Saturday, 16 June 2012

Teenage Girls Are Bringing Out My (not so) Inner Raging Feminist

My name's Gen and I'm a Made in Chelsea addict. Properly. I love it to bits.

This post isn't about my allegedly misguided viewing habits though. (Fuck alla y'all, to my mind it's the first really entertaining and likeable bit of whatever it is you call this mish-mash of soap and fly on the wall without using some horrible thickwitted portmanteau nonword I've seen - Essex, Jersey Shore, Geordie Shore et al can't touch this, so step away now. Maybe I'm just intrigued by the habits of rich people; Evelyn Waugh it ain't, but it's jolly good fun and compulsive viewing regardless. And anyway, if it's good enough for the ever-witty Daisy Buchanan of Sabotage Times it's good enough for me.)

If MIC brings you out in hate hives, by all means skip to the next blog; discussion about the characters will follow herein. But actually what I want to talk about is one disturbing and nasty side-effect of the show, and a perfect illustration of a larger problem we still don't seem to have gotten past yet - quite the opposite. It's all over Twitter, it comes from the show's fans, and by and large they're teenage girls who live in a world that you would hope had inherited a few established truths about feminism and sisterhood by now.


If you dare, search for #MIC or #madeinchelsea. Or, let’s get to the heart of the matter. Look up the female stars of the show - they all have Twitter accounts. Brace yourself for a flood of vicious, spiteful commentary, mainly on their looks. There's blundering, unlucky-in-love Gabriella, who gets every insult from 'dog' to various observations re: the size of her chin, or scheming Rosie of the pale skin and flat hair (Rosie, I hate you but I feel your pain), or recent addition Kimberley; initially lambasted for seeming fake and concealing a shady love-life, it now seems to be all about the shape of her nose and the fact that she wears a lot of white. (Now, say what you want about Kimberley, but the fact remains that she is an uncommonly pretty girl. If we're going to be judgmental about it, comments on her looks are nonsense.)

The only one to completely escape the nastiness is Binky who, as the only girl whose love life the show barely seems to touch on, seems to command almost unanimous adoration. The rule seems to be, Chelsea girls whose love-lives are less than spotless (allegedly or otherwise, in Kimberley's case) get verbal abuse about their looks. Ironically, MIC fans are desperate for the producers to fix Binky up with present golden boy Jamie; if it happened, no doubt Binky too would be in for a tweet-lashing the minute the relationship faltered.

Non-Chelsea fans, if you've read this far your head may be reeling right now with the seeming irrelevance of these people and their love lives, but stay with me.

The men, often found behaving badly, don't seem to encounter this particular kind of abuse, being held up for their behaviour on the show rather than the lack of volume in their hair or badly placed creases in their trousers. They amass armies of willing devotees - even eccentric capitalist and professional diamond dude Francis, who's tried it on with nearly every girl in the show and reportedly made churlish remarks about Emma Watson, who he claims to have dumped. Spencer, the girlfriend-stealing villain of the last series, gets plenty of stick for his behaviour, but no-one ever slags off the shape of his nose.

There are two obvious retorts to this phenomenon.

• The teenage twitterati are catty because they're jealous of the girls that get to pardy™ with, and bed, the objects of their desire. The meanness stems as much from this as from a reaction to perceived behaviour.
• Anyone who signs up to a reality show is exposing themselves to a flood of reaction and potential abuse.

Both of these statements are true. But that doesn't justify dodging the issue; this body fascistic aggression is disturbing, especially when you see it at the deafening volume that Twitter enables. The lack of self-awareness is profound; look at the number of girls who slated and even threatened Louise for dating Jamie then sleeping with his best mate. Constant is the cry of 'forget that ugly slag, have me instead!', and just as prevalent is the ignorance of the fact that if they got what they wanted, they'd be next in the online firing line from the jealous masses.

Tina Fey did a smashing job of portraying this girl-on-girl hatefest in Mean Girls some years back, noting how girls use looks and sexually-themed name-calling to clamber over each other, thus condoning men using the same language to them in turn. The film was loved instantly and clutched to girls' hearts, yet it's changed nothing. Made in Chelsea is the easiest current example to use because, because of the uniquely modern mechanism of Twitter - conversation is instant, not just between fans, but also with the cast themselves, who all have well-used Twitter accounts. But I could just as easily be writing about average girls' conversations in nightclub bathrooms or at the back of the bus.

Any girl who falls short of the accepted, TV-friendly aesthetic standard - slim (but not, heaven forbid, flat-chested), fake-tanned (if white) with a head of hair that can only be achieved by extensions or fucking incredible genetics, and a total absence of hair anywhere else - is in line for a dose of vitriol. But it's all shit; for a start, the time and money that goes into looking like this lends itself to an entirely separate discussion about class and economic divide. All the time girls are directing their energy to what each other looks like, they're not doing the things that will really make them fitter, happier, more productive; reading, writing, singing, building, competing, debating, discovering, travelling, saving lives, learning and earning. Talk about doing yourselves down. Watching this or any other reality tv show is, in technical terms, no bigger a waste of time than watching the football or the latest BBC drama, but spending one's time on the internet, ripping apart the looks of women you've never met? Fucking hell.

Of course we all know that it's all Heat magazine's fault, and the Sun and the Mirror and Grazia and OK and Hello, for ingraining this culture of salacious gossiping about famous people's looks and shortcomings like their cellulite is a matter of public importance. And because it's their fault, we don't have to take any responsibility for proliferating it, do we?

When you see someone calling some girl a dog you should be hollering 'Shut your piehole, you sexist, misogynistic dickhead!', not LOLing and retweeting it.

In a world where girls are still sold into marriages with strange men - where you can be convicted and imprisoned for being a rape victim - where governments are trying to pass laws to criminalise the morning-after pill - where legislators want to make medical rape the price of an abortion - or kidnap and force unwanted abortions on women who can't afford the fine for being illegally pregnant - where women STILL don't earn as much as their male equivalents - where politicians pursue cuts and shady corporate deals that will disproportionally hit women up and down the scale - where it's ever more expensive to get an education - and where intern culture means future careers are increasingly, once again, determined by what sort of money you come from in the first place... where this shit is happening in every corner of the world including the UK, anger from women is as vital as ever. And while women are tearing each other apart, they're ignoring the forces that threaten to make all of their lives a lot harder.

But they're just teenage girls, why would they give a damn about politics and women's rights and all of that boring stuff, all they're interested in is TV and One Direction and clubbing and shopping...

Bollocks. I don't buy that. Teenagers are as capable - more so! undiluted by the creeping, wearying cynicism of age - as anyone at getting up in arms about perceived injustice - look back at the anti-tuition fees student marches for instance. If you enjoy MIC or any of the shows like it that invite online engaging with the storyline and characters, then go ahead and respond to what you see. Or alternatively, if the show's money-worshipping triviality offends you, then call to account the massive gulf it seems to endorse between the hyper-rich and everyone else. But please, enough of the misogynistic bullying and spite. Feminism isn't about doing whatever you want while hating on some girl for having spots around her mouth or limp hair. Read the Beauty Myth and then go and get pissed off at the people who really deserve it.


Monday, 4 June 2012

Album review: Paul Simon - Graceland (25th anniversary edition)

Originally published at The Line of Best Fit.

“Ugh. I hate Paul Simon.”

Those were a friend’s words last weekend. An argument followed in which I indignantly defended the great (little) man; a timely debate, given the re-release of this seminal record.

It would seem that whatever will be will be reissued, and few records are so deserving of a reappraisal as Graceland. Formed in the shadow of South African apartheid, and crossing cultural picket lines by being recorded there with a host of native musicians, Paul Simon’s seventh studio album drew political revulsion from its critics and support from the UN Anti Apartheid Committee, delighted Paul Simon fans old and new, described a generation, won a Grammy, set up home in critics’ “Top 100″ lists and soundtracked innumerable childhoods. My earliest solid musical memories are a Buddy Holly cassette played endlessly on my first Walkman, and my father’s Saturday morning couch commando tendencies, regularly taking pole position on the sofa to re-watch Paul Simon’s gargantuan Central Park show. I loved Buddy, but Paul Simon’s music was something alive and real, clever and grown-up and mystifying. The seven year old me burbled the chorus to ‘I Know What I Know’ relentlessly, with little clue what the words meant. Small and naïve, I had no sense of Graceland’s cultural importance and the protests it provoked. It infiltrated my childhood so simply and solidly that I thought of Paul Simon like I thought of Paul McCartney; a fixture, a dependable presence, an uncle I surely just hadn’t met yet.

Arguably one of the most trailblazing, loved world music records ever – yet primarily, a pop record – Graceland doesn’t patronise its audience or its influences. Simon’s fascination with and respect for the rhythms and infectious sounds that drew him to Johannesburg is evident and the result is a heady, complex collection of songs. The anniversary edition includes Under African Skies, Joe Berlinger’s documentary about the recording and touring of Graceland in the dark days of South Africa’s war on its own people, with Simon returning to visit the friends he made all those years ago. As it shows, the melodic structure of this groundbreaking record was built by many hands, assembled from collaborative jam sessions and the South African musicians’ ideas and natural styles, as well as the shades of Americana that Simon was also exploring at the time, with the remarkable lyrics sewn into this tapestry after all else was done.

“Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.”

There’s no sense of the diverse components, from mbaqanga and Ladysmith Black Mambazo‘s remarkable a cappella performances, to Creole zydeco, being watered down for easy consumption; they’re already accessible, a cascade of gorgeous melodies, irresistible rhythms, voices that dance and lock together to become a complicated percussive instrument in their own right. “Our music is always regarded as third world music”, opined producer Koloi Lebona in Under African Skies, applauding Simon’s stance; his decision to bypass the concerns of the anti-apartheid movement and ignore the boycott still divides opinion, but it’s beyond doubt that Graceland did much to transport a fresh array of music styles to the mainstream and dispel tired clichés about African culture, and its influence is still keenly felt today. Ladysmith Black Mambazo became a household name after Graceland was completed, and many of the artists involved toured the record together globally.

The political story of Simon’s best-loved record provides the narrative thread to the film, but most striking is the burgeoning friendships between Simon and the musicians he approached to help him write and record the record. From initial meetings, strangers fundamentally separated by colour, language and a sediment of mistrust, to a studio full of new friends, dancing and grinning and creating something wonderful, it’s an infectious and engaging story – particularly considering the widespread misery and fear that threatened the African musicians outside the studio.

As for the record itself, it was a potent return to form for the songwriter after the disappointing flop of Hearts & Bones – the remnants of his abortive reunion project with Art Garfunkel. Graceland combined bewitching, surprising music with his trademark lyrical dexterity; he was once more at the top of his game.

“She comes back to tell me she’s gone…as if I didn’t know my own bed. As if I’d never noticed the way she brushed her hair from her forehead.”

Paul Simon is the master of the nuanced lyric, the tiny indicator that reveals the heart of the matter. As Quincy Jones notes in the documentary, “He’s got that curious mind”. A writer’s writer, his wordplay is faultless and he deploys flippancy and wit with devastating mildness. The songs skip and trill and shrug; melodies become casual little jams and riffs, phrases rolled around reflectively before revealing unmistakeable purpose. You can never accuse him of bitterness, but his observations are shot through with the loudly unspoken. After the opening four-shot explosion of ‘The Boy in The Bubble’ and Forere Motloheloa’s peerless, famed accordion groove, its expectant pace is given unsettling resonance by lines about “lasers in the jungle” and a “bomb in the baby carriage” – whether Simon is referring to Johannesburg’s troubles, Vietnam or any other upheavals of the last twenty years, the effect is arresting. Even at his most flip, there are little spots of yearning – ‘You don’t feel you could love me, but I feel you could’ – those notes reaching and clutching at human contact and understanding. And ‘Crazy Love Vol II’ is, lyrically, a painful story of a life passed by, a tragic lack of ambition, the weary using-up of time and the realisation of mortality, yet is delivered with the characteristic, smarting joy that radiates from his musical arrangements; from the opening, fluttering fall of guitars that gleam like steel drums, its bright, futile hopefulness cuts deeply.

Is the melody itself, lightfooted and flippant, a wry extension of the double-edged Jewish humour that permeates his lyrics? Or does it just serve to remind us that our problems are just distractions, the sense that even if the little things don’t work out, there are bigger things to spend one’s time on? That if the big things tank too, there’s still hope if nothing else? These are the questions that Simon’s music poses but never answers.

That eponymous, game-changing title song shuffles and chugs into view like a locomotive, before that legendary line disembarks and knocks you flat – “The Mississippi delta was shining like a national guitar/I am following the river down the highway, through the cradle of the Civil War”. Seriously, if you are one of those that really doesn’t see just what a biblical, humbling piece of songwriting this is, go back and listen to it again. Listen to the swoon of the pedal steel, bury your face in those lyrics; spare, unembellished accuracies about fatherhood, the loss of love, the search for something vital to make sense of it, the importance of faith – if not in God, in something, anything else – all mused without pomp, backed up by the Everly Brothers themselves, and carried along by that warm, elastic guitar sound that just IS Paul Simon. Go back and listen to it. Now listen to it again. Get it yet? There you go.

Early demos of some of the record’s defining moments close this edition – a nimble alternative version of ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’ and raw, revealing demos of ‘Homeless’ and that trumpet-laden triumph, ‘You Can Call Me Al’. If you own Graceland, hand it on someone who hasn’t come to it yet, and get this instead. The pleasure of this edition’s ‘the Making Of…’ themed extras make it a worthy upgrade.

Was Simon wrong to ignore all the advice and go to South Africa? That question still begs an answer which Berlinger’s film never quite provides, though it ably tells both sides of the story. If the resulting record hadn’t been Graceland, an answer might be more glibly reached. The boycott was there to isolate a racist government and show them that the world wouldn’t play ball with a nation that terrorised its black population. There’s no doubt Simon was selfish to plough ahead without seeking the approval of those who organised the cultural boycott, prizing his next record over an international movement. But Graceland is a once in a lifetime achievement, and ultimately, the magnificent end did justify the means. Great art is seldom reasonable; there is often a tyranny at work, an unshakable belief by its creator that what they are doing must take precedence over everything else. Given what was being fought for in South Africa, it was a hell of a risk to take, but Graceland is indeed fine, great art; a rarely-matched coming together of artists, strangers of different backgrounds and languages, and an introduction to strains of music that the ruling government had sought to curb through brutal means. A quarter of a century on, Graceland still dazzles.