like A Prayer, returning it to me with the (barely) implicit message that I would write it again. I’d written about how, at the tail-end of my Catholic primary education, Madonna’s album (and particularly the furore around its first single) had opened up a small but ultimately invaluable space for me to start thinking about my relationship with religion. This had been previously been unthinkable for me; more than that, it had seemed terrifying. It felt intrinsically wrong. That the music so resonated with me is unsurprising when you read Madonna’s thoughts at the time:

“I have a great sense of guilt and sin from Catholicism that has definitely permeated my everyday life, whether I want it to or not. And when I do something wrong… if I don’t let someone know that I have wronged, I’m always afraid that I’m going to be punished. And that’s something you’re raised to believe as a Catholic.”

She spoke of the deeply-ingrained but nonetheless taught sense that “If you enjoy something, it must be wrong.” It was ironic, then, that prior to the school discos and end-of-term days where we could bring music into the classroom, we would be given the firm instruction “NO MADONNA”.  This had the obvious effect of making Madonna seem infinitely cooler – even dangerous. And how often can you say that about pop music?

There has been nothing quite like the controversy which erupted around Like A Prayer, either before or since. The single was premiered in an innocuous Pepsi commercial, the product of a then-unprecedented $5 million tie-in deal.

The day after, the now-legendary music video was released. There was instant and widespread uproar, with accusations of blasphemy meeting barely-hidden racism regarding Madonna’s use of a ‘black Jesus’ (the video actually depicts Saint Martin de Porres). The Pope himself condemned the video and the Vatican later censured the whole album. Pepsi quickly ditched the campaign and Madonna kept the money, managing the quite incredible feat of appearing subversive while filling her bustier with multinational dollars.

We tend to believe that boundaries keep being pushed and we become less and less easy to shock. Yet if anything, the Like A Prayer tornado seems less likely to happen in 2014. Pop is more fragmented now, yes. Yet it also seems to carry less cultural weight and have less heady aspirations. The instant response to this in some quarters will be to point out that I’m just older. Sure. But we live in age where even self-confessed pop fans argue for the ‘right’ of pop to be meaningless, frothy background noise, thinking that this is fighting the good fight against elitism. Big artistic statements are so rare that Lady Gaga can hinge an entire career on the mere appearance of offering something beyond the interchangeable pop which dominates, with most of the big pop stars singing variations offered by the same few song-writing teams. Indeed, it’s notable that many listeners of contemporary Madonna long affectionately for the days when she would largely write an entire album with one or two other people (and relatively obscure people at that) – they may not realise it but they’re buying completely into notions of creativity and authenticity (in the spark between writers) which they would probably profess to scorn.

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Going back to 1989, there was little overlap in the collaborators between the dominant artists of the era. Prince’s Batman was created by a total of three writers and one producer. Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 – three writers and four producers. Even Kylie’s Enjoy Yourself is entirely driven by Stock Aitken and Waterman, with one cover version. Madonna’s Like A Prayer unashamedly revelled in its ‘rockist’ take on pop, drawing on inspirations like Simon and Garfunkel, Sly and the Family Stone, The Beatles and Stax Records. Madonna spoke of her love for Tom Waits in interviews of the period, while the album cover is a clear evocation of Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones. This was no trite attempt to ‘elevate’ pop by name-dropping so-called serious artists – it was a refusal to countenance that pop wasn’t just as worthy and creative in the first place. If this seems overly worthy, the scenting of the album sleeve with patchouli oil surely provided a cheeky wink at the misunderstood blurred line between artifice and authenticity?

At the time this line was personified by Prince, so it’s unsurprising that Madonna wanted to work with him. What’s perhaps more surprising for some is that Prince equally wanted to work with her (Madonna laughed about how little respect she was afforded as an artist with a wry ““You mean they don’t realize I’m a songwriter as well as a slut?”) The two had gotten together in 1987 to figure out a collaboration: Prince wanted Madonna to star in Graffiti Bridge only for her to dismiss the script as ‘a piece of shit’ (she was right). A co-written musical was mooted and then abandoned. In the end, the two created some impromptu demos, with Madonna describing how they:

“…sat down and just started fooling around. We had a lot of fun. What happened is that he played the drums and I played the synthesizer and we came up with the original melody line; I just, off the top of my head, started singing lyrics into the microphone.”

Oh, to have been in that room. The result, Love Song, was largely finished off via a tape being sent back and forth (very 20th century) and it is perhaps the most low-key and left-field duet between two pop superstars that there has ever been. Some see it as the weak point of Like A Prayer – I think it’s a febrile treasure. The Purple One also pops up on Keep It Together and Act of Contrition, as well as the 12” version of Like A Prayer.

Prince aside, Madonna again worked with the two men who had largely guided 1986’s mammoth-selling True Blue album: Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray.  Having collaborated with both for years by this point, there was an easy and magical chemistry. Things moved quickly, with Leonard later saying:

“Everything is very quick. We wrote ‘Like A Prayer’, ‘Spanish Eyes’, ‘Til Death Do Us Part’, ‘Dear Jessie’, ‘Promise to Try’ and ‘Cherish’ in a two week period. I was working on another album at the time so she’d just come in on Saturdays or days off. Nothing took more than 4 hours ever.”

Bray summed up the mood which drove the writing forward with such speed: “It’s behind the scenes, definitely, in Madonna’s psyche.” Her relationship with Sean Penn had very publically disintegrated during the album’s genesis, with Madonna finally filing for divorce following a prolonged violent assault by Penn. Speaking about writing her most personal record to date, Madonna said:

“In the past I wrote a lot of songs like that, but I felt they were too honest or too frightening or too scary and I decided not to record them. It just seemed like the time was right at this point. Because this was what was coming out of me. “

‘Express yourself so you can respect yourself’ was no throwaway line – it’s a fundamental tenet of the record. The result may have been atypical of pop at the time but it was the continuation of a trend Madonna had both pushed and ridden. True Blue’s Live To Tell was the obvious precursor, while Janet Jackson’s Control (also released in 1986) had attracted much attention for its very public rejection of her father Joseph’s influence (and indeed Janet too would push deeper with the themes of Rhythm Nation 1814). You can nonetheless imagine that it was still shocking to hear a pop superstar of Madonna’s calibre singing about an abusive partner, a dead mother and a dysfunctional family.

It’s not noted enough how central the theme of family is to Like A Prayer, despite it being writ large on the record. It is dedicated to her mother, who provides the inspiration for the naked emotion of Promise To Try. Her father is the subject of Oh Father (funnily enough) while on Keep It Together she addresses her five siblings. Til Death Do Us Part of course addresses her former husband while the psychedelic  joy of Dear Jessie is aimed at Pat Leonard’s daughter Jessie whom Madonna had apparently gotten drunk on champagne in 1987. If much of the family on display here is messy and messed up it’s clear that Madonna views it as central to life: “don’t forget that your family is gold”, she sings on Keep It Together, positing them as the key to remembering the essential core of yourself.

It was a self I was still finding, let alone coming to terms with, in 1989 and the following years. Like A Prayer more than any other record not only accompanied me on that journey but helped me to discover myself. It didn’t explode my world wide open but rather, as I said at the start, created a small space where the seeds for what became defining questions about my life were planted. I haven’t even touched on my burgeoning sexuality and how Madonna at the time was by far the most prominent advocate of gay rights (Like A Prayer featured an educational insert about AIDS while the song Spanish Eyes has been said to be about the disease). I’m sure I picked up on that connection, somewhere, but truth be told it was buried deep within me at that stage; I had to get out from under the whole Catholic sinner thing before I could even begin to visit those places. Happily, Madonna would be there for that part too.

So happy 25th anniversary to Like A Prayer, a pop album which remains unparalleled in my humble opinion. More than any other it shows what pop can really be and why it demands to be taken seriously rather than defended as irrelevant fluff. It’s a record which continues to matter while containing some mercurial, evergreen singles –  it remains a watershed moment in pop. Its DNA can be found when Christina Aguilera announces herself as a ‘serious artist’ by getting personal on Stripped; when Rihanna turns the travails of her private life into brilliant music on Rated R and (of course) when Lady Gaga pays ‘homage’ to one of its most famous singles. We now don’t bat an eyelid when, on her most recent album MDNA, Madonna sings of her second failing marriage on songs like I Fucked Up and Falling Free (it’s surely no accident that her second divorce album picks up where the first one ends, with a recitation of the Act of Contrition?)

Was I ‘trying to be cool’ when I wrote that essay back then? Probably. I certainly felt cool liking the record at the time but by God, it really did make me think and it made me feel. Rolling Stone famously called the album ‘as close to art as pop music gets’. It may have been intended as a great compliment but fuck that. Like A Prayer is art – great art, at that. And when I listen to it now? It feels like home.

Which Disney Princess Are You? Geeks, Gays and Misogyny

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I’ve written previously about a perceived ‘descent into infantile triviality’ where a seemingly pathological aversion to being viewed as ‘too serious’ manifests itself in particular as a ‘facetious fixation on popular culture (which) flows neatly into consumerism’. Nothing better sums up this trend than the explosion in the past 12 months of sites like Buzzfeed, built almost entirely around lists and gifs which offer jolts of recognition to personalities overwhelmingly built around particular aspects of culture. Interestingly, the particular identity which much of this seems to revolve around is that of the ‘geek’. This perhaps isn’t surprising, as this is not only an identity overwhelmingly based on consumption but also one which relies heavily on gif-able culture for its existence.

While this is a general trend, I wrote last year about how this particular identity was becoming the dominant subculture in what we know as ‘gay culture’. This makes sense when you think about the ways in which this serves capital and how they neatly complement the increasing positioning of the LGBT community as both a market and a marketing tool. It’s been no surprise, then, that even since I wrote the ‘Gay Geeks’ blog I’ve noticed a dramatic upsurge in the prevalence of what I described. It also increasingly converges: this morning one of the first things I saw on my Facebook was a link to ‘Disney Princesses as Game of Thrones Characters’ while Push The Button, a gay night devoted to semi-ironic love for c-grade 90s pop, is soon having an evening devoted to The Little Mermaid. The Disneyfication of the geek identity has been fascinating to watch (and is clearly something Buzzfeed has picked up on) but it has ominous undercurrents with regards to a geek culture which is often accused of misogyny (it almost entirely seems to revolve around Disney Princesses). When you take the Gay Geek there are further levels of disquiet, with the issues levelled at the geek identity potentially being compounded by the accusations that misogyny is prevalent amongst gay males. If we look at the markers of the Gay Geek, aside from Disney Princesses, comics, video games, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who and the rest you commonly see a love for Ru Paul’s Drag Race present. It’s impossible not to notice that all of these things have problems with their representations of women who, in pretty much all of them, are sexy and sassy while ultimately being in thrall to the brilliant men around them. This is most explicit in Drag Race, where a group of men act out this sassy fantasy and find it reproduced by viewers around the world (with added racial issues as white men unthinkingly do impressions of black female stereotypes).

I thought of this when reading the Rohin Guha piece on gay male misogyny which has caused a minor storm in some circles. Guha notes that, in certain gay subcultures, women are:

…essentially unwelcome, unless they come to us as a Real Housewife, a pop diva, or an Tony award winner–or an unassuming fag hag. To anyone just coming out of the closet and hoping to get his bearings in the gay male community, the attitude towards women is simple: They are just objects whose function is to serve gay men.

The fit between this and the Gay Geek identity is startling and finds its perfect expression in HBO’s new ‘gay drama’ Looking. The main character is a self-identified geek who designs video games. When he’s not talking about sex with his friends, they exchange self-consciously sassy references to popular culture. His date purchases him trading cards based on 80s movie The Goonies to impress him. While this is going on, women are almost entirely absent from the lives of the central characters. They appear to have a single female friend who is a gay man’s fantasy of a fag hag, always on hand to go drinking and always willing to sit quietly in the lounge while you bring over your Grindr shag. The only other females who have even had lines have been a snooty artist who sacks one of the guys and a chef who refuses to help kick-start the restaurant dream of another. This treatment (absence, largely) of women has been one of the most egregious aspects of the show yet I’ve not seen a single mention of it in any review.

It’s interesting that the attacks on Guha’s piece seem to come from a place of ‘but women shouldn’t even be in gay places and they touch us and treat us like accessories too!’ Aside from the absurd pre-school nature of ‘they started it!’, I find this deeply disingenuous. There is certainly a damaging instrumentalisation of gay people as ‘liberal accessories’ but it’s one in which the entire gay media and community is very complicit. We fall over ourselves to adore straight ‘allies’ who praise gay people (Attitude giving Caitlin Moran an ‘Honorary Gay Award’), even when it’s done in the most patronising and offensive ways. Our gay magazines feature an endless parade of attractive straight men in their pants (I wonder if the writer of the linked Huffington Post piece would take issue with an attractive straight ‘gay ally’ like Ben Cohen being present in ‘his’ gay clubs) and we barely bat an eyelid at Lady Gaga’s adoption of ‘the gays’ as her ‘cause’ or Britney Spears referring to her gay fans as ‘somewhat girls’. No, this defence smacks of people being called out on their behaviour and being outraged (even if we accepted the defences offered, they depict nothing so much as deeply dysfunctional relationships which apparently are fine unless someone actually dares to point out how fucked up they are.)

Misogyny is clearly real and there’s no reason that gay men would be excluded from that. What makes this particularly worthy of commentary is that we seem to think of gay men and women as natural allies and so think we couldn’t possibly be misogynist. Yet I think it’s very present – and with the rise of the Gay Geek it’s being expressed in over more subtly damaging ways. Facing this problem is but one way in which we can educate ourselves, avoid the ‘infantile triviality’ and progress to a position where we can start to challenge these issues.

12 Years A Slave and racism in the UK

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I saw 12 Years A Slave a few months ago at the London Film Festival. I liked it well enough – it’s well-made, features some brilliant performances and proved engrossing. I wasn’t, however, as blown away by it as most of the American critics I’d read had been. I particularly found the claims that it was the ‘most brutal’ Hollywood film ever made to be quite odd: yes, it’s difficult to watch at times but the violence (which is rarely as extreme as much advance word would have it) is countered by a strong sentimentality. It was no surprise then that I found bell hooks’ take on it (“sentimental clap-trap”) to be compelling, if characteristically blunt.

As I left the cinema after seeing it, the sound of weeping echoed around the room. It’s certainly the most tear-inducing film I’ve ever seen in a public setting. What partly drove some of my own thoughts on it was the presence in the audience of some people whose response to the London riots had both angered and upset me. How, I wondered, did the racism portrayed in the film connect in their minds to the racism which played such a massive part in the riots and responses to them? Did it even connect at all?

I was reminded of this earlier this week while reading Hadley Freeman’s take on the film, specifically this observation:

Whenever a movie, documentary or otherwise, is made about a terrible historical atrocity – the Holocaust, genocide, slavery – the easiest approach for the filmmaker is to shock the audience while simultaneously making them feel good about themselves for being so different from those brutes from another era – validating all of their beliefs about the past (bad) and themselves (good.) But 12 Years a Slave is too brutal a film, and McQueen too clear-eyed a filmmaker, to do that.

I was completely bemused by this comment because I think it’s exactly what the film does. The ‘racists’ in the film are almost uniformly sociopaths, barely recognisable as human. The big exception is Benedict Cumberbatch as a ‘humane’ plantation owner – but viewers are pretty much invited to sympathise with him, to view him as a ‘good man’ because he treats his slaves with a modicum of dignity. In this way racism is individualised, portrayed as a consequence of how we act. This is most egregiously underlined with Brad Pitt’s cameo as (SPOILER) a carpenter whose intervention ultimately leads to Solomon Northup’s freedom. This is, of course, loyal to Northup’s autobiography but the decision to cast Pitt in the role, looking and sounding to all intents like some American Jesus Christ, is a major misstep. White viewers inevitably identify with him, we think “that’s what I would have done!”

If the film does indeed intend for us to think about racism as a deeply-embedded structure of inequality, of brutality, of human misery, it is a failure. The brilliance of the novel Alone in Berlin is that it makes us realise that most Nazis were just like us, rather than the caricatured visions of evil that we so readily imagine. To get ahead in Nazi Germany meant at the very least acquiescing to what was happening while being a ‘good’ person and opposing the Nazi regime meant almost certain misery and probably death. How many of us have that moral courage? I think it’s a very difficult and uncomfortable question to answer, if we’re honest with ourselves. 12 Years A Slave avoids this discomfort and I can’t imagine many viewers leaving the film wondering what their behaviour might have been had they been alive at that time, in those circumstances. The racism it depicts is both very obvious and very in the past.

If this offers comfort to me as a white (and liberal) viewer, it offers us nothing in terms of understanding racism as a force today. What seemed clear from the riots and was underlined yesterday by the Mark Duggan verdict (and the responses to it) is that many (most?) people in the UK have absolutely no understanding of racism as an endemic system where it’s not only the police force that is institutionally racist. The popular law tweeter Jack of Kent instantly responded to the verdict by tweeting “Hurrah for a jurisdiction where juries can come to verdicts which are unpopular” before engaging in some twisted point-scoring, portraying himself as the dispassionate and rational observer against a legion of over-emotional nitwits who had rushed to offence. This was about the law, not about race, a line taken by the police even as they lied and smeared after killing yet another black person and getting away with it. If the instinctive rush to defend the police is disturbing, meanwhile, the sense (also seen re: the riots) that many believe ‘thugs’ and ‘street criminals’ are less than human and deserve to be brutalised is downright terrifying. The police and many in the media know this – that’s why they have repeatedly tried to control the narrative and assert that Duggan was a ‘violent gang member’.

We as a country are in denial about race. We are so in denial that we actively shout-down those who dare to suggest that we might have a problem, at best portraying them as bitter and over-sensitive cranks and at worse hurling abuse at them. As a white man with a lot to learn I’ve still had plenty of the former when discussing racism – the latter seems largely reserved for the black commentators, who are perceived as ‘angry’ and ‘difficult’ from the off. Even amongst ‘liberal’ people, responses such as these (re: the last Lily Allen video) seem common:

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“I guess it’s just me who sees a person as a person, not as their skin colour first.” This is how I feel. Racism continues because it’s consistently brought up.” You get that? Racism is your fault, losers! Stop bringing it up! People are just people! It would be hysterical in its stupidity if it wasn’t so damaging and widespread. 

I noted in the Lily blog that I was seeing a lot of white gay men shouting down black women who were asserting that the video was racist. This sprung to mind again yesterday with the announcement by former footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger that he is gay. While this may be a positive move with regards to football, the hysteria it elicited was completely (but inevitably) overblown. So far, so standard, Where things became dumbfounding was when the Sun posted its morning front page online:

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The UK’s biggest newspaper apparently didn’t think the verdict on the police killing which sparked England’s biggest riots in generations, a verdict which had instantly aroused anger and fear of further riots, was front page news. More than that, they went with a front page contrasting the ‘brave’ white gay man with the ‘loser’ black one. The people behind The Sun knew exactly what they were doing here: they understood the racial tensions triggered by the Duggan verdict and they knew what message their front page sent in this context. Knowing that The Sun is a racist rag, we might not be surprised at this. Where things got incredible was when people started congratulating them on this move:

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The Guardian’s James Ball led the charge, joined by Charlie Brooker, Stuart McGurk and many others. It was like they were living in some alternate world where nothing much of note had happened that evening. Perversely, Ball and others then followed up with a chorus of sneers at anyone who thought Hitzlsperger’s coming out wasn’t ‘news’. Of course it was, they insisted – gay people are oppressed! And so by writing some patronising words about a gay man (after decades of poisonous, destructive homophobia) The Sun managed to push its vile racist message, that they don’t care about black people, without criticism. It’s a move which is testament to how far the UK has come with regards to homosexuality – what was once hated is now wheeled out as a diversion tactic. This is no surprise given the neutered self-obsession of the gay movement and its firm embedding within the neoliberal mainstream. Gay liberation and gay politics poses absolutely no threat to the wealthy interests The Sun acts as a front for – interests which are served well by our racist structures. Nonetheless, as night follows day you’ll find a white gay man drawing a comparison between gay people and black people. There are volumes of books that could be written about this facile and offensive comparison, which does a disservice both to the fight against homophobia and to anti-racism. Suffice to say that we’re not in danger of being stopped and searched because we’re gay and we’re certainly not about to be shot dead by the police any time soon.

In applauding The Sun people get to feel good about themselves. The whole Duggan affair offers no such balm and even threatens widely-held images not only of our country but of ourselves. And so it’s easier ignored. 12 Years A Slave might offer a visceral depiction of racism but ultimately it offers the same soothing balm and makes it easy to affirm our self-image as ‘good’ and ‘not racist’ people. As long as we keep buying into this and avoiding the reality of racism, the Mark Duggans of this world will keep paying the price.

The Great Beauty

To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face, and to know it for what it is…at last, to love it for what it is, and then to put it away.

This quote, attributed to Virginia Woolf, keeps popping into my head since I watched The Great Beauty a couple of evenings ago. It stands in direct contrast to one of the central scenes in the film, where the protagonist Jep demolishes the hypocrisies of a friend by noting that:

We also know our untruths and for this, unlike you, we end up talking about nonsense, about trivial matters, because we don’t want to revel in our pettiness.

This may sound like an appealing self-awareness, a deflating of self-importance. In the course of the film, however, Jep comes to realise that in attempting to pre-empt and avoid his own untruths, he has ended up avoiding life. The Great Beauty is not something which comes along but rather the experience itself:

This is how it always ends. With death. But first there was life. Hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah. It is all settled beneath the chitter chatter and the noise. Silence and sentiment. Emotion and fear. The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty. And then the wretched squalor and miserable humanity. All buried under the cover of the embarrassment of being in the world. Beyond there is what lies beyond. I don’t deal with what lies beyond. Therefore…let this novel begin.

It has been a recurring trope of the film that Jep once wrote a serious novel and has since written interviews. People ask him several times why he doesn’t write again. He is shown revelling at the centre of extravagant, hedonistic parties, surrounded by people who chase the lustre of ostentatious ‘creativity’. We see an unsuccessful actor who suddenly announces she is now a writer, then mid-thought decides that she might direct a film. Jep’s friend spends much of the film chasing a dream of staging his own play, though it seems to be a dream heavily inspired by his pursuit of aforementioned ‘actor’. In the course of his writing Jep encounters a couple of dreadful artists: a self-indulgent performance artist who speaks about herself in the third-person and who waffles about ‘vibrations’, and a young girl who dramatically hurls pots of paint at a canvas. It is all nothing and Jep is no-one, a cipher at the heart of the sound and fury. As we see in the final lines of the quote above, Jep comes to realise this and endeavours to confront life in all its complex beauty and horror, figuratively signalled by his decision to write a novel again.

In the middle of nothing it’s easy to be anything. Everyone in Jep’s life performs for one another, avoiding sincerity and seeking validation for their self-image. Jep’s own journey is set in motion by the death of an old girlfriend, his first love. Having avoided his own past for so long, he finds that the roots of who he has become offer redemption. This is paralleled by his friend who, realising that his play is dreadful and his audience are politely indulging him, dramatically decides to return to his home village after decades away. “Rome has really disappointed me”, he offers as explanation.

It will be obvious to many by now that while Rome is an integral part of the film I saw many parallels with London within it. Only last week I found myself telling an old acquaintance whom I’d bumped into in Glasgow that it was so easy to get lost in London and not even realise it. So easy to surround yourself with people who unthinkingly reflect your self-image back at you and demand that you do the same, allowing you to believe that you are what you want to be. I think this is part of why going back home for Christmas is so difficult for many here – it threatens to puncture the illusion, confronts us with a very real history of ourselves in contrast to the ‘self-made’ people we have become.  We must look at ourselves with some attempt at honesty and humility, not so that we can revel in triviality to avoid the discomforts of sincerity but rather so we can look life squarely in the face and begin to understand what lies beyond its appealing, deceptive surfaces. Only then can we grow, only then can we truly immerse ourselves in what life has to offer.

Heck, it even brings to mind the final words of the 11th Doctor:

We all change. When you think about, it we’re all different people all through our lives and that’s OK. That’s good. Gotta keep it moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.