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.


I read ‘Anti-Gay’ in February this year. It was around the time Gaga released ‘Born this Way’ and the ‘gay community’ seemed to collectively suspend all critical faculties. Only a couple of weeks later, Johann Hari wrote his awful, racist lies about ‘Muslim homophobia’ in Tower Hamlets and the piece went viral, shared by countless educated people who should have known better. That piece and the reaction to it (from Hari, from his colleagues, from his readers) proved to be the catalyst for a serious appraisal of my own beliefs and approaches towards the media, identity politics and wider politics.

It took in ‘gay activists’ in Tower Hamlets, Caitlin Moran, Johann Hari, Patrick Strudwick and Sunny Hundal (repeatedly – exactly a year ago I actually followed Johann, Patrick and Sunny. I would sometimes engage in harmless banter with them. It was only when I criticised them that they turned (quite insanely) nasty and this response proved to be quite typical of their peers like Caitlin and Grace Dent. An honourable mention to Eva Wiseman, who somehow tracked down a criticism I made of one of her articles (I didn’t send it to her) and responded in very good humour) and the John Snow “kiss-ins”. The Hari scandal, by complete coincidence, unfolded only weeks after my own disillusionment with him and the response to that further informed my self-criticism. It led me to be depressed at the ironic cynicism which passes as ‘writing’ for so many prominent figures in the media (and the ironic responses they receive). 

The response by many of my peers to the London riots only added to the sense that I had been living in a cosy bubble for many years, not really questioning anything around me but instead being happy to have my opinions reflected back at me. My disgust with identity politics led to a re-focusing on class and in increasing disdain for the petty politics of Labour vs Tory (something which, again, I have been frequently guilty of). I have been bored to death by the tedious and irrelevant chattering about Ed Miliband being replaced by someone more presentable. It seems that ‘Labour’ or ‘Tory’ have in many quarters become just another form of ‘identity’, signifying something while meaning nothing. My thinking of late has been around trying to form a coherent narrative relating class to many of the above issues and why identity politics inevitably reaches a cul-de-sac that inevitably ends up serving the powerful and diverting from the real problems.

I’ve come in for a lot of flack while thinking through all this stuff. Of course I know that I can seem smug, vitriolic, aggressive in my writing but really I think many of the responses I have received are more to do with the things I’m questioning and how the person relates to them than with anything relating to me. I don’t claim to know any great ‘truth’ or to be ‘correct’ but I think it’s fair to say that my politics and my approach to politics has completely altered this year, more so than it has done probably since university over a decade ago. A decade seems like a long enough time to coast along without seriously having my beliefs challenged. That is the fundamental thing – whomever else has been a part of this, it’s my own thinking and beliefs that I have ultimately been criticising. I feel much better for it and feel excited about what 2012 will bring – in terms of what I will learn and also what I can do to help fight the battles I believe are important.

Edit- and in the spirit of continuing to learn, if anyone has any recommendations for future reading please comment below and let me know.

Thoughts on ‘Born This Way’

Everyone else is doing it, so why can’t I?

After the premiere of the video yesterday led to another outpouring of utter drivel, I wanted to articulate my feelings about the whole ‘Born This Way’ thing. Not least because I know that some people who know me undoubtedly believe that my response to it is largely determined by ‘the Madonna factor’.

First of all, I will admit that I have been dubious about Gaga from the moment I heard ‘The Fame’. To be specific, I loved ‘Just Dance’ when I first heard it (when it was first heard in the U.S.) and downloaded ‘The Fame’ when it first leaked. I was immensely disappointed – most of the album is terrible. It also betrayed that what Gaga swiftly became was somewhat of an accident. You don’t make records like ‘Eh Eh’ if you’re intending to end up at ‘Bad Romance’. But end up there she did, and ‘The Fame Monster’ is undoubtedly a huge improvement on ‘The Fame’ and a great pop record in its own right. ‘Bad Romance’ will forever be iconic and was a perfect example of an artist taking their influences and building something uniquely theirs. It is brilliant.

  Now I could write a book about all of that, but onto ‘Born This Way’. It is a dreadful record. Clunking, patronising, lazy and downright stupid. I’ve heard it said that Lady Gaga has been racing through Madonna’s career – if this is the case then ‘Born This Way’ marks her swift arrival at Madonna’s humourless, worthy and superior persona (without the fun stuff inbetween). Where to begin?

Firstly, taken exclusively on its musical merits, the song is undeniably derivative and largely generic. No great crime, but when you’ve spent almost a year being told that this is going to be the greatest thing to have ever happened to music (by Gaga and by people around her) it’s understandable that this provokes a reaction against it. Now when you factor in the ‘gay element’, this takes on a new meaning. Gaga chooses to celebrate the ‘difference’ of homosexuality by returning to disco, the most stereotypically ‘gay’ music genre and one which every pop star who wants to appeal to a gay audience seems to run to at some point or another. It reminds me of ‘G-A-Y’ by Geri Halliwell, except Geri at least had the good sense to make it a b-side and not build it up as being akin to the Emancipation Proclamation beforehand. Already the difference Gaga is celebrating is a very narrow one.

It’s worth noting here that since the backlash against the song, many of Gaga’s ‘Little Monsters’ have been backtracking on the gay aspect of the song and arguing that it’s a wider anthem of tolerance. Yes, the lyrics are more general but to deny that Gaga (and her team) have specifically focused on the gay theme is either being completely stupid or completely disingenuous. I could trawl Google to provide countless quotes to illustrate this but I think it’s pretty self-evident. However, taking that wider theme, the song both patronises and fails. It patronises because it lists minorities in a ‘shopping list’ of difference where we are all interchangeable but the same in our ‘difference’. This celebrates nothing other than Gaga’s self-identification with ‘outsiders’ and, so, Gaga herself. I won’t add to the furore over her use of ‘chola’ and ‘orient’ but I have nothing intrinsically in common with ethnic minorities (except on a broader human level and arguably in terms of places in wider power structures, which I will look at in a second). What we see is a privileged (both in her race and her wealth) woman revealing more than she probably cares to about her very banal (and frighteningly deadening) notion of ‘difference’.

It fails because it does not even coherently follow through on this already misguided notion. Perhaps half-aware of the above argument, she adds religion, ‘white’ and ‘evergreen’ to the shopping list. In adding the powerful and privileged (and, not incidentally, those responsible for much of the oppression faced by the ‘different’) she reduces her point to nothing except ‘be happy’. The suggestion that the power structures in society are ‘born’ is actually counter-productive to any message of acceptance and neglects to tackle the reasons behind homophobia, racism etc, instead reducing all of the social, political and economic circumstances to the hilarious implication that bigots are also ‘born this way’ and should just…not be, while also reducing all identity to a one-note caricature based on a presumed biological foundation.

Clearly most listeners won’t delve this deep into the song, so what if it’s just taken on a superficial level? The one argument that I have heard wheeled out repeatedly in support of it is that it will help closeted gay children. This argument is invariably put forward by out and proud metropolitan gay men and as such I think it’s a ‘straw man’ argument that hides the true purpose of the record – that is, to take a specific gay identity and affirm it back at gay people, and thus commodify it. As I noted above, the difference Gaga celebrates is a very narrow one. It is one largely dictated by privileged Western gay men and one which takes its cues from mainstream gay culture. We must not forget that this culture is not the totality of any of us. It’s not even a small part, for many. Yet its success and position depends on the affirmation of gay people’s differences to, and subjugation at the hands of, everyone else. Gaga is celebrating ‘gay as victim’ and in the process reinforcing a central tenet of a commercialised gay culture. Much has been written about the pressure for gay people to conform to this, from ‘the body beautiful’ to the ostentatious display of wealth. Gaga reinforces every one of these points, identifying gay people with muscular dancers in designer clothes and raising product placement/endorsement to almost religious levels (and also largely ignoring lesbianism, save as titillation or as comedy).

Now, tackling directly the argument about gay children – of course I think it’s positive for gay kids to have role models. But why are we so willing to applaud the crumbs from the table of Lady Gaga and ignore everything else? Is a repressed gay child with a bigoted family really going to be helped by a woman who repeatedly identifies homosexuality with ‘freaks’, ‘monsters’ and aliens (the visual accompaniments to ‘Born This Way’ have underlined this point)? Sure, it may help cement a sense of victimhood and a fledgling desire to ‘fight’, but that is ultimately counter-productive. The fact is that in America (which is where we are always talking about) we have a President  who has explicitly reached out to gay children in speeches. So have many of his peers. He has appointed gay people to high-profile jobs in his administration. We have little to say about this. We have had little to say about the gay celebrities who have come out and…lived their lives. We have little to say about it because it is painting gay people as ordinary people who happen to be gay, and not fabulous angelic creatures who are scorned by all around them. Gaga is not an intergalactic social worker fighting homophobia in a vacuum. She is a pop star whose image and success is tied up in the notion of not being part of the power structure she undoubtedly is (which is also why she has gone to such great pains to downplay her wealthy background, and create urban myths around being a starving ‘artist’).

With ‘Bad Romance’, Gaga was winning me over. In stumbling so clumsily and stupidly into the realms of sexuality, identity and difference, she has re-affirmed all of her worst aspects.

And I didn’t even mention ‘Express Yourself’!