Pop Deserves the ‘Social Justice Warriors’

taylor-swift-shake-it-off-video-3-2014-billboard-650Don’t worry, I’m not really going to write about the racism/appropriation in the new Taylor Swift video. This widely shared post says most of what there is to say (and, importantly, what needed to be said). Instead I want to write briefly another aspect of this mini storm.

Being a Taylor Swift fan (maybe not for much longer considering how things are going) I actually watched her Yahoo live announcement thingy…live. It was painful. Jesus Christ it was painful. Taylor was doing her ‘I’m just a normal gal and we’re all hanging out!’ schtick in front of an audience seemingly made-up of people who had been pumped full of uppers prior to broadcast. Her every utterance was greeted with hysteria. I don’t cope well with over-the-top “I like this more than anyone else ever and I’m going to prove it by screaming the most” displays of fandom (watching the Doctor Who 50th special in the cinema last year was hellish for this very reason). It did not put me in a good place, people. Then she debuted the song and this also did not put me in a good place. It’s a very on-trend Max Martin number which you could easily imagine being released by Little Mix or Cheryl Cole or Cher Lloyd or countless other current pop stars. Sure, it’s efficient enough at what it does but I’m not sure anyone particularly needs it (and if it wasn’t by the already-massively popular Swift, I’m not sure many would particularly pay attention to it). Given the really rather interesting and even astonishing places Swift has been taking her music, it’s a crushing disappointment to see her cheerfully announcing that she’s gone ‘pop’ and offering up generic pop hit no. 5694. You were already pop, Taylor, and you were doing it in a way no other major pop artist was. There’s always the possibility that the album will be more interesting but given the apparent presence of Max Martin on most tracks, I’m not optimistic.

Anyway, back to the live thingy. After dancing around to her song and announcing details of her album (inspired by ‘late-80s pop’ apparently – hello Jive Bunny) she premiered the video. As soon as I saw the scenes from which the above cap comes from, my heart sank. I actually thought of this line. Why does this shit keep happening? Well, a big part of it is that most pop listeners just pretend it’s not, as we saw with the really-quite-obviously-racist Lily Allen video. In a pretty classic demonstration of the ‘Bad Feeling’ thesis (yeah, I keep returning to that because it’s so right) people see the problematic thing and, rather than thinking ‘oh dear, this is a bit bad’, try to anticipate and undermine the discussions labelling it as problematic. And so:

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Notice the references to the ‘social justice warriors of the internet’ and ‘blogs’. There are usually liberal references to Tumblr thrown in for good measure. It’s always those people on the internet who pick holes in this stuff, who can’t just enjoy it for what it is. That last tweet is actually from a Guardian writer who ‘writes about film, TV and music’. Yes, someone who writes about culture for a living throws out ‘fucking earnest columns’ as an insult. If such responses are woefully inevitable it’s because, as I’ve written about quite a few times before, pop criticism is in a really fucking terrible place. It’s dominated by the misguided idea that patronisingly faux-positive responses (I covered it with regards to One Direction but clearly Taylor also receives the same treatment) show you really get this stuff and are really open-minded and aren’t a snob and blah blah blah! There will be lots of barely-formed sneering at ‘authenticity’ and anything associated with it, even guitars (notice that Taylor’s cultural power has risen in tandem with her move away from country). Most importantly, everything must be FUN! and IRONIC! and SARCASTIC! and SILLY! and nothing is worth taking too seriously or thinking about too much. The Alex Niven quote I used when previously writing about this is worth wheeling out again:

Unfortunately the mainstream of music journalism right now appears to be dominated by a peculiarly virulent strain of braindead consumer hedonism, by people who simply don’t acknowledge that pop music can be debated about in politico-cultural terms. It would be (sort of) alright if these people were cognisant of their position, but depressingly I fear that they’re just moronic capitalistic yes-people for whom pop music is a leisure pursuit and nothing more. 

That brief paragraph perfectly captures where criticism and, unfortunately, much fandom is right now. It’s been that way for a while but the rise of link-bait is making it even worse. Which sites that profess to love pop music write about it with any insight or depth? They all instead seem terrified of being ‘fucking earnest’ and losing readers who they think mustn’t be challenged in any way. Just whack out another list, keep the press releases flowing and write some shite about what Madonna’s daughter might be doing and they’re sorted.

You’ll notice that the piece I linked to at the start is a personal blog. It’s an absolutely sublime bit of writing but it drives home just how rarely you read anything like that in mainstream journalism. Yet rather than being some poxy angry internet social justice warrior thing that can be easily dismissed, it’s gone viral, been picked up by Vice and Time, and (along with some high-profile Twitter criticism) inspired much critical coverage of the video on sites which would have otherwise have stayed well away from the subject. The do-it-yourself internet has led the way here, just as it did with the Lily Allen video and just as it does with the vast majority of pop criticism. DIY internet is where the best writing on pop is found these days, whether that be the fiercely intelligent analysis found in personal blogs like One Of Those Faces or the beguiling passion found in One Week One Band (overwhelmingly written, it should be noted, by people who blog and/or tweet rather than ‘professional’ writers). These people know that pop matters. They know that it not only deserves and is deserving of serious appraisal but that it requires it: it shapes culture and it shapes lives. They are ‘fucking earnest’ about it because they fucking care about it. The ones who roll their eyes at the ‘internet’ people who write about pop ‘in politico-cultural terms’ are, ironically, the ones who display their sheer contempt for pop in their ostentatious efforts to look like they respect it. To them, it’s just a silly Taylor Swift song and video that doesn’t mean anything and will be forgotten soon after they’ve made sure to loudly show their appreciation. It’s lazy, it’s cheap and it’s tired. Pop deserves better.

 

On commenting

Everyone has an opinion. There are countless aphorisms based on this, countless weary comments from people who despair of reading them. Writing a blog, of course, requires a large degree of narcissism – you think that you have something worth saying and think that people will be interested in it. It goes without saying that these beliefs are more often than not delusions. However, as self-satisfied as it sounds, the desire to write a blog and update it regularly has given me quite an insight into the media commentariat. That small group of people who basically give their opinion for a living, writing columns in newspapers, popping up on Sky News to ‘review the papers’ and being wheeled out on Newsnight when the booker has been particularly unimaginative. A cursory glance at our newspapers would tell you that many (most?) of these people haven’t reached their lofty status due to the novelty of their thought. Yet in having a weekly audience of at least hundreds of thousands of people, they clearly have a powerful platform.

So what insight do I speak of? Well, when you wish to regularly update a blog, sometimes a week or so goes past and you realise that you haven’t written anything. You realise that you don’t particularly have much to say at that particular point in time. Yet instead of thinking ‘oh well, I’ll write when I have something to say’, the strong temptation is to start scrambling around for things to write about. Things to have an opinion about. Given that the commentariat make their living by doing this, the need for them to invent opinions about topical issues is enormous. And so they do. This has never been more clear than with the Julian Assange affair in the past two weeks. Pretty much every newspaper columnist in the UK (and every second blogger) has given us their opinion about this. What’s been very clear, however, is that the vast majority of them have no particular insight into the situation. People have spent a couple of afternoons on Google, written a few hundred words and cashed their cheque. What is most noticeable, and most damning, is the certainty with which people write about a deeply complex situation. Everyone has suddenly become a lawyer, a politician, a jury, all because they’ve read some things online. This is the bread and butter of the commentariat. 

If you take a minute to think about these people who dominate our media, their positions are utterly ridiculous. It’s a matter of common sense that one individual is not going to be most informed and most interesting on subjects ranging from Syria to the Olympics to Assange. And yet this is exactly the premise which our media operates on – look no further than the quite hilarious range of subjects which Owen Jones is wheeled out to discuss. 

What is most sad about this is that the writers undoubtedly tend to buy into their own image. They become convinced of their right and, most worryingly, their superiority, in giving us their opinion on every subject which comes along. Almost without exception, they treat the internet as a personal fan club, basking in praise for their work and being remarkably patronising and intolerant when it comes to serious criticism. It’s a circle – they have a platform from which to give us their opinion and more often than not, this opinion is completely unchallenging and uninteresting. So many people praise it and wish to be associated with it, feeding the ego of the writer and making them convinced of their right to have the platform.

The Assange affair shows just how pernicious this circle is. If you had spent more than five minutes looking into the situation, it was very quickly obvious that most of the writers who knocked out columns about it, and spent days moralising about it on Twitter etc, had nothing to offer the discussion beyond a moderate skill with Google. And yet they not only felt entirely convinced of their invented opinion, they felt superior to everyone else. I’ve seen few things on Twitter more sickening than Owen Jones tweeting that women had had a bad week and imploring men to step up and help them with the hashtag #menagainstrape. Quite insanely patronising and nauseating, a glimpse of an ego out of control, and yet it did spread relatively far and wide. Because people become convinced of the superiority of the opinions of these people – usually because they are about flattering the egos of the readers rather than actually making them think about what they believe.

It’s for these reasons that I’ve avoided writing a blog about the Assange business. I don’t think that I have much to offer which hasn’t already been said. Yet I know that if I was paid to write blogs, I would definitely have written something about it. It would have been the easiest thing to do. And I’m pretty sure that I could have written something about definitions of rape, or the meaning of liberty, or the division of the left, which many people would have applauded. But what would it have added to the wider discussion beyond a further reason for some people to feel convinced of their own opinion? Absolutely nothing. It’s a problem which is constantly in my mind when writing a blog and I try to not write about a subject unless I feel I have something particularly novel to say. Of course, this is entirely subjective and undoubtedly I delude myself. I only wish that our media would exhibit the same concerns and begin to move away from the silly model of commentators being paid to give their opinions about our world.