2013: The Year the Social Media Dam Broke

This article was sent to me by @wotyougot and feeds into some things I’d been mulling over re: social media and television/films for a while. It shouldn’t seem like a particular insight to say that social media is having a big effect on the way we watch things but, in this age of cultural poptimism, it’s a statement which many will take instant umbrage with. For these people social media can only be a force for good and the kids (ie us, vicariously) are alright. It’s surely difficult to argue, however, that the live-tweeting of a show like Question Time is about much more than affirming your self-image and chasing the buzz of a retweet. I speak as someone who used to do it and understands the pleasure of having a pithy comment about that week’s reactionary panel member shared far and wide. It’s a long way from actually being about politics.

This piece speaks about the ‘social media buzz’ behind many of the most popular current shows and I think a large part of what it’s getting at is that the impulses which drive #BBCQT live-tweeting are now to be fond across television. In short, we reward shows which affirm our self-image. If this doesn’t require much effort on our part and lends itself to pithy social media updates, all the better. Question Time’s facile presentation of politics clearly fits this criteria, as we already know what we think and what the ‘right’ things to say are in order to receive validation. ‘Reality tv’ in general fits the bill, whether that be The Voice, Celebrity Big Brother or Ru Paul’s Drag Race. These shows make no real demands on our attention or even our thinking: they offer quick reward for minimal engagement. It’s arguable that the next step beyond this is the recent trend for verisimilitude, the appearance of reality, in shows like Girls and Looking. These shows offer idyllic reflections of their target audiences – that’s you on screen but you’re funnier, more profound and more attractive. Even the conflict, breakdowns and drama in these shows is an Instagram-filtered gentle masochism which never threatens to disrupt our projections.

Looking is a step beyond even Girls in these regards – its sole creative impulse appears to be this reflection, whether that be gay men of a certain class or a liberal audience who implicitly feel that they deserve cookies for watching a show about gays. I thought that the latter was very evident in responses to Weekend, the previous film from Andrew Haigh (director of Looking), though viewing figures for Looking suggest that its efforts to replicate this on television are falling flat. It’s not surprising, really – having your liberal self-image confirmed in a 90 minute film is one thing but an eight-hour tv show has to offer you something more. Looking fails spectacularly in this regard, being almost entirely free of both straight characters and female characters. It’s notable, however, that its main character is a video game-playing geek, as perhaps the most obvious examples of the trends I’m speaking of are the shows aimed at self-identified ‘geeks’ (Sherlock, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who). Looking is actually being rather clever in drawing upon the increasing dominance of the ‘geek’ in gay culture but the portrayal is too particular to flatter a general audience.

We can similarly speculate as to whether a wide current audience would care to watch a long television series about slavery featuring a predominantly black cast. Would this offer the same convenient affirmations which people have been finding in 12 Years A Slave? Over the past few weeks I’ve noted that people feel compelled to take to social media and inform everyone of how affected they were by this film, more than any other I can previously recall. It doesn’t require much thought to see how this fits into the trends I’m discussing here. The Brad Pitt character is a personification of the film’s appeal for many ‘liberal’ viewers and the emotional affectation which has so often been following viewings is a performance of self-image. The film is instrumentalised to show how humane and liberal we are. Then it’s onto the next thing.

As the Flavorwire piece notes, if a show acquires a ‘buzz’ it can get away with being a bit slower and more interesting. There’s a clear lineage of shows like The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad which are too sprawling to be easily compartmentalised but which became totemic of being a certain kind of person (it’s no coincidence that The Guardian has been a vocal supporter of them). It’s easy, then, to congratulate ourselves for watching ‘difficult’ shows but it’s certainly more difficult for ones which don’t offer facile affirmation to garner wider attention. This occurred to me while watching Rectify over Christmas. While garnering massive critical acclaim, it’s a show which is still largely-unheard of and it’s easy to see why: it’s slow and virtually impenetrable for a ‘social media viewer’, offering almost zero hooks in that regard. All it can hope for in terms of achieving wider attention, then, is to reach a certain critical mass (pun intended) where viewing it becomes a potent signifier.

It’s worth briefly noting here that this trend doesn’t only work in terms of liking something. The ‘Twitter hateathon’ which accompanies Sherlock these days is emblematic of the process working in a different way, where despising a show confirms your self-image. This is not to say that Sherlock isn’t worthy of critique but that is something far-removed from deliberately tuning in to live-tweet 90 minutes of snark.

Social media hasn’t invented the impulses which lie behind all of this, of course. It has merely, as this piece notes, accelerated and cemented them, drawing them out of more and more of us. I noted at the end of my piece on Question Time that the “series of experiences and moments of rethinking and reflection” written about by Antony Lerman offered an inspiring riposte to the social media-isation of critical engagement. Clearly there is no small irony in writing about that on Tumblr, yet it remains something to heed. Television and film have a massive amount of value to offer us and, on the whole, that value is not GIF-able.

2013: The Year the Social Media Dam Broke

‘X Factor’, Britney Spears and ‘The Voice’

When ‘X-Factor’ first arose from the ashes of ‘Pop Idol’ in 2004, it was intended to be different. Michelle McManus had won the second ‘Pop Idol’ and, while undoubtedly a nice person and able to carry a tune, she was by no means a pop star. As its name suggests, then, ‘’X-Factor’ was intended to be about more than singing. It explicitly aimed to recognise that there was something almost indefinable which made a truly great pop star – something which made a mediocre singer like Madonna infinitely more interesting than ten thousand big-voiced pub singers.

It was certainly an interesting concept but one which (whether by design or by necessity) was quickly jettisoned. “It’s a singing competition!” became a mantra for the judges and audience alike, though even that became less true as the series progressed. In the endless chase for ratings it became very much a modern reality show, emphasising the personalities of the ‘contestants’ and ramping up the cruelty and contrived conflict at every opportunity. In the 2011 series Misha B was arguably the only contestant who had ‘it’, yet she was mercilessly undermined for dramatic effect and we ended up with three bland acts in the final (though certainly Little Mix are enough of a blank canvas to facilitate some decent pop singles). In short, ‘X-Factor’ these days shows nothing but contempt for pop music. ‘Talent’ is defined as being a) likeable and b) being able to hold a tune, and little else. Acts with a sense of their own artistic identity are maligned. ‘Versatility’ is fetishised but in a very narrow sense equated with the willingness to sing anything that sells records. The biggest crime of all is a desire to be creatively involved – if you want to do well from ‘X-Factor’, do not under any circumstances say that you wish to write your own material or, God forbid, aren’t particularly interested in ‘pop music’ (in its most narrowest sense  – taken to mean dance-pop).

It is perhaps naive to believe that it was ever different yet the show’s progression/degeneration can be easily traced in the lineage of its judging panel. It initially began with three industry people who could ostensibly spot ‘talent’. From there we have overwhelmingly moved to more ratings-driven choices, with each judge playing a set ‘role’. You could conceivably argue that people like Cheryl Cole or Tulisa are meant to illustrate the original concept of being pop stars despite rather modest talents, yet this is nonsensical given the decisive shift away from that idea. Indeed, when Cheryl launched her solo career on the show she mimed her performance, a quite staggering display of contempt for both contestants and audience of the ‘singing competition’. It both highlighted and undermined the charade – Cheryl is a pop star who began life as a tv personality and, despite the frequent brilliance of Girls Aloud, the latter has remained her most prominent role. This meant that she could perform as a tv personality – the singing (and even the song) were incidental. We are encouraged to buy into the person as an individual brand. This is the idea of a pop star being pushed by ‘X-Factor’ – a personality first, a singer second, an ‘artist’ a very distant afterthought. In this sense Olly Murrs is the archetypal contestant – someone who is able to present tv shows while churning out catchy, undemanding singles – while Leona Lewis’ swift decline could be attributed to her failure as a ‘personality’.

What ‘X Factor’ has become has reached its apotheosis with the appointment of Britney Spears as a judge on ‘X Factor USA’. She is in many ways the perfect ‘X-Factor’ pop star – Britney as a brand & persona long ago eclipsed Britney as a person. It’s almost irrelevant to ponder Britney as an artist because she is the ultimate blank canvas, reflecting everything and nothing, at once devoid of personality and containing everyone’s personalities. She may still put out albums but really, at this stage, no-one would bat an eyelid if she was used to advertise hedge funds.

It is a dead-eyed idea of pop as something which, at its best, sells. That becomes its primary purpose and, to this aim, it must not be demanding, difficult, too interesting or have aspirations towards being an art form (other than as, perhaps, a Warholian commentary on the cultural void at the heart of pop which has been replaced by the marketplace).

The launch of ‘The Voice’ in deliberate contrast to ‘X-Factor’ has been interesting. It already seems clear that it cannot hope to even begin to challenge the notions of pop disseminated by the latter. Yet in some ways it seems like a sincere effort. The instant admission that the contestants have all been pre-vetted is a hugely positive move, moving away from the deliberate cruelty and humiliation of the audition stages of ‘X-Factor’. It does try to avoid the traps of modern reality tv with its emphasis on the contest rather than the contestant. We aren’t led to believe that the contestants all mess around in a house together; there are no ‘profiles’ of each individual every week and no ironic ‘quizzes’ wherein we are encouraged to ‘get to know’ the individuals. It displays a very self-conscious interest in ‘talent’, from its judges performing live to contestants who play instruments and speak about song-writing.

All of this is much mocked, usually with an appeal to the oft-derided notion of ‘authenticity’. This criticism works in two ways – firstly to suggest that the show is obsessed with the sneering notion of ‘real music’, secondly by highlighting that it’s a tv show and involves manipulation and so isn’t actually ‘authentic’. I think the first is unfair – I don’t think the show is overly concerned with ‘real music’ in the sense of any specific genre or even the idea that artists write songs – indeed, the two favourites to win, Ruth Brown and Jaz, are simply singers. However they are singers who seem to be treated with respect, guided to improve and grow in confidence without artificial hoops to jump through such as singing ‘big band’ or whatever. The ‘authenticity’ being pursued is one that is in opposition to the ’X-Factor’ ideal of blankness. Yet it almost goes back to ‘Pop Idol’ and its idea that a good voice is enough. Madonna certainly wouldn’t make it past the pre-audition stage of ‘The Voice’.

The second criticism, though largely facile, does inadvertently highlight another big problem with ‘The Voice’ – it doesn’t quite work as a tv show. In avoiding the contrivances which make ‘X-Factor’ entertaining and aiming for an ostentatious sincerity, it ultimately misses both the entertainment of a trashy reality show and the honesty which it aims for. How could it not? The American version is far more astute regarding this and is based almost entirely around the relationship between the superstar judges.

Ultimately, I do prefer ‘The Voice’ to ‘X Factor’. The latter feels exploitative and unpleasant; I feel grubby when I watch it. The greatest crime of the former to date is that it’s a bit dull. I suppose if there’s a ‘lesson’ here it’s that pop music can never be reduced to a magic formula which works on television. ‘X Factor’ is explicitly aimed at a television audience while ‘The Voice’ naively aims itself at an audience who will appreciate ‘good singing’, assuming that this is enough. Both, perhaps, contribute to the reduction of pop music to a talent show and the increasing emphasis on pop stars as next-door ‘personalities’. To coin a phrase, the next pop revolution will not be televised.

I have no particularly strong feelings about Lana Del Rey. I’ve heard a couple of songs and like them well enough. I couldn’t care less about what her ‘real’ story is in terms of whether or not I enjoy her music. However, this piece, and particularly its adoption today as some kind of rallying cry for pop, infuriates me.

I’ve written a few times about inverted pop snobbery and well, here it is. The worst kind of petty sneering at some imaginary oppressive enemy. It is, to borrow a currently in vogue phrase, reductive. This piece skates over all of the ambiguities that surround (and indeed make) Lana Del Rey. It relies on the fatuous premise that ‘alternative’ writers (who these people are, we are never told) gravitated towards her blindly and naturally, as if she and her marketing have had nothing to do with it. Once you accept that Lana Del Rey did not magically appear one day but has actively touted (and been touted) to specific audiences (a point noted in kind by the admission that there a heap of remixes aimed at ‘alternative’ audiences), then her past becomes relevant. In just the same way that Popjustice found Duffy’s past relevant in this article:

He is reluctant to fully accept the ingenue image. “From the beginning she was very stylised, shot in black and white, sold with the story that she’d barely heard a record before coming to London. The early press releases didn’t mention the fact that she had won [sic] the Welsh X Factor.” But he is not entirely disparaging. “Duffy shows that a manufactured artist can be good, if created by talented people who care about music,” he said.

The ‘Welsh X Factor’ thing in particular was a common fixation that, as far as I can tell, originated with Popjustice. I don’t see how it is any more or less relevant to what Duffy became than Lana Del Rey’s history is. All artists have a story, all artists are creations to some degree, and all people who write about music have every right to examine that and believe it to be relevant.

Now, the particular point being made here is one beloved of Popjustice: that the ‘indie’ world dismisses ‘pop’ music out of hand, particularly if it is manufactured. I think that’s why PJ went to pains to claim Duffy as a ‘manufactured’ artist. It’s also why something like the idea that Lana Del Rey might be terrible live is called a “boring idea of authenticity”. This approach to pop is, I think, cynical and damaging. In short, it treats pop as the disposable trash that these imaginary ‘alternative writers’ would believe it to be. In the effort to create a level playing field between pop and other, presumed ‘superior’ genres, the effort goes into levelling down, not up. So we hear the endless arguments about how everything should be approached as if it is of equal value; about how who writes the songs is irrelevant; about how the ability to perform live is the tedious concern of muso snobs. There is no argument for pop music as something capable of serious, transcendental moments (and I don’t use ‘serious’ here to mean ‘morose’, I mean sincere, affecting and without irony). There is no recognition of the unique brilliance of a pop auteur . There is no appreciation of the fact that the brilliance of ‘manufactured music’ like Motown or Dusty Springfield or most of Kylie’s output has come about from a perfect match between artist and song, a balance and interpretation which is worthy of examination itself and which is cheapened by being lumped in with all ‘manufactured pop’ as if any judgement acknowledging this fact is snobbery.

The urge is clearly to argue for pop as something which must inherently be ephemeral. Obviously this is often true – but ephemeral does not mean worthless. More often than not, however, the pop that truly connects with us, moves us, inspires us, makes us feel impossibly alive, is the pop that treats it as an art form. It has effort put into it and a value placed on it. It is the ‘boring idea of authenticity’ beloved of Motown, Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Elton John, The Beatles, Mariah Carey, Abba. Why did Girls Aloud work? Because the people involved took it seriously. They didn’t treat it as pap which would be forgotten in a year. 

On some level, I think PJ knows this. While there are endless digs about ‘authenticity’ and jokes at the expense of U2 or Coldplay, when it’s an artist they like, the notions of ‘authenticity’ sneered at above are suddenly taken very seriously. Nicola Roberts can speak at length about writing music, name-drop cool producers and advance the idea that she’s just making music for herself without comment. If Matt Cardle does the same, it’s a recurrent joke. Lady Gaga is clearly seen as being on a different level to most of her contemporaries. Whether you agree with this or not, the arguments for her being so rest heavily on notions of ‘authenticity’ and ‘credibility’ sneered at in this article, however much it may be argued that she just ‘makes great pop’ or whatever.

The (inconsistent) efforts to disassociate from these notions lead to a horrible conservatism which veers towards dismissing anything that isn’t electro-pop. A radical band like The Beatles are lumped in with dreary indie for no apparent reason other than the fact that they were a band of white men. A brilliant British pop star like Adele is labelled as the spearhead of ‘The New Boring’ for writing sincere, moving songs which lack flashy production and dance routines. An act like Little Mix are elevated beyond all reason simply because they fit the bill and, being explicitly manufactured, can be held up as a totem against these imaginary ‘alternative writers’.

I did spend some time on Google in an effort to identify the hordes of hipster writers who hate Lana Del Rey for being ‘inauthentic’. I found plenty of criticism for her dire performance on SNL – but that has sod all to do with her origins. I did find an article in that most archetypal of alternative voices, Pitchfork. I’ll end with a link to it because I think it’s a brilliant piece of writing. It’s fair to say that it’s ambivalent towards Lana Del Rey but it teases out that ambivalence with great insight and certainly doesn’t dismiss her out of hand for her past. Its strength and why it works? It treats its subject as something worthy of serious thought and develops an argument placing it in wider musical contexts. It treats pop with the respect it deserves.

A note to Pop Fans Making Straw Man Arguments

This is of note purely for this:

It’s the erosion of true character – especially vocal character – in favour of spurious “personality” that may be talent-show telly’s most damaging effect on pop.

Yes yes and yes. I said to the MANMYTHLEGEND Wotyougot.com the other day that, the way pop is these days, artists like Madonna and Prince would never become hugely popular because they never had ‘reality show’ personalities. Witness the hysterically overblown response to Lady Gaga hugging some reality show contestant she had met (at best) hours before. Once we revelled in our pop stars being slightly alien creatures, now we fawn over their insincere interactions with ‘the plebs’.

X Factor and its ilk are hugely depressing circles that most people never seem to cotton onto. The contestents in the shows have to fit into very defined and digestible boxes. Anyone stepping outwith these boxes is completely crucified. People with passable-to-very good voices and inoffensive personalities – Olly Murrs, Rebecca Ferguson, Marcus whateverhissurname is, Little Mix – are lauded out of all proportion to their abilities. Yet every year the same complaints will be made that most of the contestants are boring, as if the above response is disconnected and of no relevance.

Being old enough to have been around when X Factor began, I remember distinctly that it started as a response to ‘Pop Idol’ being a ‘singing competition’. In interviews Simon Cowell would mention people like Madonna and David Bowie as artists who would never do well on a ‘Pop Idol’ format. That’s where the name came from – the idea was that they would find pop stars with ‘the x factor’ – that indefinable quality that makes a technically mediocre singer like Madonna one of the greatest pop stars in history above hundreds of accomplished wailers. This purpose was quickly forgotten and now I hear people who work for record labels praising the fact that people like Marcus and Little Mix are ‘blank slates’ waiting on managers, producers and songwriters to do whatever they want with. Someone with a strong sense of their artistic identity such as Matt Cardle or Misha B (whether you like their music or not) finds that it counts against them. ‘Pop music’ becomes about what sells, and what sells is a chirpy personality saying inoffensive things and singing catchy songs which fall into an ever diminishing range (electro-pop, sub-Winehouse r&b, MOR balladeering).

Of course, it’s hugely relevant that the vast majority of people who watch and vote for these shows are not big music listeners, if they are music listeners at all. There is no sense of pop music as something that can be profound, something that has real value. It is treated as plastic entertainment, a degrading approach which would be pounced upon were it to be verbalised. Indeed, I gathered from a ferocious response on Twitter that one of the contestants on X Factor last week said that they didn’t like pop music. The people treating such a statement with scorn would do well to think about what ‘respect’ X Factor actually has for pop music in the first place. It has none.

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