Sunday, 16 September 2012

Amanda Palmer and the Great Orchestra Swindle

This post is the first of two that will examine the use of unpaid artists and interns in the arts industry. Here, I look at the recent controversy surrounding Amanda Palmer's decision to use unpaid string and horn players on her Grand Theft Orchestra tour; the second post will look at the wider issues around employment in the UK, and the problems of asking people to work for free.

I have placed this post under a jump because it's quite long, so I suggest you make yourself a cup of tea before you start.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Amerika ist wunderbar

You can always rely on the United States to do the right thing, once they've exhausted all other options. (Winston Churchill) 
Last week, Clint Eastwood was filmed talking to a chair as if it were Barack Obama. This seemed like a good time to address a request from Will about what the UK honestly thinks of the US. If anyone from the CIA or some such is watching, please don't declare war on the UK because of what I'm about to say in this video. I'm just one person who happens to live here.

I'm going to tell you a little bit about the last time I was in the United States. It was the end of October 2004, just a couple of weeks before the presidential election between George W. Bush and John Kerry. I was touring Washington D.C. and New York with my school choir, and it was a really exciting time to be there.
Along with a few of my friends, I got in a lift - sorry, an "elevator" - in the hotel in Maryland where we were staying, along with a family of fellow guests. They noticed us talking amongst ourselves in our clear-cut London private school accents and asked where we'd come from, and then said, without a trace of irony: "Welcome to America, the greatest country in the world."

They then proceeded to ask us, among other asinine questions, whether we knew the Queen. So, for starters, if anyone in the US is watching: in 2010 it was estimated that 62,262,000 people were living in the United Kingdom. As much as I'm sure she wishes it were otherwise, Her Majesty does not have time to be on first name terms with all of us.

One of the main things that struck me, particularly whilst watching TV in the US, was how little foreign affairs coverage there is. And any time someone on the Internet discusses a problem on an international scale, they almost invariably use only US statistics to back up this claim. No wonder these people don't know how things work in other countries. No-one tells them. Apparently, only the royal wedding and the Olympics are of any interest in the States. Wars? Famine? Natural disasters? Nah. Boring. Change the channel.

Apparently, in the greatest country in the world, you are old enough to drive a car and own a firearm before you are old enough to drink alcohol or have consensual sex. Call me a hippy, but this speaks to me of somewhat skewed priorities.

America has many fine qualities - excellent innovators, beautiful landscapes, fantastic writers, entertainers and musicians - but these qualities are not unique to the United States by any means. Furthermore, I imagine that the greatest country in the world might have free public healthcare for everyone, a reasonable and accessible social welfare system, a minimally biased and non-discriminatory police force, and a national minimum wage.

I'm not claiming that the UK is the greatest country in the world by comparison, by the way - our healthcare and social welfare system is being thrown to the dogs by the present government, and the Metropolitan police are currently being sued by a boy who has been stopped and searched fifty times between the age of 14 and 17, ostensibly just because he is black. And our national minimum wage isn't actually enough to live on.

The US claims to do everything bigger and better than everyone else, kind of like the Motorhead of nations. And one of the areas in which it more than delivers in this promise is the arena of political debate, which brings me conveniently back to the image of Clint Eastwood addressing a full polemic to a chair.
I do not understand how political debate works in the United States of America. I keep waiting for the Republican candidates to pull off their rubber masks and reveal that they are John Cleese and Terry Gilliam, and the whole thing has been the world's longest running Monty Python sketch. I can fathom no other way to make sense of the presidential race. I mean, they're running with family values as a key electoral strategy, and they're putting forward a serial adulterer, a man who shares his name with a by-product of unprotected gay sex, and a Mormon.

What does being gay have to do with family values, by the way? I address the whole world when I ask this question. I know that "gay" is shorter and easier to spell than "paedophile", but they don't even remotely mean the same thing. On a side note, "paedophile" comes from the Greek word "pais" and is spelt p-A-e-d-o-p-h-i-l-e.

The UK certainly isn't perfect, but honestly, you couldn't pay me enough to live in the US. And believe me, living in the US would be a really sensible thing for a fledgling opera singer like me to do. Why?

Well, first off, look at me for a second (that's me there, in the left hand sidebar, with the frog on my head). Where do you think I'm from? If you answered "the UK", you're correct. If you answered "Italy", you are also correct. Other answers to this question have, in the past, included France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, the Middle East, South America, No, I don't know either. Now, let's take the fact that in states like Arizona, I can legally be stopped and asked for my papers at any time, because I talk funny and I look like I might belong to an ethnic minority.

Not an attractive prospect, you might say.

Second, you may have noticed that I'm female bodied. In the United Kingdom - and, for that matter, in much of mainland Europe - I can see a qualified gynaecologist for free. I can get an abortion for free, if I need to. I can get any number of medical treatments, many of which are impacted in no way whatsoever by my possession of a uterus, for free. There are systems in place to protect me from sexual harrassment and discrimination in the workplace. They are imperfect, but they exist.

From several human rights activist points of view - feminist, racial, gay, disability, and transgender - the US feels like the UK's poor cousin. And I will stress, once again, that the UK has a long way to go before we can really say that everyone is equal.

Look, America, there's an awful lot of cool stuff going on where you are. We really want to like you, but you don't half make it hard sometimes.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Batman versus the straw anarchists [SPOILER WARNING]

The other day I went to see The Dark Knight Rises, as you might do on a bank holiday Monday if you're mildly obsessed with Batman. This review contains spoilers, so I'm putting it under a cut.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

I am so tired.

I almost feel like I should blog about Julian Assange, but I see his name so much at the moment that it's stopped looking like words and started looking like what happens when your printer glitches out and prints everything smooshed onto one or two lines, surrounded by squares and Greek letters.

I've been reading around the Assange controversy and I feel a lot of things. I feel anger. I feel resentment. I feel no small amount of hatred - for the man, for the people who defend him, for the regressive legislation active both in this country and the countries that intend to grant him asylum. But mostly, I just feel tired.

Since I first became serious about feminism three years ago, rape has undoubtedly taken up the most debating space in print, on the Internet, in my social circles. My fellow feminists and I have gone around and around the circle of what constitutes rape, why it's bad, why that still counts as rape, yes, that too, no really, people hate it when you do that, why would you even think that's OK, and so on and so forth. Some people understand quickly. Some people understand eventually. Some people will never understand.

The fact that we still have to have this same conversation - the one that's been going on since Wollstonecraft, the one that's been at the forefront of discourse since feminism had a name - and still get the same rebuttals, the same legislative failures, the same pig-headed willful ignorance as we always have, just makes me want to roll over and go back to sleep until it goes away.

Which it won't, because it's failed to go away until now and will only settle down, in a few weeks, until the next public figure is accused of rape or until Assange inevitably farts some more horrific apologism onto a sheet of paper or the Internet.

I find it completely disgusting that, after so many years, people still don't know what rape is. But more than that, I find it exhausting.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

In which getting a tattoo is the opposite of self-harm

[Trigger warning: this post discusses self-harm through self-injury and food control.]

Mental illness is a broad spectrum and no two people will experience it exactly alike. This blog post refers exclusively to my own experiences. They may resonate with some, but I do not claim to represent everyone with a mental illness and should not be held representative of mental illness as a whole.

I'd like to say I vividly remember the last time I self-harmed, but that would be a lie. I was drunk. I had been told something I could happily have lived many years without knowing, something that fed back to a particularly horrible time of my life that had only recently passed.

People experience the urge to self-harm in a dizzying variety of ways. I experience it as noise in my head. Static. A feedback loop. An overload of information causing sounds and images to blur together, so that it took a distinct break in my mental circuitry - pain and, often as not, the sight of blood - for me to be able to function again.

I was at a friend's house. I went to the bathroom, found the first sharp object I could lay my hands on, and attacked my shins with it. Being a conscientious sort, I then disinfected the blades and staunched the wounds so I wouldn't leave bloodstains on their bedsheets.

The next day, I got tattoos.

I found the process of getting a tattoo quite painful. I've heard people claim that theirs didn't hurt, from which I conclude that they are either lying or have no nerve endings. But it was an enjoyable process, and when I left the tattoo parlour I felt an endorphin rush and a lightness that lasted several days afterwards. And as the procedure went on, I made a pact with myself: I can get another tattoo once I have gone a year without self-harming. It will celebrate a new chapter of my life - one where I hopefully learn to process emotional pain in a healthier way. It's a gift to myself, a small piece of art on the walls of my most permanent home.

That was January 22nd, 2012, and I have not self-harmed since that day.

My legs and hips tell the story of 11 years of repressed and inexpressible sorrow and self-hatred. Some of these scars may be permanent. I hate them. For all that the body positive movement tries to reach out and tell people like me that our scars are beautiful, I can't believe that of mine. Whenever I see them I feel sick and ashamed, and afraid that someone might see them and ask me why they're there. My tattoos are beautiful. They represent my personality, with a touch of the artistic flair of the wonderful woman who put them there. They represent the start of a journey - one where, hopefully, I'll have left bad old habits behind. They are the only marks I can truly say I've chosen.

So when dickbags like Professor Ellis Cashmore try to tell me that my tattoos are a form of self-harm, well, I kind of want to set them on fire.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Pop Culture vs Geek Culture: I Call Shenanigans

Can we talk about this image for a minute?

I'll admit that I'm missing a couple of the pop culture references here, so let's just work with what I've got.

Top row L-R: Snooki, Kristen Stewart as Bella Swann, Kim Kardashian, Kat von D, Lady Gaga.

Snooki: Apparently famous for being on Jersey Shore. I live under a rock as far as pop culture is concerned, so this means nothing to me. But I don't judge.

Bella Swann: Vapid, personality free, man dependent, in an abusive relationship. Kristen Stewart: Independent-minded, intelligent, hates Twilight, calls people out in interviews over use of the word "bitch". Not such a bad role-model, maybe?

Kim Kardashian: OK, appears to have made a career out of a rich dad, a pushy mum and a sex tape. Can't argue with that one.

Kat von D: Famous for reality TV show LA Ink; dropped out of secondary school age 16. Wikipedia tells me she's a really good tattoo artist and plays the piano, so, you know, wevs.

Lady Gaga: Top-class musician, highly intelligent, is scantily clad but purposefully never sexy, outspoken campaigner for LGBT rights and condom use. If my hypothetical future daughter told me she wanted to be Lady Gaga when she grew up, I would be thrilled, personally.

Gaga, Kardashian and von D seem to have been picked on for the fact that they're showing quite a lot of flesh in these photographs. This seems to be a comment on the fact that in order to be famous enough to be considered a role-model, you have to dress a certain way (i.e. not very much). First of all, this is something we call slut-shaming. A person's choice of attire reflects on their sexual availability in, er, no real way at all, actually.

Secondly, if indeed they are dressing that way to stay in the limelight, I would reckon this says more about the sexist constructs they're trying to break through in order to do whatever it is that they're doing (in the case of Gaga, making great music and making people think about the way women are encouraged to dress in the process) than it does about the women themselves. Geeks, all your comments along the lines of "tits or gtfo" are part of the problem here, and following them up by whinging about negative role models when you see a scantily clad woman just makes you look like a hypocrite typing one-handed.

As for the bottom row, you could have gone through the series from which it was taken and plucked out Inara from Firefly (inaccurate sex-negative stereotype of a sex worker), Seven of Nine from Star Trek (sexualised fembot), or any number of racially appropriative damsel-in-distress stereotypes from across Stargate SG-1. Other suggestions included female Shepard (as a counterpoint to whom every single one of the Asari, who become either matriarchs or sex objects beyond a certain age); Starbuck (originally a male character); or Princess Leia, who, whilst being a total badass, does commit the apparently cardinal sin of baring a bit of flesh in one instance.

Not to mention that all bar one of the top row are real people, and all the bottom row are fictional characters.

I'm not going to argue that the bottom row is composed of largely positive role-models. I know I would love to be Zoe from Firefly when I grow up. But saying that women in sci-fi/fantasy/geek culture aren't subject to the same ridiculous aesthetic and character judgments as the mostly real women in the top row is out of line and simply not true. If you don't believe me, think of some of the examples I've cited above. Look at the pictures and notice how all but one of them is white, and all of them are slender and conventionally attractive. Think about video games - consider Lara Croft, with her improbably large breasts and her new rapealicious backstory. Think about comic books - consider the physically impossible contortions of female superheroes showing tits and ass at the same time, or the completely unnecessary reboots that distort a character concept beyond all recognition. And think about how all those images come from series that originally and/or primarily follow a male main character.

I completely agree that "role model" is a value judgement, and that the people currently considered role models in popular culture should give us pause to re-examine our values fairly deeply. But I absolutely do not think that geek culture should be allowed a free pass on this. If anything, the kind of ignorance that leads people to post graphics like that is a sign that geek culture needs a pretty hefty kick in the butt and a sanity check.

Geeks: set your own house in order before telling someone else that theirs is a mess.

EDIT: To summarise, I give you a graphic that's being circulated in response to this original.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Review: Garbage at the Troxy, 9th May 2012

The Troxy is a funny old venue. Based in Limehouse, a nondescript east-of-centre area of London, it's somewhere between a modern conference hall and a 1930s music hall. My scene-savvy friend R informs me that bands with a large underground following play there reasonably often, but in a lifetime of living in London it's the first I've heard of it.

Five of us are gathering in a grotty little pub by the station to see Garbage. Everyone has a tale to tell. R says she's seen Garbage a few times and yet it never occurred to her to care until relatively recently. K had a ticket to see them in 2005, just before they announced their split. I have been waiting to see them for nearly 12 years, their songs a faint but insistent echo of my childhood and early teenage years. Other people we know drift in and out, shouting greetings as they go. Y is the only straight woman among us.

None of us is that bothered about seeing the support. R protests, weakly, when it becomes clear that we plan to give them a miss, but B hasn't arrived with our tickets so we don't have that much of a choice. I've little truck with support bands, myself - I can count the number of times they've been a pleasant surprise to me on the fingers of one hand, and I'm hardly a stranger to live music. Shirley Manson salutes them on stage, and frankly, why anyone would want a greater accolade than that is beyond me.

When I was 10, Shirley Manson was the cool, beautiful frontwoman I dreamed of being when I grew up. As I grew up, I came to appreciate the band's transgressive gender politics, their driven, high-gain riffs, their use of electronic sounds, the variety in their song structure. I wanted to be a Shirley Manson, in a Garbage, and in many ways I still do.

Due to my dislike of close physical contact, I switch tickets with Y, who's in seating. I'm used to the seated portion of a gig being sedate - even boring, sometimes - but up here everyone's focused. The air is alive with anticipation, as you'd hope from a crowd that's been waiting seven years or more for this. When the music started, the crowd in the seats is bouncing, punching the air, easily as excited as the throngs by the stage below.

They're electrifying.

That they play most of the old favourites is a part of it, certainly. Everyone's overjoyed to hear them, and Shirley seems to revel in the familiar sounds. She often points the mic at the audience, urging them to sing along with the "Go, baby, go" refrain of Cherry Lips. She quips about her inital ambition to spend the entire gig in the vertiginous heels she came on stage in, as a willing stage hand helps her into some flat boots. She prowls the stage, spending quality time with all the other band members and eventually introducing them, playing up their talents. She's living it, throwing her head back ecstatically to add her voice to the mix.

The sound balance isn't always perfect, but it's better than I'd usually expect from a venue that size. The vocals and half the synth is hard to hear from the back, sometimes, but levels are generally well managed.

And the sign of a good gig, for me, is what happens afterwards - the excitement that Y and I share on our tube journey homewards and on the following day, and the way I can't stop listening to their records and daydreaming of the light and shade the band casts whilst on the stage. If you haven't got tickets to Garbage's gigs in July, I would urge you to take a long, hard look at your life.