Spotify playlist at the link above. Last year I initially didn’t think much of Call Me Maybe, the song that ended up being my favourite single of the year. That’s kind of a theme this year, with at least half the tracks being ones which I either purposefully avoided for a while (hello, Miley) or which took their time to grab me (I hated Mirrors for a while, Full Of Fire was difficult to extricate from the album). It’s difficult to pick one of these songs as my favourite – Roar, Royals, The Next Day and Flatline are probably my most listened to. I only very recently discovered Song for Zula and it instantly blew me away.

Wrecking Ball – Miley Cyrus
Royals – Lorde
Reflektor – Arcade Fire
Roar – Katy Perry
Rewind The Film – Manic Street Preachers
The Next Day – David Bowie
The City – The 1975
Get Lucky – Daft Punk
Everything is Embarrassing – Sky Ferreira
Flatline – Mutya Keisha Siobhan
You’re In Love – Betty Who
#Beautiful – Mariah Carey ft. Miguel
Hold On, We’re Going Home – Drake
Full Of Fire – The Knife
Mirrors – Justin Timberlake
Song for Zula – Phosphorescent
Sweeter Than Fiction – Taylor Swift
Drew – Goldfrapp
Copy of A – Nine Inch Nails
After You – Pulp

My Singles of 2013

So, when all is said and done, it was actually pretty easy to review this. Cos it’s very very good.

Beyoncé – Beyoncé

Justin Timberlake

When the now infamous Janet Jackson ‘incident’ happened at the Super Bowl, Justin Timberlake’s reaction was illuminating. As Janet overnight became a whipping post for the moral majority (and her career has never recovered), Timberlake hastily distanced himself from her, declaring himself “shocked and appalled”, invoking the outrage of his “own family” and going as far as he could in saying “SHE DID IT” without actually saying the words. He would have to have been spectacularly dense to be unaware of the gender and racial politics at play in the responses and the fact that his statements played up to the idea of Janet as “a contemporary Jezebel” still seems unforgivable; even more so because from the safety of three years’ later he felt able to observe that “I think that America’s harsher on women. And I think that America is, you know, unfairly harsh on ethnic people.” Gee, thanks Justin – Janet must have appreciated that.

For me, the incident neatly summed up Justin’s musical career: he’s become rather ridiculously successful and admired by appropriating black music, stripping it of everything vaguely ‘risky’ and presenting it to audiences as ‘innovative’, all the while coasting on his image as a wholesome white boy (the kind who tickles America’s tummy regarding its demonisation of Hugo Chavez just days after his death). Justified is a hugely derivative album of warmed-up Prince and Michael Jackson retreads – heck, ‘Rock Your Body’ was even originally written for the King of Pop. The singles aside, it’s absolutely atrocious. Prince looms even larger over the follow-up FutureSex/LoveSounds yet all of his perversity, his religious ecstasy, his danger, is gone. Even the ostensibly raunchy SexyBack offers little more than a self-conscious swearword. Hilariously, this album offers a ‘socially conscious’ song where the former Mouseketeer sings about a man addicted to crack – it’s not only dreadful but inadvertently highlights how his songs are almost never actually about anything. Still, by singing about crack he’s at least being urban, or something.

Of course many pop stars appropriate black culture but it particularly grates with Timberlake for two reasons: firstly, his entire musical career is based on it yet, as with the Janet incident, he is very careful to remain removed from any aspects of it which may prove difficult and actively promotes himself as this banal, clown-like Hollywood filmstar who just happens to have loads of black friends who want to make music with him. It’s an odd but important dichotomy. Secondly, I can think of no other pop star for whom the gap between their reality and the hysterically overblown guff written about them is so large. This piece from this week is a perfect example. He DOES EVERYTHING! Clearly singing r&b, having black producers, singing about crack and appropriating big band imagery is enough for this white man to be the natural successor of the renowned victim of racism and support of civil rights, Sammy Davis Jr. The fact that anyone would even write that piece highlights the central problem of Timberlake’s career – there is no sense that he’s had to work for this status, no sense that he is questioned or challenged in any way.

The largely positive reaction to The 20/20 Experience further underlines this. It is a deeply odd album, not least in the fact that its songs typically run 6-8 minutes long. There are two observations arising from this: firstly, that Timberlake has clearly been paying attention to Channel Orange (and to its rapturous reception) and its stand-out track, the almost-10 minutes long Pyramids. Secondly, that Timberlake has stated the song lengths were influenced by bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Queen and Bob Dylan. The latter artist is actually frequently cited by him as an influence but I defy anyone to find any of those artists present in any way in his music. No, what Timberlake is concerned with here is the appearance of authenticity and of ambition. Serious artists make long songs! The unfortunate thing is that he doesn’t have the courage of his convictions and this woefully exposes the agenda – the songs are long solely to draw attention to their own length and what that signifies. Every song is a highly conventional 4-5 minute pop track bloated by 2-3 minutes of self-conscious beats and ad-libbing. The single edits are clear and it’s difficult to imagine that anyone would mourn if the songs were shortened. Furthermore, the lyrics are almost entirely forgettable and terrible – these are more songs about nothing but what they can be said to reveal about the creativity of the man on the album cover. This makes the album seem deeply cynical. Indeed, it’s a surprise that any ‘Poptimist’ would claim Timberlake as ‘their Bowie’ when he is clearly deeply concerned with the notions of authenticity, talent and ambition which they so scorn. It’s no accident that the video for Suit & Tie begins with Timberlake playing the piano, just as it makes perfect sense that there is apparently a second instalment of The 20/20 Experience coming later in the year (nothing says ‘creative’ like a double album after all). This is what people who don’t actually listen to pop think of as ‘ambitious’ – it doesn’t matter that it has zero emotional resonance and is a chore to listen to as most of the critics praising it will never listen to it again for as long as they live.

The sense given by his musical return, then, is that he’s popped back to ‘remind’ everyone that he’s a renaissance man. It seems obvious that he will again disappear from music for a long period afterwards – at least then he’ll have the four albums to base his ludicrous status on. Instead he’ll return to being a Hollywood film star – a sphere where there is little cultural cachet in appropriating blackness (for a leading man, anyway). As this astute review notes, his career seems like a succession of role-playing. The Janet Jackson episode was the biggest and clearest example of his trying on a role and then fleeing it for safe privilege when it didn’t work. Such insincere fluidity may make him a pop star for our times, certainly – but not a pop star worth celebrating.

I LOVE ME

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When did narcissism actually become a thing? Obviously self-love has always been with us but in polite circles it was considered crass, arrogant and embarrassing. Now it seems widely encouraged and rewarded. If you’re an attractive person, posting endless photos of yourself on your social media account seems certain to garner a large following; writing pithy statements about how ‘amazing’ you are is greeted with glee. People find endless ways to let everyone else know that they’re doing something REALLY GREAT. Even setting up your own ‘fan’ page for your blog or filtered photography is seen as a-ok.

Social media is an area which inspires much comment but is still relatively new in the field of academia. The smattering of research out there, however, suggests that people are indeed becoming more narcissistic and less able to empathise with others. The use of social media not only as validation for the self but as an actual driver for it is something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while and it only seems to be getting worse. It now seems beyond the pale for anyone to be critical of people’s sickly conceitedness – as the poster child for this sings, “there’s nothing wrong with loving who you are”. ‘Born This Way’ is not  an urge towards self-reflection, a recognition that you have worth and responsibility. Instead it suggests that who you are right now is who you are meant to be and that is ‘perfect’. It both encourages and perfectly reflects the view that any criticism of yourself or your endeavours is both hateful and not worth paying attention to. But in reality, we’re not perfect – not at all. We all have massive and unattractive flaws; many of the most narcissistic people seem aware of that deep down and use social media to obscure the aspects they don’t like, remaking themselves through the digital eyes of others.

The first article on research linked to above notes that:

Narcissists had an inflated sense of self, lacked empathy, were vain and materialistic and had an overblown sense of entitlement. 

Sound familiar? A cursory glance at your social media will probably inspire recognition of those words. More than that, it seems to be spreading ever more widely in our society and is at the root of so much. The entire, awful genre of reality television relies on it. Our modern obsession with VERY LOUDLY BEING ATHEIST is a perfect illustration of it, as is the fetishisation of ‘creativity’. This latter trend does not dwell on the transformative power of art, its ability to offer new perspectives on not only the wider world but also ourselves. No, it instead fixates on a facile, ostentatious ‘creativity’ which demands praise and validation, usually for minimal effort. We have to be seen to be photographers, writers, actors, whatever. A large part of this is the sense of entitlement mentioned above – no-one wants to think that they are ‘average’. Combine this with the lack of any sense of wider responsibility and you end up with the pervasive notion that work seen as ordinary and mundane is not worth bothering with – certainly not worth vesting any sense of your identity in. I may work in an office but I am a big deal on Instagram! To question and/or criticise this is to be negative, bitter, cynical – we must not challenge the ‘dreams of a life’ which we have constructed for ourselves. Entire social circles are founded upon this simple truth and the willingness of everyone concerned to act as a blank mirror for each other. Indeed, the song currently at number one presents this vision of a deep and pure love:

It’s like you’re my mirror
My mirror staring back at me
I couldn’t get any bigger
With anyone else beside of me

An anthem for our times! Love is not to be found in someone radically different from yourself, someone who may cause you to question aspects of your personality and even inspire an urge to change! No, love is validation and validation is love.

Listening to Morrissey’s You Are The Quarry yesterday the following lyrics jumped out at me:

Why did you stick me in 
Self-deprecating bones and skin
Do you hate me? do you hate me? 
Do you hate me? do you hate me? 
Do you hate me?

I think it’s a sentiment which anyone who has felt held back by a lack of confidence can identify with, particularly when it seems that arrogant certitude is the way to get ahead. Yet elsewhere on the album we find Morrissey singing “even I, sick and depraved, a traveller to the grave, I would never be you” to a figure of authority and of certainty. This surely is a nod to the ultimately redeeming power of a humility and modesty which can seem crippling? In this recognition of our worse aspects, this sense that we are so imperfect in so many ways, we are almost forced into an empathy and awareness which prevents us from an arrogant, preening self-love. We can always be and do better. Indeed, we must. It is in this state that we find the urge towards the transformative, engaged creativity which is not about validating our sense of self but actively seeking discomfort: as the great Paul Robeson famously noted:

The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice.

Does that sound too narcissistic, too much like a sense of superiority over others? To borrow another quote, humility is ‘thinking of yourself less’ – we fundamentally know if we are doing things for the approval of others if we take a moment to think about it. We ‘begin by being’ rather than appearing to be.

Taking Pop Music Seriously Again – Bowie, Timberlake and Roger Scruton

So apparently Justin Timberlake and Destiny’s Child are going to ‘save pop’, The Saturdays are returning via a new reality show and Will.I.Am & Britney Spears are set to hit number one with one of the worst pop songs in recent memory. Pop music, in that most narrow of senses meaning the Top 40 chart, seems to be up shit creek. The one thing which seems to unite all of these happenings is the triumph of celebrity over music: it should never be the case that a mediocre group like The Saturdays resort to debasing their personal lives on television in order to sell pop records. That they are doing so is instructive as to where much of the pop music audience is at these days – they want to like the artist almost as you would like a friend first and foremost and the music comes later. They are aspiring to that “strange celebrity where viewers/readers feel they know them and what they actually do is secondary so exemplified by Cheryl Cole. Britney offers a slightly different take on it – people may not feel that they know her, exactly, but she long ago ceased to exist in the public consciousness as a person and instead became a pliable brand – and people love their brands.

I think this has driven much of the hysterical response to Justin Timberlake returning. He’s had two albums, the first of which was pretty dreadful. Yet his return was viewed as The Great Hope for pop in 2013. Timberlake has long affected a chilled ‘guy next door’ cool – I say affected because it really seems so transparent to me that I’m amazed anyone buys into it, but buy into it they do – which led to him being one of the few mass pop artists it was ‘permissible’ to like if you were the kind of person who worries about such things. No less an arbiter of hipster tastes than Pitchfork adore him, hilariously placing him in their ‘Best Albums of the 2000s’ list and panting with excitement over this return. Destiny’s Child and Beyonce achieved similar, albeit with a much higher standard of output. It’s instructive that contemporaries like Nelly Furtado and Christina Aguilera released strong albums far removed from the Will.I.Am/Guetta chart stranglehold to deafening silence last year. Indeed, Furtado’s fate caused me to write last year about how “major pop albums which show such a messy but clear artistic impulse seem to be getting rarer and pop listeners were largely abandoning albums as ‘Rockist’ conceits. The response to Timberlake is a strong illustration of this – looking past his personality, his pop status rests on a handful of strong singles.

The sense that pop’s drive downwards is in large part fuelled by the low expectations of many pop listeners was further charged by the rather common response that Timberlake’s return was ‘pop’s Bowie moment’, referring to the latter’s unexpected appearance on Tuesday. Some undoubtedly meant this tongue-in-cheek but many clearly did not, taking the time to emphasise that they didn’t give a shit about David Bowie. Once again, the tired Rockist/Poptimist dichotomy was in play, with Bowie seen as the former and Timberlake the latter. I can think of nothing which better highlights the short-sighted stupidity of extreme Poptimism. There is definitely a case to be made for David Bowie being the greatest pop star of the past 100 years – certainly his influence is writ large in artists ranging from Madonna and Prince to Lady Gaga and, yes, Justin Timberlake. The idea that pop listeners should be encouraged to dismiss him as ‘not one of theirs’ because he’s too old, too respected, too ‘classic’, too artistic even, is very sad. Pathetic, even. As always, this attitude reinforces the idea that notions of wild creativity, of artistic involvement, of music-above-all-else, are tried old tropes obsessed over by ‘snobs’ while pop fans merrily destroy pretence and hierarchies. This attitude has , in fact, ended up in pop bands resorting to soul-destroying reality television in order to get noticed and pop fans celebrating One Direction being nominated for a ‘Best Group’ Brit award because it would ‘annoy fans of ‘credible’ music’. It’s idiotic.

I found the perfect summation of this attitude in a rather unexpected place – an OpenDemocracy piece on Melvyn Bragg’s Radio 4 series on ‘culture’. In a paragraph dealing with the ancient debate over ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture the author writes:

…nobody today believes that entire genres can be either defended or dismissed in toto, while only fanatical neoliberals actually believe that all preferences are of equal value.

The dismissal of entire genres was of course a central trait of Rockism. The irony is that, while Poptimists would claim to hold the second view that ‘all preferences are of equal value’ (which certainly is fanatically neoliberal) they actually tend to hold the first, dismissing most music which falls outside a narrow idea of what ‘pop’ is. What any music fan should aspire to is the piece’s description of Roger Scruton’s notion that “there is a case to be made for critical and informed discrimination within any genre of creative work.” This means being open to music wherever it may come from, certainly, but the ‘critical and informed discrimination’ point is key. We should not abandon our faculties in pursuit of the misguided notion that a critical approach to music is a pointless, even negative, exercise. The idea that ‘all music is equal, but some music is more equal than others’ is the idea which is more than anything responsible for the identikit dreck littering the charts at the moment. We need more people like Bowie, artists who sincerely and seriously care about what they do and do not aspire to be all things to all people. We need to demand more and that begins when we start taking pop seriously again.