Love Note – Beach Music

In a couple of weeks I am swapping rainy old England with the warmer environs of Mallorca and I can’t bloody wait. After a very busy year, I am completely ready to park myself on a beach with my stack of contemporary literature (I’m trying to remove myself from the nineteenth century and read more current things), a couple of cold beers and my favourite beachy playlist. I know I am ridiculously lucky to be able to get away from it all for a bit and I am relishing the opportunity to switch off and zone out.

Of course, however, because we are all constantly flirting with burnout, phone-addiction and have the attention-span of goldfish, myself included, it can take a little while to completely unwind from the rat race that is life in twenty first century Britain. Even though I want to just switch off, it feels difficult to do so. Additionally, travel has become slightly more anxiety-inducing for me personally because it removes me from routine, the security I feel from being in my beloved home and because the onset of new sights, sounds, smells and sensibilities can be very over-stimulating. Feeling anxious about going on holiday doesn’t hold me back from travelling, but I definitely have to consciously take stock and ease myself into the groundlessness that new experiences and exciting adventures bring me.

Meditation helps, my gratitude practice helps and of course, music helps to alleviate the kind of liminality that I sometimes experience when I’m on holiday. There is nothing better than a summery playlist to accompany a lazy sojourn on the beach. Here are my favourites from past and present beach trips that help me fully immerse myself in my beautiful surroundings and relieve any anxious quibbles or digital withdrawals I might experience whilst being on holiday.

Lana Florida Kilos

‘Florida Kilos’, Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence – Old faithful. I actually quite disliked this song when I first heard it. But after a week spent listening to it with a lemon lolly and warm sunshine, I realised that a beach setting for listening to it was all that was missing.

Kendrick Lamar Blow My High

‘Blow My High’, Kendrick Lamar, Section 80 – Super-duper chilled and fun, with tributes to Aaliyah and Lisa Left-Eye Lopes, this is one of Kendrick’s more light-hearted outputs. It bubbles and pops with youthfulness.

Kendrick Lamar The Recipe

‘The Recipe’, Kendrick Lamar, ft. Dr Dre, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City – Kendrick again because he is a babe. A more badass beach song than ‘Blow My High’, but then what would you expect with Dr Dre on board. This is a song for serious sunbathing done seriously and truly allows you to indulge in your good fortune at being on holiday.

Michael Kiwanuka

‘Cold Little Heart’, Michael Kiwanuka, Love and Hate – This song evokes images of the rugged Californian coast thanks to its use as the title music for fantastic HBO show Big Little Lies. The full ten minute version of this song is an epic, bluesy opener to a truly stunning album and is a whole story in itself. Gorgeous song, gorgeous voice, gorgeous situation.

Groove Armada

‘At the River’, Groove Armada, Northern Star – This is a quintessential chillout song that has been a permanent fixture on Harping On holidays since 1998. It is perfect for setting the mood when you arrive at your destination and provides a musical portal to escape from the chaos of modern life.

Mylo

‘Sunworshipper’, Mylo, Destroy Rock and Roll – I can’t convey how wonderful this song is. It is a pure chillout classic, with an optimistic, bohemian otherworldliness to it. Features the classic repeated line: ‘And so I took off on my bicycle’.

All Saints 2

‘Pure Shores’, All Saints, Saints and Sinners – Take me to my bloody beach. This song is so atmospheric and an instant relaxant whenever there is sand, sea and sangria nearby. In fact, it’s an instant relaxant wherever you are.

Rye Rye

‘Sunshine’ ft. M.I.A, Rye Rye, Go! Pop! Bang! – This song was on the soundtrack of Sofia Coppola’s classic film The Bling Ring and is a fun, catchy hymn to summer time. Sings from the same beachy sheet as ‘Blow My High’.

bob-dylan-mr-tambourine-man-cbs-2

‘Mr Tambourine Man’, Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home – The first time I heard this song I was driving home from a festival with two friends and we all cried. It is slightly melancholy, perfect story-telling about free spiritedness and having nothing to do and nowhere to go. Makes me think about that point in your holiday where you start calling your hotel/AirBnB/apartment/flat/other fleeting holiday accommodation, ‘home’.

Tame Impala

‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’, Tame Impala, Lonerism – Seductive synth, mind-bending lyrics and a twinkling voice over the top, this song is an effective daydream, perfect for staring out at the sea and warming your feet in the sand.

One for good luck:

Lana West Coast

Lana Del Rey – Paradise, Ultraviolence, Honeymoon, Lust for Life LPs are all generally perfect for the hot beach holiday (windswept beach walking holidays in Spring/Autumn times are a different kettle of fish). I love Born to Die but it’s why more of a cityscape/ small town-trip record scenario.

Old, old favourites from beach holidays gone by:

Christina Aguilera – ‘Primer Amor’ and ‘Infatuation’, both from Stripped

Mis-Teeq – ‘Strawberrez’, Eye Candy

Michael Jackson – ‘Remember the Time’, History

Rihanna – ‘Say It’, Good Girl Gone Bad

Madonna – ‘Beautiful Stranger’, Ray of Light

Justin Timberlake – ‘Senorita’ (in fact, all of Justified)

 

220px-Christina_Aguilera_-StrippedMisteeqRihannaRay_of_Light_Madonna

Love Note – Eurovision

This Saturday sees the return of the Eurovision Song Contest and I could not be more excited. This year, I have excellent friend and historical Eurovision-watching comrade Annie coming to visit from Manchester, I am drawing up a Eurovision bingo game, making cultural food plans (pierogi, baguettes and olives amongst other foodstuffs), organising an office sweepstake at work, and have my Spotify playlist of past-Eurovision favourites on repeat. I am raring to go for the Grand Final in a couple of days’ time.

I have always loved Eurovision. It is funny whilst both trying to be and trying not to be; it is colourful and vibrant; appeals to the ridiculousness in us all; and offers the perfect excuse to have a bit of a party. It curiously manages to hold a number of different positions: it suspends reality, through its gaudy spectacle and earnest hilarity that feels so far removed from the grim and turbulent political times that we are currently living through (and have always lived through, to an extent). However, it also embodies the inclusivity and positivity absolutely required to make the world a more joyful and tolerant place. Seeing Europe come together on the same night to mutually revel in Europop music, dry ice, random pyrotechnics, Graham Norton’s sarcastic critiques and, in some cases, yodelling, warms the cockles of this soppy Remainer heart. I have often thought that it takes a certain amount of self-awareness or self-deprecation to watch and enjoy Eurovision: it’s a bit like laughing at yourself. Someone so stuck-in-the-mud and obsessed with control, power and image and all that, like Putin for example, probably don’t watch Eurovision. But you can imagine the world would probably be a better place if he did.

There are certain things about the show that are quintessentially Eurovision, but that some people find hard to understand and accept. Here, I want to help break these things down and offer a shift in perspective, introducing naysayers and cynics to Eurovision Logic. Here are some examples:

Normal logic: The show and, in particular, the round-the-houses voting system are time-consuming and extremely long. The show does run from 20:00 – 23:40 (a running time of 3 hours and 40 minutes) and it takes up all the prime-time coverage on BBC One. It’s a bit overkill.

Eurovision Logic: With the round-the-houses system, we get an insight into the humour, style and sensibilities of our European neighbours. When there is a time-lag, things get deliciously awkward, especially when the announcers in each country end up manically grinning or saying something wonderfully clichéd or just plain weird. I would also recommend watching all the performances, if you are able to, and working out which is your favourite, or getting involved with an office sweepstake. Actually being invested in at least one country makes the voting much more exciting and interesting. Multiple drinks will also help.

giphy

 

Normal logic: Australia is not in Europe. Why is it in Eurovision? It doesn’t make sense and is stupid.

Eurovision Logic: Newsflash: Israel and Azerbaijan are not in Europe and have competed in Eurovision for very many years (and have both won). Even Morocco competed in Eurovision in 1980. Australia joined in 2015, to celebrate the competition’s 60th anniversary and had such a good time that they’ve decided to come back every year. What is there not to love about that? Lighten up. I think it is also a good idea to let people dwell in paradox for a while: life is all about ambiguity and uncertainty, things are never clear-cut, and Australia in Eurovision is a perfect metaphor for that. On a very deep level, somewhere, it makes absolute sense that Australia participates in Eurovision. I would love them to win and see the absolute existential flap people will, inevitably, get into. Guys, it’s going to be OK.

australia-is-competing-in-eurovision-again-and-ev-2-4295-1463274396-13_dblbig

Normal logic: Eurovision songs are cheesy pap and are the dregs of music

Eurovision logic: Yes, there are certain levels of cheesiness and corniness to the Eurovision song repertoire. My first impulse is to just embrace it and laugh along with it. All those songs about being ‘heroes’ and ‘grabbing the moment’ (both things Bowie sang about) are absolutely harmless and catchy as heck. My second impulse is to point out that there have been some amazingly mature songs in the competition, especially in recent years. There was The Common Linnets’ song ‘Calm After The Storm’ that came second for The Netherlands in 2014, missing out to Conchita Wurst’s absolute belter ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’; Belgium’s Loïc Nottet’s ‘Rhythm Inside’ in 2015 sounded like Lorde had written it; and the gorgeous, inimitable ‘Amar Pelos Dois’ sung by Portugal’s Salvador Sobral  won in 2017 and still gives me warm fuzzies. All truly, excellent songs. My third impulse tends towards the sassy: in the enduring and poetic words of last year’s winner, Netta, I’d rather dance with my dolls to the mother-bucka beat, than get all sour about it.

SalvadorSob_1494562609 (1)

So here’s to Eurovision 2019! It is a bit bizarre, but when has the bizarre also not been life-affirming and a little bit good for us? When not drinking all the drinks, eating all the European food and jigging around to all the songs, I’ll see you all on Twitter for the hilarious commentaries. I’ve heard that the singers from Iceland are some kind of BDSM group… let the wonderful chaos unfold.

[1] I would like to add as a small footnote that I am aware that Israel holding the competition is obviously very contentious, and look forward to seeing if the competition is used to make any protests or points, particularly in light of military action in Gaza in the past few weeks.

Love Note – Fantasia

Last week there was a Saturday matinee viewing of Disney’s Fantasia at Broadway cinema in Nottingham and I missed it. This was slightly devastating because Fantasia is a film that I have loved for a very long time and the prospect of seeing it on a big screen was very, very exciting. It is a stunning love letter to both the art of animation and classical music, which I’m sure were both sweeping in their scale on the big screen. And I bloody missed it.

It was through Fantasia, and the ingenuity of the art and story-telling teams that helped to create it, that my interest in classical music was sparked. As a child, and even now as a (more or less) adult, classical music has sometimes felt kind of ‘beyond’ me. When I was younger, it reeked of ‘posh’, of older people driving around in Volvo estates or wearing suits and nodding along knowingly to some movement of this piece by that dead guy. The classical music I enjoyed when I was little was music that explicitly told a story, for example Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (even though, interestingly, the grandfather and wolf parts both scared me shitless) or that I could dance to. Fantasia captured my imagination and, subsequently, each of the pieces of music brought to animated life now has a special place in my heart.

Pastoral symphony

The combination of high musical art with the low brow familiarity of cartoon animation, rooted as it is in child-friendly bright colours, humour and anthropomorphic animals, is highly effective. Bringing both forms into conversation with one another undoubtedly broadens the way in which we think about both. The mass production and appeal of cartoon animation offers a friendlier introduction to the obscure and privileged world of classical music. Similarly the drama of classical music, and the requirement of animation to creatively and accurately interpret inflections, time signatures and important ideas within the pieces’ structures, elevates the artistry and production of animation.

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor EDIT 1

It’s hard to narrow down which segment of the Fantasia programme I like the most: I have a very soft spot for The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky, Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (I really wanted to make friends with a pink unicorn or a flying horse, and my sister and I used to shelter all our cuddly toys under blankets during the storm).[1] As I’ve grown older, I have a renewed appreciation for Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in B Minor, which I initially thought was slightly boring but now find completely captivating.  However, I think it is Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring that has been the most enduringly important piece of music that Fantasia introduced to me.

fantasia_pdvd_852

I remember listening to Deems Taylor’s introduction of the piece and referring to the music as originally written for a ballet, displaying ‘a simple series of tribal dances’. Listening and watching the unfolding animation had me begging desperately: How on earth could you do ballet to THIS?! My conception of ballet as a world of tutus, pointe shoes and graceful arabesques, incidentally seen elsewhere in Fantasia, was completely at odds with this frightening, stompy music. Music that helped to depict violent volcanic eruptions, a T-Rex fighting and killing a slow and considerably weaker stegosaurus, the eventual death march and extinction of all the dinosaurs, and an eerie eclipse hovering over this pockmarked, burnt out planet. The pained and wailing face of a diplodocus trapped in mud and burning in the heat is seared into my memory. No, this, whatever this was, was not conducive to ballet at all.

At the time, I had no idea that this type of music required an entirely different type of dancing, which I later explored at length in my Master’s dissertation. Indeed, I wouldn’t have written that dissertation at all if my interest hadn’t been piqued at such a young age. Fantasia rearranges the music of the original ballet quite significantly, but it is still an exceptional introduction to a truly staggering piece of music. I will no doubt bring The Rite of Spring to my blog at a later date, because it is such an important piece of music to me that has followed me around for many years. But for now, I want to appreciate just how wonderful Fantasia is and how grateful I am that, in spite of its limited commercial success in 1940, it has endured.

And I bloody missed it last week.

 

[1] I want to acknowledge here the problematic nature of Disney’s visualisation of The Pastoral Symphony in particular. This segment featured heavily racist stereotypes in the first production, which have since been edited out, and a beauty contest where the ‘pretty’ (read: not black) centaur women strut about and are picked one at a time by handsome centaur men to be their lovers. The racism and sexism is obviously unacceptable and makes for uncomfortable viewing.  

Love Note – ‘Please Mr Kennedy’

The first Coen Brothers film I watched was Fargo when I was 18 and I really didn’t get it. The parody of a ‘true’ crime drama, with its humour and comic book violence, was all lost on me. As I’ve grown older, my awareness and appreciation of the Coen oeuvre has increased and expanded. My main Coen Brothers eureka moment came with A Serious Man, by way of True Grit and No Country for Old Men (I still need to watch The Big Lebowski and others). With Larry’s exasperated declaration that ‘I don’t want Santana Abraxis! I’ve just been in a terrible auto accident!’ I finally understood the full hilarious extent of the artful and subtle writing. Which brings me to Inside Llewyn Davis, which I find hilarious and joyful in its anger and misery, and it has become one of my favourites.

Llewyn is my favourite kind of grumpy arse who believes he should be an uber-successful musician but is blinded by pride, egotism and poor decision-making capabilities.[1] He has opportunities to help himself throughout the film, but prefers rather to wallow in his own self-importance and curse everyone around him for his short-sightedness, bad luck and inability to compromise. I love Llewyn because he is propelled by both intense delusions of grandeur but also a kind of endearing vulnerability that prevents him from being able to do anything else but be creative. The film was criticised by Suzanne Vega for turning the folk scene in 1960s New York into ‘a slow brown sad movie’, but I think this is to misunderstand what the Coens are getting at: there probably was a Llewyn in 1960s New York, just as there was probably a Llewyn at every point in artistic history. Wherever art and creativity are mixed up with commercial success, fame and recognition, there is going to be a Llewyn. Where there’s a Bob Dylan, there is a Llewyn. There has always been a Llewyn and there will always be a Llewyn.

One of my favourite scenes in the film is where Llewyn records a childish, novelty song with Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake) and Al Cody (Adam Driver). ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ gives me life and I frequently sing it around the house, getting it stuck in the heads of loved ones around me (you’re welcome). Click the photo below to have a watch:

hqdefault

I love everything about this 2 minutes and 59 seconds. I love the hideousness of Justin Timberlake’s beige jumper; Oscar Isaac’s cooler-than-thou cigarette hanging from his mouth; the nauseating earnestness of Timberlake’s insistence of two ‘P Ps’ before ‘please’; I love that Llewyn thinks he’s too good for the song (Llewyn: Who wrote this? Jim: I did); I love Timberlake singing and staring God-wards as though he’s delivering the most profound song in the world, when it’s probably the most ridiculous; the series of surreal blurtings and ejaculations in the scene-stealing performance of Adam Driver (‘One second please!’ and ‘Uh Oh!’ being my favourite accompaniments); the cheesiness of Timberlake’s ‘Oh pleeeeeeease’ and Llewyn’s sterling attempts to meet him with his eyes closed; and I love the stupid lyrics and the stupid music. The whole thing is just hilarious.[2]

As well as being a bonafide ear worm, I love ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ because I realised that it loosely presents a bit of an allegory for life. It reminds me of a famous painting that depicts the three standard bearers of Eastern philosophy and spirituality: the vinegar tasters.

o-PLEASE-MR-KENNEDY-570

'The_Three_Vinegar_Tasters'_by_Kano_Isen'in,_c._1802-1816,_Honolulu_Museum_of_Art,_6156.1

The picture depicts Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tsu and represent the basic tenets of their belief systems: Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. We have Confucius, who perceives life as full of corruption and people needing saving from degeneration: he tastes vinegar as sour, as ‘polluted wine’. Llewyn, the archetypal mardy bum hates ‘Please Mr Kennedy’, thinks it’s crap and wants to blast his way through it to get to the folk music career he wants.

N7J4

Jim represents (in a very loose way, please indulge me), Buddha. Buddha sees that tasting vinegar exposes him to bitterness, life’s bitterness. We are offered the opportunity to practice not avoiding the difficulties and trials of life, but also to practice not being overwhelmed by them either. Jim understands that he cannot take responsibility for himself and his family by pursuing a career as a purist folk singer. Whilst he performs folk classics at The Gaslight Café, he also makes space for a crap novelty song, no less earnest and with no less integrity in his performance of it as he is of ‘500 Miles’. Either which way, he is performing, practising, trying to find a middle way.

giphy

Al represents Lao Tsu and the Tao. Lao Tsu tastes the vinegar and rejoices in the vinegar-ness of the vinegar. It is sweet to Lao Tsu because it is manifesting according to its nature, exactly as it should: when life is appreciated as it should, it becomes sweet. In a similar way, Al Cody is committed to ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ for what it is, no qualms, no quarrels but with plenty of gusto and dedication. His singing part requires no less: a half-hearted ‘Outer Space!’ just wouldn’t work. As such, as I mentioned earlier, he pretty much steals the scene.

N7J3

‘Please Mr Kennedy’ is a shmuck song, artistically questionable, a real toe-tapper and perhaps the most important song in the entire film. To appreciate it speaks volumes and to not appreciate it speaks volumes. I think we have all three characters inside of us at any one point and they all have something to teach us. I’ve had many a Llewyn day, which is fine: Llewyn is great, I wouldn’t not be a bit Llewyn. But I would encourage myself, as much as possible, to be Al: to appreciate and revel in the nature of things just as they are. This sublimely ridiculous life, encapsulated in this sublimely silly song, requires just as much humour and healthy ridiculousness to meet it.

[1] Llewyn is Welsh for ‘lion’ or ‘leader’, which just feeds the wonderful irony about this miserable, supercilious protagonist.

[2] What makes this all even better, now that time and pop culture have elapsed since 2013, is that Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver now play adversaries Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren in the new Star Wars films. What a joy it is to see these two men, stars of the biggest sci-fi franchise of all time, strumming away singing the best stupid song about space ever written. Sarah Brightman’s ‘I Lost My Heart to a Star Ship Trooper’ must be the worst stupid song about space ever written.

 

 

Love Note – The joys of rediscovering an old iPod

I have always had a soft spot for the humble iPod.[1] Whilst the iPod Touch is still available to buy, the Mini, Nano, Classic and Shuffle iPods, with their click wheels and metallic casings, have achieved almost vintage status, surpassed as they have been by iPhones and Internet streaming services. With its terrible battery life and matchbox data capacity, my well-loved and well-used purple iPod Nano, the best of companions on so many bus journeys, car sing-a-longs and bedroom dance parties, has been lying dormant in the bottom of my bedside table for months, if not years. I dug it out for a Christmas cooking session with my Dad and what a treat it was.

The delightful thing about this little iPod Nano, that I now rarely use, is that it has become something of a time capsule for my teens and early twenties. My tastes have never been the most refined, but the funny eclectic mixture that came up on my shuffle transported me back to all sorts of places in the past. Althea and Donna’s ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ took me to the dark and comforting noisy chaos of a bar called Big Hands, where a friend’s Shazam brought the answer to my demand ‘WHAT IS THIS SONG?!?!?’ (this happens a lot when I’m out and about and hear a song I like); when ‘Don’t Get Lost in Heaven’ from Gorillaz’s Demon Days came on, I found myself back on my childhood bedroom floor, crying and shaking in a panic before my A Level English Literature exam; ‘Remember the Time’ by Michael Jackson took me to both sunny family holidays in Mallorca and the packed 143 bus down Oxford Road in Manchester, where I created ‘MJ Mondays’ to perk myself up; ‘Am I High?’ by N.E.R.D came on, one of my favourite songs from one of the most underrated groups ever; I was taken back to 2007 and the best gig of my life with one of the greatest dance tracks of all time, ‘Insomnia’ by Faithless; ‘Out of Frequency’ by The Asteroids Galaxy Tour and ‘Lonely Boy’ by The Black Keys got me through my first breakup; Beach Season became part of the soundtrack to what has become the greatest relationship of my life; and, of course, the men and women who carried me through all the rest of it: Christina Aguilera, Bjork, Gwen Stefani, Lykke Li, Madonna’s Ray of Light and Confessions on a Dancefloor eras, Rihanna’s Good Girl Gone Bad and Anti eras, Destiny’s Child, Duffy, Lana Del Rey, Agnes Obel, Mis-Teeq, Kate Nash, Florence and the Machine, Azealia Banks, Jimi Hendrix, Justin Timberlake, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Jeff Buckley, Kasabian, James Vincent McMorrow, Jake Bugg, Nirvana, Father John Misty and, of course, Geri Halliwell’s solo oeuvre.

It is well-known that music has an extraordinary ability to take us back in time to some of the most profound moments of our lives: the continued success of long-running shows like Desert Island Discs are a testament to that. In many ways, listening to my old iPod felt sublimely nostalgic, but touching down into those emotions of contentment, loss, fear and love still felt undeniably raw. Not only did I get to prance about to some absolute classics over the course of an evening (with my poor Dad dodging my every move), I’ve been able to see where I have come from and just how far I have come over the past few years. Being in your twenties is undeniably chaotic, but music is a fantastic way of grounding your experience and cementing those emotions in time that might else be lost or forgotten. As such, my busted up iPod, with its little treasure trove of musical gems, is just as valuable as the new stack of music I have waiting for me, ready to be explored (Idles, Michael Kiwanuka and Jade Bird anyone?).

 

[1] Before I elaborate on my excellent Christmas musical experiences, I need to provide a small caveat. I’m not a fan of big technological multinationals in general, but Apple is a particularly large bogeyman for a number of reasons. Some of these include their cynical policy of planned obsolescence (purposefully making their products and systems redundant thereby forcing users to upgrade or buy more products) that keeps people in a permanent bind of consumption and creates huge amounts of technological waste; their historic routing of profits through countries like Ireland and the British Virgin Islands means that despite the billions made from selling products, Apple pay some of the lowest rates of corporation tax (3% in the UK); Apple continue to award manufacturing contracts to factories in China where workers are forced to labour in horrendous conditions; and, I severely dislike Apple’s digital download policy that when you buy a song from iTunes, you have bought a license to play the song but you don’t actually own it.[1] I am aware that Apple aren’t alone in following such practices, but I think it is important to acknowledge these things when necessary. I have always been sceptical of any company that openly gestures towards innovation and creativity but uses shortcuts and questionable methods to achieve these ‘enlightened’ goals.

 

Love Note – Ave Maria

Amongst the usual merry-go-round of Christmas songs, one song has captured my undivided attention this year: Frank Sinatra’s rendition of Ave Maria. It’s not necessarily a Christmas song; it’s not necessarily a song that I have cared much about in the past; and I only really started caring about Frank Sinatra two years ago when ‘One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)’ literally stopped me in my tracks.[1] This year, however, Sinatra’s rendition of Schubert’s much-loved piece has been the gentle yet sublime musical offering that I have needed during this busy time.

The combination of Sinatra’s deep voice with the soaring choral accompaniment is both uplifting and deeply comforting. He sings a popular Latin interpretation of the song that describes Mary mother of God being with ‘us’ in the hour of our death. This, understandably, could be read as extremely morbid, but for me, feels more like a lullaby. On a basic level, the speaker both entreats and asks for everything to be alright, but through the reassuring ebb and flow of the choir, the plucked violins, and Sinatra’s grounding dulcet tones, we get the sense that everything is already more than alright. How can anything be but OK when we use the present moment to tap into hope, appreciation and gratitude?

I would describe myself as spiritual, rather than religious, and whilst Ave Maria has some serious Catholic affiliations, thanks to the previously mentioned Latin prayer that was later attached to Schubert’s composition, there is ample room for further interpretation. Schubert originally composed Ave Maria as a musical setting for Walter Scott’s epic poem The Lady of the Lake: more specifically, Ave Maria is a musical dramatization of Ellen’s song ‘Hymn to the Virgin’, whispered by the heroine Ellen whilst sheltering in a Goblin cave with her exiled father. There are some problematic references to Mary being ‘undefiled’ and ‘stainless’, which reinforce the virginal standard of ‘perfection’ that has been used to hit women round the head with for hundreds and hundreds of years. Some of the lines, however, in their appeal for some kind of divine maternal protection are beautiful:

‘The murky cavern’s heavy air

Shall breathe of balm if thou has smiled;

Then, Maiden! Hear a maiden’s prayer,

Mother, list a suppliant child!

Ave Maria!’

The poem entreats a greater, spiritual power for comfort, safety and support; to dispense the dank weight of the air in the cavern with the gentle smile of benevolence and clarity. Whoever has felt like a captive in the churning and chattering or their own mind knows the yearning for relief and for lightness; the cavern that Scott describes here, trapping Ellen, could easily reflect the headspace of anxiety, depression and worry.[2] A calm, serene smile in the face of adversity, uncertainty and pain is a wonderful image of transcendence and acceptance. Whilst we may remain critical of the traditional, patriarchal imagining of femininity here, this is undeniably a prayer from woman to woman: Ellen appeals to Mary’s young womanhood here, so uncannily like her own, yet not her own. Ellen is at once a woman like Mary, but so in need of nurture and support, like a small child; Mary’s small child. She appeals to a maternal figure so much greater and more powerful than herself, currently trapped in a desperate predicament. In this reaching, in this supplication to something beyond herself for direction and guidance, she finds peace and joy in the declaration: Ave Maria! It is that same feeling I alluded to earlier of asking that everything be made OK, whilst knowing in the very asking, that everything in this present moment is OK, is as it should be.

Ave Maria then, whilst used in many religious circumstances for this most important time of year for Christians, is also welcoming beyond those confines. Life is so uncertain and awe-inspiring, and it is pieces of music like Ave Maria, and what it has come to mean for me, that soothe our fears. It takes us out of the worries and patterns that keep us stuck and afraid, and opens us to the possibility that if we look beyond ourselves into the mysterious, strange and beautiful world and Universe around us, that we can find inner stability and peace.

 

 

 

[1] My first experience with Ave Maria (as with most of my favourite pieces of classical music) was watching Disney’s Fantasia. The film finishes with the calm parade of pilgrims after the chaos and profanity of Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.

[2] This also reminds me of the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno, which could easily be a metaphor for the existential crisis or Dark Night of the Soul that many, if not all of us, will encounter at some point in life: ‘Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark / For the straightforward pathway had been lost’.

#ArmisticeDay100 one week on

A week ago saw the international commemorations of Armistice Day: on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the First World War came to an end. There was the annual event at the Cenotaph in the UK followed by a service at Westminster Abbey, gatherings of world leaders in Paris, and services taking place at cemeteries and memorials in India, New Zealand and the USA amongst many other countries. I had a draft version of this essay ready last Sunday, but decided to wait until a week had gone by before I posted it. I was curious to see how the spirit of remembrance would pan out a mere week after the solemnities of the remembrance services, the public grief and mourning over lives lost and the thankful vows to ‘never forget’. After the week we have just seen, where the level of British political debate has been puerile, headlines have featured militaristic language of ‘plots’, ‘battles’, ‘fighting’, ‘rebels’, ‘calling in the cavalry’ etc. and the harassment of a prominent female investigative journalist became institutional, I am convinced that remembrance in this country is little more than an annual self-indulgent performance.[1] Additionally, and sadly, this did not surprise me in the slightest.

Of course, there is always a performance element to any kind of national event; however, above all others, Armistice Sunday really has become the biggest yardstick of nationalism with which to bash people around the head for a couple of days of the year, until business as usual resumes. Remembrance, we are told (and I firmly believe should), involve respect of difference, empathy, compassion and a renewed sense of hope in the potential of human beings to acknowledge the injustices of the past and to unite to do good, try harder and be better in future. Nowhere have I seen any of these played out in British politics this past week: the lack of respect, the spite, the selfishness that we have seen manifesting at Westminster has been galling. As such, I think it’s absolutely crucial that we deconstruct and re-think remembrance, so that we carry its spirit with us all year long and begin to conduct life as human beings with integrity and long-sightedness. As a species, we can live consciously and kindly, we can serve one another by embracing and protecting difference, and we can prioritise love, compassion and justice over greed, intolerance and hate.

As with many things in these polarised political times, there is much division over the poppy as a symbol of national remembrance. On one hand, it is a nod to John McCrae’s famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ and is an emotive and powerful symbol representing sacrifice and loss for a cause greater than oneself. On the other hand, it can be interpreted as an uncritical expression of nationalistic pride; brought out once a year to remember the devastating effect of war on human life whilst governmental policy continues to pursue and fuel unnecessary conflict.[3] For literary critic Walter Benjamin, this thinking in binary opposition, that has incidentally become so inflammatory and toxic over the past few years, is inevitable if we are to understand our history, our present and our future through the use of symbols. The poppy will never go far enough to help us understand and remember history. Instead, we need to culturally embrace and elevate allegory.  As Benjamin writes in The Origin of German Tragic Drama:

[…] in allegory, the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history as a petrified, primordial landscape. Everything about history that, from the very beginning, has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, is expressed in a face- or rather a death’s head […] it significantly gives rise not only to the question of human existence, but also the biographical historicity of the individual.

Reading this on and around Armistice Day, there seems to be no more a fitting image of a ‘petrified, primordial landscape’ than the hellish ‘No Man’s Land’: stretches of Belgium and France that were muddy, pockmarked with shells (some still unexploded), land scoured with barbed wire and dead bodies churned up in it all. If this is the face of history, then we need to understand history in a much more multifarious and multifaceted way than a symbol can allow. Indeed, when we try to remember and observe the impact of such complex and destructive human inventions such as war, nationhood and self, this becomes crucial. I would argue that it is important to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War; it is important to remember the destruction and devastation that war entails; it is important that we share a collective grief and mourning over the past so that we can build a more progressive, peaceful future. I am very serious about peace and if the world is to take the principles of Armistice Day more seriously i.e. observe it beyond one day of the year, then we must look above and beyond the symbol of the poppy alone. A symbol cannot go far enough to explore the depth of experience that Armistice Day entails. To reflect on all the fallout of war, we need to go beyond the surface level of symbols and engage with allegory. In my opinion, one of the best ways to access the historical nuances and perspectives of allegory is through art: poetry, music, film and visual art. Art and creative expression take us away from the confining realms of the symbolic, widening and deepening our conception of historical event and history itself. It is essential that remembrance incorporates art.  In light of this, I want to begin by discussing a particular piece of music that can help us to explore remembrance in a way that provides a more comprehensive, broader and yet deeper understanding of the past that Armistice Day requires.

I first heard Vaughn Williams’ The Lark Ascending, written in 1914, during the rather lengthily titled ‘A Solemn Commemoration of the Centenary of the Outbreak of the First World War’, which took place on 4th August 2014 at Westminster Abbey. Amongst the usual hallmarks of British national remembrance on display, from poppy wreaths, the soaring strains of Elgar and Bible readings to the royal family clad in a combination of black and military regalia, the service made room for poetry and music. The work of T.S Eliot, Wilfrid Gibson, Sebastian Faulks and Bach all made appearances and I was happy to see German prayers and poems featured too. Yet, it was Jennifer Pike and Daniel Cook’s haunting performance, on the violin and organ respectively that, in my opinion, brought an exceptional emotional weight to the service.[5]

The Lark Ascending (I’m thinking of the almost mythical Wessex as a backdrop to Hardy’s concerns with contemporary misogyny, hypocrisy and class limitation).

There is an elegiac quality to The Lark Ascending, making it suitably fitting for remembrance. Its mournful folk strains convey a sense of painful, intangible loss where we know that we are losing or have lost something, but we’re not entirely sure what.In light of this, how else can we think about remembrance, and what can remembrance also include?

War is an attack on critical thinking. In 1914, Europe was heavily armed, and the powerful ruling elites, who had spent years acquiring arms and stealing land and resources across the world, needed little excuse to start blowing each other up. What they relied upon, however, were young, fit men who would do the fighting on their behalf. The propaganda campaigns across all the nations and alliances involved in the First World War were sustained and convincing. In Britain, for example, 2.4 million men volunteered to fight before conscription was introduced in 1916. Men from Britain’s colonial territories were also convinced/forced to join the war; for example, 10% of New Zealand’s 1.1 million population volunteered to join the fight in Europe, with 18,000 eventually losing their lives.[7] The war was presented in a very simplistic way: ‘we’ are good, ‘they’ are bad, and, as such, young men were encouraged to enlist to assert and defend a strong sense of nationalistic pride. The posters and adverts appealed to unambiguous xenophobia, a misguided sense of glory and heroism and the war was likened to a big, grand adventure.

We can gain a clear sense that war was marketed to the young, and it was undoubtedly the young who suffered in their millions. At no point were they actively encouraged to look beyond ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and explore the history and complexity of the war: young people were just encouraged to get involved, for quite literally fear of missing out and for fear of being accused of cowardice. For all that many young people today are called ‘snowflakes’ for challenging the orthodoxies and traditions into which they have been born, at least they have been encouraged to explore contexts and perspectives beyond their own. In a world of ‘dodgy dossiers’ (the Iraq War was nothing if not a shining example of critical thinking being swept aside for the sake of power and posturing) and fake news, we need to be more careful than ever with the information we consume. We must learn to question the information and stories being delivered to us, especially when they are being presented to us with a motion towards objectivity, and not allow facts and opinions to become so hopelessly muddled. Remembrance and critical thinking must walk hand-in-hand so that we do not slip and slide down the murky paths of bigotry, vested interest and power into catastrophic violence.

War is an attack on all of humanity: the total number of deaths resulting from World War One is estimated at 20 million, which was divided into 9.7 million military personnel and 10 million civilians.

During services of remembrance, we are told that we must remember all wars; however, what we think of as ‘war’ is, in itself, very limited. ‘War’ conjures up images of strategic military campaigns and operations, trench warfare, spitfires, tanks and the ideological aim of attacking some form of an aggressor. I think, however, that the conception of ‘war’ needs to be broadened much wider. In particular, I think we need to acknowledge the role of brute force and military violence in the form of colonial atrocities. There must be a space for acknowledgment of colonial barbarism in our collective Remembrance. The pillaging and theft of human beings, their land and their cultural identities from across Africa, Asia, the South Pacific and Americas at the hands of European soldiers must also be acknowledged as the acts of war that they are. The tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey is a national focus on Armistice Day, but what about the unknown millions who were killed and raped at the hands of soldiers when their countries were colonised and destroyed? If invading another country with weapons and arms, claiming it as your own, butchering and oppressing the people there isn’t an act of war, I don’t know what is. To add insult to grave injury, Remembrance is savagely whitewashed. What is rarely acknowledged is how many indigenous peoples fought in a European war, hundreds of miles away from their homes: 1 million Indian soldiers served in the British army; 166,000 West Africans, 46,000 Madagascans, 50,000 Indochinese, 140,000 Algerians, 47,000 Tunisians and 24,300 Moroccans were brought to Europe by the French; and 2200 Maori soldiers were in the New Zealand army, plus many more ethnicities. This was all whilst military campaigns and bombardments were conducted across Africa by the colonial powers to divert attention, money and resources away from the Western Front.[10] The contributions to the ‘war effort’ of Commonwealth and other former colonial countries cannot be acknowledged without also acknowledging that those very soldiers were victims of colonial and cultural war. Britain, in particular, is very reluctant to have a frank and honest discussion about atrocities committed in pursuit of ‘Empire’. If we are to remember all wars properly, we must cast our perspectives wider, beyond the trenches, over the seas to lands that Britain had absolutely no right to steal from others; to peoples who bore the scars of foreign soldiers.

Finally, there is always hope.  Even after witnessing British politics revealing itself  to be the sorry shit show that it is one week one from the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, we can be better. Through proper mourning and grief work, through a concerted, meaningful practice of remembrance, we can touch upon the prospect of better future. Elevating symbols like the poppy without acknowledging the deeper ambivalence surrounding the fallout of war, simply will not help us to learn from the past to produce a better future: here, a greater appreciation and understanding of art will always help. All wars have to end with diplomacy and conversations where we actively seek resolution: remembrance, therefore, should bring awareness to those very things, before arms are hastily taken up to begin with. Instead of blindly following the traditions of remembrance, remembrance itself must be an action. More specifically, it must be an explicit action of thinking critically and compassionately: weighing up arguments and perspectives, developing historical fluency and taking responsibility for all military atrocities.

 

[1] ‘The Papers’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs/the_papers [accessed 19th November 2018].

[2] Additionally, a mere three days before Armistice Day, a report was published highlighting that 41% of children have seen adults bullying one another in the past six months. How can adults preach to child to not bully one another when the way in which adults relate to and speak to one another is wholeheartedly aggressive, disinterested and narrow-minded? ‘Bullying: Children point finger at adults’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-46140135 [accessed: 18:35, Sunday 18th November 2018].

[3] Here I refer to the controversial invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the British government’s arms trade with Saudi Arabia.

[4] The full order of service can be found here: https://www.westminster-abbey.org/media/5205/ww1-vigil-service.pdf

[5] The original 1914 composition of The Lark Ascending was written violin and piano. Williams later reconstructed the piece for an orchestra that premiered in 1920 and has become one of the most popular pieces of music of all time.

[6] I think there may be room here for discussion of the pastoral with Sigmund Freud’s conception of ‘melancholia’: ‘One feels justified in maintaining the belief that a loss of this kind has occurred, but one cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost, and it is all the more reasonable to suppose that the patient cannot consciously perceive what he has lost either […] This would suggest that melancholia is in some way related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness’ from ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud,  Volume XIV (1914-1916) p.245.

[7] https://ww100.govt.nz/history-guide [accessed 21:28, 18th November 2018].

[8] ‘Reperes’, http://www.centre-robert-schuman.org/userfiles/files/REPERES%20%E2%80%93%20module%201-1-1%20-%20explanatory%20notes%20%E2%80%93%20World%20War%20I%20casualties%20%E2%80%93%20EN.pdf [accessed 21:15, 18th November 2018].

[9] ‘Europe on the move: refugees and World War One’, Peter Gatrell, https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/refugees-europe-on-the-move# [accessed 19th November 2018].

[10] ‘In 1914, the whole of Africa, except Ethiopia and Liberia, was under European rule and Great Britain and France controlled the two largest colonial empires’, Experiences of Colonial Troops, Santanu Das https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/colonial-troops [accessed 16:29, 19th November 2018].

Love Note – The Spice Girls

Last Saturday, I managed to get tickets to see the Spice Girls and I am very excited. I first saw the Spice Girls in 1998 at Sheffield’s Don Valley stadium, sadly minus Geri who had left at that point, then again in 2008 for their reunion show in London. Now I am sticking to my rough 10-year schedule and seeing them for a third time; this time minus Victoria who is, understandably, keeping herself and her sophisticated and successful fashion line at a healthy distance from the gaudy, nostalgic pop-fest that encompasses all things Spice. I will miss her because although I related more to Sporty, Baby and Scary when I was younger, I always appreciated the presence of the scowling chic one in the little Gucci dress. I will also always reject the idea that she didn’t contribute much by way of vocal prowess. With perhaps the exception of Mel C, none of the Spice Girls meet truly exceptional heights of singing capability, and that’s OK because that was never the point.

So here I am, twenty years on from my first encounter with the Spice Girls, which is both horrifying and wonderful. The first time I encountered the Spice Girls was watching the iconic video for ‘Wannabe’ on Top of the Pops. After that, my life was Spice mad: I had the CDs, Spice Girls birthday cakes, Spice Girls dolls, Spice Girls posters and my long-suffering dad took me to see Spice World: The Movie. I was utterly convinced that they could see me at the end (fans of the film will know what I’m talking about) and I had absolutely no time for my dad’s protestations that they were ‘looking down a camera’. They were partially responsible for mine and my school friends’ ambitions of being world-famous popstars and I was a keen adherent to the crop top craze á la Sporty Spice: my favourite because she could sing the best, also supported Liverpool Football Club and looked the most like me. I think this was largely their (commercial) magic: there was a Spice Girl we could all relate to or identify with in some way or other.

What I was not so aware of when I was younger was just how commercial and marketised The Spice Girls were. I remember them being everywhere, to my delight at the time: they were all over Pepsi, Walkers Crisps, Polaroid cameras, Asda and Cadbury products and even fronted a range of temporary tattoos amongst their many other marketing campaigns. In addition, I can completely see now why people found this manufactured, product placement band next-level irritating. Similar consumerist endorsements from today’s popstars and musicians annoy me no-end: yet with their chemistry, their bubbly advocacy of ‘Girl Power’, the way they used to invade space and trample over their interviewers, their undeniably catchy songs and my young and unfiltered eyes, the Spice Girls were absolutely loveable. Indeed, they are still loveable in a nostalgic, escapist, harmless pop way. Despite my slight ambivalence, I have no qualms about re-visiting some of my favourite childhood pop songs for a few hours in Wembley next June, some of which include:

Who Do You Think You Are – Pumped up party tune posing a deeply existential question as a statement. Favourite lyric: ‘The race is on to get out of the bottom / The top is high so your roots are forgotten’.

Denying – 90s faux-RnB tune demanding acceptance from friend/lover/family member. Favourite lyric: ‘You think you’re so cool / Hey big man you’re old school’

Naked – Seductive ballad-esque situation that has matured better than some of their other output: emphasis on the female gaze is particularly progressive. Favourite lyric: ‘Undress you with her eyes, uncover the truth from the lies / Strip you down, no need to care, lights are low exposed and bare’.

Step To Me – Sassy song demanding relationship compliance that came as a Pepsi CD supplement. Favourite lyric: ‘Come on a step to me / Shame the devil, tell the truth / I can tell you don’t know what to do’.

Too Much – More 90s faux-RnB ballad gold dust, tapping into my early-twenties interest in the concept of ‘nothing’ and ‘nothingness’. Favourite lyric: ‘Too much of something is bad enough / But something’s coming over me to make me wonder / Too much of nothing is just as tough / I need to know the way to feel to keep me satisfied’.

New Zealand: music we listened to

Spending six weeks driving around New Zealand with my partner opened up a lot of time to listen to music new and old. We got round to the albums that we really should have heard by now and wallowed in songs that have been ringing around our heads for years. I thought I’d share my thoughts on a few here. Out of all the albums we downloaded (thanks Spotify), two really stood out the most, demonstrating some of the very best song writing around at the moment.

SZA – Ctrl

SZA-CTRL-album-cover

The first time I came across SZA was when she featured on ‘Consideration’, the opening song of Rihanna’s 2016 album Anti. Her voice has the gravelly soul of the great Lauryn Hill, coupled with a gorgeous raspy softness, and I was definitely interested to listen to this 2017 solo effort. The opening track, ‘Supermodel’, is breath taking, and I’m finding it hard to think of another first song that is as arresting, intertwining musical simplicity with lyrics that epically twist and turn with the complexity of the person singing. Beginning with the unflinching bravado of ‘I been secretly banging your homeboy’, SZA swings between a gutsy, devil-may-care façade and a piercingly sensitive portrait of an insecure young woman newly and unwillingly single. Here’s an extract just to taste:

‘Ooh just get a load of them

They got chemistry

All they could say

We like brother and sister

Look so good together

Bet they fuckin’ for real

 

And they was right

That’s why I stayed with ya

The—the dick was too good

It made me feel good

For temporary love

You was a temporary lover

 

Leave me lonely for prettier women

You know I need too much attention

For shit like that

You know you wrong

For shit like that

 

I could be your supermodel

If you believe

If you see it in me

See it in me

See it in me

 

I don’t see myself

Why I can’t stay alone just by myself?

Wish I was comfortable just with myself

But I need you

I need you

I need you’ – ‘Supermodel’, Ctrl

Vulnerability palpitates here: she clings to the glorious image of her and her ex, looking at their relationship through the eyes of others and consolidating how well matched they were. What is so subtle but revealing in the next verse is the caesura of ‘That’s why I stayed with ya / The – the dick was too good’. Even when SZA’s words are telling one story or conveying one apparent response, the caesura indicates that there is something more powerful underneath, disrupting the lyrics and their delivery. The break between ‘the’ and ‘the’ comes across as a stumble or a stutter, as though she catches herself before she lets her emotions flow through again, shifting awkwardly back into the almost traditionally masculine bravado of physicality. It’s not convincing at all that she just stayed with her boyfriend for sex; the hesitating break suggests that by referring to his dick she is attempting, perhaps unconsciously, to obscure her emotional distress over the break up, or distract from the pain of it. In her attempt to show a lack of care, she demonstrates that she cares very, very much and herein lies the song’s heart-wrenching vulnerability.

This becomes even clearer because her bravado does not last long: the caesura is followed by the chorus, which comes with a series of repetitions, for example ‘see it in me’ and ‘I need you’, and a question, ‘Why I can’t stay alone just by myself?’ She is aware that she has a desire to be secure within herself, a desire to not feel lonely even if she finds herself alone, but she is nowhere near there with her self-esteem or her emotional independence. She implores with her ex that she could be his ‘supermodel’, perhaps suggesting that physical beauty is an important thing to him, something he values in a relationship. It also, however, suggests that this is something that she values too, because she wants him to see outstanding physical beauty in her. She is hurt by the fact that he has left her for ‘prettier women’, suggesting that there is something lacking in her beauty that meant she couldn’t make him stay. It is incredibly moving listening to a woman grappling with why her boyfriend doesn’t want to be with her. At times, she tries to be the archetypal strong, independent woman who needs a dick and not a man; but at the same time she is crippled by self-criticism and constantly looks beyond herself for happiness and acceptance in superficiality.

And so the album begins. It is truly an outstanding way to set the scene for the rest to follow, with my particular favourites coming in the form of ‘Drew Barrymore’ and the trippy ‘Doves in the Wind’ featuring Kendrick Lamar, which reminded me of Lamar’s ‘YAH’ from his Pulitzer-prize winning album DAMN. It has something of the Frank Oceanic about it too. The most famous song from the album, perhaps, is ‘Weekend’ which was given a Majestic Casual-esque makeover (sic ‘Funk Wav Remix’) by Calvin Harris. Whilst I am here for as much soul and funk as possible, the remix does lose some of the carefully crafted vulnerability of the original; the delicate mingling of devil-may-care and crippling self-doubt, where a young woman tries to embrace the freedom of temporary, flexible romance but definitely wants more.  Overall, SZA is one of the artists I am most excited about at the moment. I am rarely convinced by portrayals or depictions of love and relationships in pop culture, but SZA’s raw songs are fresh and original in their sensitivity.

St Vincent – MASSEDUCTION

masseduction_st vincent

This was the album we listened to by far the most on our trip. I had been aware of St Vincent for a long time: the first song I can remember of Annie Clark’s was a collaboration with Grizzly Bear called ‘Slow Life’ from the Twilight: New Moon soundtrack (I don’t care what anyone says, the Twilight films were shite but the soundtracks most certainly were not. The soundtrack from this film, in particular, introduced me to Bon Iver, Band of Skulls and Thom Yorke); however, I had never taken the time to actually listen to any more of her music.

Initially, I got the wrong end of the stick with the title, reading ‘mass education’ and not ‘mass seduction’. This made the eponymous song, with its list of fetishes that get St Vincent hot under the collar, mildly confusing when I’d been expecting a manifesto on the importance of accessible, state-funded schooling. When I learned to read again (how ironic) it quickly became clear that this album is as passionate in its engagement with our hyperactive, hyper-sexualised pill-popping culture as I thought it would be about teaching. The tongue-in-cheek characterisation of sex, vanity and indulgence in songs like ‘Los Ageless’, ‘Sugarboy’ and ‘Savior’ are met with Jack Anatoff’s signature pulse-racing, electro-heavy production, creating a wacky Willy Wonka ride through the obsessions and repressions of modern romance.

These, however, are immediately offset and intermingled with songs that convey a real sense of desperation, the comedown after all the hype. Where individual grappling with anxiety, loneliness and regret, explored in songs like ‘Hang On Me’, ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’, ‘Young Lover’ and ‘Slow Disco’, is projected onto a collective future that is severely bleak. In ‘Fear the Future’, St Vincent demands an anonymous ‘Sir’ to confront the seemingly inevitable prospects of war and swelling oceans which, I think, is a blatant address to President Trump.[1] The awareness of personal and political turmoil rubbing together and creating intense heat is centre stage on this album. They fuel one another and create a fast-paced, energetic trip that makes contemplation and reflection both necessary and unavoidable.

MASSEDUCTION excels because whilst heavy with complex synths, dark discussions of mental health and demonstrating palm-sweating horror at the damage we do to ourselves and others, it is never far from a wry wink or a cheeky elbow in the ribs. Much like the pills St Vincent describes raining down on us and propping up our lives, I listened to this album compulsively.

Other albums we listened to:

father john mistyIsolationKendrickBLL

‘Pure Comedy’, Father John Misty – emotional encyclopaedia that is also warmly scathing in its criticism of humanity’s current condition: Trump, misogyny, religion, social media, cultural revolutions all take beatings.

‘Isolation’, Kali Uchis – the love child of Amy Winehouse and Rihanna. The happiest sounding sad songs I’ve come across in a while.

‘DAMN’, Kendrick Lamar – I miss the challenging, experimental narratives of ‘Good Kid, M. A. A. D City’ and ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, but Lamar’s lyrics have never been so performative nor complex than with this punchy, powerful album.

‘Melodrama’, Lorde – we couldn’t not listen to Lorde whilst in New Zealand (she’s from Devonport, Auckland). This album has become a certified modern classic and I would have loved for it to have been around when I was 20 and a mess. The sound engineering is great (see Jack Anatoff again) but the lyrics are gratingly immature at times; she’s perpetually self-deprecating but everything is always someone else’s fault too.

‘Konnichiwa’, Skepta – ‘Your ex plays in the Prem but you never see him taking a pen / ‘Cause if you can’t hit the G-spot when it comes to the spot kicks / Manna gotta wait on the bench’ is one of my favourite lyrics ever. More rappers need to pay attention to female sexual pleasure, please.

‘Ultraviolence’, Lana Del Rey – my go-to, come rain, shine, hell or high water. Del Rey and Dan Auerbach magic from beginning to end.

‘Big Little Lies’ Soundtrack – we listened to this so many times. A comprehensive textbook of blues and dream pop, featuring Charles Bradley, Michael Kiwanuka, Jefferson Airplane, Elvis Presley, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Agnes Obel, Alabama Shakes etc.

Personal playlists: featuring the likes of Tom Misch, Barney the Artist, Earth, Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye, Jamie Woon, Sade, The Beatles, The Doors, Leonard Cohen, Kate Bush, Enya (yes, really), Ann Peebles, Eminem, Whitney Houston etc.

[1] Released in 2017, MASSEDUCTION is one of a string of releases by American artists in that year who are seething and incredulous at the political fallout of the 2016 presidential election (see also Kendrick Lamar and Lana Del Rey).

‘It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back, so shake him off’: thoughts on the 2015 General Election result

This essay was originally published on a blog called Cloudbanks and Shimbleshanks on 8th May 2015, the day after the Conservatives won an outright majority in the General Election. Re-reading it a couple of days ago, I felt that it warranted re-publishing on Harping On. In spite of some of my more youthful writing, it’s shocking how pertinent it still reads, in particular with the idea that we need to use creativity and public space to combat inaction and apathy. As the world has been on a slippery political slope of increased austerity and hate ever since 2015, it is even more urgent that we are engaged and active now.

The 2015 General Election result undoubtedly set a precedent for everything that has followed since: most obviously with Brexit, but also for the much needed rise of Jeremy Corbyn and a regenerated socialist discourse. I know I did not do nearly enough during the EU Referendum campaign to get the result that I wanted and that didn’t come to pass. I hope, however, that in the publication of my novel ‘Tender is the Gelignite’, past me will be satisfied with my attempt at using creativity politically; the mad beastie of a book I have produced that explicitly critiques, mocks and performs the chaos that the 2015 election result laid the foundations for.  

When the broadcasting Exit Poll was published last night showing a Conservative outright majority, for a lot of people alarm bells started ringing. So many, myself included, were convinced that a hung parliament was on the cards only to see a seemingly endless sea of sickly, putrid blue envelope the country. For anyone who regards this country more as a society and a community than an economy perpetuated by self-interest and individualism, the result has been disastrous.

We all know what’s coming: the sinisterly named welfare ‘reforms’, a word that suggests progression and change but now signifies cuts and rolling back; tax cuts to the wealthiest and most affluent proportions of society; the NHS being carved up and sold off on the sly; security and protection services cut and contracts given to private companies; more people using food banks; cuts to sexual and mental health services; cuts to domestic violence services; council houses not being built, and those that are built being sold off; large corporations benefitting from state funding and not paying their taxes; banks still not paying back the £1 trillion that public money paid to save them because of reckless lending; and schools following an increasingly archaic and redundant curriculum. Just the tip of the iceberg for a party that had almost half of its members vote against gay marriage, who have ballsed up various inquiries into the sexual abuse of children because they have too many links to the perpetrating Establishment, and who want to abolish the European Human Rights Act. With David Cameron declaring in an uncanny and not at all un-ironic way that he wants to lead a ‘one-nation’ government, harking back to Benjamin Disraeli’s paternalistic One Nation Toryism, it looks like we’re set to be dragged back, even further than we already have been, into the recesses of the 19th century.

Again, we have seen that this country is held to ransom by Rupert Murdoch. It was easy to start believing that the power of social media could become a meaty force to be reckoned with, what with #milifandom, the fuelling of the #greensurge on Facebook and Twitter and the ease with which we can now engage with other people and with politicians themselves. It seems, however, that the old-school newspapers and tabloids, those slabs of tangible news (sic. bollocks) have seeped into public consciousness more successfully. Facebook has been recently heavily criticised for an algorithm that essentially filters what we see and read depending on our clicks and likes, thus ensuring that our newsfeeds become clogged up with articles and posts that we want to see: it is the blatant construction of false hope. Nothing I or anyone else of a left persuasion could have posted would ever have been able to compare with the reams of nasty vitriol spewing forth daily from the front pages of The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph and The Times in supermarkets, on buses and everywhere in between. Once again, as with the case of former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, the Murdoch-run rags have undoubtedly helped their Tory pals to seal the defeat of the opposition. It proves that once again, he should never be underestimated; the media is society’s main ideological machine, the conveyor of hegemony, and boy did Murdoch’s cronies take themselves to a whole new level of spiteful this election with the industrial smearing of Ed Miliband. They even managed to track down @twcuddleston, the girl who founded #milifandom, turning up on her doorstep having mysteriously found her unpublished address.

After the initial shock and panic of the election results, everything has become very clear. We need to shout louder, make our points clearer and harness this anger and sadness that so many of us are feeling right now and do something to counter the predominant narrative. I would argue that people have voted Conservative because of the endless diatribe of fear and austerity that we have been pummelled with. In these times of crisis, it looks like many people have decided to vote in a way that they will think will better them and their families specifically, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is that it facilitates a climate whereby people don’t vote for the sort of society they want to see as a whole, but for what will benefit them and their own for the longest time possible. This is an idea that has appealed to people of all social circumstances and is, perhaps, one of Thatcher’s most lasting legacies. It is time for hope: an end to the fear of difference in any of its racial, sexual or gendered forms and a return to the compassion and empathy that years of crisis in the early twentieth century created within the people of this country.

One of the books Michael Gove famously removed from the GCSE syllabus was To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel is full of important questions regarding race, gender and the interpretation of the law; but perhaps the most prominent ideological feature that can be read within the language and plot is the idea of trying to relate to another person’s ideas or actions, with Atticus most famously telling Scout, ‘you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it’. It’s such a simple concept, walking around as though you are another person, seeing with their eyes, feeling their emotions, but it can be, understandably, incredibly difficult and disconcerting. But that doesn’t make it any less important or worthwhile to do. We need to stop being so self-involved and think about a society that is fair and kind, not run on a heady quest to make ever more profit for oneself, no matter the cost to human lives and human experience.

In his book on the Establishment, Owen Jones talks about the need for grassroots political activism, think tanks and assemblies, and I completely agree. I seriously recommend the aforementioned book (the chapter on corporations scrounging off the largesse of the state in particular makes for simultaneously fascinating and sobering reading), but I think this is also the time for arts and creativity to, once again, to walk hand-in-hand with the political ideas. We need to produce more literature, more music, more film, more comedy that challenges the ideas that the Tories stand for. Whether we lean with Labour, the Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, TUSC or that empty shell of a party the Liberal Democrats, we need to be united and organised in our challenge to Tory and neo-liberal dogma. Undoubtedly, the SNP are going to give the Westminster cartel a complete headache with their grit, determination and passion, and we can do the same. The writers, the musicians, the film-makers, the academics, the twenty-somethings lost in the 21st century maelstrom of debt, unaffordable housing and a struggling NHS that we have inherited, need to use our creativity to reverse the consensus. Political activists need to join forces with bands, artists need to represent the struggle of unions and workers, we need to use our talents to hammer home that even though the Tories have this majority, they are not good enough for us. The pages of magazines and newspapers should be full of hope, images of like-minded people from different races, cultures, genders and sexual orientations in solidarity with one another.

Director extraordinaire Michel Gondry once said that ‘Every great idea is on the verge of being stupid’, which is both comforting and empowering. Here’s a potential one that could work: I always used to think that university elections were one and lost in toilets: stalls used to be plastered with mass produced stickers and flyers, and what better time to get to know someone’s policy than when you have a bit of time to kill in the loo? Similarly, in light of Protein World’s Beach Body advert, billboards were defaced and edited in small acts of powerful protestation. Maybe if we start reclaiming public spaces like loos or even better advertising boards (that invade almost every inch of our lives to make us aspire and feel insecure) on a big scale, on an un-ignorable scale, maybe we can start helping people to see beyond their front gardens, encouraging critical thinking, undercutting the power of the media and thereby the ideological dogma of our new government. This is the time for ideas and creativity as well as activism, and hopefully in 5 years time, we can shake of this exhausting, dead Tory weight that’s been holding us down for years.

Thanks again to the monument that is Florence Welch for the lyrics that inspired and serve as title to this essay.