Rebel Heart

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Madonna is a 56 year old woman. It’s important to mention this fact at the beginning because it’s the dominant prism through which her career (and indeed her life) is viewed these days. After the already infamous wardrobe malfunction at the BRIT Awards, social media was awash with terrible jokes and easy slights all premised on her being a frail elderly woman while her refusal to ‘cover up’ inevitably leads to demands that she ‘puts it away’. She is called a ‘cougar’ (a woman I was discussing Madonna with the other day disparagingly called her ‘cougaresque’ before stating with no hint of irony that she was ‘opposed’ to the ageism she faces) and mocked for her efforts to appear ‘young’ while photos where she ‘looks her age’ regularly form sneering tabloid stories. She is labelled ‘vampiric’ for daring to work with younger, on-trend producers and even ostensibly positive articles about her invariably buy into the notion that she is desperately clinging onto youth and/or relevance.

‘Desperate’ is not an adjective you will often hear thrown at legendary male musicians. When Prince, also 56, returned last year with a band made up of younger women and singing songs you could easily imagine someone half his age performing, he was met with unbridled praise. Yet the sexism behind this double standard operates in ways more subtle than the ‘mere’ fact that men face far fewer constraints on who they are expected to be as they age. If we look at Kate Bush, for example, we see a 56 year old female who is massively respected and praised; if we look at Joni Mitchell or Stevie Nicks, we see artists 10 years older who are similarly admired. The opprobrium Madonna faces, then, is not solely because she is an ageing woman but rather because she is an ageing woman making contemporary pop/dance music.

1983, when Madonna released her debut album, was “an era where disco was anathema to the mainstream pop, and she had a huge role in popularizing dance music as a popular music again”. Madonna’s roots lay in a music scene which belonged to the queers, the blacks, the latinos, the drag queens and yes, the women. The infamous ‘Disco Sucks!’ movement typifies the sexist, racist and homophobic opposition which this music met with and it was in this context Madonna released a debut where she solely wrote 5 of the 8 tracks. As Michael Rosenblatt (A&R of Sire Records at the time) puts it, even Warner Bros dismissed her as “just a little dance girl.”

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It seems fair to say that Madonna has faced variations on this attitude in her career since, whether it be accusations that she slept her way to success, assertions that her ‘real talent’ is marketing and self-promotion or the attribution of her successes to the men she has collaborated with. It’s not an accident that her most respected albums, Like A Prayer and Ray of Light, are the ones where she most ostentatiously seemed like a musical auteur while, for example, the high concept brilliance of Erotica or the cleverness of MDNA as her second divorce album were generally lost in the midst of dance beats, Sex books and Super Bowls. Over the years ‘rockism’ has, of course, been chipped away and Madonna has won a begrudging respect from many. In the past decade or so, however, she’s faced another set of prejudices under the guise of ‘poptimism’, an approach which sees the rejection of ‘authenticity’ and the ‘rock canon’ as its liberating raison d’être. This is fine up to a point but (as I’ve written about many times before) it has led to orthodoxies as facile and constraining as rockism at its worst: a fetishising of and supplication to youth; a hyper-sensitive rejection of sincerity and earnestness; a deep suspicion of ‘traditional’ markers of musical talent (ie the endless whining over guitars) and an irreverence which frequently tips over into petulance. It’s this approach which led us to the absurdity of a pop album where the ‘artist’ doesn’t necessarily even sing entire verses attributed to her: poptimism has, ironically, a contempt for pop music at its core.

Madonna, on the other hand, has always taken pop music seriously and approached it sincerely. How could she not? Disco and its aftermath wasn’t about empty, half-understood post-modernist; rather it was about life. A celebration, yes, but at its most basic level it was about the survival and defiance of those the mainstream rejected. Madonna came to music knowing that it mattered and knowing that her self-expression as a pop artist was one of the most powerful statements she could ever make. Her famous statement that she wanted ‘to rule the world’ was not (just) hubris but a statement of intent that she could make things better – not for nothing does her debut single command ‘Everybody’ to “dance and sing, get up and do your thing”.

In 2015, then, we have rockist relics forever suspicious of Madonna making pop music and poptimists who can’t understand why she should warrant any respect or even attention unless she’s delivering instant gratification. She’s at least double the age of your average pop singer on the charts yet hasn’t ‘toned it down’ and gone the route expected of her  (witness the contrasting responses to Annie Lennox’s ‘graceful’ ageing at the Grammys vs Madonna’s ass-baring.) She is quite unique in being a middle-aged female pop artist who refuses to go quietly into the night or become her own tribute act, a move which I’m certain would quickly gratify her to many detractors who want little more than nostalgia from their ageing musicians.

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This latter approach was exactly the one taken David Bowie in 2002 with Heathen (when he was 55), and by Bob Dylan in 1997 with Time Out of Mind (when he was 57). Both, of course, tick a lot more of the boxes warranting ‘respect’ than Madonna but by recording albums which harked back to their heydays, firmly met expectations of what they should be doing and nodded towards the fact of their ageing, they were greeted by an avalanche of acclaim. Madonna’s not an idiot. Coming from the commercial disappointment of MDNA (though two million sales these days is nothing to be sniffed at) and facing an uphill battle to ever have a hit single again, she surely knows that if she were to reunite with, say, Pat Leonard, dye her hair black, put on some conservative clothes and sing some ballads about how awful it was getting old before knocking around singing Like A Prayer, she’d have a much easier time of it. Yet Rebel Heart is, in its way, as much a restatement of values as Time Out of Mind or Heather were. It is also just as much about ageing.

Ever since Madonna stridently sang “Unlike the others I’d do anything, I’m not the same, I have no shame” on Burning Up, she’s done a good line in ‘nothing’s gonna stop me!” songs. Yet given Madonna’s current position there’s something poignant in hearing her sing ‘Now that it’s over/I’m gonna carry on’ over a throwback 90s house track in Rebel Heart’s opener Living For Love. The proposed concept of Rebel Heart, abandoned after leakageddon, was apparently a double-album comprised of two ‘sides’: rebel and heart. This isn’t particularly different from the stated theme of Hard Candy, which was to juxtapose Madonna’s toughness with her ‘soft centre’ and, like HC, Rebel Heart is an album which looks backwards a lot. Yet while Hard Candy sonically revisited the r&b-inflected pop of Madonna’s early years (her debut was allegedly the template), Rebel Heart is possibly the most musically diverse album she’s ever released. It’s also one very much about taking stock and moving onwards into an uncertain future.

The album is littered with obvious references to Madonna’s past – the Vogue sample on Holy Water, the Justify My Love lyrics on Best Night, the cavalcade of song titles which make up Veni Vidi Vici; the title track’s moving reflection on her life; it’s also packed with allusions to Madonna’s status as an ageing pop icon. On electro-folk tour de force Devil Prey she sings “Holding on, but I’m getting weaker/watch me disappear.” Ghosttown, a Ryan Tedder-esque anthem which is probably the album’s best chance of a hit, depicts a barren post-apocalyptic world and finds Madonna musing that “Everything’s bound to break sooner or later.” In the gorgeous Joan of Arc she sings “Even when the world turns its back on me/There could be a war, but I’m not going down.” Album closer (standard version) Wash All Over Me is an elegiac ballad which seems self-explanatory given what I’ve written above:

In a world that’s changing
I’m a stranger in a strange land
There’s a contradiction
And I’m stuck here in between
Life is like a desert
An oasis to confuse me
So I walk this razor’s edge
Will I stand or will I fall?
…If this is the end then let it come
Let it come
Let it rain
…Gonna watch the sun going down
I’m not gonna run from all this sadness

I remember reading a review of Bedtime Stories in Q Magazine which ended by posing the question “Is it too soon to say that it was fun while it lasted?” Now, over 20 years later, Madonna seems to be posing the question to herself. The most fascinating song in this regard is, ironically, one which seems to have been removed from the track listing at the last minute: Queen is an astounding dirge quite unlike anything she’s ever recorded before and finds the Queen of Pop addressing indirectly addressing her listeners:

We’re at the end of days
For heaven’s sake
The queen’s been slain
She’ll never rule again
…Black parade, motorcade
Destiny sings farewell, church bells
Is anyone listening?
…Who will take her place?
Its written on everyone’s face
The truth is slowly dawning
I hear tomorrow calling
Some things can’t be replaced
The realization of a new generation
On the eve of imitation
All gone, overthrown

She is, in effect, saying ‘you fuckers will miss me when I’m gone’. In fact, ‘some things can’t be replaced’ could fairly be described as the over-arching theme of the album or, to put it another way – Bitch I’m Madonna. The ‘rebel’ songs are less concerned with considering Madonna’s demise (metaphorical or otherwise) than with reminding us that she can do thrilling pop in her sleep. Given her origins and the more subtle versions of ‘Disco Sucks!’ which she’s faced throughout her career, it’s quite apropos that it’s the adventurous, brash and fun electronic pop of Bitch I’m Madonna, Unapologetic Bitch and Holy Water which have been vexing the straight white male critics. Indeed, the fact that Madonna had to point out that the latter song, with lyrics like “Kiss it better, kiss it better (don’t it taste like holy water)”, was meant to be funny speaks volumes about how some perceive her. The heart songs let us know that she’s perfectly self-aware regarding her age and her position – the rebel songs tell us she’s not our bitch, don’t hang our shit on her. She’ll be singing songs like S.E.X. (featuring a ‘lesson in sexology’ which includes “chopsticks, underwear, barber soap, dental chair, fish nets, satin sheets, garter belt, raw meat” – it’s like she felt sorry for the Daily Mail) as long as people keep telling her to stop and tossing off the kind of mercurial melodies found in Hold Tight and Inside Out while her detractors scramble around blowing up photos of her hands. As she puts it in Borrowed Time, she wants to ‘live each moment like our time is only borrowed’.

Taken in one go the ‘Super Deluxe’ version is certainly too long (23 songs, if Queen is indeed missing) but this largely seems to reflect a) the changed nature of ‘albums’ in an mp3/Spotify world and b) the need to get fans to buy multiple copies to shore up Madonna’s commercial fortunes. Presumably because the leaks meant that the songs finished at the time were rush-released, the pacing is a bit off too. Nonetheless this is certainly Madonna’s best album since Confessions On A Dance Floor and, as her public appearances have underlined, she seems more engaged in the music than she has done in a while.

For all the reasons discussed above, Madonna isn’t going to be respected as the preternaturally brilliant talent she is any time soon. The criticism isn’t going to stop being about the same superficial things it’s always about (as opposed to serious discussion of her sometimes problematic and sometimes plain godawful politics.)We’ll do this all again in a few years when she’s 60 and pissing even more people off by showing her ass but, by God, she’s right about one thing:

We’ll miss her when she’s gone.

Which Disney Princess Are You? Geeks, Gays and Misogyny

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I’ve written previously about a perceived ‘descent into infantile triviality’ where a seemingly pathological aversion to being viewed as ‘too serious’ manifests itself in particular as a ‘facetious fixation on popular culture (which) flows neatly into consumerism’. Nothing better sums up this trend than the explosion in the past 12 months of sites like Buzzfeed, built almost entirely around lists and gifs which offer jolts of recognition to personalities overwhelmingly built around particular aspects of culture. Interestingly, the particular identity which much of this seems to revolve around is that of the ‘geek’. This perhaps isn’t surprising, as this is not only an identity overwhelmingly based on consumption but also one which relies heavily on gif-able culture for its existence.

While this is a general trend, I wrote last year about how this particular identity was becoming the dominant subculture in what we know as ‘gay culture’. This makes sense when you think about the ways in which this serves capital and how they neatly complement the increasing positioning of the LGBT community as both a market and a marketing tool. It’s been no surprise, then, that even since I wrote the ‘Gay Geeks’ blog I’ve noticed a dramatic upsurge in the prevalence of what I described. It also increasingly converges: this morning one of the first things I saw on my Facebook was a link to ‘Disney Princesses as Game of Thrones Characters’ while Push The Button, a gay night devoted to semi-ironic love for c-grade 90s pop, is soon having an evening devoted to The Little Mermaid. The Disneyfication of the geek identity has been fascinating to watch (and is clearly something Buzzfeed has picked up on) but it has ominous undercurrents with regards to a geek culture which is often accused of misogyny (it almost entirely seems to revolve around Disney Princesses). When you take the Gay Geek there are further levels of disquiet, with the issues levelled at the geek identity potentially being compounded by the accusations that misogyny is prevalent amongst gay males. If we look at the markers of the Gay Geek, aside from Disney Princesses, comics, video games, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who and the rest you commonly see a love for Ru Paul’s Drag Race present. It’s impossible not to notice that all of these things have problems with their representations of women who, in pretty much all of them, are sexy and sassy while ultimately being in thrall to the brilliant men around them. This is most explicit in Drag Race, where a group of men act out this sassy fantasy and find it reproduced by viewers around the world (with added racial issues as white men unthinkingly do impressions of black female stereotypes).

I thought of this when reading the Rohin Guha piece on gay male misogyny which has caused a minor storm in some circles. Guha notes that, in certain gay subcultures, women are:

…essentially unwelcome, unless they come to us as a Real Housewife, a pop diva, or an Tony award winner–or an unassuming fag hag. To anyone just coming out of the closet and hoping to get his bearings in the gay male community, the attitude towards women is simple: They are just objects whose function is to serve gay men.

The fit between this and the Gay Geek identity is startling and finds its perfect expression in HBO’s new ‘gay drama’ Looking. The main character is a self-identified geek who designs video games. When he’s not talking about sex with his friends, they exchange self-consciously sassy references to popular culture. His date purchases him trading cards based on 80s movie The Goonies to impress him. While this is going on, women are almost entirely absent from the lives of the central characters. They appear to have a single female friend who is a gay man’s fantasy of a fag hag, always on hand to go drinking and always willing to sit quietly in the lounge while you bring over your Grindr shag. The only other females who have even had lines have been a snooty artist who sacks one of the guys and a chef who refuses to help kick-start the restaurant dream of another. This treatment (absence, largely) of women has been one of the most egregious aspects of the show yet I’ve not seen a single mention of it in any review.

It’s interesting that the attacks on Guha’s piece seem to come from a place of ‘but women shouldn’t even be in gay places and they touch us and treat us like accessories too!’ Aside from the absurd pre-school nature of ‘they started it!’, I find this deeply disingenuous. There is certainly a damaging instrumentalisation of gay people as ‘liberal accessories’ but it’s one in which the entire gay media and community is very complicit. We fall over ourselves to adore straight ‘allies’ who praise gay people (Attitude giving Caitlin Moran an ‘Honorary Gay Award’), even when it’s done in the most patronising and offensive ways. Our gay magazines feature an endless parade of attractive straight men in their pants (I wonder if the writer of the linked Huffington Post piece would take issue with an attractive straight ‘gay ally’ like Ben Cohen being present in ‘his’ gay clubs) and we barely bat an eyelid at Lady Gaga’s adoption of ‘the gays’ as her ‘cause’ or Britney Spears referring to her gay fans as ‘somewhat girls’. No, this defence smacks of people being called out on their behaviour and being outraged (even if we accepted the defences offered, they depict nothing so much as deeply dysfunctional relationships which apparently are fine unless someone actually dares to point out how fucked up they are.)

Misogyny is clearly real and there’s no reason that gay men would be excluded from that. What makes this particularly worthy of commentary is that we seem to think of gay men and women as natural allies and so think we couldn’t possibly be misogynist. Yet I think it’s very present – and with the rise of the Gay Geek it’s being expressed in over more subtly damaging ways. Facing this problem is but one way in which we can educate ourselves, avoid the ‘infantile triviality’ and progress to a position where we can start to challenge these issues.

Twin Time

Today Gay Times (GT) magazine unveiled their new cover, an airbrushed photo of two almost-naked twin brothers with the headline of ‘TWIN TIME’ and a promise that they tell all about their ‘life in porn’. GT’s twitter account soon after tweeted the non-question “Is it immoral to put gay twin brothers in hardcore porn, or just really, really hot?” If it wasn’t clear from the salacious cover that they had already answered this, the panting article description they linked to made their position clear. HOT HOT HOT!

Perhaps I wouldn’t have thought twice about this if not for the fact that my fiancé has a twin brother who is also gay. He has told me many times about his distaste, repulsion even, for the sexualisation of twins. He and his brother have had plenty of sleazy comments over the years. Imagine, he once said, that someone suggested to you that they have sex with you and your brother. Imagine how that would make you feel.

The thought was horrible to me, of course. The incest taboo is hardwired into us, with its very real associations with familial abuse, violence and genetic abnormalities.  No doubt this strong taboo is what draws some towards it as a sexual fantasy. Yet having this taboo ‘fantasy’ put front and centre in the UK’s most famous gay magazine, found in newsagents alongside FHM, GQ and the like, was a surprise to say the least. Certainly it’s common knowledge that times are hard for magazines, yet breathless prose about how these brothers are ‘breaking boundaries’ with their films such as ‘Brother Fuckers’ is something you may expect to find in obscure magazines sold in Soho basements rather than the leading mainstream ‘gay lifestyle’ title.

What makes it worse is the sheer disingenuousness of it. GT acknowledged questions of morality in their tweet, yet it’s a cursory nod to possible ‘controversy’, attempting to pre-empt criticism.  The blurb on the website follows a similar tactic and it’s clear that there is no serious engagement with the issues surrounding incest (and it’s certainly an area which there has been some recent debate) or the commodification of familial intimacy. Instead they want to titillate, to arouse, to sell, while paying lip service to the notion that there may be something distasteful in their actions.

There are a plethora of issues and questions raised by the cover. Not a day goes by without some piece appearing in the liberal media about misogyny and the commodification of women, yet here we have the hyper-sexualised commodification of twin brothers and implicit appeal of breaking the incest taboo. It’s a magazine created by men, for men, using the sexualisation of one of the most emotionally intimate relationships we can experience to generate profit. At a stroke it underlines how complex issues of objectification and exploitation are against a media which increasingly pursues the line that objectification = men degrading women.

Indeed, if aforementioned GQ or FHM featured two almost-naked sisters on their cover with similar text, making capital of their appearance in films such as ‘Sister Fucker’, I think there would be swift and widespread disgust and condemnation. Just as the current campaign to end Page 3 in The Sun rests heavily on the notion of patriarchy and the objectification of women by men, this would be held up as an example of widespread and fundamental misogyny. Does it become more acceptable if it’s men exploiting men? I would think not – certainly women who have positions of authority in the porn industry aren’t widely excused from complicity in objectification etc. Yet images of semi-naked men are common in the media and don’t arouse a fraction of the ire or comment which equivalent images of women do. Saying ‘it’s because of patriarchy’ is an immensely unsatisfying explanation for this.

This is further complicated by issues of sexuality and its representation. Again, I think it’s fair to say that gay men are indulged far more in their attitudes towards other gay men than straight men are in their treatment of women. In this recent Guardian piece on ‘creepy’ sites which post images of unsuspecting women for men to leer at, sites like Tubecrush (where gay men post photos of unsuspecting men) were completely absent. We tend to respond differently to men tweeting sexual remarks (and even insults based on appearance) about men they’re watching on television than we do to men tweeting about women. I would argue that the idea of gay men as sexually liberated and ‘fun’ is relatively widespread in the media (I still can’t believe that Caitlin Moran once put out a column about gay men being the ‘ultimate accessory’ and it didn’t end her career.) The kneejerk response to gay expressions of sexuality, however base they may be, is to indulge them and paint those who object as at best uptight, at worst a bigot. The collective bogeyman that is homophobia can, in these circumstances, prove to be enabling of behaviour few liberal-minded people would tolerate from straight men.

This can lead to a staggering lack of self-awareness and some curious logical contortions. A recent and common bugbear for many in the gay community was the tendency for some newsagents to place Gay Times and Attitude magazine on their top shelves, alongside the porn magazines. The cry of ‘homophobia’ spread, with advocates pointing to the scantily clad women adorning men’s magazines which were displayed on lower shelves. Yet I have absolutely no doubt that many of those who took up this cause would identify themselves as ‘feminists’. It seems a curious demand for equality, then, to ask that we be accorded the same ‘right’ to sexualise the shelves with heavily airbrushed images. The more difficult question would be to ask why ‘naked’ and ‘sex’ issues are such an increasingly common ploy for these magazines that it’s at the point of self-parody. Indeed, even male celebrities can rarely adorn covers unless they have some flesh on display. It could even be argued that this is seen as a far more respectable thing for male celebrities to do than female ones, which if true raises many other issues.

This cover, then, seems like a logical progression from this atmosphere. I doubt anyone involved in it would expect any serious backlash. Instead many men will salivate over the imagery and the ‘transgression’ and few people will bat an eyelid. In asking why this is and examining our own responses to the questions raised, I think we raise some uncomfortable and demanding questions.