Gloria Estefan

I bought tickets to see Gloria Estefan at the Royal Albert Hall on a whim, months ago. Like most people, I dipped out just after Destiny in 1996 and hadn’t heard any music by her in a long time. Nonetheless, the promise of ‘the hits’ was alluring for someone who went through a pre-teen period of being obsessed with Into The Light and then her Greatest Hits. The latter must surely be one of the greatest pop compilations of all time? The rhythmically-charged dance songs effortlessly soar while the stark, moody ballads were what I imagined love and heartache to sound like (I was right!) Throughout everything Gloria’s charisma leaps from the speakers with a silky ferocity – it really was a no-brainer that Miami Sound Machine retooled themselves to be focused entirely on her.

Into The Light, meanwhile, chimed with me in ways which I didn’t begin to understand until years later. Coming Out of the Dark. We seal our fate with the choices we make. Never be afraid to dream but follow it through cos it won’t get done unless it comes from youYou don’t exactly need to be a psychologist to see what was going on there. 1996’s Reach was one of the songs I listened to obsessively while ‘struggling’ with coming out and I can vividly recall sitting on a bench listening to it while trying to work up the courage to visit my university’s LGBT society room.

So, yeah, my main interest for wanting to see her was nostalgia. That’s kinda the raison d’être of any Royal Albert Hall pop gig these days. It’s where once-big pop stars go to relive the golden days before an audience more than willing to be complicit in the illusion. The level of Gloria’s stock can be ascertained by her appearances on shows like The One Show and Alan Titschmarch – being a special guest on The X Factor would be out of the question. This did, as an aside, cause my friend and I to wonder if Cher would have been granted this ‘honour’ if she hadn’t ‘retired’ for much of the past decade but had kept releasing records – the question of which middle-aged superstars are considered ‘relevant’ enough and why is an interesting one. As seems grimly inevitable for stars in Gloria’s position, she’s recorded an covers album of classic songs – The Standards, as the title succinctly puts it. It’s no disaster but the suffix of ‘and the hits’ to this concert’s advert underlined what the real draw was.

As we took our seats we surveyed the crowd, having wondered what kind of audience she would attract. For the most part it was as predicted – gay men, middle-aged couples dolled up for a rare night out and groups of loud women who nipped to the bar every ten minutes. What we had rather foolishly neglected was the Hispanic and Latino contingent. Many had apparently travelled from around the world to be present and they loved her, giving regular standing ovations and being possessed by the Holy Spirit every time she spoke or sang in Spanish. It made our pre-gig joking at the thought of anyone being a ‘hardcore fan of Gloria Estefan’ look pretty silly.

Gloria’s voice was deeper and more ragged; whereas with Joni Mitchell or Barbra Streisand this became an appealingly weary ‘lived-in’ quality, here it seemed like Gloria was frequently straining to recreate vocals from her heyday. This was a minor quibble, however, as it quickly became obvious that Gloria’s incandescent charisma was entirely present and correct. A consummate entertainer, she exuded warmth and openness and as you can see in the clip above she frequently interacted with her fans. If you watch the video of Conga you’ll see her stop to sign autographs mid-song. It was the kind of relaxed confidence which it’s all but impossible not to fall for, especially in an age where the default settings seem to be either laconic detachment or insincere and patronising affection. This connection (and the accompanying personal anecdotes) lent the ‘standards’ an energy and affection largely absent from the flat record but, as expected, the classics mostly came from Gloria’s own back catalogue with an orchestral Coming Out of the Dark proving a particular highlight.

Being old enough to remember Gloria in her heyday, it’s a strange thought to imagine Lady Gaga or Katy Perry playing gigs like this in twenty years’ time (some would uncharitably suggest that Lady Gaga would be lucky to play them in five years’ time – I couldn’t possibly comment). Pop clearly has an implicit link with youth but we’re living in interesting times where, from Cher and Madonna to Gloria and Janet, we’re witnessing the superstars who once dominated the landscape attempting to negotiate ageing. There’s much to be said for raging against the dying of the light – it’s a great thing that you can’t envisage an MOR covers album any time soon in Madonna’s career – but when acceptance that you’ll never be a major player again is done with the grace and good will which Gloria displayed last night, it’s charming and delectable.

All the photos and videos from the gig are here.

Victim

Last year I wrote about how Lady Gaga’s ‘real, terrifying genius’ was ‘the commodification and exploitation of victimhood.” This came after noting that ‘Born This Way’ celebrated gay as victim’ and reinforced ‘a central tenet of a commercialised gay culture.’ Indeed, the idea that gay identitity is inextricably tied up in being ‘a victim’ has been a common strand to my writing on LGBT politics and culture. That recent Stonewall survey, for example, went out of its way to present LGB people as a victimised group while the furore around Russia’s ‘anti-gay laws’ has been a good example of how this victimhood can be used to serve powerful agendas and narratives. It’s certainly possible to argue that the reason why issues like ‘Russia’ so quickly catch on with certain gay people while others are ignored or seen as more ‘complicated’ is because it so clearly feeds into widespread notions of persecuted gay people in ways which, say, issues of poverty or arms sales to Bahrain simple don’t. We could see this too in the response to the ‘Muslim homophobia’ hysteria in East London a couple of years ago. At the time I wrote about how there was little to suggest in contemporary reports that the horrific stabbing of Oliver Hemsley had been inspired by his sexuality. Yet it was immediately, widely presented as such on the basis that he was gay and had been stabbed. When violent crime as a whole in the area was discussed, not least stabbings (of young black men) which had occurred in the same area around the same time, I would often by told that they were nothing to do with gay people’. It was an odd, miserably blinkered view which had zero interest in anything that couldn’t be claimed as having been inspired by homophobia.

I was thinking about all of this again last night during a discussion about people who ‘come out’ or ‘experiment’ later in life, after years of (apparently) being ‘heterosexual’. There is a lot to think about and discuss in here, far more than I could do justice to in a Sunday afternoon. Anecdotally it’s more common for women to do this than for men and at least part of this must be tied up in questions of masculinity and sexism. As a culture we’re repeatedly presented with sapphic flirtation as something daring, exciting and arousing – it’s certainly a common trope in pop music and television shows – yet the same is not remotely true for men. A feminist perspective would invoke the ‘male gaze’ and patriarchy here. Whatever the reasons, though, the responses tend to be illuminating. If you’re someone who is perceived to have been living ‘in the closet’ and your ‘coming out’ fits nicely into the victim narrative – see Gareth Thomas or Jason Collins – your declaration is treated as something of a victory. This is the case even when your ‘coming out’ is used to excuse or justify amoral behaviour, as with Lord Browne or David Laws. It’s even the case when you’ve categorically denied being gay but then skilfully tie your announcement to victimhood, as Wentworth Miller recently did.

If, however, you’re perceived to be ‘dabbling’ or just not authentic enough, the reaction is very different. We can see this if we look at common gay responses to ‘straight’ women who acquire girlfriends or to bisexuality in general, with biphobia being a noted phenomenon within gay communities. There are reams written about this but what’s interesting about it for my purposes here is how this ties into the victimhood narrative. A real response which I was told of last night was that the pain and suffering of an ‘authentic’ gay life was invoked against the ‘insult’ of an adult female suddenly ‘deciding’ that she was gay. “I was bullied for being gay…it caused me years of torment…then this person can just overnight declare that they’re gay?!’ It’s fascinating here how suffering is presented as an integral part of being ‘gay’, an experience for which you almost earn points and become a more authentic gay person. The corresponding arguments are easy to imagine: this presents homosexuality as a choice, it’s flirting with someone in order to make oneself seem more interesting, they aren’t invested in their homosexuality like we are and can quickly revert if it gets too scary. If we think about this, though, it’s hard to ultimately see how a world where sexuality is seen as something people feel able to explore at will isn’t the kind of world which gay rights campaigners are fighting for. If ‘straight’ men felt that they could experiment with other male friends without judgement or negative consequence, wouldn’t this be a good thing with regards to homophobia? Does this make a gay person any less gay? I don’t think it does, yet the response suggests that many less want a world in which sexuality is largely an irrelevance than a world in which sexuality is clearly defined, clearly demarcated and where a ‘gay’ identity is forever and inextricably linked to victimhood. A world where you have the ‘right’ kind of gay and the wrong kind – a narrative which has been implicit in the ‘gay marriage’ debate’. I think Gaga recognises this and that’s why so much of her work rests on flattering the victimhood of her listeners – this is, after all, an industry in itself nowadays. In a very real sense, then, our own attitudes as gay people are to be examined with regards to sexuality and the kind of world we wish to live in. At the moment it seems like if we ever reached a promised land where our sexuality was as irrelevant as the colour of our eyes, plenty of gay people would lose all sense of identity overnight. That is a problem.

In Which Lady Gaga Betrays Her Contempt For Pop

They’re not grateful any more…It used to be a very unique and blessed experience to be able to experience theatre and to go to see it and only the most highest-class people in Shakespearean times would be let into the theatre and everyone else would have to watch it in the square. Nobody feels that way any more. It’s so easily accessible on the Internet it’s treated like McDonald’s, it’s treated like trash…I’m not a French fry, I’m foie gras.

Taken from here in which Lady Gaga actually complains that ‘the plebs’ aren’t forced to enjoy ‘art’ from the square and so no longer feel grateful. She also complains that people “think that they have the right to say whatever they think” about your work.

Betraying her class origins certainly but also underlining what I’ve long been saying about this ‘ArtPop’ business: she has nothing but contempt and a lack of understanding for pop music as a mass-appeal art form and thinks that throwing in some obvious signifiers of ‘high art’ makes it more valuable. She is wrong. More depressingly, the fans who so ostentatiously love pop and have a permanent chip on their shoulder about wider snobbery regarding it eat this elitist, damaging nonsense up. I guess when you think respect for pop music means being a peasant in the square you’re inclined to eagerly gulp down the stale scraps thrown from the tables above.

Teenage Kicks

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I didn’t watch Channel 4’s ‘Crazy About One Direction’ last week. I didn’t watch it because I’m 33 years old and, ya know, One Direction. We’re apparently not supposed to say that these days. Instead we’re meant to encourage the notion that we’re really down with what pop kids like, that people enjoying something is reason enough for its existence, that the fandom you experience when you’re an adolescent is this pure, undiluted, beautiful fandom that becomes corrupted by the horrors of adulthood. It’s typical of that ‘cloying positivity’ which I’ve previously written about and is also tackled well here:

We all know the types; they’ve just discovered memes, they earnestly listen to shit pop music designed for children, they watch TV talents shows with a genuine excitement – they are people whose cultural interests are almost exclusively based in novelty. Everything is ‘amazing’ not because it’s exceptional or out of the ordinary, but because amazing is now the go-to word to describe most anything, ironically or otherwise. 

It should be emphasised (because some will deliberately try and avoid it) that this is aimed at the overwhelmingly 25 year old and over ‘critics’ who write reams defending 1D fans and their ilk, not the 1D fans themselves. No-one is surprised when teenagers get hugely excited by pop music. Indeed, the 1D documentary was nothing new – in my time I’ve seen similar shows on obsessive fans of Britney Spears, Take That, Madonna. Interestingly enough, several of these previous shows featured many male fans, something which I gather was missing from the 1D documentary. This is important because the response to the 1D documentary has overwhelmingly rested on two things: a sentimental, banal appeal to feminism and Poptimism. Two things which, of course, are catnip for much of our modern media and certainly current music journalism.

Let’s look at the Poptimism first. Of course we’ve had the ‘oh people are making fun of these fans because it’s pop music’ response and corresponding attack on people who obsess over guitars, ‘authenticity’ blah blah blah oh God not this again. We won’t dwell on the fact that this ‘Rockist’ attitude is so ridiculed and unfashionable that anyone sincerely making it (and more often than not you don’t actually find many people making it, it’s just this floating spectre) may as well be standing up and saying ‘I’M A PAEDOPHILE’. Instead we’ll take it at face value and agree – of course loving pop is no less valid than loving rock or indie or whatever. Great. What this argument always does however is to conflate all pop music and all pop fans. You may love Taylor Swift and Rihanna but as soon as you say that you think One Direction are pretty terrible, you become this snobbish archetype. Indeed, even on the fans’ ‘side’ there’s no recognition that pop fans love a myriad of different acts (pop and otherwise) and that loads of 1D fans think The Wanted are shit, and vice-versa, and wider still. No, rock music is not inherently superior to pop music. Running with this to the point where we refuse to acknowledge that some rock is better than some pop (and of course the reverse is true) or more importantly, that there is a lot of dreadful pop music out there is absurd and doesn’t suggest that anyone making the argument takes pop music all that seriously themselves. Current pop music journalism does seem built on this extremely shaky bedrock, a cheapness which elevates dreck and kitsch as celebratory and refuses to sincerely consider pop in any social/political/cultural terms as an important art form. We can see this right now in the response to Lady Gaga’s ‘ArtPop’ project where she is very loudly and ostentatiously banging on about bringing ‘art’ and ‘pop’ together. I’ve yet to see a single pop writer say, ‘hold on – pop already is art and we don’t need these very obvious signifiers taken from the ‘art world’ to tell us otherwise’. If you constantly treat pop music as some big cheap joke where no-one can make any critical judgements without being ‘the enemy’, you cannot turn around and complain that other people then think of it as cheap.

Of course, the ‘pop’ we’re discussing here is very much of a type. Spend any length of time on a British pop music site and you’ll find sneering references to artists like Jake Bugg, Mumford & Sons, Coldplay. Matt Cardle was torn apart on these sites when he won X Factor, seemingly because he played guitar and didn’t want to make dance-pop. It doesn’t matter that these acts may have legions of teenage (female) fans – they’re acceptable targets and no-one is going to devote any time to writing columns defending them. If the documentary last week had been called ‘Crazy About Coldplay’ the Twittersphere would have been united in its derision. This may seem a rather trite point but it’s an important one. The photo at the top of this depicts some ‘crazy’ fans of The Beatles. The impulse now is to slot One Direction and their fans alongside this yet there is a clear demarcation in how obsessive fans of The Beatles, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Michael Jackson are viewed as compared to obsessive fans of pop acts which pretty much no-one expects to be around in 3 years’ time. The former could all easily be labelled ‘pop acts’ but that instantly makes the Poptimist defence of 1D look very silly indeed.

The feminist arguments being wheeled out are also fascinating, suggesting that there is a nasty strain of misogyny infecting the ridicule which these extreme examples of 1D fans are subjected to. They’re particularly fascinating coming so soon after the ‘internet troll’ hysteria which gripped the media during the fallow Summer months. When (it seems overwhelmingly) young men have been seen to send abuse and threats on Twitter, there has been a mass outcry. There have been hand-wringing debates about ‘the crisis of masculinity’. There have even been arrests. When One Direction fans sent abuse and death threats, however, many leapt to their defence. I previously wrote about a similar response re: Paris Brown’s tweets. In short, young men sending abuse online are pathologised and even criminalised. When young women do it, however, there is a significant movement to at least understand their actions, at most actually excuse them and present them as the victims. Why the double-standards?! Especially when the vast majority of One Direction fans are clearly not going to be people who send death threats and virulently defending those that do makes no such distinction. It’s also notable that, as mentioned, previous comparable documentaries have featured obsessive male fans. It’s curious that when some of the largely young, male fanbase of Lady Gaga took to attacking Adele’s weight no-one was making any effort to excuse them. Yet the peculiar blend of Poptimism and an uncritical strand of feminism meant that when Lady Gaga turned her own weight into a cause célèbre, this behaviour was erased and Gaga became the victim of horrid men online.

It’s no big shakes that teenagers in the throes of adolescence may act rather…strangely over things. Most of us have been there. What’s different now is that we have social media and so behaviour which previously might have been confined to our bedrooms is easily transmitted around the world for all to see. There are also studies tentatively suggesting that social media is making people more narcissistic and less able to empathise with others. This is toxic when added to a stage of life where you already have an entire universe exploding inside your head. What shouldn’t have changed, though, is the realisation (and expectation) that it’s a period of life which you grow out of. I’ve seen so much written in the past week presenting obsessive teenage fandom as some idealised state of being that I’ve wondered if I’m going a bit ‘crazy’ myself. At 14 you’re not living through some magical period of ‘real’ emotion. You’re growing up. It’s a formative time, certainly, and a lot of great stuff happens but it’s not being horrific for the older people writing about this to acknowledge that yeah, your personality, intellect and emotional state mature and you look back at when you wanted nothing more than to touch a pop star with a mixture of fondness, confusion and embarrassment. Suggesting that it’s somehow a good thing to hold onto that state is idiotic and even harmful. It’s another thing we’re apparently not supposed to say. We’re not supposed to acknowledge that adolescence play a huge part in phenomenon like One Direction – we’re being ‘patronising’ if we do. I rather think that if you’re not a teenage fan yourself, you’re being patronising in pretending that things don’t change, that your relationship with music and its creators develops and that fandom can endure and develop alongside that.

Russia as an Introduction to Homonationalism

The discussions around what’s happening in Russia and Western responses to it are a good entry point to concepts of homonationalism and ‘gay imperialism’. To borrow from this handy primer:

Homonationalism functions in complementary ways to Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism, which describes how the West produces knowledge and dominates ‘the Orient’ through academic, cultural and discursive processes. Like Orientalism, homonationalism speaks to the ways Western powers (such as the U.S. and Canada) circulate ideas about other cultures (like Arab and Islamic cultures) in order produce the West as culturally, morally, and politically advanced and superior. However, unlike Orientalism, homonationalism speaks particularly to the way gender and sexual rights discourses become central to contemporary forms of Western hegemony.

This speaks to the narratives perpetuated by and consequences of our actions re: Russia which have so concerned me and why, for example, it’s notable that the deployment of LGBT rights in an international context tends to align with the interests of Western powers.We don’t tend to make any links between the lies and propaganda which took us to war in Iraq and the stories which we’re presented with regarding Iran but they are most certainly there.

There are two pieces I’ve read on this recently which are illuminating. The first is this one called “Challenging the liberal fascination with gay, international violence.” All four parts of that ‘Gay Imperialism and Olympic Oppression’ series are worth a read, providing some much needed context and history re: LGBT Russia and the Olympics’ dire history concerning human rights. This one is, however, most appropriate here, noting as it does that “violence and injustice against LGBT individuals” garner far more Western attention than “violence and injustice against people of color (poc) and socioeconomically underprivileged (low sec) communities.” (I should note, here, that I’ll use ‘LGBT’ throughout this but it’s almost entirely the LG which we’re speaking about, with the BT being of little interest even within the UK.) The examples used of the mass evictions, displacements and environmental destruction being committed in the names of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics are good ones but as a British writer I don’t even have to go that far. The evictions, displacements, pre-emptive arrests and general authoritarian policing, privatisation of public space and transfer of wealth which took place before, during and after London 2012 was met with mass indifference. More than that, those attempting to raise these issues were seen as bitter and frequently told to shut up. Yet these issues were very real. Discussion of ‘privilege’ may have become a trite on-line punchline but there are few more potent (if little-acknowledged) examples of the concept than that people living in estates in East London lost their homes, vulnerable people were displaced from the surrounding areas and activists were locked up so that we could get drunk on Summer evenings watching Mo Farah. Yet these issues are seen as somehow more ‘complex’ and open to interpretation than any perceived injustice against LGBT people, which invariably meets with an instant and strident response led by ‘generally white, able bodied, middle/upper class’ men. Poverty in particular barely registers, seen as apart from the essentialist ‘human rights’ possessed by LGBT victims of oppression. This view of human rights is now strongly contested and arguably in decline (see this series of articles from Open Democracy for good discussions on that) yet it’s undoubtedly the view which dominates LGBT politics, from Stonewall and GLAAD downwards. It is because of this, for example, that Stonewall see no issue in aligning itself with hugely problematic companies like Barclays and Stephen Fry has no qualms about heaping praise on David Cameron in his ‘open letter’ re: Sochi. The human rights of, for example, the poor and homeless are seen as completely separate issues – even (wrongly) as ones which do not disproportionately affect many LGBT people.

Then we have issues around race, which brings me to the second piece I’d say was essential reading for anyone interested in this. The problems surrounding overwhelmingly white Western LGBT voices perpetuating simplistic, misinformed or simply plain wrong stories about certain ‘Muslim countries’ (rarely ones which are Western allies – Dubai for example remains a popular holiday destination for many British gay men) and their treatment of LGBT people should be clear enough. What’s perhaps more interesting are the ways in which issues of race and LGBT rights interact within national contexts, tackled in this article on LGBT activists in Africa and immigration policy within the Netherlands. It notes that a campaign to support LGBT rights in Africa “con­structs the fantasy of “Europe” as a bas­tion of free­dom for LGBT people” and “ ends up jux­ta­pos­ing a “homo­phobic Africa” with a “lib­eral Europe.” This is a narrative common to the West and there has been much LGBT support for, for example, calls to link international aid to a country’s record on ‘gay rights’. This not only infantilises and ‘others’ these countries, it erases the human rights abuses endemic within Western nations and in particular demonstrates zero understanding of the violence (both physical/verbal and structural) faced by ethnic minorities here. It’s of particular note that while LGBT voices seek to intervene in other countries or link immigration to attitudes towards LGBT people, there is little interest in the bigotry and violence inherent in our own immigration systems and discussions surrounding them. It was with particular distress that I read about how support for the racist ‘Go Home’ van was on the rise and apparently constitutes over 50% of British adults. Read about this particular issue and it won’t be long before you encounter many voices complaining that the term ‘racism’ is thrown around with abandon and that using rhetoric such as ‘Go Home’ is not racist. In quotidian homonationalist terms, this same attitude can be found in overwhelmingly white gay men insisting that Lady Gaga’s appropriation of (and song about) the Burqa or drag act Queens of Pop’s use of blacking up and other racist tropes are not in fact racist. Indeed, my own piece about the homonationalist message behind Madonna’s speech to GLAAD was much criticised by other gay men and led to me (hilariously) being labelled a ‘hater’ of Madonna for perhaps the first time in my life.

We’ve seen how insidious homonationalism can be on the streets of my home city of London. Beginning with some homophobic stickers and an offensive, inflammatory and ignorant piece from serial liar Johann Hari, a perception of a ‘Muslim problem’ in East London took hold in certain quarters (I discuss many of the problems with that perception in that linked article and in these pieces, so I’m not going to rehash the arguments here.) This led to statements from LGB (given the presence of Bindel, I’ll refrain from using the ‘T’) activists and calls for an East London Pride march through overwhelmingly Muslim areas. This march turned out to have links with the English Defence League but its at best unhelpful, at worst offensive message was clear even before this became known. That so many LGBT people were eager and willing to be used as part of an anti-Muslim movement was (and remains) deeply worrying.

Discussions of homonationalism and of racism within the LGBT community do not tend to be popular, perhaps due to the widespread liberal ‘othering’ of LGBT people themselves as fabulous and facile creatures. The comments here are overwhelmingly mocking and/or negative, while a piece (click to download) which “uses the work of activist Peter Tatchell, founder of Outrage!, as an example of how white gay activists can become complicit with this agenda by painting Islam as inherently homophobic and misogynist, and appointing themselves as the saviours of non-white queers” was met both with a negative response and was quickly censored due to its ‘defamation’. It’s heartening, however, that Judith Butler’s refusal of the ‘Civil Courage Prize’ due to ‘racism and especially anti-Muslim racism’ met with cheers of support. When I wrote previously than ‘doing something’ was not an inherent good and that “reflective engagement with a critical approach to our own position must come first”, this is exactly what I was meaning. Hopefully the interest in Russia and the discussions which it has generated in the LGBT community will lead to more of us learning about and considering homonationalism and thinking about our own roles in it.

You Are A Target Market

‘The gays’ have been viewed as an exploitable market for at least a few decades now. Artists like Cher, Madonna and Kylie have long been famed for their fiercely loyal gay fanbase, so much so that every female pop star of a certain ilk has tried desperately to get in on the action. Then of course we have the straight-male-celeb-does-the-gays thing which has become an essential part of turning a b-lister into a profitable commodity. As I wrote here, “gay magazines still have an unhealthy affection for straight men who say they like gays while posing in their pants” and oh, it is ever so the case.

With each progression of ‘the gays’ into a target market the concept has become more and more banal, more removed from the complicated taint of meaningful politics and messy humanity, more homogeneous and more offensive. We become a bunch of fabulous creatures who want nothing more than to be patronised. Patted on the head and told that we deserve to be treated like everyone else – not because of any crazy concepts like human rights, of course, but rather because gays are amazing and deserve good stuff. We’re now at the stage where any 2013 edition of ‘Marketing 101’ would have to feature an early section called ‘Patronise the gays’. It wouldn’t have to be a very long section, of course, as it would just have to lay down the buzzwords to use: homophobia, bullying, gay marriage, it gets better, love, equality etc. You don’t even have to make any attempt at subtlety – Class A, a truly dreadful boy band, released an equally dreadful single called ‘Pride’ and did a tour of British schools ostensibly to promote ‘pride’ and oppose homophobic bullying (in association with the ever-useless Stonewall). This has of course given them quick and extensive access to the market which is most important for any new boy band. It also renders them largely immune from criticism – as love of/support for the gays has become a totemic liberal value there are a multitude of voices who will defend such commercial exploitation of ‘homophobia’, invariably appealing to the mythical ‘young kid growing up and feeling alone’. The gay is always ‘out there’ in this equation, always a voiceless victim needing to be saved. Lady Gaga is obviously the standard-bearer for this conflation of homosexuality with victimhood, portraying herself as some brave freedom fighter bringing a voice to an oppressed minority. Only two weeks ago  the rich white woman with the model boyfriend who attended “one of the most selective and expensive schools in Manhattan” declared that ”It’s time for us to be mainstream”. Gee, thanks for that Gaga.

She is, to be fair, the perfect representative of an LGBT movement which is dominated by the concerns of privileged white men and is all-too-willing to allow itself be used as a mark of superiority by equally privileged liberals who fancy a taste of ‘the other’. That’s why the gay marketing ploy works so well. By buying into this idea that ‘gay rights’ exist in a vacuum, removed from any other political/geographical/human concerns, can completely ignore unpleasant issues of race, of poverty, of wider inequality (you can even ignore any discussion ofwhat ‘equality’ even means.) You don’t have to do anything at all other than say a couple of sentences and point people towards the e-petition.  In essence you’re saying nothing that’s any more controversial than ‘I like cake’ yet your ‘support’ for the gays will be widely seized on by (at least) the gay media and will confer a fabulous sprinkling of radicalism on you. This completely unthreatening ploy sees the cause, and the gays, as instrumental to the real message – buy our product. So you find LGBT people celebrating the commercialisation not only of homophobia but of themselves. They become less than human, useful only for their victimised sexuality and perceived lack of voice. In this way this marketing ploy is as insidious and harmful as any ‘homophobia’ which it ostensibly aims to address (at least until the next single is out). We don’t need the Class A, Matthew Morrison and Saturdays of the world to promote their wares off the back of our ‘oppression’; more than that, we shouldn’t allow it. They can stuff their commercialised, profit-based, neutered and one-dimensional ‘Pride’.

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.

Lady Gaga’s weight and ‘victimhood’

Early last year I wrote in response to ‘Born This Way’, musing that Lady Gaga was “celebrating ‘gay as victim’” in the song and exposing a patronising, privileged view of ‘difference’. It’s safe to say that I don’t think much has improved in that regard over the past year. In fact, with time we’ve come to see that Gaga’s entire identity, entire career even, has come to be based on (and defined by) a false victimhood. At every turn she denies her privilege: she is a wealthy, white, famous pop star from a wealthy background (how we forget that she attended the same school as Paris Hilton). Yet she tells us that she was bullied for being different; that she was a starving artist prior to making it big; that she ‘hates money’; that she is bisexual. Now, in response to a silly, fleeting ‘storm’ over her alleged weight gain, she is the helpless victim of a sexist body fascism – one that is particularly cruel as she also suffered from eating disorders.

As this comment states, taken on their own most of Gaga’s claims to victimhood would be things we would not dare to question. Taken as a whole and in the context of her whole ‘I’m a victim just like you’ schtick, they become dubious.

Add to this her astonishing inconsistency and it’s nigh impossible to take her seriously. This comment lists several of the ways in which her hypocrisy has manifested itself. Her condemnation and subsequent support of fur is only the most recent. Here, I want to focus on the body issue and what it says about our media.

Whether Gaga has suffered from an eating disorder or not, it’s a fact that her fanbase (a significant minority of them, at least) has been notoriously vicious to everyone and anyone who is perceived as a threat. Anyone who has criticised Gaga on Twitter will probably have encountered this. Of specific relevance here is the fact that they have repeatedly attacked other pop stars for their appearance and their weight. Adele is the obvious example here, with Gaga’s ‘Little Monsters’ turning on her when it became clear that ‘21’ was going to eclipse Gaga’s masterpiece album in sales (I won’t link to examples as I don’t want to give them any further attention.) Most shockingly, people in Gaga’s own entourage have joined in the attacks. The crucial thing to note here is that Gaga is certainly aware of this. When Boy George was besieged by Gaga fans calling him ‘faggot’ and such, he frequently copied Gaga into the responses. Countless others have tweeted her about the abuse her fanbase dishes out to others. Someone as adept at social media as Gaga could not possibly claim to be oblivious. Yet despite her apparent devotion to the anti-bullying cause and, indeed, her own eating disorder, Gaga has never once spoken up about this. How could she? How can you claim victimhood and flatter the victimhood of your fans if you acknowledge that they can be oppressors too?

Of course, you don’t have to delve into the depths of Twitter to be sceptical of Gaga’s newfound ‘bravery’ re: body issues. For the past few years she has heavily cultivated an image based in high fashion. This has ranged from the dramatic weight loss she displayed in her semi-naked stint in the ‘Born This Way’ video to her freakishly airbrushed appearance on the cover of the exalted ‘September issue’ of Vogue magazine. How did Gaga react to this transformation of her normal body shape into an impossibly thin caricature? She tweeted it to her fans with praise. Then there was her ‘pop stars don’t eat’ tweet, which the same outlets now praising her jumped on as immensely irresponsible.

Really, Gaga has developed a sudden interest in body fascism because she was ‘accused’ of putting on a few pounds. She has taken this and claimed victimhood. Prior to this, it’s impossible to see how she could be presented as anything other than part of the problem.

This doesn’t mean that the attacks on her weight are fine or that she shouldn’t be allowed to respond to them. Yet the media reportage of this has been highly illuminating. Nowhere have I seen an acknowledgement that her ‘stance’ on this issue is complicated to say the least; nowhere have I seen a serious examination of how body fascism is constructed and the part she may have played in this. No, instead the media has immediately resorted to ‘Gaga is a woman and her weight is being attacked by horrid sexists, oh the humanity!’ It has, to put it bluntly, pushed some buttons which the liberal media absolutely love to have pushed. All context, all examination, all critical thought is lost in the rush to present a woman as a poor victim of patriarchal society. That’s the extent of the story and allows the writers to wag their fingers at society and tell everyone how not on it is. Yet aside from the issues surrounding Gaga’s own history there is so much more that could be said. We could look at how celebrity culture fixates on body issues and how it’s overwhelmingly women who buy magazines which highlight fluctuating weights, for example. We could look at why intrusive paparazzi photos of Kate Middleton have caused weeks of outrage and miles of columns while intrusive paparazzi photos of Prince William and Prince Philip (showing their genitalia) came and went with barely a murmer. We could look at how stories fixating on the fluctuating weight of stars like Robbie Williams, Gary Barlow and Michael Buble arouse no furious columns in response. Undoubtedly, all of these issues could be put under the umbrella of patriarchy, yet the disproportionate efforts to always portray women as victims and men as perpetrators rob people (especially women) of their agency entirely.  Gaga’s history, her choices, her statements, are airbrushed from history, at best becoming less a product of her rational mind but instead her helpless responses to patriarchal society. This seems to me to be as patronising and damaging as the ‘sexism’ complained about in the first place.

It increasingly seems that this is where Gaga’s genius lies. She is undoubtedly talented in a traditional sense, yet she also knows exactly how to push the buttons of the media in order that she is always presented as a victim. Whether issues of gender, homophobia, poverty or generic ‘difference’, she manages to insert herself on the side of the victim. As I wrote in my earlier piece, she has a deadening attitude to difference where people become interchangeable in their victimhood and she stands above them. In a sense she (unintentionally) highlights the banal, patronising attitudes many hold towards ‘minority’ groups, not least in the media. This is her real, terrifying genius – the commodification and exploitation of victimhood.

‘The Spirit Indestructible’ and the courage to fail

I have banged on about Poptimism and its ultimate position as a snobbery every bit as tedious and shallow as Rockism far too often. Yet pieces like this recent, pointless attack on Dylan, every bit as predictable and depressing in its way as a Kerrang! column attacking Britney Spears, make me weep. They reduce music to a lifestyle signifier and are far more about how the author wants to be seen than about the music itself. The endless cry from many pop fans is that the best of ‘their’ music is just as worthy of attention and respect as the established canon of greats. This is of course true. However the intention must surely be other than to build a new, separate canon with which to beat the other ‘tribe’ – knee-jerk dismissal of Bob Dylan and praise of Ellen Allien seems no better to me than the converse. Positively revelling in disliking music which you feel you are expected to like seems to be an attitude we should aim to leave behind with our teens. Worse than that, it can prove rather limiting to the pop we profess to love.

The rock/pop divide came to mind today as I read about the fate of two albums released this week. Both The Killers and Nelly Furtado previously released their third (English) studio albums in 2008 and the intervening four years have seen curios – a live album and a couple of solo projects from The Killers, a Spanish album and a barely promoted Greatest Hits from Furtado. Curiously, both have returned to their second albums in 2012 – the sweeping Americana of Sam’s Town is the clear precursor to Battle Born while Furtado’s The Spirit Indestructible updates the eclectic folk and experimentation of Folklore, still her bravest and best album. Clearly the two artists have few similarities, yet they both straddle genres – The Killers flirt with electronic music, perform with Pet Shop Boys and receive dancefloor-friendly remixes from Stuart Price; Furtado, meanwhile, liberally mixes club-oriented beats with those most authentic of genres, folk and world music. Broadly speaking, however, I think it’s fair to say that The Killers are seen as a rock act while Nelly Furtado is seen as pop.

It’s difficult not to think of the differing contexts offered by these definitions while looking at the fate of the records. Both had under-performing lead singles but, looking at the charts available today (Amazon, iTunes, HMV) it seems that Battle Born is cruising towards the number one spot while The Spirit Indestructible will struggle to enter the top 30 (perhaps even the top 40). Crudely speaking, I think Furtado having to compete in the pop arena makes things that much more difficult for her. If we look at the acts who could be considered peers of The Killers – Coldplay, Kings of Leon, Green Day, Arctic Monkeys – it’s common for them to disappear from view for two, three years at a time between albums. The pressure isn’t quite there for them to be in the charts constantly and their records can breathe as a result. Yet if you look at the dominant pop acts of the moment – Gaga, Rihanna, Katy Perry – they have barely been ‘away’ in the past few years. They’ve released albums, re-issued albums, released EPs, performed on other people’s songs. Rihanna is rumoured to be about to release her 7th album in 7 years, while Lady Gaga is gearing up to release her 4th in 4. It seems almost that our modern popstars are increasingly terrified of ‘going away’ for too long lest they be forgotten. Whether it’s being a judge on ‘The Voice’ or ‘American Idol’, making guest appearances on other artists’ songs or being a staple of the gossip columns, modern pop stars seem to be on a gruelling treadmill to stay ‘relevant’. Whitney Houston 4 massive albums in the span of 1985-1998 or Michael Jackson’s 5 from 1979-1995 look like a Kate Bush-esque work rate by comparison. Indeed, it’s inconceivable to think now that Warner Bros had massive issues with Prince wanting to release an album every year. Nonetheless, when artists like Prince, Stevie Wonder or David Bowie had periods of prodigious prolificness you got the sense of an intense creativity at work; with Rihanna (however good the results sometimes are) it feels like a mix of fear and having nothing better to do.

The idea still remains that albums are by and large a ‘rock’ thing while singles are a pop thing. Witness, for example, the argument that Madonna had become a ‘classic rock’ act when MDNA did decent business despite the failure of its singles. Perhaps this has much to do with the genesis of the album as the pinnacle of popular music being tied up with artists like Dylan and The Beatles. Despite strings of classic singles (and in the case of The Beatles, enormously successful ones) they have become totemic of Rockism, associated with rock bores who think everything after 1980 is dreadful. Whatever the reason, it seems reasonable to argue that this is why a rock band can disappear for a decent amount of time and still sell albums once they return while current pop acts feel the need to throw everything they have and hope something sticks. If anything this seems counter-productive in terms of great pop music: Rated R is undoubtedly Rihanna’s greatest album and one which has artistic merit, yet its relative commercial failure has seen her pull back from the potential it realised to become a one-woman Now! compilation. Since P!nk’s Try This underperformed she has released three variations on Missundazstood while Christina Aguilera has become the latest in a long list of pop stars to go down the Max Martin route after the failure that was Bionic. Heck, even Taylor Swift at the peak of her career has just released a Max Martin single which you could easily imagine being performed by P!nk/Kelly Clarkson.

Furtado’s The Spirit Indestructible really doesn’t fit against this backdrop of homogeneity, which is perhaps surprising given the involvement of Darkchild. As the title suggests it’s a testament to the human spirit, to hope, and it has an identifiable ideology and cohesiveness. It struck me while listening to it that major pop albums which show such a messy but clear artistic impulse seem to be getting rarer. Given the almost certain commercial failure of the record, we can perhaps expect Furtado to rush into the arms of Dr Luke in 6 months’ time. 

The point of all this rambling? We should worry less about which side we’re on in the rock/pop divide and try to support artists who are trying to do something interesting/different. Artists who have an identifiable voice and who provide that little bit more than a catchy song. Ultimately it seems that this is the only way we’ll get big pop artists taking creative risks again at a time when the big trend is towards uniformity. We need to give pop artists room to breathe, the courage to fail and, more than ever, the strength to know that we don’t need them throwing another Max Martin/RedOne/Dr Luke song at us every 3 months.