Monthly Archives: February 2009

The Seldom Seen Kid

After beginning this post twice about a different record only to have my attempts thwarted by the goblins which dwell in my computer, I took it as a sign that I should review something else. My original designs were for The Acorn‘s Glory Hope Mountain in an attempt to promote their appearance (rather incongruously) as support for Elbow on their imminent tour. Instead, I shall take a swipe at The Seldom Seen Kid as a marked contrast. The Mercury Music Prize has recently destroyed any faith I had in the residual justice of the music industry, by consistently rewarding musical atrocities since 2006 in a manner not dissimilar to the praise lavished upon the British architectural misdemeanors of the 1960s. In 2006, The Artic Monkeys prompted the domino effect, in demolishing more worthy competition, followed by the Klaxons‘ 2007 selection over Bat For Lashes and New Young Pony Club, and the trend continued in 2008 with Elbow‘s victory over the likes of Laura Marling. Had they been victorious with the brilliant Asleep in the Back in 2001, an incredibly tough year, I would have been more forgiving, but The Seldom Seen Kid is simply not of the same calibre.

Opening with a wholly inappropriate racket, “Starlings” then morphs into Lemon Jelly holidaying in Hawaii, and is further perverted by the frequent protests of an intrusive brass section (causing me to wince on the street), all before the lyrics make an attempt to gain control of the song. What appears to be striving to be a pleasant “Ode to a Mystery Woman” finds only a Byronic hero in its quest for literariness. The track is littered with supposed compliments such as “You are the only thing in any room you’re ever in”, which is destroyed by its objectifying tendencies. On being subjected to the line “Darling, is this love?” my thorough repulsion screamed for itself. Improving slightly with “The Bones of You” in a regression to the tonal quality of Asleep in the Back only the lyrical clumsiness and unecessary distortion are damaging. The highlights consist entirely of the gently reflective “Mirrorball”.

Everything is downhill from there. Beyond an attempt to construct a narrative from the remaining song titles, I don’t feel that any further commentary on the matter is either worthwhile or enjoyable. If a musical cocktail were to be created called “Grounds for Divorce”, it would need only to contain this record. Only a lesbian “Audience with the Pope” could be more awkward, particularly without good “Weather to Fly” home. Saying that, I now believe that I am at one with “The Lonliness of a Tower Crane Driver” whose banshee impersonation is beyond compare, and in need of “The Fix” which may only come from elsewhere. “Some Riot” would undoubtedly result if this were played in a prison perpetually “On A Day Like This”, and it would never become a “Friend of Ours”.

Glory Hope Mountain is rather spectacular, as are The Acorn, and a number of Elbow‘s other records; do buy those instead. Follow the links.

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Good and feminist things are happening in the world

There seems to have been a spate of small feminist victories around the world of late, which I would like to share with you here as an antidote to the usual Friday vitriol (though fear not, regular readers, the patriarchy looms large, and you can bet the Times Women Section is never far from secreting some new toxic bile for analysis in our lablogatory).

First up, this story on CNN about a 12-year old girl who managed to convince her entire village in Africa of the humanitarian horrors of female genital mutilation. Starting with her dad, who initially had reservations at the idea that women ought to be given the right to their own basic bodily sovereignty, she managed to convince the whole village that Female Genital Mutilation is incompatible with a basic human rights and a vaguely decent view of the world. At the age of 12!

Next, this highly-recommended documentary about the Gulabi Gang, a maverick and growing group of women in Northern India who refuse to tolerate the misogynistic treatment handed out to them every day under the guise of culture. The Gulabi Gang, armed with sticks and an admirable intolerance for bullshit in any form, rescue abused women, make sure poor people are being fed, and generally advocate and enforce the right of females in their community to be treated as human beings. The fact that their uniform is bright pink isn’t so nauseating either, when the narrator explains that all the other colours were taken by political parties, and the Gulabi Gang (‘Gulabi’ means ‘pink’) wanted to remain non-partisan.

Thirdly – no link to this one so you will have to take my word for it – I attended a lecture organized by the Oxford University Queer Studies Circle recently, which was part of the launch party for the new Agendered magazine. The talk was given by Professor Deborah Cameron, a specialist in corpus linguistics, on the subject of sexuality in the media. An entirely feminist subject for the launch of a feminist magazine, and the room was so packed (with women and men, of various orientations) that they had to put up a sign (after sneaking everyone they possibly could into the building) saying that the event was full. This feminist event is full. I never thought I would see the day!

So, conclusive proof that the world of feminism in the 21st century is not all doom and gloom.

Anyone else got any to add to the list?

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March of the Zapotec and Holland

Darlings of the music blogosphere Beirut officially released their latest record yesterday, bearing the snappy moniker ‘March of the Zapotec and Realpeople Holland’ (at least, that’s what iTunes tells me – such a caveat seems necessary when quoting from something which apparently classes Le Tigre, Bjork, and Stereolab as Blues). Something of a musical diptych, the album is split into 6 tracks conceived during Zach Condon’s trip to Mexico, where he enlisted the collaboration of a 17-piece Mexican funeral band, and 5 electronica tracks culled as the choicest of his bedroom noodlings. The overall effect could euphemistically be described as subtle, which is to say that fans who found themselves choked by the breath-catching melodies and blissfully ensconced in the tonal layerings of ‘Postcards From Italy’ or ‘Sunday Smile’ will be left with the feeling of having witnessed the musical equivalent of a Benjamin Button. In fact, only one of the songs from this EP was written in the pre-Beirut days, but the album has the feeling of a talented composer sparking around with motifs and ideas without yet being able to ignite them into any strikingly meaningful arrangement. This is a record that fizzles more than flames; even the Europoppier numbers have all the emotional clout of the final credits of a SNES adventure.

If this record were being scrutinised on another day of the week, attention might be drawn to the recurring theme of prostitutes and wives in a disappointingly telling nod to the stifling dichotomies present on the record at every level of its conception: electronica vs.brass, syncopated folk rhythms vs. straightforward dance beats, voice vs. Instruments. Lines such as ‘and once her eyes filled with flies’ reveal more than a passing debt to Neutral Milk Hotel, who also perfected the art of ‘sonic tourism’ (i.e. stealing the authentic sound of Balkan brass and rendering it acceptable to the Western market by filtering it through an American indie lens) back when Zach Condon was still reading Marimba For Dummies. Condon’s half-spat morose baritone, too, has less of a whiff and more of a full-on nasal onslaught of Jeff Mangum – which was forgivable when Beirut were crafting such achingly lush alt-folk pop with the tools magpied from Neutral Milk Hotel, along with Magnetic Fields and ethnic folk. Now, however, I find myself doing verbal gymnastics of Olypmian proportions simply to get through this review using a kinder word than ‘derivative’.

What conspires against this record may be a combination of too much clarity and not enough purpose; the production largely brings Condon’s voice into the foreground, meaning he has had to formulate intelligible syllables instead of that river-thick, muddied slurring that gave the vocals on ‘Postcards From Italy’ their swamp-like charm. The circumstances of the record, though, don’t allow for this energy to be focussed effectively enough (the first 6 tracks were destined to form a soundtrack to a movie that never happened; the other 5 were private explorations that were apparently done to ‘cleanse the palette’ after a hard day’s recording with Beirut; imagine Virginia Woolf winding down with The Sun crossword). The result is a record full of brass promises jingling nicely enough but leading nowhere in particular; trumpets that were sure they had a point. Highlights include the cautiously-measured ‘La Llorona’ and the ‘Scenic World’-esque ‘My Wife, Lost in the World’, which carries some of the sustained mournful swellings so characteristic of ‘Gulag Orkestar’, as well as what feel like the beginnings of an uncanny knack for cadence. Evolution is truly a beautiful thing, but in this case, it feels like we already witnessed the apotheosis and are now firmly in the territory of a retrospective ‘Making-Of’.

Don’t take my word for it – buy the record here.

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Substitute for Love?

Again I turn the virtual pages of the “women” section of The Times in outrage, as, encouraged to “explore women” I find only articles about “love”, “relationships”, “families”, “beauty”, and “fashion” – all of which (however unsurprisingly) exhibit strong conservative bias. Incidentally, the selection for men is a little broader, spanning “science and technology” and “politics” whilst neglecting the inclusion of handy little tags by which one may easily locate the lifestyle advice required. The implicit assumption is that men may more easily navigate the expansive terrain of the broadsheet with inherent technological mastery extrapolated from the ease with which they used to “man-handle” the “man-sized” pages (even Kleenex have ceased to believe that men require larger tissues). It is not the categories in themselves to which I object, but rather to the gendered groupings and prevailing heterosexist bias.

One article which understandably drew my attention was by Zoe Lewis, a self-confessed former-feminist (I shall leave you to judge the truth of this statement) and aspiring playwright. After reading the article I remain unsure as to what this supposed “Madonna syndrome”, beyond a shameless conflation of the subject matter of her two plays, represents. I never thought that I would be framing a defence of Madonna on any terms, but I am similarly baffled as to how she is to be blamed for Ms. Lewis’s unhappiness. Apparently “Madonna sells [her lead character – and I’m not one to biographise but go figure] the ultimate dream” which is that “[she] can do anything – be anything – go girl”. For me, the inclusion of “girl” at the close of this mantra is fundamental to Lewis’s line of argument in that she firmly subscribes to raving essentialism and actually believes that she has been ultimately betrayed by her own biology (and her lack of success has nothing at all to do with the competitiveness of the industry). The endowment of the “bullish woman” (Madonna) with the ability to allow the women in question to be “strong and sexy” is itself rather curious, since it is suddenly Madonna and not the mother sprung from the Women’s Liberation Movement who “has encouraged [them] to chase a fantasy” and prompted the “huge disappointment” at its failure. Neither is it clear how the “feminism espoused by [Lewis’s] mother” is “flaunted by Madonna”, who despite her recent divorce has both a thriving career and children, but this may be owing either to Lewis’s own confusion as to what constitutes feminism or her jealousy at being unable to juggle.

She naively asserts that “being a free woman isn’t all it’s cracked up to be”, but is it possible to consider somebody who invests so heavily in traditional gender roles and genetic predestination to be in any sense free? Lewis has apparently “sacrificed all [her] womanly duties” (emphasis mine) and set everything “at the altar of a career” which has then failed so she blames the sacrifice and not the action. She shows little indication beyond the statement of having been “imbued…with the great values of choice, equality and sexual liberation” and instead laments the unborn children and unfound “Mr. Right” (emphasis mine). Whilst acknowledging that she “may be an extreme case” she cites data from the General Household Survey in support of her being generally representative of womenkind in that “the number of unmarried women under 50 has more than doubled over the past 30 years. And by the age of 30, one in five of these “freemales”, who have chosen independence over husband and family, has gone through a broken cohabitation”. Her assumption that the surveyed women share her regrets is unfounded and unlikely to be the result of a stampede of Doc Martens. The “more balanced view of womanhood” was available to her, and Lewis just chose not to see it; as a subscriber to the masculine/feminine dichotomy the choice is simple: career/family.

She is quite right that life is “about understanding what is important in” and certainly in noting that “loving relationships” may deliver happiness, but her preconceptions as to the rigid forms these must take are misguided. Everything she did appears to have been in an attempt to please men: she “thought that men would love independent, strong women” only to discover that “they don’t appear to” and concludes that men “are programmed to like their women soft and feminine” and that while it may not be their fault “it’s in the genes”. This category of “the feminine” is, in fact, socially constructed and the idea of a genetic attraction to it is absurd (she says nothing of the existence of other sexual preferences or gender performances, for example). Lewis feels as though she is her own worst enemy, which is, in my opinion, correct (as she is ours), but whilst she insists that it is because she tried to ignore the “instinct that makes [her] a woman” I suggest that it is precisely because she believes in its existence. Certainly, women have the biological capability to have children, but that doesn’t automatically mean that they are driven to have them nor does it mean that they must find “Mr. Right” (emphasis mine). In short, her view is quite simple: woman seeks man with whom she is biologically programmed to live happily ever after with a selection of heterosexual children (all of whom get progressively fatter as a result of cookies baked with love) and feminism is equality of lifestyle/career choice between women (housewife is as valued as lawyer) and domestic equality with men.

The “finite time” of which she speaks is not only in which “to be mothers” but to live, and the “clock starts ticking” not when one tumbles over the hill and begins the avalanche of middle-age, but at birth. It is not a waste of time to show anybody that we are all equal although it may be if we continue to pursue such a narrow definition of equality as the one Zoe Lewis exhibits. Oh, and now one final question: does feminism have to be a substitute for love?

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Blood Bank

Bon Iver released Blood Bank on January 20th following last year’s For Emma, Forever Ago.  Quite frankly, I don’t understand this EP and I don’t wish to try.  It vacillates between nonsensical piano and what may only be described as an incomprehensible tribute to Boyz II Men’s torturous rendition of Smoky Robinson‘s ‘Tracks of My Tears’ minced through dysfunctional vocal software while somebody recorded the screams of a victim on the rack behind the band.  This is only slightly unjust with respect to ‘Beach Baby’ which without the flu-ridden slide guitar could quite comfortably have been tagged on to the chilling For Emma, Forever Ago which I love.  If you have any sense, buy the album instead because you will be able to listen  to it comfortably more than (almost) once, and it won’t feel like blood-letting in the process.

 

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Riding from Barcelona with Balloons in your Pocket

Three quick tracks off my iPod shuffle for your aural pleasure this week, since Lauren is visiting and I need to be on a bus across town five minutes ago on this snowy, watery night.

Joan as Policewoman – The Ride

When I look at the name of this band (the moniker for the musical outpourings of Joan Wasser), my eyes can’t help but be drawn to that line-up of vowels, the persistent ‘o’s and ‘a’s parading through the consonants like ribbon through straw, each one briefly unremarkable yet cumulatively giving the impression of an uneasy familiarity, like reading about an old school friend in the paper. Wasser’s voice, for me, achieves the same effect, uniting the stuttering piano and meandering drums, and orchestrating the song towards meaning, even if it is couched thick in world-weary repetition. There is still something quite beautiful in the way she opens out the vowel sound of ‘all’ in the chorus like the flowering of complaint into a hymn.

I’m From Barcelona – We’re From Barcelona

This song sounds like it really wanted to be a Macarena, or a Birdie Song, an Agadoo, or a Teensy Weensy Itty Bitty Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, but arrived too late for the era of unselfconscious disco cheese, or, like a gawky indie kid, stood shuffling its feet in the corner while all the other songs earwormed their way into the nation’s cultural wiring. Nonetheless, it is a paen to the same spirit of blazen-glorious naffness and it wants so desperately to make you forget how cool you think you are, and bring out your inner indie drunken uncle for all to see.

Joanna Newsom- Bridges and Balloons (Pocket Remix)

Pocket has been engaged in the dubious practice of taking the classic gentle heartpourings of the indie/folk world and attempting to render them groovable for some time now – previous other subjects have been Cat Power, Of Montreal, and Antony. Some might say this remix of Bridges and Balloons is like taking a hammer to a set of priceless teak drawers in order to make rough paper for the draft of a Dan Brown novel. Some would have a fair point. But this is the nearest you will ever get to Joanna Newsom in clubbable form. One guaranteed to send music connoisseurs into spasms of small-minded delusions of sacrilege (so techincally worth it for that alone).

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This is what a feminist in-fight looks like

Having picked a fight last week with an overly easy target, this week’s feminist Thought For The Week comes courtesy of a facebook group of which I am a member, and overall fan; and which I consider generally as a small islet of sane feminist thought amongst the eel-laden bog of misogyny and prejudice that is popular culture. So watch me now, as, taking the gun to my foot, I make the case for it as a feminist offender. The group is called ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’, and, at the time of writing, had a little shy of 24,000 members, male and female, many of whom are active on boards and forums (to put this in perspective, a group called ‘If 500,000 Join This Group I Will Change My Middle Name To Facebook’ has 170,378 members. But that’s a rant for another day).

My problem with this group lies in the wording of its opening apologia:

It’s not about not shaving your legs, staging protests, man-hating, becoming a lesbian, or boycotting anything & everything “feminine.” Being a feminist is about believing that all genders deserve equal opportunity. Period.

I can to some degree comprehend why they feel the need to dispel the stereotype which has risen up around feminism and which has had for its aim trivialising or marginalisation. The aim of the apology is presumably to attract people with little or no previous experience of feminism and persuade them that feminism has something to offer them too; the implications of which being that women and men of all sexualities, appearances, behaviours, etc. are under the same blanket of patriarchy. Feminism thus opened out, the pernicious attempts by the dominant class to restrict feminism to a relatively marginal few are thwarted, and people of all classes, appearances, sexualities, and races are united in the fight for equal rights, multiplying the army by manifold, and getting people involved in and thinking about their own societal rights and interests, and raising the cries of newly-conscious oppressed women until they can no longer be ignored.

All noble intentions, but I can’t help feeling ultimately that statements like the one above, in mixing fallacies and truths about feminism, are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A closer analysis of the ideas that the group tries instantly to dispel reveals quite a cross-section of activities, ranging from the patently undesirable to the perfectly legitimate. There are few if any feminists who would argue that feminism is about man-hating, for example; we spend a disproportionate amount of our time explaining over and over to people who present this fallacy that what feminists hate is a patriarchal social structure which privileges men at the expense of women, and that we object to the rule of patriarchy, not to each and every single man on this earth (though of course, there are some men who are patriarchy on legs). The man-hating myth is a perfectly untrue stereotype of feminists, which, while far too much time is spent reassuring men that they (dear lord the irony) are not being victimised, does misrepresent feminism and is indeed incompatible with the goals of the ideology.

But examine the remaining items on the list of these feminist stereotypes and you will find that the image which this group seems so keen on exorcising from its very soul is actually the image of a perfectly legitimate feminist. Heaven forfend, for example, that we should ever stage a protest. Mark Thomas makes the indubitable point that no privilege that benefits an oppressed class was ever handed to them willingly; every ounce of progress that minorities have made has been fought for (and yes, women somehow count as a minority, despite being at least half of the world’s population). The perceived need to apologise for the vocality of women and for their willingness to take action can only be a symptom of compliance with a system which expects that women tolerate their lot as an oppressed class. However one may choose to package it, feminism as an ideology is ultimately – and should rightly be seen as – a protest, and a person who chooses to subscribe to it and call themselves a feminist is engaging in a protest of ideology against the patriarchy-addled status quo.

The same idea of apology for non-compliance applies to the question of leg-shaving and retention of ‘feminine’ traits. The fact that they have ‘feminine’ in quotation marks apparently pays ample recognition to the arenas of appearance and behaviour as sexually codified constructions, whilst at the same time reassuring non-feminists that they can retain their socially-programmed beauty codes and fully embrace the anti-patriarchal ideology of feminism. I speak as someone who wears makeup when she goes out, and shaves her legs and other piliferous regions on the blue-moon years she thinks someone will see them. I’m hardly therefore in a position to advocate the rejection of all socially-expected beauty regimes as a sine qua non of true feminism. That doesn’t stop me, though, from holding this up as an ideal, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I have to distance myself from feminists who refuse to concede to societal expectations of them, or even refuse simply to be hypocrites. I rationalise my own double standards by protesting that I want to see more men in makeup, not fewer women – but the idea that purists are the people who have it wrong or are somehow distorting the message of feminism is in itself a prime example of distorted thinking.

As for the denial of compulsory lesbianism, I can again sympathise to an extent with the exasperation of a heterosexual female who wishes to be considered feminist without compromising her own sexual identity; indeed, feminism ought to embrace and acknowledge all sexual preferences, since a woman’s absolute right to bodily autonomy extends to her choice of sexual partner. But by this very same logic, lesbianism ought to be given the same respect and validity as heterosexuality, instead of being held up as an abhorrently grotesque misunderstanding of what it is to be feminist. I attended a debate on feminism at the Oxford Union a few months ago, at which a representative of the Fawcett Society unashamedly railed against the very notion of feminists being lesbians, with the readiness of Judas.

My point has not been to discredit the entire ideology of ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’; for the most part, I find it a refreshingly active and engaging feminist space. My problem is with the wider assumption in certain feminist circles which it exemplifies; namely that lesbians, people who don’t shave their body hair or wear makeup, and those scary active vocal protester-types all somehow need apologising for, or distancing from. These apparently undesired behaviours are all perfectly valid within the logic of feminism; their rejection or reprobation is toxic according to feminist principles (not to mention common sense).* The time has come to stop apologising and to fearlessly defend the stereotype of The Feminist, reclaiming those needlessly-perjorative tropes; as well as accepting and welcoming those who choose to conform more explicitly with what we see as patriarchally-influenced social expectations. This is the challenge for inter-feminist relations. If you agree, I suggest you take your comments to the facebook group, and make your voices heard.

* here is how I would reword their introduction:

It doesn’t have to be about not shaving your legs, though if you do shave your legs you should question why men don’t feel the need to do the same; it fundamentally is a protest, though not always done with shouting and signs; it isn’t about hating men; it’s not about compulsory lesbianism  but nor is it about the heterosexist idea that lesbianism shouldn’t be given the same attention as a culturally dominant sexuality; it is about encouraging the deconstruction of the ‘masculine-feminine’ binary. It is about believing that nobody should be socially, culturally, or physically oppressed on the basis of their sex.

Catchy, no? No. But truer, maybe.

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