Ben Cohen on Newsnight

Let’s relive the moment last night when Newsnight rather bewilderingly asked a straight man on to discuss a ‘homophobic tweet’. The discussion is asinine, with both Wark and Cohen resorting to hypothetical ‘gay sons’ to try and compensate for their lack of insight into this issue. The most staggering moment comes towards the end when Cohen offers this gem:

bearing in mind we have come a long way, you know, 20 years ago there was, it was racism…and it’s taken that next generation to drive a cultural change…so, you know, homophobia is where racism was 20 years ago.

So we not only have a straight bloke on speaking about homophobia, we now have a white bloke speaking about racism. And speaking about it in a spectacularly stupid and offensive manner. ‘Homophobia is where racism was 20 years ago’. What does that even mean?! The (barely) implicit message is that racism is sorted now, a staggering assertion in any context but especially so when made on a current affairs show barely a week after the Duggan verdict. Furthermore the suggestion that being gay in the UK in 2014 is comparable to being black in the UK in 1994 is breathtaking. Lest we forget, 1993 saw the murder of Stephen Lawrence and an ensuing series of events which led to the Macpherson Report and the police being labelled ‘institutionally racist’. It clearly remains so and constitutes just one aspect of our deep problem of racism. The idea that I as a white gay man face a similar reality is just wrong and adds absolutely nothing to efforts against homophobia. If anything, it cheapens them.

Cohen, of course, was on largely to advertise his ‘anti-bullying’ charity and while his heart may be in the right place this organisation hasn’t exactly done much to date. This has proven to be largely irrelevant however, with Cohen being lauded as some kind of latter-day Saint by significant elements of the gay community and using this as a launchpad for a range of merchandise which is heavily promoted to a gay audience. We still have absolutely no idea as to whether Cohen personally profits from this merchandise: all we are told is that ‘every purchase benefits’ the Foundation. Given the involvement of companies with atrocious human rights records like Nike and the statement of StandUp’s Chief Exec that “More than 15 percent of every dollar we took in for the StandUp brand went to support Foundation work”, there’s clearly a lot of unaccounted money sloshing around.

Asking these questions, however, requires some actual journalism and who can be bothered with that when there’s a fit man stripping down to his pants? And so we end up with this absurd, counter-productive spokesperson on Newsnight.

Gloria Estefan

I bought tickets to see Gloria Estefan at the Royal Albert Hall on a whim, months ago. Like most people, I dipped out just after Destiny in 1996 and hadn’t heard any music by her in a long time. Nonetheless, the promise of ‘the hits’ was alluring for someone who went through a pre-teen period of being obsessed with Into The Light and then her Greatest Hits. The latter must surely be one of the greatest pop compilations of all time? The rhythmically-charged dance songs effortlessly soar while the stark, moody ballads were what I imagined love and heartache to sound like (I was right!) Throughout everything Gloria’s charisma leaps from the speakers with a silky ferocity – it really was a no-brainer that Miami Sound Machine retooled themselves to be focused entirely on her.

Into The Light, meanwhile, chimed with me in ways which I didn’t begin to understand until years later. Coming Out of the Dark. We seal our fate with the choices we make. Never be afraid to dream but follow it through cos it won’t get done unless it comes from youYou don’t exactly need to be a psychologist to see what was going on there. 1996’s Reach was one of the songs I listened to obsessively while ‘struggling’ with coming out and I can vividly recall sitting on a bench listening to it while trying to work up the courage to visit my university’s LGBT society room.

So, yeah, my main interest for wanting to see her was nostalgia. That’s kinda the raison d’être of any Royal Albert Hall pop gig these days. It’s where once-big pop stars go to relive the golden days before an audience more than willing to be complicit in the illusion. The level of Gloria’s stock can be ascertained by her appearances on shows like The One Show and Alan Titschmarch – being a special guest on The X Factor would be out of the question. This did, as an aside, cause my friend and I to wonder if Cher would have been granted this ‘honour’ if she hadn’t ‘retired’ for much of the past decade but had kept releasing records – the question of which middle-aged superstars are considered ‘relevant’ enough and why is an interesting one. As seems grimly inevitable for stars in Gloria’s position, she’s recorded an covers album of classic songs – The Standards, as the title succinctly puts it. It’s no disaster but the suffix of ‘and the hits’ to this concert’s advert underlined what the real draw was.

As we took our seats we surveyed the crowd, having wondered what kind of audience she would attract. For the most part it was as predicted – gay men, middle-aged couples dolled up for a rare night out and groups of loud women who nipped to the bar every ten minutes. What we had rather foolishly neglected was the Hispanic and Latino contingent. Many had apparently travelled from around the world to be present and they loved her, giving regular standing ovations and being possessed by the Holy Spirit every time she spoke or sang in Spanish. It made our pre-gig joking at the thought of anyone being a ‘hardcore fan of Gloria Estefan’ look pretty silly.

Gloria’s voice was deeper and more ragged; whereas with Joni Mitchell or Barbra Streisand this became an appealingly weary ‘lived-in’ quality, here it seemed like Gloria was frequently straining to recreate vocals from her heyday. This was a minor quibble, however, as it quickly became obvious that Gloria’s incandescent charisma was entirely present and correct. A consummate entertainer, she exuded warmth and openness and as you can see in the clip above she frequently interacted with her fans. If you watch the video of Conga you’ll see her stop to sign autographs mid-song. It was the kind of relaxed confidence which it’s all but impossible not to fall for, especially in an age where the default settings seem to be either laconic detachment or insincere and patronising affection. This connection (and the accompanying personal anecdotes) lent the ‘standards’ an energy and affection largely absent from the flat record but, as expected, the classics mostly came from Gloria’s own back catalogue with an orchestral Coming Out of the Dark proving a particular highlight.

Being old enough to remember Gloria in her heyday, it’s a strange thought to imagine Lady Gaga or Katy Perry playing gigs like this in twenty years’ time (some would uncharitably suggest that Lady Gaga would be lucky to play them in five years’ time – I couldn’t possibly comment). Pop clearly has an implicit link with youth but we’re living in interesting times where, from Cher and Madonna to Gloria and Janet, we’re witnessing the superstars who once dominated the landscape attempting to negotiate ageing. There’s much to be said for raging against the dying of the light – it’s a great thing that you can’t envisage an MOR covers album any time soon in Madonna’s career – but when acceptance that you’ll never be a major player again is done with the grace and good will which Gloria displayed last night, it’s charming and delectable.

All the photos and videos from the gig are here.

Leonard Cohen

The absolutely sublime Recitation performed by Leonard Cohen at the O2 last night. I wrote a post last year about my experience of seeing him for the first time and there’s little to add to that now. Suffice to say that he didn’t disappoint the second time. As my friend (who was having his own first experience of Leonard live) said, “he takes you on a journey” and you feel that you’re witness to the mysteries and majesty of music. It was a fitting and satisfying end to a Sunday which started with the new Britney dreck

You can see the full set of photos and videos here.


I have to say that the drone strikes and the targeted killing program have made my passion and mission in support of America almost impossible in Yemen. In some areas of Yemen, the anger against America that results from the strikes makes it dangerous for me to even acknowledge having visited America, much less testify how much my life changed thanks to the State Department scholarships. It’s sometimes too dangerous to even admit that I have American friends. Late last year, I was with an American colleague from an international media outlet on a tour of Abyan. Suddenly, locals started to become paranoid. They were moving erratically and frantically pointing toward the sky. Based on their past experiences with drone strikes, they told us that the thing hovering above us – out of sight and making a strange humming noise – was an American drone. My heart sank. I was helpless. It was the first time that I had earnestly feared for my life, or for an American friend’s life in Yemen. I was standing there at the mercy of a drone. I also couldn’t help but think that the operator of this drone just might be my American friend with whom I had the warmest and deepest friendship in America. My mind was racing and my heart was torn. I was torn between the great country that I know and love and the drone above my head that could not differentiate between me and some AQAP militant. It was one of the most divisive and difficult feelings I have ever encountered. That feeling, multiplied by the highest number mathematicians have, gripped me when my village was droned just days ago. It is the worst feeling I have ever had. I was devastated for days because I knew that the bombing in my village by the United States would empower militants. Even worse, I know it  will make people like Al-Radmi look like a hero, while I look like someone who has betrayed his country by supporting America.

Testimony from Yemeni activist Farea al-Muslimi to the United States Senate Judiciary Committee: Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights on April 23rd 2013. The subject was the ‘Drone Wars’ and al-Muslimi spoke about how the drones were radicalising many in Yemen; as he put it, “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America.” His words are an important counterpoint to what we are and will read in the media regarding what’s happening in Yemen right now. Drone strikes are only against “alleged al-Qaida members”. The Guardian reports that AQAP is the regular target of drone strikes”. You will read little about how it’s been reported by prominent officials that all military-aged males are automatically classed as combatants (a claim which sparked such outrage that the administration has since back-tracked without ever properly addressing it) or that attacks are often made on the basis of circumstantial evidence with little real knowledge about who is being targeted. You won’t read much about the children killed by drone strikes or about the American citizens assassinated by drones.

No, instead you will read reams about Al-Qaida in Yemen and the atrocities they commit.

The Narrative Behind Bowie’s The Next Day

For some reason I knew since seeing the video for The Stars (Are Out Tonight) that the album’s third promo would be for The Next Day and it would feature Bowie singing the song behind a microphone. It seems like the final destruction of the ‘Bowie is dying’ myth which they’ve been having so much fun with – albeit with an exit which will only invite further speculation.

Where Are We Now? – Bowie the mythic figure, dying in the shadows, more ethereal than corporeal.

TS(AOT) – The big reveal. Bowie is alive and well yet haunted, tormented even, by his past. stalked by his legend.

This – the normalisation. Bowie performs. He hams it up. The curtain is pulled back. The deity figure is snuffed out at the end.

‘Religion is corrupt’ is a rather tired trope these days but it does its job in fuelling the Bowie speculation market. The Decameron ‘title’ on the door at the beginning is a nice touch. From wiki:

Decameron combines two Greek words, Greek:δέκαdéka (“ten”) and Greekἡμέραhēméra (“day”), to form a term that means “ten-day [event]”

That obviously feeds into both the album title and Bowie’s 10-year absence – and the bell tolls ten times. Certainly there is some behind-the-scenes activity in the Bowie camp which suggests something more than just another single release is afoot in the near future.

The video is worthy for this alone:

However it squanders the best moment of the song and one of my favourite Bowie moments ever – the opening line of the second verse, “Ignoring the pain of their particular diseases”. It is ridiculously satisfying to sing along to. You really should try it.

16th July – And now we have the video for Valentine’s Day:

After the deity vanished at the end of The Next Day we have a Bowie who is very much the man who fell to earth. He’s dressed simply – ‘normally’, even – and it’s the first straightforward performance video of the era. Its subtleties rely not on Bowie’s legend but on clever touches which reference the song – the guitars which resemble guns, the flashes of the titular Valentine aggressively storming around while wielding a weapon and a brief flash of a bullet:

It comes in the week Bowie apparently promised ‘more music soon’ in an e-mail to some BowieNet users. He’s had his fun being meta-Bowie – now it’s back to business.

31st October:

A new – and presumably final – video from the re-release of The Next Day and more loaded symbolism. References to Bowie’s past abound, from the bathroom rituals of of Thursday’s Child:

to what are, presumably, red shoes put on in order to dance the blues:

The references to Ashes to Ashes/Scary Monsters and the Thin White Duke are obvious – what’s notable is that they are puppets and projections. As the era of The Next Day began with Bowie as a spectral presence, projected onto comically small figures, it comes full circle with the curtain being pulled back on some of his iconic creations. The background may change but Bowie the artist brings them to life as puppet master and voice and here, he alerts us that the Bowie of this era was another facade. The ‘real’ Bowie watches from the side and LOST in the shadows, obscured by his famous past and obsessively washing his hands, both attempting to ‘stay clean’ (the Thin White Duke being perhaps his most drug-associated creation) and cleanse his persona. This shot:

depicts the Thin White Duke cradling a blank-faced Pierrot and recalls the cover of Hours:

With that album cover Bowie was signalling the death of his ‘difficult’ early 90s modernism and a return to his past; here it almost seems like the victims of his eternal suicides are comforting one another. His past is littered with corpses. WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?! 

Yet they never truly die – the face just moves on to a new host. Bowie washes obsessively yet, like Lady Macbeth, he cannot remove the blood. The tap remains on at the end and Bowie has vanished: even with attempted erasure he can never be free of himself. Yet the water still flows – another corpse falls to the ground and he’s not done yet.


“…her strength was that she understood a certain view of life and when she goes and she’s gone, there will be a great ideological vacuum. It’s no good saying ‘we will run market forces better than she did’ because her whole philosophy was that you measured the price of everything and the value of nothing. And we have to replace that.”

A rather famous clip of Tony Benn speaking following Thatcher’s resignation. It’s a brilliant assault on Thatcher’s legacy but, given what has come since (including Blair and Brown) it can’t help but speak to what we seem to have lost. Benn (and indeed Thatcher) seem like towering figures compared to today’s drab, uninspired middle-managers.

I felt surprisingly flat when I heard of her death yesterday. My thoughts quickly turned to my grandfather, a Labour MP and member of the Wilson and Callaghan governments. I visited Hansard to see if I could find any exchanges he may have had with Thatcher but had no luck. He was no fan of Thatcher but he also despised Blair and I wonder what he would make of the United Kingdom of 2013. One where aspiring politicians tweet their self-lovingly reasonable responses to a divisive death and berate others for not living up to their standards. It’s odd to think that the most common route into politics for Labour MPs used to be seen as trade unionism; now it would be the NUS and policy wonk jobs. I suppose that in itself is one small sad part of Thatcher’s legacy.

While I can’t say that I particularly care that Thatcher the person has gone, I do take some pleasure in the fact that people are currently sending ‘Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead’ soaring up the iTunes charts. Whatever is inspiring this, it feels like a massive rejection of Thatcher’s legacy, a ‘fuck you’ to our current government and everyone who glibly argues that people are ‘naturally’ selfish. It’s a welcome antidote to the fuzzy hagiography which is already in full flow. 

Whether this leads to further (current) political engagement is another matter. There does seem to have been an upswing in political activity amongst my peers in recent months – almost as if the coalition’s policies are proving so hateful that they are beginning to pierce the numbness of disinterest, irony and pop culture which has come to identify so many. The debates over Thatcher’s legacy, coming in the midst of this and campaigns like Left Unity, can only be welcome. It would be ironic indeed if her death contributed to the radicalisation of some who have previously proclaimed themselves to be apolitical. Because, my friends, even with Thatcher gone, cunts are still running the world.

The End of Poverty

‘The End of Poverty?’ is an essential film which takes an uncomfortable look at the root causes of ‘global poverty’ and points the finger squarely at the wealthy Northern hemisphere. Fundamentally, it describes the problem as man-made – our economic system has relied and continues to rely on the continued exploitation of the world’s poor and at the core of the issue is economic justice. It’s all-too-rare to hear this when poverty, particularly in the ‘Third World’ (a difficult term, certainly) is discussed – we’re encouraged less to think about why these countries continue to suffer extreme poverty and more to see them as fundamentally broken. They’re poor because they are, essentially. Yet as one person observes in the film, in stark contrast to the favoured narrative of the ‘First World’ sending aid to the Third, what we have actually seen (and continue to see) is a massive transfer of wealth in the opposite direction. Our wealth is largely predicated on their poverty. We aren’t going to solve this by signing petitions, buying Fair Trade produce or giving more aid (which isn’t to say these things are pointless) but rather only by challenging the “power and structural violence” which dictates the (abusive) relationship. As the film makes clear, the First World countries have no qualms about interfering when democratically-elected leaders in South threaten their wealth and interests; more, they demonstrate stark hypocrisy in making the right noises about aid and ‘reform’ while institutions like the IMF and World Bank continue to exacerbate the problem behind the scenes. As War on Want noted, Cameron has been trumpeting his actions in tackling poverty which increasing it both at home and abroad, intervening on behalf of multinationals to strengthen their stranglehold over global food production. 

War on Want is one of the only organisations I’ve come across which addresses these issues at their political roots and, as such, I whole-heartedly recommend it. More, one of its central tenets is that it works in partnership with those affected. This is one of the best aspects of the film above – it may be voiced by Martin Sheen but its running time is overwhelmingly taken up by discussion with the residents, workers and leaders of Third World countries. It’s definitely worth your time.

We always want to believe in the ‘quick fix’ and critical thinking is so frayed that anyone being seen to ‘do good’ is invariably taken to be altruistic. This is how we as societies can live with our reliance on brutal exploitation  – as the narration states here, “our economic system is, and always has been, financed by the world’s poor”. Yet economic justice requires uncomfortable changes to our lives and accepting the fallacy of the notion that we can keep consuming as we do while slowly ‘raising’ those in extreme poverty to these levels. It’s similar to the issue of global warming, which continues to be presented to us as solvable by re-using plastic bags when, again, it’s our inhumane economic system which is at the root of the issue. I’m no better than most in these aspects but if we truly want anything to change, we’re going to have to start addressing that at a societal level.

Madonna at GLAAD

No one would doubt Madonna’s commitment to gay rights but more importantly, few would doubt that she’s an archetypal American liberal. This is underlined in this speech to GLAAD, the American body which is widely seen (outwith American liberal circles, anyway) as the hobby horse of privileged white men. The American version of Stonewall, if you will, and as such hugely averse to radicalism and any meaningful discussion of inequality and the use of power. Madonna’s speech pushes all the right buttons in this regard: the American enemies of the great and the good gathered in the room are religious bigots who fixate on sexuality; some truth to this, of course, but neatly feeding the sense of victimisation which many of these people thrive on while obscuring wider and more complex inequalities.

If Madonna had restricted her comments to the Boy Scouts and religious bigotry in America, however, there would have been little wrong with this speech. Where it becomes worthy of criticism is when she moves onto the wider world with some banal but damaging observations on inequality and oppression. Israeli apartheid becomes a question of two mothers sitting down to speak to each other, the pervasive and pernicious fiction that the conflict is one of two equal ‘sides’ rather than one of oppressor and oppressed. Worse, there is a throwaway reference to “an Iranian gay man being hanged for falling in love with a man.” This is a favoured trope of liberals, even in situations where there is absolutely no evidence to support it, and it is unforgivable as it serves to increase the drumbeat for ‘intervention’ in Iran while completely ignoring America’s own complicity in and hypocrisy regarding the Iranian regime (and indeed support of regimes seen to be even more oppressive).

The reference to Malala Yousafzai and the Taliban at first seems straightforwardly ‘good’ – who could have an issue with this, after all? Yet it undeniably further serves American fantasies of promoting equality and justice in the world against dangerous, dark, barbaric enemies. It’s easy to be horrified when the Taliban attempt to kill a child – it’s braver to use your platform to draw attention to your own government murdering hundreds (at least) of children with its drone strikes and sanctions.

Indeed, the sense that you should hold your own government to account before deigning to wag your finger at others looms large in one inexcusable omission from Madonna’s speech. She speaks of Putin and Pussy Riot – again, a worthy cause but one which flatters Western notions of superiority. It is ‘insane’, she says, that Pussy Riot have been locked up ‘because they criticised the government’. Further, she notes that she doesn’t ‘know many brave people’ and draws attention to the line in ‘Nobody Knows Me’ which observes that “it’s so hard to find someone to admire”. You have to wonder, then, if Madonna (and indeed GLAAD) is aware of Chelsea Manning, a truly brave American who has spent over 1000 days in prison and faced torture precisely because she wanted to draw attention to her government’s horrendous abuses of its power. I’ve written before about the silence of ‘Gay Inc’ on Manning and it is truly inexcusable for this room to loudly whoop and applaud their sense of righteousness over Pussy Riot while they continue to turn a blind eye to their own government’s persecution of someone who courageously spoke up. It’s possible to go further still, as Glenn Greenwald does here in a piece on Anwar Awlaki, an American citizen who was subject to extrajudicial assassination (ie murder) by the CIA. Greenwald argues that:

What prompted my opposition from the start to the attempted killing of Awlaki was that it was very clear he was being targeted because of his anti-American sermons that were resonating among English-speaking Muslim youth (sermons which, whatever you think of them, are protected by the First Amendment), and not because he was a Terrorist operative. In other words, the US government was trying to murder one of its own citizens as punishment for his political and religious views that were critical of the government’s policies, and not because of any actual crimes or warfare. (my emphasis)

You may have to read that a few times to fully take in its shocking message – one which completely demolishes liberal fantasies of a superior, secular America which can afford to cast its eye over the abuses of other governments and find them wanting.

Predictably, Madonna’s speech is proving popular with many; it’s being described as ‘courting controversy’ and ‘brave’. Yet what was difficult or shocking about it? It flattered the egos of everyone present, assuring them that they were on the side of ‘right’ and ‘good’ while still facing oppression from wicked religious people. The man the speech honoured is a mainstream journalist who waited until he was firmly embedded at the top of his profession before choosing to come out and there seems to be little that is truly ‘brave’ about his overwhelmingly conventional views. What would have been truly brave, truly shocking, truly controversial, would be if Madonna had challenged the smug complacency of GLAAD and, indeed, of the wider American liberalism and exceptionalism which she so perfectly embodies.

EDIT – A response to this blog I’ve had several times now is for people to state that the differences between Pussy Riot and Manning are obvious; that the former case is clear-cut and indefensible while the second is ‘controversial’ and ‘disputed’. The first point to be made here is that within Russia, the Pussy Riot case isn’t remotely clear-cut. It is in fact as ‘controversial’ and ‘disputed’ as these people present the Manning case as being. A cursory Google of Russian public opinion on the case will reveal this. Following on from that, the second point is that the reasons these cases are so disputed in their countries of origin are worth focusing on in themselves. As this piece puts it:

There are some U.S. citizens who see Manning as a hero (I am one of them), and some who see her as a traitor. Manning’s target population was and still is all of the rest. Yet the sad truth is most of this remainder doesn’t care much about Manning’s fate and will, in the end, accept the government’s verdict on her. This is how I reasoned out the situation back in 2010, and I think my conclusion is still sound.  On the assumption that most people are locally focused and apolitical I conclude that this vast majority are unconcerned about the Manning case because it seems not to touch their lives. And, on the assumption that the government and its allied mass media control the information flow, I conclude that most of the minority who are aware and concerned share the official view that Manning is a traitor. (my emphasis)

Indeed, the fact that the one line repeatedly wheeled out to me is that Manning ‘put American lives at risk’ would tend to confirm the notion that people are blindly parroting what the authorities have told them.

The third and most crucial point is that support for freedom of expression, for freedom of conscience, for opposition to government and for bravery in opposing and exposing its abuses means nothing if it must be uncontroversial and widely accepted. This is precisely why I write above that Madonna’s speech served the dominant narratives of power – it is both fed by and feeds ideas and causes which are acceptable to the American liberal ‘elite’. The idea that raising the cause of Manning would have been too ‘controversial’ is to argue that no-one should ever make a meaningful stand for justice. There is never a ‘time and a place’ for that – that’s kind of the point in calling such actions ‘brave’.

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.

Pulp and Privilege

Pulp’s ‘Common People’ memorably skewered class tourism – the idealization of working-class life and poverty by people who never had to face its day-to-day reality. It was a common theme of the Britpop era but certainly hasn’t been confined to those years – you need only look at our current cabinet to see that ‘slumming’ it remains very real, with multi-millionaires assuring us that they’re just ordinary folk. It’s most notable, however, when it comes from those of a left-wing bent for whom wealth and power is implicitly associated with privilege, inequality and oppression. Few people want to be seen as advantaged at birth, as having it relatively easy. We all want to think that we have worked hard for what we have, that every benefit has been earned. 

The ease and comfort with which many can claim to be working-class while clearly not being comes largely from the view that class is a socially-constructed identity rather than being derived from (and embedded within) socio-economic structures (or more fundamentally as Marx would have it, distinguished by relationships to the means of production and labour power). As I have written before, the idea of class as a foundational determinant in society is a deeply unfashionable one. Instead the attitude neatly summarised by Laurie Penny holds sway – “all politics are identity politics” and class is but one identity amongst many others (with the emphasis usually falling upon gender, race and sexuality). I don’t wish to go into that here – though there is a lengthy and compelling demolition of that idea linked to in this post – but instead want to briefly look at how relates to the ‘class tourism’ we are all familiar with.

There has of course been a lot of recent discussion around notions of privilege and ‘privilege-checking’ stemming from various disagreements, debates and arguments largely revolving around the words of writers like Caitlin Moran, Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill. This in turn has led to a wider blow-back against the ideas from other writers. Their criticisms have common threads – privilege-checking is portrayed as ‘shutting down debate’, as the current weapon-of-choice of self-righteous morally pure internet warriors, as an attempt to lend credence to a form of ‘bullying’. Yet any rational look at these claims would surely swiftly find them wanting – it makes absolutely no sense for people with hugely powerful platforms, read by many thousands of people, to claim that they are somehow being ‘silenced’ by people on Twitter (and indeed the swift responses printed in places like The Guardian, New Statesman and The Times render it a laughable claim). Given that the point of a columnist is to push a particular opinion, arouse interest and ultimately generate income, it seems counter-intuitive that a columnist can then decide that they don’t like the debate they have initiated. Yet that is exactly what we’ve been seeing and, with tedious inevitability, there have been efforts to portray the ‘check your privilege crew’ as another kind of ‘troll’ (a phrase which many writers have already attempted to co-opt).

One of the interesting things about this whole issue is that the writers most inflamed by it are ones who spend an inordinate amount of time writing about forms of oppression. Throw a metaphorical dart at the comments section of left-leaning broadsheets and magazines and you’re liable to hit a piece on sexism or homophobia (racism is notably less common – unsurprising given most of the writers are white). You would imagine, then, that they would be hugely sensitive to questions of privilege. What complicates matters, however, is that many of the pieces focus on the ways in which the writers themselves are victims of oppression (albeit usually presented as more widely applicable). Indeed, there are entire journalistic careers, various blogs, Twitter accounts and more dedicated to documenting the various ways in which we are oppressed – but crucially, the focus tends to be on one form of oppression only (misogyny, homophobia etc). Undoubtedly many important issues are covered but it becomes problematic when it is seen to become a self-perpetuating industry where a tunnel vision develops. There is no glory in being seen to be ‘privileged’, no columns to be had and this makes that first-hand oppression that little bit more complicated. It requires the acknowledgement that not everyone affected by sexism or homophobia experiences these things in the same way, for example, or that people can be affected by these things whilst themselves being privileged (or even oppressive) in other ways.

Yet many seem unwilling or unable to hear this. As with class tourism, they are keen to portray privilege as something enjoyed by other people and portray their own relationship solely in terms of how they themselves are (or are seen to be) oppressed. With this mindset it’s easy to see how  ’privilege-checking’ becomes a threat, pointing out as it does that many of these people enjoy huge advantages (including over most of their critics). As I wrote in the piece on ‘trolls’, these writers are part of the Fourth Estate and act as gatekeepers to their positions. They jealously guard their privilege, seeking to control which views, and which debate, is seen as ‘acceptable’ and ‘serious’, hence the endless and constant dismissal of more radical voices without large media platforms.

This is underlined and illuminated by the fact that many of these people are swift to rush to their own, self-serving take on privilege-checking when it suits. I have personal experience of this (e.g. having a dissenting view immediately dismissed on the basis of being a man disagreeing with a female journalist, despite it having zero relevance to the subject) but it’s a subtle and insidious tactic which can easily be met with incredulity. It’s even more difficult to notice when we’re so frequently asked to focus on extreme and indefensible abuse which has nothing to do with disagreement. A perfect example of this is when Suzanne Moore shared this post in an effort to prove that she was being ‘bullied’. Moore’s own intransigence and abuse was erased from the story. Furthermore, most of the featured tweets weren’t to Moore (meaning that she would have to have actively sought them out in order to be ‘bullied’ by them) and several of them were clearly nothing more than strongly-worded venting (which we may find distasteful but is hardly worthy of state intervention). This isn’t at all to deny that some of the abuse was, as I say, indefensible but the post served its purpose well – it immediately portrayed a writer with a massive audience who had been grossly offensive as a ‘victim’. Then follow the pieces calling for something to be done about the the tone of ‘debate’, lumping in strong disagreement with mindless abuse. The platform ensures that thousands of people heed the call, dangerous behaviour becomes synonymous with words we dislike, it becomes ever easier for people to be locked up for writing something, and the cycle trundles on. 

Given their prominent roles in shaping debate and framing the boundaries of acceptability, it should be expected that writers for national publications (and more) are aware of their enormous power. Few would disagree that abuse should be addressed, that patriarchy is very real or that inequalities need our attention. Yet we should be (and need to be) wary of the rush to deny wider privilege and to repeatedly highlight only the ways in which we can be seen to be victims. Identity politics can, deliberately or otherwise, serve power well (recently exemplified in the portrayal of arch-hawk Hillary Clinton as a feminist hero for her ‘performance’ when testifying regarding the Benghazi attacks which saw at least four people dead)  and this is just one of the lessons to take from the growing calls for intersectionality.