The Child as Parent to the Art, by Tom Jennings.
[art review of Transitional Goods, by Sally Madge,
MAKE: The Magazine of Women’s Art, 1997 (unpubl.)]
The Child as Parent to the Art by Tom Jennings
[MAKE: The Magazine of Women’s Art, April 1997 (unpublished)]
‘Transitional Goods’, by Sally Madge, in Shop (group show), Blue Cowboys, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1996.
“What might be searched for is a patchwork which combines the specifics of time, place, event, gender, race, class, age and sexual orientation across comparative instances of complex social identity” (Caryn Faure Walker ).
“Her work weaves an elaborate web of personal, historical references, and in the same way that her own possessions become symbolic archetypes, her presence is simultaneously concealed and revealed” (Louisa Buck, on Rose Garrard ).
Such adventurous strategies and processes are increasingly adopted by contemporary British women artists, especially in installation, performance and multi-media. In her installations, for example, Sally Madge is developing a distinctive visual language – a cognitive and emotional projection of experience into embodied sites and spaces.
Installations are metaphorical bodies, at the intersection of the social construction of identity within biography, culture and politics. The complex ambivalences of life are rendered in three dimensions surrounding the viewer, whose emotional and aesthetic responses can resonate withm and/or oppose, those of the artist.
“What interests the artist is to animate the whole building. She wants to make tangible the parallel between the structural and physical body” (Penelope Curtis, on Hermione Wiltshire ).
“… to use objects which have their own story and sense of history … dislodged in time and place … now associated with the artist’s and viewer’s unconscious longings” (Tessa Jackson, on Dorothy Cross ).
From early work in sculpture, painting and ceramics, the problematic of containment – physical and psychological – was always central to Sally Madge’s art. The leap to installation then exploded tendencies towards interior reflection on universal experience and excavating unconscious conflict; so that the containment of form and content in traditional Fine Art becomes the historical specificity of the site.
Now, traces of personal experiences are intuitively blended with its institutional disciplining, etched into and contained by the fabric of buildings. Highly personal and idiosyncratic references, found objects, materials and media catalyse the concoction of so many different levels of connotation – surely unstable; but also satisfying, achieving a precarious balance of resonances in the viewer .
“We aim to ask serious questions abou shopping” (Blue Cowboys ).
“… [treating] the aesthetically despised categories and pleasures of popular culture … as things that are first nature and commonplace and mutually defining of subjectivity” (John Roberts ).
In ‘Transitional Goods’, the artist inflects the parent-child theme – through a typically lateral manouevre – emphasising the child within the adult, taken for granted as a central element of artistic expression, and of identity. An analogy is offered between the strange fascination exercised by consumer durables, often far exceeding any utilitarian or intrinsic worth, and the magical qualities children impute to their special toys. This is compared to adults collecting toys (or art), and to fetishism, nostalgia and kitsch.
By gathering hundreds of soft toys from car boot sales, charity shops and jumble sales, the economic relations of mass-produced commodities are questioned using alternative and undervalued forms of exchange (echoing their sweatshop production). The site-specificity of all these complications arises from filling an ex-Oxfam shop with an artist-curated group show about shopping, in a city centre whose image and planning is obsessed with consumerism.
This ironic over-determination is compounded by the value of the toys to their owners. Bought as gifts, passed on second- and third-hand, a considerable weight of emotional meaning accrues just as their monetary value plummets. Young children feel very close to these transitional objects, playing with fantasies of love, nurturance, security, control, punishment and cruelty.
“In playing the child externalises and works out the differing trends of her internal, psychic life … Children gather objects from the world and use these in their fantasies, playing out fragmented experiences which … come under their control … A child can resolve the conflicts of powerlessness within the family, and learn how to become a social being” (Jo Spence & Rosy Martin ).
“[This is] why … new experiences are painful. There is no trace without resistance, and there is no etching on a surface without pain” (Marike Finlay ).
Transitional objects oscillate between being felt as independent, external beings, or split-off parts of the self imagined into them via introjection and the fantasy role-playing of parents’ and siblings’ behaviour. The installation explicitly links these receptacles for controlled projection with adult play and creativity – a photograph has the mature artist, dressed in a childlike pink rabbit suit, in bed with her toys.
The richness of associations they evoke contrasts with the power of consumer objects, where an instant gratification of buying  supplants the difficult intimacy of social relations. After all, if anyone damaged these ‘transitional goods’, the artist wasn’t responsible. Whereas actual toys people keep as souvenirs from their own childhoods are often incredibly poignant – worn out, bald, battered, ripped apart – externalised scars of forgotten passion and ambivalence.
“[The] enactment of the maternal role locates desire in the mother, a multiple desire (for protection, security, mastery among others) satisfied not simply by the production of an object, like a baby, but by the possibility of holding and controlling the object” (Mignon Nixon, on Lousie Bourgeois ).
“… [the idea of] the failure in development ever to transcend primitive assimilative, ruminative and projective mechanisms” (Robert M. Young ).
The toys resonate with childish longings for satisfaction and security, simultaneously recalling the infantile terror and anger at the failure of the environment and its carers. To collect them might also render such conflicts safe, tamed by the energy of obsession and selectivity – as with the biographical falsifications of family photo albums .
However, the installation’s framing and juxtaposition complicate the pleasures of contemplation with more sorrowful, painful, abject and grotesque overtones. Apart from simple sentimental reactions, some viewers felt an urge to blend into the mass of toys (some children acted on this!); others also reported disquiet, repulsion or disgust.
“Loss is a function of fantasied destructive actions performed by the subject … capable, in fantasy, of repairing its damaged objects” (Mignon Nixon ).
“Space occupied and then vacated by the body also manifests the collapse through which object and desire, like self and other, are enfolded by infantile fantasy. The distinctions of inside and outside or bodyy and environment that are foundational for the gendered body are not observed” (Mignon Nixon, on Rachel Whiteread .
Scrambled together rather than packaged and classified, these soft toys look out balefully, accusingly. From the self-portrait, the artist watches them spill forth, draining the husk of an adult pink rabbit projected into the installation’s womb. They squeeze under a bare brick archway in the basement, leading to associations with the charnel house, mausoleum, death and horror. This structure implicates deeper layers of infantile fantasies; the terror of dissolution, anger and envy of the mother’s imagined powers of nourishment and withholding, love and hate.
Such fantasies mingle later with the pleasure and pain of sex, parenthood, children’s independence, ageing and death. In ‘Transitional Goods’ the intensity of a child’s pain and yearning live on in a middle-aged mother whose children have grown up and left home – expressed in the distance between the untidy mob of toys and the formally-staged, neatly mounted image of the artist. With hands folded over her abdomen, she reclines serenely among her babies/transitional objects/art medium .
“Various ‘gazes’ … help to control, objectify, define and mirror identities to us. Sometimes these gazes are loving or benevolent, often they are more intrusive … But of the myriad fragments mirrored to us, first unconsciously as babies, then as we are growing into language and culture, aspects of our identities are constructed … We learn the complexities of the shifting hierarchies within which we are positioned” (Jo Spence & Rosy Martin ).
“In domestic spaces … Bourgeois materialised the Kleinian notion of position as ‘a place in which one is sometimes lodged’. With great insistence on the concreteness of the objects, the corporeality of the viewer and the … space, she deployed objects … in the construction of memory itself as a ‘perpetual present’” (Mignon Nixon ).
Most interestingly, the viewer is stranded in this gap. One side of the installation is always out of sight, while the artist and the toys gaze in unison at the viewer. So if mothers, and artists, sometimes have manic fantasies of omnipotence; this too echoes the planning, manipulation and surveillance of contemporary urban space – especially in shopping centres, where viewers/consumers are caught in the gap between false promises of fulfilment and their own partly infantile needs and fantasies.
But in the installation, viewers can vary perspective, sensing the tensions in the spectacle. Displaying the vulnerability of the child-within, constructing her artwork from ‘serious play’, Sally Madge offers pathways through the paradoxes.
“The most fateful paradox is … posed by our simultaneous need for recognition and independence … that the other subject is outside our control and yet we need him [/her]. To embrace this paradox is the first step towards unravelling the bonds of love … not to undo our ties to others but rather to disentangle them, to make of them not shackles but circuits of recognition” (Jessica Benjamin ).
“… a bricolage in which fragments of high and popular art and naturalism are seen to flow from event to eventuality … [using] the spectator’s experience of fullness” (Caryn Faure Walker ).
1. Caryn Faure Walker, Ecstasy, Ecstasy, Ecstasy, She Said: Women’s Art in Britain, a Partial View, Cornerhouse, Manchester, 1994, p.29.
2. Louisa Buck, ‘Mapping the Marks’, in: Rose Garrard, Archiving My Own History, Cornerhouse, Manchester / South London Gallery, 1994, p.9.
3. Penelope Curtis, ‘Hermione Wiltshire: A Pressing Engagement’, in: The British Council Window Gallery, Prague. Selected Exhibitions, 1993-1996, p.16.
4. Tessa Jackson, ‘Earlier Work’, in: Dorothy Cross, Even (catalogue), Arnolfini, Bristol, 1996, p.6.
5. Sally Madge’s site-specific installations include: Listen With Mother, Newcastle, 1992 (the educative policing of parenting and creativity); The Thin Red Line, 1992 (clinical discourses of healthy bodies and minds); Hot House Cold Storage, Melmerby, Cumbria, 1994 (the taming of nature by farming, museums and heritage; see also Tom Jennings, ‘Nature Read in Truth and Straw’, Versus, No. 4, 1995, pp.60-62); Heart of the City, Newcastle, 1995; and Slippery Blisses, Waygood Gallery, Newcastle, 1996 (the cultural and economic relations of urban space). [She returned to the theme of childhood in 1999 with the installation Replay at the Childhood Memories Toy Museum, Tynemouth.]
6. Shop (programme), Blue Cowboys group show, Newcastle, 1996.
7. John Roberts, ‘Mad For It: Philistinism, the Everyday and the New British Art’, Third Text, 35, 1996, p.30.
8. Jo Spence & Rosy Martin, ‘Phototherapy’, in: Jo Spence, Cultural Sniping: the Art of Transgression, Routledge, 1995, p.166.
9. Marike Finlay, ‘Post-modernising Psychoanalysis / Psychoanalysing Post-modernity’, Free Associations, 16, 1989, p.76.
10. For discussions of object-relations psychoanalysis and consumerism, see: Barry Richards, ‘Schizoid States and the Market’, in: Capitalism and Infancy, Free Associations Books, 1984, pp.122-166; and Robert M. Young, ‘Transitional Phenomena’, in: Barry Richards (Ed.), Crises of the Self, Free Associations Books, 1989, pp.67-74.
11. Mignon Nixon, ‘Pretty as a Picture: Lousie Bourgeois’ Fillette’, Parkett, 27, 1991, p.61.
12. Robert M. Young, op cit. p.62.
13. see: Jo Spence, Cultural Sniping, op cit; Valerie Walkerdine, Schoolgirl Fictions, Verso, 1990.
14. Mignon Nixon, ‘Bad Enough Mother, October, 71, 1995, p.87.
15. ibid, p.89.
16. For discussions of the use of Klein and Winnicott’s psychoanalysis in art theory, philosophy, criticism and feminism, see: Elizabeth Wright, Psychoanalytic Criticism, Methuen, 1984; Marike Finlay, op cit; ‘Positioning Klein’, Women: A Cultural Review, 2, Summer 1990 Special Issue; and Mignon Nixon, ‘Bad Enough Mother’, op cit.
17. Jo Spence & Rosy Martin, op cit.
18. Mignon Nixon, ‘Bad Enough Mother’, op cit.
19. Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination, Virago, 1990, p.221.
20. Caryn Faure Walker, op cit, p.31.
The Child as Parent to the Art, by Tom Jennings.
adrin neatrour writes: It looks like an angel to me…. The Lives of Others F.H.von Donnersmarck Germany 2006 127 mins: Martina Gedeck; Ulrich Muhe; Sebastian Kock
Viewed: Star and Shadow Newcastle, 16 May 2007; Ticket price – £4-00
Looks like an angel to me
I don’t like movies with angels. Unless they’re in leathers and ride motorbikes angels seem to permit directors to indulge the most banal types of wish fulfilment. The Lives of Others(LO) is simply a dressed up retro guardian angel movie which allows director Donnersmarck to indulge a gentle fantasy that owes little to Honnecker’s East Germany and almost everything to Hollywood.
Set in 1983 LO is a long sentimentalised journey that uses the DDR ( East Germany) as a sort of comfortable backdrop against which to deliver a long shaggy dog tale. The East Germany Donnersmarck depicts in the film doesn’t exist as a place defined by a geography of tortured incongruities and contradictions. There is nothing in the camera work or the structure of the film that denotes the state as an enforcement system. Donnersmarck simply shoots his material as he might do a glossy American soap opera, as if the camera had nothing more that it could possibly add to the matter. The result is that visually the DDR is abstracted unreal sort of place. Like Dallas. There is no message from the past or for the future for us in this show. The vacuous cinematography is matched by the talking heads editing that characterises the film. Donnersmrck’s principle ( his background looks as if it is in advertising and TV drama) seems to be to keep the picture moving by hard cutting in all of the scenes. The principle is that if you cut fast enough people won’t get bored with the picture (as it’s never in front of their eyes for more than 10 seconds) and secondly they will be distracted from the banality of the dialogue by editing which concentrates attention on emotive reading generated by the action cuts. In LO Donnersmarck never allows the viewer to watch the interaction in “ two shots” : if he has two ro three people in dialogue, he immediatelycuts in to shot – reaction – shot , so forcing the viewer to take his shots through the sequences.
I think that the reason for the dead cinematography and the manic forced cutting is that Donnersmarck has nothing to say. Donnersmarck thinks he is telling a story. In fact what is doing is force feeding us a plot line. Story deepens and enhances character; plot diminishes and cheapens the players. Story has organic ties to the material with which it engages in a complex circuitry. Plot is simply a mechanical driver whose object is deliver the players from starting point to preordained finishing point. In some ways it’s an ends and means distinction. Plot is anally fixated on its ending. So, the means plot utilises: character, setting, dynamics and tensions all completely subserve the delivery of the final sequence. LO is all plot and no substance. Donnersmarck thinks that he is telling us a story with a moral: that good men and goodness will survive evil systems. But in terms of the plot driven nature of LO the film is just machine whose function is to manipulate an outcome. And the idea of the moral which rests upon the notion of choices cannot sit within a mechanical form. The moral choice in this situation doesn’t exist; what happens in plot driven forms is the characters instead of acting out scripts in which they have to make choices, get scripts that ask them to adopt particular roles. And the roles of course conform to cliché. So we have: the whore addict, the Madonna, the Innocent the Warrior and the Angel.
LO is an Angel story – specifically a guardian angel story. It is a film with no sense of place, with no atmospheric presence. It is simply an angelic variation on a love story with a vague slightly menacing corporate setting that is as much American paranoiac as East German Stasi. Wiesler a senior Stasi agent organises the total surveillance of the regime pet intellectual, Dreyman. But his fascination for Dreyman and his girlfriend leads him to take on the role of their protector rather than their persecutor. Donnersmarck’s plot wants to guide us into thinking of Wiesler as a good man because he carries out his actions altruistically without thought of reward for himself expecting no recognition and willingly taking on risk. But the plot doesn’t allow the audience any sense of Wiesler’s choices or his sense of moral dilemma. From his surveillance station above Dreyman’s flat which he shares with his girl Christa, watching the couple eat talk screw sleep work he adopts the role of their guardian angel. There is no message here just an advertising strap line – someone is watching over us. This benignly bent surveillance becomes the device on which LO hangs the mechanism of the plot, which has little tension, and few twists of the screw that cause the characters any real issues of moral choice. Christa for instance who as well as being Dreyman’s girl, is also fucking a party big shot, finally betrays him. But betraying Dreyman is not her moral choice proper. It is a decision that is determined by her role: she is a drug addict. When the state (because she throws over the big shot) threatens to choke her dope, she sings, so that the plot can then grind on to its fake twee moral ending. But of course Christa’s “betrayal” is a cop out. Never trust a junkie, because what’s a junkie going to do to get her fix – anything.
In LO, Donnersmarck attempts to raise issues about the DDR, such a suicide, the widespread networks of informants and intensive surveillance of intellectuals. But these issues can’t really sit in a movie characterised by actors playing roles. In the same way as some Hollywood movies adopt or try to promote issues, the feeling is that like baubles on a Christmas tree the issues are there to attract attention to the film rather than to generate more real responses.
It might be that cultures require a generation at least before they are able to look back attentively at the past. But at this point Germany is looking to Hollywood rather than to its own traditions for understanding what it has experienced.
adrin neatrour writes: Were an uninitiated observer – say a dude from planet Mars – watch a round of championship golf being played by two men on TV, would that observer understand that what he was watching was in fact a sporting contest? Golf on TV – what you see what you don’t
Were an uninitiated observer – say from the planet Mars –to watch a round of golf being played by two men at the Masters, would that observer understand that what he was watching was in fact a sporting contest? To judge by the intoned whispered BBC commentary you might think that what was taking place was some kind of religious ceremony.
After watching some play at the Masters 07 on TV I thought a little about what I had observed. Looking at the golf on TV with a naïve eye what seems to be happening is that small groups of men are walking round a large park. Sometimes large crowds are watching them. The men are not in any particular hurry. They stroll over the ground never breaking out of a certain relaxed stride. They are all smartly dressed in the sort of casual clothes you buy at a shopping mall. Some of the men carry large bags full of clubs; the men who use the clubs walk unencumbered. They stop from time to time and take a golf club out of its bag and strike a small white ball lying on the ground. They keep hitting their ball until they eventually get it into a little hole that has been drilled into a very smooth sward of grass. At this point they collect the ball and begin the process all over again.
Looked at from a certain point of view golf seems not so much a sport as rather a particular sort of statement endorsing a particular sort of life style: the suburban life style. It comes across as a ritualised expression of suburban etiquette, a carefully played out enactment of how suburban people should interact with each other.
Sport(in the modern sense of the word) is something else.
Sport is an activity in which individuals engage in rule bound opposition and competition. What is striking about golf is that these characteristics are minimalised. The players are not in head to head contest as in running or swimming events: the players do not square up to each other like gladiators such as wrestlers or tennis players or the team games such a football and cricket: the players do not contest for mastery of a bounded terrain – in the sense that they can manipulate the play area aggressively to the disadvantage of their opponent – as witness sports such as snooker or croquet. Golf might be thought to resemble sports such as discuss or gymnastics where opponents neither contest shoulder to shoulder nor face to face. But these sort of sports are characterised by taking place in a closely contained area, a pit, where all the contestants are bound together within a circle of competitive intensity. These sports also a in general characterised by explosive action of short duration. Golf shares few of these qualities.
In golf the action, the execution of a shot may be explosive (or not as the case may be – putting is a gentle touch stroke). But the game is a series of events taking place over the duration of about three hours during which the men walk through 18 holes laid out in a park, which is a diligently maintained space that represents the triumph of land management – landscape – over nature. The characteristic feature of the sport is that the contestants spend most of their time within the bounds of the game simply strolling engaging each other in occasional pleasantries and always behaving towards each other with the utmost decorum,
On the surface there are few signs that this is a contest – even at the top level of the professional game. The men walk from hole to hole: each plays his own game and tries to get his own ball home. There is little sense of urgency or of competition. You might if you did not know better suppose that what you were watching was some sort of charming male ritual, perhaps connected with fertility or even the church…..
At this point we have to take account of the suburban housing estate. In England and the US it is probably no accident that golf courses and the game itself developed and increased in popularity with the spread of suburbia. In the typical well to do suburban estate the houses are ideally all detached, set back from the street and fronted by tidy manicured gardens whose characteristic feature is either a smooth sward of lawn or gravel, bordered with flower or herbaceous beds. Where the houses face each other there is a broad road between them, or where, as in modern developments broad roads are too much a luxury even for the upper middle income brackets, the houses are set at angle to each other so that none directly overlooks another. To the untrained uninitiated eye the houses all look somewhat similar. The cars parked in the drives mostly look new and gleaming and if you catch the dwellers on their non work days they wear smart casual clothes purchased at the a local shopping mall. You might think that was it. Groups of similar looking structures occupied by groups of similar looking people who are minding their owe business. The estate design minimises sound spill between the units and sight lines between the houses do not facilitate easy visual monitoring between the units. This isn’t a community in the traditional sense but community in its modern incarnation: a group of people brought together because they all share a defining trait in common: in this case the people are brought into community by their shared ability to buy into a neighbourhood that has a high price tag. A community that has as a consequence of its elective nature, an innate sense of social status.
But these status conscious inhabitants are generally highly intra competitive. Underneath the surface of the monochrome estate there are often intense rivalries taking place between individual units for claims to public acknowledgment of status within the community. Competition in suburban communities tends to be understated – barely admitted to. Victory does not go to those who flaunt conspicuous consumption or their wealth. Victory goes to the understated display related to life style. Ostentation and vulgar symbols of wealth earn fewer status points than having the right expensive but conservative car, holiday in the right places, send children to the right schools, belong to the right clubs. Nothing announcers these signifiers as competition, but covertly (occasionally overtly) there is a competing ethos once you live there and understand what is going on.
Seen in the context of the suburban life style I begin to understand golf as a sporting contest, understated in form but real in substance. Golf is an extension of the suburban estate ethos, a life style that has adopted golf as its preferred form of sporting expression. From the outside of the estate you really see very little, what is happening is a closed off utterance. You see a group of unexceptional large brick houses, you see two guys watering the lawn. On the golf course the competition is not face to face, there is no overt agonistic display. no triumphant rictus or fist, no verbal aggression. It is closed utterance. But competitive it is, as two men walk a golf course in each others affective company, interacting politely and each taking it turn to play their ball. Just as competition exists on the suburban estate across all sorts muted indicators that are familiar and accessible to the urban anthropologist rather than to the sport’s fan.
What we have on the estate is a situation in which competition is incorporated into the life style itself, unstated but always present to the extent that it is a constant frame of reference for the inhabitants who have deeply internalised the rules of their status competition. By extension there is a similar ethos in golf as the preferred form of recreation of suburbia. It embodies a form of competition that is not directly visible, being a product of a lifestyle that in itself is intensely competitive whilst at the same time taking pains to deny that there is any competition (We’re all very friendly here!) In golf with its handicap system everyone should end up with more or less the same score; the real competition is mediated through a series of social and individuals testings which coalesce into pressure situations in which the individual has to demonstrate to his opponent that he can pass muster. Golf is not so much won or lost as a match but as a test of character, a test of showing that you are a person of sufficient self control to be a worthy game playing inhabitant of suburbia. It’s a pressure thing about control under pressure.
Even at the pro level golf is not a game played with a raw visceral self. Its played with a mask. Sports often reveal an undisguised and naked aspect or face of the individual. Defeat and victory release strong emotive forces that tear the social mask away from the individual. In golf the test seems to be whether one can keep the mask on all the time. To walk from tee to tee from ball to ball from green to green as if nothing very much was happening. To stroll across the park exchanging pleasantries and coded barbed comments without reacting to being in the game. Golf mimics the rituals of the estates from which it recruits. At the barb-b-q or Christmas party the overriding concern in interaction is with face. To grin smile and nod and laugh at the right cues and to be prepared to defend one’s status with appropriate gesture or form of words should it be subtly threatened undermining of one’s status. Golf like suburban life is played with a false self. A self that is construct of status and the primacy of self image. A round of golf like the company dinner party is ultimately a test of the robust nature of this false self, and the true object of the game as it has developed in its suburban ritual, even at the highest professional level, is to maintain this false self at a high level of operative efficiency.
This analysis shows golf to be a highly unusual sport in particular at the professional level where code of conduct is highly enforced (other sports of course have this – snooker for instance, but snooker players operate in a pit where the competition is direct and aggressively intended towards the opponent and where interaction with the opponent is not a necessary feature of the competition). The professional golfer are all very nice people who would be welcome as residents in any up market suburban housing enclave. For the professionals the self of emotions fears and desires is reined in and kept under control. They play with the mask an idealised self constructed out of suburban norms and value systems and this self regimented in the etiquette of middle class niceties is what we see in professional competition on the golf course.
It is no surprise then to understand that the golf course is also a special type of recruiting environment, able to inform the examiners if the applicant is one of us – able to sustain appearances under pressure able to perform with a false constructed self.
At this point I haven’t mentioned that the TV coverage of the Masters, and indeed all golf coverage fully accords with the mores of the game. The live from the course commentary delivered hushed tones in the reassuring rounded tones of middle England. The voices are respectful of everyone: the players, the organisation, the spectators and comply fully with the etiquette of the formal dinner party. The coverage and commentary are in relation to current TV and media norms in a sort of time warp, adopting a style and tone of reverence that are of an era when the media knew its place – as servants. It is interesting that the anchor studio role of Gary Lineker was criticised in many quarters – in particular it is said by the Masters organisers who didn’t like his style. Lineker’s attitude was in fact entirely traditional. His problem both in accent and tone was that he looks and sounds like that phenomenon known to all exclusive estates, an arrives who didn’t make the appropriate expressive moves and gestures to cover up his provenance. His crime was the old fashioned social faux pas of not having the decency to cover up or at least make his origins (working class footballer) acceptable unobtrusive.
As a final note on a point already alluded to, the golf course is a certain type of park. It is a high maintenance environment (one that is increasingly perceived in arid regions as destructive of environment on account of its demand for copious quantities of water) that is certainly a reflection of the idealised suburban world which supports it. It reflects a suburban view of nature: it has all the constituent parts of the natural world: shrubs, trees, plants, flowers and grasses(of which few people know the names). But this swath of nature is benignly ordered trimmed strimmed and managed. It is a non threatening environment and is part of the order of things that exist for the enjoyment of life style.
Class-ifying Contemporary Cinema, by Tom Jennings
[essay on David Lynch, and modern cinema and its critical interpretation, published in Variant, No. 10, March 2000; and in Contexts: Arts and Practice in Ireland, Vol. 3, No. 1, April 2004]Class-ifying Contemporary Cinema by Tom Jennings
[essay on David Lynch, modern cinema and film criticism, published in: Variant, 10, March 2000, pp.16-19; and Contexts: Arts and Practice in Ireland, Vol. 3, No. 1, April 2004, pp.72-85]
Even in the ‘digital age’ of advancing video and computer markets, the scale and hype of Hollywood, its spin-offs and the rest of the cinema industry lead films to dominate many people’s relationships with commercial popular culture. They tend to be the organising centre for the private consumption of TV’s visual wallpaper, while multiple screens proliferate to cater for that special public submission to overwhelming sounds and images. This strength of impact allows elements of film narratives, styles and characters to become markers of experience and identity, so that cinema is as thoroughly woven into social and cultural life as, say, sport or music.
However, public discourse on cinema has been surprisingly limited: film-as-art theory and philosophy, gee-whizz journalism, technical studies, family viewing advice; all entailing a fair degree of snobbery of one kind or another. But writing about films is now catching up with the sophistication and diversity of the commodities it addresses (1), largely thanks to cultural and media studies shifting the terms of debate on ‘mass culture’. The sheer complexity of responses to films, and thus the general significance of cinema for modern cultures, can now be questioned along with the wider social, economic and political dynamics of culture.
Established rhetorics of art, morality and taste still have useful mileage for a range of interests: many films are produced and marketed in terms of them being the ‘cutting edge’ of experimental cinema as an art form. Claims made for their value relate more to avant garde form and risky content, rather than any ‘uplifting’ qualities; indeed, their controversial nature and success are more likely to be attributed to regressive and reactionary tendencies, both of the film-maker and the audience. So-called independent or art-house films follow commercial pressures just as much as the mainstream, but not necessarily with the same budgets or agendas of Hollywood (that is, multinational) companies. The films exploit niche marketing by targeting diverse audience – combining styles, genres and narrative structures in one product (2). This also makes them ‘postmodern’, so they tend to have cachet as art. And as the major companies begin to exploit the profit potential of each new wave of film makers, the names of the directors (as stars/auteurs) become the promotional focus – rather than films being vehicles for their celebrity actors or their titles functioning as commodities.
One effect of the breaking down of conventional categories of genre and narrative is that films may be relatively open-ended, confusing to viewers, or even downright unintelligible. Other films and media images are referred to as much as real situations, using pastiche and parody, while nostalgic images and styles bring versions of the past firmly into the present. Horrific, sublime, unpresentable aspects of human experience are not funnelled off in embarrassment into specialised genres such as horror or pornography. Instead they are brought into the centre of mundane existence.
Significantly, these ‘postmodern’ films usually strongly privilege white male middle class perspectives and choices – and the film literature generally mirrors this tendency, especially ignoring what non-middle class viewers might make of them. However, the frightening, erotic or disgusting contexts that middle class protagonists struggle in and out of are usually represented by poor and dangerous Black and/or working class communities and characters.
So the ‘slumming’ in Something Wild, After Hours, Blue Velvet, Sammy And Rosie Get Laid, etc., contrasts with earlier generations where magic and horror are located in the wealth and decadence of upper class life (of course, many films continue this tradition). Respectable lifestyles are portrayed as not only boring and sterile, but totally insecure – hardly the morale-boosting stuff of aspiration and meritocracy peddled elsewhere by education and the media. Slumming in the yuppie nightmare is a cautionary tale – titillation then reassurance for middle class viewers. Waking from the bad dream, having sampled the terrifying but sublime environment of the gutter (a commodity on offer in the supermarket of life), audiences feel refreshed for the rigours of their professional lives. But how will the inhabitants of the gutter (that is, poor, Black and/or working class viewers) respond to their portrayals? The film literature seems to find it very difficult to pay attention to such questions.
But just as interpreting films need not focus on questions of artistic, intellectual or political merit, neither is there any inevitable identification with middle class characters and dilemmas. Ordinary viewers will select some elements of the films, and will enlarge on these in the imagination and in discussion. They can experiment, identifying with different characters, positions and possibilities within the narrative – and can switch among them during viewing and afterwards. With their open-ended plots and bizarre characters, the new films in particular are likely to stimulate very varied and complex feelings and thoughts, in wider audiences, as they achieve higher box office returns and wider cinema, video and TV distribution.
The yuppie nightmare soon retreated into the more smug subgenre of ‘x from hell’, where ‘x’ may be a neighbour, flatmate, employee, etc. – showing the further social alienation and paranoia of recent generations of successful middle class consumers. Meanwhile the mixed genre characteristics of the yuppie dilemma are used in films which purport to apply more to waking life than to nightmares or romantic dreams, such as in Cape Fear, Candyman, Deep Cover, Kalifornia, White Palace and Pretty Woman. Alternatively, the slumming may be performed by the audience carried along by the narrative in sampling unhappier lives or by parachuting obviously middle class characters into lower class narratives (such as in City of Hope, Short Cuts, Shopping and Lone Star).
The 1990s mixed genre films continue to go further in blending fantasy and narrative layering. Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction use the crudest of genre stories and characters, stitched together with inventive camera direction, editing and plot devices. The films twist and turn according to the minutiae of real human personality, random accidents, banality and psychopathology of daily life, recalcitrant complexity of the world and over-determination of events. A remarkable kind of emotional and situational realism ensues, in the midst of elaborate homages to just about the most unrealistic cinema styles imaginable. Tarantino’s scripts are compelling enough for their power to persist even through Tony Scott’s sentimentalism (True Romance) or Oliver Stone’s moralising individualism (Natural Born Killers) (3). In general, even though big budget mainstream films now routinely use the virtuoso camerawork, filming techniques and narrative complexity learned from independent film makers, their stories and characters are often even weaker and narrower than before. As in the cases of cult and exploitation genres, new film methods are mainly enlisted by Hollywood merely as a gloss on the superficiality of existing genres, and in the process the most interesting and powerful aspects of the source material are lost (4). Except, perhaps, when the success of independent directors propels them into the big budget arena – as in Tarantino’s meteoric rise, or more modestly in the case of David Lynch.
A Body of Films
David Lynch has been exemplary in experimenting with style and genre. He is uncompromising in locating extremes of sexuality, violence, fear and pleasure within ordinary life; trangresses boundaries of taste and moral and political acceptability; and keeps to his own trajectory despite fluctuations in popularity with both audiences and the industry. He depicts Middle America as full of emotional excess, signposted by his characters’ weirdness, where scratching the surface reveals rich and hysterical depths. The films can be read as critiques of bourgeois social arrangements and morals, which suppress, fear and may be undone by the effects of passion and fantasy on bodies and behaviour, relationships and institutions.
Lynch’s early films are notable for bizarre, lurid, nightmare visions of grotesque bodily excrescence, infantile emotion, dreams and a powerful sense of nostalgia for past eras and lost innocence. These subjects are not treated by romanticising them: typical moods are depression, rage and ambivalent desire. In the short film The Grandmother (1970) and in Eraserhead (1976) these effects are achieved against backdrops of industrial, urban and family blight, but without relying on traditional surrealist or horror genre conventions. Critics were thus left with no easy way of dismissing the films, except for their weirdness – and this mute response no doubt helped Eraserhead become a cult classic for horror audiences. Something similar might have happened with Elephant Man (1980), if it hadn’t been for the prop of a ‘true’ story, funded by the mainstream industry with corresponding budget and hype.
Dune (1984) failed even as cult, partly because the source material (Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic) was too vast. But Lynch continued to harness the body’s vulnerability, power and monstrosity – bypassing thought and language – to illuminate and complicate personal dilemmas and their social contexts. From Dune onwards Lynch’s films deal explicitly with recognisable coming-of-age and family dramas. Such developments possibly say as much about what was needed to consolidate his move into the mainstream, as opposed to the director’s ‘artistic’ ambition – for example when market imperatives insist on appealing to younger audiences (5).
Blue Velvet (1986) was a turning point, set in an identifiable postwar America, and not the timeless, fantastic worlds of its forerunners. In all Lynch films the implacable, menacing presence of the flesh, raw nature, and their excesses of degradation and ecstasy, are central motifs. In Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks (1989-90), Wild At Heart (1990), and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), the fascination of these images and experiences is thoroughly woven into depictions of ‘real life’. It becomes difficult to distinguish fantasy from reality; to identify boundaries between them; or even to know whether or not any such boundaries exist at all – as in Lost Highway (1997).
Blue Velvet has Jeffrey (Kyle Maclachlan) on summer vacation in Lumberton (small town USA) working in the hardware shop owned by his father, who has a heart attack. Out walking on waste ground, Jeffrey finds a severed ear. Helped by Sandy (Laura Dern), girl-next-door and police detective’s daughter, he traces the mystery to nightclub singer Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini). She finds him in her closet and forces him to strip at knife-point. Before she can seduce him, Frank (Dennis Hopper) arrives. He is a psychotic drug-dealer who has kidnapped her husband and son and cut off the former’s ear. From the closet Jeffrey sees Dorothy’s humiliation in a violent sexual ritual. When Frank leaves, Jeffrey comforts her, is seduced and acquiesces to her masochistic pleas. On discovery they are taken by Frank and cronies to a seedy club where the doped up Ben mimes Roy Orbison’s ‘Sand Man’, then Jeffrey is beaten up and dumped on waste ground. Jeffrey and Sandy dance like lovers at a high school bop. When they arrive home Dorothy falls bruised and naked into his arms declaring passionate love. She is sent to hospital. Jeffrey finds her husband plus corrupt cop dead in her apartment, then Sandy’s dad arrives and paternally tidies up. Sandy, Jeffrey and their families end with a barbecue idyll.
The avalanche of criticism and analysis following Blue Velvet’s release was as contradictory as the film itself (6). Mainstream critics pigeonholed the narrative as small town or rites of passage drama, film noir, psychological thriller, soft porn cult, nostalgia film, gothic comedy or surrealism, or even as a religious parable of sin and redemption. Cultural analysts tended to feel that blending styles and images from several periods was superficial – everything being made equally bizarre, as well as appearing normal, without sufficient context to make it socially or politically meaningful. The ‘unspeakably’ fascinating images and behaviour – dirt, nature, flesh, violence and perversion – were interpreted as distractions, depicting evil in a way that evokes distaste rather than horror. Worse still, in linking sexual desire with violence and voyeurism, the psychological logic was said to leave the characters no better options. But the use of songs, names, nicknames, media and advertising fragments, plus images of the cruelty of nature, resonate strongly with all sorts of unexpected significance. Bypassing rationality, such sounds and images have more power to focus the hidden desires of the protagonists. They explode into the viewer’s awareness, in extremes of colour and lingering close-up, with an impact that can’t easily be grasped by analysing the narrative. For both characters and viewers, events in the film resemble dreams – where apparently random elements condense, combine and multiply, uneasily reconstructed in memory or description.
Critics and academics were frustrated in their need to impose authoritative readings, in the absence of a congenial ‘message’. So, every single review and analysis assumed that the final scene represented Jeffrey’s return to normal real life. But it could just as easily be another twist in the nightmare. By crudely embedding Jeffrey’s dream or fantasy in a small town mystery, Lynch fulfils his ambition to reveal strange desires lying beneath a respectable veneer. Yes, the film does threaten safe middle class life. It depicts perverse inadequacy, the fear, hatred, idealisation and stereotyping of women and the dangerous potential of the criminal lower classes to invade and ruin the pleasant security of the American Dream. These feelings are not conveniently attributed to an ‘other’. They are hidden under the nice, clean-cut exterior of a young man ready to take his place of power in the middle class scheme of things, grounded in the trivia of romantic consumerism. Viewers who aren’t middle class may not make Lynch’s and the critics’ mistake, seeing Jeffrey as representative of ‘Everyman’. Instead we might glimpse and understand a little more clearly the attitudes of those with power over us – attitudes which may be multi-layered and complex, but which are also very concrete in shaping the conduct of those in the professions, commerce, education and the media.
The American Nightmare
Wild At Heart is a family drama, road movie and love story. Lynch transforms Barry Gifford’s novel, focusing again on the body’s ecstasy, agony and violation, and the visual impact of fire, sex and death. Sailor (Nicholas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) avoid awareness of their excesses by weaving all experience into fairytale yearning via images and narratives from rock and roll. Sex is their drug and their anaesthetic, and as they lurch between catastrophes the past always catches up with them. The past and the present are more complicated than in Blue Velvet, however. The lovers seek freedom from Lula’s well-off mother (Dianne Ladd) whose status derives from gangsterism – in many ways more representative of American economic history than shop owners.
The underclass hell looms, and the concerns of Sailor, Lula, their family and community, collide with and mirror the cruel animal passions of its denizens – personified by Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe). They are distinguishable from the main protagonists by the latter’s race, suburban accoutrements and aspirations for themselves and their children. So, the fate of a rich teenager affects the lovers far more deeply than their own predicament, as she frets about her handbag and her parents’ anger while bleeding to death after a car crash. The film can be read as reflecting the fantasies and fears of the new middle classes. They escaped from the ghetto, but expressing dangerous passion could return them there. To be safe, romance must stay within the class and race limits staked out in geography and psychology by conventional American social structures (7).
Twin Peaks is a bizarre murder mystery and comic soap opera, attracting huge TV audiences. Lynch parodies the soaps, giving the characters absurd idiosyncracies and relationships, although sticking to emotional realism in the family and neighbourhood dramas depicted. But everything hinges on the mystery of the naughty teen queen’s murder. The convoluted plot keeps fans of detective stories alert, identifying with FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle Maclachlan). As before, the series can be read in terms of the main character’s fantasies. Only Cooper has more than two dimensions – ace detective, father figure, scientist, masculine ideal, bureaucrat, all-American WASP, new man, philosopher and mystic, government representative, tourist, pervert, angel – you name it! In his desire to master truth, fight evil and control his world, he embodies the middle class ambition for domination via knowledge and individual merit. Displaying superhumanity, he charismatically enrols the entire community to his agenda, so that by the end they all inhabit what amounts to his imaginative world. Crucially, Twin Peaks shows that the whole project must fail – the narrative, the TV concept and the worldview. Neither Lynch nor Cooper, nor the reign of science and middle class values, can run the show or solve the problems – the nearer Cooper thinks he gets, the more the Twin Peaks community falls apart. That Twin Peaks needed to go to such extremes to reach this conclusion bears witness to the power and fascination of those myths.
In the feature film ‘prequel’, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, this theme was spectacularly pared down to the failure of the American nuclear family as well as the FBI. On TV we saw the diverse manifestations of ‘evil forces’ (i.e. some of the more appalling expressions of masculine insecurity) in an extended community. Whereas the film begins with the authorities’ arrogance and stupidity – obsessed with their worldviews, rituals and trivia, the incompetent FBI men chase around pontificating about the nature of evil. Meanwhile, in the face of forces which pose as benign, a young woman struggles to establish an identity and a sense of agency over her life. Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) lurches desperately between agony, anger and an ambivalent search for distraction in drugs, sex and friendship. All of these she abuses, mirroring her father’s (Ray Wise’s) denied cruelty and her mother’s (Grace Zabriskie’s) distant, preoccupied neglect – in possibly the most powerful cinematic treatment ever of long term sexual abuse. Navigating an intolerable course, some of her troubled dreams begin to unravel, and she can see the dread reality more clearly. Her father kills her, rather than allow truth to surface. And the rest of the adult world, by implication, colludes. The community holds onto its complacent ignorance, and the police maintain their delusions of control and grandeur.
You Take the High Road
Lost Highway in some ways closes the circle. Like the early films it tackles the main character’s existential chaos. Middle aged avant garde jazz musician Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) has a comfortable yuppie lifestyle, and posh, though strange, home and wife Renee (Patricia Arquette). He is convicted of her frenzied murder after receiving videos shot inside their home – the work of a ghost (Robert Blake) Fred has met at a party. Fred’s paranoia becomes splitting headaches in prison. He is transformed into young mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) and freed even though the ‘mistaken identity’ remains inexplicable. Returned to his conventional working class home, Pete hangs out with homies, works on Mr Eddy’s (Robert Loggia’s) car, becoming enmeshed with gangster’s moll Alice Wakefield (also Patricia Arquette – more ‘mistaken identity’). Their plan to rob the criminals goes pear-shaped, but all the other main characters disappear or kill one another, and events become impossible to rationalise (for Pete and for viewers). Pete turns back into Fred and the film ends in a flash of light as the police chase him down an unknown highway.
None of the details in the film are necessarily ‘true’ – we are in the realms of identity loss and madness. The story may represent Fred’s doomed attempt to fantasise solutions to his intolerable fears, since even during the most shocking events we focus on his confusion. Despite an enviable position, and a job which is also a passion, he is uneasy and distrustful of everything – his wife, his shadowy home, the world outside. Whatever the circumstances of his metamorphosis into Pete, it surely can’t be coincidence that he escapes from himself into a carefree working class youth. Except that abuse, deceit and injustice quickly filter into this incarnation too – much of it down to him. Then, mistrusting his own thoughts, perceptions and feelings, he has nowhere else to go. No one else, in either Fred or Pete’s life, has much more of a grip on ‘reality’. Authorities (such as the police or Pete’s parents) seem especially stupid and ineffective. And Patricia Arquette’s characters are full of compelling but unintelligible needs and motives. It is very tempting to see the film as excavating masculine insecurity and infantility; or even as a sustained metaphor for the artificiality of cinema contrivances in general. Or, to stretch the analogy, a commentary on the complacency of middle class discourses of knowledge, psychological integrity and consistency, and individualistic agency and control over one’s own life.
However, this film makes no attempt to give this (admittedly extreme) dilemma of conventional aspirations an optimistic outcome – a resolution. A yuppie nightmare you will not wake from – very frustrating for the viewer, with no feelgood factor and none too promising at the box office. Lost Highway may be a logical conclusion to Lynch’s films in the way that I have read them, implying that bourgeois social, cultural or political philosophy furnishes only fantasy, and not solutions. To mainstream critics this makes the film ‘enigmatic’, ‘meaningless’ or ‘hollow’ (8) – just as middle class discourses in general are typically reluctant to envisage, to acknowledge, or to respect any other kind of discourse.
… and I’ll Take the Low Road
By representing the dreams and fantasies of diverse middle class American characters, the films build complex pictures of the ways such individuals and groups bring their passions to bear upon their own lives and surroundings. From a static picture of the small town lumpen bourgeoisie, through the strivings and insecurities of more mobile fractions of the middle classes, we reach an absurd allegory of white America itself. The small town boy grows up, from shop owner to professional, gangster, FBI hotshot – or even a famous film director. Then, Fire Walk With Me and Lost Highway finish the job of pulling apart all of the stereotypical elements of this macho mythos – things certainly don’t improve when the patriarchs fantasise themselves as saints, or disavow any responsibility for evil. The weight of history operates on the inner lives of the characters – their biographical, emotional baggage – and on the threads of money, class, sex, race and power entwined in the social history of families, neighbourhoods and societies. The weirdness, though bizarre, rings true – in the gaps between what we see making the characters tick, what they think, say, feel and believe about themselves, and how they explain their actions. We’re reminded of our own experience of our inconsistencies, quirks and foibles, our unaccountable and unruly emotions, and those of people close to us.
Lynch’s latest film, The Straight Story (1999), reinforces these points by negating any sign of inconveniently messy inner, or public, life. An ailing 73 year old ex-trucker drives 300 miles on a lawnmower to visit an estranged brother. We learn little about this ‘Gump on a grasscutter’ from his family, friends and neighbours, or from the downhome counselling assorted strangers derive from him on his journey. Everyone accepts their lot: traumas from war, poverty, ill health, family tragedy and conflict must be adapted to – meekly and unreflectively. Agency is impossible, collectivity unimaginable, struggle inconceivable. The rhetoric is conveyed in the warm, sentimental glow of muted and unthreatening quirkiness; the superb photography and editing and acting; and also in Alvin Straight’s kindly words of wisdom (which are unerring insults to anyone harbouring a sense of the real injustices of the world). Truly the dreams and fantasies of diverse modern middle class American viewers!
These resonances may be even more meaningful to lower class viewers, in the light of the pretensions of those who seek to know, teach, deploy, administer and police us. They are secure in ‘knowing’ the rationality of their systems, the comprehensiveness of their knowledge, rightfulness of their power, and, often enough, the ignorance and inferiority they think they see in their charges (especially those more uppity than Alvin Straight et al). Whereas we may suspect that strange and venal wishes, fears and hatreds must lie under their cool, superior demeanours, just as they do under our uncouth common-ness.
The films can reinforce these vague, uncomfortable suspicions – we don’t have to rely purely on our own disquiet, pain or fury to confirm it. And, through necessity, those without the resources for, or interest in, building illusions of individual superiority might realise that social and cultural strength has the potential to weave our collective weaknesses into the possibility of a better life – except that distortions of power and wealth get in the way. But there is no reason to expect the film makers and producers to be aware of these possible kinds of impacts of their films; and scarcely any more likelihood of film criticism comprehending them either.
The main method the films use to achieve their strongest effects is to create images that virtually defy words, set in contrast to the visual cliches of high and low culture, fashion and taste. Poignant, disgusting, intimate, tragic, sublime and terrible experiences are just as likely to come upon us during the mundane everyday as they are in special circumstances, and the films exploit this irony to the full when such moments occur at crucial points in the narrative. In concentrating and escalating the viewer’s gut responses they provide a focus to highlight the significance of events and situations for the characters.
However, mainstream entertainment critics and academic analysts depend on reading films as texts or as art, wishing to discover value and meaning within the object of their study itself. Popular audiences prefer the recognition of pleasure and pain, both in the intransigence of the world and in the fantasy of doing something different about it. Fantasy is not just escapism, however. For viewers who routinely face drudgery, degradation and domination, fantasy can connect with the possibility of effecting change in real life. But this is not the same world as the one inhabited by those who ‘know’ for a living. Their discourses can’t accommodate the immediacy and visual power the new films use to emotionally engage their viewers. Likewise, art cinema buffs can’t handle their vulgar appeal to popular audiences not schooled in aesthetic subtlety. So it comes as no surprise that the tricks of the new film trade owe much to advertising – which also relies on engaging a mass audience’s familiarity rather than its contempt.
Cultural theorists wrangle over whether or not the meaning of film images are sites of ‘struggle’ – still concerned with claiming the correct reading, even while agreeing that many are present. Searching for secret knowledge, they are frustrated by stories that don’t yield straightforward answers and by viewers for whom the last thing desired is a lesson. The political correctness pundits, for example, focus mainly on what they see as the negative effects of a film – desiring to police popular culture. The typical strategy is to dream up stereotypical ‘ideal’ viewers who get attributed narrow and fictional responses. The ensuing interpretations are then universalised as the only significant political understandings (unless you’re reactionary). The films are usually trivialised as well, as the pigeonholing of Blue Velvet suggests. But since the viewing audience is so diverse, with highly ambivalent responses, such analyses miss the point – as do the common elitist complaints of superficiality, narcissism and style over substance, and the loss of meaning. Much of the more recent trend of cultural populism is scarcely more promising, in its tendency to glorify the subversive opportunities afforded by consumer choice in a saturated media market – seeming to confuse the potential for ‘reading against the grain’ with its de facto achievement on a mass scale (9).
The new film criticism has begun to go beyond the arbitration of taste and morality. And by interpreting the (potential) responses of specific types of viewers, the dangers of uncritical populism are at least partially sidestepped. But there is still a strong proclivity for privileging certain viewer and subject positions and, in doing so, downplaying others. Most noticeably, social class is consistently treated as a subsidiary to gender, race and sexuality, even when such analysis turns out to be incoherent without a firm grounding in class dynamics (10).
But, in general, the most significant development in recent film criticism might be its tentative abandonment of elitism, in no longer simply treating films as special opportunities for enlightened and universal judgement. Films are part of the debris of our material cultural environments – and how they will be used is not determined from within their structure or by objective qualities, but depends on how users articulate responses to them. And this is no new, postmodern phenomenon. Symbolic material, fantasy and myth has been woven in many subversive and revolutionary directions – in the peasant cultures of early modern Europe, at the beginning of industrialism, in carnival and religious heresy, native and aboriginal societies, and in the persistent murmurings of lower class collective cultures (11). Media images may not be our religion, but they form a significant part of our mythic worlds. The best that traditional leftist critics manage to concede is that there might be ‘positive misreadings’ which can prompt slight changes for the better in an aimless, distracted audience. However, we might prefer to remain distracted from their aims (12).
Media and cultural critics and academics need to claim to know the pleasures of ordinary people, assuming the capacity to define our interests in ways that can establish status for their forms of knowledge, institutions and careers. The film readings given here try to enter the terrain of this discourse from the position of an outsider with different motives (13). Cinema films are prominent in general awareness, and in their incorporation into popular imagination. Without worrying about the ‘rightness’ or ‘goodness’ of it, we may appropriate film imagery in line with what we desire the meaning to be, for particular purposes. Video technology does allow a level of control over watching and reflecting upon films, so that ordinary viewers can be in the relatively unusual position of distancing themselves from the spectacle even while being flooded by it (14). Many contemporary films do, as it happens, lend themselves to this, in their mixtures of nostalgia and futurism, novelty and pastiche, violence, sex, comedy, magic and banality.
If the professionally knowledgeable have to distance themselves from culture in order to objectify and monitor it; radicals these days all too often pretend to exist outside their own living culture, hating what capitalism makes of it – and have lost their (high)way.
1. Studies in this category would include: Fred Pfeil (1995) White Guys: Studies in Postmodern Domination and Difference, Verso; Yvonne Tasker (1998) Working Girls: Gender and Sexuality in Popular Cinema, Routledge; S. Craig Watkins (1998) Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema, University of Chicago Press; Sharon Willis (1997) High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
2. Genre-bending and recent developments in the US film industry are described by Thomas Schatz, ‘The New Hollywood’, and Jim Collins, ‘Genericity in the Nineties: Eclectic Irony and the New Sincerity’, both in Jim Collins et al (eds.) (1993) Film Theory Goes To The Movies, Routledge; and in Timothy Corrigan (1991) A Cinema Without Walls: Movies and Culture After Vietnam, Routledge.
3. For what Stone did with Tarantino’s script, see my ‘Natural Born Cultures’, Here & Now, No. 16/17, pp.48-51. Also see Sharon Willis, ‘Borrowed Style: Quentin Tarantino’s Figures of Masculinity’, in High Contrast (ref. note 1). And while it makes sense to concentrate on other cinema production functions, so as to counter the hype of director-as-author, directors are the most visible focus in the motivation for these mixed-genre films, and thus allow a more convenient cognitive mapping of this region of contemporary cinema. See Yvonne Tasker (1998), ‘Performers and Producers’, in Working Girls (ref. Note 1); and Lizzie Francke (1994) Script Girls: Women Screenwriting in Hollywood, Routledge.
4. For example, pornography: Linda Ruth Williams (1993) ‘Erotic Thrillers and Rude Women’, Sight & Sound, Vol. 3, No. 7, pp.12-14; or horror: Carol J. Clover (1992) Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, BFI.
5. Accounts of Lynch’s early films are given in: Michael Chion (1995) David Lynch, BFI; Corrigan, A Cinema Without Walls (ref. Note 2); and John Alexander (1993) The Films of David Lynch, Letts.
6. A range of perspectives on Blue Velvet can be found in: Michael Atkinson (1997) Blue Velvet, BFI; Peter Brunette & David Wills (1989) Screen/Play: Derrida and Film Theory, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press; Chion (ref. note 5); Corrigan (ref. note 2); Barbara Creed (1988) ‘A Journey Through Blue Velvet, New Formations, No. 6, pp.97-117; Norman Denzin (1987) ‘Blue Velvet: Postmodern Contradictions’, Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 5, pp.461-73; Fredric Jameson (1989) ‘Nostalgia for the Present’, South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 88, pp.53-64; and Jed Sekoff (1994) ‘Blue Velvet: the Surface of Suffering’, Free Associations, Vol. 31, pp.421-46.
7. Sharon Willis (1997) convincingly argues that Wild At Heart violently displaces various middle class anxieties onto its treatment of race and gender (‘Do The Wrong Thing: David Lynch’s Perverse Style’, in High Contrast, ref. note 1). But this insight is left hanging, almost as an afterthought.
8. On Lost Highway, see: Marina Warner (1997) ‘Voodoo Road’, Sight & Sound, Vol. 7, No. 8, pp.6-10; David Lynch & Barry Gifford (1997) Lost Highway, Faber & Faber; Kim Newman (1997) [review], Sight & Sound, Vol. 7, No. 9, pp.48-9.
9. An incisive critique can be found in Jim McGuigan (1992) Cultural Populism, Routledge.
10. Yvonne Tasker (1998) dissects representations of women and their sexuality in terms of the economic and social implications of women’s employment (Working Girls, ref. note 1). Her discussion works partly due to its explicit attention to the articulation of social class interests in film narratives, producers and viewers. But despite recurring throughout the book, there is little sense that such questions need to be foundational – as in Sharon Willis’ analysis of Wild At Heart (see note 7).
11. see, for example, E.P. Thompson’s studies, and the work of James C. Scott – in particular Domination: the Arts of Resistance, Yale University Press (1990). Tricia Rose shows how fruitful a sensitivity to grass-roots audiences can be, in Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, University Press of New England (1994). Ron Eyerman also discusses Black American culture and politics in ‘Moving Culture’, in Mike Featherstone & Scott Lash (eds.) (1999) Spaces of Culture: City, Nation, World, Sage.
12. see ‘Natural Born Cultures’ (ref. note 3).
13. If, as I believe, collective grass-roots action is always both political and cultural, then radical left criticism of popular culture should avoid elitism. But, to put it mildly, this seems rare.
14. Thanks to Stefan Szczelkun for this point.
At the Crossroads, by Tom Jennings
[essay on trends in contemporary urban music,
published in Variant, No. 25, February 2006]
At the Crossroads by Tom Jennings
[essay on trends in contemporary urban music, published in Variant, No. 25, February 2006]
The concept of ‘the crossroads’ has been a staple of US blues traditions, referring to an oscillating state of paralysis when faced with equally unedifying moral choices concerning the personal directions to be taken in life – with the emotional resonance of feeling the blues lying in its poignant acknowledgement that pain inevitably accompanies any chosen action. The quintessential blues crossroads contrasts selling one’s soul to the devil in exchange for earthly gain, with the deferred satisfaction of piety promising heavenly reward. Beyond the religious overtones, of course, far more prosaic existential and ethical dilemmas fit the model thanks to its metaphorical economy of memory and biography, social imbrication, fantasy and individual agency, and the sense that the profound complexity and intransigence of the world never permits simple or perfect solutions. So, now that the cutting edge of globalising capitalism concentrates on squeezing profit from its colonisation of culture, even the most belligerently oppositional genres and forms of production find themselves indentured in its dream factory. Short of abject submission, those in the mesmerising matrix of this most secular of crossroads must thus also distinguish lines of flight from dead end postures in avoiding the sacrifice of autonomy.
During the past decade hip-hop musicians, performers and entrepreneurs have transformed the profile of the contemporary popular music industry in an unprecedented invasion of commodified cultural space on the part of largely lower class Black people (with considerable multiracial involvement at all levels and stages). Starting from organic community responses to the social and economic circumstances of mid-1970s New York, its immensely innovative compositional, discursive and productive formations spread like wildfire across America, then worldwide via the Black Atlantic. Mobilising and infecting other media and musical genres on the way, as well as the sports and fashion fields, so-called ‘urban’ style is now accepted to be the most profitable framework for cultural production. But success brought not only continual hostility from external gatekeepers, policers and arbiters of taste, and repeated backlashes against its vulgar profanity, but also dissent from within – so that all commentators now foresee no solution to the grave crisis of authenticity arising from the music’s dislocation from its grass-roots origins and the apparently inexorable primacy of commercial agendas. Through a survey of trends in last year’s urban recording releases, this review of the state of the art asks whether the cultural and political movement pursued for three decades really is finally at a standstill in the cul de sac of the spectacle.
Roads to Nowhere New
In a series of articles in Pop Matters magazine entitled ‘Rhythm & Bullshit?’ (1), Mark Anthony Neal details the market consolidation of US recording and radio sectors in the 1990s, and its severely constricting effects on the range of music from blues and soul traditions reaching the public. Crucially, the cultural neo-colonialist recuperation of independent local production systems under monopoly control coincided with the clout of hip-hop’s younger Black audiences who rejected the yuppie 1980s MOR and disco R&B styles. Ironically, the subsequent overdue return of soul to the maturing hip-hop spectrum reflected both the business success of entrepreneurs like Sean ‘Puff Daddy’ Combs whose upward mobility masterminded the move, and major label rap’s rapid tumble into vapid bling. The outcome now, according to Neal, is that the promotion of R&B only through affiliation with superficial hip-hop has effectively evacuated the human heart of the genre.
Such descriptive political-economic analysis satisfactorily accounts for the present preponderance of teenage R&B karaoke acts visibly lacking genuine feeling. However, its traditional opposition of big money and individual essence is as problematic as any simple model of alienation. Both musically and performatively, hip-hop aesthetics specifically counterpose grass-roots collective experience and personal biography, thriving on the contradictions and ambivalences thrown up which the transcendent emotionality of a single isolated voice could never resolve. The contemporary challenge, then, is to find renewed expressive potential within a landscape of broken beats and fractured subjectivities without sticking with the busted flushes of spiritual uplift, liberal civil rights and bootstrap economics promising fortunes for tiny fractions. Hence ‘thug soul’ (2) thematics grapple forcefully with the fallout of neoliberal class struggle; while more exploratory R&B musical innovation is only intermittently apparent (3), encountering serious trouble resisting corporate sanitisation in its dialogues with hip-hop.
The paucity of significant major 2005 releases largely bears out the story of the suffocation of soul. Flashily fashionable new pop tarts with varying degrees of talent but utterly unoriginal material abound, whereas commercially-proven stars trot out more (or less) of their same. The respective vocal strengths of Mary J. Blige (The Breakthrough) and Faith Evans (The First Lady) retain considerable evocative power, but the excessively smoothed-out retro 80s production and minor tinkering with signature styles contain only flickers of their key contributions to hip-hop soul – an affiliation whose receding substance justifies the album titles in the narcissistic sense of resting on laurels (4). In contrast, Jon-B’s fifth album, Stronger Everyday, marks a minor advance due to the greater freedom given by a smaller independent label to combine songwriting, vocal, instrumentalist and production prowess with a wider range of subjects than hitherto allowed, with much darker and edgier material accompanying accomplished romantic balladeering (5).
Rising stars signal little forward movement either. John Legend’s earnest soulman anthems in Get Lifted sparked mendacious marketing well beyond self-important moniker and pretentious title (6). Meanwhile the great black hope of neo-soul also risks premature greyness. So there’s no doubting the sincerity and sweet soulfulness of Dwele, but second album Some Kinda … virtually recapitulates his debut (7). And although scarcely musically adventurous, Jaguar Wright’s Divorcing Neo 2 Marry Soul is far grittier and more energising in plumbing depths of frustrated desire (8). Anthony Hamilton’s still longer journey from North Carolina saw his debut Soulife (9) followed this year by Ain’t Nobody Worryin’ – both classic empathic soul documents of manifold hurts and hopes in life spoiled by economic, emotional and social dysfunction. Hamilton’s voice conveys such generosity of spirit despite repeated heartbreak that questions of sentimentality seem superfluous – especially when his breakthrough required hired hook singing for tired radio rap, mirroring the payoff for perseverance of recuperation familiar in hip-hop.
Paths of Least Reminiscence
If R&B authenticity appears possible only in nostalgic reference, hip-hop’s disputed golden ages are too recent to mythologise so effortlessly. From a rich field of hip-hop realism and representation, the only transcendence of pain and struggle yet yielded is a handful of moguls marching into mansions and boardrooms remixing the American dream. The celebration of such unlikely riches without any disavowal of origins may be an instructive demystification of continuing race and class aristocracy, but no political phoenix has yet risen (as anticipated by rap’s cultural visionaries) from the ashes of civil rights and Black Power’s encounters with the late-capitalist state. Instead commercial ascendancy has attenuated the potential down to cartoon caricatures of toxic ghetto freaks and monsters, as exemplified by Eminem and 50 Cent (10) and sundry similarly tawdry seductions into the wild goose paper chase. Nevertheless many refuse to resign themselves to wallowing in the social death of enslavement to repressive commodification – preferring a tactical retreat into harnessing the strengths of early 1990s styles but retrospectively questioning the logics of assimilation and accumulation leading to the present impasse (11).
North Carolina’s Little Brother have no doubts about the status of mainstream rap. The Minstrel Show mimics the format of a television talk show, simulating comic interludes, cabaret and comment interspersed among its tracks excoriating the guns, sex and cash obsessions of radio rappers as no more than latter-day blackface confirmation of stereotypical subhumanity justifying racial subordination (12). But the appeal of progressive rap to white as much as Black youth as well as the class affiliations of gangsta paint a more complex picture, which is probably why Little Brother offer no analysis or prognosis to back up the bald mantras. More nuanced is Black Dialogue by the Perceptionists, drawing on more hardcore conscious antecedents to experiment with a wider range of personal and political orientations in confronting present circumstances (13). Heavier still are The Black Market Militia, recalling the awesomely dark ghettocentric mysticism of the Wu-Tang Clan collective combined with the programmatic ambitions of Public Enemy, Paris and Dead Prez in calling the disenfranchised to arms on their own behalf (14).
Unlike many rap luminaries critiquing the degraded state of the music who need distance from commercial imperatives to speak out, Common continues his sophisticated co-articulation of blues, soul and rap in the consistently excellent Be. The occasional preachy superciliousness of this wordsmith is here more than compensated for by his imaginative identification with the ordinary guy on ‘The Corner’ (the first single) mulling over constraints on agency and community and striving to make honourable sense of a dishonourable world. Whereas on Version 7.0: The Street Scriptures, Guru swaps the hip-hop royalty status he shared with DJ Premier in Gangstarr for the hands-on difficulty of a small label. This gives further authority to his insistent stress on how the double binds of inner-city hardship threaten to overwhelm integrity – where maintaining a capacity for ethical reflection is even more hard-won and essential than in the music business. And Kazé’s Spirit of ’94: Version 9.0 renders explicit rap’s inherent intergenerational conflict with 9th Wonder’s evocative beats enclosing perceptive lyrics intimately connecting family history to individual and communal futures (15).
Steadfast on the independent underground New York scene, talented lyricist J-Live is multiply original in the elements of hip-hop. Preferring live shows with real bands and unusually capable of rhyming whilst scratching, he’s also an excellent producer. If that wasn’t enough, The Hear After oozes with intelligence and insight into the contradictions of the music and its social environment. Mobilising the banality of religious themes and concepts, their meanings are translated into everyday secular contexts of personal meaning and collective ramification with tentative conclusions woven back into a questioning of the purposes of cultural practice. On a similar level of artistry and commitment, Talib Kweli has made steady inroads into the mainstream, but, it seems, enough is enough – and Right About Now revels in the refreshing lack of constraints a small label imposes. This ‘mixtape’ is ‘sucka free’ in that no pretense of conceptual singularity inveigles the audience into passive consumption. Instead this exuberant collection of raw hip-hop expertise, energy and lust for life shines precisely due to the absence of overweaning promotional hyperbole corrupting strategic bragging into the tactics of the brand (16).
Trade Routes and Branches
Despite the seeming stasis of soul, and the stultifying pressures towards conformity required by major labels packaging rappers as brands rather than artists, as always in hip-hop seeds of renewal are being sown, responding to and mobilising technical developments in other genres and emerging from the fertile dynamics of competition and imagination in hip-hop itself. All sorts of musical and lyrical innovation are bubbling under mainstream radar, even if the most obvious examples achieve prominence not from grass-roots pressure but a commercially-driven need to appear fresh – widening audiences without threatening the existing corporate status quo. So production team the Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo) started in hip-hop but thanks to their unparalleled range and mastery of digital composition can deliver compelling arrangements in any genre. However, without the vision or project of, say, a Dr Dre, all they’ve aimed for is the celebrity and wealth that gangsta rap ended up with once a depoliticised Black nationalist agenda of business development obliterated, in practice, other political or cultural tactics (17). Here, selling (out) seems the only agenda.
A more interesting template is Outkast’s incorporation of big beat and disco rhythms to appeal to the pop sensibilities of younger mainstream white audiences (18) – bringing Atlanta’s southern soul to new listeners without compromising its status as rap music. André 3000 and Big Boi employ innovations in sound to stretch to the limits some of the oldest African American cultural themes (the trickster’s boasting and posing, plays on words and appearances, etc) that energised hip-hop from the beginning. Other new US production collectives similarly blur boundaries, such as the Sa-Ra Creative Partners’ soul, funk and ambient-tinged extensions of orthodox hip-hop beats – and Kanye West is attempting something similar without venturing so far from accepted formulae. Late Registration chronicles the distractions and affectations of the black lower middle classes at the bottom of the greasy meritocratic ladder, nervously (or longingly, depending on the mood) looking over their shoulders at what they’re leaving behind. The similarly schizophrenic musical accompaniments mix wistful melodic arrangements from indie-rock producer Jon Brion with West’s powerful beats laced with killer vocal hooks and unexpected sampled concoctions. Many of the lyrics deal with the psychological and social consequences of daily practices of consumerism among those with at least some disposable income, rather than extremes of utter poverty or ghetto fabulous fantasies favoured elsewhere. This is especially pertinent given that a significant minority of hardcore rap icons have more comfortable backgrounds than their performance personas suggest, and also signifies the socio-economic status of increasing numbers employed in the industry itself.
Kanye West’s balancing of compositional artistry with a contemporary thematic spin allows him to maintain subcultural hip-hop credentials, as in his production for Common’s Be. Missy Elliott’s strategy is bolder still. The Cookbook moves further away than before from Timbaland’s lush multi-layered polyrhythmic production paradigm towards stripped down digital beats – simulating a bygone party aesthetic for a CD-buying MTV audience. Gone too is her video portrayal (19) of a monstrous gothic-futuristic female trickster flouting the rules of pop femininity. Now conforming to acceptable conventions of beauty, her early career in routine R&B harmonising also echoes through several tracks which are otherwise entirely out of place. The overall effect is to reference her previous incarnations and questioning of gender stereotypes, but with the associated ambivalence, irony and depth no longer integrated into the music.
Missy is certainly unusual in sidestepping the past twenty years of hip-hop and in jettisoning the styles which made her name. Nevertheless anchoring her new image in the mythic history of rap parallels the trend noted above for today’s maturing MCs and DJs to retrench in its cultural and political strengths as a defence against the theft, trivialisation and symbolic murder they observe in the corporate takeover (i.e. of both the music and society generally). But of course the appropriation has always been a two-way process, where hip-hop’s key compositional breakthroughs stemmed from cultural guerilla raids – on the commodified history of Black music and electro’s manipulation of found material for dance beats, which in the 1990s extended to digging in the crates of all regions of contemporary popular music. And whereas the most commercial producers go straight for the pop payoff in incorporating the most abject teenybop chart-topping material, smaller hip-hop labels and their rosters of independent artists specialise in venturing beyond easily available musical resources, giving other media and genres of youth subculture an urban twist.
Esoteric experimentation may be conceived as art among independent hip-hop aficionados as well as in electronic and dance genres. This sometimes manifests itself in apparently elitist ambitions to stake a claim in modern classical music, where Stockhausen et al may be cited as inspirations alongside more recent digital wizards. Short of such pomposity, the ‘concept album’ is a common phenomenon, often drenched in futuristic cod-mysticism. A good example is Princess Superstar’s intriguing sci-fi themed My Machine, hybridising fashionably explicit cyborg erotica to ironically critique and/or celebrate virtual desire. In addition to the obvious allure of science fiction narratives for generations reared on computer games and virtual reality hyperbole, many other artists plunder cult horror and comic book back catalogues. A superior and thoroughly conceived example of hip-hop superhero animation is Dangerdoom’s The Mouse and The Mask, with characteristically clever and subtle lyrics supported by equally skilful and original beats (20). In contrast, those associated with the Def Jux label often combine rock music samples and references with the orchestral pretensions of 1970s prog-rock, or trade in the individualist indie currency of art-school existentialism and fashionable depressive angst rather than the collectively-oriented passions of other hip-hop subgenres.
Meanwhile – refracting the other end of the guitar music spectrum – all those dreary white metal bands trading on urban cool with desultorily clueless pseudo-rapping are counterpointed by pre-eminent performance poet Saul Williams pissing away his blistering political spoken word with 1980s NY thrash-style backing (21). From a rather different conception of ‘Black punk’, the Ying Yang Twins’ exuberant The United States of Atlanta celebrates the southern states party scene’s rowdy, lower-class ‘crunk’ aesthetic – digitally-synthesised using elements of Miami bass and reggae dancehall sonics, with its relentless slackness watered down (though not much) to widen the appeal. But whereas Lil’ Jon and other ‘Dirty South’ heavyweights are quite clear about their indebtedness to Jamaican vocal, musical and performative traditions, well-established hip-hop superstars struggle to do more than blatantly rip them off. So Lil’ Kim’s latest release The Naked Truth milks the most unimaginative and tediously commercial contemporary chart rap, tacking on generic roots reggae beats to avoid looking so utterly stagnant (22).
Further south, hip-hop and reggae styles are proliferating and mixing with local traditions (23). Younger Jamaican performers blend different dance rhythms into basic dancehall beats to present themselves as more radio-friendly and commercially viable (24), while international rock stars makeover anodyne muzak with pale ragga imitations (25). In a rudie awakening to this sanitised travesty, Damian Marley (Bob’s youngest son) offers an invigorating blend of styles prevalent in actual Jamaican clubs (including R&B, hip-hop, roots and dancehall). Though designated as crossover material, he characterises Welcome To Jamrock as ‘the whole mix’ from Kingston – where ‘Jamrock’ encapsulates a grass-roots version of reggae’s history. Then, in a simple but highly effective rhetorical move, the magnificent title song (26) reinterprets Jamrock as the ‘real’ Jamaica spiralling into escalating poverty, violence and social division disguised as the superficial hedonistic paradise pimped in tourist brochures – implying that the island’s most profitable cultural export colludes in this tragic dishonesty. In a parallel manoeuvre, the album’s random changes of tempo (27) refuse the structural conventions inherited from Western rock music’s pretensions to high art, since the privatised consumption of this commodity could never accurately convey the experience which makes its creation possible – the dancehall party where the selector’s sensitivity to audience reactions determines content and sequencing. Unlike other bland attempts at populist contemporary reggae (28), Jamrock’s multidimensional double vision and breadth of themes, sounds and attitudes (conservative, raging, patronising, caring, self-critical and/or radical) simultaneously looks backward, sideways and forwards. This fully realised and unflinching statement of the present forecloses on none of the possible futures – for culture or society; for better or worse – and that’s a rare achievement (29).
Following Beaten Tracks
This side of the Atlantic the familiar MTV/radio-friendly patterns are also readily apparent. Big record companies oscillate between their traditional indifference to indigenous output inspired by Black traditions and packaging new acts as little more than pop idols with street-cred peddled as short-term novelties. In 2005 the usual sorry litany of marketing incompetence most obviously lacked soul. So Lemar’s R&B-lite, Joss Stone’s fake funk and half-baked singer-songwriting from Kevin Mark Trail, for example, squeezed out attention to the new album from Lynden David Hall – easily the most significant British soulman since Lewis Taylor refused to toe the blue-eyed line (30). In Between Jobs summarises Hall’s vocal strength and musical dexterity, alternating mature funk and blues themes and riffs to rival any nu-soul don. And if his album contained nothing particularly new, that should not have been true of Terri Walker – whose quirkily sassy attitude and powerfully sultry voice had already demonstrated a knack for pop songs with real depth. But, in addition to framing her completely inappropriately as a British answer to the new American R&B teen pseudo-divas, Mercury also managed to suicidally botch the content, promotion and launch of her second effort, L.O.V.E.
Moving from farce to tragedy, another second album to promise far more than it delivers is Judgement Days by Ms Dynamite – a textbook case of an MC fooled by her own bragging; a biblical arrogance no doubt encouraged by media adoration and industry sycophancy. The slickly superfluous pop-R&B production here might sell CDs in suburbia, but exchanging wicked rapping for weak whingeing singing two-fingers her underground origins in UK garage and hip-hop. Worse, the unforgiving tenor of her unforgivable arguments snootily equates the moral inadequacies of rich and poor – as if ghetto pressures are comparable to the preoccupations of her new pals in celebrity charity world (31). Fortunately, redemption songs were at hand from South London duo Floetry, in Flo’ology’s gorgeous blend of Natalie Stewart’s skilfully ironic spoken word and songstress Marsha Ambrosius’ searing gospel-tinged voice floating over the best Philly velvet jazz alchemy. True, only the Roots’ Black Lily performance poetry venue rescued Floetry’s intelligent womanist sensuality from a lack of UK recognition of the real deal (32). Conversely, their surprisingly unusual synergy testifies to the rarity of Lauryn Hill’s or Est’elle’s dual melodic and rapping expertise – and embarrasses those who flop like damp squibs between stools.
Maintaining its cool distance from corporate nonsense, straight-up homegrown hip-hop received even more pitiful mainstream profiling than R&B. A perfunctory boost was reserved for South Wales underclass comics Goldie Lookin’ Chain, whose Safe As Fuck affectionately and shamelessly sends themselves up without a trace of Pitman’s bile or Ali G’s contempt (33). Elsewhere, horizontal distribution self-organised by small labels insulates the old-school clarity of MCs-plus-DJs from 21st century sullying (34). Nevertheless, even in grass-roots production a wider range of sonic options is now being explored by those who appreciate Timbaland, Dre and the Neptunes but are confident enough to follow their own courses. So Derby’s Baby J expertly combines judicious sampling, compositional simulation and meticulously crafted percussive structure to synthesise downhome and decidedly British moods and atmospheres – showcased in the subtly effective nuances for various artists in his mixtape demo, F.T.P. (35). Also taking a cue from American R&B/hip-hop crossovers is Doc Brown’s impressive The Document, managing to echo lyrically and musically the ambivalence of streetwise love and pain from 1990s US blueprints, but without sounding old, tired, naff – or remotely American (36).
For really exciting advances in British urban culture, though, the many-faceted Jamaican connections are finally coming to fruition in a compelling pincer movement of vocal flows and bassline rhythms (37). Least unconventionally, The Rotton Club – the fourth album from Blak Twang (aka Tony Rotton) – combines a skewering cockney rudeboy swagger with sharply conscious blue-collar decency in deeply personal lyrics. The reggae influence surfaces in the musical tempos too, but this is first and foremost prime UK hip-hop from one of its pre-eminent and most consistent exponents. Considerably more idiosyncratic is Mixed Blessings by Lotek Hi-Fi, which has a refreshingly ragged DIY feel thanks to its unpolished hip-hop magpie aesthetic chopping purely Caribbean ingredients. Roots and dub collide with soca bounce and dancehall minimalism, with English patois running through benevolent gruffness, decisive intonation and sweet harmonising. These folks clearly enjoy their music – and it’s infectious (38). Nonetheless, the most accomplished, self-assured and satisfying UK reggae/rap crossover vibe belongs to Roots Manuva, whose third album Awfully Deep goes further towards syncopating British dub’s bastard offspring into a seamlessly sensual complement to his easygoing, humorously intellectual lyrical mischief (39).
New Directions Underground
Apart from the direct lineage audible in the sounds produced by those of recent Jamaican descent, reggae’s beat structures and performance conventions have had a more circuitous influence on contemporary British music ever since prominent Kingston producers relocated to London in the 1970s, supplying the sonic impetus for trip-hop, bhangra and various UK electronic innovations since. The prime movers of the rave revolution may cite Detroit techno and Chicago house precursors, but subsequent developments regularly counterpose vacuously inclusive artistic or philosophical elitism to dangerous grass-roots populism. But despite the empty escapism of acid house ecstasy, student partying in a global Ibiza or the yuppie ‘new jazz’ of drum and bass, there has always already been an abject ruffneck antithesis blaring out from the nearest sink estate down the road. Originally dubbed ‘jungle’, chopping and screwing dubplate 45s at 78rpm, the ambivalent clarion calls of its MCs hype up the assembled ‘mass(ive)’ into a mobile frenzy while urging communal coherence in the face of the dog-eat-dog misery the rave offers refuge from (40).
Using new computer tools for sophisticted digital invention, pioneers of the drum and bass paradigm quickly superseded crude sampling, while mainstream acclaim and huge sales for Goldie, Roni Size and LTJ Bukem made it clear that CDs could be sold by stripping away the ghetto dancehall appeal. Successive generations of UK garage producers and promoters have oscillated between nourishing the hardcore underground where MCs cut their teeth, and commercial soft-peddling to middle class consumers. Until recently mainstream airplay necessitated revision to mirror R&B and rap genres reluctantly tolerated thanks to US global dominance, but now all of these boundaries are beginning to blur in the catch-all category of ‘grime’. After the fits-and-starts of garage’s So Solid Crew, the pop crossover of The Streets and prompt defections of stars like Craig David and Ms Dynamite, two successful albums from Dizzee Rascal and excellent debuts from Shystie and Wiley have definitively signalled the arrival of a new urban broom sweeping away the snobbery (41).
Grime vocalists pace themselves to match rapid-fire multiple beats, but lyrically emphasise neighbourhood social networks and collective expression. Naturally this includes all the tiresome petty beefs and macho melodramas of youth gangs in poverty-stricken environments, translated into battle rhymes and party anthems just as in early hip-hop. Staying closest to junglist rabble-rousing mode, Lethal Bizzle of More Fire Crew/Fire Camp acknowledges debts to rap braggadacio but makes no attempt to copy any hip-hop style. After several underground smashes and even Top 20 hits, his ferocious Against All Odds peppers crowd-pleasing chorus catchphrases with nascent narratives of desperate hope. Rival East London collective Roll Deep’s eclectic In At The Deep End strays much further musically from the trademark sparsely synthesised bleeps and squelches of the ‘eski’ production style by mobilising all of their pop reference points from the 80s onwards – from Asian, Latin, Caribbean, American, and, most of all, UK sources – held together with a dozen MCs in tight-knit breakneck freestyle formation. (42).
If the lyrical content so far leaves something to be desired for those of poetic streak, and frantic articulation in the heat of the rave satisfies only speed freaks elsewhere, Bristol’s K.Ners flexes expert delivery from a hip-hop apprenticeship around cutting edge digital percussion in K In Da Flesh. Meanwhile Manchester sextet Raw-T (with 4 MCs and 2 DJs) blend prodigious rap technique and posse sensibility with grimy ease in Realise And Witness, with a naturally uninhibited outlaw flow any studio gangsta would covet. Backed by a startling and brooding bricolage of up to the minute UK garage and US hip-hop sonic inflections, this has a much fuller, more multilayered sound than anything coming out of London, incorporating judicious samples in synthesised breaks plus some mind-boggling scratching and juggling. Together with lyrical depth and quality unexpected from 15-20 year-olds, Raw-T fully deserve wide recognition and appreciation irrespective of subcultural pigeonholes.
Back in London, Lady Sovereign rules the eastend underclass party roost like a miniature pearly queen. The deceptive simplicity of the Vertically Challenged EP and singles like ‘Hoodie’ mix lazy ease, wicked humour and pointed everyday relevance into basic but rousing beats – and a possible US album release next might catapult her freewheeling chutzpah to global attention. Content with parochial belonging, Mike Skinner’s first signing with The Streets profits are the Mitchell Brothers, ducking and diving to some effect in A Breath of Fresh Attire’s alternately affectionate and fractious multicultural makeover of Cockney geezers. More ambitious and introspective in referring to rites of passage from underground rave (via football trials) to kosher music career, Kano’s emotive Home Sweet Home nobly fails to bind together the schizoid strands of grime with the lyrical cohesion of hip-hop. Sway, on the other hand, threatens to do just that – not just through sheer lyrical brilliance, but from a facility to project episodic fragments of personality and experience to chime with compelling beat structures at any frequency. As with Skinnyman, Sway’s flow maintains unerring balance in never overriding a rhythm – and, like the best hip-hop originators, any underground genre may be embraced as grist for his mill, provided mutual respect accompanies the ability to rock a grass-roots party. Finally, and most spectacularly, Sri-Lankan born and London raised M.I.A. explodes the precious smallmindedness of national and generic divides – whether in music, culture or politics – suggesting an incipient consciousness of the globalising dancehall. Her sensuous MC cadence confuses insurrectionary zeal and street aesthetics with an ironic wayward vulnerability appropriate to the awkward contradictions of multiply-rooted postmodern identity, reinforced sonically by Diplo’s towering, swirling and discomfiting electronic production eclecticism (43).
So, as in other sectors, the new global cultural enclosures imprison residual or emergent autonomous forms and practices under multinational control. Media conglomerates build on production and distribution patterns formed in the corporate cooptations of jazz, blues and soul and honed in the homogenisation of disco and contemporary R&B/hip-hop. Here, individual artists can realistically only play with permutations of existing elements, with room to manoeuvre depending on the degree of contractual independence negotiated on the promise of safe profitability. In mainstream R&B, market share consolidation shuts out practitioners who reject the hip-hop glossover styles perfected in the mid-1990s – in the process ignoring innovative work which offers renewal. Likewise, stateside rap flouts its fanciful irrelevance or retreats to the prideful consolations of the past. Occasionally, genuine grass-roots developments – accompanied by changes in local patterns of involvement – still provide leverage for established stars to simulate growth while opening doors a crack for new talent. If the latter already organise on the basis of the social nature of the scene that nurtured them, rather than offering themselves up in vulnerable isolation, the more of a challenge to commercial predictability they are – with the strength of their home environment providing an edge, a base and a safety net.
Major labels then filter in a few representatives of emerging trends, pressurise flagship artists to copycat, offer branded.pop acts the surface stylistics (to contaminate them with credibility), and/or flood the market with manufactured clones. However, with little understanding of the source they may also be powerless to prevent relatively unadulterated expressions of vernacular lower-class culture gaining exposure. This probability is enhanced by the UK majors’ abiding obsessions: combating US commercial threats with legions of middle class guitar bands, and endless permutations of bubblegum pop formulae optimising a combined appeal to younger children and undiscriminating adult markets. Contemptuous of this packaged froth, urban youth nevertheless increasingly refuse the superiority complexes of their predecessors so that the desires to develop their art and engage wider audiences while earning some kind of living are not felt as remotely contradictory. Aspirations to purity make no sense for those growing up with the complex social reality of a multiracial Britain, in a media environment saturated with commodified Black culture, where the stark subsistence alternatives for the young poor are crime or slave-labour McJobs as the welfare safety net subsides into the historical sunset.
Amid the usual adolescent bluff and bluster and the heightened agonies of self-destructive negativity in many of the lyrics, a genuinely fresh social consciousness is manifesting in the manic cross-pollinating grime of reggae, jungle and hip-hop. The call of shared influences and a common plight yields collective responses in a music widely but unofficially performed and enjoyed in raves and on pirate radio. Grime’s practices face the full panoply of repression, occasioning a chorus of condemnation from outside of the milieu – running the gamut of class-based hatred and moral panic to New Labour’s fascistic fantasies of social order. The aesthetics of grime also occasion a cacophony of sneers – particularly ironic when its primary poetic and compositional textures are unapologetically half-inched from hip-hop and drum and bass. These may be the most sophisticated new musical movements to emerge for decades, but the respective complacencies of subcultural hubris and mystifying technobabble among many proponents tend to render the blood and guts of ordinary audiences irrelevant.
Instead grime celebrates the dirty commonness of degraded humanity, anchoring hopes and fears in an exhilarating self-organisation of its elements, shrugging off predictable self-serving opprobrium from elders and betters. An organic and pragmatic promiscuity of form and content, grime wrenches the new technology of sound from computer nerds to fit the needs of the urban wasteland – reflecting its dark and conflictual lived reality while bucking the apparent inevitability of despair endemic there. Enlisting the everyday enthusiasm for R&B, hip-hop, and reggae – rather than flogging the frantic pace of the rave – is thus a natural cultural advance as well as a strategic career move. It facilitates grass-roots networking among open-minded practitioners of established forms who are sick of conservatively incestuous backbiting among those protecting their imaginary status as big fish in small ponds. Most significantly, grime’s expansiveness hints at a sense that the sublime of soul, the social survivalism of reggae and the political potential of rap promise most in passionate interaction – rather than in the false consciousness of pure essence, whether based on the cult folklore of chemicals, electronics, individual genius or divine purpose. Living at the crossroads is a problem only for those clinging onto the wish-fulfilment of such magically cleansing solutions – and the fellow-travellers of grime peer through the fog of such devilish auras, emphatically mobilising from the bottom up the profound and profane advantages of the mundane mongrel impure in signposting ways forward.
1. Mark Anthony Neal, ‘Rhythm and Bullshit? The Slow Decline of R&B’, Pop Matters, June-July 2005 (www.popmatters.com).
2. such as by Dave Hollister, Mary J. Blige, Jaheim or Angie Stone.
3. for example in the work of Me’shell Ndegeocello, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Bilal and Lina.
4. in command of their own recording destinies; but with apparently little idea of what to do with the freedom.
5. in an album of consistent quality throughout, including collaborations with 2-Pac and Dirt McGirt (aka Ol’ Dirty Bastard) (both now deceased) and Scarface (ex-Geto Boys).
6. even extending to ridiculous comparisons with Marvin, Donny and Stevie. No wonder little is expected of R&B, even if this particular Legend should last well past lunchtime – not least if ‘get lifted’ is uncharitably interpreted to refer to endorsement from Kanye West. Comparably inflated claims for greatness are now routinely applied to competent but scarcely original songwriters – another recent example being Alicia Keys.
7. with new words and melodies, even more exquisite sonic crafting … and nothing to rouse listeners from its hypnotically complacent cul-de-sac.
8. parallelling the personal travails of ordinary women and the professional pitfalls facing extraordinary female artists – convincingly galvanising anger into strength and solidarity.
9. shelved by Atlantic in 2001 but now released after the eventual acclaim for 2004’s Comin’ From Where I’m From.
10. see my ‘Br(other) Rabbit’s Tale’, Variant, No. 17, 2003, for further discussion.
11. for a pungent and condensed statement of this awareness, see the interview with M-1 from Dead Prez in Josephine Basch, ‘New Year Revolution’, Hip-Hop DX magazine, January 2, 2006 (www.hiphopdx.com). A detailed and thought-provoking analysis of the relationship between hip-hop artistry and cultural politics can be found in Imani Perry, Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop (Duke University Press, 2004).
12. Little Brother are MCs Phonte and Big Pooh and producer 9th Wonder, and the name refers to ‘older brother’ Afrocentric precursors like De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest. The Minstrel Show’s thesis is also echoed by one of the most forthright hip-hop writers tackling these issues – former Source editor Bakari Kitwana. Ironically, his Why White Kids Love Hip Hop: Wankstas, Wiggas, Wannabes and the New Reality of Race in America (Basic Civitas, 2005) effectively undercuts its own oversimplifications, for example conceding that Black and white hip-hop interaction outside of the corporate context – but enouraged by the latter’s youth subcultural hegemony – has the capacity to generate fruitfully progressive social and cultural exploration.
13. and layer Mr Lif’s and Akrobatik’s emphatically sharp vocal delivery with a slew of interesting production styles. These variously recall a spectrum from past Bomb Squad glories to Pete Rock’s smooth soul, but are always forward-looking and as intricately interwoven with the lyrics as the two MCs themselves aim for in their sparring.
14. The Black Market Militia comprises Tragedy Khadafi (aka Intelligent Hoodlum), William Cooper and Wu-Tang affiliates Killah Priest, Timbo King (of Royal Fam) and Hell Razah (of Sunz of Man).
15. with the ‘soul dojo’ hip-hop space metaphorically unifying body and spirit for battles to come.
16. see my ‘Beautiful Struggles and Gangsta Blues’ (Variant, No. 22, 2005) for more on Kweli. The new album shies away from outright political messages in favour of playful lyrical brilliance underscored with suggestive implication – supported by the subtly conscious force of guests like Mos Def, Jean Grae and MF Doom – reaching a crescendo in ‘Ms Hill’s barbed love letter to Lauryn operating on half a dozen levels at once.
17. Dre is the Neptunes’ most obvious precursor musically, in marrying the ‘hard’ thematics of inner city violence and desperation with the ‘soft’ melodies and rich textures of California soul and funk – see Eithne Quinn’s intelligently illuminating account of the development and significance of gangsta in Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap (Columbia University Press, 2005).
18. most recently in Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, 2003.
19. as fashioned by renowned director Hype Williams.
20. from the collaboration between legendary MC/producer MF Doom and producer Dangermouse – the latter also responsible for remixing the Beatles in The Grey Album.
21. on his self-titled album – see my review in Freedom magazine (Vol. 66, No 13, July 2005).
22. trumping rival Foxy Brown’s longer-term project – stymied for the past three years by record company wrangles – of working with prominent dancehall vocalists and producers. Astonishingly for women MCs trading on their ‘bad girl’ hypersexuality – and presumably symptomatic of the disrespectful nature of their appropriations – neither Kim nor Foxy seem to have picked up on the specific challenges to traditional male supremacy inherent in contemporary ragga (see Carolyn Cooper’s fascinating Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
23. in some cases taken up by major labels – for example, reggaeton (a Spanish-Caribbean blend of hip-hop/dancehall/neo-soca) and the worldwide success of Daddy Yankee’s Barrio Fino. Brazil also has particularly fertile scenes and a widespread love of reggae – see Patrick Neate, Where You’re At: Notes from the Front Line of a Hip-Hop Planet (Bloomsbury, 2003).
24. e.g. singing duo Brick & Lace, who recently toured the UK with ‘Queen of Roots’ Marcia Griffiths and dancehall’s Lady G.
25. such as No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani in her solo rebranding.
26. easily the best single release of 2005.
27. which most critics saw as a major flaw. Jamrock’s guestlist also summarises the male vocalist’s multiple roles in reggae, such as revolutionary prophet (e.g. Nas in ‘Road To Zion’), condescending patriarch (The Roots’ Black Thought in ‘Pimpa’s Paradise’), or loverman (Bobby Brown in ‘Beautiful’) – as well as the pivotal historical inspiration of US Black music.
28. and despite claims by those like Sean Paul to be speaking on behalf of the ghetto poor, but whose heavily-promoted material displays only a fraction of the energy and imagination the latter routinely demonstrate (given half a chance).
29. also true of my choice as 2004 ‘album of the year’ – Gangsta Blues by Tanya Stephens (again from Jamaica; see ‘Beautiful Struggles and Gangsta Blues’, note 16).
30. see Mark Anthony Neal, ‘Rhythm & Bullshit’, note 1.
31. see my review in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 23, November 2005.
32. reflected in multiple Grammy nominations for their 2002 debut and writing for big hitters like Michael Jackson and Styles P.
33. nor, sadly, either of the latters’ political nous; but certainly with periodic novelty single appeal, given the precedent of Mike Skinner’s lovable lad schtick for The Streets.
34. Notable releases emphasising original skills include UK Hustlerz’ The Return, with a sizeable posse of the finest underground rappers flexing their vocabs to Disorda’s capable soundtrack. Also, a significant 2005 milestone was the breathtaking display of visceral instrumentation in Killa Kela’s Elocution – human beat-boxing being a live art notoriously resistant to studio recapture. Finally, Jehst’s Nuke Proof Suit (Altered Ego) displays both prodigious lyrical skills and engaging self-produced beats.
35. standing for ‘fuck the police’ or ‘for the people’, etc. Baby J enhanced his rep no end last year with the soundtrack for Skinnyman’s social realism on Council Estate Of Mind (see ‘Beautiful Struggles and Gangsta Blues’, note 13).
36. despite evoking humbler London parallels to Biggie’s storytelling, 2-Pac’s passion, and the observation of Nas – the 2004 mixtape Citizen Smith having already proved Doc’s penchant for convincing local personae. The Document also benefits from excellent production and first-rate guest verses from the other Poisonous Poets as well as the scintillating Yungun.
37. thankfully not via humdrum Bob Marley covers, such as those trotted out by Ms Dynamite and Floetry (among others) … or even interesting adaptations like Damian’s.
38. The group comprise Wayne Lotek (producer/MC), Aurelius (aka Dazzla, MC) and Wayne Paul (MC/singer). Guests adding to the chemistry include ex-member Earl J, long-time collaborator Roots Manuva, and rising star Sandra Melody.
39. For an enjoyable review of Awfully Deep celebrating Roots Manuva’s unique style, see Stefan Braidwood, ‘He got mad style, he strictly Roots’, Pop Matters magazine, February 2005 (www.popmatters.com). Also look out for The Blacknificent Seven – Seanie T’s posse album with producer Skeme and fellow MCs Rodney P, Roots Manuva, Karl Hinds, Estelle and Jeff3, which may well be the most exciting UK hip-hop set to date.
40. exactly the same ambivalent role of the DJ in reggae dancehall: see my ‘Dancehall Dreams’, Variant, No. 20, 2004.
41. The persistence and popularity of pirate radio stations have undoubtedly been as important as local rave scenes for grime’s emergence, as documented in BBC3’s Tower Block Dreams (2004) and Channel 4’s so-called interactive fiction Dubplate Drama (Luke Hyams, 2005). The latter stars Shystie and also features cameo appearances by umpteen grime stalwarts as well as hip-hop and garage heavyweights like Skinnyman (also featured in the former) on fine form and Ms Dynamite’s superb spitting schizophrenically split off from her official output. See ‘Beautiful Struggles and Gangsta Blues’ (note 13) for more on Shystie.
42. see Derek Walmsley’s excellent blow-by-blow account at www.playlouder.com. Former Roll Deep members include Dizzee Rascal and producer/MC Wiley – both abandoning safety in numbers to follow up personal peccadilloes.
43. most keenly felt in the mixtape Piracy Funds Terrorism, Volume 1 before sample clearance problems bedevilled the more austere Arular. Their tour with Roots Manuva early last year was followed by supporting Gwen Stefani stateside, and M.I.A.’s next album will be recorded in Jamaica and produced by Timbaland.
Discography (released 2005 unless stated)
Baby J, F.T.P. (Hall or Nothing/All City)
Black Market Militia, Black Market Militia (Nature Sounds/Performance)
Blacknificent Seven, The Blacknificent Seven (Dark Horizon, 2006 [forthcoming])
Blak Twang, The Rotton Club (Bad Magic/Wall of Sound)
Mary J. Blige, The Breakthrough (Geffen)
Common, Be (Geffen)
Daddy Yankee, Barrio Fino (Mercury)
Dangerdoom, The Mouse & The Mask (Lex)
Dangermouse, The Grey Album (self-released, 2004)
Doc Brown, Citizen Smith (2004), The Document (Janomi)
Dwele, Subject (2003), Some Kinda … (Virgin)
Missy Elliott, The Cookbook (Atlantic)
Faith Evans, The First Lady (Capitol)
Floetry, Flo’ology (Geffen)
Goldie Lookin’ Chain, Safe As Fuck (679)
Guru, Version 7.0 The Street Scriptures (7 Grand)
Lynden David Hall, In Between Jobs (Random)
Anthony Hamilton, Comin’ From Where I’m From (Arista, 2004), Soulife (Rhino/Atlantic), Ain’t Nobody Worryin’ (So So Def/Zomba)
Jehst, Nuke Proof Suit (Altered Ego)
J-Live, The Hear After (Penalty/Ryko)
Jon-B, Stronger Everyday (Sanctuary)
Kano, Home Sweet Home (679)
Kazé & 9th Wonder, Spirit of ’94: Version 9.0 (Brick)
Killa Kela, Elocution (BMG)
K.Ners, K In Da Flesh (Cristal City)
Talib Kweli, The Beautiful Struggle (Rawkus / Island, 2004), Right About Now: the Official Sucka Free Mixtape (Blacksmith / Koch)
Lady Sovereign, ‘Get Random’, ‘Hoodie’, Vertically Challenged [EP] (Chocolate Industries)
John Legend, Get Lifted (Columbia)
Lethal Bizzle, Against All Odds (V2, orig. 2004)
Lil’ Kim, The Naked Truth (Queen Bee/Atlantic)
Little Brother, The Minstrel Show (Atlantic)
Lotek Hi-Fi, Mixed Blessings (Big Dada)
Damian Marley, Welcome to Jamrock (Island)
M.I.A., Piracy Funds Terrorism, Volume 1 (mixtape with Diplo, Hollertronix, 2004), Arular (XL)
Mitchell Brothers, A Breath of Fresh Attire (The Beats)
Ms Dynamite, Judgement Days (Polydor)
Outkast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista, 2003)
Perceptionists, Black Dialogue (Def Jux)
Princess Superstar, My Machine (K7)
Raw-T, Realise & Witness (F4)
Roll Deep, In At The Deep End (Relentless)
Roots Manuva, Awfully Deep (Big Dada/Banana Klan)
Skinnyman, Council Estate Of Mind (Low Life, 2004).
Sway, This Is My Promo Volumes 1 and 2, This Is My Demo [forthcoming, 2006] (DCypha/All City)
UK Hustlerz, The Return (Suspect Packages)
Terri Walker, L.O.V.E. (Mercury)
Jaguar Wright, Divorcing Neo 2 Marry Soul (Artemis/Ryko)
Kanye West, Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella)
Ying Yang Twins, United States of Atlanta (TVT)
Beautiful Struggles and Gangsta Blues, by Tom Jennings
[urban music essay / review of 2004,
published in Variant, No. 22, February 2005]
Beautiful Struggles and Gangsta Blues by Tom Jennings
[urban music review of 2004, published in Variant, No. 22, February 2005]
‘Life is a beautiful struggle / People search through the rubble / For a suitable hustle / Some people using their noodle / Some people using their muscle / Some people put it all together / Make it fit like a puzzle’ (Talib Kweli, ‘I Try’).
‘I’m tired of the hunger I see on people’s faces / Tired of the animosity between the races / Tired of corruption in high and low places … / Maybe life ain’t as bad as it seems / But if dreaming is the best I can do / Then I’ll be dreaming my whole life through’ (Tanya Stephens, ‘What A Day’).
In many ways 2004 has been one of the worst years in living memory, for all sorts of depressingly familiar reasons in the fields of politics, economics and the sheer ballooning scale of human misery and suffering. Things in the sphere of the mass media have also been far from hot – for popular music in particular given the relentless advance of vacant pretty pop idols and their attendant trivia masquerading as culture. But, scratch the apparently ubiquitous naffness of surface, and a surprisingly rich texture comes to light – with, for example, some of the most outstanding mainstream releases of recent times in all regions of the Black Atlantic rap/R&B/reggae nexus appearing in the course of this benighted year (1). The fact that such intelligent, troubling, uplifting, hard-hitting, heartwarming, honest, and challenging material can coexist with widespread popular appeal in musically sophisticated, exciting and imaginative formats is testament to the creativity and persistence of its makers as well as the appetites of sizeable publics of all ages and backgrounds (2).
Of course, to the extent that this is really any cause for celebration, it’s certainly no thanks to the establishment pop industry on this side of the pond – which has to be dragged kicking and screaming into having any truck with forms of artistry emerging from outside its existing ambit. Instead the music business reacts belatedly by intensifying the dilution and commodification of hip-hop and R&B. ‘Acts’ are manufactured who exhibit no perceptible ability (other than looking good) and no hint of performative, lyrical or thematic inventiveness or spark (3), while fans are fobbed off with mindlessly monotonous and formulaic sonic backdrops, This shows the persistent and craven control-freakery of UK corporate record company operations who prefer zombies that they entirely control for short-term saturation promotion and bonanza profits. TV talent shows and the latest guitar band karaoke fit that particular bill nicely, and also conveniently avoid the cost of strategic and A&R attention to our diverse and thriving local cultures and scenes.
The Low Down
One noticeable trend from the grass-roots has been a welcome re-emphasis on dance and the party – understood as a local, community occurrence rather than the favoured corporate option of the stadium megaconcert. Younger UK generations may have spent teenage years in the rave and jungle scenes but were deeply, if subliminally, influenced by the parental soul and reggae record collections too. Now they turn to their other love – the hip-hop they’ve also grown up with – out of a desire to connect with wider audiences (and possibly earn a living). Underground hip-hop practitioners have also realised that subcultural purity yields only elitist irrelevance, and that taking seriously listener predilections works – especially in environments based on active involvement as opposed to passive appreciation. Even the taste police in student unions and style magazines have begun to pretend to favour the vulgar arts in addition to their preoccupation with cool discernment. The musical figures leading the way here tend to be those with organic connections to the Caribbean privileging of the dancehall as the cultural centre par excellence; and certainly not negligible is the slow but steady learning curve of DIY and independent labels inspired by the US experience of playing the majors’ game without losing all autonomy.
Across the Atlantic, too, similar trends are apparent even if the economic and cultural power of the diversified market for R&B and rap is more readily acknowledged, and its cultural practices more routinely recuperated. The production processes of digital sonic design are also far more well-developed in America, being wholly integrated into the compositional complexity of music which – as with reggae – prioritises combinations of vocal layers (spoken and/or sung lyrics and choruses), but whose origins sit squarely in dance music (4). The most recent and wildly successful phenomenon here is the synthesised Deep South minimalism of Atlanta party hip-hop, exemplified in Lil’ Jon’s anthemic ‘Get Low’ and double album Crunk Juice. The precursors of this lowest common denominator (and no worse for it) approach, however, are more varied. When copyright holders increasingly interfered with and suppressed hip-hop’s original sampling and repetition of broken beats in the 1990s, further fascinating and fruitful paradigm shifts ensued: Dr Dre meticulously manipulates instrumental samples and studio orchestration (5), Timbaland’s hypnotically sultry bass and percussion alchemy highlights organic recorded fragments (6), and the genius of the Neptunes creates compelling stripped-bare synthetic beats capable of resonating with virtually any style known to humanity (7).
Together with the classic NY breakbeat structure (8) along with the slower jazz-inflected arrangements associated with Philadelphia production and nu-soul, this vastly expanded hip-hop pallette has facilitated the reincorporation of musical and cultural traditions that its artists have long aspired to. Now, with the twin leverage of commercial success and (relatively) independent status, hip-hop is itself overflowing into other genres. Discounting Common’s misfiring tribute to 1960s psychedelia (9), Atlanta’s Outkast have led the way (10), fusing Southern States soul and funk with Big Beat and the camp, irony and rhythms of disco (11); Fear Of A Mixed Planet from Shock G (12) reimagines both the music and the planetary humanism of George Clinton; Mos Def continues his faltering quest to blend raw electric blues with rap in The New Danger; and, hooking up with various hip-hop guests, Zap Mama’s Ancestry in Progress is a beautiful rendering of African vocal styles and ‘World Music’ in bluesy, soulful clothing.
First class honours for innovation, though, go to Chicago’s Kanye West – already a sought-after hit-making producer signed to Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella – whose College Dropout breaks new ground for fun. Accelerating classic soul vocal samples is not itself unique (13), but West is particularly clever in mobilising them to suit a range of tempos and themes, and his rhythmic design perfectly matches the vocal layers. His concept album exploits the theme of education to attack the whole panoply of official and unofficial institutions which reproduce economic, cultural and social domination. His insightful and very witty lyrics reveal personal failings and strengths and the ambivalence, passion, pain and hope which persist in the face of the blight of consumerism and the damaging dishonesties of liberal and ghetto aspiration, mainstream politics and religion. Meanwhile, the sheer brilliance of his treatments transcends the weakness of his MC voice – as does the raft of ranking guests (14).
Highlights of Low Lives
For those whose hip-hop credentials rests purely on their MC shoulders, though, there’s nothing wrong with Jean Grae’s vocal cadence – and her skills place her right up there with the cream of the wordplay crop (15). Her 2004 output includes a second full length release, This Week (16), which, although patchy in terms of production, displays exhilarating lyrical dexterity and range. Born in South Africa to jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and singer Sathima Bea Benjamin, and having majored in singing at NY’s La Guardia ‘Fame’ School, her frustrating travails in hip-hop have tempted retirement while also honing her hunger. Now with the option of joining the Philly hip-hop ensemble and live-instrument champions The Roots, her solo status will soar if only an appropriate recording and performing jigsaw puzzle can be assembled. This Week contains highly infectious germs (17); perhaps the next album Jeanius (wholly produced by the gifted 9th Wonder) will release a Grae epidemic.
If Jean Grae’s breakthrough is overdue, Masta Ace has long been a hip-hop hero – in the legendary Juice Crew and then for two early 90s rap classics (18). The reflective 5th release, A Long Hot Summer, will be his final album because “it’s time for me to live through other people” (19). Fortunately it’s a superb bowing out, full of sonic poignancy, sober maturity and wisdom. The magical first single, ‘Good Ol’ Love’ (20) is possibly the most heartfelt affirmation of love for humanity, with absolutely no piety or sentimentality, you’ll ever hear. And a deep, wry, affection for the warts-and-all potential of lower class guts shines through Ace’s Summer (i.e. his young adulthood) – with a passionate and honest understanding of the misguided choices we all make in conditions we cannot control, and their ramifications for all of our karmas. This ideal rap autobiography’s consistently excellent guests and producers are privileged to pay tribute.
Nas is something of a veteran, too, but while also more seasoned he’s stayed angry, sustaining an output of cutting edge ghetto hip-hop since the zenith of Illmatic (1994) (21). His subsequent work has often suffered critically – largely through a persistent misunderstanding of his vision (22). The project has always been to chronicle, critique and overcome through musical poetry – mobilising as medium and metaphor his own responses and resonances – the existential anguish arising from the material and social reality of his people. Street’s Disciple, the new double album, continues and in fact transcends prior achievements by more fully approaching a synthesis of personal and political spirit. Over throbbing beats he spits fury at electoral politics, the damage done by the domestic and New World Orders, and the complacent stupidities of media stars and fantasy lifestyles. Suggestively interspersed with more melodic arrangements, allegories of sin and crime (passion, money, sex, violence, drugs, relationships) culminate in his impending marriage (23) offered as redemption. Nothing is resolved – but then no man (or his album) ever is. That’s life – and Street’s Disciple is a magnificent slice of it (24).
Revolutionary and Gangsta?
Despite the depth of lyrical talent and personal exploration all of these MCs express, however, the political consciousness in their work is, at best, confused. To compensate, and with explicit historical and political analysis, Dead Prez’ album Revolutionary But Gangsta – as with their previous work – impressively showcases M1 and Stic.man’s straight talking and powerful beats (25). But even better for that elusive combination of individual and collective consciousness in 2004 hip-hop is undoubtedly Talib Kweli’s The Beautiful Struggle (26). This album shifts current urban music gears with sought-after producers and guest vocalists (27) queuing up in support – showing why so many hip hop fans name-check Kweli as simply the best (28). While an internet leak of unmastered versions backfired – since the remixes are even better – his uncompromising radical politics and fierce lyrical prowess embody a refusal to kowtow to commercial agendas (29). And if his vocal timbre lacks variety and depth and the delivery has difficulty capturing conversational idiom, the direct thematic and musical address to the grass-roots remains resolute.
What’s really special is that the social and political implications arising from everyday life, society and history are broached and dissected with effortless aplomb – never self-righteous, patronising, or preaching. His honest, deeply personal perspective probes ambiguity, conflict, and individual and collective failure by acknowledging his own mistakes, confusions and limitations. Measuring your insights and experiences against those of people around you and your/their culture and traditions facilitates the avoidance of moral posturing and sophistry, narcissistic self-aggrandisement, and all the other simplistic stupidities and dangerous duplicities that plague political philosophies and practices (not to mention rap).
Instead a pragmatic ethics stitches the personal to political (without reducing one to the other) with no hint of hierarchy or superiority. Anger, sadness and determination are present and correct along with exuberance, spirituality (irrespective of religion) and all the productive varieties of love in a mature race-, gender- and class-consciousness. Alternately (or simultaneously) angry and joyful, encouraging solidarity and direct action, Kweli regularly advocates revolution – seeing the beauty in struggle from its prefiguring of the results (a.k.a. ‘creating a new world in the shell of the old’). For seriously pleasurable, street-level, contemporary music throbbing with passion, intelligence and integrity, Talib Kweli remains a revelation – a beacon in US hip-hop.
Grime Pays UK
British hip-hop too has had outstanding ambassadors for a while now, without breaking out of partly self-imposed shadows (30). Finally maturing into a genuine art form in its own right, there is an independent infrastructure and production capacity, and highly distinctive figureheads abound. Among 2004’s notable releases were Tommy Evans’ politically acute New Year’s Revolutions, and the scattershot stand-up comedy of Pitman’s It Takes A Nation Of Tossers (31). However, Skinnyman is probably the most talented UK rap lyricist and performer yet. Pushing roughly past industry indifference and the self-indulgent adolescent arrogance of many peers, his first full-length album, Council Estate of Mind, presents an autobiographical odyssey structured around dialogue from the renowned television film Made In Britain (32). But rather than rehearsing yet another earnest wake-up call to the liberal middle classes (33), Skinny shows instead how the hardest of hard times can generate an astonishing degree of rebellious imagination, positivity and persistence – valuable resources in countering depression, self-hatred and sociopathy, but leading to neither conformist respectability nor resignation to domination (34). With vocal style and philosophy formed in a West Indian neighbourhood childhood in Leeds, the reggae influence is echoed in musical production (35), with a prevailing mood of laid-back hip-hop, reflecting the tenor of the lyrics.
Skinnyman’s single-minded intention to shine in music – putting in enormous amounts of work and with widespread acclaim from jungle, garage, grime and hip-hop enthusiasts, but hitherto without financial support – was preceded by years of exclusion from school, and repeatedly interrupted since by time inside for dealing herbal cannabis. This puts him in a good position to explore the marginalisation of the underclass and the neo-slavery of the prison system. All the while the lyrics ooze humility and warmth towards the communities which have nurtured him – while fully aware of their and his own shortcomings. Though too modest to make such claims for himself, he is a worthy ghetto griot with skills to rival the best in the genre.
Meanwhile, the British drum and bass renaissance continues to feed hip-hop. The UK garage explosion propelled Ms Dynamite, The Streets, Craig David and sundry So Solid Crew cohorts into the mainstream, and now the roughneck exponents of Grime are stepping up. Both subgenres showed love to those like Skinnyman in temporary exile from rap, and it’s clearly a reciprocal process. Dizzee Rascal led the way back with a strange cockney speed-squawk which, when slowed down enough to make sense of, revealed prodigious MC skills (36). And judging by her debut, Diamond in the Dirt, Shystie not only has that competence to spare, but things worth saying as well. Equally at home in hip-hop, R&B or the mania of junglism, she revels in elaborate spiralling lyrics which are, as yet, unfocused while still in thrall to a wounded teenage ego. Even so, the underclass feminism of ‘Woman’s World’, the contemplative, gospel-infused ‘Can’t Play’ and ‘Somedayz’, and the first two singles (37) bode very well indeed. The grittier material is also handled with complete conviction and ease – hinting that if she develops more ease with herself, Shystie could be sensational.
Not-so-new and Nu Soul
Two other UK debuts of 2004 sprang from slightly older heads. Veteran MC Rodney P (ex-London Posse), delivered The Future – an accomplished, langorously soulful set with lyrical flows built on dub basslines. Even better is Estelle’s exuberant The 18th Day – a long-awaited treat for those who’ve witnessed her fearsome, committed and effortlessly top-ranking MC spots on guest verses for those brave enough to host a strong woman who suffers fools gladly, not (38). But if her lyrics can blow away the best, her singing style has that rare raw quavering emotionality that can make you weep (39). Mix in passionate intelligence, an activist’s ardour and a very determined self-confidence, and you get pure inspirational soul. The album is full of highlights, with utterly authentic personal biography more interesting for eschewing any self-indulgence (40). The arrangements are a surprising bonus, with uptempo gospel flourishes, bass-heavy dance beats, and a deep love of hip-hop, funk and R&B breaking out all over the place in exemplary fashion (41).
For ‘soul’ more conventionally understood, these shores could also muster a solid Affirmation of Beverley Knight’s diva larynx (42), and a second album (Thank You) by young pretendress Jamelia – whose catwalk looks imply the adage about exceptions and rules, since her musical talents are considerable. In America Angie Stone’s latest release, Stone Love, has some decent tunes to show off her thrilling style – but far more filler than the first two; and Anthony Hamilton’s debut Comin’ From Where I’m From reveals both a depth of secular spirituality and a rich soul voice to rival Jaheim or D’Angelo. For pure joy, though, Beautifully Human is simply majestic. Equally at home soaring acrobatic with Minnie Ripperton, earthy as Kitt, melancholic like Nina Simone, or whimsically bad(u) like Erykah, Jill Scott demonstrates nu-soul’s unique capacity to quantum leap beyond all standards. Any one of ‘Golden’, ‘Bedda At Home’, ‘Family Reunion’ or ‘Rasool’ would make an album on their own; together they are breathtaking. Apparently she’s had a good time in her life since blowing up with Who Is Jill Scott? (2000) (43) – but if Beautifully Human is the payoff of happiness, heaven knows what we’re in for when she gets the Blues … [Enter Tanya Stephens].
Reggae of the Decade
For my money, Tanya Stephens’ Gangsta Blues is not only the best album of 2004, but also one of the most significant and profound releases of the dancehall era – extending and expanding the scope of what reggae can do in several unique directions simultaneously. This multiplicity of innovation is even more adventurous than Buju Banton’s Til Shiloh (in relinquishing his prior nihilism), Capleton’s Prophecy (in heights of production sophistication), or the similarly strong and groundbreaking work of, for example, Bounty Killer, Sizzla and Anthony B. And whereas other crossover attempts have had largely commercial motivations – abandoning Jamaica with desecrations of generic conventions (44) – Stephens stays true to her St Mary’s roots while excelling as riddim rider, lyricist, songwriter and social critic. All these forceful personality facets were already abundantly apparent from her previous singles and albums (45). This time they’re fully integrated into a thoroughly satisfying whole.
Throughout the set her gorgeous mesmerising contralto and consistently sharp poetics are seamlessly enriched by musical depth – looking forward via the lush production possibilities of dancehall and harking back to roots, dub, the blues and R&B heritage and the barefaced cheek of calypso (46). The uninhibited humour of her sexual patter always favours female empowerment without degenerating into caricaturing either men or women (47), yet the disappointments of romance never dampen her spirit. The intransigence of the material world and its politicians in allaying suffering come in for harsher, more pointed attention – but here too familiar cliches are avoided while the historical and class (as well as gender) awareness rings true and clear as a bell (48).
One tiny caveat with Gangsta Blues is that I’d have lapped up more of the driving, pounding, bring-the-house-down grandstanding of her best party tunes (49). But then, she’s already been there and done that, better than anyone else, for a decade (apart from three years purgatory in the Swedish alternative rock wilderness!). In Tanya Stephens’ own words: “If you want a collection of played-out singles – don’t buy this album. If you want a bunch of recycled lyrics – don’t buy this album. If you’re looking for innovation and free flowing creative juices, prepare to be blown away” (50). Fair enough. I was.
1. those pictured constituting my ‘Top Ten’.
2. the strength of which continues to rise according to all measures, including record sales.
3. itself often packaged as a ‘democratic’ virtue, in the sense that any tedious useless twat can now be successful.
4. see my ‘Dancehall Dreams’, Variant 20, 2004.
5. while keeping the rhythmic variables strictly constant for G-Funk.
6. e.g. a stallion’s whinny, signalling female phallic power in Missy Elliott’s ‘Hit Em Wit Da Hee’; an infant’s chuckle, evoking the nurturance of love in Aaliyah’s ‘Are You That Sombody?’. Missy Elliott has recently pioneered the move back to simulated ‘old school’ party beats, using only synthesised basslines and percussion – starting with the 2001 single ‘Get Ur Freak On’.
7. e.g. production for hip-pop and gangsta rap, R&B, rock projects such as N.E.R.D., and even avant garde electronica, modern classical and Country & Western offshoots.
8. á la Marley Marl, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, RZA, et al.
9. in Electric Circus (2002).
10. incipiently throughout Aquemini and Stankonia, reaching a crescendo in Speakerboxx/The Love Below.
11. which, in a further irony, hip-hop first developed in reaction to.
12. prime joker of California’s legendary Digital Underground, here critiquing both white racism and Black nationalism (e.g. Public Enemy’s Fear of A Black Planet).
13. 9th Wonder uses a similar technique – with even more hauntingly powerful results. 14. such as Ludacris, Syleena Johnson, Jay-Z, Talib Kweli, Consequence, Common, GLC and Mos Def.
15. not only having one of the best female flows ever – rivalling Roxanne Shante, Rah Digga, MC Lyte and Lauryn Hill – but, at least potentially, the level of poetic complexity, attack and attitude of a Nas, MF Doom, Jay-Z or Eminem.
16. plus the viciously apposite The Grae Mixtape – joshing a slew of hip-hop pretensions, including Jay-Z and Danger Mouse scavenging the Beatles (in The Black Album and The Grey Album respectively). Going for the thug jugular, the forthcoming Jean Unit mixtape further flays the fashion for gangster narcissism (as in 50 Cent’s G-Unit).
17. especially ‘Supa Luva’ (prod. 9th Wonder), ‘Going Crazy’, ‘Not Like Me’ and ‘Whatever’.
18. Masta Ace Incorporated’s Slaughtahouse (1993) and Sittin’ On Chrome (1995).
19. From an interview in Philip Mlynar, ‘His Masta’s Voice’, Hip Hop Connection, Jan/Feb 1995, pp.70-73. Now busy building his own M3 label, Ace stresses that he’ll continue to write and guest perform for others, as well as nurturing the flowering of newcomers – so thankfully his measured dulcet tones will not disappear from the ether altogether.
20. produced by 9th Wonder … again; other highlights courtesy of Dug Infinate, Koolaid (Croatia), DJ Spinna, DJ Serious (Canada), Xplicit, D.A.M.S. (France) and guests including Apocalypse, Leschea, Strick, Big Noyd, Jean Grae, The Beatnuts and Rahzel.
21. which many rate as the best ever rap album, period.
22. leading to a certain reclusive reticence, but in any case becoming grist to his rhymebook mill.
23. to R&B singer Kelis, who he woos with biographical tales of his overlong adolescence and excess as a pledge of present change and future growth. And if the listener may occasionally cringe (perhaps with self-recognition) – well, that’s part of the process.
24. aided nobly, by production in tune with the concepts, from the likes of Salaam Remi, L.E.S. and Chucky Thompson; and with valiant vocal support from Scarlett, Quan, Kelis, Emily – and jazz trumpeter Olu Dara (Nas’ father) in ‘Bridging the Gap’s generational meeting of psyche-somas.
25. According to M-1, “the critical part of revolutionary struggle is taking power out of the hands of people who stole it from us all these years and returning back those resources … a conscious worldwide struggle with decisive victory won in the area of defeating capitalism and imperialism”. Or, to Stic.man, “Revolution is based on the victims of a certain society – government – that recognizes that they are being used and abused by the system and it’s not in their best interest … seizing control over the institutions that are oppressing the people such as the court system, police department, military system and educational system all together. Food and all the things needed for life are being exploited and people recognize that you have to have control over these things, so revolution is the process in which you seize that power” (interview, www.thetalkingdrum.com/rbg.html).
26. following the innovative underground hip-hop classic Black Star (with fellow Brooklyn MC Mos Def, 1998), the sublime jazz/blues/soulful Reflection Eternal (+ producer Hi-Tek, 2000), and Quality’s powerful R&B/funk (2002).
27. production by Just Blaze, Kanye West, Hi-Tek, Neptunes, Charlemagne, Amadeus, Supa Dave West, Midi Mafia; vocals from Mary J. Blige, Mos Def, Jean Grae, Common Sense, Res, John Legend, Faith Evans, Anthony Hamilton, Pharrell Williams.
28. including Jay-Z and 50 Cent – commercial superstars not often noted for their political acumen – as well as Nas.
29. Kweli doesn’t object to piracy for those who can’t pay, just lack of respect for half-finished art. Anyway, a bigger obstacle was the Beatles sample not being cleared on the fantastic ‘Lonely People’.
30. despite a surfeit of imaginative producers and many competent and interesting MCs.
31. another reference to Public Enemy, this time It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back.
32. directed by Alan Clarke, 1982; following Tim Roth’s delinquent youth through an official ‘system’ whose callousness, hypocrisy and brutality inevitably produce a vicious anti-social thug. The album title refers to an archetype for the ghetto poet MC – ‘New York State Of Mind’ by Nas (from Illmatic) – and rather than Queensbridge, Skinnyman riffs on his travails in and around Finsbury Park, London.
33. ‘talking to power’ being the traditional reformist agenda of British social realism.
34. and thus not figuring in ‘rehabilitation’.
35. courtesy of the likes of newcomer Adam M, DJs Noize and Flip, Stoned Soldiers, and Baby J (for the first single, cautionary crime tale ‘I’ll Be Surprised’).
36. A pity, then, that in his second album, Showtime, he seems to have opted for shameless commercialism.
37. ‘One Wish’; and the haunting ‘Make It Easy’, which effectively rips the heart out of Burt Bacharach-type MOR, replacing it with hard-won empathy and goodwill.
38. Noticeable in her part-embarrassed, part pissed-off, part-fatalistic acceptance of ‘Best Newcomer’ awards; and on record in, for example, the impatience of ‘Dance Bitch’, the imperious ‘Don’t Talk’, the urgent feel of ‘Change Is Coming’ and the urgings of ‘Why Don’t You?’.
39. as in ‘On And On’, ‘I Wanna Love You’, and ‘Free’.
40. such as the straight-talking ‘1980′, ‘Hey Girl’, ‘Go Gone’ and ‘Gonna Win’.
41. Though why on earth ‘Freedom’ (featuring Talib Kweli) – b-side of second single ‘Free’ – was not included is a mystery. It would have been the pick of the album, both musically and lyrically.
42. Regrettably, one suspects that record company shenanigans are blighting Beverley yet again – with an awful rock power ballad version of ‘Come As You Are’ released as the first single. That’s no way to treat a proverbial ‘national treasure’, now is it?
43. With material covering her round-the-way-girl youth; followed by a live double, Experience (2002), showcasing her quest for maturity and justifiably emphasising her overwhelming live presence.
44. Famous examples include Shabba Ranks and Patra. Beenie Man learned from their mistakes and maintains parallel careers in softer R&B overseas and hardcore ragga at home.
45. Big Tings A Gwan, Too Hype and Rough Rider. The Jamaican tradition is that a rapid turnover of single releases keeps a reggae artist hot. Tanya Stephens’ hits since 1994 would fill several albums, any of which would likely be considered superior to the competition.
46. For down and dirty blues variations, hear especially the heart-rending ‘Sound Of My Tears’, the vicious ‘The Other Cheek’ the mournful ‘What A Day’ and the defiant ‘I Am Woman’. Unusual twists on calypsoesque subjects can be found in ‘Little White Lie’ and ‘Tek Him Back’.
47. something which can’t always be said of the most popular and celebrated female exponent of slackness – Lady Saw – whose own push for seriousness, the more spiritual Give Me The Reason (1996), was largely ignored by the grass-roots. This may have been due to its relative lack of imagination – both lyrically and musically – compared to the sheer magnetic power and commitment of Gangsta Blues.
48. Most pleasing is a complete absence of homophobia – which Stephens abhors and which often recurs in reggae, ruining (among other things) the subversive edge of rhetoric about the corruption inherent in ‘Babylon’.
49. really only kicking in ‘Boom Wuk’, ‘Good Ride’, ‘We A Lead’, and especially in the lustful, wistful ‘It’s A Pity’ – riding the old-school ‘Doctor’s Darlin’ beat most familiar from Gregory Isaacs’ ‘Night Nurse’.
50. quoted from the unusually accurate press release for Gangsta Blues.
DJ Tomcat’s Top Ten 2004:Gold:
Tanya Stephens, Gangsta Blues (VP)
Talib Kweli, The Beautiful Struggle (Rawkus)
Estelle, The 18th Day (V2)
Jean Grae, This Week (Babygrande)
Masta Ace, A Long Hot Summer (M3)
Nas, Street’s Disciple (Ill Will/Columbia)
Jill Scott, Beautifully Human: Words & Sounds Volume 2 (Hidden Beach)
Shystie, Diamond in the Dirt (Polydor)
SkinnyMan, Council Estate of Mind (Low Life)
Kanye West, College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
Aaliyah, ‘Are You That Sombody?’ (I Care 4 U, Blackground, 2003)
Buju Banton, Til Shiloh (Island, 1995)
Capleton Prophecy (Universal, 1996)
Common, Electric Circus (Universal, 2003)
Danger Mouse, The Grey Album ([White], 2003)
Dead Prez, Revolutionary But Gangsta (Sony, 2004)
Dizzee Rascal, Showtime (XL, 2004)
Missy Elliott, ‘Hit Em Wit Da Hee’ (Supa Dup Fly, Elektra, 1997); ‘Get Ur Freak On’ (So Addictive, Elektra, 2001)
Estelle, ‘Freedom’ (B-side of ‘Free’, V2, 2004)
Tommy Evans New Year’s Revolutions (YNR, 2004)
Jean Grae: The Grae Mixtape ([White], 2004); Jeanius and Jean Unit mixtape (both forthcoming)
Anthony Hamilton, Comin’ From Where I’m From (Arista, 2004)
Jamelia, Thank You (Parlophone, 2004)
Jay-Z, The Black Album (Roc-A-Fella, 2003)
Beverley Knight, Affirmation (Parlophone, 2004)
Talib Kweli: Black Star (w/ Mos Def, Rawkus, 1998); Reflection Eternal (w/ Hi-Tek, Rawkus, 2000); Quality (Rawkus, 2002)
Lady Saw, Give Me The Reason (Diamond Rush, 1996)
Lil’ Jon & The East Side Boyz: ‘Get Low’ (Kings Of Crunk, TVT, 2002); Crunk Juice (TVT, 2004)
Masta Ace Incorporated: Slaughtahouse (Atlantic, 1993); Sittin’ On Chrome (Delicious Vinyl, 1995)
Mos Def, The New Danger (Universal, 2004)
Nas, Illmatic (Columbia, 1994)
Outkast: Aquemini (Arista, 1998); Stankonia (Arista, 2000); Speakerboxx/The Love Below (Arista, 2003)
Pitman, It Takes A Nation Of Tossers (Son, 2004)
Public Enemy: It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (Def Jam, 1988); Fear Of A Black Planet (Def Jam,1990)
Rodney P, The Future (Riddim Killa, 2004)
Jill Scott: Who Is Jill Scott: Words & Sounds Vol. 1 (Hidden Beach, 2000); Experience (Hidden Beach, 2002)
Shock G, Fear Of A Mixed Planet (SG, 2004)
Tanya Stephens: Big Tings A Gwan (X-Rated, 1994); Too Hype (VP, 1997); Ruff Rider (VP, 1998).
Angie Stone Stone Love (J Records, 2004)
Zap Mama, Ancestry in Progress (Luaka Bop, 2004)
Dancehall Dreams, by Tom Jennings
[essay on contemporary urban music, gender and class,
published in Variant, No. 20, June 2004]
Dancehall Dreams by Tom Jennings
[essay on contemporary urban music, gender and class, published in Variant, No. 20, June 2004]
Anyone keeping an eye on patterns of youth style in Britain over the last ten years cannot fail to have been struck by the increasing profile of Black music and its spinoffs in the media, advertising, fashion and leisure sectors, and, indeed, in spoken idiom and worldviews. Current styles were to some extent carried in from America with hip-hop – now by far the biggest-selling popular music genre in the world – and have blended with local vernaculars, steadily spreading into and irrevocably changing all youth cultural fields. The most obvious marker of the strength of influence is the degree of commercial appropriation – where all manner of celebrities have scrambled to affiliate; pop superstars copy the format to bolster their street-cred; and any number of crassly manufactured boy/girl band and pop idol-type embarrassments flood the teenybop market.
Major grass-roots impacts, however, have been in pirate radio and especially on dance culture – where UK garage (1) and now R&B/hip hop have severely eroded the hegemony of house, techno and other ‘rave’ forms in superclubs and dance bars in many UK cities. The new marketing category of ‘urban music’ (2) approximates this demographic well enough, reflecting both the multicultural atmosphere of urban centres and the generic hybridity of sounds which variously blend rap, soul, reggae, calypso and bhangra (among others). Under such pressure from consumers and MTV, and from a rising tide of home-grown production and performing talent, the mainstream UK industry is finally failing to sustain its historic policy of granting only periodic novelty value to urban music, which now dominates the Top 20 and provides most of those hits not manipulated into place through media hype and the complicity between record companies and retail cartels.
Most of the biggest chart successes of the past couple of years in the urban music field focus on the twin themes of the local club and neighbourhood environment, and sexual play and relationships. In terms of the latter, while heterosexual romance has been a core element of teenage pop culture since the 1950s, never before has there been such consistent questioning of sexual conduct and motivation and such sustained foregrounding of women’s empowerment. The intensity of the hypersexualisation of young women in all mainstream media makes these issues particularly problematic, so that pictures of seductive passive bimbos often win out in productions where the record company’s commercial agenda and the (not inconsiderable) misogyny of artists or producers are paramount. But, as with the censorship debates among feminists in the 1970s and 80s, the implications of women’s sexual expression and autonomy, and their representation in a pornographic era, are by no means simple (3). Urban music is therefore one compelling forum in which the practical translation of these issues into the daily real and mediated lives of our younger generations is taking place (4).
Furthermore, the fact that the disco, nightclub, house- and street-party are so often the representational sites for reflection on and negotiation of these matters implies that the dance context is standing for society in general – a functional, public, community space, hedged in by institutional constraints and social conflict, to be sure, but where collective cultural expression and personal fulfilment is still possible. When commercial pressures dictate the erasure of any realistic specificity of social class and geography, the outcome tends to be laughable yuppie fantasies of upmarket havens populated by vacuous fashion clothes-horses. Even then, as above, the lyrical and thematic content of urban music performance, along with its assertive bravura, can usually be relied upon to shine through the glossy sheen. Better still, more openly political commentary regularly creeps into the material. And far from meeting resistance from consumers preoccupied with their privatised hedonistic pleasures – as presupposed by the industry and most critics – such content may be embraced if it is perceived as relevant and true to the lives of both performers and audiences. In effect, the ethics of our intimate lives are socialised in the public sphere of the dance, so that wider questions of social power and control may be woven in – provided that the setting is felt to be sufficiently local, communal and (hence) personal.
The everyday ordinariness of place and the joint involvement of audience and musicians as performers in the urban dance event recall the community, dialogic, participative nature of many Black musical traditions (5). These elements appear to have survived even into today’s over-commodified pop music, especially in those niche markets which have the most direct antecedents in the ‘original’, ‘authentic’ grass-roots forms of R&B, reggae and hip hop – musics developed and produced by and for lower class people for the express purpose of dancing. What follows discusses some important aspects of this history so as to sketch out their significance now that these marginal cultural forms have migrated, on the surface at least, to the centre of the popular mainstream – starting with a well-known recent example.
Where Is The Love?
A dramatic index of the profile of urban music appeared during the height of the UK’s mass mobilisations against war in Iraq in 2003. Alongside the public debate and media frenzy, the pop music chart, commercial radio and MTV were all dominated for several months by the Black Eyed Peas’ breakthrough single, ‘Where Is The Love?’. Although such a phenomenon may not be a conventional measure of the depth of political feeling in society, the success of this song raises a number of questions – not least because a notable feature of the protests throughout the UK was the widespread presence of schoolchildren on demonstrations and other actions. While their involvement was a complete surprise to the established groups who organised the set-piece events, the kids also showed through their autonomy, determination and imagination that they had no intention of conforming to the usual, drearily predictable and aimless marching, vaguely liberal sloganeering and applauding of celebrity speakers (6). Given that the mainstream singles market caters largely to teenagers and younger children, ‘Where Is The Love’ can thus be interpreted as a kind of ‘anthem’ to the concerns that led them to bunk off school and disrupt the public daily life of urban centres around the country (as well as spending pocket money on this particular cultural commodity).
In terms of musical content the song combines rather undistinguished R&B and hip-hop sensibilities, resembling the by-now routine radio-friendly muzak production intended to appeal to the widest audience while offending the fewest advertisers. However, the lyrics hark back to the golden era of soul as musical accompaniment to 1960s/70s social consciousness concerning war and the state of society and the world (Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield et al), and the video’s narratives highlight poverty, police repression and inner city blight. Combining its catchy chorus with protest, lament, nostalgia and all-round righteous feelgood positivity, the resulting melange evidently struck chords with listeners of several generations and perspectives. It even reached DJ playlists in urban club environments where the prevailing ‘cool’ might have been expected to rule it out on the grounds of sheer naffness alone.
In fact, the Black Eyed Peas are a good example of rap’s progress into the pop music mainstream. Comprising Will.I.Am, Taboo and Apl.de.ap, the group originated in the LA underground scene. Their early recordings and energetic live shows were well-received by the specialist press (7), and their second album (Bridging the Gap, 2000) cemented their reputation with guest appearances by established R&B/hip-hop artists. The aspirations to greater commercial crossover have been amply fulfilled by the latest release, Elephunk (2003), and its three hit singles so far. Now with a female vocalist (Fergie) adding melody and harmony to musical forays into reggae and rock as well as the funk, R&B and hip hop influences, the performative styles have also expanded into a frenetic pantomime clowning in the video and stage acts (possibly trying to appeal to even younger children). The two follow-up singles (‘Shut Up’ and ‘Hey Mama’) tackle themes more familiar to contemporary R&B and hip hop than the generalised fluffy humanism of ‘Where Is The Love?’ – namely, sexual relations and the aesthetics of the party – but retain the explicit ethical and political inflections characteristic of all BEP’s work.
The Life and Soul of the Party
Such concerns aren’t necessarily so clear or up front in other major urban hit singles in 2003/4. But scratching the surface of the lyrical narratives reveals the same organising metaphors around love, pain and hope, tied specifically to public sociality (8). Simultaneously, the slick and apparently seamless musical textures juxtapose and integrate dense sonic references from at least six decades of Black cultural innovations, along with the more recent production devices of pop music manufacture. A genealogy through which to understand these distinctive current sounds of gangsta rap, R&B, ragga, nu-soul and neo-soca should have the capacity to do justice to all of this. Fortunately, the mutually interacting resonance of (material) locality and (bodily) pleasure – where neither can be taken for granted – provide the grounds for glimpsing the past, present and future role of lower class dance; not as a corollary, or addendum, to some intrinsic aesthetic sublime, but at the centre of musical creation and practice (9).
This is a subject almost universally scorned (on paper): not only in the orthodox snobbery of elite scholars and their high cultures and canons, but also in the faithful dissent of avant gardes, and the revisionism of rock criticism and its subcultures, as well as the supposedly subversive fields of media and cultural studies. The genius (or otherwise) of musicians and recording artists and their travails in the petit bourgeois and corporate marketplaces are, here, the fools gold of interpretation. Whereas what the art means in the corporeal consciousness of the dancehall – where both mind-body boundaries and distinctions between performers and audiences are blurred, rather than rigidly enforced by disciplinary discourse – is ignored or treated merely as ‘effect’; as ‘reception’. By extension, the significance of the lives of ordinary people, culture as active practice, and politics as the development of potential in particular material circumstances, are all obscured – allowing the conclusion to be drawn that the entire field must therefore be left to ‘experts’; to forge and then to decipher (10).
Returning to the development of contemporary urban music, a sensible anchor would seem to be the American folk tradition of the blues, which became transformed into an urban dance form during the great migrations of Black people into the industrial areas of the West, Midwest and Northern USA after the Second World War. Taking advantage of the dissemination of technological and infrastructural changes in sound production and distribution (electrification, media, recording, etc.), 1950s R&B quickly became ‘classic’. Spreading inexorably into all geographical and cultural areas, mutually influencing and melding with jazz, latin, gospel and country styles, it then provided a foundation for virtually all subsequent pop and rock genres in the ‘Black Atlantic’ regions (11).
The incredible fertility of R&B was a mixed blessing, however, in a period when possibilities and mechanisms for the mass commercial exploitation of organic culture were perfected. Its trajectory into rock, and those of soul into the pop mainstream and funk into upmarket disco, to some degree paralleled the liberal promises of the civil rights era for assimilation, aspiration and respectability; but utterly dislocated the musical expression from its core lower class bases. The legendary status of Michael Jackson and Prince just about kept 1980s pulses beating amid the bloodless middle-of-the-road showbiz balladeering that soul had sunk to. Meanwhile the new, and compositionally even more promiscuous, hip-hop underground re-energised the hearts and minds (and dancing shoes) of inner city youth struggling to adapt to the emerging patterns of post-industrial decline and oppression (12)
But as hip-hop’s entrepreneurs took on the media and music industry and marched into radio stations, rock venue stadia and recording contracts, their attention shifted away from the almost insurmountable difficulties in maintaining a neighbourhood presence in embattled urban environments suffering the government withdrawal of public service to coincide with influxes of guns, drugs and ever more vicious paramilitary policing. Nevertheless, as rap matured it gradually reincorporated all manner of Black traditions which seemed to have been thoroughly ‘lost’ from the ghetto (13). It was only a matter of time before the new crop of producers colonising the pop mainstream underpinned R&B vocals with rap’s infectious, bass-heavy beats to cater to new club spaces in which to throw parties. And so, since the end of the 1980s, the local grass roots have increasingly come out again across the globe to dance. Mind you, in Kingston, Jamaica, they’d been rocking more or less non-stop since the fifties.
Routes and Cultures
Jamaica’s indigenous ‘mento’ styles had been increasingly tinged with other Caribbean and American musics in the first half of the twentieth century (14). But R&B took over, just as in the US, among the burgeoning urban poor in the fifties; whereas DJs and sound systems, rather than live shows, fed the dancehalls as Jamaican performers either emigrated or staffed the fledgling tourist industry. So, the exclusively ‘downtown’ sound system ‘blues dances’ were built musically, infrastructurally and demographically on R&B, and, with uptempo percussion and jazz flourishes, they nurtured the 1960s dance revelation of ska. This was both the first purely Jamaican popular form and an openly political expression of the new ‘rude boy’ working-/underclass faced with the suffocating postcolonial legacy of a feudal ruling autocracy and fundamentalist christianity. These cultural developments driven by the lower classes thus not only birthed the embryonic expressions of all reggae and the major performative innovations of hip-hop, but crystallised a series of overarching social and political struggles too (15).
The subsequent broadening of Jamaican music from ska and rocksteady to roots reggae quickly enlisted the Rastafari religion brought by the rural poor, along with ‘burru’ (African drumming) and ganja, into the Kingston ghettoes. As class segregation faltered, and Garveyite Black nationalists and middle class urban youth became involved, the lyrics presented an increasingly powerful critique of class, race and nation as articulated by the conservative elites – whose political/criminal factions have persistently co-opted and manipulated the reggae industry ever since. Then – while the phenomenal international success of Bob Marley led the transitional phase of roots to be misinterpreted abroad as the culmination of Jamaican lower class expression – the Kingston producers and DJs beat something of a retreat to the studios as street violence shut many of the main dancehalls, temporarily muting the sound systems. The remarkable creativity of the 1970s evolution of dub, mixing, juggling, toasting and other production innovations – often for smaller parties as well as radio and recording purposes, and always with their effectivity in the dancehall in mind – nourished the home market and exile communities in North America and the UK; etched templates for hip-hop and ragga experimentation; and set the scene for the reggae dancehall renaissance (16).
If anything, the political turmoil was even more brutal into the 1980s. But enough of an equilibrium developed for the dancehalls to reassert their central role in the lives of ordinary Jamaicans – while infrastructural and technological change, political(=gang) affiliations, and cash earned from reggae’s overseas outposts all gave the sound systems even more clout. The spectrum of musical styles for selectors to choose from encompassed rocksteady, roots, lovers rock, dub and the new synthesised dance rhythms of ragga, along with all the new US imports (17). Perhaps reflecting greater cosmopolitanism as well as confidence, the dancehall event could now express more openly than ever before – including in the wider public realms of the media – its own class-specific preoccupations and desires. Ever since, modern gangster ‘gun-talk’, the neo-Rasta Bobo DJs’ insurrectionary spiritualism, and the extreme sexual licence of slackness, have jostled for the engagement of crowds showing no concern for, or interest in, traditional bourgeois and religious standards and sensitivities (18).
The redoubled focus on sexuality was the prime key to dancehall’s effortless intimacy with its increasingly secular communities – not least those overseas where the baleful grip of Old Testament morality had ceased to hold so much sway. A revealing comparison of Shabba Ranks and Bob Marley by Jamaican scholar Carolyn Cooper exposes the archaic and reactionary gender politics coexisting with otherwise revolutionary material in roots. Noting that most male lyricists of all reggae generations tend to indulge in the patriarchal objectification of woman as property, Cooper nevertheless emphasises that – despite being rare in privileging mature sexual love as a necessary feature of any truly radical Rasta project – Marley’s outlook also confirms the traditional chauvinism of the nigh-on ubiquitous madonna-versus-whore dichotomy. Whereas the obscenities of ragga, far from being “a devaluation of female sexuality … [are] a reclamation of active, adult female sexuality from the entrapping passivity of sexless Victorian virtue” (19).
Nor should there be any suspicion that women merely ‘receive’ this attention passively in the dancehall. Although reggae’s sidelining of women as stage performers or recording artists has often amounted to outright exclusion, during the dance event women are actively central – indeed, slack lyrics make little sense without their and the DJs’ fully mutual call and response. Carolyn Cooper’s crucial ‘Slackness Hiding from Culture: Erotic Play in the Dancehall’ (20) illuminates the complementary rhetorical – and literal – functions of dirty talk in the DJ’s oral stage art and dirty movement in the cauldron of the dance. Temporarily escaping their (more or less) embittering daily grind, local women dress up for the party and conduct themselves wholly on their own terms – deciding when, to what and with whom to ‘grind’ (i.e. dance), setting the tone for the success of the entire night. Parading the sexiest gear and most gymnastic contortions, the haughtily intimidating ‘dancehall divas’ clear space for all the women present to enjoy themselves without feeling beseiged by men.
Better yet, these relatively subtle and implicit subversions of masculinist privilege perpetrated by women in the dancehall are openly and loudly celebrated in the raw power and lyrics of female DJs and their full frontal assaults on the hypocrisy, double dealing and everyday oppression enacted by men, money and society. Though regrettably few in number, artists such as Patra, Lady Saw and Tanya Stephens have always been among the most popular with Jamaican dancehall participants. In ‘“Gyal You Body Good!”: The Dynamics of Female Empowerment in Jamaican Dancehall Lyrics’, Kala Grant argues that the lyrical negotiations of class and gender fashioned by Lady Saw and others articulate in complex ways with wider socio-political issues – thus striving for “the paradigm shifts necessary to critically analyse … society from the grassroots up. The marginalised working class, the oppressed, the socially ostracised, will always be able to find an empowering voice through the dynamics of this ghetto born sound” (21). And with a far greater (and growing) number and range of strong women rapping and singing, glowering and flowering, the same can certainly be said of the current hip-hop generations.
The ‘Real’ Sex and the City
In its early days hip-hop was all about neighbourhood dances at which the whole range of locals enjoyed themselves. This is why the parties were so successful and why word of mouth, circulation of homemade mixtapes and other forms of grassroots communication spread the news so quickly. As organisers planned successive evenings of entertainment, they chose blends of the most reliably successful activities, which became shaped into the artforms now seen as integral to the genre. Obviously it was crucial to attract as many women as possible to the dance in the first place, but they were also present in numbers as performers, promoters, etc. However, the forging of a recording and concert industry from the late 1970s narrowed the marketing focus to a subculture for young men. The women integral to hip-hop’s community presence seemed to evaporate from its public profile, only gradually re-emerging later on record and on stage (22).
After several years of hearing voiceless women insulted on bragging records by their male peers, women rappers began to answer back in the same vernacular (23). At this stage much of the lyrical content and orientation of women’s raps tended to correspond to the formula of the ‘female complaint’, whereby the interplay and cross-referencing in the lyrics matched aspects of the real-life frustrations and conflicts of the artists and their audiences (24). Then space was steadily carved out for a greater range of women’s points of view, stories and attitudes, where commercial success set a series of thematic precedents – as in the sheer ghetto storytelling prowess of MC Lyte and the explicit programmatic social consciousness of Queen Latifah. This access to the mainstream massively accelerated with the 1990s embrace of soul traditions back into the music, so that today every conceivable permutation of views on life, relationships and the world – as articulated by men and women – can be found on rap record.
The simple presence of so many female MCs as successful, self-possessed musical artists in a surrounding miasma of sexual objectification indicates a level of personal autonomy that belies the ostensible message coming from much of commercial rap and R&B that women are merely sexual commodities. When their active physical presence is celebrated with pride and pleasure, presented as born from a ghetto upbringing and in explicit defiance of control by men – and yet showing solidarity both with other lower class women and those same men – the two-dimensional view as the property of pimps and playthings of playboys is quickly undermined. There is clearly a series of class, sex and race dialogues underway in this field of media representations – not least using discourses of sexuality to symbolise a passionate engagement with life in general – that the preferred critical interpretation of the hopeless nihilism of the black underclass cannot contain (25).
As in 1970s ‘blaxploitation’, the violence of gangsta mythology comes from wider US traditions rather than specifically Black culture, and can thus be seen as a response to respectable patriarchal gangsterism (i.e. capitalism) as well as to society’s racism. Similarly, male dominative sexual fantasies in lyrics and videos are modulated by thoroughly mainstream pornographic tropes and attitudes towards lower class black women’s bodies and sexuality. Both are also reinforced by the music corporations’ relentless quest for white male suburban youth consumers (26). However, women MCs persistently expose the double standards both of their own communities and of mainstream society, and use sex-talk and dance to get their points across – just as the Black traditions always have – although this claiming of the body and its desires necessarily flirts with an acceptance of the framework of internalised sexism historically enforced by the status quo. Even though none of these tensions can be resolved in culture alone, a variety of liberatory possibilities are reasserted and kept open through the experimental expressions of women’s rap (27).
Of course, the commercial power of major media and music companies operates directly by attempting to stifle more openly subversive assertions of women’s sexual autonomy. Precedents for the media censorship of rap developed in conjunction with the moralising efforts of some feminists (28), others of the dreary middle class political correctness brigade and their government, Black church and religious right allies. More subtle forms of corporate subversion include isolating individual women artists in all-male crews, or merely demanding that they play up their sexpot trappings irrespective of their lyrics or beliefs – the latter leading to artists with much more serious intent confusing themselves and their audiences as glamourpusses (29). Even then, affirming messages about women’s sexual and social desire and capability still result, because audiences – being rather media-literate themselves – can discriminate between, and go beyond, attempts to dominate them through narcotising imagery, hysterical hype and the lowest commercial denominator (30).
Soul Survivors Meanwhile, as R&B and rap intermingled in the 1990s the new hybrid form quickly became successful in club environments as well as commercially, due to production interventions aimed at reinvigorating dance culture (31). As the renown grew of a crop of new producers and studios with their own corporate empire-building in mind, this combination of circumstances unfortunately encouraged musical design purely for stereotypical commercial acceptability rather than for purposes of originality and expression. Thematic concerns in lyrics and video portrayals followed suit, stressing the acquisition of wealth and displays of conspicuous consumption (including of women as objects both of the male gaze and physical proprietorship) – and a new breed of R&B divas now found their ghettocentric stories translated into smug middle class tales of upward mobility (32).The trend peaked with a series of late 90s hits which appeared to insult men simply for being short of cash. Though actually insisting on financial and sexual autonomy for women, the lyrics floated in a marketing environment where such freedom was touted as a luxury for sale. With sanitised visual styles emphasising expensive grooming and yuppie accoutrements, any socially aware messages risked being completely swamped – transformed into simple class-based contempt (33). However, the crossover commercial strategy means that different audiences do not respond uniformly to the music. The superficial confections and showbiz celebrity blather of pop appear to coexist with a strong affinity among urban listeners for those artists with more to say, thanks in particular to the lower class-specific pitch of their lyrics – and to some extent irrespective of the media packaging (which is understood for what it is) (34).
In the mid-1990s the subgenre of nu-soul also brought R&B back into play using a different route – hip-hop’s reinscription of jazz and blues idiom and the spoken word commentary of Gil Scott Heron and the Last Poets (35). Confident in using hip-hop beats from the pace at which the R&B/rap hybrid flourished, the more mature nu-soul stance weaves in the ethical and spiritual musings of soul. Young adults reflect honestly on their problems, yearn for positive solutions and regularly pay respect to their working class neighbourboods and social networks. The intricate effects of class, gender and race interact and inform the deliberations of the men as well as the women, with difference and conflict no longer wished away in bourgeois fictions of equality (36). Nu-soul consistently delivers far more complex notions of what might be needed for personal and collective well-being – without being preachy and moralistic and thus alienating the youth (37).
So, understood broadly, hip-hop now reflects a rich, diverse tapestry of musical and lyrical styles – expansive and generous rather than inward-looking and exclusive – justifying its characterisation as culture rather than subculture. Thanks to rap’s intense class consciousness and the abiding emphasis on lived experience, locality and dance, there is also room for more revolutionary and radical themes to be voiced without instant recuperation into consumerist lifestyle ghettoes (38). And while commercial success enhances the breadth of R&B/hip-hop’s appeal, the risks of superficial populism are tempered by the rough edges and echoes of the music’s links in the signifyin’ chain of Black traditions – reminders of all the forms of social domination suffered from historic slavery up to our present and future versions.
Urban music’s connections to a history of struggles shaping its musical and cultural foundations, and the politics thus nourished, give it a progressive potential absent from other contemporary UK dance styles – which have little explicit content to counteract and complicate commercial takeover and neutralisation (39). The pathways followed by classic R&B in Britain, moreover, have always straddled popular, serious and dance-based perspectives, winding from the 60s Mods through Northern Soul, to tacky 70s disco and later smooth jazz and funk styles (40). With the late 1980s Soul II Soul production renaissance, club nights devoted to the new crossovers with reggae, hip-hop and soul began to appear in many UK cities, maintaining a faltering presence ever since – until youthful infusions of equally open-minded UK garage, hip-hop and bhangra afficionados have recently cemented the scene (41).
Many Nations Under A Groove
As urban music booms through the limited, liminal spaces of nightclubs and parties worldwide as well as above ground on radio and TV, it is easy to draw conclusions based on a homogenisation of commercial popular culture and the neo-imperialism of globalisation. Likewise, no one evangelises the genre in the kinds of ‘taste war’ waged by journalists, critics and the entrepreneurial marketers of new musical subcultures in the public forums of student unions and trendy fashion magazines. All serious opinion seems to concur that urban music is supremely fake: ‘hip-pop’ and ‘rhythm & bullshit’ (modern reggae being hardly worth mentioning at all) (42). However, as Sara Thornton emphasises, “the authenticities of dance music are complex and contradictory. They waver between an ancestral world of real bodies and city places and the new high-tech order of faceless machines and global dislocation” (43).
In practice, urban music dance participation openly embraces its multiple antecedents, conflicts and futurisms – both in bodily appreciation of the hybrid processing in the music, and in its social resonances and repercussions – without feeling any need to justify or explain itself. Due to the open expressive vulgarity of musical call and dance response, social prestige, stratification and snobbery get short shrift among crowds so heterogeneous in age, race, background and dress code – where it is middle class slummers with noses in the air, besuited after-party businessmen, and rhythm-less pub-circuit punters who stand out like sore thumbs. In sociological provenance we are in the realms simultaneously of the feudal parodies and transgressions of carnival, the modern excesses of display of those for whom hardship recurs randomly according to the whims of the world, and the newly globalising peripheral working classes who consume so as to partake of postmodern human essence (44).
The treatment of difference in the ‘temporary autonomous zones’ of urban dancehall is a final element to draw attention to. Of course this is no utopia, and tensions of various kinds regularly simmer and boil over in overt conflict. But there is an overriding sense of respect for the conviviality of place and occasion, even in the presence of the kinds of antagonisms which – in other contexts even in the same city and time – seem irreconcilable (45). This is the ‘respect’ that hip-hop is famous for flogging like a dead horse, but as an empathetic burgeoning of tentative practical solidarity it is no mean feat in the new ‘refugee camps’ which the planet’s urban regions are becoming. In particular, the space carved out by women to exist, enjoy, express and experiment – despite the pressures and temptations to retreat to the disco’s cattle-market mentality – seems to me to be a significant precedent to set if matched in the thousands of new urban dancehalls in the New World’s menacing Order, where communities will need the capacity to mobilise and draw on the capacities of all our people in the grassroots struggles ahead (46). Dancehall dreams indeed.
1. a relatively downtempo drum & bass derivative focusing on dance rather than, say, the manic raves of junglism, or avant garde taste and pretensions to being ‘the new jazz’. Note that UK garage is primarily a southern British phenomenon with sparse interest elsewhere.
2. a US euphemism coined to avoid all reference to race and class; the more forthright British ‘Music of Black Origins’ (MOBO) being questionable for, among other reasons, seeming somewhat backward-looking as well as racially essentialist.
3. a comprehensive analysis of this debate can be found in Lynne Segal & Mary McIntosh (eds.), Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debate (Virago, 1992).
4. for varying blends of intelligence, self-possession and conformity to sexual objectification, see, for instance, current young UK urban artists Floetry, Ms Dynamite, Jamelia and Mis-teeq; as against pure product like Sugababes, Girls Aloud, Liberty X, etc.
5. see, for example, Cheryl Keyes, Rap Music and Street Consciousness (University of Illinois Press, 2002).
6. for excellent accounts of their activity, see: ‘A Phenomenal Anti-War Movement?’ Aufheben, No. 12, 2004, pp.28-35 [www.geocities.com/aufheben2]; and ‘The Anti-War Movement in the North East’, Organise!, No. 61, 2003, pp.7-10 [www.afed.org.uk].
7. placing them in the jazzy, bluesy, Black consciousness, ‘alternative’ tradition – represented most famously by De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest – which developed alongside hardcore and gangsta rap in the late 1980s.
8. a small selection of such bestselling hitmakers in the past year are: the soul/funk of Blu Cantrell; R. Kelly’s loverman anthems; Beyoncé Knowles’ hip-hop-disco; Sean Paul’s contemporary reggae dancehall and lover’s rock; Fatman Scoop & Crooklyn Clan’s party perennials; Dr Dre’s trademark funk under 50 Cent; Kevin Lyttle’s carnival hits; Jamelia’s ironic pop-R&B; the ‘dirty South’ hip-hop rhythm of Usher’s ‘Yeah’; Alicia Keys’ evocations of classic soul; and the latter’s exuberant sampling by Kanye West, e.g. in Twista’s ‘Slow Jamz’.
9. so, in political as well as personal preference, I wholeheartedly agree that: “If I can’t dance; it’s not my revolution!” (Emma Goldman, Living My Life, Knopf, 1931; see also Alix Kates Shulman (ed.), Red Emma Speaks, Wildwood House, 1979).
10. There is very little useful attention to these matters in the music literature, apart from the selective elitism of fandom and subcultures. Jacques Attali’s fascinating Noise: The Political Economy of Music (trans. Brian Massumi, University of Manchester Press, 1985), first published in 1976, anticipates the rise of hip-hop rituals and their grass-roots flouting of traditional expertise. Similarly, Simon Frith tentatively questions the demarcation of production and consumption in Performance Rites: Evaluating Popular Music (Oxford University Press, 1996), though seeming not to notice that hip-hop praxis had long since transcended such theory.
11. A recent account of R&B history can be found in: Brian Ward, Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm & Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations (UCL Press, 1998). Craig Werner discusses the social and political interactions of ‘white’ and ‘Black’ music in A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America (Payback Press, 2000); and Paul Gilroy decisively strips the interpretive paradigm of its US blinkers in The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Verso, 1993).
12. for excellent writing on classic and contemporary soul and R&B see Mark Anthony Neal’s What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (Routledge, 1998) and Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm & Blues Nation (Routledge, 2003). Perspectives on the development of hip-hop can be found in Alan Light (ed.), The Vibe History of Hip Hop (Plexus, 1999).
13. Bakari Kitwana gives an unflinching account of the contemporary pressures on US inner city Black communities, and their reflection in cultural patterns, in The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African Culture (Basic Civitas Books, 2002); and Todd Boyd’s illuminating The New H.N.I.C.: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip-Hop (New York University Press, 2003) discusses the political and cultural disillusionments and renaissances associated with rap music. Meanwhile, an important corrective to romantic notions of ‘street’ authenticity can be found in Keith Negus, ‘The Music Business and Rap: Between the Streets and the Executive Suite’ (Cultural Studies, Vol. 13, No. 3, 1999).
14. Mento was a creolisation, dating from the slavery period, of European folk dance with African rhythms and vocals, as originally were merengue, calypso, and mambo – all of which regularly cross-fertilised with newer latin and jazz styles.
15. Grant Fared’s ‘Wailin’ Soul: Reggae’s Debt to Black American Music’ (in: Monique Guillory & Richard C. Green (eds.) Soul: Black Power, Politics and Pleasure, New York University Press, 1998) stresses the R&B connection. Meanwhile, Norman Stolzoff’s magnificent Wake the Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica (Duke University Press, 2000) is practically unique in understanding popular culture in terms of those it is most popular amongst. Note also that from the continuous Jamaican diaspora came the New York cohort at the forefront of early hip-hop (see: Cheryl Keyes, note 5); and that the Jamaican ‘DJ’ is equivalent to a hip-hop ‘MC’ or rapper.
16. Louis Chude-Sokei’s ‘The Sound of Culture: Dread Discourse and Jamaican Sound Systems’ (in Joseph K. Adjaye & Adrianne R. Andrews (eds.) Language, Rhythm and Sound: Black Popular Cultures into the Twenty-First Century, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997) details how the discourses of race, class and geography were pivotal in the development of contemporary dancehall – showing how the compromise formations of roots reggae were increasingly unable to keep up with the lived experience of lower class Jamaicans (wherever they had moved to). Today’s global hybridity and mobility of digital production, soundwaves and personnel mean that dancehall can thrive in and satisfy local reggae scenes, speak to current socio-cultural conditions, and cross over national and commercial borders. Concluding that this modern history shows how: “[R]ace is deconstructed as a universal principle and is fragmented by culture and differential histories of colonialism”(p.201) – Chude-Sokei thus reinforces Paul Gilroy’s profound critique of the philosophy and politics of all racial(ist) essentialisms (in Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line, Harvard University Press, 2000).
17. Rocksteady was a somewhat downtempo and upmarket verion of ska giving space for love songs and laments as well as the energy, anger and bombast. Likewise, lovers rock was a (mainly UK-conceived) 1970s form using roots music but allowing romantic balladeers back into the dance. Ragga is the UK term for modern reggae dancehall music.
18. While raunchy sexual chatter is nothing new (see Stephen Nye’s sleeve notes to the classic reggae collected in the Trojan X-Rated Box Set, Sanctuary Records, 2002), its ragga expression raises the stakes far beyond prurience or coy, ‘seaside postcard’ naughtiness. Moreover, the direct and deliberate assertion by both men and women of working class and Black women’s beauty, strength, pride and sexual autonomy resonates much further afield than do the perhaps rather more parochial socio-political references of the other lyrical styles.
19. from ‘Virginity Revamped: Representations of Female Sexuality in the Lyrics of Bob Marley and Shabba Ranks’ (Kwesi Owusu (ed.) Black British Culture and Society: A Text Reader. Routledge, 2000, p.351). Shabba Ranks is notorious for abandoning his grass-roots support to ‘sell out’ for Grammy Awards and million-selling crossover albums; and for naively proclaiming on prime-time UK youf TV (‘The Word’) a version of the horrific West Indian fundamentalist homophobia. This blunder was seized upon as an excuse to excoriate and excommunicate all modern reggae by rock critics more comfortable with the idealisation of roots reggae. All cultural and historical context was ignored; not least the allusive utility of sexualised hatred encapsulating the disgust felt by the rich towards the ‘emasculated’ poor, who tragically displace this by attacking their own ‘others’. A discussion of homophobia in rap can be found in Farai Chideya, ‘Homophobia: Hip Hop’s Black Eye’ (in Kevin Powell (ed.) Step Into A World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature, Wiley, 2000).
20. in: Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender and the ‘Vulgar’ Body of Jamaican Popular Culture (Macmillan Caribbean, 1993) – a landmark text situating sound system technique, DJ vocals and audience involvement not only as intrinsic to dancehall’s social fabric, but also as a significant, sophisticated, logical progression from all prior Jamaican lower-class cultural patterns and literary/poetic traditions.
21. Warwick University, Centre for Caribbean Studies seminar, 21 Jan. 2003 [www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/ccs/events/seminars/lyrics/]. Grant also emphasises that many dancehall lyrics do simply repeat and reinforce misogyny; while Stolzoff (note 15) cautions that in many dancehalls only glimpses (at best) of the potential for female autonomy are realised in practice. Interestingly, the UK scene tends to be better represented in terms of both women’s empowerment and DJ ‘Queens’ – a current example on the recording side of things being Trinidad-born Queen Omega’s excellent Away From Babylon (Greenhouse, 2004) with its blend of conscious roots and ragga styles. The feature film Babymother (dir. Julian Henriques, 1998) effectively explores many of the above themes as played out in the diasporan setting of North London (see: Rachel Moseley-Wood, ‘Colonizin Englan in Reverse’, Visual Culture in Britain, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2004).
22. Although the suppression of women’s involvement in rap still is a corporate commonplace, the specialist subcultural press and other ancillary industry sectors are, if anything, even more culpable – particularly in the UK. As for the disciplines of hip-hop, girls’ games, for example, were part of the first national ‘Fresh Fest’ US concert tours before being repressed from the collective hip-hop memory (see Kyra D. Gaunt, ‘Translating Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop: The Musical Vernacular of Black Girls’ Play’, in Adjaye & Andrews, note 16). Finally, the community orientation of commercial rap has been difficult to track, partly because the biographies of the thousands of urban areas where hip hop is substantially embraced vary so wildly. Murray Forman provides a scrupulous analysis of the importance of local markers of the ghetto, in The ‘Hood Comes First: Race, Space and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop (Wesleyan University Press, 2002).
23. to considerable effect, for example with Roxanne Shante’s legendary dissing of all comers (male and female) setting the scene for youthful womanists like Salt ‘N’ Pepa to dismiss male adolescent arrogance, assert their own desires and re-emphasise the dance interaction as the most appropriate venue for such activities.
24. Building understanding of wider social and political issues from responses to the most dramatic or immediately felt constraints, women classic jazz and blues singers as well as rappers were more likely to start from love and relationships (see Tricia Rose, ‘Bad Sistas: Black Women Rappers and Sexual Politics in Rap Music’, in: Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, Wesleyan University Press, 1994). This compares to the police and economic violence perceived as dominant in their lives by men, whose treatment of women in terms of refuge from and defence against this experience then has its own repercussions (see Ch. 4 in Kitwana, note 13). For details of the establishment by women of their positions as rap artists, see ‘First Ladies’ by Cristina Veran (in Vibe Hip Hop Divas , Plexus, 2001 – which also contains short essays on many of the most famous women MCs).
25. bell hooks writes clearly on the poison of the commercial agendas, for example in ‘Selling Hot Pussy’ (in Black Looks: Race and Representation, Turnaround Press, 1992) and ‘Spending Culture: Marketing the Black Underclass’ (in Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, Routledge, 1995). Gaunt (note 22) discusses the deployment of heterosexual discourse for purposes of autosexuality in dance and in women’s dialogue; and discussions of lower-class feminism in rap can be found in Imani Perry’s ‘It’s my thang and I’ll swing it the way that I feel!’ (in Gail Dines & Jean M. Humez (eds.), Gender, Race and Class in Media, Sage, 1995); and Ch. 7 in Keyes (note 5).
26. a demographic well known to be the most attracted to cultural commodities combining violent and sexist imagery in rap and elsewhere. For more on gangsta rap and misogyny, see: bell hooks, ‘Gangsta Culture’ (in Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, Routledge, 1995); Ch. 4 in Russell Potter, Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip Hop and the Politics of Postmodernism (State University of New York Press, 1995); and my ‘Br(other) Rabbit’s Tale’ (in Variant, no. 17, 2003).
27. Concerning the risks of recuperation into traditional sexism, see, for example: Imani Perry’s ‘Who(se) am I: Ownership, Identity and Multitextual Readings of Women in Hip Hop’ (in: Dines & Humez (eds.), Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text-Reader, 2nd ed., Sage, 2002; and Joan Morgan’s autobiographical When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip Hop Feminist (Simon & Schuster, 1999). Examples from hip-hop influenced cinema include Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (dir. Leslie Harris, 1992, see: André Willis, ‘A Womanist Turn on the Hip-Hop Theme’, in Adjaye & Andrews, note 16; and Tricia Rose, ‘Rewriting the Pleasure/Danger Dialectic: Black Female Teenage Sexuality in the Popular Imagination’, in Elizabeth Long (ed.), From Sociology to Cultural Studies: New Perspectives, Blackwell, 1997), and to a lesser extent Girl 6 (dir. Spike Lee, 1996) and Player’s Club (dir. Ice Cube, 1998).
28. who thus arrogantly dismiss the far more sophisticated arguments of their lower class Black sisters. In a famous example, young R&B/rap group TLC’s hit ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg’ openly advocated sexual self-possession and control. However the parts of their message demanding safe sex (including explicit lyrics and wearing monster condom hats in the video) were barred from broadcasting, replaced in the radio version by the usual narcissistic froth (see Tricia Rose, ‘2 Inches and a Yard: Censoring TLC’, in Ella Sholhat (ed.), Cross Talk: Anthology of Multicultural Feminism, MIT Press, 1999).
29. and, in extremis, to the ludicrous hypersexual amazonia of, for example, Lil Kim and Foxy Brown. Despite peripheral membership of rap crews, Eve (Ruff Ryders) and Rah Digga (Flipmode Squad) are arguably more talented rappers than their male peers, who fail to acknowledge (let alone support) their specifically woman-centred themes in return for their beautification of collective efforts.
30. So ‘common sense’ tells critics that outrageous sexual licence panders to male consumers’ pornographic fantasies. However, for example, men stand sheepishly by as women clubgoers dance in delight to the rap inversions of social and carnal control implicit and explicit in Lil’ Kim’s, ‘How Many Licks’, Khia’s ‘My Neck, My Back’, and Jackie O’s ‘Nookie’. For strategies used to circumvent sexist commercial packaging see, for example, Perry (note 27), and Suzanne Bost’s excellent ‘“Be deceived if ya wanna be foolish”: (Re)constructing Body, Genre and Gender in Feminist Rap’, Postmodern Culture, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2001 [http://www.iath.virginia.edu/pmc]. Finally, the success of women MCs has initiated persistent debates about the limits of the expression of femininity as strength, and a consequent questioning of sexual identity – often in terms of lesbianism, starting with Queen Latifah. See: Venise T. Berry, ‘Feminine or Masculine? The Conflicting Nature of Female Images in Rap Music’ (in: Susan C. Cook & Judy S. Tsou (eds.), Cecilia Reclaimed: Feminist Perspectives on Gender and Music, University of Illinois Press, 1994).
31. With the NY ‘New Jack Swing’ of Teddy Riley, Puff Daddy’s promiscuous mixing of state of the art rhythms with either rapping, singing, or both, and the transfer of the West Coast G-Funk sound to vocal styles other than hardcore gangsta rap, the beats and textures of R&B/hip-hop fit the convivial dancing requirements of clubbers better than many contemporary developments in rap – for example the Wu Tang Clan, which although vastly more innovative in purely sonic terms was more suited to recorded formats.
32. Instances would include Mary J. Blige and Faith Evans; whereas many of the recent generation of manufactured stars have either scant musical talent (for example, Ashanti) or any apparent interest in socially conscious themes (such as Beyoncé Knowles of Destiny’s Child). In terms of aspiration, in the hands of the same producers gangsta rap swiftly became a postmodern cartoon caricature of blaxploitation, exchanging the urban grit for ‘bling bling’ fantasies of infinite throwaway riches – equally nihilistic, maybe, but by now frankly ridiculous.
33. which is ironic, given that songs such as ‘No Scrubs’ by TLC and several from Destiny’s Child (‘Bills, Bills, Bills’, ‘Independent Woman’, etc.) were written by Kandi Burruss (formerly of girl group Xscape) in angry response to her perceptions of R&B/hip-hop’s repeated denigration of the moral integrity of lower class women as ‘gold-diggers’ and ‘hoes’.
34. Suzanne Bost (note 30) presents a comprehensive analysis of Da Brat – among the most successful women MCs in R&B/rap (allied to Atlanta producer Jermaine Dupri, himself one of the super-producers responsible for the genre). Bost details how the self-fashioning of Da Brat’s image, presentation, lyrics and narratives appears on the surface to conform to traditional and contemporary expectations – but actually slyly complicates, questions, trangresses and exceeds all the limits placed on her, both as a commercial artist under pressure from the industry and media and as a Black woman from a lower-class background struggling to make her way in a hostile world.
35. in the same alternative tradition that the early Black Eyed Peas came up in. See Bost (note 30) for a discussion of rap poets such as Ursula Rucker, Dana Bryant and Sarah Jones (most famous for her riff on Scott Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’: Your revolution / Will not take place between these thighs).
36. as it often was in the liberal civil rights era with its classic soul backing; or in the Black nationalist faith in racial essence again common currency in late 1980s rap. See Paul Gilroy (note 16) for an account of the ramifications of the latter.
37. the nu-soul pioneers were Maxwell, Erykah Badu and D’Angelo – who mentored many new voices, including those of Angie Stone (an original old school MC), Bilal, Jill Scott, Musiq, Jaguar Wright and Dwele. Now the UK also has the sublime Floetry, singer-songwriter Terri Walker, and the impressive nu-soul/R&B/rap/ragga/garage collective NSM (New Sector Movement).
38. This includes outspoken political rap – for example by Dead Prez, Paris, the Coup, and the sophisticated cultural politics of Talib Kweli, Mos Def and the Roots (plus spoken word artists such as Saul Williams and those cited in note 35). In Songs in the Key of Black Life (note 12), Mark Anthony Neal shows how the gender subversions of “soul outlaws” Meshell Ndegeocello, Macy Gray and Res allow commercial R&B/hip-hop stars like Missy Elliott and Tweet to question sexual identity and fixity in specifically dance-oriented music.
39. so house and rave have degenerated into little more than drug-based weekend and package holiday hedonism, despite the utopian desires and energetic grass-roots organisation nurtured by their pioneers (see George McKay (ed.), DiY Culture: Party and Protest in Nineties Britain, Verso, 1998; Sean Bidder, Pump Up The Volume: A History of House, Channel 4 Books, 2001; and Sara Thornton’s thoughtful Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital, Polity Press, 1995).
40. The UK trajectory has been usefully sketched in BBC Radio 1 R&B DJ Trevor Nelson’s Soul Nation series (Channel 4, 2003). Note that until the current resurgence of club-based urban music, UK R&B has largely depended on two decades-worth of strong female artists for commercial visibility – most of whom chose ordinary ‘round-the-way-girl’ stances from which to launch their powerful voices and exceptional songwriting skills (for example Gabrielle, Mica Paris and the wonderful Beverley Knight; Sade being far more upmarket).
41. For discussions of current UK Asian styles, see Sanjay Sharma, John Jutnyk & Ashwari Sharma (eds.), Dis-Orienting Rhythms: The Politics of the New Asian Dance Music (Zed Books, 1996). While ragga is strong and self-contained in its communities (e.g. in London, Bristol, Birmingham and Nottingham), UK hip-hop has stubborny clung to a rabid defensive purism in the face of industry indifference (although frustrated artists often break out of the rigidly-enforced subcultural boundaries). Local hip-hop, such as in my city of Newcastle, often contains a wealth of talent but complete disregard for the dancehall – so its parties merely showcase performers for passive audiences (also see Andy Bennett, ‘Hip hop am Main, Rappin’ on the Tyne: Hip Hop Culture as a Local Construct in Two European Cities’, in Popular Music and Youth Culture: Music, Identity and Place, Macmillan, 2000).
42. for example Chris Wells, editor of UK Black music magazine Echoes, informed readers in April 2001 ‘Why R&B Has No Soul’.
43. from Club Cultures (note 39, p.76) – a study which contains excellent analyses of the class, race and gender biases which make up the ideology of recent popular UK dance cultures, despite being hampered by the relentlessly petit bourgeois delusions and agendas of the promoters who were her informants. Angela McRobbie also discusses the class and gender elitisms informing well-established UK attitudes to dancing and clubs in: ‘Shut Up And Dance: Youth Culture and Changing Modes of Femininity’ (Cultural Studies, Vol. 7, No. 3, 1993) and ‘Dance and Social Fantasy’ (in: McRobbie & Mica Nava (eds.) Gender and Generation, Macmillan, 1994).
44. see, for example: Peter Stallybrass & Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, (Methuen, 1986); Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (trans. Richard Nice, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984); and Zygmunt Bauman, Work, Consumerism and the New Poor (Open University Press, 1998). My observations on contemporary urban music clubs come from many years of pleasurable participation on Tyneside and the comparable experiences of others here and elsewhere.
45. Tyneside, for example, is still an overwhelmingly ‘white’ area – with extremes of ugly racism still prevalent in everyday life. But in no other setting here have I ever witnessed even the peaceful co-presence of (let alone such fraternal relations among) British and foreign people from all conceivable lines of descent and ethnicity as well as age that can be found at urban dance events.
46. Few writers tackle the kinds of themes addressed in this essay. Those that do tend to draw provisional and cautious conclusions along remotely similar lines. See for example Tricia Rose, ‘Cultural Survivalisms and Marketplace Subversions: Black Popular Culture and Politics into the 21st Century’ (in: Adjaye & Andrews, note 16), and George Lipstiz, ‘Facing Up to What’s Killing Us: Artistic Practice and Grassroots Social Theory’ (in: Long, note 27).
Blood Curdling, by Tom Jennings
[art review published in Variant, No. 18, September 2003]Blood Curdling by Tom Jennings
[art review of Resist: Protest Art, Crescent Arts, Scarborough, published in Variant, No. 18, September 2003]
A contemporary art exhibition entitled Resist: Protest Art might sound like a surprising proposition in this postmodern age of cynicism, Young British Art and the death of grand narratives. And whether or not the obituaries are premature, for me the title of this show (and the clenched fist on the poster) raised the spectre of the heroic pose either as a safe veneer on liberalism, or concealing the kind of prescriptive moralising beloved of many political groups and parties on the left over the last few decades. However, this might only worry those of us jaded by the manipulation, dishonesty and/or downright betrayal by vanguards, central committees and other ‘conscious minorities’ – whereas perhaps concepts such as resistance and protest are more innocent for the younger anti-globalisation generations. Plus of course there is always the possibility of reclaiming the symbols and language of rebellion from the dead hands of reformist, bureaucratic, institutional or even corporate sequestration – as in the anarchist movement’s persistent attempts to realign Mayday with its revolutionary grass roots origins (1). In any case, happily, the vague misgivings – in particular, the likelihood of yet another worthy middle-class trendy-leftie political-correctness-fest, somehow left over from the 1980s – proved unfounded here.
Instead Scarborough’s Crescent Arts mounted an interesting and varied collection of mainly small-scale pieces in painting, collage, photography, mixed media, sculpture and installation. The relationship of the work to either protest or resistance was tenuous, but then an exhibition entitled ‘Critical reflections on what politics in art might entail these days’ probably wouldn’t have cut any promotional mustard. Certainly there was little sense of any politics in the formal qualities of the exhibits (beyond the ambiguities of referentiality and irony, along with texts signalling a problematization of discourse), which dealt with current real-world concerns such as the right to publicly organise, war, technology, environmentalism and consumerism. For example, while backing away from the wall-based work, viewers risked tripping over Yoke & Zoom’s ammunition box (Not In Our Name) in the centre of the main space – a more subtle and effective message about the debris and detritus of war (landmines, etc) and its mediated portrayal than any number of celebrity charity galas could achieve. More oblique were Catherine Graham’s double electrical socket and plugs joined with a short cable (F**k The System) – implying the possibility of shortcircuiting the rapidly closing nature of present power (and technological) relations – and George Heslop’s Chocolate Crucifix hinting at the religious overtones of commodity valorisation and fetishisation. Most potent was Sally Madge’s installation, Recipe, consisting of small clinical specimen bottles containing blood and oil on a glass shelf, accompanied by short verses in the form of cookery notes:
‘Take blood from right arm
Take oil from car engine
Observe reaction Take country with large oil reservesTake global capitalism
Take untenable situation
Maintain in artificial stateMix ingredients
Blood and oil has been a potent metaphor in the context of the invasion of Iraq, as demonstrated well by the Recipe text. Public outrage made an intuitive connection between powerful corporate vested interests and the actions of the governments such interests support. And it can hardly be denied that since early last century there have been consistent links between the directions followed by international politics and control over petrochemicals. The slogan ‘No blood for oil’ captures the widespread sense of revulsion at the cynicism and duplicity of the New World Order, even though it is generally understood that rather more is at stake than a few years-worth of cheap crude (2). Importantly, the commonplace laments of the complacent classes about the political apathy of ordinary people are exposed as lies by the unprecedented levels of protest against this Iraq ‘war’ – before it had even started, and irrespective of the media circus grinding into gear and spinning the vacuous demagogy of freedom and democracy where none is (or will be, in any meaningful sense) apparent (3).
So, despite their oversimplifications, slogans can be very effective in mobilising people to contemplate and take action; and Recipe could be interpreted as effective sloganeering in the form of a small art installation. But, whether intended or not, it also mobilised many more layers and levels of meaning and resonance than such a function would suggest. Contributing to and wholeheartedly echoing the exhortation to ‘Resist’; more difficult issues were also raised – of complicity, the relationship between subversion and containment, and the problem of tackling symptoms rather than causes. Deeper philosophical questions loomed underneath, of the exploitation, destruction and future of all resources (as perceived by our rulers; encapsulated in the concept of ‘collateral damage’) – including human bodies, consciousnesses and lifeworlds, and the material and biological environment. Most of all, implicit in this work was the challenge of where we locate ourselves in these complex processes – as viewers or makers of art, citizens or consumers in the West, and/or as subjects and objects of political or other discourses. This challenge surely started as humble and local (e.g. ‘Where do I, where does my life, my art, figure here and now in this situation?’); but on reflection could hardly avoid expanding into the historical, universal and global.
In practice, the blood and oil resisted being mixed; they could be juxtaposed, but remained separate. Just as seawater is hidden from the sun underneath oil slicks, this mammalian blood (a phylogenetic analogue of seawater) was sealed in from the atmosphere by exhaust oil rendered thicker and darker with immersed particles picked up from the internal surface of the ailing engine. The veinous blood was itself heavy with waste products and exhausted of oxygen and nutrients after its passage around the tired body’s machine. Over its lifetime as an exhibit, the components sedimented into plasma and corpuscles; and the engine oil’s components might do something comparable given geological time. And, come to think of it, fossil fuels do represent prehistoric generations of lifeforms fixed in their strata by the natural disasters of planetary biography. Many millennia later they become instrumental in cycles just as arbitrary and destructive, but made to appear similarly inevitable by the rhetoric of neo-liberal economics – which also conveniently offers a revisionist Darwinism in which biological entities compete as capitalists, and only the most evolutionarily profitable survive. If the destiny of the losers is to become the ideological fossil fuel of the future, then blood and oil are both biologically and discursively related, but dislocated in time; and time is running out for both. Extracted from their natural habitats, they enjoyed here the temporary reprieve of suspended artistic animation in an exhibition which was their memorial service.
However, this was not just any old blood and oil, but that which had circulated around the body and accoutrements of the artist in the service of her life. To keep us all in the lifestyles to which we have become accustomed, oil and human bodies are likewise basic raw materials of the lifeblood of the global machinery of capitalism. Both must be produced and reproduced for money to flow. We imagine and contrive our integrity and our purposes in life – including our freewill, individuality, expressivity and desire – according to and in between the demands this system makes upon us, in the interstices of its networks of subjugation, seduction and sedation. And the ‘good life’, for those who have one, has always required the devastation, exploitation and destruction of colonised lands and dominated peoples – now, it seems, more than ever (that’s progress). What, then, does it mean to ‘resist’ one isolated symptom of this disease? Why here and now if not always and everywhere else? By mobilising the artist’s own body, daily life, and sense of self in the equation of blood for oil, Recipe pondered such questions intimately and personally, asking viewers to do the same.
Left to its own devices blood has a cycle. Blood flows, changes, grows, differentiates, mingles, heals, reproduces, degenerates. Blood organises itself over time. Time may also fossilise the body and its blood into oil – it depends upon how it is contained (what is done to it, where, by whom and for what purpose). One of these bottles of blood (in its ‘universal container’) clotted and developed imperceptibly into other modes of being; with the potential for strange beauty, fascinating and interesting shapes, colours, dynamics. Or, if tainted with anti-clotting agent, it could be maintained in an artificial state. This had a certain minimalist aesthetic quality, one might suppose, but was rather sterile – not only that, but it required the dead density of the oil for the effect to work. For my part, in art as in politics, I prefer the self-determination of the human element, which in both spheres has the additional capacity to not need the oil at all. And, when organised political resistance does finally return to the agenda, if an ‘artificial State’ is deemed to be oxymoronic as well as moronic – so much the better.
1. see Freedom magazine, 14th June 2003, for a discussion of Mayday as well as coverage of the latest round of anti-globalisation protest in Evian, Lake Geneva, from 29th May-3rd June; and the subsequent issue (Freedom, 28th June) for a recent example of the machinations of Leninist would-be leaders – in this case the SWP – in the Stop The War Coalition.
2. see the last issue of Variant (No. 17) for a range of perspectives and analyses.
3. as in any other country the Western ‘democracies’ have blundered into over the past few centuries – so it can hardly always be a case of the unintended consequences of ‘good intentions’. See Noam Chomsky’s work for detailed accounts.
Breaking Cover, by Tom Jennings
[essay on documentary representations of British and European Muslim women, published in Variant, No. 24, September 2005]
[Part two of ‘Same Difference’ discussing cinema representations of British and European Muslims: see Variant, No. 23, May 2005.
Breaking Cover by Tom Jennings
[essay on documentary representations of British and European Muslim women, published in Variant, No. 24, September 2005]
In ‘Same Difference?’ (1) I discussed recent cinematic treatments of Western Muslim lives in terms of the interaction of racism and Islamophobia with conflicts around class, generation, and gender. This essay follows some of the implications in investigating the significance of the hijab (headscarf), which is the focus of considerable current attention. Work by artists related to the veil and identity is briefly summarised in terms of how European Muslim women see and present themselves, and two recent photographic exhibitions tackling this subject are described. However, Muslim women’s appearance is a site of intense official interest too. Earlier this year Shabina Begum (aged 16) of Luton overturned the attempt by Denbigh High (2) to prevent her from wearing the hijab at school. Her principled campaign set a UK legal precedent, but circumstances are less favourable in France, where right-wing racism has made considerable inroads into local government and national guidelines seeking to outlaw the veil conjoin cultural prejudice with secularism and feminism. A recent BBC documentary on the ban’s implementation shows the varying meanings invested by young women in these cultural symbols under threat. The concluding section finally seeks to draw together all of the strands from ‘Same Difference?’ and the present work, indicating how the social and political processes at work should be familiar to us all, even if the specifics of their impact upon the experiences of European Muslims are as deep, diverse and distinctive as the influence of religion – or any other cultural tradition – always is.
The traditions and practices of veiling are widely divergent across the Muslim world (3) thanks to variations in religious interpretation, political and economic conditions and the geographical migration of populations leading to degrees of adjustment and assimilation into host societies (4). In European countries in particular, “numerous and often contradictory intersecting points of cultural identification” (5) result. However, the ‘ethnicity’ discourse which has overlain old-fashioned biological racism yields new British stereotypes of ‘alien’ Islam, whereby “groups previously known by national or regional origin … are now all seen as part of a single Muslim community. This categorisation of minority communities in primarily religious terms assumes them to be internally unified, homogeneous unities with no class or gender differences or conflicts” (6). The underlying complexity is epitomised by several British-based women artists from Muslim backgrounds who have explored the meanings of the veil, including Jananne Al-Ani (Iraqi/Irish descent), Zenib Sedira (Algerian-French) and Sabhera Bham (British-Indian).
To Fran Lloyd, “the Arab woman’s body is central to Orientalist imagery as the site of this extreme difference or otherness: of eroticism combined with passivity and anonymity, and as a sign of the unknown to be conquered” (7). Zenib Sedira’s photography and video installations treat “the veil as external sign of difference, social positioning, gender, desire and exclusion/inclusion … a complex symbol that carries a multiplicity of frequently shifting and often contradictory meanings in differing postcolonial geographies” (8). Sabera Bham sees the veil as central to images of Muslim women in mainstream media – the most visible aspect which differentiates them from others. Her Concealed Visions – Veiled Sisters (1998) projected portraits of veiled women onto suspended transparent fabric, with a soundtrack of British women voicing how the veil expresses their modesty, dignity and self-respect (9).
The richness of such work reveals the range of attitudes amongst Muslim women; while many not wearing the veil appreciate that others incorporate it symbolically in conceiving personal identity. Veiling “is a specific practice of situating the body within the prevailing exigencies of power; so is unveiling … Not-to-veil is also another way of turning flesh into a particular type of body” (10), so that choices around the veil do not necessarily or directly concern either religion or oppression. These complexities should be kept in mind in considering the exhibitions described below concerning representations of British Muslim women. Though mostly of Pakistani descent, their portrayals amply demonstrate as wide a range of concerns and perceptions in relation to appearance, conduct, self and society as would be found among women in the UK of any cultural background.
1. Self Presentation
Like Sabhera Bham’s installation cited above, Clement Cooper’s Sisters (11) combined photography with testifying voices. This exhibition and book intended to give a positive public representation of young UK Muslim women (12), and had the backing of teachers and imams in state and Islamic colleges, schools and mosques in Preston, Oldham, Manchester and Birmingham, as well as the enthusiastic participation of those who volunteered in groups to take part. After extensive consultation with their parents, subjects were asked to wear their ‘best’ or favourite scarves (13), and pictures were shot between lessons in normal school sites. Locations and props were used according to aesthetics and convenience; other members of the school going about their business were present along with chaperones; and the subjects decided on their stance and gaze. The best images technically of each were shortlisted, and those used decided jointly with the subjects – the final selection representing the diversity of styles and postures adopted by the girls.
For the sound recordings, they were asked to speak about whatever they felt comfortable with in terms of their lives or beliefs as Muslims; given a list of suggested themes (including religion, the hijab, 9/11, prejudice experienced); and taboo themes such as divorce and sexuality were tacitly avoided to maintain comfort levels. The editing reduced repetition while representing the range of opinions expressed, keeping some of the naïveté and embarrassed laughter but doing justice to the subjects’ efforts to present themselves publicly (14). Most explicitly characterised themselves primarily as part of family and social networks or communities – those from Islamic schools being more self-confident about their position within Muslim traditions and religion; while state school students preferred to describe how they personally and collectively behaved and were treated as Muslims.
Given the briefing’s emphasis on women’s clothing and ‘Muslim’ ideas and behaviour, many of the statements discussed feminine roles and morality and women’s freedoms and status in Islam. However, it is noticeable that a very wide spectrum of attitudes was audible and visible, whether or not any pressure was felt from authority figures which may have impacted on what the girls said and did. In the pictures the gaze is to camera more often than averted, and the facial expressions and poses struck indicated feelings of being strong, sassy, secure, coy, defiant, vulnerable, knowing, proud, happy or challenging. Tones of voice included the forthright, hesitant, authoritative or thoughtful in criticising, justifying, demystifying, moralising, questioning, declaiming, complaining and explaining. Certainly, interpretations of domesticated, docile downpression on the part of these modern European young women would be hard to sustain irrespective of the degree of their piety, traditional observance of veiling, or modesty of expression.
2. Self Expression
Of course, the public collective identity of the Sisters was predetermined as Muslim and symbolised by the veil. Though necessary for the project’s purposes, this hindered the expression of other dimensions in the exploration of selfhood which might resonate with the experiences of viewers in different ways. The NMPFT exhibition After Cameron (15) also contains portrayals of a group of British Muslim women. These self-portraits were produced collectively but with no prescribed attention paid to the ethnic or cultural background of the subjects, and therefore no ‘burden of representation’ was placed upon them. With a stress on private and personal development rather than public presence, this provides an interesting contrast.
After Cameron was intended to introduce the work of Julia Margaret Cameron – a pioneering Victorian photographer belonging to a colonial family in India and therefore constrained by a variety of technological and social restrictions – to a wider audience. In a series of workshops with artist Chris Madge, the subjects experimented with nineteenth century pinhole camera and contemporary digital methods, and the corresponding old and new processing and developing techniques were combined culminating in the final argyrotype prints. This was decisively not ‘instant’ photography. Time needed to be taken for trial and error, and therefore for reflection. And while the digital camera captures moments, its autofocus technology renders the point of focus uncertain; whereas the pinhole camera’s longer exposure time gives flexibility in discovering possibilities for staging, movement and definition.
Judging by the results, the Bradford group were just as self-confident as the Sisters, evidenced in their sophisticated deployment of concepts and tropes of Western and Eastern beauty, familiarity with conventions of fashion photography, the self-consciousness of display and careful manipulation and playing with Asian and European clothing as well as other culturally iconic props. The expressions, postures and gestures tend towards introspection, with permutations of sadness, poignancy, yearning, amusement and joy as well as modesty, seriousness and stillness – but the pictures are also dynamic and dialogic, with double images and blurring from movement, and interaction between subjects as well as implied communication with viewers. The freedom to vary framing, lighting and camera angles further allowed the depth and complexity of character and mood to be conveyed.
The final ensemble of images captures the richness and provisionality of both personal identity and artistic endeavour as social processes rather than purely individual enterprises. Several of the group had even decided not to allow their pictures into the public domain (due to concerns about possible unauthorised use); though they participated just as fully as the others in the project. After Cameron emphasised the cultivation of a cohesive group environment to help overcome inhibitions as well as fostering shared decision-making. Rigid boundaries of both authorship and selfhood were thus comprehensively questioned in the portraits, which were selected for exhibition to represent a record of the learning and achievements of the group as well as the self-images of its members – who in the event largely relinquished the veil as a marker of identity while generally also choosing to avert their gaze.
3. Self Defence
The putative ‘mystery’ of Muslim women is enhanced by traditional practices of modesty only to those with no direct experience (whether through choice or circumstance). On the other hand, the postmodern Western obsession with superficial displays of surface appearance leads to suspicion towards any kind of hidden depths which have the capacity to expose it as the narcissistically trivial but commodifiable perversity it is. Either way, it should be apparent from the work described above that the characterisation of Muslim women as undifferentiated victims of their culture is a travesty, even if that doesn’t hinder its utility in the pursuit of sundry vested interests. These reproduce the generally regressive and racist tendencies of nationalism and other exclusionary discourses corrosively festering away in the body politic, but also often intersect with more urgent contemporary ramifications for everyday lives when powerful institutions weigh in. The Headmaster and the Headscarves details how young women are being forced right now to deal with the practical consequences of institutional definitions of their difference (16).
In a state secondary school in Paris, headmaster Raymond Scieux translated the French government’s outlawing of ‘religious symbols’ by insisting on the visibility of his female pupils’ ears and foreheads – his primary rationale being that his staff shouldn’t have to be aware of their religion. The teachers themselves justified the ban on the veil in quasi-feminist terms of the girls’ welfare (rather than their own) – including protecting them from religious ‘oppression’ by their families and, bizarrely, the importance of encouraging teenage sexual expression. Such clumsy rationales satisfied neither their more thoughtful colleagues nor the students featured in the documentary. Many of their parents had already urged them to relinquish their veils for the sake of education, and (like the Sisters), they recognised the sexualisation of youth to be toxic. They may have held sharply diverging perspectives on the status of ‘Western’ cultural patterns in their daily lives, and most were not particularly devout, but Muslim customs were felt as integral to their personal identities which were now under attack.
In the meetings and discussions shown in the film, those supporting the government guidelines systematically refused to listen to or take into account the girls’ feelings, opinions and wishes, or even to engage in real debate. Facing such patronising intransigence, the prospect of expulsion just before their final exams understandably tinged the atmosphere among the girls and their supporters with a mixture of indignance, misery and fatalism (17). However, some began to crystallise their intelligence and integrity into increasing determination and militancy as they grappled with strategies of minimum compromise to maintain self-respect. In this they drew on various social and cultural influences – including the history and steadfastness of parental generations, the self-respect inherent in Islam, pragmatic experience at school so far and an immersion in secular youth culture (such as in appropriating the bandana from hip hop style). Responding to an invidious predicament, their imaginative questioning of the wider social and political implications led to almost palpable intellectual, cultural and spiritual maturation – completely contradicting their erstwhile educational protectors, whose rhetorical claims of benevolence disrespectfully denied them any such capacity (18).
Rhetorics of Respect and Respectability
Liberal reformist writers and activists within Islam explain the resistance to change in its traditionalist patriarchal models by analysing the Qur’an and pre- and post-Islamic legislation, customs and scholarship (19), emphasising the historical, cultural and political conditions influencing the interpretation of scripture, the development of Shari’a law, and applications in specific circumstances. Humanist rationalism is apparently also rapidly gaining ground among intellectuals and the political classes in many important Islamic countries (20). However, a conspicuous failure to speak to poor and young Muslims offers hardline political Islam the chance to thrive – not just in the war zones of Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq but also in Europe, as well as in Islamic countries such as Iran where recent presidential elections were won through a tactical appeal to the economic desperation of the poor and against ‘corrupt’ urban middle class interests.
Surveys of patterns of beliefs and behaviour within and between Muslim communities and societies throughout the world (21) show that the most significant variables may not relate directly to religion either. The points of tension producing intellectual challenge, deliberate struggle or subversive response to necessity mean that women are often active against patriarchal restriction in ways corresponding to neither modernist, traditionalist or fundamentalist Islamist prescriptions nor Western liberal or feminist presumptions. So, despite this wide spectrum of lived practice (especially when harsh economic conditions dictate), Chandra Mohanty’s examination of the rhetoric of women’s solidarity shows that “British Asian cultures, in which a wide range of different types of people are living lives in which they are active agents not just passive victims, become reduced to monolithic, stereotyped and ethnocized categories such as the ‘Asian community’ … characterised by its victim status – victim often not only of white racism but of a set of so-called traditional norms and values” (22). Such patronisation is typically compounded with moral panics about ‘barbaric’ customs such as honour killing and female circumcision irrespective of their real prevalence.
When hyperbolized in this way, the general haste to condemn women’s subordination as blanket oppression carries the corollary that any apparent complicity – such as conformity to tradition – may be dismissed as the docility of the slave. The corresponding trivialisation of efforts from within Muslim communities to improve conditions for women then matches the general arrogance of Western discourses in relation to those of ‘inferior’ peoples. It also conveniently overlooks the cultural specifics of tradition. In the defensive conditions of historical domination, tradition centrally concerns ‘proper’ femininity – which “is always over-layered with other categorizations such as class and race. Historically … working-class women (Black and White) … were precisely what femininity was not. However, to claim respectability, disavowal of the sexual is necessary and constructions, displays and performances of feminine appearance and conduct are seen as necessary […] masquerades [which are] tactical deployments of forms of femininity which protected their investments and gained cultural approval and validation” (23).
Not surprisingly then, Britain’s South Asian communities are, according to fictional depictions, riddled with “forms of oppression that relate to caste, class and religion as well as the positive aspects of family and community … Women and girls, in particular, are subject to irreconcilable contradictions … What is called for is a life of negotiation that leads to a redefinition of boundaries” (24). This continual negotiation to prove worth contrasts pressures towards conformity from within one’s family, wider kinship networks and community with those from unofficial and official racism. None of this can be understood in simplistic terms of static culture, ethnic and race relations or patriarchy – which fix identity in mass, categorical differences clamouring to be recognised. And for those lacking the economic or cultural status needed “to participate in recognition politics … ethical struggles often occur around use- rather than exchange-values … Communities [form themselves through] talk of fairness and kindness that glues people together and is based on values of care rather than exchange.” (25). This type of social orientation resists the “tyranny of identity politics” (26), whether imposed by grass-roots essentialism, institutional discourse or governmental ‘political correctness’.
As with the Bradford groups defending those criminalised after the 2001 riots, the campaign in France against the school headscarves ban prominently features working class Muslim women organising from their own perspective in ways not reducible to essentialised separable identities – even if conservative ‘community leaders’, the state, academics, media and marketers share that agenda to monopolise tradition, ‘law and order’, knowledge, public opinion, and profit respectively. Likewise, the 1989 demonstrations and Satanic Verses ‘book-burning’ rituals by British Muslims in Bradford and elsewhere represented “spontaneous working class anger and hurt pride” (27) akin to that seen also among alienated Black and white inner-city youth throughout the 1970s and 80s. Whenever material deprivation is dismissed as the fault of the poor, it may become a matter of survival to demand respect in response to its absence. Whether white, Black or Asian, there’s nothing ‘natural’ about these processes – even if this is conveniently forgotten by the complacently respectable. Meanwhile the status as white of ‘underclass’ working class people on sink estates “is ‘tainted’ through their multi-ethnic residence, their poverty and their roots in a ‘black’ market economy” (28) along with their thoroughly dangerous conduct and dirty sexuality – echoing previous class-based and colonial discourses of the urban poor, immigrants and racial others used to reinforce distinctions between ‘rough’ and ‘respectable’ classes, castes or strata.
From the range of attitudes, preoccupations and expressions in Sisters, After Cameron and The Headmaster and the Headscarves, religious traditions, beliefs and norms are obviously interwoven with manifold other dimensions of contemporary European Muslim women’s experiences. Similarly, religious precepts and practices may be mobilised for a range of purposes, and are often neither the problem nor the solution nor even the most salient factors in striving for a tolerable life. Acting collectively to maintain and reproduce self, family and community means continually adjusting to conflicting demands from a panoply of social, discursive and official institutions. These claim uniformity, consistency and legitimacy on the grounds of nation, morality and order, yet are riven by and indeed formed from contradictory historical, political and economic interests. Consequently, codes of respectability which are deeply ambiguous in terms of their race, gender and class connotations collide and overlap within Western societies – among people of all secular and spiritual faiths coping with the consequences of consumerism, selfish individualism and contempt for others.
Meanwhile the hapless hysterical hypocrisy of power pretends it can legislate away all complexity and antagonism while encouraging the intensification of inequality. Such attempts are bound to fail; but the failure itself serves both corporate agendas and the divinely-ordained control freak fantasies concerning moral enforcement and punishment indulged in by New Labour, Islamic fascism and US evangelical support for neoconservative neofeudalism. Resistance of any kind to the relentless march of managed misery is defined as bad for business, inherently dangerous, and evil to boot. Deliberately soliciting knee-jerk public reactions which draw on emotional reserves left over from centuries-old colonial and class stratification, the state legitimises unlimited measures to preempt change. And as with anti-social conduct (including wearing headscarves or hoodies); so too for thought-crime and terror. As Paul Gilroy argues, in the UK:
“outlawing incitement to religious hatred … was just a convenient governmental gambit for separating ‘good’ from ‘bad’ Muslims … Bolting official religious sensitivity on to the apparatuses of ‘antiracism’ only helps to reproduce exactly the sort of closed and stratified communities that might otherwise be withering away. Processes, identities and feelings that are fluid, complex and internally differentiated become fixed, naturalised and spiritualised …
“Transposing large cultural, political and economic problems into the language of faith and religion is a counterproductive oversimplification recycling the ‘clash of civilizations’ idea … It is only racism that holds all British Muslims responsible for the wrongs perpetrated in the name of their faith by a tiny minority” (29).
The heavy-handed and misconceived methods of the rule of law applied to alien civilisations and yob cultures alike run the gamut from surveillance, profiling and spurious and malicious ‘intelligence’ to peremptory discipline and restrictions on movement and eligibility for work, welfare and services – because on prejudicial examination their targets perpetually fall short of fully human (or British) status deserving respect for life and self-organisation. Appreciating – rather than suppressing, denying and projecting – the inevitable shades of sameness and difference within and between us is therefore no mere aesthetic preference for respectably cultured cosmopolitans. Breaking the cover of monolithic universal prescription by understanding, accepting and building from the implications is instead a precondition for any liberatory politics (30).
1. Variant 23, pp.28-31, Summer 2005.
2. also, as it happens, my old school.
3. Camillia Fawzi El-Solh & Judy Mabro, ‘The Ubiquitous Veil’, pp.7-12 in ‘Introduction: Islam and Muslim Women’, Muslim Women’s Choices: Religious Belief and Social Reality, Berg, 1994, pp.1-32.
4. where, “the hybridity generated by diaspora is not just with the ‘host’ nation but among diasporas themselves … [from] the historical and continuing interactions between different diasporas, and the increasing frequency with which individuals may inhabit various successive diasporas in the course of a single lifetime” (Nicholas Mitzoeff, Diaspora and Visual Culture, Routledge, 1999, p.3-4.
5. Fran Lloyd, ‘Arab Women Artists: Issues of Representation and Gender in Contemporary British Visual Culture’, Visual Culture in Britain, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2001, p.5.
6. Nira Yuval-Davis, ‘Fundamentalism, Multiculturalism and Women in Britain’, in James Donald & Ali Rattansi (eds.) Race, Culture and Difference, Sage, 1992, p.263.
7. Lloyd, p.13 (see note 5). For various historical reasons, Arab women may have suffered such perceptions in especially acute form; but a similar syndrome could surely be detected applying to Muslim (or indeed, Asian) women in general.
8. Lloyd, p.6. So, Silent Witness (1995) has a row of large disembodied but actively moving pairs of eyes complicating questions of agency, activity, passivity and modesty, whereas Don’t Do To Her What You Did To Me (1996) has large photographs of “the artist veiling and unveiling herself … The averted gaze of the artist and the veil suggest an image of subjugation, but … the scarf (which was made by Sedira) is a patchwork of photographs of an unveiled female with her hair down (the artist’s sister)” (p.8). Silent Sight (Self-Portrait) (1999) has a triptych of the artist wearing full-length white veil, recalling Catholic and Islamic symbolism blending in her upbringing in Paris.
9. “I wanted to create alternative images of the veil, images that would challenge mainstream conceptions and allow the veil wearers to be able to express themselves”: Sabera Bham, quoted in Paul O’Kane, ‘Review of Photographic Installation, Concealed Visions – Veiled Sisters, by Sabera Bham’, Third Text, Vol. 43, No. 2, 1998, pp. 101-3.
10. Meyda Yegenoglu, Colonial Fantasies: Towards a Feminist Reading of Orientalism, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p.115. Note that the Qu’ran does not mention the veil; merely exhorting believers to avoid repeated eye contact with members of the opposite sex.
11. Sisters: A Celebration of British Female Muslim Identity, by Clement Cooper, © KHADiJA Productions, Manchester, 2004 (distributed by Cornerhouse Publications: see www.cornerhouse.org/publications), includes portraits and statements of women from Oldham, Manchester, Preston and Birmingham, including: Aisha Saleem, Ambia Khatun, Ayah Basil Hatahet, Bushra Iqbal, Danya Al-Astewani, Fatima Abdul, Fatima Begum, Hazera Afia Khatun, Henna Jameel (pictured), Johura Begum, Mariam Ghaddah, Meyrish Nasreem (pictured), Nipa Begum (pictured), Rebeka Akhtar, Rebeka Khantun, Romana Sunam, Shahina Khatun, Sobia Bibi and sisters (pictured), Sonia Ahmed and Tasneem Aiar. Sisters exhibited at The Gallery Oldham in 2004-2005 and is now touring internationally. Clement Cooper’s previous work includes Presence, looking at life within the African-Caribbean communities of Moss Side and Longsight, Manchester, and Deep: People of Mixed Race, on the experiences of people in Liverpool, Cardiff, Manchester and Bristol. A current UK-wide project entitled Brothers, under the auspices of Autograph: the Association of Black Photographers, will produce portraits of British Muslim men.
12. “They were quite happy to speak about their faith and have their pictures taken. Even the imams went out of their way to help me. I found Muslim women to be intelligent. They were aware of who they were and felt strongly about their beliefs. They had great respect for themselves and respect for others. What I found most amazing was that an eight-year-old girl wearing the hijab knew far more about herself and who she was than her much older white counterparts” (Clement Cooper, interviewed in ‘Beauty and the Faith: Girls and their Hijabs’, Asian News, 17th December, 2004).
13. In Islamic schools white hijabs were school uniform; dark colours being favoured in state schools. Veil material varied from simple, high-quality cloth to more decorative designs, sometimes prominently featuring fashion brand names (itself a subject of intense discussion). Incidentally, one of the schoolgirls forged her parent’s signature for permission to take part, leading to her portrait being temporarily withdrawn. General information regarding the project was provided by Clement Cooper (personal communication, July 2005).
14. From their day-to-day chat many of the girls were also mad about football (though not other sports) and various other ‘Western’ pursuits; some also routinely discussed ‘boyfriends’. In other words, many themes commonplace among British teenage girls were keenly addressed – though only one contributor mentioned leisure pursuits and enjoyment during recording, countering perceptions that being Muslim was boring and serious.
15. After Cameron, National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (©), Bradford, 2004 (in association with Bradford Youth Service), including portraits by Billy Ayub, Sylina Sabir, Afiya Hussain, Aaisha Hussain, Salhia Ahmed, Salma Ahmed, Mahmoona Khan and Yasmeen Kosar, working with Chris Madge (see: www.nmpft.org.uk/aftercameron). Further information concerning this project was gained from Chris Madge (personal communication, May 2005).
16. The Headmaster and the Headscarves, dir. Elizabeth C. Jones, screened on BBC2, 29th March 2005, and is set in the Lycée Eugene Delacroix in Drancy, northeast Paris. Note that the history and contemporary repercussions of French colonialism in Africa are rather different from those of the British Empire in Asia (the hijab itself being highly significant in the Algerian independence campaign). However, the Muslim Arab and African presence in France is as firmly established as the South Asian communities are in the UK, with fluctuating patterns of integration and autonomy, tradition and cultural crossover sufficiently parallel in the two countries to merit consideration together – as are the contours and stereotypes of racism and Islamophobia and very substantial levels of deprivation and disaffection.
17. From working class families and poor neighbourhoods, and considering the far more intense degree of institutional racism faced in France even than in Britain, they were keenly aware that their prospects were already highly uncertain. Since the programme was made, school expulsions of French girls refusing to remove their veils have started to accelerate, and an organised campaign against the ban is gaining wide support. Meanwhile hijab bans are planned or are already law in several other European countries, including Germany, Spain and Italy.
18. whereas submitting meekly would represent the effective accomplishment of the repression their communities are accused of. For some responses from young UK Muslim women to The Headmaster and the Headscarves, see: http://forum.mpacuk.org – including comments that approximate nationalistic pride in asserting that it will never get that bad here. Let’s hope they’re right (in the prognosis, if not the diagnosis).
19. see, for example, Asghar Ali Engineer, The Rights of Women in Islam (2nd ed.), New Dawn Press, 2004.
20. such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Morocco, see: Ziauddin Sardar, ‘Islam: the Tide of Change’, New Statesman, 8th August, 2005.
21. for example. Fawzi El-Solh & Mabro (see note 2).
22. because “the Western gaze, including the Western feminist gaze, tends to construct Third World ‘otherness’ in ways that deny the differences and specificity of other cultures”: Chandra T. Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity, Duke University Press, 2003; cited in Chris Weedon, Identity and Culture: Narratives of Difference and Belonging, Open University Press, 2003, p.114.
23. Beverley Skeggs, Formations of Class and Gender: Becoming Respectable, Sage, 1997, p.115. See also: Floya Anthias, ‘Race and Class Revisited: Conceptualising Race and Racism’, Sociological Review, Vol. 38, 1990, pp.19-42; Heidi Mirza (ed.), Black British Feminism: A Reader, Routledge, 1997; and Tracey Reynolds, ‘Black Women and Social-Class Identity’, in: Sally R. Munt (ed.) Cultural Studies and the Working Class: Subject to Change, Cassell, 2000.
24. Weedon, p.114 (see note 22). The material discussed in ‘Same Difference?’ (see note 1) bears out such conclusions.
25. Beverley Skeggs, Class, Self, Culture, Open University Press, 2004, p.185, who further stresses that “The significance of loyalty and honour has also been well documented in studies of working-class life”. And: “While recognition politics becomes the ground for the middle classes to regroup their interests and investments, attempting to gain the moral and national high ground, other groups shape their ethics differently …
“This is the sort of ethics … [referring to] that which cannot be used, that which has real integrity; something quite rare in an exchange-value Western world. And it is the rarity of integrity that makes it in such demand, for it is one of the cultural practices which is difficult for the accumulative self to access, the prosthetic self to play with, or the omnivore to taste. Authenticity and integrity are ethical qualities that cannot be easily exchanged; they may be one aspect of cultural capital that cannot be harnessed by those intent on increasing their value at the expense of others” (p.186).
26. A. Sivanandan, ‘Fighting Our Fundamentalisms’ [interview with Campaign Against Racism and Fascism], Race & Class, Vol. 36, No. 3, 1995, p.80, who explains that identity politics makes it “impossible to examine issues objectively. Your loyalty is already defined by who you are and, therefore, the side you take is already defined, and there is no point in discussing other views on the subject. The debate is foreclosed before it has begun”.
27. Tariq Modood, ‘British Asian Muslims and the Rushdie Affair’, in James Donald & Ali Rattansi (eds.) Race, Culture and Difference, Sage, 1992, p.261. Here the trigger for action concerned religious identity only in the sense that Christians would be similarly outraged if “pissing on the bible” was presented as a “theological argument” (p.269).
28. Anoop Nayak, Race, Place and Globalization: Youth Cultures in a Changing World, Berg, 2003, p.76. This study of attitudes among white working class youth in Newcastle upon Tyne revealed different levels and types of multicultural interaction, including defensive respectability and ‘classic’ white racism, the imitation or cultivation of elements of ‘ethnic’ style, and underclass groups whose space and circumstances were shared with Asians and who oscillated between virulent prejudice and practical intermixture. In my experience, all these (and more) are also manifest in R&B club nights here, in which local young men and women from Muslim backgrounds enthusiastically participate – though in other public arenas choosing far more restrained conduct.
29. ‘Race and Faith Post 7/7′ (correspondence with Herman Ouseley), The Guardian, 30th July, 2005.
30. Gilroy (see note 29) concludes: “It may be more important to ask what social, economic and cultural conditions can promote solidarity and mutuality across fluid cultural lines … cultivating a political outlook that does not counterpose solidarity and diversity so that more of one means less of the other”. See also Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? Routledge, 2004.
Closed Circuit Tunnel Vision, by Tom Jennings.
Essay / film review of Red Road, dir. Andrea Arnold and the surveillance society, published in Variant magazine, No. 29, June 2007.Closed Circuit Tunnel Vision by Tom Jennings
[essay / film review of Red Road, dir. Andrea Arnold, and surveillance society, published in Variant, No. 29, June 2007]
Concern over the use and abuse of information about their citizens gathered by governments has a long history, and the increasing sophistication of twentieth-century paraphernalia of surveillance matching the complexity of state and private institutions has proved fertile ground for a variety of artistic, philosophical and political purposes. The most prominent theme is the state’s proclivity for interfering in everyday life, purportedly in the public interest of social cohesion and stability but in practice for the benefit of those with power or money seeking more of the same. A distinctive cinema of paranoia crudely personalises and grossly oversimplifies such scenarios, including Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse films from the 1920s, Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), 1984 (dir. Michael Anderson, 1956), Winter Kills (William Richert, 1979), a 1984 remake (Michael Radford, 1984), Enemy of the State (Tony Scott, 1998), and now the tired bourgeois triumphalism of The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006). Recent experimental films such as Unrequited Love (Chris Petit, 2005) and Hidden (Michael Haneke, 2005) complicate the phenomenology of persecution to some extent, but naïve belief in the virtual omnipotence achieved by cumulative observation is still the rule – so that individual resistance to oppression can only seek out loopholes, weak points and blind spots in the blanket coverage of objective data.
Given that independent and art cinema practitioners claim to deconstruct the voyeuristic fantasies masquerading as reality in the mainstream, it may seem surprising that the effectiveness of surveillance technology itself in delivering truth is rarely interrogated. Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) notably achieved this, albeit restricted to the conspiratorial recording of voices and professional, expert and elite agendas. However, fictional treatments have signally failed to imagine the wider social and cultural significance of either past or present developments. For example, the current proliferation of high-resolution cameras looming over urban areas across the UK may become progressively integrated with ID card systems and comprehensive national databases (probably also hawked around for corporate scrutiny and input), with comparably baleful large-scale projects having been planned, instituted or shelved in many developed countries. Worse, despite the saturation coverage already offered by one-fifth of the world’s CCTV units trained on us in this country, some local councils already fit ex-military employees with headset versions to roam dodgy areas – yet the loyal opposition to this creeping modern authoritarianism goes little further than queasily rehearsing outdated Orwellian pieties or lofty liberal abstrations concerning privacy.1
In this context, perhaps Andrea Arnold’s Glasgow-set suspense thriller Red Road won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year partly out of recognition of its nerve in attempting to transcend such clichés. It can’t have hurt that it is also an immensely impressive, ambitious, intelligent and idiosyncratic film, with a complex structure, taut pace, powerful script, convincing characterisations, evocative design, vivid photography, astute direction, and compelling performances. Originating in Lars von Trier’s post-Dogme Advance Party project – where Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen (undeterred by the failure of a similar concept in Lucas Belvaux’s Trilogy) minimally outlined a set of characters to be played by the same actors in three low-budget DV features in different genres by novice writer-directors – Red Road depicts Jackie (Kate Dickie), a widow in her thirties working as a low-paid CCTV operative alerting emergency services to events requiring their presence on the north side of the city. Shunning family and friends since her bereavement, her drab, hermit’s life seems to provide no pleasure beyond an occasional flickering smile when the quirks of ordinary folk on-screen interrupt scanning for stabbings and muggings.
The robotic routine is disrupted when she spots the man responsible for the deaths of her husband and young child. Clyde (Tony Curran) has been paroled early for good behaviour, and Jackie’s subsequent grim, single-minded, remote pursuit soon turns to physical stalking. He shares a high-rise flat in the run-down Red Road estate with disturbed youngsters Stevie (Martin Compston) and April (Natalie Press), with whom Jackie cultivates relationships after blagging her way into a party there. After several meetings she has intensely passionate sex with Clyde, whereupon her plan is revealed as she leaves, rips her face and clothes and accuses him of rape. However, Stevie tracks her home and confronts her (having earlier stolen her purse), but then accepts her explanation. Also now aware of Clyde’s efforts to connect with his own teenage daughter, Jackie’s demonising hatred dissolves along with her own character armour, and she drops the charges. Together they visit the accident site where his crack-fuelled driving had initially suspended her animation. His regret combined with determined positivity – despite in most respects considerably worse prospects than hers – leads her to reconcile with the in-laws, scatter the loved-ones’ ashes and contemplate a future.
In Full View
Arnold has consistently emphasised her intention to question the ramifications of surveillance in Britain (having wanted to make a documentary on the subject before being offered Red Road). She mischievously explains the apparently passive acceptance of state intrusiveness in terms of “our national psyche” – and it’s true that, beyond hysterical hyperbole, such debate has been all but absent in current affairs programming.2 Likewise, the critical reception of the film prioritises Jackie’s personal psychological and social trajectory and her individual pathology – with the cinematic provenance of paranoid snooping seen only as convenient metaphor and instrument for its acting-out. But tales of fruitcakes and nutcases armed with the power of a million eyes precisely miss the salience of this story’s stress on the unglamorous, supposedly relatively benign perspective of those trying to pre-empt street violence. Juggling conventions from several film genres, yet confounding all their logics as well as the expectations of both the main character and viewers, the overarching problematic here is the inherent unreliability of suspicious monitoring as a primary mode of determining understanding, action, and hence power.
The Advance Party character sketch limited itself to describing Jackie as “cool and aloof because of a terrible loss she has suffered … The world has been insanely unfair to her”. However, although the camera shadows her claustrophobically closely when not taking her point-of-view, information about her subjectivity, motives and backstory is scrupulously withheld (reminiscent of the contemporary cinematic naturalism, for example, of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne). Forcing viewers to guess who she is and what she’s up to then mimics the process of interpreting the CCTV images themselves, using only sequences of trivial, isolated and/or arbitrary visual clues. Prior experience in similar contexts (exposure to and investment in media genres, for example, as well as on the job for CCTV operatives) naturally inflects and colours any conclusions drawn, and expectations and predictions will further depend on personal preconceptions, prejudices and predilections which are more likely to be activated when resonance occurs with longer-term emotional patterns. Deep-seated anxiety or biographical trauma predispose us to associate potential victims with our own pain and the usual suspects with fear or anger – but when mutual feedback from direct interaction is not available, reality cannot be tested against the attributes unconsciously projected onto others that in fact derive from one’s own preoccupations.
So, this damaged protagonist is far from proactively powerful at the hub of the panopticon. She is frigid on her own behalf and functionally all but impotent for others – consoled only by occasional remote compassion (for the bloke with a sick bulldog or a dancing office-cleaner), prompting isolated expressions of human warmth which establish our marginal empathy with her numbly repetitive existence. A similarly mundane event triggers the unfolding drama. Noticing the possibly sinister pursuit of a girl onto waste ground, Jackie’s pessimistic anticipation turns to incipient arousal once consensual sex ensues, quickly followed by shock at recognising Clyde. Then, galvanised by imagining that her privileged gaze promises mastery over him, exposing herself to danger in his real world eventually proves her victory hollow. Revenge is redundant once its quarry is humanised by the yearning for intimacy they share and now that her anguish need no longer be suppressed. By implication, the detached overview of the soap opera of everyday life has actually prevented change, protecting only by sustaining a safe, habitual alienation – but thereby perpetuating the Hobbesian petty vindictiveness of embattled, embittered, minimal selves adrift in a mediated jungle of commodified human relations.
However, while the surface content of the narrative surely echoes processes of working-through loss – from grief, fixation, anger, and melancholy to re-engagement with the world – there is no straightforward submission to simplistic counselling formulae, with effortlessly unthreatening emotional adaptation. This mourner is certainly not ‘managed’. Instead she compulsively dismantles her own depressive defenses, gambling vulnerability with overconfident recklessness in moving from self-hatred to the brink of self-destruction. In the process, hitherto dormant energies of aggression and libido are mobilised which, as is their wont, couple capriciously in propelling her towards a variety of climaxes. The denouement, nevertheless, may seem a little anti-climactic, and too comfortingly tidy (perhaps relating to the need to leave the characters intact for the two other Advance Party efforts). Even then, that Jackie’s manic brazen culminates in an uplifting, redemptive ending is as counterintuitive for her as it is for us. The narrative seams mined on the way, after all, seduce us into expecting the worst (as in the CCTV orientation), so that evidence of caring, empathy, or collective goodwill is easily discounted or uneasily misinterpreted in the inexorable gravity of violent or tragic destiny.
Precedence here is furnished by relatively marginal cinema subgenres, such as rape revenge thrillers and recent, more sophisticated explorations of women’s autonomy and sexual agency like Carinne Adler’s Under The Skin (1997), Jane Campion’s In The Cut (2003) and Catherine Breillat’s post-feminist brutalism from Romance (1999) to The Anatomy of Hell (2003). But while Red Road’s tantalising plot flirts with exploitation, and stylistic flourishes both encourage and thwart cod-psychoanalysis, a thoroughgoing ambiguity built into imagery and character undermines temptations towards universalising mythology in favour of social-realist specificity. So Jackie’s reluctant contacts with family establish her traditional working-class background – not slumming it, and neither excited, disgusted nor daunted by a bit of rough (linguistically or otherwise). The peremptory affair conducted fortnightly in his vehicle with a married van-driver reinforces the lack of prudery or prurience, and counterpoints her repulsion from and attraction to Clyde. His feral, expressive, uninhibited vulgarity embodies an honest, generous curiosity belying the disrepute of his situation, intimate engagement with which changes her orientation to her own misery as those in his milieu strive to kickstart stalled and spoiled lives in collaborative, open-hearted, raw sociability.
Behind the Scenes
Risking excessive extrapolation from Jackie’s journey moreover implicates far wider visual regimes of truth than local authority crime prevention charades, yielding a convenient scapegoat aligned with government policy and dominant popular media rhetorics vastly exaggerating lower-class dysfunction as cause rather than symptom of society’s ills. But in this case his name is Clyde, living at Red Road, Glasgow – the proud libertarian-socialist heritage of a militant Red Clydeside being stark shorthand for historic political and social divisions whose descendant faultlines CCTV systems help paper over and mystify. When the politics of narcissism, envy and resentment poison the traditions of mutual aid already starved by deindustrialisation, the human fallout sediments into discrete strata of hopelessness frozen in antagonism and disciplined in hierarchies of precariousness, abjection, and, most of all, aspiration. Then, refracted by the ruthless gaze of neoliberal information management into the classifiable visibility of lifestyle, those able to maintain a veneer of distasteful respectability institutionalise their marginal distinction in low-grade drudge, servicing and policing the rest.
But Jackie’s solitary emotional confinement leaves no space for affectation, and Clyde is going straight as a 24-hour locksmith – his wounded, caring, rogue spirit proving the key to her prisoner’s dilemma, softening a tough exterior of narrow goal-oriented irrationality. Their fluid negotiation of the normally gendered ascriptions of initiative, desire and sensibility then facilitates a reciprocal altruism which supersedes hypocritical truisms of moral dictate and conformity. The site of this revelation gains added poignancy from the fact that the eight actual Red Road tower-blocks now house asylum-seekers and refugees as well as ex-cons – Red Road accordingly hinting that the renewed cycles of solidarity required for struggle in the global carceral village can only take shape outside of official discourse. The latter’s closed circuits are in any case too busy dispassionately parading a matrix of superficial details across soulless screens. Their statistical correlations of trivial pursuits then afford an aura of authenticity to the tunnel vision of our rulers, whose self-aggrandising vanity is flattered by the pseudoscientific architecture of meaningless choice and the implacable economics of worthless value – a delusional hall of mirrors simulating the final taming and regimenting of human entropy … However, the map is still not the territory, and there are yet ghosts in the machine.
1. the shortcomings of which are spelled out in the excellent Defending Anonymity, published by the Anarchist Federation (available at www.afed.org.uk). Meanwhile two national groups are gearing up for a concerted campaign against ID cards: the ‘No 2 ID’ coalition focusses on the usual respectably pointless lobbying – but is gathering very useful information, including from countries where similar schemes have been roundly defeated (see www.no2id.net); whereas the more truculent and pragmatic ‘Defy ID’ network (www.defy-id.org.uk) anticipates the need for action on an anti-Poll Tax scale.
2. An exception being Observer columnist Henry Porter, whose Suspect Nation (Channel 4, November 2006) comprehensively rubbishes the supposed necessity, desirability, workability, trustability and affordability of the government’s present plans as regularly peddled in predictably transparent and fallacious spin. For valuable observations on the broader cultural context, see also James Horrox, ‘When the Clocks Strike 13′, and ‘Surveillance as a Way of Life’, in Freedom magazine, 16th December 2006 and 16th January 2007 respectively.