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18 April 2014

A moment

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I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, if there is a current debate within the trans community about language and offence, it probably doesn’t need cis gay male viewers of Drag Race to butt in. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this debate certainly doesn’t need said gay men to use it as an excuse to mock ‘cis’, ‘privilege’ and people ‘taking offence’. Seriously, you sound barely a step removed from Richard Littlejohn bleating about ‘political correctness gone mad’. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that whether or not Ru Paul and co should use ‘she-male’, you probably shouldn’t. The fact that the show depicts drag queens doesn’t give it a free pass. The fact that you watch a show about drag queens doesn’t give you a free pass. This could be extended to the odd and distasteful impersonations which have been adopted by many white gay male viewers. I am not your ‘gurl’. You don’t speak like that. Stop it.

The fact that we experience oppression and discrimination doesn’t mean that we can’t perpetuate it ourselves. This is one of the fundamental points of intersectionality. Mocking it (and trans people who disagree with you) is oppression. Simple as that.

Here’s some Audre Lorde for you:

9 April 2014

Tom Daley, Jessie J and the Certainty of Boxes

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We really, really don’t like it when people don’t fit neatly into boxes we understand. Boxes which, for one reason or another, we’ve been led to believe are ‘acceptable’, ‘normal’ and ‘the way things are’. Without wishing to downplay the very deliberate uses of power and historical processes which lie behind so much bigotry, it can be said that any identity deviating from straight, white, masculine, conservative, materially privileged male has to varying degrees suffered in our society’s past (and present). This fact has inspired great liberation movements, most notably centred on gender, race, sexuality and class, which have had made palpable gains and resulted in a UK where almost everyone is seen to be formally ‘equal’.

A lot of my writing, focusing on the LGBT movement, has attempted to parse this formal equality and ask if our liberation has become a barrier to lived equality. Much of the thoughts and ideas I draw upon are taken from feminist and anti-racist circles, where debates about the nature of equality and critique of mainstream movements which are ostensibly ‘on their side’ have a more notable and vocal modern history. The most obvious current example is the concept of intersectionality which has so vexed many feminist writers with media platforms. Despite its rise to prominence in the past year, the term was coined in 1989 by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and specifically arose from (and was applied to) black feminism. You can read more about it in this Bim Adewunmi piece. It’s interesting and not a little ironic that the current ‘debates’ about intersectionality have served to highlight how apropos the theory is. Oppressions and discriminations are not experienced identically by all members of any minority group and, indeed, can be actively perpetuated within and by these groups.

While it’s clear that the issues raised by intersectionality show no sign of being resolved any time soon, at least the theory has broken through in feminist discussions. The same cannot be said about the LGBT movement, which remains highly monolithic and stuck in its ways. There is next to no mainstream discussion (including within the mainstream LGBT media) of how our communities may actually perpetuate oppression. It was noticeable how swiftly Lily Allen’s gay fanbase attacked the notion that her ‘Hard Out Here’ video was racist, while consideration of wider racism within the LGBT community is largely confined to whether or not it’s acceptable to specify colour ‘preferences’ on Grindr etc (clue: it isn’t.)  The recent Rohin Guha piece on gay male misogyny was met with derision and condemnation, even when its assertions were being borne out by high-profile aspects of ‘gay culture’. As a community we don’t seem keen on self-examination, preferring instead to be validated by condescending marketing and anything we can grab hold of which assures us of our victimhood.

That piece on victimhood arose from consideration of biphobia and the supporting columns a sexual identity requires in order to be viewed as ‘authentic’. What do people need to have experienced before we accept whichever label they’ve chosen as being truly them? As I noted in that blog, it’s fascinating how differently this plays out with women and men and this week has given us great illustrations of this with Tom Daley and Jessie J.

When Tom Daley made his video announcing he was in a relationship with a man, I said that his sexuality immediately wasn’t his any more. Despite his care not to label himself and to state he liked both men and women, he was widely reported as having ‘come out’ as gay. Even though some quarters corrected this, the overwhelming response from within the LGBT community seemed to be a very familiar one (seen in the Andrew Sullivan blog linked at the end of that piece) - he was really gay and was just saying he liked women to make it a bit easier for himself (and for people around him). It was not only dishearteningly biphobic but seemed determined to shove a teenager into a neat box in order to make him more gratifying. It was with interest, then, that earlier this week I read various headlines announcing Tom had said he was actually ‘a gay man’. This, of course, doesn’t excuse the initial response for one second but it was impossible to begrudge the guy the chance to feel comfortable in his own skin.

It took me a few days to actually get around to reading any of the pieces and when I did, I was quite confused. I had previously assumed Tom had given an interview but it transpired the headlines had come from Celebrity Juice, a supremely silly show broadcast on ITV2. When I watched clips of the show I was even more dumbfounded: the words ‘I am a gay man now’ don’t actually leave his lips. Instead the very loud and overbearing host tells a clearly nervous Tom ‘you’re a gay man now’, to which he replies ‘I am…’. And that’s about it. The word ‘gay’ is mentioned by the host a few more times and Tom seems unphased but he doesn’t make any point of renouncing previous words. In fact he states again that he made the Youtube video to “be able to say what I wanted to say on my own terms, without anyone twisting anything.” From these spectacularly nebulous seeds came stories asserting Tom Daley has admitted that he isn’t bisexual at all, declaring ‘I am a gay man now’, "Tom Daley isn’t bisexual", Tom Daley has officially come out as gay”“‘I am a gay man now’, Tom Daley admitted" and perhaps best of all "I”m definitely gay not bisexual."

Notice the use of ‘admitted’ there, from both mainstream and LGBT sites. His statement that he still fancied girls, made only 4 months ago, is treated like some flimsy pretence everyone knew was lies really. To make it clear, I couldn’t care less what Tom Daley labels himself as - but taking the words ‘I am’ on a comedy panel show premised on the host taking the piss out of the contestants and turning them into the stories above is absolutely absurd. It underlines the urge for neat boxes and a narrative we understand - and ‘gay man says he likes women but actually only likes men’ is one we understand.

Contrast with the response to Jessie J saying that she now only likes men, labelling her attraction to women as ‘a phase’. The liberal Guardian printed a column calling this ‘a shame’ (and hilariously asserting “I would never deny Jessie J, or anyone else, the right to define themselves, identify with whatever sexuality they want or reject labels altogether” - no, that’s what you’re doing in this column.) Jessie J’s full response was apparently penned after a furious online response to her initial declaration that she only liked men. I saw many responses stating that she had ‘betrayed’ and ‘exploited’ the LGBT community - this gay site says she used sexuality as 'a fashion accessory' and like The Guardian says she’s fed the idea bisexuality is a phase.

Are we seeing the fault lines here? Because they are really instructive as to how fucked up even ostensibly ‘progressive’ attitudes towards sexuality are and how powerful the grip of the victimhood narrative is on LGBT identity. If Jessie J had written that liking men had been a phase and she was now gay, we would have accepted it in the blink of an eye. No-one has attacked Tom Daley for ‘undermining’ the bisexual identity, after all. I also suspect that if Tom later said he was straight the response wouldn’t be fury but pity - people would think he was lying to himself, not that he had tried to make himself seem more interesting by pretending to like men. We don’t even have to make this assumption - straight male celebrities do not receive furious backlashes for flirting with bi/homosexuality:

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Instead they are fêted by the LGBT media and much of the community, treated as icons and allowed to pump us for all we’re worth.

When people assert Jessie J has ‘betrayed’ the LGBT community, they should first stop and ask why said community is so quick and eager to elevate anyone and everyone who either lets us think we might be in with a chance of a fuck or simply says they like us…they really like us! They should ask why we’re so tolerant of these ambiguities when we’re so insistent that anyone who ever feels a same-sex attraction CHOOSE THEIR LABEL and stick to it (though if they say they’re bi we’ll probably just ignore it anyway). 

There is evident sexism in these differing responses, yes. There is also a modern and unhealthy relationship to celebrity, where we feel better placed to comment on the ‘real’ nature of these people than they do. There is an unappealing, immutable attitude towards sexuality - it’s presented as something we’re working towards, something we discover and come to terms with and then do not alter in any way for the rest of our lives. The ‘Born This Way’ idea. Who cares if we’re not? Are people any less deserving of respect, of happiness, if they ‘decide’ to switch sexuality at age 45 or have sex with a different gender, or people who don’t identify as traditional genders, each week? 

That final point isn’t entirely facetious because the fixation on an immutable, clearly defined sexual identity seems interwoven with the dominant concerns of the modern LGBT movement. If we can get married, we can ‘settle down’. You don’t get a much more easily understood box than ‘married couple’ and that ‘respectability’ ties in nicely with the LGBT movement’s adoption not only of deeply conservative companies but of a wider anti-radicalism. Groups like Against Equality which stem from at least 50 years of queer radicalism are ever-increasingly viewed as bitter cranks by the movement. And so we buy further into the racist, sexist, capitalist mores of mainstream society while becoming less and less tolerant of any critiques which might make us feel uncomfortable about this.

Yet as the different responses Tom Daley and Jessie J underline, it’s imperative that we ask difficult questions of ourselves and debate what ‘liberation’ and ‘equality’ mean. The certainty of boxes might help marketers and make us a bit more palatable for homophobes but it makes us blind to our problems and diminishes us as people.

5 April 2014

It was on this day in 2010 that Wikileaks released the video, obtained via Chelsea Manning, which brought them both to public attention and made Western war crimes in Iraq unavoidable. Or so you would think. It’s entirely anecdotal but while most folk I know have heard of Wikileaks and Manning, the words ‘Collateral Murder video’ still largely draw a blank. Instead, as has happened with the revelations stemming from Snowden, the issues became focused around whistle-blowing and the treatment of the individuals whose bravery had allegedly enlightened the world. Still, if people generally still don’t seem to focus on the more shadowy actions of their governments (much easier to focus on the shadowy actions of the approved baddies) the actions of Manning and Wikileaks undoubtedly contributed to the broad suspicion which has so far stopped an outright ‘intervention’ in Syria (though our governments have continued to provide financial aid and arms to ‘Syrian rebels’). The cold ‘beauty’ of the ‘Collateral Murder’ video was that it pierced through the usual blather about how foreign policy and war are far too complicated for you or I to understand and simply presented an amoral act. The military voices in the video sound sociopathic, completely divorced from any notions of right and wrong. To paraphrase Ballard, it rubbed our face in our own vomit and forced us to look in the mirror. This is the reality of war, of ‘humanitarian intervention’. Yet if it seemed for a brief moment to offer a utilitarian lucidity in our approach to government, that hope has since faded.

There was, of course, a substantial anti-war movement across the Western world regarding Iraq. Perhaps the perceived failure of that movement has something to do with why so much of our political action has become neutered, ensnared in trite petitions and finger-pointing at others. This was an awful act committed by our governments, in our names even as we marched en masse against it. Where does that leave democracy? Sure, Blair has become a pariah in many circles now but none of our leaders or parties have really paid any price for what they did. Alistair Campbell still regularly pops up as a media commentator. Supposed leftists eagerly await the Presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, who has continually defended her support for the war and repeatedly supported extra-judicial assassination via drone warfare. The Snowden revelations have been met with a collective shrug from the majority of the population. This is politics stripped of all thought, all meaning, all hope. It’s about being seen to support the ‘goodies’ and oppose the ‘baddies’. The brutally simple message of ‘Collateral Murder’ has sank back into the fog of misinformation and ignorance. We once again think that this stuff is just too complicated.

This apathy and aversion to critical thought has, of course, been apparent in the LGBT movement and I’ve written about its abandonment of Chelsea Manning many times (almost entirely prior to her identification as Chelsea, so apologies for the references to Bradley). Our LGBT leaders and media face almost no opprobrium for allying with arms dealers, tax avoiders, the military and companies like Goldman Sachs, PWC or Barclays which have horrendous records on human rights and progressive politics. Yet, in a further example of just how beyond fucked our LGBT politics is, this week the LGBT internet flew into a rage over the fact that the new CEO of some fucking internet browser company had donated in support of Proposition 8. Apparently using Mozilla was fine when he was merely Chief Technical Officer of Mozilla was fine. And there was no question of boycotting Javascript, which he helped to create, cos that would be a bit of a hassle. Let’s also ignore that countless employees of firms like Apple, Google and Microsoft also donated to support Prop 8 or that President Obama was himself opposed to gay marriage in 2008. Hillary Clinton only came out for gay marriage last year. But heck, this is 2014 and YOU WILL LIKE US GODDAMNIT!

Few would defend Eich’s donation but the perversity of a political movement which will happily align itself with companies dealing arms to brutal despots while hounding someone for opposing gay marriage 6 years ago is clear. Do we hound prominent LGBT journalists like Dan Savage, Andrew Sullivan or Johann Hari for their vocal support for the Iraq war (amongst many other sins)? Indeed, can you imagine any CEO being faced with a fire storm like this because they oppose trade unions, strong rights for workers, avoid tax and fleece taxpayers via ineffectual monopolies? Of course not - in fact someone like Richard Branson, who does all of these things, is one of the most prominent and admired businessmen in the world. Similarly Steve Jobs, who built Apple on the back of horrendous labour practices and who sent a solitary smiley face in response to news that he’d gotten a lowly Google employee fired, is near canonised. 

Why don’t we care about this stuff? I suspect it’s the same infantilisation which so characterises our approach to government: we think this stuff is just too complicated and best left to the serious white folk in suits who know what they’re talking about. Once you’ve abandoned that critical space, you’re wide open to the absurd, trite marketing which assures you that companies DO LIKE YOU! If Brendan Eich had a history of using child labour or campaigning against welfare, dissemination would have ruled the day and he would still be in his post. His views on gay people, though - those we think we can parse.

It’s reductive and insulting. Chelsea Manning is someone who exemplifies for us that we can pay attention to the things that matter. We can educate ourselves about what our governments and corporations do. More than that, we must, because it’s largely being done in our names and with our money. We should be wary of rushing to quick judgements or actions (so typical of the clicktivism movement) but we should also never accept that these issues are too difficult for us and best left to the ‘experts’. That path leads to unchecked power and tyranny.  ’Collateral Murder’ did not distort or misinform - it merely demanded that we pay attention. Doing so honours not only Manning’s bravery and those we see murdered in the video but the countless, nameless others who are harmed in our names on a daily basis.

29 March 2014

Marriage and Music

So here we are - gay/equal marriage is finally legal in England and Wales. I’ve written a lot over the past couple of years about my issues with the debate. Nonetheless, while I think it’s important to keep critiquing the issue (not only in terms of marriage’s wider role in society but also with regards to very practical concerns like the spousal veto) it would be churlish and hard-hearted to ignore the happiness which this is bringing to a lot of people. Indeed, today I’m attending a marriage between two men, one of whom being someone I’ve known for nigh-on ten years now. He was a livejournal ‘friend’ in America and someone I never thought I’d meet in real life, until circumstances led to us both moving to London at different points. We’ve known each other ‘in real life’ for the past seven years or so and I’ve seen first-hand how his relationship has brought him peace of mind and contentment. I also know that, with him being American and his partner British, marriage bring tangible legal benefits to their lives. They’re good guys and they deserve to be happy. Congratulations Matt and Tom.

Music is such an integral part of my life that I almost process events like this via that medium. So this week I’ve been thinking about songs concerning marriage and weddings. The one which instantly sprang  to mind was The Hidden Cameras’ Ban Marriage (above), an encapsulation of some queer critiques of marriage as an institution presented by a narrator who is about to marry his boyfriend. You quickly know what you’re getting with this song, its opening lines being:

I was late getting to church on the morning of my ceremony. Stayed up too late the night before from fingering foreign dirty holes in the dark

Quite. It was written in response to the debate around legalizing same-sex marriage in Ontario, over a decade ago. There’s always one isn’t there?

Then there’s this:


In which Elton John struggles to remain silent at a wedding because he used to bang the bride and wants to do so again. As implausible as that particular scenario may sound, it’s impossible for the titular ‘bride’ not to be loaded with subtext given what we know now. And the basic mechanics of the story seem perfect for some gay wedding melodrama.

Which leads nicely onto the arch camp of Kate Bush’s The Wedding List:

Based on 60s film La Mariee Etait En Noir (The Bride Wore Black), the song sees Kate as the wronged bride of a groom murdered on their wedding day. Now she seeks revenge against the men she holds responsible (“You’ve made a wake of our honeymoon and I’m coming for you!”) The list here, then, is obviously not of desired gifts but rather of men the bride intends to kill. The parallels with Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill are obvious, even if he claims to have never heard of The Bride Wore Black prior to making his film. The performance above is essential viewing and looks like the most fun you could ever have at a wedding. Though this seems close behind:

In which America’s sweetheart reveals herself to be a bit of a cow. Seriously, it’s bad enough that she shows up to her ex-boyfriend’s wedding and disrupts it but does she have to be so brutal about it? “Her snotty little family all dressed in pastel”; “she is…wearing a gown shaped like a pastry”. This wedding may not be murderous but Taylor is just as motivated by revenge. That this is delivered by the supposedly squeaky-clean Taylor and packaged as a stereotypical ‘dream’ wedding makes the high camp all the more potent and pleasurable.

As opposed to the nightmarish camp of:

For all its deceptive simplicity, this must surely rank as one of the most disturbing pop videos ever made? Bowie not only looks deathly but absolutely demented, more likely to bury an axe in your skull than kiss you. The relationship documented in the song sounds suitably unhealthy - the blank disconnect of “sometimes you get so lonely, sometimes you get nowhere” doesn’t sound like a good foundation for a marriage. It’s said that the song is Bowie’s last attempt to save his marriage with Angie - he must be glad he failed. Years later he would document his euphoria at marrying Iman Abdulmajid by putting two versions of The Wedding Song on his Black Tie White Noise album.

It goes without saying that a gay wedding made me think of:

This video probably caused gay marriage.

But I’m told I’m a contrary sort so I’ll end with a video from another difficult old queer: 

There’s something quite magnificent (and clearly deliberate) in Moz singing about his eternal bachelorhood while a succession of young men hug and kiss him. Love is a many-splendored thing indeed and sometimes it’s difficult to put a label on it. And why should we care if we can’t? Whatever completes us, in whatever form it may take, can’t be bad if it does no harm to others. So yeah. Best wishes to Matt and Tom, and to everyone else finding or trying to find their own bits of happiness in the world.

20 March 2014

And it Feels like Home - 25 Years of Like A Prayer

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“Did this actually make you think or are you just trying to be cool?’

 My first high school English teacher didn’t much care for my essay about Madonna’s Like A Prayer, returning it to me with the (barely) implicit message that I would write it again. I’d written about how, at the tail-end of my Catholic primary education, Madonna’s album (and particularly the furore around its first single) had opened up a small but ultimately invaluable space for me to start thinking about my relationship with religion. This had been previously been unthinkable for me; more than that, it had seemed terrifying. It felt intrinsically wrong. That the music so resonated with me is unsurprising when you read Madonna’s thoughts at the time:

"I have a great sense of guilt and sin from Catholicism that has definitely permeated my everyday life, whether I want it to or not. And when I do something wrong… if I don’t let someone know that I have wronged, I’m always afraid that I’m going to be punished. And that’s something you’re raised to believe as a Catholic.”

 She spoke of the deeply-ingrained but nonetheless taught sense that “If you enjoy something, it must be wrong.” It was ironic, then, that prior to the school discos and end-of-term days where we could bring music into the classroom, we would be given the firm instruction “NO MADONNA”.  This had the obvious effect of making Madonna seem infinitely cooler – even dangerous. And how often can you say that about pop music?

There has been nothing quite like the controversy which erupted around Like A Prayer, either before or since. The single was premiered in an innocuous Pepsi commercial, the product of a then-unprecedented $5 million tie-in deal.

The day after, the now-legendary music video was released. There was instant and widespread uproar, with accusations of blasphemy meeting barely-hidden racism regarding Madonna’s use of a ‘black Jesus’ (the video actually depicts Saint Martin de Porres). The Pope himself condemned the video and the Vatican later censured the whole album. Pepsi quickly ditched the campaign and Madonna kept the money, managing the quite incredible feat of appearing subversive while filling her bustier with multinational dollars.

We tend to believe that boundaries keep being pushed and we become less and less easy to shock. Yet if anything, the Like A Prayer tornado seems less likely to happen in 2014. Pop is more fragmented now, yes. Yet it also seems to carry less cultural weight and have less heady aspirations. The instant response to this in some quarters will be to point out that I’m just older. Sure. But we live in age where even self-confessed pop fans argue for the ‘right’ of pop to be meaningless, frothy background noise, thinking that this is fighting the good fight against elitism. Big artistic statements are so rare that Lady Gaga can hinge an entire career on the mere appearance of offering something beyond the interchangeable pop which dominates, with most of the big pop stars singing variations offered by the same few song-writing teams. Indeed, it’s notable that many listeners of contemporary Madonna long affectionately for the days when she would largely write an entire album with one or two other people (and relatively obscure people at that) – they may not realise it but they’re buying completely into notions of creativity and authenticity (in the spark between writers) which they would probably profess to scorn.

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Going back to 1989, there was little overlap in the collaborators between the dominant artists of the era. Prince’s Batman was created by a total of three writers and one producer. Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 – three writers and four producers. Even Kylie’s Enjoy Yourself is entirely driven by Stock Aitken and Waterman, with one cover version. Madonna’s Like A Prayer unashamedly revelled in its ‘rockist’ take on pop, drawing on inspirations like Simon and Garfunkel, Sly and the Family Stone, The Beatles and Stax Records. Madonna spoke of her love for Tom Waits in interviews of the period, while the album cover is a clear evocation of Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones. This was no trite attempt to ‘elevate’ pop by name-dropping so-called serious artists – it was a refusal to countenance that pop wasn’t just as worthy and creative in the first place. If this seems overly worthy, the scenting of the album sleeve with patchouli oil surely provided a cheeky wink at the misunderstood blurred line between artifice and authenticity?

At the time this line was personified by Prince, so it’s unsurprising that Madonna wanted to work with him. What’s perhaps more surprising for some is that Prince equally wanted to work with her (Madonna laughed about how little respect she was afforded as an artist with a wry ““You mean they don’t realize I’m a songwriter as well as a slut?”) The two had gotten together in 1987 to figure out a collaboration: Prince wanted Madonna to star in Graffiti Bridge only for her to dismiss the script as ‘a piece of shit’ (she was right). A co-written musical was mooted and then abandoned. In the end, the two created some impromptu demos, with Madonna describing how they:

“…sat down and just started fooling around. We had a lot of fun. What happened is that he played the drums and I played the synthesizer and we came up with the original melody line; I just, off the top of my head, started singing lyrics into the microphone.”

Oh, to have been in that room. The result, Love Song, was largely finished off via a tape being sent back and forth (very 20th century) and it is perhaps the most low-key and left-field duet between two pop superstars that there has ever been. Some see it as the weak point of Like A Prayer – I think it’s a febrile treasure. The Purple One also pops up on Keep It Together and Act of Contrition, as well as the 12” version of Like A Prayer.

Prince aside, Madonna again worked with the two men who had largely guided 1986’s mammoth-selling True Blue album: Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray.  Having collaborated with both for years by this point, there was an easy and magical chemistry. Things moved quickly, with Leonard later saying:

“Everything is very quick. We wrote ‘Like A Prayer’, ‘Spanish Eyes’, ‘Til Death Do Us Part’, ‘Dear Jessie’, ‘Promise to Try’ and ‘Cherish’ in a two week period. I was working on another album at the time so she’d just come in on Saturdays or days off. Nothing took more than 4 hours ever.”

Bray summed up the mood which drove the writing forward with such speed: “It’s behind the scenes, definitely, in Madonna’s psyche.” Her relationship with Sean Penn had very publically disintegrated during the album’s genesis, with Madonna finally filing for divorce following a prolonged violent assault by Penn. Speaking about writing her most personal record to date, Madonna said:

“In the past I wrote a lot of songs like that, but I felt they were too honest or too frightening or too scary and I decided not to record them. It just seemed like the time was right at this point. Because this was what was coming out of me. “

'Express yourself so you can respect yourself' was no throwaway line - it's a fundamental tenet of the record. The result may have been atypical of pop at the time but it was the continuation of a trend Madonna had both pushed and ridden. True Blue’s Live To Tell was the obvious precursor, while Janet Jackson’s Control (also released in 1986) had attracted much attention for its very public rejection of her father Joseph’s influence (and indeed Janet too would push deeper with the themes of Rhythm Nation 1814). You can nonetheless imagine that it was still shocking to hear a pop superstar of Madonna’s calibre singing about an abusive partner, a dead mother and a dysfunctional family.

It’s not noted enough how central the theme of family is to Like A Prayer, despite it being writ large on the record. It is dedicated to her mother, who provides the inspiration for the naked emotion of Promise To Try. Her father is the subject of Oh Father (funnily enough) while on Keep It Together she addresses her five siblings. Til Death Do Us Part of course addresses her former husband while the psychedelic  joy of Dear Jessie is aimed at Pat Leonard’s daughter Jessie whom Madonna had apparently gotten drunk on champagne in 1987. If much of the family on display here is messy and messed up it’s clear that Madonna views it as central to life: “don’t forget that your family is gold”, she sings on Keep It Together, positing them as the key to remembering the essential core of yourself.

It was a self I was still finding, let alone coming to terms with, in 1989 and the following years. Like A Prayer more than any other record not only accompanied me on that journey but helped me to discover myself. It didn’t explode my world wide open but rather, as I said at the start, created a small space where the seeds for what became defining questions about my life were planted. I haven’t even touched on my burgeoning sexuality and how Madonna at the time was by far the most prominent advocate of gay rights (Like A Prayer featured an educational insert about AIDS while the song Spanish Eyes has been said to be about the disease). I’m sure I picked up on that connection, somewhere, but truth be told it was buried deep within me at that stage; I had to get out from under the whole Catholic sinner thing before I could even begin to visit those places. Happily, Madonna would be there for that part too.

So happy 25th anniversary to Like A Prayer, a pop album which remains unparalleled in my humble opinion. More than any other it shows what pop can really be and why it demands to be taken seriously rather than defended as irrelevant fluff. It’s a record which continues to matter while containing some mercurial, evergreen singles -  it remains a watershed moment in pop. Its DNA can be found when Christina Aguilera announces herself as a ‘serious artist’ by getting personal on Stripped; when Rihanna turns the travails of her private life into brilliant music on Rated R and (of course) when Lady Gaga pays ‘homage’ to one of its most famous singles. We now don’t bat an eyelid when, on her most recent album MDNA, Madonna sings of her second failing marriage on songs like I Fucked Up and Falling Free (it’s surely no accident that her second divorce album picks up where the first one ends, with a recitation of the Act of Contrition?)

Was I ‘trying to be cool’ when I wrote that essay back then? Probably. I certainly felt cool liking the record at the time but by God, it really did make me think and it made me feel. Rolling Stone famously called the album ‘as close to art as pop music gets’. It may have been intended as a great compliment but fuck that. Like A Prayer is art - great art, at that. And when I listen to it now? It feels like home.

14 March 2014
10 March 2014

On being ‘Opinionated’ and ‘Contrary’

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A few weeks ago I read and was struck by a Counterpunch blog by Missy Comley Beattie called ‘I’m Obnoxious’. I was struck by it because I recognised myself as someone too “incompetent to do anything except express frustration with such intensity I’ve become un-fun”. I too have had the internal discussion, telling myself to just let it go for once, just shut up.

The piece has been in my mind again over the past couple of weeks owing to a couple of chats I’ve had with friends and some interactions I’ve seen online. The chats seemed to stem from my recent blog about e-petitions which really riled some people: a friend who shared it on his Facebook was told “shame on you!” for doing so. Many seemed to take the piece as a bad-natured attack on the good intentions of people who perhaps weren’t particularly engaged with the world - the line of reasoning that e-petitions ‘raise awareness’ was certainly the most common rejoinder. The fact that I explicitly didn’t attack e-petitions as a concept in themselves but rather the way in which they are most commonly used was completely lost but, I wondered, was that due to my tone?

Following from this, the chats with some friends were strange and uncomfortable. I was told that it wasn’t ‘my place’ to ‘correct people’, that it seemed like I had a chip on my shoulder, that I was too contrary, too opinionated. I had to ‘respect’ that people had different experiences and journeys and learned in different ways. The natural instinct when faced with this is, of course, to become defensive and shut down, which I was conscious of and tried to avoid (I failed). I’ve thought a lot since about what was said, however, because it really gets to the core of a lot of the things I’ve been writing about for the past couple of years.

I’ve written, for example, about relationships being spaces where “we seek to see our own version of our identity reflected back at us”, a kind of narcissism where we make no effort to develop empathy. Make no mistake, empathy clearly isn’t necessarily something that comes naturally to us - it’s something we practice and it’s arguably in decline. It’s easy to go from this to speaking about the rightward drift of politics in the Western world but here I’m interested in how this manifests in small, daily ways. Empathy isn’t just about feeling compassion for those less fortunate than yourself, it’s also respecting others as equals. I don’t even mean people in Uganda or Russia here, though clearly that’s relevant - I just mean the people you interact with on a daily basis. Part of that respect is surely feeling able to debate and challenge in the understanding that each has something to offer?

Now, believe me, I completely understand and still fall victim to the impulse to want to ‘win’ a debate when challenged. Indeed a big part of the reason why I’ve written about this stuff so much is that I recognise myself from a few years ago as one of those people who had the ‘right’ opinions and enjoyed the approval of peers for frequently voicing them. Yet as soon as I started moving away from this (kicked off by the Johann Hari plagiarism business and the responses to the London riots) the response was furious and fascinating. Terry Pratchett once wrote that:

People like to be told what they already know.  Remember that.  They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things.  New things…well, new things aren’t what they expect.  They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man.  That is what dogs do.  They don’t want to know that a man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that.

That sounds arrogant, I know, but I don’t take ‘new things’ to mean that you are blowing the mind of the sheeple with your FACTS. Rather it just means having thoughts and opinions which go against the dominant and expected - and in the past few years, I’ve seen time and time again that many people really do not like it when this happens. Hence my interest when I discovered Sara Ahmed’s concept of 'bad feeling' where anyone 'out of line with an affective community' is pathologised and alienated. The problem becomes them rather than anything they are saying.

Of course, tone is relevant and it’s all too easy to come across as arrogant and superior. On the other hand, however, we feel little concern for this when arguing about popular culture. We’ll happily insult each other’s taste in music, films, books and argue to the bitter end about them. We as a culture have little problem with mocking and belittling celebrities whom we perceive to be there ‘for us’.  Yet this is all done with a safe, ironic distance where we don’t really think what we’re saying is important. Once we’re onto ‘serious’ topics like politics, this goes out the window.

Instead it is replaced with a very odd dynamic where we feel absolutely entitled to our opinions and to enjoy the approval and validation which can come from expressing them, but are unwilling to have them seriously challenged. This is particularly noticeable on social media where people will write indignant statuses about Vladmir Putin or whatever, rack up the ‘likes’ ‘retweets’ and approving comments, and woe betide anyone who breaks the consensus. It’s perceived to be better to keep quiet than to challenge any of these opinions, as they are almost viewed as being the essential ‘core’ of the person expressing them. This is even true if the opinion contains flatly incorrect statements. The response to having these challenged is never ‘perhaps I should read more about this’, it’s always ‘this person is a dick for pointing this out’. This has been one of the core impulses at the bottom of the ‘rows’ over intersectionality, with the challenged frequently resorting to claiming that they are being ‘bullied’. The idea is that the people challenging them don’t really care about the issue at hand but instead just want to prove their superiority.

Social media is obviously a particular example because so much social context is missing that it’s a lot easier for an exchange to become adversarial. Yet the ‘real life’ contexts where we feel able to debate these things shrink ever further, as avoiding ‘serious’ subjects becomes expected of you not only at work but increasingly in social interactions. So many of us vent on social media - and that is surely why it matters that we feel able to challenge, debate, even argue? Is it really the end of the world if that happens? If we can try to remove our ego from the equation as much as possible, this seems to be one of the only ways we are ever going to progress in our understanding of the world. As we progress, we then think of different ways of expressing ourselves. We don’t have to have strident opinions on everything - instead we can seek out informed opinions on those things we know little about. For all the talk of me being opinionated etc, I do my utmost to avoid spouting off about things I know nothing about. You won’t have found me telling everyone what I think about the situation in Ukraine over the past few weeks, for example. Instead I’ve just been reading as much about it as I can. This urge to speak about everything is one of my big problems with the commentariat and also where much of my ‘contrariness’ comes from. I write because it helps me think things through (and yes, I largely enjoy sharing that work with people afterwards) so I tend to see no point in writing variations on dominant themes, even though this would be a much easier way to an audience. There are enough people out there writing good things on issues they know far more about than I do so, in the end, my blog is always a personal one. My tone is perhaps more belligerent than necessary a lot of the time but I think that’s partly a response to my experiences described above, where people really have responded with fury to me changing my mind about certain things. Perhaps you do internalise this and make it a part of your identity to head it off. I’ve lost friends over it and am well aware that I’m perceived by many to be a bit of an over-opinionated bitter dick. But I’m trying. I don’t want to ever reach a position where I feel that I know everything and don’t need to keep pushing myself forward. However bad it may sometimes feel, I want to keep being challenged and keep being reminded that I am not my opinions which, in the end, really don’t matter all that much. So I apologise if I know you and you ever feel like I’m being superior with you.  Akala put it best in the brilliant Find No Enemy:

It may sound like I’m bitter but in fact, truth be told, I am quite the opposite
I wake everyday and am overwhelmed
Just to be alive and be like no one else
And the sheer weight of the thought of space
Is enough to keep my little ego in place
All that we chase and try to replace all along it was right in our face
The only way we can ever change anything
Is to look in the mirror and find no enemy

2 March 2014

Beyoncé

My photos of last night’s Beyoncé gig are here.

25 February 2014

The Real Cynicism Behind E-Petitions

I’ve already made my feelings about e-petitions clear and don’t wish to repeat my complaints but, dear God, I feel like I’m drowning in the fucking things. Increasingly it seems like the first response to any perceived injustice in the world is to rush to the computer and create an e-petition. The sad thing is that I haven’t always been so averse to them - no-one would have to convince me that they could play a part in engaged activism. Yet I think the way they are deployed is often counter-productive, even harmful. At the core of this harm is a profound and lazy arrogance. It’s completely absurd that any of us could sit at our computers and dot around the world, from e-petition to e-petition, and feel that we are ‘making a difference’. It’s even more ridiculous that we would feel that we had a right to do this. It would be charitable to say that the way e-petitions are wheeled out against non-Western countries carries an implicit message that they are barbaric and inhumane - because it often seems that this is the explicit intent. Those countries are bad; they do bad things; we enlightened Westerners need to save the poor people of those countries. Sign the petition! Read the paragraph of explanatory text and share, share, share! Don’t make the slightest effort to actually learn and think about what’s happening. Don’t engage with anyone within the countries we’re petitioning. Don’t consider for a second the West’s brutal and bloody history in almost all of these countries. Don’t dwell on the fact that our countries have been and continue to be built on the backs of the ‘developing world’ or that ‘aid’ could be more accurately called ‘reparations’ if it didn’t come with so many strings attached. Don’t get angry about the fact that our own governments and businesses continue to support and arm brutal regimes provided they are amenable to ‘our’ interests. And don’t for a second display the slightest self-awareness and focus on the shit our own governments do in our own countries. Instead, let’s tell ourselves we live in a comic book world of clear good and clear evil, where the good guys can fix things by entering their e-mail addresses.

Whenever I complain about e-petitions the response is predictable: “well what do you do about it?” As if signing a fucking e-petition is an unquestionable good and thinking that maybe we should shut the hell up, listen and learn is enabling tyranny. No, the truly fucked up position is one where we don’t hold our own governments, corporations and NGOs to account but instead unthinkingly buy into the notion that we are the saviours of a world that is otherwise populated by savages who don’t speak our language and more often than not don’t share our skin colour. The real arrogance is not in questioning the efficacy of a petition against the government of Uganda or Russia but in believing that these countries are so slack-jawed that they would be dictated to by 200,000 Westerners who’ve read a couple of articles in-between posting pop videos and memes.

There is a deep sense here that the people of these countries are lesser and beholden to superior Westerners, not only in terms of their politics but also with regards to their activism. The words of Ugandan activists like Sexual Minorities Uganda, led by Frank Mugisha, aren’t ringing around the world and there isn’t a clamour to support them. Instead everyone is sharing the umpteenth petition from AllOut.org, an American organisation which has already demonstrated that it has a shaky understanding of what’s happening at best while turning the situation into a fundraising opportunity. As you’ll see from that link, it’s not exactly the most transparent organisation when it comes to how it spends its money, much of which comes from donations. AllOut’s own website notes that:

All Out is a combined effort of two organizations - Purpose Action, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit advocacy organization focused on changing policy, and Purpose Foundation, a related 501(c)(3) charitable organization focused on education and changing culture.

Purpose Action had revenue of $1.78 million in 2012 and spent $334,657 campaigning for gay marriage in America and on engaging ‘more than 1,000,000 people globally on LGBT equality issues’. The latter presumably means…e-petitions. There is nothing about grants to organisations within countries like Uganda, Russia or Cameroon which give AllOut its most high-profile campaigns. It spent over $200,000 on ‘campaigner fees and expenses’ and ‘website and technology’ costs, and over $120,000 on the salary of its President.

Then there is Purpose Foundation which had revenue of over $1,000,000 and spent $1.2 million. Over $500,000 of this was on salaries and, again, ‘campaigner fees and expenses’ and ‘website and technology’ claim over $300,000. 

Where things get really interesting is with the existence of a third organisation - Purpose Campaigns LLC. This is a consultancy firm which is FOR-PROFIT. It claims credit for AllOut, as well as Avaaz, on its website, where it also lists clear links with the World Economic Forum renowned for its Davos meetings of the world elite. Fascinatingly, both Purpose Action and Purpose Foundation employed Purpose Campaigns for ‘contracted services’ of over $120,000 (that I can see). All three organisations may share board members but don’t fret - apparently these people ‘did not participate’ in the decisions to hire themselves. Phew!

Even more fascinatingly, Purpose Campaigns were paid almost $400,000 by American billionaire conservative Pete Peterson to scaremonger about the American deficit and fuel his interests in dismantling Medicaid and other ‘safety net’ programmes. As that last link surmises, they appear to have been hired precisely because their progressive image made them a Trojan horse for the message - and that public image relies overwhelmingly on sites like Avaaz and AllOut.

It’s clear, then, that the people behind these sites not only have a massive material interest in pushing them but do almost nothing substantial in order to support the activists around the world whom they raise funds on the back of. If the neo-imperialistic overtones of these e-petitions weren’t clear before, they certainly are now. It should also be clear that e-petitions aren’t necessarily ‘doing something’. They aren’t necessarily useful. They aren’t necessarily informative or educational. They can be the cynical tools of clever people who get rich from them. Next time you read about something in some far-off country which shocks you, don’t click on the inevitable e-petition link. Go do some reading of your own and, if you truly want to help, devote time to educating yourself about the situation and what helping really means.

20 February 2014

Which Disney Princess Are You? Geeks, Gays and Misogyny

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I’ve written previously about a perceived ‘descent into infantile triviality’ where a seemingly pathological aversion to being viewed as ‘too serious’ manifests itself in particular as a ‘facetious fixation on popular culture (which) flows neatly into consumerism’. Nothing better sums up this trend than the explosion in the past 12 months of sites like Buzzfeed, built almost entirely around lists and gifs which offer jolts of recognition to personalities overwhelmingly built around particular aspects of culture. Interestingly, the particular identity which much of this seems to revolve around is that of the ‘geek’. This perhaps isn’t surprising, as this is not only an identity overwhelmingly based on consumption but also one which relies heavily on gif-able culture for its existence.

While this is a general trend, I wrote last year about how this particular identity was becoming the dominant subculture in what we know as ‘gay culture’. This makes sense when you think about the ways in which this serves capital and how they neatly complement the increasing positioning of the LGBT community as both a market and a marketing tool. It’s been no surprise, then, that even since I wrote the ‘Gay Geeks’ blog I’ve noticed a dramatic upsurge in the prevalence of what I described. It also increasingly converges: this morning one of the first things I saw on my Facebook was a link to ‘Disney Princesses as Game of Thrones Characters’ while Push The Button, a gay night devoted to semi-ironic love for c-grade 90s pop, is soon having an evening devoted to The Little Mermaid. The Disneyfication of the geek identity has been fascinating to watch (and is clearly something Buzzfeed has picked up on) but it has ominous undercurrents with regards to a geek culture which is often accused of misogyny (it almost entirely seems to revolve around Disney Princesses). When you take the Gay Geek there are further levels of disquiet, with the issues levelled at the geek identity potentially being compounded by the accusations that misogyny is prevalent amongst gay males. If we look at the markers of the Gay Geek, aside from Disney Princesses, comics, video games, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who and the rest you commonly see a love for Ru Paul’s Drag Race present. It’s impossible not to notice that all of these things have problems with their representations of women who, in pretty much all of them, are sexy and sassy while ultimately being in thrall to the brilliant men around them. This is most explicit in Drag Race, where a group of men act out this sassy fantasy and find it reproduced by viewers around the world (with added racial issues as white men unthinkingly do impressions of black female stereotypes).

I thought of this when reading the Rohin Guha piece on gay male misogyny which has caused a minor storm in some circles. Guha notes that, in certain gay subcultures, women are:

…essentially unwelcome, unless they come to us as a Real Housewife, a pop diva, or an Tony award winner–or an unassuming fag hag. To anyone just coming out of the closet and hoping to get his bearings in the gay male community, the attitude towards women is simple: They are just objects whose function is to serve gay men. 

The fit between this and the Gay Geek identity is startling and finds its perfect expression in HBO’s new ‘gay drama’ Looking. The main character is a self-identified geek who designs video games. When he’s not talking about sex with his friends, they exchange self-consciously sassy references to popular culture. His date purchases him trading cards based on 80s movie The Goonies to impress him. While this is going on, women are almost entirely absent from the lives of the central characters. They appear to have a single female friend who is a gay man’s fantasy of a fag hag, always on hand to go drinking and always willing to sit quietly in the lounge while you bring over your Grindr shag. The only other females who have even had lines have been a snooty artist who sacks one of the guys and a chef who refuses to help kick-start the restaurant dream of another. This treatment (absence, largely) of women has been one of the most egregious aspects of the show yet I’ve not seen a single mention of it in any review.

It’s interesting that the attacks on Guha’s piece seem to come from a place of ‘but women shouldn’t even be in gay places and they touch us and treat us like accessories too!’ Aside from the absurd pre-school nature of ‘they started it!’, I find this deeply disingenuous. There is certainly a damaging instrumentalisation of gay people as ‘liberal accessories’ but it’s one in which the entire gay media and community is very complicit. We fall over ourselves to adore straight ‘allies’ who praise gay people (Attitude giving Caitlin Moran an ‘Honorary Gay Award’), even when it’s done in the most patronising and offensive ways. Our gay magazines feature an endless parade of attractive straight men in their pants (I wonder if the writer of the linked Huffington Post piece would take issue with an attractive straight ‘gay ally’ like Ben Cohen being present in ‘his’ gay clubs) and we barely bat an eyelid at Lady Gaga’s adoption of ‘the gays’ as her ‘cause’ or Britney Spears referring to her gay fans as ‘somewhat girls’. No, this defence smacks of people being called out on their behaviour and being outraged (even if we accepted the defences offered, they depict nothing so much as deeply dysfunctional relationships which apparently are fine unless someone actually dares to point out how fucked up they are.)

Misogyny is clearly real and there’s no reason that gay men would be excluded from that. What makes this particularly worthy of commentary is that we seem to think of gay men and women as natural allies and so think we couldn’t possibly be misogynist. Yet I think it’s very present – and with the rise of the Gay Geek it’s being expressed in over more subtly damaging ways. Facing this problem is but one way in which we can educate ourselves, avoid the ‘infantile triviality’ and progress to a position where we can start to challenge these issues.

Themed by Hunson. Originally by Josh