Given that Kylie was my first MusicOMH review it’s fitting that she’s my last, at least in any regular sense. I want to devote more time to my own writing, including finally getting around to sorting out my own domain name and hopefully (slowly) sprucing up the blog.

It’s unfortunate that I disliked the album so much. Kylie is my third most listened to artist so no-one could accuse me of being a ‘hater’, yet I’ve grown increasingly frustrated by her trajectory over the past decade. She’s in a bit of an odd position in that she’s almost universally ‘loved’ but in a patronising and cloying manner which lacks any serious respect for her as an artist. Look at your average Kylie review or the comments beneath it and you’ll find endless variations of ‘you know what you’re getting with Kylie, she’s all about fun, don’t think about it too much’. It’s a damagingly dismissive attitude which rests on the notion that pop can’t be brilliant (and fun) if it means anything – rather the business of making art should be left to ‘serious’ artists’. The cracks in Kylie’s appeal as a cipher grew ever wider as it becomes increasingly incongruous for an adult approaching middle-age to be singing frothy identikit hits which could easily have been offered to one hundred other much younger artists. Down that road lies the musical irrelevance of Cher – and she at least has her larger-than-life persona to retain a degree of interest. Kylie just has…being nice. It already seems clear that Kiss Me Once isn’t going to do much commercially. Something has to give.

Kylie Minogue – Kiss Me Once

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Farewell, then, Ben Summerskill. We barely knew you. Can it be a coincidence that his departure came only a week after I blogged about the “self-serving and ultimately pointless” Stonewall Workplace Equality Index? Who can say? What I can say is that he name searches and as a result tweeted me to accuse me of ‘bullying’ as a result of my repeated criticisms of the organisation, which is a bit silly.

Some of my other blogs about Stonewall and its brand of politics:

Whatever good it may once have done I think Stonewall has become a largely useless organisation (I mean, its latest campaign needs no comment from me) which lends its services to the murky practice of pinkwashing dubious companies and organisations. There is much worth reading out there about its terrible record on transgender equality, while some have already noted its terrible boldness in claiming marriage equality as its own given that it was a very late convert to the cause.

This great piece touches on many of the current problems with ‘gay politics’. Ostensibly a look at a book which claims to ‘de-mythologise’ Matthew Shepard, it manages to be wide-ranging in its critique. The lede (“Many of us have a habit of being overly credulous to stories that flatter our biases”) is a succinct skewering of the banal clicktivism which passes for much current gay politics, with its endless e-petitions and inaccurate memes. Its questioning of why so many need Matthew Shepard to have been an ‘innocent’ in every possible sense (rather than a rounded human being who was the victim of an awful crime) is also highly relevant. I think this mentality in part feeds into why gay politics is so terrible when it comes to, for example, issues of immigration or why there is tunnel vision on Russia’s treatment of its LGBT citizens and not other marginalised groups.’Gay identity’ must be essentialised and presented as ‘pre-politics’ so that any perceived attack on it can be portrayed as an attack on ‘innocents’. Issues of immigration, sex work, drug use or even foundational questions of social justice are seen as post-politics: they are messy, complicated and open to debate because the ‘victims’ are not innocent but rather viewed as partly complicit. This also offers much to our understanding of why groups like Stonewall have had almost nothing to say about Chelsea Manning, who is seen to be targeted for her actions in leaking information rather than for being LGBT and so unworthy of attention. This piece interestingly presents this as a pathology of the wider left:

However well intentioned, the urge to treat Matthew Shepard as a blameless angel demonstrates so many of the pathologies in contemporary social liberalism. First is the left’s attraction to heroes and martyrs — a drive to personalize and individualize every issue, in a way that seems to directly cut against the theoretical commitment to identifying structural causes for social problems…

This seems very compelling to me and I’d extend it to include an attraction to villains and victims. Witness the endless Daily Mail-bating and the trend in current feminism to take endless photos of sexist products on supermarket shelves. These are big, complex structural issues reduced to us and them, and the ‘goodies’ tend to be the victims. Rather than argue for systemic change or a social justice which encompasses everyone we increasingly seem to focus on the ways in which we as good, deserving individuals are targeted by the bad guys – a mentality which surely ultimately leads to a cul de sac?

I’m not so lacking in self-awareness that I ignore the piece’s references to a :

proud, self-aggrandizing radicalism…the superior virtue of a radicalism that…had little personal investment, little risk. 

It is of course always important to acknowledge the value of incremental, practical gains. It’s also important to recognise, acknowledge and interrogate your own privilege, one which in my case allows me the luxury of exploring these issues in a blog without facing persecution or violence for it. In terms of LGBT politics this is particularly the case in the US, which clearly lags behind much of Europe in terms of LGBT rights. For all my issues with Macklemore and Same Love (and indeed with the gay marriage movement) for example, I can still acknowledge that it was quite a major deal for an American staple like the Grammys to prominently feature same-sex marriage. Crucially, however, this does not mean that any of this should be beyond critique. Many of the criticisms of Stonewall and wider gay politics could be met with ‘but they’re doing something good!’, an assertion which has the ring of a truism about it yet contains multitudes in terms of unchallenged ideologies and assumptions. We cannot allow critical thought to (further) be eroded by the oppressively banal ‘cult of positivity’ which, in guises such as twee/cupcake fascism, seeks to drain the politics (the conflict) from daily life and replace it with a reactionary detachment and ‘niceness’.

This takes me back to Stonewall and how criticism of its work is framed as ‘bullying’. This riposte hinges on the ‘fact’ that it’s doing ‘nice things’ and so should be beyond reproach (an argument which was also made to me re: Ben Cohen). But this presents politics as a zero sum game where people and actions can only ever be ‘good’ or bad’ and where the politics of the ‘goodies’ is all that can be seen to exist. This is not the case. Interrogating these assumptions can help us understand the ideology behind them; they can help us understand our world in a deeper, more critical sense. In this way we can begin to see that our activism is not inherently good and we are not heroes for engaging in it. Indeed, sometimes our well-intentioned activism can be harmful and sometimes it can rest on mistaken assumptions about people which come from the blindness of our own privileges. Rather than seeking to further mystify this by presenting critics as ‘baddies’ who need to be shut up, we should be open to it and the insights it can offer. We should celebrate it, even. Critique is not the enemy of action:  our politics can encompass both and it’s necessary that they complement each other.

Ben Summerskill steps down as Stonewall boss

I find this piece fascinating in its highlighting of what infuriates me about much of the independence debate. It’s certainly a level beyond Better Together’s ‘independence will be armageddon’ or the Yes campaign’s obsessive sniping at ‘unionists’ but it highlights just how inadequate this debate is in many ways.

Greig complains of “the UK goggles which say you never ask questions” but then we’re later told “Greig said that the outburst in October by the comedian Russell Brand, who said he had never voted, was a symptom of wider alienation with the democratic system in England”. Brand’s words clearly hit a nerve, suggesting the idea that people in the UK are generally living in some catatonic trance is rather misguided at best. Yes, there is much disillusionment with the UK political system – that is different from ignorance which Greig initially complains about. There is a tangible sense that a significant proportion of people in the UK want political change – indeed, there is this sense in most of the developed world. 

This leads us onto Greig’s big point:

“When the City of London wields such astonishing power, it entirely dictates the terms of how we view each other as human beings. We’ve lost the idea that an economy exists to make sure we’re happy and fed. It’s as if we exist to feed the economy.”

What Greig is complaining about here is capitalism and, with his words about being estranged from the economy, he is echoing Marx’s theory of alienation. The City of London could be described as ‘hyper-capitalism’ but given that we all live in a capitalist system, its ‘faults’ are by no means unique. The idea that an ‘independent’ Scotland could reject these basic tenets of capitalism is naive, to say the least. Greig states that “London is essentially an entirely different economy, an entirely different society”. Reading this as a socialist, I find it pretty harmful stuff, eliding the common class interests which exist across the UK and indeed the world in favour of some notion that London is the Capitol in contrast to the rest of the UK’s Districts. People in London are not the enemy and most of them share the same concerns, fears and hopes as most people in Scotland…or Greece, or Spain or etc.

(As an aside, it’s also worth noting that under the independence proposals Scotland would retain the pound and so the Bank of England, based in the City of London, would still exercise strong influence.)

Since the (ongoing) financial crisis, there is a widespread sense that capitalism is deep inside one of its periodic moments of crisis. This brings misery but also opportunities to expose the fundamental contradictions of capitalism and drive change. Much of the political action we’ve seen around the world in recent years, from Occupy to SYRIZA to the Scottish independence movement, seems to largely be a response to, and attempt to capitalise on, this crisis.

In order to do this, however, we need to know what we’re fighting against. Greig says “We don’t need to reform the House of Lords: we need to start again” yet in failing to identify ‘capitalism’ as the fundamental problem he’s discussing he ends up advocating a different kind of reform. Indeed, it’s noted that he would be open to rejecting independence if the ‘pro-UK’ parties offer “greater devolution and reform.” Fine, in and of itself, but ultimately nothing that will address the roots of Greig’s disaffection. When he says that “Scotland’s first independent government would make mistakes and disappoint people who had campaigned for it” it’s difficult not to conclude that this is the inevitable result of a capitalist democracy with social democratic leanings under the current system of global neoliberalism.

Indeed, it’s notable that the sole mention of the EU in the piece is in reference to the ‘modernisation’ of the ‘old nation state’. One of the biggest issues I have with the independence movement is that it seeks to critique the union of the United Kingdom yet, because of the offer on the table, has nothing to say about the European Union and in fact tacitly accepts that it’s a ‘progressive’ institution. Yet by any stretch of the imagination the EU is far less democratic than the UK. It also has immense power over the future of any independent Scotland. From the actions of the Troika to its current negotiations regarding the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement, far-reaching and possibly mendacious decisions are made with little-to-no scrutiny in the UK (or Scotland). A large part of the reason for this is that ‘anti-EU’ rhetoric has been largely lost to the right, despite the efforts of coalitions like No2EU, so the idea that the EU could be pushing austerity, privatisation and an attack on welfare states is at best mocked, at worst ignored. Similar points could be made regarding NATO, the Council of Europe, the UN and the IMF. There is no such thing as true ‘independence’ and we cannot choose to criticise one ‘membership’ while deeming the others to be off-limits.

The same is true of ‘English nationalism’. The Scottish independence debate has been pushed by the Scottish Nationalist Party and is seen as a progressive force. Yet in complaining that such a debate isn’t happening in England, it’s impossible to ignore that anyone labelling themselves as ‘English nationalist’ is immediately viewed with distrust. It’s ground which has again been abandoned to the right. Clearly there are complex and often legitimate reasons for this, with the legacy of Empire having damaging effects on the English psyche. However this narrative obscures Scotland’s own history as a partner in Empire and its own current problems with racism. As we’ve seen, a ‘progressive’ discussion about the future of the political system can originate in England.

Some argue that independence is a way for Scotland to move beyond its tendency to positively contrast itself with England/London/Westminster. This would undoubtedly be healthy and I find it to be one of the most compelling arguments in favour. It would also be remiss not to note campaigns such as Radical Independence, which has offered critiques from a left perspective. Yet the debate generally seems to insert damaging division where there should be class solidarity. It’s completely lost, for example, that most people in England did not vote for the Tories or that no-one voted for the Bedroom Tax. It’s also completely lost that “Although Scotland is more social democratic in outlook than England, the differences are modest at best.”  ‘Westminster’ is not waging a war against Scotland but rather conducting a class war across the whole of the UK.

It seems clear to me that the argument which needs to be won is not whether Scotland is capitalist within the EU or within the EU and the UK; rather, we need to be reminding people of their class solidarity regardless of nationality and encouraging further debate regarding capitalism and our current global political system. There are certainly arguments that independence can play an important role in this but, on the whole, I see only the naive and obfuscatory narrative found in the article above which confounds matters at a time when the majority in the UK should be united.

Scottish independence yes vote would drive change in England, says writer

Spotify playlist at the link above. Last year I initially didn’t think much of Call Me Maybe, the song that ended up being my favourite single of the year. That’s kind of a theme this year, with at least half the tracks being ones which I either purposefully avoided for a while (hello, Miley) or which took their time to grab me (I hated Mirrors for a while, Full Of Fire was difficult to extricate from the album). It’s difficult to pick one of these songs as my favourite – Roar, Royals, The Next Day and Flatline are probably my most listened to. I only very recently discovered Song for Zula and it instantly blew me away.

Wrecking Ball – Miley Cyrus
Royals – Lorde
Reflektor – Arcade Fire
Roar – Katy Perry
Rewind The Film – Manic Street Preachers
The Next Day – David Bowie
The City – The 1975
Get Lucky – Daft Punk
Everything is Embarrassing – Sky Ferreira
Flatline – Mutya Keisha Siobhan
You’re In Love – Betty Who
#Beautiful – Mariah Carey ft. Miguel
Hold On, We’re Going Home – Drake
Full Of Fire – The Knife
Mirrors – Justin Timberlake
Song for Zula – Phosphorescent
Sweeter Than Fiction – Taylor Swift
Drew – Goldfrapp
Copy of A – Nine Inch Nails
After You – Pulp

My Singles of 2013

Click on the title for the Spotify playlist. I’ve not put them in any particular order but suffice to say that Bowie’s comeback was my musical highlight of 2013. I thought nothing could beat the rush of waking up to his surprise single in January but watching him back in action in the The Stars (Are Out Tonight) video was awe-inspiring. Nothing else comes close, which is saying something as there are some astounding albums in this list.

They Die By Dawn & Other Short Stories.. – The Bullitts
Pale Green Ghosts – John Grant
Rewind The Film – Manic Street Preachers
Pure Heroine – Lorde
Electric – Pet Shop Boys
Upstream Color – Shane Carruth
Beyoncé – Beyoncé
Once I Was An Eagle – Laura Marling
Immunity – Jon Hopkins
The Electric Lady – 
Janelle Monáe
{Awayland} – Villagers
Pedestrian Verse – Frightened Rabbit
Reflektor – Arcade Fire
The Diving Board – Elton John
The Thieves Banquet – Akala
Mosquito – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Tales of Us – Goldfrapp
Trouble Will Find Me – The National
The Next Day – David Bowie
The 1975 – The 1975

My Albums of 2013

So, when all is said and done, it was actually pretty easy to review this. Cos it’s very very good.

Beyoncé – Beyoncé

This was quite an interesting one. My well-documented disdain for Lady Gaga led some friends to jokingly note that I couldn’t possibly be ‘objective’ when reviewing her new album. Yet such ‘objectivity’ surely doesn’t exist? We all approach music with our particular notions of what it is and what it should be; we particularly approach specific pop stars with these preconceptions. In the case of someone like Lady Gaga, whose personality is absolutely fundamental to her appeal, it’s disingenuous to pretend that you don’t have a particular view. Indeed, if you didn’t have one it would beg the question of why you were writing as a ‘critic’ in the first place. Sadly the decline of criticism and rise of marketing means that this isn’t viewed as particularly odd –it’s expected that a review will offer little more than bland statements as to whether you should spend your cash on the music in question. Here music is an extension of lifestyle rather than a cultural force with socio-political meaning. “Pop will never be low-brow”, indeed.

FWIW, my personal journey with Gaga is peaks and troughs…her initial single run was dazzling, even if The Fame was largely dreck. As I note in this review however, The Fame Monster is an incredible record. Unfortunately its success, particularly that of Bad Romance, has derailed her entire career. 

Lady Gaga – ARTPOP