Oxford, England. Thunder boomed, lightning flashed and the rain came tumbling down. The English summer is never one for predictably and climate change just makes that all worse. A brief cycle home and I was drenched, my second shower for the day. It was five o’ clock in the afternoon and there was going to be a vigil in Radcliffe Square for the victims of the homophobic terrorist attack in Orlando. More thunder, more lightning, more rain. The Orlando attack was deeply distressing. It is sad to see people robbed of their lives by atrocious acts of violence and it is sad to see the queer community targeted simply because people want to be free to love whoever they wish. However, I’d seen photos of the vigil in Soho, London, and there had been thousands of people standing in silence, in tears and in solidarity, and this gave me hope.
A few hours later I put my waterproof jacket on, jumped back on my bike and head into town. But the jacket was unnecessary because the clouds were breaking and beyond, even at half past seven, the sun was shining. The view of the changing sky was staggering punctured by the sandstone spires of Oxford University. I arrived at Radcliffe Square where hundreds of people had gathered outside the Radcliffe Camera (the only building in Oxford’s skyline that looks more like a booby than a penis). So many people. Like any community, the queer one can be both brilliant and difficult. Great friendships can be forged but so can cliques. Certain groups come to identify themselves apart from others and ‘politics’ can arise. However, that evening we were gathered for something so much greater than ourselves, we were gathered in solidarity for the victims of Orlando and for queer people all over the world.
A quote from the facebook event reads as this: “LGBTQ people have long been and continue to be the victims of violence and hatred in the places where we try to seek safety. The fact that this attack happened on Latinx night, and that so many of the victims were Latinx reminds us that queer people of colour are disproportionately at risk of violent hate crimes. On Wednesday evening we will come together outside the Radcliffe Camera to remember the lives of the victims of this attack; we will mourn the violence that seeks to destroy our communities. There is no space at this vigil for Islamophobia or racism. We will not be silent in the face of hatred, we will stand together and support one another as we have always done in times of crisis.”
People gave speeches, the names of the victims were read out and a two-minute silence was held. Someone in front of me began to cry and someone next to them gave them a hug – I don’t think they knew each other. There were families there too and heterosexual people, distressed at the attack and supporting their queer friends. Then a beautifully voiced choir sang Seasons of Love from the musical Rent and Somewhere Over The Rainbow. What ace songs. It’s such a shame that it sometimes takes tragedy to bring us together but those moments of unity are exceptionally powerful, and even though I went by myself to the vigil I did not feel alone. Humans have always lived in difficult times and this remains true today. My hope is that the sentiment of belonging to something so much bigger than ourselves – a community of fighters, lovers, queers and allies that runs back throughout history and will run always into the future – will continue to bring us closer together in a time when division is not an option.
Debt and money, two mainstays of human economies for many hundreds of years. Even without money people can still get in debt: with debt creating a two (or more) way relationship between a debtor and creditor, between the person owing something and the person who leant it. Without cash people might end up paying off their debt by giving hours of their labour, their property or their body. Money just facilitates this process, whether it’s cash in hand or digits on a screen. Because money and debt have been instrumental in human societies for so long it’s hardly surprising that their impacts have stretched far beyond the economic realm. They are also interwoven in our language and relationships.
Take the word ‘should’ for instance. “I really should go to the gym today,” “You really should be nicer to people,” etc. It’s used to indicate obligation, duty or correctness, often in moral situations which concern how we treat other people but also in more mundane situations like getting fit and eating less junk food. Etymologically speaking it relates to the Old English scyld which means ‘guilt’, the German schuld which means ‘guilt‘ and ‘debt’, and the Lithuanian skeleit ‘to be guilty’ and skilti ‘to get into debt’. Thus, a simple word such as should has origins in both finance and morality, in both debt and guilt. Similarly for the verb to owe which we use both financially (“you owe me £5”) and personally (“you owe me a favour”), its history can be found in the Sanskirt ise ‘he owns’ and isah ‘owner, lord, ruler’, and the Old English phrase agan to geldanne ‘to own to yield’ (or ‘to have to repay’). These are two instances of the fusion of the financial and personal. It seems money and relationships go hand in hand.
In a previous post I commented on the book Debt by David Graeber – he highlights the history of debt and also the violence that goes with it. In many instances debt is a threat because those who don’t pay their debts are threatened with so much, e.g. a jail sentence, physical violence, being shunned. Graeber also traces the history to some of the ultimate debtor/creditor relationships, namely masters and slaves, in which the latter owed everything to the former – namely, their lives. This is hardly a happy history and certainly not a peaceful one, and it continues today. Slavery might be abolished (yet still practiced widely) but we still have to give up our time to get money from people with much more of it than us so we can afford life’s necessities. Worse still, because wages can be so bad we often have to take out loans and get in debt to banks to actually be able to buy these things. And when the system stumbles (as it does at every economic crash) the bailiffs come knocking and the reckoning is upon us – we have to pay off our debts one way or another or face the consequences. Jessie J knows all about this as is evidenced in her song Price Tag
“Seems like everyone’s got a price” she sings, in a world where “the sale comes first and the truth comes second.” And isn’t that a shame, that even in non-economic spheres of life, such as friendships, relationships, socialising etc, the ‘logic’ and discourse of money are still so powerful, even though one hopes that these spheres shouldn’t be predicated on the implied threat of violence. Jessie J hopes for something different, a world that’s “not all about the money.” She thinks it’s high time money and economics were put back in their place – an ambitious stance given we have a lot of reconceputalising to do, what with the money discourse being everywhere. But she knows we can do it and she knows that our relationships will be better off for it. “Forget about the price tags,” she sings: “We’ll pay ’em with love tonight.” And I wonder what an economy of love would look like…tbc.
A one night stand with One Direction might sound like a dream come true for some (or many) but the lyrics to their song Perfect provide a multitude of reasons why it would be better to stay at home. You have been warned, by the 1D lads themselves.
Celebrity’s a funny thing right – I mean, all the 1D boys have to do is sing quite well and look conventionally quite good and we’ll do the rest: we’ll ascribe them all sorts of qualities that they may or may not have (honour, loyalty, intelligence), we’ll venerate them and we might even let them get away with the metaphorical equivalent of murder. But the 1D guys are good enough to acknowledge this, they know that with platinum selling records and their faces plastered on billboards and posters they are basically the 21st century equivalent of gods. They know our culture worships celebrity, especially if those celebrities sing pop songs, that’s why they come with a warning.
Thus, Perfect – “I might never be your knight in shining armour, I might never be the one you take home to mother, and I might never be the one who brings you flowers” – OK, ditch the fairytale fantasies these guys aren’t going to faff around with chocolates and wine (seriously, why would they waste the cash when all they’ve got to do is wink and hundreds will rush to their beds). “And if you like midnight driving with the windows down [hmm, sounds a little dangerous], And if you like going places we can’t even pronounce [Worcestershire perhaps, or Billericay]…I might never be the hands you put your heart in [yup, no blood sacrifices or organ donations necessary, they’re not pagan gods after all] Or the arms that hold you any time you want them [they’re being explicit here – they don’t do affection]…And if you like cameras flashing every time we go out [WARNING – one night of bliss with 1D = being all over the internet forever, something their career thrives off but yours might not], and if you’re looking for someone to write your break-up songs about [probable dig at Taylor Swift here from Harry Styles – further warning, don’t be an independent, successful woman who plans on standing up for herself].” So they make it pretty clear what they don’t do – affection, respect and safe driving – but what do they do?
They do like causing trouble in hotel rooms and the video shows them needlessly chucking their luggage at elevators and kicking footballs around the hotel lobby – what about the other guests!? They do like a secret little rendezvous, although it won’t be so secret if the paparazzi have anything to do with it. And they can do some loving “from time to time”, emphasis on the infrequency. So, yeah, basically 1D are promising one awesome night of passion and maybe the occasional quickie afterwards. “Girl, I hope you’re sure, what you’re looking for, cause I’m not good at making promises” – so you have been warned from the horses’ mouths themselves – succumb to their coiffed celebrity charm and you might end up on the front of a tabloid and mocked in a subsequent number 1 hit. But one thing you most certainly will not get is a second chance. Thanks guys but I’m afraid I’m a “Not Attending” for tonight.
Grace, the Australian singer, recently covered Lesley Gore’s ace 1963 single You Don’t Own Me and it sure gets the feminist feet stomping. Each inspiring verse is interspersed with some sexist thoughts from rapper G-Eazy (Sl-Eazy more like it) as he tries to assert his male dominance over the woman he “would love to flaunt” as she’s not one of your average “basic bitches”. Indeed, she’s the “baddest ever…Never borrow, she ain’t ever loan, That’s when she told me she ain’t ever ever ever gonna be owned.” Then Grace blasts back with a booming chorus and puts Mr Misogynist back in his place. But all this singing of possession makes me wonder exactly what ownership actually is?
Why is it that Grace needs to assert that someone else does not own her? How could the scenario even have arisen in which people come to think that they actually own others? Part of the answer (and I reckon quite a big part) is, unsurprisingly, to do with money. As a brief scan of anthropologist David Graeber’s 500+ page book called Debt reveals, money has played an integral part of human society for hundreds of years. Economists tend to tell us that money came into being when barter systems got too confusing – if I give you ten oranges, three pigeons and a mug in return for a pair of shoes, two bananas and a kitten…but instead of all that faffing about with oranges and bananas a different system of exchange was introduced whereby something came to act as a store of value. It could be a coin, a rod of iron or a piece of paper, as long as everyone agreed that the values remained consistent and commensurate over time.
But, argues Graeber, that fictional land of peaceful and friendly barter didn’t exist, as least not on a large-scale. Instead, he argues that money grew out of debt. Take the Roman Empire for example – when they invaded a new territory they would often turn their captives into slaves. Slavery is the ultimate form of ownership as it rips someone from their social context and ties them to someone else. The alternative to being enslaved was basically death or slowly, slowly buying back one’s freedom by working long and hard enough. A slave owed their life to their master but only because the master had the power. Money itself is also debt. On a £10 note it says: “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the some of ten pounds.” The actual piece of paper is worthless but it’s what it stands for – i.e. that these items or services are all worth £10. Money is one giant system of IOUs. However, it’s clearly not an arbitrary system because there’s a whole system of banking, policing and law-making to ensure that people pay their debts.
So, concludes Graeber, behind money is debt and behind debt is power, and the history accords with this – the economic power of the Roman Empire depended on its military strength because it had to have a way of enforcing its debts, having a giant army helped with this. And something similar is true today, only those with power can call in their debts and this power usually involves violence or the threat of it. G-Eazy says that Grace is an independent woman “All because she got her own dough, Boss bossed if you don’t know, She could never ever be a broke ho”. And that certainly is one way of getting out of slavery, by making lots of money, but humans existed long before money and whilst we do put a price on freedom and maintain that price with force it’s still just a system of belief, albeit a very powerful and tragic one. But maybe there’s a different way. More ideas to come, in the meantime here’s the original, without G-Eazy offering us his sexist thoughts in between the good bits.
“Are you ready?” asks Demi Lovato at the start of her new song, Confident. And I am, I’m ready for an ass-kicking video in which two brilliant women take on the structural oppression of the patriarchy in style. “I used to hold my freak back, Now I’m letting go, I make my own choice, Yeah I run this show.” And boy, is it one heck of a showdown…
The video starts with Lovato locked up in a high security prison. A dubious looking man in a suit arrives in a small armada of black cars – I reckon he’s FBI or government or something. He offers Lovato freedom if she takes out Michelle Rodriguez (of Resident Evil and Fast & Furious Fame). She signs the dotted line and then gets branded (as the patriarchy quite literally burns its power-to-oppress into her skin), booted and armed with big guns. A bunch of suited men escort her to Rodriguez who suddenly reveals she’s also working for dubious-suit-man. Poor Lovato, her day just went from bad to worse – first a tattoo made of fire, now she’s been double crossed, followed by an ass-whooping from Rodriguez who sure knows how to land a punch.
Lovato is scapegoated as a traitor and sent straight back to prison on a bus. A daring escape with a shotgun puts her face to face with Rodriguez again. Another showdown ensues, all the while being watched by dubious-suit-man and a bunch of grinning, male croons. But then it happens – the moment before Rodriguez whacks another punch into Lovato’s face she spots Lovato’s branding, one she has too. And they finally figure it out: women shouldn’t be pitted against one another at the whim of male oppressors, instead women can team up to tackle institutionalised discrimination and smash that glass ceiling to smithereens. Cue Rodriguez’s jeep smashing through the wall of dubious-suit-man’s hideout and the big climax. Lovato and Rodriguez win, obviously. “What’s wrong with being confident?” asks Lovato in the song and it’s clearly a rhetorical question because when Lovato gets her confident on she’s fricking awesome.
So, it’s here, Hello, Adele’s title track for her latest album 25, coming out on 20th November (yup, 27 days). And it’s a blast: the simple notes of a piano lead us in, then Adele’s voice joins the mix and we’re treated to a couple of minutes on an emotional rollercoaster. The lyrics belie a simple yet profound story of heartbreak and loss as Adele reaches out to a former lover to apologise for breaking his heart. She wants to meet him again to talk about the times they spent together, to say sorry to him and to revel in the sepia tone memories of their love. So Hello proves to be a ballad and an ode to nostalgia, a time that was. But is Adele really going to remain stuck in the past?
She describes 25 as her ‘make-up album’ – “I’m making up with myself. Making up for lost time. Making up for everything I ever did and never did. But I haven’t got time to hold on to the crumbs of my past like I used to. What’s done is done.” She talks about the flippancy of her teenage years, when the future “didn’t matter then like it does now” and life seemed not to have consequences. “Even following and breaking rules…is better than making the rules.” And isn’t nostalgia fascinating, how those memories from so long ago can still be so potent, wrapped as they are in our emotions and feelings. When life gets tough and we have to start growing up it’s nice to return to those times without consequences, if we were privileged enough to have them. To that time of naivety, before we had to get our heads around capitalism, economic recession and climate change. Yet the past, whilst a nice place to visit on occasion, is a dangerous place to live especially because it doesn’t really exist. Our memories are notoriously fallible and we often add fiction and fantasy to our histories. We put on rose-tinted spectacles in order to remember the good bits whilst detagging the bad and boring bits. Surely there’s got to be more to life than trying to vicariously re-experience what’s gone?
Adele, as brilliantly wise as she is, already knows that there is. Gone are the days of wanting to be older, of wanting more, of wanting something else, of wishing life away, of wishing she’d done things differently, of “wishing I’d waited and wishing I’d hurried up as well.” Instead she’s deciding to grow up and be the person she wants to be, aged 25: “teetering on the edge of being an old adolescent and a fully fledged adult, I made the decision to go into becoming who I’m going to be forever without a removal van full of my old junk.” Yes, she says she misses everything about her past, the good and the bad, “but only because it won’t come back” – and that’s nostalgia, longing for something that’s passed. So maybe Hello is also a farewell, a fond wave at the memories twinned with a letting go, letting them fade from Technicolor to sepia tone. Maybe it’s time to give a friendly two fingers to nostalgia and get living instead (probably not to the tune of Hello though, no, that one’s for those indulge-in-nostalgia moments).
The song Black Magic by Little Mix promises so much: how to make your fella notice you more, how to get him on side and how to make him stay. “All the girls on the block knocking at my door,” sing the band, “Wanna know what it is make the boys want more.” This all female pop quartet is offering the answer to true love – the Holy Grail of relationships. When it comes to finding Mr Right Little Mix know exactly what to do, they possess the secret to finding true love. It can’t get much better than that right? Well, it doesn’t, because Little Mix’s sneaky satire reveals that hopeless romantics are hopeless for a reason and the chorus tells us exactly why.
For those seeking love Little Mix offer a “secret potion” and “a spell that can’t be broken”. All you need is one drop and a single sip will ensure the drinker falls madly in love with you. And the name of this recipe, well, it’s called Black Magic.
That’s right, magic. It turns out that magic is the only way to produce true love. Of course, Little Mix, being the great 21st satirist’s that they are, know magic doesn’t exist which means that the logical conclusion of this song is that true love doesn’t exist either. It’s a bleak take on romance and relationships as Little Mix deny the very existence of that thing so many people crave and seek. All those adverts, posters and films about romance and love are rendered terrible lies now that Little Mix have exposed the truth – love makes about as much sense as reading tea leaves.
We live in dark times – climate change, a Conservative government, Mission Impossible 5 – and now Little Mix have added yet another cloud to the storm. Their nihilism jars with the catchy nature of the song but the bitter truth is there in the words – true love is nothing but a fantasy. To quote a fellow cultural commentator, “this is the moment when Little Mix looked into the void and the void looked back.”
The video to Sigma’s latest long ft. Ella Henderson, Glitterball (see below), consists of a group of people going swimming in the sea. This isn’t your usual Brighton family holiday, no, it’s a group of conventionally good-looking and toned young people larking about. The women wear bikinis, squeeze each other’s bums, hug frequently, and show a lot of cleavage, whilst the guys, well the guys tend to be wearing quite a lot of clothes with perhaps the odd flash of six-pack in the background. So why, given that there are a plethora of semi-naked bodies and a roughly even gender split in the video, couldn’t they have objectified the men as much as the women?
We’ve been conditioned to view women’s bodies in a certain way on-screen whilst men’s bodies are often treated very differently. Blurred Lines, the infamous Robin Thicke song, epitomised this attitude with a terribly misogynistic and sexist video (and that’s saying nothing about the lyrics). However, it’s interesting to watch a parody version of the video (see below) in which the female models are replaced by men in g-strings and tiny underwear. It seems there’s something a little ridiculous about men having little stop signs stuck to their bottoms and dancing so provocatively, whilst it was presented as almost ‘normal’ for women to be treated and viewed in this way in the original video. At least that’s what I think we’re being made to believe – that treating women like this is OK and when it’s guys it’s just quite silly and comic.
The feminist film critique Laura Mulvey calls this phenomenon the male gaze – the way in which visual arts are structured around a masculine viewer. A guy (usually white, cisgendered and heterosexual) isn’t going to want to see a video of a man rubbing sun tan lotion into his six-pack or bending over to pick up his beach towel, no, he wants women to do that, or at least that is what the relentlessly objectifying world of music videos and advertising tells us. Equality is a long way off and sexism towards women is just part of the culture.
So there’s a long way to go until men and women are equally objectified in music videos (come on guys, time we stripped off and started massaging ourselves provocatively) and even further still until people aren’t objectified at all (because people are people, not just bodies). Until then here’s Marina and The Diamonds evening the scales a little…