Review: Pure Heroine – Lorde

Lorde wants you to know that she’s different. Much has been made of the fact that “Royals,” her platinum-selling breakout hit, was inspired by a cool disdain for the bling rhetoric of “jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash” which Lorde felt dominated the pop landscape as she grew up in New Zealand. Certainly its opening claim, “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh,” can’t help but seem like an arch rejoinder to chart queen Rihanna. There’s nothing new, of course, about youthful rebellion against an ostensibly monolithic culture, but “Royals” almost feels like a watershed moment: the very deliberate cross-pollination that has characterized chart pop since rap and (more recently) electronic dance music encroached upon its sales is ingrained in the 16-year-old Lorde. It feels entirely organic that she expresses her anti-materialist sentiment over a sparse backing owing much to hip-hop and also drawing on the lo-fi aesthetic typical of British post-dubstep artists like Burial, The xx and James Blake.

Lorde’s story so far has more than the whiff of a more iconic British artist around it. Like Kate Bush, she was discovered as a teenager and has been mentored until her emergence on the scene, seeming fully formed and sounding quite unlike anything else around. The confident introspection of “Royals” is typical of Lorde’s debut, Pure Heroine, an album which is striking in its precocious self-awareness.  It shouldn’t seem so unusual that a teenager can be so articulate, of course – perhaps expectations have been corrupted by the asinine gloss of contemporary teenage artists such as Justin Bieber and One Direction. Whatever the reason, it’s disarming to hear Lorde’s smouldering voice singing lyrics that convey an authentic and engaging honesty. Her difference is no teenage pose, then, and being as savvy as she is talented Lorde draws attention to this contrast at several points throughout the album – most notably in “Team” where she drily notes “I’m kinda over getting told to throw my hands up in the air…so there.”

Aside from distinguishing herself from mainstream pop Lorde also draws on more traditional ideas of the outsider, with the album from its title onwards portraying an eagerness for a life lived beyond traditional mores. By the time we get to the big reveal of penultimate track “White Teeth Teens” we know what’s coming: “I’ll let you in on something big – I’m not a white teeth teen.”  This ‘I’m not like other girls’ shtick rarely falls into cliché, however, with Lorde’s words frequently seeming more literary than lyrical (her mother is a poet and she has spoken of being influenced by Kurt Vonnegut and Raymond Carver). The wry “Buzzcut Season”, for example, would make Dorothy Parker proud while the opaque love story of “400 Lux” hinges on delightful lines like “I love these roads where the houses don’t change (and I like you)”.  For all the tales of messy romance and allusions to dysfunction, however, the conquering fantasies of “Still Sane” (“I’m little but I’m coming for the crown”) suggest a steely ambition and assurance which fundamentally separate her from the simpering subordination of the oft-cited in comparison Lana Del Rey.

The music quite rightly gives these dazzling lyrics ample space to be noticed. Sparse electronic backing couches Lorde’s vocals on most of these songs and “Royals’” trick of multi-tracking the chorus is repeated to the point of overuse. Nonetheless there is novelty here: the club-friendly “Ribs” repeats its mid-tempo verses as more frenetic choruses riding on a 4/4 beat, an unusual but inspired touch, while an observation that “the sun’s starting to light up when we’re walking home’ is met in the final syllable by a gloriously evocative harmony line in “Glory and Gore”. “Team”, with its Robyn-esque radio-friendly melancholia, is perhaps the most conventional pop song here yet it begins with a processed acapella vocal which becomes more distorted until it loops and falls beneath crunchy drums. The songs unravel like tightly wound coils, bursting with energy and never outstaying their welcome. On paper the starkness should be repetitive but Pure Heroine riffs on a very deliberate, expansive severity. When the closing “A World Alone” adds guitar and sound effects to its dynamic drum patterns and looped vocals, it doesn’t feel like a revelation.

This final song includes a lyric which is destined to be much quoted: “maybe the internet raised us or maybe people are jerks.” That sharp and witty response to the ‘Generation Me Me Me’ handwringing perfectly captures Lorde’s appeal for a generation undoubtedly tired of being spoken for.  In Lorde they, and indeed we, have a compelling, articulate and contemporary voice. Pure Heroine is most certainly only the beginning.

4.5/5

Since The Knife’s two shows in London this week the internet has been awash with reviews and comments like the one above. They make claims that The Knife “highlight artifice as the fulcrum of all performance, and in doing so take a self-referential, probing look at its effectiveness as a tool for subversion” and celebrate its ‘disruption’. Anyone who thinks it’s all a bit second-year art school and perhaps taking the piss for a £30 gig just doesn’t get it.

I understand that some people genuinely had a fun time (though the feedback I’ve heard on an anecdotal level has been overwhelmingly negative) and I can understand that. What I can’t get behind are these ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ reactions which imply (or even explicitly state) that you were somehow an ignorant heathen if you took issue with the show; there certainly seems to be an eagerness in some quarters to let us know that they GOT IT. Myself, I was so excited about seeing the band that I devoured videos, descriptions and reviews of the show as soon as they became available. My expectations slumped as a result and I ended up not even bothering to go.

So while my comments come in that context, they are largely on the common themes of these responses. Firstly, they all make some claim that, as it’s The Knife, we should never expect a ‘typical concert’. The review above explicitly states that “Shaking The Habitual was not written with live performance in mind, at least not in the conventional sense.” I saw The Knife at The Forum in October 2006. It was most definitely a ‘typical concert’. The act performed their songs on stage in front of an audience. They had light-shows, big screen visuals, props etc. They sang live. It was absolutely bloody brilliant. Where this idea that The Knife are crazed auteurs who would never deliver a concert has come from, I’ve no idea. As for Shaking The Habitual, to my ears it’s largely ‘challenging’ because of its length and some clearly deliberately tedious tracks, not because it sounds so unlike anything ever recorded before. I don’t really see why it would be difficult to perform it live.

The second common defence is that The Knife never billed the show as a ‘concert’ but rather as some artistic presentation of their music. Aside from the fact that the announcement of the tour really had nothing in it to alert people that the bulk of the show would be taken up by playback, it’s utterly absurd to berate people for not expecting a gig by buying a ticket for a show at the Roundhouse. The Knife could have made the nature of their show much clearer in many ways. Playing at a venue such as the ICA and billing it as an ‘art piece’ would have solved the issue of expectation in one fell swoop. People buying a ticket to see a concert billed as “We, The Knife, will be performing live” at a venue like the Roundhouse have reasonable expectations.

Now, much of the rhetoric around Shaking The Habitual has concerned itself with that favourite preoccupation of broadsheet music journalists: “authenticity”. It’s incredibly fashionable nowadays to sneer at the concept in a manner which suggests you once read the first few pages of an ‘Introduction to Post-Modernism’ and think it’s terribly clever to argue that the music of Bob Dylan is no different from the music of Fast-Food Rockers because it all depends on the listenerzzzzz. The Knife have thoughts on this which are rather more developed but still clearly manna from heaven for this audience. The responses to their show, however, completely demolish everything they’re saying. A positive response depends on believing that an act like The Knife is more authentic than other acts who may use playback and dance routines. As the Evening Standard reviewer noted in one of the few dissenting pieces I’ve read:

The problem is that this kind of performance art is rarely as arresting as that which it attempts to debunk. If Britney or Beyoncé mime, they are slaughtered, yet the spectacle they provide while doing so is light years from the spinning and waving that went on here.

He is so spot-on that it’s painful. No-one spends time dissecting the motives and intentions of a Britney Spears show – because they think it inherently has less worth. Yeah she can mime, she’s just a pop artist! If The Knife do it and shove some trite academic speech about ‘authenticity’ behind it, well that’s very different indeed! The same mentality was evident in almost all of the reviews of Shaking The Habitual which claimed that it was a ‘challenging’ and ‘difficult’ work which you may not even wish to ever listen to again, but still rewarded it with strong ratings. Can you imagine someone doing similar with a Madonna album? If they weren’t grabbed by it after a couple of listens they would have no hesitation in tearing it to shreds. Underlying much of this, then, is that almost-subconscious contempt for pop which shines through in the attitudes of many who ostensibly claim to love it. When it gets down to it, they think pop is the realm of piss-taking reality television and ironic club nights in Vauxhall; it couldn’t possibly be an art form on a par (or better than!) The Knife.

We have seen it for a long time in responses to artists like Björk, who can become as ropey as they please as long as their work appears suitably ‘artistic’ and ‘challenging’. The assumption is, of course, that mass listeners are simply too dumb to get it and if you do, you’re one of the enlightened ones. Many of the responses to The Knife’s show have presented it as clearly a work of genius which dissects those dumb, trashy pop concerts that people like – you can smell the sneering contempt and the masturbation from a mile off.

The Knife Live In London

Everyone Says “Hi”

Something I wrote 8 years ago today which I’d (obviously) forgotten about and wanted to rescue:

On Friday night my granda phoned me in a state of complete confusion. He’s had Parkinson’s disease for quite a while now, and my mum had warned us that he was getting worse by the day. Last time I saw him he was impossibly frail and alien looking, but still mentally alert. Now it seems he’s entering the dark cave that we all fear will consume us in the end. He sounded happy though…I suppose that’s the small comfort in losing your mind, the fact that you don’t care anymore. 

I am a little surpised by how well I reacted to it. I’ve been thinking about it the past few days, and think the fact that my grandparents have always known so little about my ‘real’ life (they’re extremely religious and I’ve left any decisions about what they know about me to my own mum) that there’s a ‘safe’ emotional distance there. This is not to say that I don’t care for them; just that I don’t really associate them with my actual day-to-day life anymore, and this removal creates a buffer for events like this.

It did get me thinking more  about growing old and dying, something that’s been on my mind since reading a random journal last week where the writer’s 21 year old friend had died suddenly. We go through our lives trying to avoid thinking about the one big certainty that we all have to face. There’s as much chance of someone I love ending tomorrow than anyone else on the planet, and it scares me that so often real emotion is buried under irony and lies and fear. It scares me that we waste this short time we have putting ourselves in situations we don’t wish to be in solely for convenience and avoiding hard truths.

When (if) I reach my granda’s age, everything around me today will be a far gone memory and (if I’m lucky) I’ll still know one or two people from now at most. I’ll have changed as a person 5 times over. And fuck, if I’m going to lose my mind I want to have something worth losing. It’s a cliche but no, I don’t want to look back filled with regret. I don’t mean that on any epic level right now, I only refer to what I’ve already said in the last paragraph. I can sometimes be a sentimental sod but I’m glad I am. I’m glad I sometimes (perhaps too infrequently) tell the people I care about that I do care about them. I think that’s light enough for entering darkness, and a reason not to be afraid. That’s kind of what I’ve been hearing in Bowie’s Everyone Says ‘Hi’. It’s a song obviously about dying, but it could be about the death of a mind too. And what does it matter if you’re surrounded by people who care? Well, I suppose you only know when you’re there…but I hope that the fact that my granda phoned me means that, even though he had no idea who he was speaking to or even what he was saying, he understands on some level that there are people around him, torches he’s lit along the way to this point. Don’t stay in a sad place where they don’t care how you are…everyone says ‘hi’.

The Next Day Review

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Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire. – St. Catherine of Siena

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Ten years ago David Bowie seemed to be in the middle of the graceful managed decline which we’ve come to expect from our music legends, putting out tasteful albums which, while critically acclaimed, were seen as inferior to his best work. He’d regained much goodwill by ditching the wilful experimentation of 1.Outside and Earthling and instead putting out albums which sounded like what you might imagine an archetypal Bowie album in the 00s to sound like; throw in post-9/11 reflections on mortality and ageing and it was critical catnip. He toured regularly and had overcome his reticence to play the hits, making his shows celebratory, nostalgiac affairs rather than the difficult and strange atmosphere which hung over much of his 90s appearances. Bowie was even playing along with the idea that his best was behind him, pondering how he “used to wake up the ocean” and “used to walk on clouds” on Afraid. He was making it very easy to like him yet there was little wider interest – after the flurry of interest which greeted Heathen (seen as a PROPER BOWIE ALBUM) people moved on – none of Reality’s singles troubled the charts and it spent only 4 weeks on the album chart.

And then he disappeared.

Whatever the reasons for his decade of near-silence, it wouldn’t be reaching to say that it’s probably the greatest thing that could have happened to Bowie’s career. By removing himself and leaving behind what seemed to be a solidified and settled body of work, he became a mythic version of himself – “David Bowie” was an abstract idea more than a person. People could love the Bowie in their head without the man himself popping up to ruin their pre-conceptions with some pesky new material. The longer the silence went on, the larger the myth grew. The advent of the Facebook and Twitter age brought with it a new breed of pop star who was expected to be ‘approachable’ and ‘down to earth’, tweeting their daily activities and instagramming themselves in their cars. And so Bowie’s myth grew even larger: the man who had so often portrayed himself as alien truly seemed to belong to another dimension. Dark whispers circulated that the man himself was dying, his particular terminal illness varying depending on who was presenting it as a fact. As we entered 2013 it seemed unthinkable that it would not just be another year of silence from Bowie the man while some unobtrusive reissues would further stoke Bowie as legend.

The hysteria which greeted Where Are We Now?, then, is completely understandable.  And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. It seemed like an ancient legend had deigned to grace us with their presence once more. WAWN’s genius is clear in retrospect: it plays like a release from the abstract Bowie rather than the corporeal one. The man is barely present in the video; he sounds frail and old and sings of memory and death. It ties in completely with the idea of Bowie which has taken hold in the past decade and, in doing so, it doesn’t disrupt people’s affectionate conceptions of him. This is its towering achievement. Make no mistake, as strong a song as WAWN is there can surely be little doubt that, had it been released in 2004, it would have quickly faded from the public consciousness and never would have charted in the top ten. Yet in being his first release since he became a myth it had a lot of pressure on it – it could easily have been the catalyst for Bowie’s fall to earth. Perhaps if he’d returned with some 1.Outside-esque experimentation, it would have been. Instead Bowie, ever astute, makes it easy for us to love him again.

His appearance in the video for The Stars (Are Out Tonight) is when it all slotted into place: that odd, self-referential album cover, Where Are We Now?, the Berlin imagery, Bowie’s spectral presence and refusal to promote The Next Day with interviews or appearances. He knows exactly what he has become and he’s having enormous fun with it while being careful not to damage the cachet it affords him. Nothing on The Next Day is obtuse – even album closer Heat, the latest result of Bowie’s long obsession with The Electrician, is aesthetically graceful rather than difficult. The opening title track may be about a medieval tyrant but it positively bounds out of the speakers, eager to please. Many reviewers have rightly noted the chorus’ cheeky and amusing opening line of “Here I am/not quite dying!” but few have noted that it’s followed by “my body left to rot in a hollow tree”. Could he be making his intention to nurture his own myth, to feed into Bowie the abstract, any clearer? Heck, even his picking up of a tawdry celebrity gossip magazine in the video for TS(AOT) and Tilda’s subsequent binning of it now seems like a glaringly obvious pointer.

To this end the album is full of nods to his own past – with that cover, how could it not be? The sound of the album generally recalls the work he did with Iggy Pop on The Idiot and Lust for Life – both released, of course, in the same year as “Heroes” (1977). That title track invokes the spirit of Beauty and the Beast but within seconds of the second track, Dirty Boys, it’s clear that it’s not only that year in Berlin which is being used here as it deploys the famous riff from Fame. Valentine’s Day is a charmingly melodic number which, with its 50s influences, bears comparison to Drive-In Saturday while The Stars (Are Out Tonight) features a rumbling sax which nods towards Absolute Beginners. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die, meanwhile, could pretty much be called I WAS ZIGGY STARDUST YOU KNOW such is its obvious intent to rewrite Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (it even ends with the drumbeat intro to Five Years).

Obviously The Next Day’s playful attempt at being a meta-Bowie album could have been a disaster if the songs weren’t up to much – fortunately that’s rarely a concern. While at 15 tracks it could certainly afford to lose a couple of tracks (Boss of Me and Dancing Out in Space feel functional rather than thrilling) it’s an electrifying listen. Even amongst all the references to his own mighty past, a song like If You Can See Me sounds daring and stirring. The crux of the album seems to be (You Will) Set The World On Fire, surely a reference to the famous St. Catherine of Siena quote above – Bowie understands that if he plays along with us at being the archetypal David Bowie, the world is his. This is the spine-tingling brilliance of The Next Day which manages the almost-impossible feat of being new and engaging without disturbing the myriad of different notions people have of Bowie. Where he goes next is impossible to predict – maintaining this artifice seems impractical. Indeed, it’s surely telling that the album ends not with the self-consciously epic You Feel So Lonely You Could Die but with Heat, where Bowie mournfully muses “I tell myself I don’t know who I am” and sings of a prison. It’s a glimpse of the other side of the abstract Bowie, a conceit which does not allow for works like Earthling and he’s clearly all too aware of that. For now, however, we can allow ourselves to be bewitched and thrill at the day we had allowed ourselves to believe would never  come: David Bowie is back.

08-03-13 EDIT:
Today this advert for TND appeared in the press – I think it’s fair to say that it reflects a lot of what I wrote above:

tnd_guardian_ad_8march13

The Big Reunion and Ray of Light

Nostalgia can be a corrosive force in pop music, an art form where the pull of the present (and of the future) is all-powerful. Nowhere is this more obvious than in ‘The Big Reunion’, the ITV reality series where a gaggle of lower-level pop acts from the 90s and 00s are paraded before the cameras to display the various ways in which minor pop stardom damaged them. The hook for this is, of course, their handful of hit singles – songs which remind viewers of a certain age of more carefree times spent drinking the day away at the student union. And so we have an accompanying live show where these 30-somethings can pay to relive one of these days – if you pay the cheapest ticket price and squint at the stage, you could conceivably even convince yourself that the people on stage are their younger versions. Nostalgia is the sole reason for the show and the concerts existing – you don’t need to watch to know that the acts will be wheeled out to perform their two or three hits and then swiftly despatched. There’s no room for a creative spark here. Once, this kind of thing was relegated to ironic celebrations at student bars and faintly embarrassing gay clubs – in our age of (to paraphrase Coupland) an irony which scorches everything it touches, it is prime time tv and arena fare.

It betrays a cheap attitude towards pop music which gleefully masquerades as a down-to-earth progressiveness: “I don’t take myself too seriously, this is just a laugh!” Yet surely anyone who truly loved the pop songs these acts were part of and the times they now represent would baulk at their tawdry debasement in the name of exploitative reality tv? A debasement which has nothing to do with the transformative wonder of pop music and everything to do with an appeal to our basest instincts. There is no respect present, no sense of pop as an art form. It’s an approach which is currently pervasive yet to question it is to be seen as narrow-minded: witness the latest trite sneering at Jake Buggs’ dismissal of One Direction as ‘rubbish’ and contrast with the simpering gratitude afforded to The Vaccines’ for deigning to write songs for an act we all quietly seem to think should be beneath them. Music journalists wheel out the old “they’re not aimed at you” defence, a flimsy response which quickly falls apart – from The Rolling Stones to Prince to Rihanna, our biggest and best pop acts have always won the affections of millions of ‘kids’. Furthermore, terrible taste in music is clearly not the sole preserve of girls in thrall to their hormones. No, the ‘it’s not aimed at you’ argument (always wheeled out by music critics who are long past their teens) is a patronising conceit which reveals an underlying contempt for the pop acts involved – they’re fine for them lot, they don’t need to concern us grown-ups! Indeed, the same people who wheel out this argument invariably always think it’s a badge of pride that they say nice things about these acts, safe in the knowledge that we all secretly understand that they don’t actually sit at home listening to them.

No, pop deserves to be taken seriously, to be freed from the poisonous post-modernist mockery which sees it as all a bit tragic, really. I was actually inspired to write this because of a very different kind of pop landmark: while The Big Reunion presents a bunch of acts which (it is presumed) we will find amusing for actually being a little bit rubbish it’s notable that in 1998, the same year that 5ive, B*Witched and Honeyz released their debut albums, Madonna released Ray of Light (on March 3rd.) Few albums better sum up the majesty of ambitious, sincere pop and it’s an album which no-one sneers at. No-one proudly trumpets their liking for it as some emblem of their promiscuous taste. I’ve written before about how Madonna is one of those pop stars who is the antithesis of the trenchant nostalgia and cheap populism which so pervades attitudes to pop music: she refuses to be the Madonna that people want her to be, refuses to be a cipher for the youthful memories of others. As I wrote at the time, “we want them to stop growing up so that we don’t have to either” – an apt summary of tripe like The Big Reunion. Ray of Light remains a dazzling  example of pop music at its best so, if we want to spend a moment reminiscing over 1998, let’s do it with a record which to this day commands respect rather than invites laughter. Then we can marvel at the ways in which pop transforms us, amazes us and keeps pushing us on rather than wallow in ersatz affection for our dying teenage years.

I don’t wish to bang on about this too much but this is quite hilarious in that we have one writer taking another writer to task for not approaching a pop album in the ‘correct’ way. The line “it infuriates the sort of people who think Wrecking Ball is the year’s best album” is telling – clearly anyone who loves Wrecking Ball and Springsteen must be a conservative listener, right? People couldn’t like both just as a matter of fact – no, the ability to enjoy such diverse artists is the privileged reserve of music writers (undoubtedly in their 30s at least).

Music writing, certainly pop music writing, is saturated in Poptimism. Every week brings another trite piece sneering about ‘guitar music’ and ‘authenticity’; an X Factor contestant like James Arthur is almost instantly mocked for being draped in the trappings of ‘rock’. The default setting for many pop writers is to write against an imagined enemy who thinks music should have ended after Bob Dylan’s first decade. What this fails to recognise is that Poptimism has been the dominant force in music for the past 15 years or so. Acts like U2 and Coldplay fall over themselves to be viewed as part of the pop fraternity while an act like Jake Bugg making silly teenage comments (he’s a teenager, after all) about X Factor is instantly and widely mocked. This enemy who instinctively believes that Bugg is better than Beyonce because he plays a guitar is very much in the minority these days.

Two things frustrate me about this approach. The first is that it’s like the writers have read a couple of summaries of Derrida and they apply it to pop music in a completely half-arsed, embarrassing way which belies their own love for the genre. Tossing off statements about how it doesn’t matter who writes the songs, everything is ‘fake’ and a folk singer is just as ‘contrived’ as Lady Gaga is so par for the course that almost no-one questions what these statements actually mean anymore. Yet this refuses to allow pop music to be a sublime art form (other than in a nihilistic Warholian way – note the reference to Ke$ha’s “ephemerality” in this piece, which is far more damning than anything else.) Instead the attempt is to tear down any artist who actually strives towards greatness, to place Michael Jackson and Prince alongside some soap actor who’s bunged out a catchy hit because ‘all that matters is the song’.

This brings me to the second frustration – the approach bears little relation to how people actually listen to music. As I’ve previously noted, those of us who write about music in any capacity are a tiny minority and our relationship with it is not typical. It’s a misguided effort towards populism which drives an extreme Poptimism that implicitly devalues the worth of pop music – the fact of the matter is that time and time again, ‘casual’ music fans demonstrate that they value very traditional notions of talent. They understand that Michael Jackson was special and ‘authentic’ in ways which modern pop writing seeks to undermine and pretend don’t matter. I found it funny that Jack White’s misunderstood comments about Lady Gaga last week aroused such Poptimist outrage, because they have such relevance to that whole schtick: “The goal of modern celebrity is to make yourself into the lowest common denominator.” In speaking about how ‘image for the sake of image’ was an increasingly dominant notion and one which was deployed towards some facile caricature of being just like everyone else, White neatly speared the central tenet of modern Poptimism. The great irony being, of course, that it’s now so clearly almost entirely the preserve of professional writers who haven’t been in their teens for a long time, who convince themselves that they are bravely combatting the elitism of other professional writers. It is, to put it mildly, complete guff.

The whole Rockism/Poptimism thing undoubtedly arose out of very real attitudes in music writing but it is woefully outdated and having an instinctive mistrust of any genre of music, or someone with a guitar, or someone who doesn’t write their songs, or someone who thinks they have more to offer music than standing and miming badly, is idiotic. Ke$ha is as deserving of serious consideration as anyone else – how refreshing it would be if it was consideration which didn’t rely on an appeal to some external opponent.

Rolling and trolling: Ke$ha

On commenting

Everyone has an opinion. There are countless aphorisms based on this, countless weary comments from people who despair of reading them. Writing a blog, of course, requires a large degree of narcissism – you think that you have something worth saying and think that people will be interested in it. It goes without saying that these beliefs are more often than not delusions. However, as self-satisfied as it sounds, the desire to write a blog and update it regularly has given me quite an insight into the media commentariat. That small group of people who basically give their opinion for a living, writing columns in newspapers, popping up on Sky News to ‘review the papers’ and being wheeled out on Newsnight when the booker has been particularly unimaginative. A cursory glance at our newspapers would tell you that many (most?) of these people haven’t reached their lofty status due to the novelty of their thought. Yet in having a weekly audience of at least hundreds of thousands of people, they clearly have a powerful platform.

So what insight do I speak of? Well, when you wish to regularly update a blog, sometimes a week or so goes past and you realise that you haven’t written anything. You realise that you don’t particularly have much to say at that particular point in time. Yet instead of thinking ‘oh well, I’ll write when I have something to say’, the strong temptation is to start scrambling around for things to write about. Things to have an opinion about. Given that the commentariat make their living by doing this, the need for them to invent opinions about topical issues is enormous. And so they do. This has never been more clear than with the Julian Assange affair in the past two weeks. Pretty much every newspaper columnist in the UK (and every second blogger) has given us their opinion about this. What’s been very clear, however, is that the vast majority of them have no particular insight into the situation. People have spent a couple of afternoons on Google, written a few hundred words and cashed their cheque. What is most noticeable, and most damning, is the certainty with which people write about a deeply complex situation. Everyone has suddenly become a lawyer, a politician, a jury, all because they’ve read some things online. This is the bread and butter of the commentariat. 

If you take a minute to think about these people who dominate our media, their positions are utterly ridiculous. It’s a matter of common sense that one individual is not going to be most informed and most interesting on subjects ranging from Syria to the Olympics to Assange. And yet this is exactly the premise which our media operates on – look no further than the quite hilarious range of subjects which Owen Jones is wheeled out to discuss. 

What is most sad about this is that the writers undoubtedly tend to buy into their own image. They become convinced of their right and, most worryingly, their superiority, in giving us their opinion on every subject which comes along. Almost without exception, they treat the internet as a personal fan club, basking in praise for their work and being remarkably patronising and intolerant when it comes to serious criticism. It’s a circle – they have a platform from which to give us their opinion and more often than not, this opinion is completely unchallenging and uninteresting. So many people praise it and wish to be associated with it, feeding the ego of the writer and making them convinced of their right to have the platform.

The Assange affair shows just how pernicious this circle is. If you had spent more than five minutes looking into the situation, it was very quickly obvious that most of the writers who knocked out columns about it, and spent days moralising about it on Twitter etc, had nothing to offer the discussion beyond a moderate skill with Google. And yet they not only felt entirely convinced of their invented opinion, they felt superior to everyone else. I’ve seen few things on Twitter more sickening than Owen Jones tweeting that women had had a bad week and imploring men to step up and help them with the hashtag #menagainstrape. Quite insanely patronising and nauseating, a glimpse of an ego out of control, and yet it did spread relatively far and wide. Because people become convinced of the superiority of the opinions of these people – usually because they are about flattering the egos of the readers rather than actually making them think about what they believe.

It’s for these reasons that I’ve avoided writing a blog about the Assange business. I don’t think that I have much to offer which hasn’t already been said. Yet I know that if I was paid to write blogs, I would definitely have written something about it. It would have been the easiest thing to do. And I’m pretty sure that I could have written something about definitions of rape, or the meaning of liberty, or the division of the left, which many people would have applauded. But what would it have added to the wider discussion beyond a further reason for some people to feel convinced of their own opinion? Absolutely nothing. It’s a problem which is constantly in my mind when writing a blog and I try to not write about a subject unless I feel I have something particularly novel to say. Of course, this is entirely subjective and undoubtedly I delude myself. I only wish that our media would exhibit the same concerns and begin to move away from the silly model of commentators being paid to give their opinions about our world.

The likelihood of a literature critic defending a piece by an intern expressing ignorance of Shakespeare, or Yeats, or Dickens, or whomever – pretty much zero. This is just another anti-‘authenticity’ diatribe which treats pop music as a lesser art form. What is a ‘canon’, after all? A body of work which is generally accepted as being a) hugely influential and b) of outstanding artistic merit. It provides a context, a shared history and even, yes, something to react against. I wrote more about this here.

The argument against “the belief that an objective response is possible” is a deeply disingenuous one, particularly coming from a critic. It’s premised on the mistaken belief that criticism consists of ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ responses and should instead solely consist of ‘did I as an individual listener like this?’. The latter, of course, makes all criticism utterly pointless and redundant. It’s a sleight-of-hand move, someone denying their privileged platform, shrugging at their craft. Because at its best, criticism is an art. It tells us about the work in hand, yes, but also about our culture, our history, ourselves. People don’t remember great critics because they were ‘right’, they remember them because they cared passionately about their chosen subject, brought enthusiasm and knowledge to bear on it, illuminated it in new ways, pushed it forward. In short, they did not merely write ‘This is good’. They had more respect for their craft than that. This is why people found that NPR intern piece so awful – less that the writer was unaware of Public Enemy, more that they positively revelled in their ignorance and showed absolutely no curiosity about it. Any fledgling critic dismissing ‘classic’ works in a genre they claim to love because they were released “before I was even born!” is off to a terrible start in their career of writing about art for others. Really, what are they going to offer other than ‘I like this’? Again, no theatre critic with an avowed interest in modernist drama would snottily dismiss Brecht because of when his work was written. That’s not to say that they would necessarily love Brecht, they simply would not revel in the fact that they were ignorant of him.

The argument that criticism should consist of an individual response to an individual work, stripped of any attempts at context, is a very capitalistic one. It sees an album as a product to be consumed, the review as akin to an Amazon rating for a blender. “It did the job well”. Any critic who thinks they have nothing exceptional to offer, who celebrate being ‘just a listener like anyone else’, who patronisingly congratulate ‘young’ writers for their self-gratifying ignorance, should clear out of their privileged platforms.

Public Enemy are rubbish? If only more classic albums got this treatment …

‘Internet Trolls’ and the gatekeepers

Louise Mensch’s harassment by Frank Zimmerman has inspired a plethora of commentary on ‘internet trolls’, most of it wholeheartedly jumping on board the bandwagon which has been trundling with ever increasing velocity for the past year or so. This bandwagon conflates any and all disagreement/abuse/opposition to or criticism of someone/something online under the title of ‘troll’. It should seem obvious to any sensible person that Zimmerman’s campaign, which apparently originated with online insults but led to a sustained period of threats including phone calls to her home, is not remotely comparable to the traditional idea of an ‘internet troll’. As a few writers have pointed out today, this term was previously widely used to refer to subpar shit-stirrers who love to wind people up. No more, no less. Harassment is harassment and abuse is abuse – labelling them with a term which has been more associated with petty (but often witty) arguments on internet forums lessens their gravity.

Now, these distinctions seem quite clear to me. Reading the pieces today, however, it’s obvious that the wider (almost incoherent) use of ‘troll’ is the one which is taking hold in the media and so, by extension, in wider usage (particularly in readers not particularly well-versed in the online world). This perhaps doesn’t seem like a big deal – who cares what troublemakers are called, right? However I think this raises wider issues about the media. Two excerpts from two different columns about ‘trolls’ struck me today. The first was from Zoe Williams’ piece in The Guardian:

Of course it’s possible to troll at a much less violent level, simply by stalking through internet communities where people might be expected to think in a particular way, and saying things that will wind them up. If you would like to try this sort of trolling to see what the appeal is, I suggest you go on to the Comment is Free section of the Guardian’s website and post something like, “People shouldn’t have kids if they can’t afford to pay for them. End of.” Or: “men like skinny women, which is why you won’t be able to find me a banker with a fat wife. WILL YOU?” Or: “Men like sex. Women like cuddles. GET OVER IT.” Or: “Nobody even knows what’s in a greenhouse gas. How can I take ‘climate change’ seriously when nobody knows anything about it?” Amusingly, I am getting quite wound up by these remarks, even though it was me who made them.

I’ve quoted this paragraph at length as I find it quite illuminating. I’m sure Zoe is referring to people who deliberately try and cause arguments and will say whatever is most likely to cause this in any given context.  However in choosing to illustrate this with stereotypically ‘reactionary right-wing’ comments on The Guardian, Zoe inadvertently highlights one of the major problems with the current usage of ‘troll’ – namely, that it is increasingly used to refer to anyone who challenges what is seen as a consensus view, especially if they do so in an inarticulate way. Read the first sentence again. If you were to visit The Guardian’s website, read an article which you think is terrible and then see 100 comments underneath praising it, it’s fair to assume that posting a critical comment would ‘wind them up’. Yet considering something and coming to a different conclusion from others is not ‘trolling’ in any sense. Unfortunately, this is one way in which the term is increasingly being used – as an instant claim to the higher ground and attempt to shut down debate. Interestingly, Zoe later explicitly says that trolls are fearful of putting forward an argument which is “more robust or far-reaching” than ‘first principles’, putting the onus on those who think differently to carefully articulate their thoughts. There is no room here for the responsibility of the reader to consider different viewpoints and especially pay attention to those who perhaps cannot express themselves as articulately as they would like. Working on differences is a two-way process and increasingly the urge for those with certain commonly held views is to instantly label those who disagree as ‘trolls’ and move on. No-one learns from this and the dismissal is as damaging and unproductive as a true ‘troll’ who really is just there to wind up.

The second excerpt builds on this. It’s from Laurie Penny’s column in The Independent:

Ten years ago, politicians, journalists and celebrities might have anticipated the occasional angry letter from a reader, sometimes even a scary letter. Now anyone with a public platform can expect to face constant harassment in comment threads, via email and on Twitter, especially if they’re a woman or a member of an ethnic minority.

For me, this goes to the absolute crux of what I’m talking about. Throughout the column, Laurie paints ‘trolls’ as hateful, bigoted figures who harass minorities (I’m not going into the ‘straight white men harass others, especially women’ narrative here, though clearly it’s hugely problematic). In this paragraph, however, she goes further and thinks wistfully of a time when writers could only expect ‘the occasional angry letter’. Aside from again conflating Zimmerman’s stalking with something infinitely less sinister, Laurie is inadvertently pining for a time when ‘politicians, journalists and celebrities’ were ‘protected’ from the views of the public; when they could enjoy their positions of privilege without challenge. I think this is hugely important, as it is very much ‘politicians, journalists and celebrities’ who have led the charge of labelling even relatively mild criticism as ‘trolling’. The landscape is changing and they are scrambling to protect their positions.

Much has been written in the past 10 years about how the internet has altered the music industry. Record labels, long seen as the gatekeepers to success in the music industry, have been ravaged by illegal downloads. However there are undeniable opportunities in this, for those who understand the changed (and changing) landscape. It is more possible than ever for an artist to control their own work and careers: the internet offers many ways of reaching an audience while making it much more difficult to have a traditional career as a ‘star’ in the music industry. Generally, record labels have been slow to respond to this and have sought to protect their positions, initially with lawsuits, increasingly with attempts at legislation, half-heartedly with co-operation for new models such as Spotify.

I think there are many analogies to be drawn with the media here. Traditionally, newspapers and the wider media have acted as gatekeepers to opinion and ‘success’ in that industry. Politicians, celebrities and columnists have had a hugely privileged position in holding access to those platforms (and this isn’t to ignore the hard work that many have put it to obtain that access). Again, however, the internet has changed everything. It has never been easier to put your work out there, never been easier to share your thoughts and opinions. The readership of traditional newspapers is in terminal decline. The ‘troll’ phenomenon of the past year, then, strikes me as largely a response to this. The mindset that holds sway is still one which values traditional media over the public – the temptation, then, is to dismiss the latter as forcefully intruding on the territory of the former. Some have commented that Louise Mensch could be labelled a ‘troll’ herself, such is her tendency to hold forcefully contrary views. The same is true of many columnists who make a living criticising politicians, television shows, celebrities – often in a rather brutal manner. Yet all of these people are lended respectability by their traditional positions in the system, despite said system having changed massively.

As with the music industry, the media is trying to adapt to the changing landscape. The Huffington Post is an obvious example, bolting the ‘new media’ work of the ‘public’ to a traditional media model where it profits those who act as gatekeepers. The Guardian’s modern fixation on ‘open journalism’ is a similar attempt to marry the two worlds. Because the mindset of the traditional media still holds sway, this notion of the troll as forceful usurper of the natural order gains hold. This has the effect of making writers want the legitimacy offered by traditional media, leading them to give their work away for free to something like the Huffington Post just as an artist will go on ‘X Factor’ in the hope that it will give them exposure and lead to a record deal. Ultimately, however, both Huffington Post and ‘X Factor’ are seeking ways to profit from the new landscape.

There have never been more opportunities to control our work and its dissemination. The conflation of threatening, criminal behaviour with criticism (carefully packaged as ‘the wrong sort’) is arguably another way for those in positions of privilege already to attempt to control this. This isn’t to say that record labels and traditional media aren’t still very important – but whereas even 15 years ago, they were the only game in town, in 2012 they are but part of the landscape. A landscape which will continue to change and, despite the moral panic over ‘trolls’, I think it will be a change for the better.