Blackout and Erotica

A few years after the infamous MTV kiss with Britney Spears (poor Xtina) Madonna revealed how she had explained it to her daughter:

“I am the mommy pop star and she is the baby pop star. And I am kissing her to pass my energy on to her.”

Certainly at the time, Britney Spears was the nearest thing we had to a ‘new’ Madonna and this was reflected in her increasing involvement in her own music. 2003’s In The Zone had featured 8 Britney co-writing credits, easily the most direct creative involvement she had yet had on her albums. Appropriately enough it was also the album to feature Madonna in its lead-single, ‘Me Against the Music’. Truly there was a sense that Madonna was anointing a chosen successor.

It didn’t quite work out as planned. While Madonna rebounded quickly from the failure of 2003’s American Life, it would be four years before Britney Spears released another studio album. And what a four years they were – Britney went haywire, quickly and decisively moving from an American sweetheart to a TMZ poster child for celebrity dysfunction and drama. She went off the rails in a way Madonna never had. However in doing so (and retreating once again, no doubt due to necessity, from creative involvement in her music) she ultimately delivered the album of her career. Blackout, which is five years old this week,is an almost-perfect postmodern pop album. Yet while it is different in many ways from Madonna’s work, it’s impossible for the ‘baby’ to fully escape ‘mommy’’s influence.

Conveniently enough, the Madonna album which Blackout owes a debt to is also having a birthday this week. It’s 20 years since Erotica was released and while time and familiarity has dulled its power, even today it sounds like an odd pop album. Madonna, coming off the back of the mega-selling The Immaculate Collection and the acclaimed Blond Ambition tour, was having one of her imperial phases (as Neil Tennant so memorably called the periods when commercial success and critical acclaim align for artists). She had cuckolded Pepsi with the Like A Prayer video; she had confronted the Catholic Church when it criticised her tour; she had even made MTV look uncool and turned its ‘ban’ of the Justify My Love video into both a money-spinner and an eloquent attack on moral hypocrisy. It’s understandable that she felt untouchable – but even so, few were expecting what came next.

In retrospect, of course, it’s easy to see that having pushed the buttons of the religious establishment and the moral majority, Madonna had to tread carefully. Moving swiftly onto an album called Erotica and an accompanying coffee table book called Sex was supreme, almost reckless, hubris and it led to the biggest backlash of her career. I can remember the period well – the tabloids had anti-Madonna stories on an almost-daily basis while the publishing of a book called The ‘I Hate Madonna’ Handbook summed up the prevailing attitude. Madonna has since said that the overlooking of Erotica amidst this maelstrom of controversy and recrimination is the biggest regret of her career. 20 years later the album is not quite popularly regarded as a ‘lost classic’ but it’s certainly seen as underrated and its influence is undeniable. Few grasped it at the time but Erotica is that most cumbersome of beasts – a concept album. Understanding this goes a long way to putting its strangeness in context – and boy, it is strange. It is difficult in a way none of Madonna’s previous work had been, the pure pop moments such as Deeper and Deeper and Rain sitting alongside jazz and blues influenced excursions which offer little ‘give’ to listeners. The decision was taken to use Madonna’s heavily processed demo vocals for much of the album, causing her to sound detached – on tracks like Bye Bye Baby and Fever she sounds like a sneering impersonation of herself. These sit uncomfortably alongside much more emotionally engaging material like Bad Girl and the gay rights anthem Why’s It So Hard? It all makes for a disorienting experience. Yet it’s intentionally so – as Madonna states in the album’s opening line, “My name is Dita, I’ll be your mistress tonight”’. Shep Pettibone’s ‘Erotica Diaries’ make clear that Madonna was in creative control and the irony of an album called Erotica which deliberately pushes the listener away is a masterstroke. It underlines that the album is not only about sex – it’s fundamentally about relationships and power. Indeed, much has been written about Madonna ‘opening the door’ for subsequent artists with her use of sexual imagery. This is missing the point. Madonna was very careful not to present her sexuality as mere titillation and Erotica’s genius is that she has the bravery to make a pop record which turns expectations upside down. Rather than being a come-on to ‘fuck me’, Erotica could more appropriately be described as ‘fuck you’.

Blackout could be similarly described. Its opening line has obvious echoes of Erotica’s – “It’s Britney, bitch” is an uncompromising invitation – command, even – into Britney’s world. What’s fascinating, however, is that whereas Madonna invented the persona of ‘Dita’ to play with her listeners, the character here is ‘Britney’. This is the fundamental genius of Blackout. At its core is the absence of its main star. Circumstances undoubtedly dictated this yet the producers took the ‘fuck you’ template of Erotica and went crazy with it. The album makes a virtue of her lack of presence, from its ironic almost-mocking title to its production. Britney’s voice is twisted, treated, transformed though-out so that she often doesn’t sound like ‘Britney Spears’. Instead she sounds like a demented robot, another production tool in an orchestra of sonic wizardry that goes far beyond anything on any previous Britney record. If Madonna played up detachment on Erotica, here it becomes the entire focus. In that regard Blackout is also a concept album – one about modern fame and modern pop music. Its power rests almost entirely on the persona of ‘Britney Spears’, not the person. The associations of that persona feed into the music and lend it an uncomfortable power – we know that as a person she is damaged and unhappy, yet as a popstar she is all-consuming. This subverts a dominant notion in modern pop – namely that the context is irrelevant and all that matters is whether a song is any good or not. We are under no illusion that Britney Spears had anything to do with most of this record – but the album confronts that head on and makes it into a dazzling virtue. As with Erotica, there is nothing seductive about Blackout – instead its pleasures lie in the confounding of expectations and the contorting of Britney’s image. “You think Britney and her music are manufactured? Fuck you. How about this?”

The contrast to be found between Madonna’s control in Erotica and Britney’s lack of it in Blackout speaks untold volumes about the differences between them. Yet in both cases the albums use their context as a weapon and make the listener complicit in their message. This more than ever underlines the truth behind the often-trite mantra that ‘manufactured’ music can be dazzlingly brilliant and, fundamentally, speaks to the power of pop music. Perhaps, in some small way, that’s what Madonna was passing on with that kiss.

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Cruel Britannia

I’m nearing the end of Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture, a book about the UK’s long and dismal record of engagement in torture. As the book’s blurb puts it, it “exposes the lie behind our reputation for fair play.” In that way it  is a companion piece to similarly brilliant books such as Dispatches From The Dark Side, The Enemy Within and Murder in Samarkand which all reveal the murky depths which our politics frequently operates in – depths where truly horrific and inexcusable acts take place. Such books are important because even though people might get angry about politics there is still a wide tendency to believe that politicians are just ‘doing their best’; we tend to view acts which we disagree with as at best mistakes and at worse careless. In actuality, they are often very deliberate and every bit as malicious as they seem.

Cruel Britannia covers Britain’s role in torture from the Second World War through to the middle east, North Ireland and culminating in the ‘War on Terror’ and actions in Iraq and Libya. Many politicians (and others) come out of it badly. The above excerpt, however, leapt out at me on my way home this evening because of Miliband’s recent departure from politics and the largely warm response which this elicited. The issue of Miliband’s complicity in torture is not a new one – it’s not, however, one which many people are very interested in. During the Labour leadership election I raised the matter with his supporters many times and invariably they had heard nothing about it. Once they were informed, they would insist that he (and indeed the government) had nothing to do with it. Present evidence linking him to it and they would simply flatly reject it and suggest that we ‘agree to disagree’. It was inconceivable to them that a politician they admired could have personally been involved in actions which they personally claimed to abhor. This is often the case – we pick our political ‘sides’ and we rationalise their actions to suit what we insist our own morality is, rather than applying our morality to their actions independently. I’d argue that Liberal Democrats have been doing this in spades since the 2010 election in order to justify the many cruel policies which their party has been complicit in. Then there are those, the majority, who simply take no interest in politics and never think about the actions of politicians (and certainly not the ‘unofficial’ actions which are deliberately kept from them).

Why do I mention this? Because it occurred to me that if, when Miliband died, people make reference to his complicity in torture and abuse him personally, others will spring up to wag their fingers at them and tell them off for ‘speaking ill of the dead’. This of course was inspired by Thatcher’s death this week and the reaction to it. Thatcher was clearly the most divisive Prime Minister of modern times (probably one of, if not the, most divisive ever). Reams have been written about her legacy focussing, of course, on the economic aspect. Entire industries and entire communities were devastated, bringing no end of social problems. This is emotive enough – not least her battle with the miners, one which was very deliberately pursued and which saw her using the full force of the state and endless dirty tricks (including infiltration and agent provocateurs – all outlined in The Enemy Within) in order to defeat the labour movement. I want to mention however just a few highly charged issues to illustrate why feelings run so high with regards to her. There was Clause 28, the anti-gay legislation which stigmatised so many and to this day remains emblematic of Tory homophobia. There was her role in the aftermath of the Hillsborough tragedy where she is widely viewed to have played a leading role in the cover-up which defended the police and attempted to shift blame onto the fans themselves, a cover-up which to this day the families of those affected are still seeking answers for. There was her infamous treatment of Northern Ireland which inspired endless ire and bitterness, perfectly illustrated by the totemic figure of Bobby Sands. There was the Belgrano and questions which still continue over whether she had ordered the needless murder of 323 people. Then, of course, there was her strong support (and indeed involvement in the placing of) a myriad of murderous dictators which saw her defending the genocidal Pinochet as late as 1999.

These are but a few of many examples I could pick which illustrate that many people have strong reason to despise Thatcher. They legitimately feel that she ruined lives, communities, even societies in ways which endure even now. She is even implicated in many deaths. Yet this week we’ve had people tutting with disdain at others having an ‘inappropriate’ response to her death. People who were strangely silent when the media were plastering Gaddafi’s corpse everywhere or portraying Chavez as a demented thug suddenly decided that the dead demanded respect. People who seemed to find no ire for the celebration of the death of suitably indefensible bogeymen found it appalling that anyone could be pleased that she was dead. Many who spent much of November prostrating themselves at the throne of Barack Obama suddenly looked at young people drinking to Thatcher’s death and decided that it’s jolly well unacceptable to have strong political opinions about things which didn’t directly affect you (which in itself is an idiotic argument given that political policies clearly have implications long after their enacting). Think of the family and friends, we are told, as if they haven’t had over 4 decades to get used to Thatcher’s public life, very real influence over millions of people and the feelings she arouses (not to mention the fact that there’s no requirement that a massive funeral take place, an event which will clearly inflame feelings further).

To these people, it’s just not polite to ‘speak ill of the dead’, no matter what they’ve done. Yet if it’s not for teenagers to feel hatred for Thatcher, how can it possibly be for those who seem incapable of understanding the reasons for the ire she inspires to tell those who feel it to stop? Their finger-wagging speaks of a world where politics is a civilised business of polite disagreements rather than one of blood and guts. Politics changes peoples lives; it even causes people to be harmed or to lose their lives. Who, sitting at their laptop (and almost invariably unaware or unconcerned by most of the things mentioned) has the right to tell people what feelings politics should arouse in them? If someone who lost a loved one at Hillsborough takes some comfort in Thatcher’s death, it must surely be for them to make peace with the morality of that rather than for anyone else to condescendingly dictate that they are wrong. Just as, in years from now, it will not be for us to tell British torture victims that they shouldn’t ‘cross the line’ should they remain angry at Miliband (and Blair and Straw etc) after his death. Politics is real life – nothing more, nothing less – and things can happen which still hurt and still anger years afterwards. If you cannot understand that then you’re very lucky. In the meantime, instead of spending time worrying about whether people are saying unpleasant things about deceased politicians, it would be better to devote energies to whether politicians are showing any respect for the living.

(Glenn Greenwald had a good piece on death etiquette yesterday. Myself, I wrote this brief response to Thatcher’s death.)

Justin Timberlake

When the now infamous Janet Jackson ‘incident’ happened at the Super Bowl, Justin Timberlake’s reaction was illuminating. As Janet overnight became a whipping post for the moral majority (and her career has never recovered), Timberlake hastily distanced himself from her, declaring himself “shocked and appalled”, invoking the outrage of his “own family” and going as far as he could in saying “SHE DID IT” without actually saying the words. He would have to have been spectacularly dense to be unaware of the gender and racial politics at play in the responses and the fact that his statements played up to the idea of Janet as “a contemporary Jezebel” still seems unforgivable; even more so because from the safety of three years’ later he felt able to observe that “I think that America’s harsher on women. And I think that America is, you know, unfairly harsh on ethnic people.” Gee, thanks Justin – Janet must have appreciated that.

For me, the incident neatly summed up Justin’s musical career: he’s become rather ridiculously successful and admired by appropriating black music, stripping it of everything vaguely ‘risky’ and presenting it to audiences as ‘innovative’, all the while coasting on his image as a wholesome white boy (the kind who tickles America’s tummy regarding its demonisation of Hugo Chavez just days after his death). Justified is a hugely derivative album of warmed-up Prince and Michael Jackson retreads – heck, ‘Rock Your Body’ was even originally written for the King of Pop. The singles aside, it’s absolutely atrocious. Prince looms even larger over the follow-up FutureSex/LoveSounds yet all of his perversity, his religious ecstasy, his danger, is gone. Even the ostensibly raunchy SexyBack offers little more than a self-conscious swearword. Hilariously, this album offers a ‘socially conscious’ song where the former Mouseketeer sings about a man addicted to crack – it’s not only dreadful but inadvertently highlights how his songs are almost never actually about anything. Still, by singing about crack he’s at least being urban, or something.

Of course many pop stars appropriate black culture but it particularly grates with Timberlake for two reasons: firstly, his entire musical career is based on it yet, as with the Janet incident, he is very careful to remain removed from any aspects of it which may prove difficult and actively promotes himself as this banal, clown-like Hollywood filmstar who just happens to have loads of black friends who want to make music with him. It’s an odd but important dichotomy. Secondly, I can think of no other pop star for whom the gap between their reality and the hysterically overblown guff written about them is so large. This piece from this week is a perfect example. He DOES EVERYTHING! Clearly singing r&b, having black producers, singing about crack and appropriating big band imagery is enough for this white man to be the natural successor of the renowned victim of racism and support of civil rights, Sammy Davis Jr. The fact that anyone would even write that piece highlights the central problem of Timberlake’s career – there is no sense that he’s had to work for this status, no sense that he is questioned or challenged in any way.

The largely positive reaction to The 20/20 Experience further underlines this. It is a deeply odd album, not least in the fact that its songs typically run 6-8 minutes long. There are two observations arising from this: firstly, that Timberlake has clearly been paying attention to Channel Orange (and to its rapturous reception) and its stand-out track, the almost-10 minutes long Pyramids. Secondly, that Timberlake has stated the song lengths were influenced by bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Queen and Bob Dylan. The latter artist is actually frequently cited by him as an influence but I defy anyone to find any of those artists present in any way in his music. No, what Timberlake is concerned with here is the appearance of authenticity and of ambition. Serious artists make long songs! The unfortunate thing is that he doesn’t have the courage of his convictions and this woefully exposes the agenda – the songs are long solely to draw attention to their own length and what that signifies. Every song is a highly conventional 4-5 minute pop track bloated by 2-3 minutes of self-conscious beats and ad-libbing. The single edits are clear and it’s difficult to imagine that anyone would mourn if the songs were shortened. Furthermore, the lyrics are almost entirely forgettable and terrible – these are more songs about nothing but what they can be said to reveal about the creativity of the man on the album cover. This makes the album seem deeply cynical. Indeed, it’s a surprise that any ‘Poptimist’ would claim Timberlake as ‘their Bowie’ when he is clearly deeply concerned with the notions of authenticity, talent and ambition which they so scorn. It’s no accident that the video for Suit & Tie begins with Timberlake playing the piano, just as it makes perfect sense that there is apparently a second instalment of The 20/20 Experience coming later in the year (nothing says ‘creative’ like a double album after all). This is what people who don’t actually listen to pop think of as ‘ambitious’ – it doesn’t matter that it has zero emotional resonance and is a chore to listen to as most of the critics praising it will never listen to it again for as long as they live.

The sense given by his musical return, then, is that he’s popped back to ‘remind’ everyone that he’s a renaissance man. It seems obvious that he will again disappear from music for a long period afterwards – at least then he’ll have the four albums to base his ludicrous status on. Instead he’ll return to being a Hollywood film star – a sphere where there is little cultural cachet in appropriating blackness (for a leading man, anyway). As this astute review notes, his career seems like a succession of role-playing. The Janet Jackson episode was the biggest and clearest example of his trying on a role and then fleeing it for safe privilege when it didn’t work. Such insincere fluidity may make him a pop star for our times, certainly – but not a pop star worth celebrating.

Blackout and Erotica

A few years after the infamous MTV kiss with Britney Spears (poor Xtina) Madonna revealed how she had explained it to her daughter:

“I am the mommy pop star and she is the baby pop star. And I am kissing her to pass my energy on to her.”

Certainly at the time, Britney Spears was the nearest thing we had to a ‘new’ Madonna and this was reflected in her increasing involvement in her own music. 2003’s In The Zone had featured 8 Britney co-writing credits, easily the most direct creative involvement she had yet had on her albums. Appropriately enough it was also the album to feature Madonna in its lead-single, ‘Me Against the Music’. Truly there was a sense that Madonna was anointing a chosen successor.

It didn’t quite work out as planned. While Madonna rebounded quickly from the failure of 2003’s American Life, it would be four years before Britney Spears released another studio album. And what a four years they were – Britney went haywire, quickly and decisively moving from an American sweetheart to a TMZ poster child for celebrity dysfunction and drama. She went off the rails in a way Madonna never had. However in doing so (and retreating once again, no doubt due to necessity, from creative involvement in her music) she ultimately delivered the album of her career. Blackout, which is five years old this week,is an almost-perfect postmodern pop album. Yet while it is different in many ways from Madonna’s work, it’s impossible for the ‘baby’ to fully escape ‘mommy’’s influence.

Conveniently enough, the Madonna album which Blackout owes a debt to is also having a birthday this week. It’s 20 years since Erotica was released and while time and familiarity has dulled its power, even today it sounds like an odd pop album. Madonna, coming off the back of the mega-selling The Immaculate Collection and the acclaimed Blond Ambition tour, was having one of her imperial phases (as Neil Tennant so memorably called the periods when commercial success and critical acclaim align for artists). She had cuckolded Pepsi with the Like A Prayer video; she had confronted the Catholic Church when it criticised her tour; she had even made MTV look uncool and turned its ‘ban’ of the Justify My Love video into both a money-spinner and an eloquent attack on moral hypocrisy. It’s understandable that she felt untouchable – but even so, few were expecting what came next.

In retrospect, of course, it’s easy to see that having pushed the buttons of the religious establishment and the moral majority, Madonna had to tread carefully. Moving swiftly onto an album called Erotica and an accompanying coffee table book called Sex was supreme, almost reckless, hubris and it led to the biggest backlash of her career. I can remember the period well – the tabloids had anti-Madonna stories on an almost-daily basis while the publishing of a book called The ‘I Hate Madonna’ Handbook summed up the prevailing attitude. Madonna has since said that the overlooking of Erotica amidst this maelstrom of controversy and recrimination is the biggest regret of her career. 20 years later the album is not quite popularly regarded as a ‘lost classic’ but it’s certainly seen as underrated and its influence is undeniable. Few grasped it at the time but Erotica is that most cumbersome of beasts – a concept album. Understanding this goes a long way to putting its strangeness in context – and boy, it is strange. It is difficult in a way none of Madonna’s previous work had been, the pure pop moments such as Deeper and Deeper and Rain sitting alongside jazz and blues influenced excursions which offer little ‘give’ to listeners. The decision was taken to use Madonna’s heavily processed demo vocals for much of the album, causing her to sound detached – on tracks like Bye Bye Baby and Fever she sounds like a sneering impersonation of herself. These sit uncomfortably alongside much more emotionally engaging material like Bad Girl and the gay rights anthem Why’s It So Hard? It all makes for a disorienting experience. Yet it’s intentionally so – as Madonna states in the album’s opening line, “My name is Dita, I’ll be your mistress tonight”’. Shep Pettibone’s ‘Erotica Diaries’ make clear that Madonna was in creative control and the irony of an album called Erotica which deliberately pushes the listener away is a masterstroke. It underlines that the album is not only about sex – it’s fundamentally about relationships and power. Indeed, much has been written about Madonna ‘opening the door’ for subsequent artists with her use of sexual imagery. This is missing the point. Madonna was very careful not to present her sexuality as mere titillation and Erotica’s genius is that she has the bravery to make a pop record which turns expectations upside down. Rather than being a come-on to ‘fuck me’, Erotica could more appropriately be described as ‘fuck you’.

Blackout could be similarly described. Its opening line has obvious echoes of Erotica’s – “It’s Britney, bitch” is an uncompromising invitation – command, even – into Britney’s world. What’s fascinating, however, is that whereas Madonna invented the persona of ‘Dita’ to play with her listeners, the character here is ‘Britney’. This is the fundamental genius of Blackout. At its core is the absence of its main star. Circumstances undoubtedly dictated this yet the producers took the ‘fuck you’ template of Erotica and went crazy with it. The album makes a virtue of her lack of presence, from its ironic almost-mocking title to its production. Britney’s voice is twisted, treated, transformed though-out so that she often doesn’t sound like ‘Britney Spears’. Instead she sounds like a demented robot, another production tool in an orchestra of sonic wizardry that goes far beyond anything on any previous Britney record. If Madonna played up detachment on Erotica, here it becomes the entire focus. In that regard Blackout is also a concept album – one about modern fame and modern pop music. Its power rests almost entirely on the persona of ‘Britney Spears’, not the person. The associations of that persona feed into the music and lend it an uncomfortable power – we know that as a person she is damaged and unhappy, yet as a popstar she is all-consuming. This subverts a dominant notion in modern pop – namely that the context is irrelevant and all that matters is whether a song is any good or not. We are under no illusion that Britney Spears had anything to do with most of this record – but the album confronts that head on and makes it into a dazzling virtue. As with Erotica, there is nothing seductive about Blackout – instead its pleasures lie in the confounding of expectations and the contorting of Britney’s image. “You think Britney and her music are manufactured? Fuck you. How about this?”

The contrast to be found between Madonna’s control in Erotica and Britney’s lack of it in Blackout speaks untold volumes about the differences between them. Yet in both cases the albums use their context as a weapon and make the listener complicit in their message. This more than ever underlines the truth behind the often-trite mantra that ‘manufactured’ music can be dazzlingly brilliant and, fundamentally, speaks to the power of pop music. Perhaps, in some small way, that’s what Madonna was passing on with that kiss.

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.