Today’s social media controversy comes courtesy of former Doctor Who show-runner Russell T Davies who has gone on record in an interview that he believes gay roles should generally be played by gay actors.
As you might expect, the response to this argument has been both immediate and strong. Some people have argued that it’s against the whole principle of acting to say that people should only play people like themselves (while obviously skipping over the obvious complexities of a white actor playing a black character or a man playing a woman’s experience in a serious drama). Others have argued that if straight actors can’t play gay, then gay actors should not be able to play straight characters either.
In the middle of a lot of this is the same sort of generalized tedious sentiment we often get in these kinds of discussions – stuff that goes along the lines of, “it’s all political correctness gone mad” along with groans about the “woke brigade”.
Now, these positions are infuriating, frustrating and wrong, but it’s not always obvious to people why they are wrong. Superficially, they seems simple, commonsensical, obviously right. So for that reason I thought I’d go a bit above and beyond the call of duty and write a little piece explaining why subjects like these are more complex and intricate than they might initially appear, and why—in my opinion—even if it may not be desirable long-term, it is far from unreasonable to argue that gay parts should generally be played by gay actors.
I’m going to break this into three sections which I think has bearing on the question of who should play which roles:
I’ll then try and wrap things up with a brief summary (you can skip to that right now if you can’t be bothered to read everything) and a position about what I think it means going forward.
But if you’re with me for the long read, let’s jump right in…
No. The truth is that there is not equality of opportunity for gay and straight actors, any more than there has been equality of opportunity for women, people of color or non-gay members of the LGBT community.
While it has become considerably easier for gay actors to get ahead in Hollywood or in acting generally in recent years, being gay is still often an impediment to a successful acting career at the highest levels.
It is simply the case that actors who are out and proud and well known as being gay simply don’t get given straight roles as often—particularly straight leading roles—in movies or TV. Out gay actors who take on these roles are often characterized as ‘not believable’, meanwhile when a straight actor historically has played a gay role (at least over the last thirty years or so), they have been more often characterized as ‘brave’.
So here is our first argument about why gay roles should generally be played by gay people. There simply aren’t very many LGBT roles on TV or film, gay people are under- and often mis-represented, and (if they’re out) they’re often simply not allowed to play high profile non-gay roles.
Surely then, if gay actors are being purposefully excluded from many prominent straight roles, they should at least be considered preferentially for gay roles?
Let’s be clear – gay people are still disadvantaged in contemporary society. Gay men generally earn less than straight men, gay people still often don’t feel comfortable express affection to their partners in public, gay teens are twice as likely to attempt suicide than straight teens, and twice as likely to ‘succeed’ when they try. Gay kids also represent 25-40% of homeless youth across the US and UK, and well over 90+% of gay kids report hearing homophobic abuse in the playground on an almost daily basis.
I mention this because I would think it fairly obvious that one of the major ways that we can fight misinformation and discrimination against LGBT people is by representing them properly on TV and film. This does not mean by any means making every gay character a paragon of virtue. But it does mean representing gay people as they actually are, rather than resorting to stereotype or discriminatory tropes.
Which brings us to our second question – can straight actors accurately portray gay people?
The short answer here is yes. They absolutely can. And they sometimes do. I can name a number of films and movies where I think straight people have done tremendously good work portraying gay characters.
But as always, the devil is in the details. And the longer answer is that even today, many straight actors do not truly understand the lived experience of gay people and so—rather than depicting rounded characters that reflect real life—they either portray two-dimensional figures without any richness or understanding, or they resort to codes or symbols or stereotypes to communicate ‘gayness’.
The reality is that LGBT people often have some commonalities of experience that are often invisible or simply not understood by straight people. There’s the common experience of growing up around homophobic comments, and then coming to realize that those comments are about you. There’s the common experience of having crushes on people and knowing that you have to be completely secretive about them. There’s the common experience of lying to people around you and misleading people because you’re scared of how they’ll react if they find out the truth. There are the common experiences of coming out to friends, family, colleagues – over and over and over again as you meet new people. The common experience of someone you like making homophobic comments because they just don’t know. The common experience of not knowing how much of yourself you can reveal on the street without fear of attack. There’s the different way you meet people like yourself, the different support infrastructures you fabricate for yourself.
Not all LGBT people experience all of these things, and no doubt some experience none of them. But for most LGBT people, their path has been different from most of their straight peers and there will be things that most LGBT people experience that most straight people will not. And these things are a part of the complexity of the character and backgrounds of almost every fictional gay person.
For many straight actors, their experience of gay people will be via their most confident out gay friends, or via previous representations of gay people in movies and TV. Forty years ago those representations were of sad, disillusioned, broken people who had horrible times coming out or were in the process of dying of AIDS, or ultra-camp flamboyant people with limp wrists and catch phrases. Twenty years ago they were more often than not very attractive and well-groomed men who were slightly bitchy best friends to nearby career women. Today they’re a lot better and more nuanced, but they’re still flawed. And you only have to look at fantasy fiction to see that there’s still prejudice in movie making. How many daring archaeologists are gay? How many leather coat wearing space cowboys are gay? How many secret agents?
So here’s our second argument about why gay roles should generally be played by gay people – while there are a number of examples of particularly good straight actors who have very effectively played gay characters, they are uncommon and massively overwhelmed by bad ones. If you want to fix that misrepresentation (and in turn have a positive effect on the lives of gay people) then one thing you can substantively do is cast gay actors in gay roles.
Which brings us to our final question…
Perhaps surprisingly, this is—for me—the most complicated question to answer. I think if you look through the arguments above, you’ll see threads of the position I’m about to make here, but I think it’s important to bring out those threads explicitly and surface what I think is the most common mistake people make when they talk about minority groups.
The position as expressed is simple – if straight people should probably not play gay characters, then surely it’s only fair to say gay characters shouldn’t play straight?
But the basis of this position is fundamentally flawed. The basis is that the experiences of gay actors and straight actors — more still, gay people and straight people — is fundamentally symmetrical. The two sides are effectively equivalent and therefore what follows is some kind of version of ‘what’s good for the goose is good for the gander’.
The problem is this is simply not true. When you’re talking about minority groups in this way, the two sides are not symmetrical. The two sides are in fact very different. And the logical consequence of this difference is that things that might be okay for one group are actually not okay for another.
The best way for me to explain this is through an example. A position based on symmetry might be a bit like this: “If there are gay bars, why aren’t there also straight bars!?”
(For the moment, I’m going to ignore the reality that there are often straight people in gay bars, and that most non-explicitly gay bars are effectively de facto straight bars containing an equally small proportion of gay people. Instead I’m going to talk about why explicitly gay bars are a thing and explicitly straight bars are not.)
So here’s the first bit of asymmetry. A very small proportion of people in the world are LGBT. It is strongly debated what that proportion is, but for the sake of simple maths let’s say one person in fifty is explicitly gay.
Now, one of the most common places to meet someone you end up forming a relationship with is at work. The percentage varies depending on who you ask, but it’s somewhere around 15-25% of relationships are with someone you work with.
So let’s imagine an office containing fifty people with an equal gender split and one in fifty people being gay. A straight person who joins that company will meet 24 heterosexual people of the opposite sex. A gay person who enters the same office will most likely meet no other gay people. The company would need to be twice the size (100 people) for them to meet one other gay person. And for them to be sure they were of the appropriate sex, the company would have to be twice the size again (200 people). In comparison, in a company of two hundred people, each straight person would meet 98 heterosexual people of the opposite sex.
Let’s take that further. It’s still the general assumption that people you meet are straight, and there are still a number of reasons why gay people might not be out at work. So let’s imagine only 50% of gay people come out. So now we need to double the size of the company again. We’re now in a company of four hundred people, where each straight person is associating with 196 heterosexuals of the opposite sex. The gay employee meanwhile knows one out gay person of their preferred sex.
That’s an asymmetry in action. And it means for gay people to meet other gay people to date, they can’t rely on meeting people at work in the same way that heterosexual people might. Instead they have to make special and unusual efforts to find other places with gay people. As a result, gay people need ‘gay clubs’ and ‘gay bars’, while straight people do not need ‘straight clubs’ and ‘straight bars’.
So how does this apply to our final question – does it follow that therefore gay actors should not play straight roles?
Well, let’s look back at our first question – are gay actors given an equal shot at straight roles? The answer was no, there’s an asymmetry there. Out gay actors were less likely to get leading straight roles than straight actors were to get gay roles. Giving gay roles to gay actors starts to fix that problem, but as long as there are disproportionately few gay roles, making things equitable also means letting gay actors play straight roles.
Does the same apply to our second question? Are there asymmetries at play that mean that it’s more okay for gay people to play straight than vice versa? I would argue there are at least three worth mentioning:
First up – the asymmetry of knowledge – most straight people do not grow up or live in predominantly gay environments, whereas most gay people do grow up and live in predominantly straight environments. Gay people are much more likely to be comfortable and convincing and accurate playing straight – at least partly because they may have spend good portions of their lives doing precisely that.
Second – the asymmetry of power – unlike gay people, straight people generally do not grow experience prejudice because of their sexuality. This means that accidentally misrepresenting straight people is much less problematic. Instead of furthering or creating a negative view of all straight people, it’s more likely to simply make that character look objectionable or unpleasant.
Third – the asymmetry of number – because there are far more straight characters and straight roles, the negative effect of one misrepresentation of a straight person—among all the thousands committed to film and TV each day—is also much less pronounced or important.
Okay, so let me bring that all together. In short, the argument I’ve made goes like this:
For these reasons, I think it is perfectly reasonable to make the argument that Davies’ arguments are not self-evidently wrong or hypocritical.
But I’d like to go a bit further. These positions are fundamentally based on these asymmetries between gay and straight people. Some of those asymmetries just won’t go away – it’s very unlikely that we’ll ever see a time where there are as many gay people as straight people in the world.
But some of them can be fixed. We can make the experience of growing up gay or being gay in the world less alarming, dangerous and scary. We can make straight people more aware of the experience of being gay with more accurate representation and education. We can work to help audiences feel more comfortable with gay actors to take on straight leading roles. We can increase the number of LGBT roles in drama so that it’s truly representative.
And my position is that if we do that, then at least some of these arguments over time will lose their potency. We actually can work towards a day where it is at least more okay for any good actor working in good faith to play gay or straight whatever their sexuality. Where we don’t have to think continually about how we make sure that gay people are represented and gay actors have equal opportunities and we genuinely can just give the right roles to the best people. We’re just not there yet. And to get there we probably have to follow a narrower and more complicated path – much like the path that Russell T Davies has mapped out.
In the meantime, we work and we push and we explain, in articles in the Radio Times or in never-ending blog posts, to those few who are willing to listen, always hoping that together we might get a little closer to that day.
Thank you for listening and goodnight xx
Like many people who live in America I have donated to US political candidates and campaigns. And like many people who live in America I have subsequently found my entire life suddenly and completely overwhelmed by text-messages and e-mail spam and phone calls and any number of other venal, stressy, desperate campaign messages.
Now of course by law you can unsubscribe from these things, but sometimes without realizing, it often turns out you’ve actually donated to a few different services – whether it be Act Blue or a specific campaign or to the DNC or whatever. And you have to hunt everyone one of them down to get unsubscribed. And go through a whole bunch of rigmarole and fighting and arguments to do so.
(I suppose it’s also possible that you may have donated to a Republican campaign. I find that unlikely, but if that’s the case, keep moving please, there’s nothing for you here.)
Anyway, I was so put off by the torrent of crap I got after donating many times to Barack Obama’s campaign that I spent a large amount of time getting myself off every single one of their records and lists. And then I decided I did not want to donate any more money again after that until such a point that the Democrats made it easy to choose how much spam you should get, and easy to unsubscribe. But they never did. So I didn’t donate to any political campaign in 2016. And then Trump got in and it was clearly all my fault. Lesson learned.
Anyway, this year I decided I wanted to donate again, but I wanted to do it a bit more intelligently. And after a bit of research, this is what I recommend. It’s really quite easy and non-threatening.
(1) Get a Google Voice account. This is essentially a real telephone number that you can receive texts on and can reroute to your actual phone line if you want. Use this number in everything you do with a political campaign. Then go in and change the settings to automatically go to voicemail and to not be put through to your main phone number.
You can go and check your messages and texts at any time you want. It’s a real number and it works. You’re not breaking (as far as I know) any laws or rules. You’re just keeping it off your damn main phone.
(2) Use + signs in your e-mail address. This is a sneaky little trick that allows you to tag an e-mail address you give out. If your e-mail address is (for example) firstname.lastname@example.org, you can actually give out the e-mail address email@example.com and it will 100% work. The bit after the plus is ignored by the routing systems, but is preserved when it enters your e-mail client.
That means if you do nothing, an e-mail sent to firstname.lastname@example.org will end up in the mailbox of email@example.com. You can make as many of these e-mail addresses as you like and they’ll all work.
However, the full address with the +democrats on it is still visible to your e-mail client. That means you can then set up a simple rule to mark all messages from that account as read and file them away in some hidden folder that you never look in.
I think you basically still have to provide your home address and that means they can send mail shots and the like, but to be honest, I’ve never found that interruptive or a particular problem compared to continual mail spam, text messages and phone calls.
Anyway, if you set that stuff up—and it literally takes half an hour to do it—you can then continue to donate with those details to whoever you like and you do it completely safely without having to worry about them continuing to spam the living hell out of you.
And sure, that means you also won’t see the daily begging e-mails or texts from your preferred candidate, and that probably means you won’t end up donating as much from guilt or shame or fear. And that means that your candidate will probably not get quite as much money as if you donated as normal. But if you’re anything like me, that wasn’t the option any more. The option was donate and live in rage and frustration at how often you’re harassed or give up donating forever. This feels like a reasonable compromise to me, and it has worked extremely well this election cycle.
With any luck at some point political parties will learn that relentless spam and calls and guilting people may work in the short term, but that its long term consequences are to alienate and piss of their own supporters. It seems short sighted to me. It seems like an obviously bad approach long-term. But they haven’t learned it yet, so I think it’s perfectly reasonable to do what you have to do to get through the night.
When this whole horrible COVID19 experience started—back when we thought maybe we’d be in lockdown for a few weeks, not a few months to a year—I thought to myself that at least it might be something worthy of documenting with my camera. I considered the world so changed and strange in this moment in time that no one would really understand it in the future unless people tried to capture the experience.
But the truth is, I’ve really struggled. The world generally doesn’t look transformed. It doesn’t even look abandoned in many ways. It’s more eerie than that. It just looks like a perpetual early morning before people are out on the streets. Or what Sunday afternoons used to feel like in England in the 1980s. For the most part, the visual reality of this situation conveys almost nothing of the experience of living through it. In fact, at times, while it feels desolate and strange and disconcerting—terrifying even—it looks almost idyllic.
A better photographer than I might be able to capture the feeling. But in the meantime, here’s some of the surface reality of San Francisco in April and May 2020. I’ll probably post some more in another couple of months.
I’d like to ask you guys a quick favor. If you use an RSS reader to consume your online content and somehow you still find yourself subscribed to plasticbag.org after many years of abandonment and dereliction, I’d really appreciate it if you can let me know in the comments below if you see this post. If you could tell me what client or online service you’re using to consume the feed too, that would be really great.
The short background to this is that as part of my massive cleaning and reinstallation of everything, I deleted a hell of a lot of stuff from around the place, and I’m checking the error logs to see what things people are missing. At the moment, the largest number of 404 errors are coming from people looking for an
atom.xml file, which I’m assuming are all places I used to keep my feeds. WordPress has moved them to
/feed/ and so I’ve made a few
.htaccess updates to redirect everything to the right places. But of course it’s easy to make the redirects, and less easy to check that everything is coming through to everyone correctly.
Obviously, if you happen to stumble upon this post in another way and then realize that your RSS feed is not up to date, I’d also love to hear about it, but I suspect that’s a bit less likely to happen.
It feels odd, writing your first blog post in seven years. It used to be such a large part of my life—and this blog used to be such a core part of my work and engagement with my community—that you’d think you’d never forget how to do it. I wrote here almost every day for well over a decade. It saw me through the first half of my working life, from Time Out to Brickhouse, London to America. It saw me through many of my most significant life events. And yet I’ve not done it for seven years. It feels odd. And forgotten how to do it, I think I sort of have.*
I’ve obviously been writing, don’t get me wrong! I’ve written many, many tweets in the last seven years. Around 150,000 of them, in fact, on pretty much every subject under the sun, although mostly (in recent years) #politics and #doctorwho. I’ve built up over 40,000 followers over that time, a number that I think I can get back down under a thousand if I continue to focus ardently on #politics and #doctorwho. This will have a certain circular irony to it since, if I’m honest, the ease of writing on Twitter is probably one of the reasons that I finally stopped blogging in the first place.
I’ve set up a few other Twitter accounts too. There’s @lovedsongs which publishes a list of every song I’ve given five stars to or loved on iTunes. And @houseofcoates which fairly aimlessly plugs away reporting the things that happen at my home. Just two of the many absurd things you can do with Twitter if you get bored.
I’ve also written a number of conference talks. Looking back at my dump of the old Lanyrd website, probably around thirty! Or at least maybe ten, each of which was delivered a few times. Writing those conference talks reminded me a lot of how it felt to write a decent blog post after ten years on the job. By that time I was no longer just knocking something out for fun to get a thought out of my head. I wanted them to be good. Really good. And so I wrote them to death, and focused in on them and really thought them through. Some of the conference talks I managed to write in less than one focused week of work. Some took almost a month. It had been getting that way with my blog posts by the end. And that, in a third ancillary and supportive nutshell, is yet another reason that I finally stopped blogging.
It might surprise some of you that I used to go outside. But if you don’t believe me, the conference talk I gave most recently was at the Mind The Product event in 2018. It was a keynote on the main stage at the San Francisco Symphony Hall. Get me. Main stage at Glastonbury. Crowds go wild. I three-dimensionally-rendered most of the slides using a focused brick of computronium. (I wrote that out longhand because “I 3d rendered” looked very strange indeed.) It took a really long time, and over-ran by ten full minutes. Everyone was very, very nice about it. I’m quite proud of the whole thing.
I also wrote a few things in other places over that time. I wrote a few things on Medium. I’m not sure why I chose to move to Medium, except I guess I thought it was a bit less embarrassing than writing a blog. I also thought I could just write something every so often and it might somehow find itself an audience without me having to write all the time to maintain people’s attention. Plus, of course, it makes what you write look gorgeous.
However, after roughly a decade of not writing regularly, I can testify that removing the pressure of regular content production did not make me produce fewer, higher quality thoughts, but just removed the impetus to write altogether. And that for the fourth time, is another reason why I stopped blogging.
I wrote a few things for more public spaces too. The most prominent of those was an opinion piece for NBC News that I guess I never actually billed them for (their payment system was appalling) so in principle, I guess I still own it. I might copy it over to this site in fact since they probably don’t hold the copyright. If you’re interested at all, it’s here: Trump blocked me on Twitter. But for democracy’s sake, we can’t ban him.
I should say a couple of things about that piece of writing before I move on – firstly, I didn’t write the headline. Mostly when you write things, the sub-editor writes the headline, and it is normally the distilled down and clickbaitiest possible version of what you actually might have meant. The second thing I’d like to say is that, you know, I still stand by it 85%. But, you know, when he started encouraging people to break the lockdown and go outside and give and spread disease to millions of Americans… Well, anyway.
But of course the main thing I’ve been doing over the last decade is building things. First at Yahoo, we built and launched Fire Eagle within Brickhouse and did a whole bunch of product innovation things, plus a couple of substantial but much less glamorous internal projects to do with location sharing and storage. Then after that projects like The Eatery with Aza Raskin, Up Coffee for Jawbone, projects for Nokia and Burner, doing consulting with Matt Biddulph at Product Club, then launching a better smart object UX with Thington (also built with Matt), sold to Eero a couple of years ago, followed by spending the last year and a half working on a completely decentralized alternative to Facebook and Twitter now known as Planetary.
I often find that when I’m working on something complicated my desire to write sort of dries up. I used to find these patterns where I’d spend chunks of time in strategic roles where I’d have to think a lot about an emerging subject in public, followed by times where I’d be focused on building and the writing would dry up. It’s a shame because I think the writing and the thinking helps you draw attention to the building, helps you engage people with the projects and keeps you a bit honest. It’s a good thing to think and work in public if you can do it. But for me, recently, for good or ill, it’s been mostly building and not very much writing for the last few years. And that, I suppose, is yet another reason why I stopped blogging.
So I guess the question of the moment is why have I started again? Why after seven+ years have I felt compelled to write just one more post? Is this the beginning of something more substantial?
There are probably two answers to this. The first one is purely practical. A few years ago someone managed to hack into my servers via an unpatched version of DBAdmin. And shortly after that, Google started reporting that there appeared to be content spam appearing in my blog. Shortly after that, my web host shut down access to any of my sites from outside, citing the presence of malware. And since I didn’t really know what they’d done and I didn’t have time to investigate it all thoroughly, over not very long at all every mark of my internet presence evaporated.
Which brings us to today, and this moment in time where we’re all reeling a bit from the world. A time that finds some of us trying to occupy our minds with something constructive. A moment where I finally had the time (and the desperate inclination) to back everything up and then completely purge my server, soup to nuts. And then gradually, piece at a time, when I get a moment, I’ve been putting it up online again.
Little fragments from my distant past are starting to emerge. Old fan sites like The Bomb. Weird creative projects from the past that I’m too embarrassed to link to. Websites made of many, many frames (ask your granddad). And of course, this blog. Over twenty years old, and filled with great swathes of my history. Looking at me blankly, using an off-the-shelf theme that conveys none of my feel or personality, with a little link that doesn’t blink but feels like it does saying only, “Add new post”. “Add new post.”
And hence the second answer to the question, why have I started again? Well, first up, I don’t know that I have. This could be the only new post I ever put up here. But if it is, it won’t be because I’m writing lots elsewhere. We live in a new time of isolation and fear. Twitter feels too urgent and anxious and tense right now. There’s no space to think or breathe. Facebook is filled with all the angst and pain and fury people are feeling. It’s overwhelming. Instagram is filled with people performing a perfect family lockdown experience interspersed with adverts for masks.
And suddenly, I find myself hearkening back to an earlier time of self-expression and community. The crowds have gone. There are no hordes of people waiting outside for a new post to emerge. There’s little to no pressure. Everyone’s not looking. It’s just the relics from an earlier era, posting periodically. And suddenly, maybe just for this one moment in time, that community is who I need. That community is who I miss. And talking to them in this kind of way feels right.
So I’m sorry that it’s long and vague and formless. I’m sorry that I’ve forgotten how to write … good*. I’m sorry that I haven’t posted for a very long time. But I’m here now, I have very little to say, and for some reason, goddam, I’m determined to say it.
So here’s to all you old people who still glance at blogs. Maybe this will turn up in your RSS feeds somehow. Maybe you’ll stumble upon it at some point in the future. Maybe you’ll never see it. That’s okay too. It’s not for an audience. It’s not for the attention. It’s just something I wanted to say, written down and pushed out the door to be stumbled upon by random people at some point. Just like it always was supposed to be, I guess.
It feels odd, writing your first blog post in seven years. But it’s a good kind of weird. And I’ve missed it.
* The irony here is intentional. I haven’t written long pieces for a while. I can’t tell if you’re getting the jokes.
Today our comment and review media lurch from Hot Takes to History without pausing for a moment to get a sense of what actually happened. The concept of the One Year Later Review was that we might be able to get a better understanding of what mattered and what effects it had with a little bit of distance – one year of distance in fact.
I think I first noticed the reaction-focused sense of the media in the end of year song lists that came out halfway through December—before the year had even ended. That didn’t seem to be enough time to understand or feel or assess what had just happened. It seemed so flighty and empty and vacuous. And once I recognized that I started to see it everywhere.
I think reviewing what happened a year previously in a regular fashion would give us a bit more of a sense of where we came from, a bit more context on which events ended up proving meaningful and which were just flotsam and jetsam that appeared and disappeared into nothing. I think it’s a really strong idea. I wish media organizations would consider doing something like it about all the major events.
But let’s be honest. I like the idea, but I’m not going to be the one to write them. So I’ve restricted myself to writing a few words about the songs that meant something to me a full year after the end of the year in question. It’s a fun, simple project that doesn’t take too much time. And who knows, maybe you might find something you missed from it.
(This particular review has ended up being written considerably after the fact, in May 2020 rather than (as intended) in January 2019. Please forgive me. Life got in the way.)
This year somehow managed to produce fewer songs that I love than most others in recent memory and yet at the same time I love them so much. And this is a prime example – Gainsbourg had been working a bit on the arty-not-catchy end of things and then suddenly this thing comes out and it is Charismatic Art Disco. It’s so damn good. The weird lyrics about marriage, the disco stomp underneath, the great loud releases of the chorus, the unconventional structures. Every single part of it makes me want to stride down the street like I own the place. Wonderful track that I listen to all the damn time.
Now, let’s be clear. Everyone knows what Father John Misty is like, and without question he gets more and more self-involved and performatively ‘deep’ every year. There’s a lot not to like and a lot to be bored of in his work. It’s very strongly flavored and there’s not a lot of contrast between his tracks. And yet if you look around carefully there are such bleak gems in it too. Guess what, this is one of them.
This particular gleaming chunk of value starts off looking like a comment on technology in modern life and as such it should step very heavily on one of my personal landmines (musicians complaining about the effects of technology in clumsy ignorant ways while using the shit out of it), but it turns out it’s much more about entertainment and perpetual stimulus and weirdly that makes way more sense and feels much more relatable. It’s very open about the horrors of a total entertainment culture while being quite clear that we’re all complicit with, and totally enjoying, it. That’s a narrative with a bit more nuance and elegance. And I recognize myself in it.
Plus, I mean, the language. “Bedding Taylor Swift, Every Night Inside An Oculus Rift. After Mister and the Missus, Finish dinner and the dishes…” I mean, the image is vibrant, the concept interesting, the language beautifully assembled. Seriously, the man can write and he has something to write about.
I’m pretty old now so I don’t have the grasp on what the kids are into, but if this is the standard of even 1/100th of the pop music they’re listening to, then wow… It’s a variant of an older Selena Gomez song, resampled and mangled, beautifully reassembled and restructured in ingenious new ways that are musically interesting and evocative. It’s also a song with a really simple, clear and clean message that’s exactly the opposite of the kind of torch songs we’re used to. Who’s going to walk you through the dark side of the morning? It ain’t me. It’s fresh and immediately classic. I love it. I absolutely love it.
God this year had a lot of great songs and this is without question one off the best ones. It’s without question my favorite St Vincent song, it’s also one of my favorite songs of the year and it’s probably in my top fifty songs of all time too. It’s just wonderful.
I listened to St Vincent talk about this track on Song Exploder and she revealed a few things that were very surprising to me – firstly that it was originally two songs sort of stitched together in an unholy union. You cannot tell. It feels so perfect. And secondly that it was the first song that she wrote that she felt could be someone’s favorite ever song. And she is absolutely right. It’s perfect. It moves me. I love it completely and absolutely. I could listen to a version ten times the length and I’d not get bored.
I’ve been pretty enthusiastic about most Arcade Fire albums over the years, but this one was a bit of a disappointment. I can’t really explain why. It just didn’t feel right. The songs felt flat and underwhelming, the insight like it was something out of a bottle. And the new sound they tried to push for was an odd fit for the band.
Which is why it’s so impressive and puzzling that the best song on the album is the one that pushes that noise the furthest into ABBA-like pop territory. A bit like Total Entertainment Forever, it’s a song about being overwhelmed by the excess of culture and content and consumption. And also like it, it accepts that we’re all complicit with it and all love it, even as we know it’s a delicious fruit with a worm at its core.
Now, wonderful as it is, it does go a bit over the top on occasions. I can’t tell if the Pan Pipes make me laugh with delight or make my eyes roll with embarrassment. It might be both of them at the same time. Maybe that makes it better? I don’t know. Take a look for yourself and tell me – is this laughably silly or laughably wonderful? I sure as hell don’t know. I just know I like it.
So the band that disbanded and then rebanded once again came back with an album that was reviewed extremely positively but mostly left me cold. I don’t know that I know precisely why most of it didn’t work for me, but work for me it did not. I still love the band. I saw them live in Berkeley and they were amazing. And they played all the classics and they were all amazing. And yet somehow in the middle of the whole thing, without me even really understanding what was happening, this song swept out and blew me away.
I’m not 100% sure what it is about it that makes it so moving. It’s definitely at least partly the bass line, pulsing out like a communication from an alien lifeform. It’s definitely partly the contrast between that bass, the slightly frantic metronome like noise and the gentle, slow and dreamlike lyrics, filled with longing and regret and desire and support and love. It may be partly just the experience of being in that place at that time, feeling all the things that it wanted to talk about. It may be the break they added in the live performance or the gap that it leaves in the recorded version. I don’t know. All I know is that it is everything, and I love it.
The video is extraordinary too. Directed by Rian Johnson and starring Sissy Spacek and David Strathairn who are in love and perfecting matter transportation. It’s hard to explain, but it’s wonderful. I’m using the word too much. I don’t care. This deserves it.
Looking back at the songs I’ve chosen this year, there’s a lot of longing and sadness and emotion in them. Not many of them are particularly up beat. I’m sorry about that. Maybe I had an emo year.
This is a cover of the old classic performed by Sharon Van Etten for The Man In The High Castle TV show / soundtrack album. It feels like a rediscovered old Patsy Cline song somehow and yet immediately contemporary at the same time. A song for the moment, without doubt.
Pretty much every year I end up giving myself a bit of a cheat. And I guess this is the one for 2017. It’s a track from a newly created album playing some classic works of Philip Glass. It’s a track that I intend to learn how to play as soon as a I get a piano again, along with Reverie by Debussy. It’s not a massively complicated piece of music, it’s almost like Für Elise in that it feels like an exercise piece. But I love it so much. It’s just hypnotic and stark at the same time.
I heard Aimee Mann talk about the origins of this song. She was at a party with Andrew Garfield who would end up being the new Spider-man. And she seems to have looked at him and thought to herself that he resembled nothing more than a piece of fresh meat about to be chewed up and spat out by Hollywood.
I find it a bit puzzling that she’d speak so openly about this origin for the song. It’s a sad and tragic song really and you feel like Andrew Garfield might actually find it quite a difficult song to listen to later. It feels a bit cruel, to be honest. And yet it’s also beautiful. And it’s pretty self-evidently right as well. Maybe that makes it worse.
Anyway, it’s a beautiful song, but like all beautiful songs that end up meaning a lot to you, I see a lot of myself in it and it’s come to mean something particular to me. I sometimes think about what I was expecting when I moved to America and what the reality of that has actually been. I don’t find this a particularly easy song to listen to.
Okay well we’re through the year and looking back at the songs above … well, they’re not cheery, are they? Hard to know what was going on. Maybe it was a post-Trump election time of sadness and introspection?
I’m going to end with one of my favorite songs of all time, but I’m going to warn you, it’s not a fun one.
Sufjan Stevens did two versions of this song about Tonya Harding, the Olympic figure skater who had a pretty colorful backstory and got into some substantial trouble.
One of these versions is more conventional. This is the other one – the one with a gentler twinkle and a slower, more empathic pace. The other version is fine, but this one is sensationally beautiful.
It doesn’t veer away from describing the human catastrophe that she was. You get every detail of her degrading acts and the degradation she experienced as a result. And I think while that’s hard to listen to, it’s never mocking or exploitative. It communicates nothing more than empathy and a desire for understanding.
Even more, it encourages us all to see the equivalent catastrophe in all of us, and it asks us to accept that this catastrophe is part of what it means to be human. And finally it asks us to look at our own catastrophes with recognition, sympathy, respect and love.
That might make it sound cheesy, but it’s not. It’s raw. And loving. And hard. And beautiful. And tragic. And sad. And great. And uncomfortable. And they’re just some of the reasons that you should listen to it, and understand it and take it into your hearts.
And with that, I’m done. Thank you for staying with me through this retro legacy look back at 2017. And stay tuned for my One Year Later Review special for 2018 – coming soon.
I was commissioned to write this Op Ed by NBC News after discussing the matter on Twitter at length. It was a fun if surprisingly hard thing to write. I never managed to get paid for it and never signed anything, so I think it’s probably okay that I republish it here. The original home on NBC News is here: Trump blocked me on Twitter.
A little over six months ago the President of the United States of America blocked me on Twitter. He or his people decided — over the course of one weekend in June — to purge those of us who had been fact-checking him online. By Monday morning, most of us were gone forever.
In a normal administration, a fairly minor micro-scandal like that might represent the high-water mark of public interest in the president’s social media life. Even in this case, there’s more to the story than perhaps meets the eye — blocking critics from official public fora could arguably be illegal — but still, I can’t imagine any previous president spending much time worrying about the effects of Twitter on their agenda.
But things have changed. Today, the censoring of President Donald Trump’s critics represents only the tiniest part of the Trump and Twitter love story — a never-ending 24/7 horror show focusing on and around a profoundly irresponsible and incompetent man’s willful and occasionally terrifying use of social media.
Let’s review: Trump — in the last year alone — has used Twitter to systematically lie to the American people, attack the very idea of the free press, undermine public trust in America’s core institutions, underplay racist terror acts, support alleged child molesters, call himself a genius, alienate America’s allies and perhaps worst of alltaunt the world’s most autocratic and unstable nuclear power.
They also said that Twitter’s founder Jack Dorsey — by creating a space where Trump could circumvent normal media checks and balances — had directly contributed to the president’s rise to power. Enough is enough, they argued. Ban this man.
I have a lot of sympathy with this argument. I also know some of these activists personally and they are honorable and decent people. But ultimately I believe Twitter must fight to keep Trump on the platform.
For good or ill, Twitter is one of the closest things we have today to a de facto “public space” on the internet. I believe we need such a space. And I believe over the last couple of years, under extraordinary (if deserved) pressure, Twitter has just started to really understand the full range of responsibilities that occupying such a role entails.
One of these responsibilities is to provide a space for the political discourse of a country to play itself out. These are the spaces we now use to debate the issues, to campaign and — now — even to discuss and announce policy. Ideally they wouldn’t be spaces owned by for-profit corporations, but truly public places with rights and responsibilities defined and protected by law. But the U.S. government has shown no inclination or ability to fund or build or run such places, so instead we are where we are.
And where we are is in a country where almost half of the electorate voted for Trump. He did not organize a military coup. It wasn’t a massive administrative error that secured him the job. It was, as much as some people may dispute or dislike it, the will of the people. And until such a time that he’s removed from office, if Twitter is to remain the de facto public space we all need, the will of the people matters.
I’m not going to pretend there isn’t realpolitik in play here too. Let’s face it: Banning the president from Twitter would not remove his platform, he’d simply move to Snapchat, or Facebook or Ello. And if he were banned, the partisan outcry over the decision would probably rend Twitter in half in the process, potentially killing the product and the company in the process. There are no victories there.
Because in the end, the only victories can come from the same processes that got us here. We need to take responsibility as an electorate. If we want him to stop debasing the presidency on Twitter, we need to remove him from the presidency, not remove him from Twitter. We need to support our courts in the fair implementation of the law. And we need to hold our elected representatives to account as they attempt — in turn — to keep Trump from going off the rails.
Meanwhile, there is something we can ask of Twitter. We can ask them to be clear about how they see their role in the world. We need to know what they believe in; what they stand for. We need them to demonstrate that they fully understand they’re not simply a neutral communications mechanism. Today’s Twitter is a place where business happens, elections happen, government happens — and with the arrival of Russia onto the scene — international tensions play out. We need Twitter to show us they understand this and that they’re up to that challenge.
And perhaps we can ask them one more tiny thing — to review their policies on politicians blocking or banning users engaged in legitimate, non-abusive political debate. Twitter’s own statement stood up for “necessary discussion around [politicians’] words and actions, but we can’t have that discussion if those politicians shut us down. And in this post-truth world, we need all the help we can get.
Tom Coates is an entrepreneur and technologist who has developed software products for the BBC, Time Out, Yahoo, Nokia and Jawbone among others. Over the last 20 years he’s written and spoken extensively about tech culture, social platforms, location and the Internet of Things and his work has been featured on the BBC, The Guardian, New York Times, MIT Technology Review and in the Daily Mail. His most recent project was the smart home software company Thington, which was acquired last year by eero inc.
Okay, let’s just be up front with this – I meant to write this a year after 2016, but I didn’t. Nor did I do a write up one year after 2017, 2018 or 2019 either. So I’m doing a bit of a retrospective and filling in some of the gaps as a way to get myself back in the habit of writing stuff on the internet. This piece was written in May 2020, and sent back in time to fill up my archives. Sue me.
Before we get going though, let’s just remind ourselves of some of the reasoning behind this project. Increasingly we seem to lurch from Hot Take straight into History without pausing for a moment to get a sense of what the crap actually just happened. Wouldn’t it be better to think about what’s been going on with a little distance instead? So that’s the concept of the One Year Late Review, and I think it’s a good one! All newspapers should be doing it – a daily column on what happened a year ago and what it has come to mean with a little bit of distance. It’s a shame I was too lazy to take it more seriously, but what can you do. I’m here now, aren’t I?
Now, the next thing I normally do is add in a little bit of context. So let’s duo that now. 2016 was the year of the Zika virus! It was the year of Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman! It was the year of the Brexit Referendum! It was the year of the Orlando nightclub shooting. It was the year Donald Trump became Presi… Jesus Fucking Christ. Let’s just get on with the motherfucking music and try and blot out the rest of this crap.
I wasn’t one of those people who ‘got’ the first Avalanches album immediately. A few of the tracks stuck with me, but the whole edifice always seemed a bit impenetrable. The second album almost had the opposite problem – it was so immediate that much of it gave me a quick sugar high and then faded away.
But there were a few songs that give me that hit but still stayed with me, including ‘Frankie Sinatra’ and ‘Harmony’, and the stand out ‘Because I’m Me’, which I’m awarding this year’s special prize for ‘Song That Makes Me Spin Around With Joy and Makes Me Feel Like Things Will Actually Be Okay’.
In the end, it’s all about the moment where the muffled performance breaks out into full band and orchestra, and a full wave of joy sweeps over me. I can’t get enough of it. Wonderful.
Oh this is just filthy. The chanting opening stops and this sprawling, rambling, snake-like baseline kicks in. Then .Paak starts singing around it, connecting with it periodically, then ignoring it, spiraling around it like they were teasing each other. Then the sort of bridge chorus comes in and goes in a completely different direction. Every single part of this song makes me want to dance. And not just normal dancing: like proper sexy dancing that it’s really hard to carry off when you’re 47. It’s just this wonderful mess of syncopation and layers that comes to feel both enveloping and supporting. You are cooler when you’re listening to it. That’s a hard feeling to create.
I do not know a lot about this man. I don’t know how I found this song. I don’t know whether he’s an artist that is cool or shameful to enjoy. I have never listened to another one of his songs.
What I know is that it does a lot of things that I absolutely love. It’s got some rhythm, some interesting structure, a weird apocalyptic vibe, a bit of dripping Americana and what seems to be a gospel choir that is sitting back quietly until it really wants to blow your mind, when it appears out of nowhere and sings its little heart out. It has an appropriately spooky video too.
This feels like a bit of a cheat because I absolutely did not know Lizzo from a hole in the ground in 2016, but then maybe that’s the point of this whole project – to be able to assess the music from a year a bit more accurately because you’ve got a bit more distance.
I discovered her when I went to XOXO and Andy Baio and Andy McMillan had booked her to play. I had never heard a single one of her songs. I knew nothing about her whatsoever. And yet she got the entire audience singing along and 100% bought in within a couple of minutes. She. Was. Spectacular.
This song is now everywhere, and it’s superficially pretty basic and simple as a paean to loving yourself. But I mean, come on. If there’s anything that almost every single person needs, it’s a bit more self-love and a bit more self-respect. And that she’s not a skinny pop stereotype makes it all the more wonderful.
Now this is a song that did nothing for me at all the first time I listened to it. At least that was true for the first third. It felt like a generic piece of female-fronted pop music that I might have stumbled across a hundred thousand times over the years. It was certainly nice, but it wasn’t particularly exciting.
But as it continued and reached its second third, it just started to do more and more interesting and weird things, playing with noise, playing with feeling, playing with atmosphere. And the last third, where it descends and devolves into a kind of wordless pop aphasia is just extraordinary. It seems to cut through all the crap in your head and just hijack your reptile brain without any intermediary at all. It makes my eyes roll back in my head in the most glorious fashion.
This is not a track that I would have expected to like at all. It’s pretty deep and strange hip hop, taking the name of the main character from The Fairly OddParents cartoon and smashing it together with what appears to be a story about the wishes of a desperate young black guy who will do anything for fame and to escape parts of his life. It is extraordinary – atmospheric, lyrically, clever, elegant, musically challenging and it fuses in this mix of aspiration and hopelessness. Definitely one of my absolute favorite tracks of 2016.
Without question one of the albums that I have found myself listening to most over the last few years is Ramin Djawadi’s Westworld Soundtrack. The mix of original music and elegant western-style piano reimaginings of pop and rock classics is perfect to work to and very evocative. I’ve listened to it so much in fact that when I tried to watch the show again I kept getting caught up more in the music that in the action.
If I remember correctly, this cover of the Radiohead classic comes right at the end of the series and is one of the few that switches between simple clear period instrumentation and a full orchestra. It builds. By God, it builds. It starts simple, moving and sad, and then about two minutes in there is a tiny lacuna and then the strings kick in. And they build and build and then they spread their wings and soar and … it is glorious, transcendent, wonderful. The piano then comes to the fore and cascades arpeggios all over the place until you’re completely lost in it. And then it lets you go, exhausted and flat. It’s an almost perfect tiny potted musical experience.
Another soundtrack that has got a lot of traction for me over the last few years is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music from Arrival. But it’s a very different beast, filled with deep hums, strange percussive noises and looped bits of almost human speech. It’s a much more alien and abstract experience – intentionally so, obviously, since that’s the subject of the movie – and on occasion, it’s so dissonant and weird that it’s not 100% pleasing to listen to.
But there is one moment where absolutely everything comes together perfectly, and all the noise and dissonance builds and coincides long enough to make something absolutely transcendent, and it is the track ‘Heptapod B’.
This was a weird track to stumble upon. It felt like someone had gone and rifled through the 1980s and stolen a whole bunch of atmosphere, production and mood, and then fused it in a particle accelerator with a bunch of early 2000s off-center song-writing in a way that should have been dreadful, but somehow wasn’t. A few years on, this track doesn’t feel as interesting as it maybe did at the time, but it’s still a wonderfully written, interesting combination of concept, lyric and music that I still listen to regularly.
This feels like it sits next to the Emmy the Great song in my mental catalogue of music. It starts as if it’s some kind of dull piece of generic pop, and then explodes into something far, far more interesting and sprawls all over the place causing all kinds of harm and self-destructive damage as it goes. I’m sort of fascinated by these songs that take pretty generic tropes and do something a little weirder and more avant garde with them. It shows there’s life in pop and rock music yet.
This album was recorded shortly before Leonard Cohen died, and it somehow it is the summation of everything he’d tried to do before. It has the best production—much less quirky or faddy than previous tracks—using beautiful gospel choirs and simple organic instrumentation to create a musical frame around the stars of the show, which are Cohen’s absolutely extraordinary voice and the deep and intense weight of his poetry.
It’s an album about the coming of death. It’s an album about the end of a life. It’s bleak and it’s extraordinarily beautiful.
And we come to our final piece of music for 2016 and probably the track that sticks with me most. In a way it fits with Mitski and Emmy the Great. It’s another piece of female-fronted pop music that takes things in strange, interesting new directions, grabbing something that could have felt generic and pushing it in the most bizarre of directions.
This is a track that plays with massive absolute dissonance. Each verse has this weird distorted atonality that makes it unsettling to listen to. It’s a discomforting mess, above which a crunched version of Hval almost speaks. And then the chorus comes in and it’s clear and melodic and harmonious and beautiful. And just when you settle into the beauty, it collapses again. And the pattern repeats and repeats, punctuated by a kind of repetitive splint, until it all builds and then starts to collapse into noise. It’s the track that stays with me most from the entire year and which I suspect I’ll like forever. Enjoy its bizarreness. And I’ll see you later for the best songs of 2017.
Let me take you back — the year was 2015. It was before The Event, a time when we still had hope in our hearts. In those days, things were either True or False, even if it was occasionally hard to figure out which category they fit in. Seldom were they both. Never were they neither. Such naïve days. Such strange days.
It was a time when our vision of the future looked more like the ‘after’ scenes in a home makeover show and less like the ‘after’ scenes in T2: Judgment Day.
I’m sure you remember, right? Right?
Me either. This is all a trick. I’m not Tom. I’m the future cockroach equivalent of Casey Kasem (NB. Dated Reference, Fix in Post) reconstructing this entire piece from fragments found in an old Apple Music datacenter. I plan to send it back through my timeline to warn of the Oft-Coming Stürm. But until then, and should I fail in my mission, long live the Blattodean Survivors of the Great Karmic Trumpocalypse!
Anyway, I’ve done this before — at the end of 2015 I wrote about the songs of 2014 and at the end of 2014 I wrote about the songs of 2013. There’s (some) method to my madness — increasingly we seem to lurch from Hot Take straight into History without pausing for a moment to get a sense of what the crap actually just happened. This whole ‘One Year Later Review’ is a half-hearted attempt to get people to remember that. And since ‘End of Year’ lists in music are almost the worst possible of non-political hot takes (the year hasn’t even bloody finished for God’s sake) and are no longer valuable in working out what music to get your Gran to buy you for Christmas, it seems reasonable to pause for a second and wait just long enough to get a sense of what songs actually stick with you and what you thought of them. So with no further ado…
This year’s award for most ‘Compulsively Energising Song that Helps Me Get Out of the House and Feel Dynamic in the Mornings’ was hard-fought but in the end goes to the exemplary Huarache Lights by Hot Chip. I’m not 100% sure what it is about this track that works so well for me, but—from the first moment I heard it—it found a place in my head that it resolutely refuses to leave. It’s like that guest at a party that won’t leave when you want to go to bed, except the guest is awesome and they’re also quite hot and they seem to like you and also they have all these great stories about cool people they say they can introduce you to and… what’s that? They have a pet tiger who is also awesome? And a time machine? Wow. That’s actually super fucking great. This is such a fun evening. Maybe you shouldn’t go to bed after all.
There’s something hypnotic about this song, even hypnogogic at times — it creates a sort of dynamic pattern and then buggers around with it in a whole range of interesting ways before bringing them all together in a way that fits together super nicely. And the final mélange it generates is somehow psychopharmacologically active and puts you into a weird but thoroughly pleasant kind of Disco Trance. It’s got hints of all kinds of stuff in it. I even feel like there’s a thin slice of pungent Pet Shop Boys-flavoured cheese jammed in there somewhere. And yet when they come together it fuses into something that feels inevitable and right and bouncy and ridiculous and clever and witty and odd and fun.
In recent years it feels like music from artists with Indian backgrounds or using Indian samples has finally discovered a way to push into whatever isolated little musical bubble I’m unknowingly trapped within, and honestly I couldn’t be happier. There’s such artful, joyous and elegant stuff being made in the overlaps between styles and cultures—such wonderful new opportunities for exploration and play—and Jai Wolf’s Indian Summer is among my absolute favorites. It has this wonderful euphoric sense to it and this deep love of noise. And at its heart there’s that beautiful sample that surfs the waves across the song before turning and spraying some cool, refreshing, salty endorphins across my hot, dry and welcoming brain. It’s just wonderful.
The more I do these little musical recaps, the more I realise how predictable I am. Stick a bit of syncopation in a song, a jangly guitar riff, some over-processed 80s-style rock drums, and a bit in the song where it goes quiet for a minute and I’ll probably be happy. Make it go a bit wrong halfway through — maybe make all the rhythms or harmonies get a bit out of whack — and then build it all together again, and my eyes will roll back in my head with joy. Dreams isn’t a complex song. It’s not a song full of deep meaning. But it’s a perfect piece of craft that I listen to all the time. It’s a really fun, bouncy, enthusiastic, hook-laden, pop song and it makes me really happy.
It’s not all joy and dancing at Chez Coates, much as my public persona might lead you to believe otherwise. I have dark periods of late-night worrying like any other barely human male. There’s only so much Purposeful and Passionate Striding Confidently into a New Future of Promise and Wonder that one guy can do before he needs to sit at home staring into space thinking about What He’s Done. And when I want to wallow in that bed-ridden feeling of 3am angst and stress—which for some reason, like most humans, I seem to want to do on a surprisingly regular basis—I turn to Father John Misty.
Bored in the USA is an almost startlingly apposite song for me, to the extent that when listening to it I occasionally feel the need to look around to see if he’s in a bush nearby watching me, carefully making notes in his tiny precise handwriting for his next song of early-middle-aged disappointment and frustration. It’s apposite to the point that you can almost ricochet off it as it lowers itself down to the darkest depths of a human’s own self-loathing. And then just when you think it’s all getting a bit too serious and dark, he sticks a laugh track in the song itself to remind you how absurd and petty and small your bleakness and wide-eyed moments of total abject terror actually are. I should want to punch him for this, but instead I want to buy him a drink. That he can carry off this trick is the reason this song is in this list.
NB. This is a cheat, because Bored in the USA actually came out at the very furthest arse-end of 2014. But Ralph Waldo Emerson once said a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, and while I don’t agree with him, I’m assuming enough of you will to let me off the hook this once.
Probably my favourite song of 2015, ‘Gold’ is both one of the most popular and also one of the strangest. There’s almost nothing there. Thin synth base twonk noises poke out intermittantly around some kind of rhythmic ‘pop’ sound. Occasionally sparse electronic hi-hats appear so you know something exciting is happening. And in the foreground a woman sings about biting out other people’s fillings. The chorus feels like sliced bits of other songs arranged pseudo-randomly. And somewhere from all its sparseness, classiness and over-designed contrast, something quite extraordinary falls out. I can’t really describe it. You’ve probably heard it thousands of times. But if you haven’t, you’re in for a treat.
Somewhere in the last few years pop music got really bloody weird. I’m not complaining about this at all — it’s actually kind of amazing that there are people playing in pretty mainstream pop with sounds and structures that sound so extraordinarily different. There’s an experimental dynamism that blurs club and pop and art in what seems to me to be a new and interesting way. Is it actually new and interesting? I have no idea and wouldn’t be qualified to comment even if it were— I’m old and weird and my memory is failing me. But it seems pretty great. Let me give you an example. Ladies and Gentleman, I present to you ‘Soap’:
If I had to describe this song and its associated video in one word, the word would probably be ‘batshit’. But if I had two words, the second would be ‘awesome’. Unfortunately for you poor bastards, I also have a whole range of other words at my disposal, so let me dig into what I think makes this such oddly compulsive listening.
It seems to be a song about baths and soap, except those things at various points are probably euphemisms or metaphors for something. But it’s not entirely clear what they’re metaphors for, and they seem to shift and move. And somehow this song about baths and soap and saying stupid things and being embarrassed is then merged in with a stripped-down club-style fist-in-the-air banger. And it doesn’t sound stupid. It sounds cool. And then for some reason they add in some tuned simulations of the noise of bubbles popping. And they don’t sound cool and should be embarrassingly awful. And they are embarrassingly awful. And yet it doesn’t matter. The whole thing should be a novelty record and yet somehow it holds together and when taken as some kind of auditory speedball becomes something more than you’d expect from its various parts. And the more times you listen to it, the more its oddness worms its way into your brain. I don’t understand it, I’m not sure why it exists or what it’s trying to communicate. But I like it. I like it a hell of a lot.
If I had to pick out a couple of trends from my musical selections this year it would be a tendency for contemporary music to border on parody and yet still work, and also the solid straight-down-the-line weirdness of contemporary pop.
Tech Noir is a song by a band by Gunship. It is named after the club in Terminator where Arnie comes for SAAAAH COH-NA, whips out a sawn-off shotgun and blows everyone to hell. And the video is about a man watching a movie on VHS who transports himself into an eighties movie to become claymation. And the music itself is in many ways an experimental hybridization of a ridiculous number of eighties auditory clichés.
But the song is actually really beautiful. It lives in that post-M83 space of artists exploring and reappropriating the 8os, from synth sounds to fake hand-claps. But through this oddly cold and computerized space snakes this beautiful lyric and rich emotive and expressive chorus. As someone who spent most of his teenage years trapped in the 1980s, I often find myself puzzled by why anyone would want to feel nostalgia for it, or think of it as a period worth mining for creative ideas. Not being weird, but it basically sucked. But maybe if the 80s had been more like this, I’d feel differently?
I don’t know about you, but when I see a bunch of white people dressed up like Indian people doing Indian-style dancing surrounded by Indian people in India to promote a pop song, it doesn’t 100% feel right. There’s something uncomfortably appropriative about it in a way that having an Indian artist play in the overlap between cultures doesn’t. Still, a tacky video does not make a tacky song, and MØ, DJ Snake and Major Lazer between them made something fascinating in Lean On.
Last year and the year before I talked about how irritating I find it when artists write songs about technology. This is because they almost always seem to come at it from the perspective of ‘technology is somehow diminishing us all while only art nourishes and enriches us as individuals’, which seems both oddly (and obviously) self-serving and often highly ironic given how much tech these artists use in the creation of their songs, their videos, and in the crafting of their public personae.
In 2013 for example it was Arcade Fire complaining about how social media didn’t actually connect you to other people in Reflektor. You can follow Arcade Fire on Twitter here: Arcade Fire on Twitter. In 2014 it was St Vincent complaining about how annoying it is that people keep making videos to get famous and how they only feel validated when they’re on the internet. You can follow her stylishly created and ostentatiously ‘look at me’ videos on the Internet on YouTube here: St Vincent on YouTube. I’m just saying.
But there is (I believe) at least one band that explores the weirdness and power and threats of modern technology well in their songs without sounding absurd. And that band is Y.A.C.H.T.
Now I’m biased in favour of Y.A.C.H.T. generally because at one point this year I was lucky enough to be backstage one of their gigs in San Francisco. A lovely old friend who knows them well took me to meet the band. It was super fun. I yammered on trying to sound interesting for a while while they got ready to perform. We actually had a really interesting conversation about the good and bad bits of tech and tech culture and what it means for the wider world. They were almost certainly humoring me but I really don’t care. They were really ridiculously super nice and friendly and I had a very nice time.
They also produced a great song this year about tech which I’d love to include in this list. It’s called “I Thought The Future Would Be Cooler” and it’s definitely worth your time.
Unfortunately though, they also did another song, called LA Plays Itself and it is better! And it is more fun. And it’s proper pop disco in a slightly unfashionable but oddly awesome way. And here it is…
My second-to-last selection isn’t exactly a song. It isn’t even exactly an album. It’s eight hours of music under the name ‘Sleep’ by Max Richter.
This is a strange one, but it has had such an impact on me since it came out that I couldn’t ignore it. I think it’s truly exceptional and fascinating and totally involving and that you should all go and buy it immediately. You don’t want to buy the short truncated hour-long one. That’s bullshit. You have to commit. You want the full $35 eight hour long epic. Don’t wuss out. It’s amazing.
The premise is in itself extraordinary. Richter’s epic is music that is designed to be played when you are falling asleep, and then to provide background music to you while you sleep and dream, and while you slowly rouse yourself in the morning into a new day. It’s supposed to follow the natural rhythms of a normal night’s sleep and for each piece to complement a different part of the sleep cycle. It’s a bizarre idea — music you won’t hear in any conscious state, but music that could permeate your subconscious, influence your dreams and your thoughts and is designed to carry you through the night in a beautiful, backgrounded way.
Such an idea conjures in the mind terrible self-hypnosis tapes and some kind of hackneyed tape-based collection of whale song, but this isn’t ambient noise or new age hand-waving.
Each piece is long, melodic, artfully and beautifully played and recorded, and arcs and repeats itself, with simple themes on the piano and violin (and other instruments and voices) emerging and falling away. Structure appears and then collapses into the background again. Melodies surface and then sink deep only to return four or five hours later. And it’s all done so slowly and smoothly. I’ve put it on many nights to help me sleep — I find it immediately calming and relaxing—and later found myself half awake in the middle of the night letting some new piece of beauty arc and cascade around me, feeling new melodies drift across my mind like clouds across the moon. I’ve listened to it while working or when stressed and found its simplicity beautiful and calming and centering.
If you come to it impatient, unwilling to let it drift around you and take you away, it will do nothing for you. But if you go with it, you may find it becomes one of the most important and life-affirming pieces of music you’ve ever lived with.
Finally, I want to leave you with the most important song of the year for me. And unfortunately—just as 2015 turned into 2016—this is where my cheerful mood and mischief stops dead in its tracks. Please bear with me.
I’ve been a deep Bowie fan for the majority of my life. I came to him a little later than many of my generation but once I’d found him I consumed him whole and completely. This bizarre, queer, straight, apocalyptic, danceable, questioning, literate, bizarre eccentric crafting these bizarre and beautiful little mind castles you could live in for a while — he was fascinating. And songs with such rhythms! Such bizarre harmonies! And just a little bit of joyfully embraced menace… Good god, I loved it.
For me it all started with Hunky Dory, picked up on CD at an Our Price in the UK sometime in the late eighties. It’s an album from the year of my birth that still feels like it defined much of the music of the next fifty years. Here it was all laid out before you right from the beginning. And it continued through Starman — beautiful hymn to escape and magic—through The Man Who Stole The World and Heroes and Ashes to Ashes and Let’s Dance and… I could go on indefinitely.
Of all of his albums in the end it was Station to Station that has stayed with me the longest. It’s such a dense, complicated, confusing record. It took me so long to get my head around it. Perhaps one of the reasons it still fascinates me so much is because there are still bits of it that surprise me and weird me out.
But despite loving so much of his work even in the late eighties I knew that all of his creative best had come and gone before I’d really discovered him. And then—late in November of 2015—something really odd happened. Bowie sprang back into the spotlight as if he’d never left, and released (from some previously untapped reservoir within him) a ten minute bizarre musical epic. Odd beats, saxophones and three complex, interwoven major musical themes cavorted around an incredibly stylish and bizarre video featuring bible thumpers, twitching dancers and blinded singers with buttons for eyes.
For the first time in decades, Bowie was absolutely and totally pushing the future forward, making something so fascinating and unusual and interesting that it felt like the world turned towards it. Generations of Bowie fans felt a reignition of a passion and excitement within them — a new album, a creative renaissance, and we might get to be there to enjoy Bowie at his best again. It felt absolutely extraordinary.
Six weeks later, as the rough beast of 2016 finally dragged its shit-filled carcass into the world, he would be dead.
That’s it for now. Join me again next year at the One Year Later Review for the songs of 2016, where most likely I will talk at length about Beyoncé.
This was originally posted over on Medium and a copy of it was moved over here for consolidation purposes in May 2020.
Online last night I saw a bunch of people accusing the left of being bigots for protesting against racist and sexist rhetoric. The argument appears to be that the left are hypocrites for not respecting the freedom of expression of racist, sexist and discriminatory people to be racist, to be sexist, and to discriminate.
At its heart there is a tension here and it’s a tension as old as political theory —that all people should have as much freedom as possible but without compromising the freedom of others. But it’s a tension that we work out over time, in law and in practice. Fundamentally, most on the left have come to the conclusion that stopping people acting in racist, sexist or discriminatory ways results in far more good than harm — a feeling that those who experience sexist, discriminatory or racist abuse seem (for some reason) to feel even more strongly.
Anyway, I find the rhetoric on the alt-right about this stuff beyond offensive and awful — somehow equating threatening to take fundamental rights away from people with protesting about those rights being taken away. And I didn’t quite know how to express my frustration. And weirdly, the best I could come up with was a few short comic strips.
So here they are — five short strips which I think express the absurdity of the hypocrisy and contradiction in the alt-right position. Feel free to use them however you want (as long as you don’t edit the text in them). I’m releasing them under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivatives International License.