Tag Archives: The Guardian Music Blog

The Guardian, Coldplay and Cultural Appropriation

The Guardian posted an article accusing Coldplay of “Cultural Appropriation” over their new music video filmed in India. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the video itself, there was  an implied subtext that any western musicians who include elements of non-western cultures in their art are guilty of racism.

A band most of whom I know personally have recently released an album with lyrics strongly influenced by Indian spirituality. Does that mean that they too are guilty of racism? Does that mean I’m guilty by association through supporting them and giving their album a positive review?

Fortunately enough people whose opinions I trust have dismissed that piece as little more than sub-Buzzfeed button-pushing clickbait. It’s a largely fact-free thinkpiece that doesn’t cite sources or do any proper journalism. It’s the sort of thing you might expect to find on someone’s personal blog, but we ought to expect higher standards from a national newspaper with a long and illustrious history. It’s telling that under The Guardian’s new policy on articles that touch on race, the piece has no comment section, so they won’t get flooded with responses telling them how ridiculous it is. It’s also telling that the writer picked an obvious soft target, a hugely popular but deeply unfashionable band despised by much of The Guardian’s readership.

Cultural Appropriation is a bit of a minefield. It ought to be easy to understand why simplistic racist caricatures belong in the past, or why you should be careful when using sacred religious symbols outside the context of your own faith. Coldplay might even be guilty of those things. But Social Justice Warriors (I hate that term, but it seems to have stuck) take things much further; any attempt by white westerners to create art that references any aspect of non-western cultures is denounced as “problematic”, their term for “sinful”. The truth is there is an enormous grey area between those two extremes, but ideological absolutists don’t do grey areas. So much great music has arisen from cross-fertilisation between different cultures, something which would be squashed if those who would police art in this manner had their way.

There’s a whole cultural ecosystem of media pundits who earn a living playing on misplaced white liberal guilt. Nobody wants to be thought of as racist or sexist, so too much nonsense ends up going unchallenged. The whole subject of Cultural Appropriation is ideal territory for these people. It’s hardly surprising that it was meat and drink for the notorious predator Requires Hate who did so much harm within the world of science-fiction.

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Is Triple J’s Hottest 100 all about White Male Privilege?

The Guardian is (yet again) trying to stir up trouble. This time it’s over the results of an end-of-year list by an Australian indie-rock radio station of being too male. It’s one of those articles where excessive use of sweeping generalisations means that the valid points the author is trying to make end up getting lost in the noise. The comments thread is a predictable car crash.

On one level it looks like a trivial twitter spat being blown up out of all proportion, and that spat itself looks like a prime example of two people talking past one another because neither is willing to recognise that the other is using a different meaning of the dreaded word “privilege”. Or that the social justice activism’s definition of the word was meant to describe structural inequality rather than be used to attack individuals.

But the wider point of whether or not a poll from an indie-rock radio station is a symbol of endemic sexism in the music scene doesn’t get coherently expressed. As some comments have pointed out, mainstream commercial pop is dominated either by female singers or male singers such as Justin Bieber with overwhelmingly female audiences. You could make a strong case that genre snobbery has a more than a whiff of sexism, especially the implication that indie-rock is somehow superior and more “authentic” than pop. But the piece doesn’t go there.

Taste in music is both subjective and deeply personal. The sorts of music people enjoy listening to, or indeed make, is often strongly gendered, and that gets more so the more you move away from the commercial mainstream. Which means it can get ugly very quickly when you inject identity politics into music fandom in a clumsy and heavy-handed manner. If you imply to someone that their preference for rock over pop somehow makes them sexist and racist, they’re likely to take it personally, and many will react angrily. Especially if you give the impression you don’t actually connect with music at a deep emotional level yourself.

If you want to point out how an awards shortlist, a festival bill or a listeners poll is too male, and there are plenty of those that are guilty as charged, you do need a bit more evidence than merely failing to meet some arbitrary gender quota. Unless of course the bias is so blatant that it’s impossible to explain away.

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Is this the end of Readers Recommend?

Sad news that, barring a last-minute reprieve, The Guardian is calling time on the weekly Readers’ Recommend column.

For those not familiar with it, every Thursday evening the Guardian website puts up a post containing the week’s subject, for example “Songs about mountains“, and readers are asked to nominate songs in the comment section. It will always run to several hundred comments. The “Guru” of the week must read all the comments, listen to as many of the nominated songs as possible and assemble a playlist which will be published the following week.

It has been running for a decade now.

For the early years the Guru was one of The Guardian’s own writers, beginning with Dorian Lynskey who frustratingly never chose any of the songs I nominated. More recently there have been rotating volunteer Gurus selected from the community itself under the stewardship of Peter Kimpton, and that appears to have given the whole thing a new lease of life. It’s certainly drawn me back in and I’ve seen significantly more of my nominations make the playlist, including Panic Room and Mostly Autumn songs.

It’s spawned a remarkable and unique sub-community within The Guardian’s site. I cannot think of any other long-lasting music community that hasn’t been based around a shared love of particular band or genre; the tastes of the RR community is all over the map, and that is its greatest strength. It has one and only one cardinal rule, “thou shalt not rubbish anyone else’s taste“.

I have no idea why The Guardian have decided to pull the plug. It’s may be that The Guardian just don’t know quite what to do with something that’s a bit of an outlier compared to the rest of the site. Perhaps we don’t fit the 25-45 age group demographic that Guardian Music wants to target. Perhaps they just don’t like something they can’t gatekeep? Look at the disgraceful way they arbitrarily disqualified things from the Readers’ Album of the Year poll because it was the wrong sort of music nominated by the wrong sort of fans. RR just doesn’t back the mid-life-crisis consensus groupthink of too many of the paper’s own writers, so it has to go.

It’s being suggested that Readers Recommend doesn’t fit because Guardian Music is more interested in celebrity lifestyle reporting than in expressing deep passion for actual music. If you look at their writer’s picks for their best articles of the year, what appears to be the top two are both awful clickbait thinkpieces about Taylor Swift and Kanye West which are all about identity politics with little to say about the actual music. I’m sure there is a place for that sort of thing, but not at the expense of actual music writing.

It’s a shame. Readers Recommend is something unique and special, and I hope the extended community survives in some form. As I’ve always said, online forums and social media platforms come and go, but what endures and what really matters is the relationships you make through them.

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Music Journalism in an Age of Niches

The shenanigans over the Guardian end-of-year list are surely a sympton of far deeper problems. The internet-era music world is fragmented into myriad overlapping niche scenes, and it’s harder for one publication to cover it all. But to cover a small subset of niches and pretending it’s the “mainstream” doesn’t work. Because beyond the mass-market corporate pop of Adele and Coldplay there is no mainstream. It’s all niches.

The Guardian is full of former NME types who have grown accustomed to acting as gatekeepers and tastemakers. But it’s a different world now; what worked in 1995 isn’t going to fly in 2015. If a broadsheet wants to continue with in-depth music coverage and wants to continue to be relevant, it needs to reinvent itself.

To start with, they must engage with those niche scenes they had been pretending weren’t relevant, and ensure they have the writers, either staff or freelancers, who understand those scenes.  Only then can they genuinely have have the broad coverage of music they currently only claim to.

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Have The Guardian just rigged their readers’ poll?

Disgraceful behaviour by The Guardian for The best albums of 2015 – readers’ picks 

We are in accord! For the first time any of us can recall, Guardian readers and Guardian writers had the same two favourite albums of the year, in the same order. This year, in a rare moment of rigour, we decided to exclude obvious attempts to game the system – so, Tinker’s Mitten (“like a beefier Flying Pickets”, one reader suggested, enticingly), Jodie Marie and Karnataka, we’re sorry; but next time you suspect your admirers might be voting for you en masse in a poll, tell them not to all vote at the same time (we record exactly when each vote is cast, for exactly this reason). Had they only spread their votes out a little more, all might well have featured in our top five.

So The Guardian admit to rigging the ballot, and the results then just happen to validate the boring consensus picks of the paper’s own critics.

Sorry, Guardian, but this stinks to high heaven.

If you run a poll with a public ballot on the internet with a very low barrier to entry, you surrender your riight to gatekeep the results, and accept the risk that outsiders might come and gatecrash your party. This happened last year when veteran punk satirists Half Man Half Biscuit was voted readers’ album of the year. The general consensus at the time was “Good on them. Anyone else could have done the same”.

What’s different this year, aside from Karnataka not being sufficiently fashionable for the gatekeepers? Running a ballot, then changing the rules when you get a result you don”t like really is out of order.

The irony is that had they not excluded Jodie Marie and Karnataka, they wouldn’t have have ended up with an all-male top five.  So much for the diversity The Guardian prides itself in.

A couple of minutes Googling reveals that there is no such band as “Tinker’s Mitten”. This might be because The Guardian got their name wrong, or it might be that The Guardian got pranked with votes for a fake band.  But Karnataka and Jodie Marie are very real. Were they just accidental collateral damage?

At this point the best thing The Guardian can do is admit that they screwed up, and republish a top ten (not a top five) with both Karnataka and Jodie Marie reinstated.

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Lists by Committees and Hipster Beards

Father John Misty Guardian music writer Dorian Lynskey took exception to me joking on Twitter that his album of the year was stereotypically Guardian. It was that picture of Josh Tillman’s archetypal hipster beard that did it.

I know it was a cheap shot, but…

I do recognise the Guardian’s end-of-year list is very diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity, but the top ten in particular is starting to look rather samey in terms of actual music. Aside from the odd exception like jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington it’s very heavy with introspective confessional singer-songwriters where the music takes second place to the subject matter of the lyrics. Now I’m sure they’re all worthy records; nothing I’ve heard has been unlistenably bad, and one or two (for example Joanna Newsom) sound interesting enough to investigate further.

But many other genres exist that are unrepresented save perhaps for a token in the lower reaches of the list.

This might be another example of the weakness of the list-by-committee approach I’ve criticised in the past. All the more eclectic individual choices get squeezed out by the majority consensus, which in this case seems to coalesce around those confessional singer-songwriters.  Perhaps they should use E Pluribus Hugo next year?

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In 2012 it was The Enid. Last year it was Half Man Half Biscuit. Who will it be this year? Which cult band will succeed in mobilising their loyal fanbase and storm The Guardian’s readers’ choice of best album of 2015? Because it will be boring unless someone does.

Posted on by Tim Hall | Comments Off

Ritchie Blackmore – 10 of the best

The Guardian have just published my piece on Ritchie Blackmore for their “10 of the best” series.

Like some of my previous entries in this series, reducing the essence of a major artist’s career down to just ten songs is never easy. As on my earlier Black Sabbath piece I wanted to avoid a list containing ten obvious standards and nothing else, so I missed out very well-known songs such as “Smoke on the Water” to make room for a couple of lesser known and often overlooked gems.

There were a few songs that picked themselves. “Eyes of the World” was one of those songs that changed my life, so it had to be there. Likewise, the towering “Stargazer” could not be omitted. I did consider including representatives from his 1960s session work, and from the more recent Blackmores Night so as to cover his entire career. But in the end I decided to focus entirely on his prime years from 1970 to 1984.

Quite a few of the alternative suggestions in the comments did actually appear in earlier drafts of my list, including “Child in Time” which I eventually left out in place of “Speed King”, and the live version of “Catch the Rainbow” which one commenter described as the nearest thing rock guitar ever came to Coltraine.

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Gatekeepers

Chantel McGregor at the 2014 Cambridge Rock FestivalChantel McGregor at the 2014 Cambridge Rock Festival, which prominently features female artists

The Guardian have run their fourth piece in as many weeks bemoaning the fact that the lineups of major festivals are too male-dominated.

Unfortunately while it does raise some valid points it ends with this awful paragraph that seems deliberately calculated to provoke a defensive reaction from male rock fans, especially when the proposed “solution” had been to add commercial pop acts like Taylor Swift or Katy Perry to the bill.

In a world where women are deconstructing pop music, club culture is booming with some of the most innovative sounds in years, and a new generation of hip-hop and rap stars are heralding a socio-political cultural revolution in America, the white, male rockist notion of what a music festival headliner should be begins to feel hopelessly archaic.

The use of the dated 1980s term “rockist” does rather imply the author didn’t actually like rock at all, and the whole thing smacked of Social Justice Warrior-style invasion of other people’s spaces. One of the authors did later clarify that that wasn’t what she meant and she did love rock after all, but by then the comments were swarmed with bellicose sexists. I even had to ask the moderators to remove one of my own comments that recommended and namechecked a female artist because I didn’t want her to become the subject of online harassment.

While there is undoubtably sexism across all levels in the music business, I still think one big problem is the way a very small number of gatekeepers get to filter all the music mainstream audiences get to hear. The problem is not just that those gatekeepers are disproportionately white and male but that so few people have a disproportionate amount of power.

Previous articles have spoken of “elite tastemakers” numbering as few as fifteen record label executives, radio programmers and magazine editors who get to decide almost everything Joe and Johanna public get to hear.

Commenter “Cathartic” writes of the influence of gatekeepers in metal, using the Download festival referenced in the piece as an example.

There are numerous metal bands with females in that are less commercially successful, which disproves the idea that women just like to watch, but its almost certain that if festivals gave newer acts (both male and female) more of a chance many would develop the fanbase needed to justify headline slots.

Its a Chicken/Egg situation largely. Download is extremely conservative about its line ups, most of the headliners and main stage acts are basically older American and British bands that have been around for decades, and they are not known for given the European bands a slot. The latest roadrunner signing will take preference over an established European band regardless of commercial appeal. 10 years later that band will have enough mid-afternoon slots that they would have to be really bad not to have turned that exposure into sales.

However elsewhere in Europe, Nightwish and Within Temptation are two examples of female fronted bands that will land headline slots in hard rock/metal festivals. Both would pull off a senior slot at download as well these days. Both those bands can pull off UK arena tours now, but it was Bloodstock that has pioneered these types of bands in the UK first. There is the audience out there.

There are plenty of female musicians – ratio is irrelevant – playing in smaller bands in genres which download claims to cater for. The question is why so few have been able to make the leap from small touring for petrol money to headliners. The reasons may be complex, but the reality is his festival (and other music industry big wigs) have acted as gatekeepers in the genre and adopted an extremely conservative booking policy that has meant download have never taken risks on helping the smaller bands reach a larger audience. His comments just portrayed an under ignorance of the genre he caters for. Reality is headliners may be the ones that sell tickets (and Nightwish and Within Temptation certainly could add ticket sales for download), but the mid-afternoon slots are far less risky to try something new and there are a whole host of bands with female musicians that get ignored. Many people at festivals find discovering new bands part of the reason for going to a festival anyway.

That hits the nail right on the head.

I do suspecr that one reason the grassroots progressive rock scene is more friendly towards female-led bands than the corporate indie-rock festival circuit is previsely because it isn’t so controlled by bean-counting gatekeepers.

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Not So Alternative Comedy

In a Guardian comment thread that was actually far more entertaining than the nasty mean-spirited blog post it was attached to, somebody linked to this joke from Alexei Sayle:

I was at a Motorhead gig when after an 8 hour number entitled ‘I’ve got a dick the size of a Ford Cortina, someone called out “sexist shite” and they thought it was request …

If you laughed at that, it’s very likely that you know little or nothing about Mötorhead or their music.

Alexei Sayle could be a very entertaining comic actor, but I never rated his act as a stand-up comic in the early days of his career. He presented himself as an “alternative comedian”, eschewing the sexism and racism that was a staple of so much second-rate comedy of the 70s.

But his act was actually nowhere near as radical or as funny as he liked to think it was, and tended to be laced with a lot of smug self-rightousness. The example above showed, just like the racist Bernard Manning, he was willing to get cheap laughs by punching at his audiences’ designated out-groups without needing to put in any effort to be genuinely funny.

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