In no particular order.
In no particular order.
In the recent ‘celebrations’ of the 50-year anniversary of (partial) decriminalisation of homosexual activity, one of the central themes which emerged was the importance of pop culture to LGBT* life. It has provided much-needed recognition and an outlet for expression while helping transform the world. In so doing, and in ways too numerous, too tiny, too enormous to express, it has transformed us. Anyone who knows anything about me knows how large a role Madonna has played in my life. She was there when I started to question the Catholicism I’d been raised with; she was there when I started to realise I was ‘different’; she was there when I started having sex and battled both the religious and societal conditioning that doing it with men, and with many men at that, was wrong. She provided my own ‘Ziggy on TOTP’ moment, the men passionately kissing during In Bed With Madonna, the first time I can remember seeing not just gay men, but gay men expressing their sexuality. At every step she was there, both as an enormous, alien, mighty figure looming large over (seemingly) the entire world and as a small voice whispering to me, “you are ok, you are going to be ok and you are allowed to be ok.’ And she did it, and continues to do it, with a gold-plated soundtrack which remains an unparalleled testament to the power of pop; one which can still fill a club in Hackney with people dancing joyously; one which still thrills me and shakes me to my core. I love Madonna, and I always will love Madonna, with a sincerity and earnestness which you’re not really supposed to express in 2017. Happy birthday and thank you @Madonna
You can’t argue with that.
Rory Scothorne, one of the insightful authors of Roch Winds, has written an interesting blog which serves as a counterpoint to my argument on Article 50. It’s compelling in parts but on reflection I disagree and I wanted to outline why:
1 – It stands as one of those arguments which should have been made prior to the referendum happening, appearing as a desperate afterthought now. As a basic point of principle, it’s difficult (not impossible, of course) for your opponents to condemn you for doing what you said you would. Much of the capital Rory believes Labour could win by professing to ‘stand up’ for Scotland and Northern Ireland could have been won previously by insisting on the mooted ‘quadruple lock’. Yet Labour was largely mute on this, due in large part no doubt to the fact that it was seen to fuel ‘separatist’ ideas: Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland are not members of the EU except as part of the UK, so the referendum was framed as a ‘UK-wide’ question. Scotland is no more being ‘dragged from the EU against its will’ than London or Newcastle is, yet the idea Labour would oppose Article 50 ‘on behalf of London and Newcastle’ would be widely viewed as absurd.
2 – Having not previously been loudly making the ‘quadruple lock’ argument, hinging opposition to Article 50 on it now would be viewed as weak and opportunistic. Crucially this would not only be the case in England – it would 100% be how it was framed by the SNP, which never misses a chance to stick the knife into Labour. It would further destroy Labour’s base in England without offering any certain uplift in Scotland, where Labour would be viewed as very late to the party and dependent on the whims of its Westminster leadership. In that regard it could actually further strengthen the Nationalist cause.
3 – Rory argues (rightly) that Corbyn and Labour are not well-placed to capitalise on English nationalism. It does not follow that it should then attempt to capitalise on Scottish nationalism, on which it is always going to be outflanked by an SNP which does not have electoral or indeed moral considerations beyond Scotland’s borders. If “your average English petit-bourgeois” considers Corbyn to be unpatriotic, the exact same could be said of his/her counterpart in Scotland. Indeed, Rory himself speaks of “the current lack of interest in Scottish politics coming from Corbyn and his supporters down south”. I don’t think this is entirely fair because, as it stands, Corbyn speaking on ‘Scottish politics’ is easily presented as ‘Westminster interference’ while leaving it to Scottish Labour is viewed as either not caring or outright contempt. Such are the dynamics of nationalist politics and feeding the SNP narrative of Brexit as a ‘Scotland’ vs ‘England’ issue fuels both English and Scottish nationalism and only further destroys any possibility of a future Labour recovery in either.
4 – Rory speaks of how it would be necessary to ‘abandon socialism’ in order to appeal to ‘English populism’. While this isn’t incorrect, the implicit counterpoint is that this isn’t the case in Scotland. Yet as the past few years have amply demonstrated, while Scottish nationalism may posture as far more left-wing and radical than its English counterpart, when it has actually come down to practical action and policy it has proved itself to be largely cautious, conservative and not far removed from the right of the Labour party. There is little evidence to suggest that Corbyn pursuing radicalism offers any more electoral gain in Scotland than in (parts of) England (and indeed Scottish Labour’s 2016 manifesto, clearly to the left of the SNP’s, tells us that Labour’s problems in Scotland go far beyond offering any move towards socialism).
5 – The fundamental point remains that both parliamentary and electoral maths mean Brexit is going to happen, whatever Labour’s position. If, as Rory states, Brexit is “is unavoidably a symbol of anti-immigrant sentiment, nostalgic fantasies of foreign despotism, and the least useful (though still, admittedly, politically interesting) sort of anti-elitism”, then that reflects dominant trends in politics more widely which won’t be swept away by opposing Article 50. If anything they will, as I argue, be further emboldened. Labour’s great failure in the Scottish independence debate was to largely co-sponsor the Conservative Party’s doom-laden vision of Scotland outside of the UK rather than pushing a positive, left-wing argument for a UK rooted in the solidarity which is essential for any large-scale left-wing platform to succeed. It is crucial that it does not now make the same mistake and distinguishes itself from the Tory vision of Brexit as loudly as possible – a case which simply won’t be listened to by many (including many Remainers who have accepted the result) if they are viewed as trying to reverse the referendum.
6 – The idea that opposing Brexit offers a way back for Labour in Scotland seems more rooted in the nationalist narrative of Scotland than in anything tangible. It’s worth remembering that behind the ‘Scotland voted Remain’ story, 1/3 of the electorate there didn’t vote and the difference between Leave and Remain was approx. 600,000 votes (1.66 million for remain vs 1.01 million for leave). As I noted in my blog, last week’s Yougov poll suggested that while a majority in Scotland still want to remain, clear majorities also endorse Theresa May’s main ‘negotiating points’ for Brexit, including on immigration where Scottish public opinion remains regressive. We can also note that behind Scotland ‘relative europhilia’ lies a more complex history where a plurality or majority have wanted to leave the EU or reduce its powers. I have long argued that Brexit becoming tightly associated with right-wing English nationalism has far more to do with a majority in Scotland falling ‘in love’ with the EU than any substantive support for it. It’s also been clear in polls that a majority in Scotland currently have no appetite for leaving the UK in order to join the EU, hence even the SNP focusing on the single market rather than EU membership. Rory even notes that it’s the Tories, not Labour who seem most likely to experience a significant revival in Scotland – a fact which owes much to the centrality of the ‘national question’ in Scottish politics. As it stands, a significant % of those who currently support the SNP will never vote Labour unless it supports independence, and many of those going to the Tories want nothing less than total opposition to further devolution. Labour opening itself to countless, easy attacks in England on the basis of Scotland’s support for the EU would seem to me to be a battle lost before it even begins.
7 – Nicola Sturgeon has indeed been successful at positioning herself as ‘Scotland’s chief lobbyist’ on this issue. Yet, given what I’ve outlined above, the answer to this isn’t to seek to join her but to hammer home the contradictions inherent in her position. As I’ve said, there is no doubt in my mind that the SNP would not welcome a commitment from Corbyn to oppose Article 50 but would instead quickly find a new angle of attack. A (welcome) commitment to federalism does not mean pretending we currently have it – Labour is best placed to argue that the current set-up in the UK isn’t fit for purpose while constructively offering solutions, just as it is best placed to argue that if Brexit is (regretfully) going to happen, it should happen on as social democratic a platform as it can secure (which admittedly is perhaps not much of one). These may not be compellingly instant positions but I think they will stand the party in good stead in the long run, just as hammering home the SNP’s incoherent position on the UK vs the EU and its singular fixation on referendums will.
8 – As Rory argues, the current Labour position is weak and subject to attack by both political and media opponents. I don’t dispute this, instead arguing in my blog that their current position is the least bad of the terrible options. Yet in speaking of the position most likely to bring Corbyn to power Rory ignores his own compelling arguments, both with regards to the UK and to the wider environment for socialism, as to why that’s almost certainly not going to happen. Labour should have been positioning itself on Brexit, on the English and Scottish questions (and on a whole lot else) for the past 2 years but has instead been consumed by infighting. It has likely squandered its chance and, barring any seismic occurrence, it is not going to come to power any time soon. It is not unreasonable, then, to be concerned with minimising losses and seeking to guard against a reactionary post-Corbyn future for the party. It’s clear that some on the left harbour illusions that a socialist leader without Corbyn’s baggage or presentational issues would be a compelling figure for the electorate, yet it is undeniable that the stakes are piled formidably high against any such leader. This is why I argue that turning the tide is going to take time (something I think Rory agrees with) and that it requires all of us committed to socialism to engage in social movements. So, while I think Rory’s course of action would only make the terrain more treacherous for socialism in the long run, I fully agree with his conclusion:
The world that socialists must navigate is increasingly one of hermetic subcultures, economic decline and political crisis as a form of governance. I suspect that the most effective responses will be closer to the traditions of anarchism than socialism. If national struggles for constitutional power are not working, then localised extra-legal resistance which emphasises subcultural or community solidarity must take precedence. If national identities cannot be mobilised for the left then they must be disrupted and subverted, their institutions disrespected and their everyday cultural manifestations ruthlessly undermined. There may be no more room for good patriots; only good traitors. Corbyn has shown the occasional, accidental flash of treason — it’s up to those who have supported him this far to start doing it deliberately.
So Brexit is proving to be a shitshow and a disaster for the left, as all of us who weren’t deluded enough to believe in Lexit knew it would be. I don’t think many of us actually expected it to happen, though – even when the polls showed a tight race they usually had ‘Remain’ in the lead and there was a widespread sense that people would ‘see sense’ on the day. So the result not only came as a shock but (for many of us) felt like a hammer blow to our identity, our notion of the country we lived in and its place in the world. Yet as we get further on from the vote it seems increasingly obvious that this isn’t something which happened on the day of the referendum, or even during the referendum campaign: this has been decades in the making and too many of us were blind to it. Some remain blind to it and have retreated into an almost petulant rage that most people didn’t vote ‘the right way’.
Much of the worst rhetoric from the ‘Leave’ side, and from the Tory government under the ostensibly ‘Remain’ Theresa May, has presented those opposed to Brexit as an out of touch elite and enemies of democracy. It shouldn’t need to be pointed out how dangerous and disgusting this is, yet it’s difficult not to wonder if it’s given unwarranted power as many celebrate a multi-millionare hedge fund manager winning a court battle on parliamentary sovereignty. That in itself is fine – Brexit has been sold to us as ‘taking back control’, after all – yet it’s very clear that for many this presents an opportunity for Westminster to override/ignore the referendum result in a vote. These people have reacted with blind fury to Labour’s pledge that it will respect the referendum result and will not seek to ‘frustrate’ the triggering of Article 50, instead seeking to influence the kind of Brexit we end up with by demanding detailed legislation be presented before parliment to be debated and amended. This has commonly been presented hand in hand with the myth that Jeremy Corbyn was somehow to blame for the result of the vote, despite 2/3rds of Labour voters opting to ‘Remain’ (the same % as SNP voters) and Corbyn being by far the most prominent Labour figure, and third most prominent ‘Remain’ figure, in the campaign.
Yet Labour cannot prevent Brexit in parliament and, more than that, it would be utterly disastrous were it to try. As briefly as possible, here is why:
It’s an imperfect position, certainly, but the only feasible one. We then move onto what I’ve found to be a common response to this: “well shouldn’t Labour offer leadership and do what it thinks is right, rather than blindly following a ‘majority’ who voted on a bunch of lies’?
As I noted earlier, this has been decades in the making. Parties across the political spectrum have happily blamed the EU as an easy scapegoat for domestic decisions (even the SNP blamed the EU in the row over privatising Calmac) while politicians have at best ignored popular hostility towards immigration and at worst fanned it. As I documented in my pre-referendum post, the majority of people have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about with regards to immigration yet polls have consistently found that most view it negatively (including in Scotland). In my lifetime it has been common for politicians to use the rhetoric of the far right on immigration, push increasingly intolerant policies on asylum and immigration and engage in a perverse arms race on who can be ‘toughest‘ on the issue.
In the 2015 Labour leadership campaign Andy Burnham repeated dangerous myths about migration and called for tighter controls, while Liz Kendall disgracefully conflated desperate refugees with migrants presumed to be ‘cheating’ the welfare system. Immediately after the Brexit vote Owen Smith, in the Labour leadership campaign, argued for a ‘progressive case against freedom of movement‘and suggested there were too many immigrants, while leading Labour figures like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper lined up to chuck ‘freedom of movement’ under a bus. During the leadership campaigns and referendum, Jeremy Corbyn singularly refused to feed these narratives, yet what should be an unremarkable, fact-based position is considered so extreme that he has faced enormous pressure to backtrack on it. This lead to the dismal spectacle of a heavily-trailed seachange in his immigration position wherein he moved a bit to the right in his rhetoric yet didn’t actually seem to alter his position (apparently following an intervention from Diane Abbott), managing to piss off his supporters for no apparent reason.This in itself was treated as a ‘gotcha’ by the media, which has been utterly woeful in presenting the facts of immigration.
Far too many of those now calling for ‘leadership’ on Brexit have refused to step up and fight to drain the swamp that has been the immigration ‘debate’.’Addressing concerns over immigration’ has been the ‘moderate’ cry to demonstrate how serious and ready for power they are. Even the supposedly pro-immigration SNP has played this game and it’s worth noting that the independence White Paper proposed exactly the kind of points-system which is so beloved of reactionaries. For too long we have been timid on both the EU and on immigration, conceding more and more ground to a right-wing which has only moved further and further right in response. In retrospect it was a remarkably brave move for Ed Miliband to rule out an EU referendum if he won power – it’s notable that the now-decidedly anti-Brexit Green Party actually promised one in its manifesto and complained of “the EU’s unsustainable economics of free trade and growth” (a position not to dissimilar from Corbyn’s previous rhetoric). By the time the vote on holding the EU referendum came around after the 2015 election, only the SNP felt able to actually oppose it.
Calls for ‘leadership’ now are laughable because it’s been lacking for so long, replaced by crude and contemptible attempts to ride and exploit ‘public opinion’. The same mindset and tactics were at play in the EU referendum: we were so sure ‘Remain’ would win that there was little thought put into how the referendum should be conducted and little preparation made for what happened if the vote went the other way. Tim Farron, now a passionate advocate for opposing Brexit, explicitly mocked the idea of a second referendum prior to the vote. Yet now calls for a second referendum are common from people who would have found this a democratic outrage coming from Nigel Farage, and the idea that the vote is invalid because’Leave’ voters were duped is commonly expressed. ‘The referendum was only advisory!’ All referendums in the UK are ‘only advisory’ – the point is that absolutely no-one campaigning or voting believed this one was until the result wasn’t what they wanted. Absolutely no-one is fooled that demands for another referendum are anything other than attempts to reverse the vote. Most of the arguments for ignoring the referendum result are arguments for not holding the referendum in the first place (and I think most ‘Remain’ voters didn’t particularly understand what they were voting for any more than ‘Leave’ voters understood what they were voting against) and that ship sailed long ago. It’s notable that last week’s Yougov poll found that 66% of Remain voters supported either Labour or the Tories, while a majority in every region of the UK endorsed May’s ‘negotiating points’. There is not some groundswell for overturning the vote.
This brings us to probably the most profoundly scary reason why Labour (and indeed other politicians) trying to prevent Brexit in parliament is such a terrible idea. As we’ve seen, rhetoric around ‘elites’ trying to ‘subvert democracy’ has been common in the aftermath of the referendum and we’ve heard how bigotry has surged. Yet if politicians were to actually prevent the result of the referendum being implemented as the worst extremes of the right keep suggesting they want to, this would provide a founding myth for the far-right of the kind we have not seen in my lifetime. There is no doubt in my mind that not only would UKIP surge dramatically in this scenario but that less ‘respectable’ fascists like the EDL would explode in popularity, emboldened by the simple and powerful narrative that the ‘elite’ were ignoring ‘the people’.
Yes, Brexit is an absolute shitshow and it’s a disaster for the left. But we lost the referendum because we long ago lost the arguments which mattered most to people. We neglected the left as a a movement and I’ve noted with irony that some of the most vocal advocates for reversing Brexit are from the camp so fond of the ‘we can’t achieve anything without winning elections’ faction. It’s no wonder they would want politicians to save us but we aren’t going to address how we got here by indulging that tactic. The only thing that can begin to pull us back from the precipice is a strong, dynamic social movement which we all need to step up and be part of. That means letting go of the dangerous fantasy that we can vote Brexit down and realising we must win the argument on immigration, on inequality, on employment rights and on so much more. To do that we actually have to take that argument to people and we have to create both pressure for politicians to support us, and a base from which we can support politicians who do. We have to be involved in pro-migrant and anti-racist movements. We have to have uncomfortable conversations with work colleagues, with family, with friends. No-one is going to put this right from above. It’s up to us.
In no particular order, though ★ was definitely my number 1. It goes without saying that three artists loomed large in my listening this year and here are the posts I wrote to mark their passing:
George Michael died late in the year, during that period when everything grinds to a halt. I marked it on Instagram.
2016 was a fucking terrible year in so many ways. I hope 2017 is better.
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.