Pop Deserves the ‘Social Justice Warriors’

taylor-swift-shake-it-off-video-3-2014-billboard-650Don’t worry, I’m not really going to write about the racism/appropriation in the new Taylor Swift video. This widely shared post says most of what there is to say (and, importantly, what needed to be said). Instead I want to write briefly another aspect of this mini storm.

Being a Taylor Swift fan (maybe not for much longer considering how things are going) I actually watched her Yahoo live announcement thingy…live. It was painful. Jesus Christ it was painful. Taylor was doing her ‘I’m just a normal gal and we’re all hanging out!’ schtick in front of an audience seemingly made-up of people who had been pumped full of uppers prior to broadcast. Her every utterance was greeted with hysteria. I don’t cope well with over-the-top “I like this more than anyone else ever and I’m going to prove it by screaming the most” displays of fandom (watching the Doctor Who 50th special in the cinema last year was hellish for this very reason). It did not put me in a good place, people. Then she debuted the song and this also did not put me in a good place. It’s a very on-trend Max Martin number which you could easily imagine being released by Little Mix or Cheryl Cole or Cher Lloyd or countless other current pop stars. Sure, it’s efficient enough at what it does but I’m not sure anyone particularly needs it (and if it wasn’t by the already-massively popular Swift, I’m not sure many would particularly pay attention to it). Given the really rather interesting and even astonishing places Swift has been taking her music, it’s a crushing disappointment to see her cheerfully announcing that she’s gone ‘pop’ and offering up generic pop hit no. 5694. You were already pop, Taylor, and you were doing it in a way no other major pop artist was. There’s always the possibility that the album will be more interesting but given the apparent presence of Max Martin on most tracks, I’m not optimistic.

Anyway, back to the live thingy. After dancing around to her song and announcing details of her album (inspired by ‘late-80s pop’ apparently – hello Jive Bunny) she premiered the video. As soon as I saw the scenes from which the above cap comes from, my heart sank. I actually thought of this line. Why does this shit keep happening? Well, a big part of it is that most pop listeners just pretend it’s not, as we saw with the really-quite-obviously-racist Lily Allen video. In a pretty classic demonstration of the ‘Bad Feeling’ thesis (yeah, I keep returning to that because it’s so right) people see the problematic thing and, rather than thinking ‘oh dear, this is a bit bad’, try to anticipate and undermine the discussions labelling it as problematic. And so:

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Notice the references to the ‘social justice warriors of the internet’ and ‘blogs’. There are usually liberal references to Tumblr thrown in for good measure. It’s always those people on the internet who pick holes in this stuff, who can’t just enjoy it for what it is. That last tweet is actually from a Guardian writer who ‘writes about film, TV and music’. Yes, someone who writes about culture for a living throws out ‘fucking earnest columns’ as an insult. If such responses are woefully inevitable it’s because, as I’ve written about quite a few times before, pop criticism is in a really fucking terrible place. It’s dominated by the misguided idea that patronisingly faux-positive responses (I covered it with regards to One Direction but clearly Taylor also receives the same treatment) show you really get this stuff and are really open-minded and aren’t a snob and blah blah blah! There will be lots of barely-formed sneering at ‘authenticity’ and anything associated with it, even guitars (notice that Taylor’s cultural power has risen in tandem with her move away from country). Most importantly, everything must be FUN! and IRONIC! and SARCASTIC! and SILLY! and nothing is worth taking too seriously or thinking about too much. The Alex Niven quote I used when previously writing about this is worth wheeling out again:

Unfortunately the mainstream of music journalism right now appears to be dominated by a peculiarly virulent strain of braindead consumer hedonism, by people who simply don’t acknowledge that pop music can be debated about in politico-cultural terms. It would be (sort of) alright if these people were cognisant of their position, but depressingly I fear that they’re just moronic capitalistic yes-people for whom pop music is a leisure pursuit and nothing more. 

That brief paragraph perfectly captures where criticism and, unfortunately, much fandom is right now. It’s been that way for a while but the rise of link-bait is making it even worse. Which sites that profess to love pop music write about it with any insight or depth? They all instead seem terrified of being ‘fucking earnest’ and losing readers who they think mustn’t be challenged in any way. Just whack out another list, keep the press releases flowing and write some shite about what Madonna’s daughter might be doing and they’re sorted.

You’ll notice that the piece I linked to at the start is a personal blog. It’s an absolutely sublime bit of writing but it drives home just how rarely you read anything like that in mainstream journalism. Yet rather than being some poxy angry internet social justice warrior thing that can be easily dismissed, it’s gone viral, been picked up by Vice and Time, and (along with some high-profile Twitter criticism) inspired much critical coverage of the video on sites which would have otherwise have stayed well away from the subject. The do-it-yourself internet has led the way here, just as it did with the Lily Allen video and just as it does with the vast majority of pop criticism. DIY internet is where the best writing on pop is found these days, whether that be the fiercely intelligent analysis found in personal blogs like One Of Those Faces or the beguiling passion found in One Week One Band (overwhelmingly written, it should be noted, by people who blog and/or tweet rather than ‘professional’ writers). These people know that pop matters. They know that it not only deserves and is deserving of serious appraisal but that it requires it: it shapes culture and it shapes lives. They are ‘fucking earnest’ about it because they fucking care about it. The ones who roll their eyes at the ‘internet’ people who write about pop ‘in politico-cultural terms’ are, ironically, the ones who display their sheer contempt for pop in their ostentatious efforts to look like they respect it. To them, it’s just a silly Taylor Swift song and video that doesn’t mean anything and will be forgotten soon after they’ve made sure to loudly show their appreciation. It’s lazy, it’s cheap and it’s tired. Pop deserves better.

 

The Circle

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Social media becomes an ever more dominant part of our lives and yet so few people seem to seriously contemplate it and how they use it. We see this not only in rampant and rewarded narcissism (as Horning says in the quote above, on social media we can show off and it’s okay) but in instances like the Paris Brown affair. The “totalizing system” is such that I found myself asking a friend last week “if it’s not on Facebook, did it actually happen?” It goes beyond merely sharing photos of our nights out, checking in at a gig or posting our thoughts on the latest episode of ‘Mad Men’ into experiences actually becoming subservient to their expression on social media. They become means by which we can further express our personalities online (and so find them both reflected back at us and affirmed). Not only does it seem that the offline space to develop becomes ever smaller but the desire to do this recedes.

The above quote, taken from here, is one of many efforts I’ve made to reflect on social media and its impact on our lives. I was perhaps too hesitant when I wrote that “few people seem to seriously contemplate it”…in actual fact it seems that such serious contemplation is actively (but almost unconsciously) seen as a bad thing. Katherine St Asaph began her response to this piece by declaring “I shouldn’t even be responding to something that uses the “social media increases narcissism!” study as its kicker”. Such instant dismissal of any notion that social media could have negative impacts is typical of the discussion around it and it’s fitting that it came in a dialogue around One Direction. Like 1D, social media is identified with youth and as such is attributed the qualities of being youthful and exciting; to parse either in a critical manner is to be condescending, snobbish and, worst of all, old. Any person, organisation or brand attempting to reach a ‘younger’ audience will invariably find themselves quickly drowning in hashtags, Vines and Tumblrs. Yet this focus on marketing obscures the fundamental reality that the main product of social media is ourselves – its value relies on monetising relationships which were previously mediated off-line and, further, in inventing new relationships (between ourselves and other people, ourselves and brands, ourselves and pop stars etc). Capitalism’s survival depends on its vampiric ability to encroach onto and transform more and more aspects of our daily lives. Our ‘inner self’ does not escape this – we’ve seen that work has become more and more a question of ‘emotional labour‘ and, conversely, our personalities have been turned into business and profit.

It’s staggering how quickly Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and the like have transformed much of our reality and the flood shows no sign of abating. Google Glass seeks to augment reality and make us cyborg-like beings, permanently wired in and switched on. From our televisions to our online shopping we are more and more willing to share our habits in order to receive personalised services which seek to tell us about media and products which we otherwise wouldn’t have known existed. We all walk around with devices which identify our location at every second of every day. We don’t mind this. We don’t mind this to the degree that when it’s revealed that our ‘national security’ agencies routinely monitor this data along with our calls, e-mails etc it inspires little more than a mass shrug. And certainly we can identify a lot of ‘good’ in this technology – I’m writing this on Tumblr and will post it to my Twitter which I’ll read on my phone, I’m in no position to be superior – but the point is that we’re surrounded by messages telling us about that good. Thinking about the bad is, as noted, kinda beyond the pale.

Which brings us neatly to The Circle, the new novel from Dave Eggers. Eggers is the kind of guy it’s easy to hate: talented, prolific, accomplished, involved in charity work and an archetypal upper middle-class liberal. Fortunately for him, his books are a joy to read, as effortless to get through as gently warm water. In recent months I stormed through the incredible What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng and last year’s A Hologram for the King, a book which manages to make gripping reading from a lot of sitting around in a tent pitched in a Saudi Arabian desert. It was a fortuitous coincidence that Eggers’ latest novel, The Circle, turned out to be due for publication only a few weeks after I finished the latter.

The Circle will widely be described as a satire aimed at Google and the titular tech company does indeed share many similarities with everyone’s favourite ‘Don’t Be Evil’ conglomerate. It also draws on aspects of Facebook, Twitter and Amazon yet the satire of the novel goes far beyond the behaviour of any of these companies or our own relationship with them; instead it concerns the very nature of humanity. That the book is a dystopian vision of the near future (a blend of 1984, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Brave New World) is writ large, so much so that the strokes can seem laughably broad: it seems certain that many readers will be put off by what initially seems like caricature. I myself wasn’t initially sure…yet there is one particular scene, quite early in the novel, which so pitch-perfectly captures the weird, hysterical neediness fostered by social media event invites and their ‘wandering around a minefield in a blindfold’ politics that I found myself grinning widely at its brilliance. From there on in I submitted to the book and found myself hooked, staying up far later than I should to read it and looking forward to my commute just so that I could snatch some more pages.

The audacious capturing of many of the hilarious but equally sinister aspects of social media, and our relationship with modern technology, continues apace. Clicktivism and e-petitions are ruthlessly skewered, as is the embarrassing desire of our politicians to associate themselves with these exciting tech companies. One of the main sparks for the march towards a totalitarian ‘openness’ turns out to be an anti-internet troll campaign and the eagerness to trade-off privacy for ‘safety’ is a recurring theme. The inherent insincerity of relationships conducted almost entirely on social media looms large, as does the diminishing effects of being able (and expected) to pass comment on every person who crosses our screens. The fascistic strand of the unthinking cult of ‘positivity’ leaps from every page. Overarching all of this is the question of human experience and personality – what does it mean to be ‘you’? Are we more or less ourselves when we construct an online identity, share our experiences there and encounter people and things which we never could in ‘real life’? Is there any value in secrecy, in lies, in retreating from the world – and is social media itself this retreat?

The book is far from perfect and its sledgehammer subtlety does initially jar; yet at every point where I found myself beginning to roll my eyes I realised that I knew people who would eagerly pursue the course of action described. Obvious, then, but only in the sense that it describes what already exists and pushes it further to make its point. In fact, it could be said that this forceful signposting reflects the decline of critical thinking which has in part been fostered by social media and ‘positivity’. Spend 10 seconds on the page of any online marketing/media company and try not to feel nauseous at the insipid horror on display – you don’t have a personality but rather a ‘personal brand’ and how this is perceived is what matters. As such, the appearance of being caring, being intelligent, being funny, being human is key. Sign those petitions, post those videos, tear down those X Factor contestants and rack up the likes and retweets. Then you’ll know people care. You’ll know you made a difference. The Circle seems overblown because it has to be – the signifier is replacing the signified and the hellish results of that are laid bare in an all-too-appropriate manner. If you’ve ever found yourself checking your Facebook to see if something you posted five minutes ago has been liked, looked forward to a tv show because of the witty comments you hope to tweet about it or taken photos of an experience because you thought it would play great on your profiles – read this book.