Tag Archives: music

Hard Out Here

I have breasts. Therefore it’s my sworn duty to have an opinion on Lily Allen’s new video, or something. I’ve talked about body image hypersexualised content in pop videos and a porn culture before so it’s not surprising that I found Hard Out Here, well, interesting. Musically, it’s awful but I watched it a few times so this post wouldn’t be based on a quick view where the only impressions left once the shit music ended were the endless repetition of the word “bitch” and masses of jiggling female flesh.

When it comes to the racial aspects of Allen’s video I’m well aware that I’m a privileged white 30-something woman. I don’t even like hip hop. I don’t feel qualified to get into the race issues but it’s impossible to ignore them completely so I’m going to say that I thought Hip Hop Doesn’t Need Another White Savior was an interesting read which chimed with some of my thoughts as a non-hip hop fan and took them much further as far as race issues go.

I was surprised by the initial hype among some people who’re acting like Hard Out Here should be celebrated as a feminist anthem. Quite apart from the legitimate arguments about race issues, it’s a very limited song. It’s not a complex sociological commentary on women’s role in society today. It’s only a pop song and it felt like a mix of personal bugbears being brought out more than a serious attempt to address problems. Putting the word “injustice” in a song doesn’t automatically imbue it with depth. It felt to me like Allen’s pissed off about a few things and that the difference between her and most women is she can get a few million hits on Youtube, ably assisted by her record company, when she wants to have a rant. You could say it’s better than nobody within her genre talking about feminism at all but the reason I took it to pieces in my head is because of the people trying to make it go too far. It’s not just fans of the song. Some women complaining about race are suggesting it represents white feminism too. It doesn’t even do that as far as I’m concerned.

I get her decision to use the word “bitch” but personally I’ve got absolutely no desire to see it appropriated. It’s one of a very small number of words where I feel some kind of sisterly requirement not to use it (unusual because I’m quite sweary and I prefer not to create even more barriers between men and women by buying into the sisterhood). But it’s a word only ever used for women and often comes with the word “silly” before it. I don’t feel a desire to respond “yeah! I’m a bitch. That’s our word now” just because every time any woman makes a vaguely feminist statement we’re all meant to jump on the bandwagon.

You’ll find me in the studio and not in the kitchen

Allen starts off by defending her right to work. Maybe my lack of interest in what male pop and hip hop artists have been saying is showing here. Maybe they have been making music suggesting women should get back to the kitchen but it doesn’t chime with me at all. If it had been released in the 1950s it would’ve been revolutionary but seems like a really lazy rhyme. It isn’t a choice between work or the kitchen these days. Modern women have to do both and that is hard. I was talking to a few the other day about the utter exhaustion they feel trying to juggle work and home. It feels like a sloppy play on the saint/whore thing too. I’ve never got the idea that women should be passionless about food, which just adds to my irritability over this line. Any man who wants a saint in the kitchen presumably doesn’t care very much about good food.

I won’t be bragging ’bout my cars or talking ’bout my chains

Uh. Ok Lily. Don’t. I sure as hell don’t feel any need to defend the fact that I don’t. My assumption is that she’s drawing a line in the sand between her and materialistic women as well as men so, far from representing all women, she’s having a go at the ones she disapproves of. The article linked to above expands on the race elements of this.

Don’t need to shake my ass for you ’cause I’ve got a brain

I have a brain. It functions pretty damned well. I can shake my ass if I want to. I do shake my ass when I want to (although the line reminds me of the Afghan Whigs’ Somethin’ Hot which is a bit slower than shaking). Nobody’s making me feel I have to. There aren’t roving bands of men demanding I do it out here, in the real world. What’s happened instead, with monotonous regularity, is that if I shake it there’s always at least one who thinks he owns it. It’s my choice whether to give it or not and there’s little doubt some men don’t get that. Back in the days when I regularly went clubbing, I had fake boyfriends who were willing to step in as needed if I didn’t have an actual one with me because it was the quickest way to stop total strangers from grabbing me. When we were in a pretty big group, there were always at least a couple of men in the group making sure us women were ok. That’s the real world outside the rarefied air of the pop music industry.

The music industry demands women should strip down and shake their asses and a lot more besides but by wording the line in the way she has, Allen is dismissing all women do it as stupid. How is that a feminist statement? Some women may feel coerced into it. Some choose to do it. Some do it for stupid reasons. Some are stupid. but that doesn’t mean there’s a causal relationship between stupidity and ass shaking. Again, it feels like Allen’s drawing a line in the sand between her and any woman who does shake her ass. I did something slightly shameful the other week. I half watched a “documentary” on Miley Cyrus. There wasn’t anything else on and I was curious, partly because I’ve never knowingly heard a single one of her songs. It was really a combination promo for her new album and the MTV Europe awards, which were being broadcast after it. After the US Awards I wondered if she was being manipulated. Not according to her. She said she wanted to cause waves bigger than Britney Spears and Madonna did when they performed at the awards. It was all about novelty and pushing the envelope to her. She wanted to shock. She thought her performance was funny. She even said:
“I live in America and we’re the land of the free. If you can’t express yourself you’re not very free”
Yeah. Calling her stupid, I have no problem with. Calling everyone else stupid is a different matter though.

If I told you about my sex life, you’d call me a slut
When boys be talking about their bitches, no one’s making a fuss

It’s interesting that she says “boys” because it makes a clear distinction between men of my generation and boys. I often hope that all the slut shaming stories are blowing the scale of the problem out of proportion but I have the nasty thought that maybe my generation was both the first and the last to come close to sexual equality. Slut shaming takes away a woman’s right to be a sexual person while at the same time pop and hip hop culture is sending young women the message that they should obediently do anything and everything they’re asked to because they’re asked to, rather than because they want to. It’s also notable that Allen’s married. She’s saying people would call her a slut if they knew the specifics of what happens within her marriage? I really hope she’s wrong because if things have reached the point where having a satisfying monogamous relationship makes a woman a slut we really are completely, well, fucked.

Still, there’s also something hypocritical in the line when you consider she’s just called women who shake their asses publicly stupid. She shouldn’t be judged but other women should be? I wonder if she’s ever been in a situation where she’s chosen to shake her ass for one specific “you”.

There’s a glass ceiling to break, aha, there’s money to make

I see the glass ceiling as quite a specific thing. It’s what stops women getting to the top. Women can reach the top in the music industry. They bring something different to the table which has nothing to do with objectifying their bodies. They have female vocals. I pondered the lines and decided the “money to make” is being made by industry execs who tell women they’ve got it made but then require women to do things men would never be asked to as a condition of their label’s full backing but the problems she’s talking about are quite specific to the music industry. For most women, the glass ceiling has more to do with questions over their commitment to work. It starts long before women have children. A partner once said to me he was worried about how heavily the firm had come to rely on young women who might all get pregnant at the same time. A friend was told she wouldn’t want to be a partner because she had a husband at home to take care of. It can also involve stereotyping around “male” and “female” traits and which ones are considered to be more valuable to business. These more mundane problems are a long way from the music industry.

Artists have always been beholden to their audience to a greater or lesser degree. The reality for the past 75 years has been that there’s a choice to be made between commercial success and personal integrity. Some are able to have both but not many. If any artist is willing to just do what they love, they can make a living if they’ve got the talent. That’s about more than just the gender of the artist. Yes, we should question why the most popular artists are expected to play the particular games Allen’s talking about but not everyone does. I love both female and male artists who don’t play the game although admittedly that’s partly because I just don’t like the kind of music that makes the most money, regardless of the lyrics or videos.

Forget your balls and grow a pair of tits

As my generation was the first to whom buying your breasts became acceptable, I don’t see this as a feminist war cry. I see what she’s getting at. It just doesn’t work for me because of those undertones.

You’re not a size six, and you’re not good looking
Well you better be rich, or be real good at cooking
You should probably lose some weight
‘Cause we can’t see your bones
You should probably fix your face or you’ll end up on your own

Within the pop music industry and film/tv there’s an enormous amount of pressure to look a certain way and women don’t help by buying magazines that take the piss out of imperfections. I agree that there’s enormous pressure on celebrities and that it trickles down. My read is this was a major factor in the song ever getting written.

Allen’s justification for using dancers in bikinis while she’s in something less revealing is that she’s uncomfortable with her body after having had children. I’ve said before we shouldn’t be too critical of each other’s insecurities. It would be pretty hypocritical of me to say “hey, you. Stop being insecure.” I could kick myself for my own insecurities and how they affect my actions sometimes (seriously, I annoy myself by seeking reassurance he actually is interested) but I’m not about to kick someone else for having some. That said, I find it really hard to see how it benefits feminism for a woman to complain about the kind of societal pressure that adds to insecurities, concede to it herself in her choice of outfit and then have a bunch of perfectly proportioned backing dancers in bikinis behind her. Quite apart from their race, can’t she see how unhelpful that is? Calling it satire isn’t an answer. Keeping her clothes on meant that the satire was lost as the rest of the dancers did a barely hammed up version of what we’re used to seeing.

Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you?
Have you thought about your butt? Who’s gonna tear it in two?

Well, we all know what this is about and that she’s got Robin Thicke and his pals in the cross hairs. Yes, rape culture sadly seems to be rising but the problem with the simplistic way in which Allen delivers her opinion on it is that it creates more divisions. Who’s her anger actually directed at? Men in general? That would be unfair and anathema to my vision of what feminism ought to be. It ought to be about genuine equality and I’d really like to put the days of crying “all men are bastards” behind us. Based on the exact words, another alternative interpretation to the one that she only has a very specific group of men in mind is available. It could also be read as a criticism of women. Young women mostly. The kind of women who might listen to her music. It reads like she’s calling those women out, telling them to examine their choices and she’s doing it using sarcasm. It’s not wrong to want those women to realise they deserve better but it’s wrong to do it in that way.

We’ve never had it so good, aha, we’re out of the woods
And if you can’t detect the sarcasm, you misunderstood
Inequality promises that it’s here to stay
Always trust the injustice ’cause it’s not going away

The implication of the sarcasm is that other people are saying we’ve never had it so good but not many people really are, are they? There have been improvements in the workplace but very few people are saying we’ve achieved equality. And as for sexual politics, we have an endless stream of unpleasantness coming over from the States, rape apologists from the religious right to rappers, like a particularly virulent disease that’s impossible to ignore.

An anthem isn’t one which concludes we’re fucked and we’d better get used to it. An anthem gives hope. Her final lines bitterly suggest there is none. All in all, I don’t have a clue why anyone would call her a standard bearer for feminism off the back of this song. It hits a couple of hot buttons but it’s personal, clichéd, snipy and divisive. It’s only a pop song though. If she really wanted to be taken seriously I’m sure she could’ve done better. It wouldn’t be hard to improve if she just ditched the pop format and gave herself more space. Not my cup of coffee musically but, in the form she’s delivered it, not my brand of feminism either, thanks very much.

Zola Jesus

I don’t/won’t make a habit of sharing youtube footage of gigs I’ve been to on here but I’m making an exception for Zola Jesus (and the videos are unusually good quality for gig footage). This tour’s a set of new arrangements (by J G Thirlwell) on her old songs, with a string quartet added in place of the synthesizers which were on the original. I haven’t bought the album yet so I can’t put them in mixes – I wasn’t sure if it would be worth buying the album when they’re songs I’ve already got but now I’ve heard how much the strings add I may well end up getting it. She said J G Thirlwell had taught her to love her own songs. I can see why. Hopefully, whether she does it with him or not, she’ll be able to put more depth into the instrumental elements of future songs after seeing how much he’s added to the old ones.

Avalanche

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Bypassing the Brain

If you told me in the 1990s that it was a halcyon age for sexual equality and liberation, I’d have laughed at you. I wouldn’t have believed society would move backwards after so many years. Now though, I’m genuinely shocked by what passes for normal for the current generation of teenagers. I hate to blame the internet but I do agree with all those who argue that the flood of porn and social media have a lot to do with distorting today’s teenagers’ views of sex and relationships. This post isn’t really about asking broad questions about what went wrong and what needs to change though. It’s about music.

I feel incredibly old saying this but the music industry and music channels like MTV are feeding the monster. The vast majority of the top female “artists” (I can’t bring myself to write that without being sarcastic) are expected to jiggle around, not just with next to nothing on but in leather and latex. Some of these women might think they’re liberated but when I see Nicki Minaj snarling at the camera while jiggling her preposterously large breasts, I think of a stripper who knows what she has to do to get paid and resents the hell out of it. Even women in their 30s who initially tasted success back in the days when work experience on a porn set wasn’t an essential on a pop star’s cv are at it. When I saw Kelly Rowland’s video for Down For Whatever I pitied her. I imagine that when they filmed that video she was constantly stopping, asking “does this look sexy?  This? What if I?” And, of course, the men’s videos look like what you’d get if Pan’s People were spliced with porn.

As for the lyrics, I’m Down for Whatever is also a good example of what’s wrong with them. It would be better named “please don’t leave me. I’ll do anything to satisfy your porn based fantasies”. The actual lyrics, which suggest they should “get creative” but only specify “when it comes to you I would make love on the floor”, are a big “huh?” When did that become creative? Someone also needs to tell Kelly there are more appropriate descriptions for what she’s suggesting than “make love” and none of them actually involve any love whatsoever between what would probably be best described as “the participants” (not saying everyone always has to be in love but let’s be honest about it and not tell kids that what Rowland’s singing about is love). Finally, of course,  the endless repetition of “I’m down for whatever” suggests “whatever” means a lot more and that the only way to keep her man is to unquestioningly do whatever he asks. That’s not sexy. It’s pathetic and that’s the kind of tripe today’s teenagers are fed.

Genuinely sexy music can and should bypass your brain. It should send a shiver down your spine from any or all of the instrumentals, vocals and lyrics. Yes, different people have different reactions and find different things sexy but I honestly believe the kind of synth pop crap being churned out is distorting a generation’s understanding of what sexy actually is. Lyrically and musically it’s hard to imagine how anyone can think these songs are sexy, while the endless parade of skin, leather and latex creates an oddly sanitised effect. It’s music for the dead inside and all that latex is about as sexy as a smear test. There’s no passion or heat in these songs or their videos, as if an entire generation is having its passion surgically removed. In my day (ahem), it would have been unthinkable to put these kinds of things on tv because they would have been seen as obscene. They are obscene but not in the way a previous generation would’ve have used the term. They’re obscene because they pevert natural, instinctive passion and tell young women to be submissive barbie dolls and tell young men to take what they want, when they want from however many barbie dolls they want.

All this is by way of introduction to a playlist of 10 songs, which have nothing in common with chart music other than the fact that they can be bought on Amazon. They’re not love songs. They’re music by adults for adults. It may not be your thing (although a fair few of my Twitter pals have impeccable taste!) but nobody could call the artists a bunch of dolls manipulated at the whim of the pop industry on the evidence of these tracks. It’s music that engages the senses. Incidentally, some of the sexiest songs ever written include some pretty dark lyrics if you pay attention. Personally, I think teenagers are supposed to feel. They’re supposed to love passionately and hurt passionately and there’s nothing wrong with music that reflects that angst. It’s music with heat and soul and it’s a hell of a lot better than music which reflects the porn industry.

Politics, Pop Pickers

Music doesn’t stop wars. It doesn’t stop greed, corruption or any of the other things that the politicians and power brokers do (I know there are some musicians who actively lobby but I want to talk about the music itself). It can shine a light on the world though. Whilst the powerful control everyone, the musicians say those powerful people don’t speak or act in my name or my interests and as powerless as most of us are that’s often all we have – the knowledge that we’re not alone.

Anyway, I saw a ‘greatest’ list of political songs a couple of years back. Frustrated by the fact the only post-1990 band was Rage Against the Machine and by the much more recent controversy over the Ding Dong Song when there is so much great politically motivated music out there, I decided to add some of my own greats here. The disturbing thing about this list is how many of these songs could be re-released tomorrow and seem contemporary. I’m well aware I’ve missed a lot of great songs out of this list pre-1989 but I can’t put everything in! Most of these songs were released after 1990 but I’m going to turn the clock back for the first couple.

I wasn’t listening to Chumbawamba when they released their 1987 Never mind the ballots but I’m linking (it won’t embed) to a Part 1 video (with lyrics) of that one here because it’s just so good, lyrically and musically, even if later efforts were more anthemic.

A major presence in my teens, in 1989 Carter USM had released Sheriff Fatman, about slum lords.

Some more social commentary from Disposable Heroes of Hiphopcrisy with Television.

James have written some great political songs. Their Gold Mother album is best known for the single Sit Down but it also included Government Walls, which echoes down through 20 years to secret trials

Their next album, Seven included the anti-war Mother. I’m sad to say the video has censored the word “fucker” out.

Later, in Whiplash, they attacked tv culture, among other things, in Lost a Friend

and focused on corporate greed and the helplessness that creates apathy in Greenpeace (which unfortunately isn’t available on Youtube for mobiles).

The Manic Street Preachers have always liked political themes and each time I hear more about tax avoidance, bonuses, LIBOR rigging and incompetence and risk taking Natwest Barclays Midland Lloyds pops back into my head.

The Levellers are another politically active band and I certainly can’t get Sell Out out of my head these days.

Disturbingly one of the comments on Gene’s Good as it Gets on Youtube (also on vimeo if you’re using a mobile) says he thinks it’s about two people’s work schedules clashing! I’m glad to see someone’s explained it’s about New Labour’s sell out after the 1997 election. It’s one of a few songs along the same lines on Revelations.

Apologies for going with a blatantly obvious choice but Electioneering is just the perfect expression of the frustration we so often feel after elections.

Ocean Colour Scene’s Profit in Peace was released in 1999. 

Other traditional style songs with an anti-war message, released since the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions include Wilie Nelson’s Peaceful Solution

and Kris Kristofferson’s In the News

Chemical Bros’ Left Right is a great song written after the invasions about the difference between the people who start the wars and the people who fight them.

Meanwhile, Blues Explosion’s Hot Gossip attacked the war on terror propaganda in the US

and Faithless came out with the almost bizarrely catchy Mass Destruction

Another almost annoyingly catchy contribution was the Flaming Lips’ Yeah Yeah Yeah Song, which seems to feature backing vocals from the Muppets

From the zany to the ethereal, Simone Felice touches on the wars and various other issues in his songs, including The Duke & the King’s haunting One More American Song

One thing I haven’t mentioned is punk. Obviously, punk didn’t die in 1990 and I can think of one person who would be annoyed if I didn’t mention Propagandhi here, even if I’m not into them musically speaking. Anyone looking to defend the modern era of political music is bound to mention Pussy Riot too. To me, Pussy Riot stand apart from many bands because everything about them is connected to protest. That’s all well and good but what I’d like to see is more bands mixing political content into the wider range of work they do. Banking crises, coalition government, recession, unemployment, inflation, welfare, education and health service reforms are all subjects previous generations of artists have written about and they’re all relevant today, with the addition of the collapse of the Eurozone and a collapsing justice system for more potential content.

It’s been suggested that the past decade has been a wasteland when it comes to political music, with Green Day’s American Idiot and Arcade Fire’s Suburbs cited as rare examples in the LA Times (although this does lead me to suggest they should distinguish between political albums and political songs – Green Day’s whole album is about post 9/11 propaganda, while Arcade Fire’s album follows a theme on modern life). I’m don’t think this is an entirely fair judgement. Others are making political songs but, as they have been throughout my lifetime, they’re outnumbered by pop/r&b pap. Ultimately, I would argue that at no time since the end of the Vietnam war have regularly and overtly politically active artists had big chart success. By their nature pop songs (and their singers) are often vapid (as if we needed further proof of this, Justin Bieber’s comment in the Anne Frank guestbook just gave us a timely reminder) and it’s probably not fair to expect pop acts to suddenly grow a social conscience or even start writing their own songs. That was as true when I was a teenager as it is now. There were then, as there are now, greedy little ego monsters among bands and among the buying public but it would be unreasonable to completely write young people off based on their taste in music. Taste in music is a pretty visceral thing. You could try listening to opera in the hopes of becoming more cultured but if your spine tingles at a rock gig, rock’s your thing. Someone who is completely into dance is perfectly entitled to hate a genre where political content is more common, like folk or punk so it’s not as if I’m suggesting we should forcefeed teenagers political music in the same way we make them read literature in school. Who knows? Maybe the person listening to Justin Bieber reads Marx as well anyway. Equally, I wouldn’t want to listen to political music all the time. It forms the minority of the music I own and listen to but it’s always there, waiting for its moment when history repeats itself.

There do seem to be more older acts (at 35 and up, I’m classing myself as old in the generational sense) putting politics and social conscience into their music than younger ones though. A couple of big names to mention from last year would be Bruce Springsteen and Muse. There could be various factors at play in the fact that younger bands aren’t that politically active. The fact is that being a musician is a job and it’s hard to hang on to your principles when your wages are at stake. The 1990s was a time of Indie labels and they were prepared to take more risks. Big labels are all part of the same machine that feeds us X-Factor and other inane rubbish on tv and shuts down intelligent US tv programmes as soon as they might touch a raw nerve with the conservative right in the US. In that climate, it’s only longer established artists who can stand up to the big name labels. Even if they do stand up to their labels, post 9/11 artists in the USA who took an anti-war on terror and war stance were vilified, even by others in the music industry. They were supposed to toe the party line. Steve Earle, for example, was heavily criticised for John Walker’s Blues.

Of course, it’s also possible that the lack of music with a political and social conscience reflects disengagement on the part of under 30s as a whole. Maybe they’ve lost the ideals previous generations have because it just seems so hopeless. They’ve gone from a pretty cosy looking country during their childhood to utter disaster over the past five years. To give them the benefit of the doubt, I think it’s important to remember that under 21s grew up in an environment where the old political firebrands of the 1960s and 1970s had become muted and were the establishment. They don’t have much of a frame of reference for what activism looks like in politics itself.

I’m also aware there may be hidden gems, tucked away on albums and not released as singles. If they’re by bands I’m not into, I wouldn’t know. An obvious question is whether rap and hip hop artists are writing music with a political vein. I’m not that into rap and hip hop but it seems to me as if there’s a similar breakdown in age in American rap and hip hop. Older rappers still write with actual messages but the younger ones who manage to break through don’t. I had a look on Google to see if other people think British rap and hip hop artists are writing about anything other than partying. Again, the answer seemed to be no for anyone successful and that the labels don’t want them to either. That might be wrong but it’s believable because it gels with what’s going on in other genres.

Having run through the ’90s and war songs, I’ll add some of my choices of economic and social songs since 2008.
The wonderful Felice Brothers (brothers of Simone Felice) came out with the brilliant Ponzi about Bernie Madoff

Show of Hands’ Arrogance Ignorance Greed managed to get airtime on Marr.

I can’t say I think much of his other stuff but Plan B also deserves credit for ill Manors. Just a shame it was necessary to explain on mtv that he wasn’t actually trying to provoke more riots with it.

During the tuition fee protests, the NME and others questioned where the ‘soundtrack’ to the student protests could come from. If, as the NME did at the time, you look at ‘protest songs’, it can be difficult to know what protesters are going to tap into. The obvious answer to that is to write their own. Bandcamp and Youtube make this possible, with Twitter stepping in to spread the word. A complete unknown can go ahead and write an anthem for their generation. Why not? 15 year old Shaye even got national airtime with Broken Britain.

I’m the first to admit that the vast potential for songwriters to be putting political songs out on the internet means that I may very well be underestimating the under 30s. I hope so.

21/09/13
I have to add this one to the list of recent songs. Rita Hosking’s Gulf of Mexico takes my breath away. A gorgeous lament in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill.