On Shining Women and False Competition

Okay, so I have a few thoughts.

In the past few weeks, we have celebrated International Women’s Day, and the discussion around women, particularly famous women, and their work, activism or general spotlight positions as ‘role models’ has come up over and over again – and the discussion hasn’t gone very well thus far.

I can’t help but find the trend of pitting famous women against each other, especially when these women are trying to do clever, bright and wonderful things, ridiculous in principle. I have heard many conversations, largely held by media outlets or their consumers, who discuss women and instantly place them in opposition, even when they are working towards common goals.

Women, particularly famous women or women with significant access to widespread media attention, are placed in competition with each other at almost every turn – Who wore that outfit better? Whose bikini body is best this summer? Who is winning the most awards this awards season? And now, who is doing the better job of being a feminist or activist or role model?

Placing women against each other is an incredibly large part of what throws their causes or ideas into the shadows. #HeForShe is not about what Emma Watson wore in her latest interview and not every woman behind a microphone has to voice her opinions on the issues she is standing behind in the same way. These women can and should voice their different opinions to strengthen public understanding of what they are talking about. Multiple opinions are a good thing, as is the representation of multiple perspectives on multiple issues. We shouldn’t be throwing these women in opposition with each other because that does nothing to help the causes they are standing for – it makes it harder for them to be heard over the false competition created by the media.

Creating false competition between women and their voices is not ‘cool’ or ‘trendy’ or productive. It is a terrible strategy for ignoring the problems they are standing for – and it needs to stop.

 

© Hayley New 2016

This piece is intended as a short precursor to a larger piece on Shine Theory, Women and Collaboration. Please feel free to join the discussion in comments.

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The Art & Aesthetics of Music Videos: The Case for the 1975’s The Sound

Before reading this piece, I highly recommend watching the music video for The 1975’s The Sound.

Music video culture has increasingly become the space for dialogue around not only the song it is made for, but the holistic image and sound of a particular musical artist. Artists increasingly use videos as branding and advertising strategies, presenting themselves as the spokesperson for a particular commercial brand or as the figurehead of a social movement. Music videos have moved away from being pieces of art and have increasingly become social media and branding spaces, a ‘look at me being a superstar with my Beats Pill and super expensive sneakers that only my true fans can afford while I talk about racial issues’.

With this sort of commercial pop music, and its associated video media, being churned out in mass form, it is clear that artists who are actively seeking to push against this wave of heavily branded music are being forced to become increasingly abstract and weird in order to stand out.

But the 1975 is taking a different approach.

The British band is taking a stand against the criticism they have faced as being a strangely generic reproduction of old synth pop styles, as being somehow unoriginal and inauthentic in their image as an alternative rock band. In a bid to challenge and push back against these comments, The 1975 have channelled their reaction into their work. Their newest music video, The Sound, is a piece of protest art.

***

We’re not a pop band, and it feels like a really pop video, the whole scenario is not really what we’re about. It needs to be black and white for a start…”

– Opening dialogue to The 1975’s Girls music video

The 1975 are known for their tongue in cheek music video commentary, reacting to criticism or questions about their authenticity as a band by making videos that deliberately subvert the audience’s expectations. “We’re not a pop band” say The 1975 in the opening of the music video for Girls, a music video designed to address rumours about the change in their music video aesthetic since being signed to their record label. Questions about the band’s change in style from black and white music videos to colour music videos were raised with the release of the music video for Sex, with audiences condemning both the band and the label for the seemingly pressured slide into a generic pop aesthetic, as though somehow removing the black and white colour scheme removed the band’s whole music style.

So the band reacted. They made a pop music video. In colour. Looking immensely bored.

And they laughed at the critics.

Whilst using a music video as a platform for pushing back against critics is not in any way a new phenomenon, it is the use of this form of protest that makes The 1975’s message potentially more discrete to viewers. Unless you know the politics behind the aesthetic choices of the band, you may miss the cleverly chosen elements that construct the band’s protest style, as hidden behind the veneer of a seemingly pop-alt-rock sound.

The 1975 have a firm grasp on their aesthetic, on their music, styling and image – and they like to play with it, tease their audience and their critics with their art. The 1975 have become true masters of artistic expression in music videos, even if it does not appear this way to the casual viewer.

***

And you say I’m such a cliche,

I can’t see the difference in it either way.

-The Sound, The 1975

The 1975 have characteristically pushed back against the idea that they are a ‘pop’ band, to disentwine themselves from the work of all-male pop bands, despite their seemingly pop-influenced music style. There is lingering feeling in the music industry, that anything popular is not ‘good’ music, that good music can only exist outside popularity. But I think there is an important distinction to be made between pop music, and pop-art music.

The pop-art movement, which took elements of popular culture and reconfigured them into pieces of art that doubled as a critique and examination of popular culture consumption, and ideas of ‘good’ art

I would place The 1975 in the same sort of category as the pop-art movement, or at the very least, they are heavily influenced by it, playing with the dynamics of popular art consumption as part of their own aesthetic, toying with their audience as they both encourage consumption of their own image and critique the very nature of popular music consumption.

So it is fitting that the electro-pop-synth beat of The Sound is The 1975’s new platform for pushing back against music critics. To use The Sound as the backing track for this alt-rock-protest, whilst seemingly obvious, does all the work it should to play into the band’s music-as-pop-art agenda, the lyrics spinning around in rhythmic repetition, whilst playing with the idea of a sound, “the” sound, as a singular regulated art form, with only one right answer in the industry.

The music video itself is brilliantly devised. The band are placed in a lone large glass box that sits in a dark room, the box lit at the edges by the signature pink neon glow that the band’s image has become synonymous with. They quite literally centre themselves as a framed artwork, seemingly open for inspection. Clad in all black, the band perform “The Sound” whilst being viewed by various uniformed critics with clipboards and silent discussion. The staging of the band’s black and white visualisation is deliberately framed by the neon pink and pastel of the scene – a visual marker of their disgruntled protest against their leather clad alt-rock image not being considered realistic next to their neon bubble-gum synth pop, as though the two must be mutually exclusive.

The performance footage is intercut with pale pink title cards, with common comments from both critics and hipster type audiences, trying to be cool in a world that conflates ‘popular’ art with ‘bad’ art:

“This band thinks it has a charismatic singer…they are mistaken” … (translation) Somehow charisma is a fixed objective concept.

“There’s no danger in this music at all” … (translation) Of course alt-rock has to be dangerous to be authentic.

“I only heard Chocolate once, but I hated it”… A single song can speak for a whole band’s image right? Plus I am waaay too hipster to like something mainstream.

“Boring. Recycled. Wannabes.” … (translation) Music can’t be good if it uses other work as a basis for influence. Anyone who doesn’t do what I think is right is lacking imagination.

 

These plain text intercut title cards are a simple but powerful element of the music video, positioned almost as silent film dialogue cards for the critics that stand around the band’s glass casing. These voiceless critiques of the band’s aesthetic vision, their lack of ‘pure alternative rock’ style, their 1980s synth pop influence, are hardly protest pieces alone. Yet, just by placing them in between shots of the band performing with total disregard for the critics with their clipboards and matching uniforms, these placards become pieces of statement art that shout ‘you are calling us out for calling you out, you are telling us we are unoriginal, so how about we talk about what you are saying, and how unoriginal your comments are’.

And then, a shift, a moment’s pause as the camera shows the band sitting in an almost judge’s panel set up as the smoked up neon box is shown to have the critics of the last few minutes trapped inside. Now, it is the band looking at them, finding them to be cliché masters of regurgitated commentary.

And then in the final shot, the frame snaps back to the band’s original black and white. They are The 1975. They are their own brand of hybrid music and aesthetics that create a unique piece of pop-art-music style out of their alt-rock origins. And they don’t care what you think.

***

The truth of it is that we are involved in an industry and a culture where alternative music is becoming increasingly mainstream and more popular than ever. To condemn this very music for its commercial successes seems unnecessarily harsh when it is the interest in the new, different and alternative that this genre actively sparks that is making people notice and care for it. The 1975 are making people rethink their approach to consumption of popular alternative music styles.

Art is all about mixing things that would not normally be construed as successfully collaborative forces, and The 1975 are masters in pulling apart this dynamic. The Sound is just a glimpse of their work in challenging notions of what art is in relation to popularity and consumption, and their open championing of the aesthetics of hybrid art forms and styles. I can only hope that they continue to challenge the music industry’s measures of success and popular ‘good’ music, because the music industry and its critics really need a reality check.

 

© Hayley New 2016

 

The 1975’s new album I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it is available now.

Move over Clace, I’m Here for Malec

A Ongoing Discussion of Minority Representation in Shadowhunters

(This post contains necessary spoilers for Shadowhunters)

The highly anticipated Shadowhunters television show is now eight episodes in, and I have a lot of thoughts about it. As a long-term fan of the original book series, I was looking forward to seeing the central Clary/Jace relationship translated to the screen, to fulfil all my teenage fantasies about this YA love triangle success. But since the show’s debut, my focus has been completely re-directed.

Based on the bestselling The Mortal Instruments book series by urban fantasy author Cassandra Clare, Shadowhunters follows the story of Clary Fray (played by Katherine McNamara), an eighteen year old art student who is thrust into the ‘shadow world’ of demons, werewolves, faeries, vampires, warlocks and Shadowhunters when her mother is kidnapped by an old sect of purist Shadowhunter fanatics – the circle. Inevitably, as in all young adult fiction, she ends up caught in a series of complicated love triangles – primarily between her friend Simon (played by Alberto Rosende) and the enigmatic Shadowhunter Jace (played by Dominic Sherwood) – whilst determined to find and rescue her mother, and by extension the Shadow World itself.

Whilst it is nice to see a show with multiple strong female characters throughout it, I have found myself much less inclined to care about the Clary storyline as other storylines that were positioned as very much secondary in the original novels. The books are 100% wrapped up in the potential romance between Clary and Jace, but the show seems to deliberately make space for other characters and their sub-plots to shine – none more so than the relationship between closeted gay Shadowhunter Alec Lightwood (played by Matthew Daddario) and the hilariously sarcastic bisexual – or sexually fluid – warlock Magnus Bane (played by Harry Shum Jr). When reading the books, it was hard to escape the central focus on the Clary/Jace relationship, but when watching the show, I find myself longing for those moments between Alec and Magnus.

In a show rife with real-world parallels, it is no surprise that the Alec/Magnus relationship draws particular attention. Not only does Shadowhunters openly support a clearly inter-racial* relationship – Magnus is not only a Warlock, but an ambiguously Asian one – but also a clearly complicated homosexual relationship. It is made clear to us in the early episodes that being gay and a Shadowhunter is essentially not allowed in-world, the policing of sexuality embedded in this centuries old society that believes in magic and demons, but not boys kissing other boys, let alone boys kissing racialised bisexual warlocks. Alec is closeted, not only to protect himself from being removed from his position of authority in the Shadowhunter society he leads in New York, but also to protect his own family’s honour.

“Whenever you’re ready to talk about what you need to talk about,” says his sister, the overtly promiscuous Isabelle (played by Emeraude Toubia), “I’m here.” And she is, perhaps knowing Alec’s own heart before he knows it himself. No stranger to forbidden relationships, Izzy is openly involved with one of the Seelies, a race of faerie like beings who can’t lie. Izzy has no qualms about her brother’s homosexuality, despite his own reservations. She can read his desire for his fighting partner and near brother-like friend Jace in his eyes, and openly encourages Alec to give in to his feelings for Magnus, who himself openly pursues Alec.

Magnus’s open flamboyance and overt sexuality is presented to the audience as the product of centuries of practice in relationships. Living forever has its advantages – one of them being complete comfort in one’s own fluid sexuality. As a result we can’t help but see Alec’s coming to terms with his sexuality as a growing up story, somehow akin to Clary’s own development as a new Shadowhunter. Even when alone with Magnus, Alec is reserved, unable to confess his conflicted feelings about his homosexual desire for Magnus, let alone his hidden feelings for his fighting partner Jace.

Alec and Magnus, like other non-heteronormative characters we see on stage and screen, are not punished for their sexuality by those around them. Alec’s sadness comes from his own self-repression. In fact, Izzy takes the heat for most of the transgressive behaviour in the family, having to give up her relationship with the Seelie Meliorn to protect the family’s image. But it is hard to ignore that Alec’s self-repression is built upon the foundational disregard of non cis-hetero individuals in a centuries old underground of demon hunters and magical creatures – a world that has generally been presented as the most progressive in terms of coming to terms with the non-normative across the genre. One cannot help but think of the first teenage lesbian kiss in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, when we see Alec internally punishing himself for looking at boys in the way he does. It seems outdated to see such a self-shaming young gay person in this particular television context in 2016. He smiles at Magnus’s moves towards him, but puts himself literally in the firing line in battle as a sort of self-punishment for his feelings for the two men he loves. I can’t help but wonder if presenting this behaviour is playing into a tradition of self-deprecating gays that ultimately does more harm than good.

But it is also important to note, that this representation of homosexuality as needing to be repressed in traditional circles of family, battle and career, is also played alongside a system of oppressive Shadowhunter regime against “Downworlders” – any person who is part demon, such as a warlocks, vampires, Seelies and werewolves. These people are undeniably representative of the racialised and LGBTQI+ communities, openly hunted and often victims of prejudice from the authoritarian Shadowhunter government – the Clave. But beyond even the Clave is the neo-Nazi racial purists The Circle, who openly slaughter these minority communities in order to ‘cleanse’ the world of ‘evil’, though I cannot imagine anything inherently evil about the amazingly complex Downworlders that Cassandra Clare’s book series is home to. The Circle is clearly the evil society in this show, and there is no attempt to hide that their endeavours are inherently wrong. So, it makes sense then that the Alec/Magnus relationship, as oppositional to the Circle in every way, is set up as the ‘good’ relationship, the one we care for above all. We want to see these two people happy and with the same opportunities to express their relationship as any other couple on the show, which is why I believe the showrunners have made such a deliberate effort to make space for this relationship to play out with as much screen time as the parallel Clary/Jace relationship – the whitest, straightest relationship on the show.

It is not the very white and privileged Alec who is set to save Magnus, but the disproportionally valued Magnus who is positioned to save Alec, not only from the oppressive world of Shadowhunter tradition, but also from his own self-deprecation, shame and self-sacrifice. Alec is not going to be saved from his homosexuality, that is not the story being told, nor should it be. Because whilst his homosexuality is perceived as transgressive by the upper members of Shadowhunter society, it is not transgressive to the people who matter – his sister, his friends and his love interests, and ultimately, the show’s audience. He is openly encouraged by these people, of various racial backgrounds, social classes (Shadowhunter/Downworlder binaries often presented in this show as not only a racial issue but a class issue), genders and sexualities. In a world trying to fight the purist almost Neo-Nazi Circle, it is clear that it is not non-heteronormativity that is being challenged, but that normativity and high-strung oppressive government bodies need to be challenged by the people on the ground.

That is why I champion the Alec/Magnus relationship. While it is not without its problematic elements, and I acknowledge that completely, the representation of that relationship thus far has been potentially the most realistic relationship I have seen on television in a long time, even if one half of the couple is a glittery sarcastic Warlock. It is a relationship of the people, and I can’t help but want to see it work.

 

© Hayley New 2016

 

*I want to take a moment here to note that the show has tried to represent racial diversity, casting Latina actress Emeraude Toubia, African American actor Isaiah Mustafa, Latino actor Alberto Rosende, and Latin/Asian-American actor Harry Shum Jr, in its primary cast, with further diversity in secondary and recurring roles. However, the passable whiteness of many of the characters in this show, alongside the tokenisation and exoticisation of some of these characters through specific clothing, language and perhaps most disappointingly, the image of the overtly racialised Downworlder figure, is troublesome, something I want to pull apart in another piece on representation in Shadowhunters.

No Tragic Queers In This Theatre – A Review of Kaleidoscope

“You do not fit inside your body. It is yours but you have outgrown its shape. If only your skin could grow as you grow, change as you change, stretch to fit you. If only you could become something more beautiful and not just something else.”

This past weekend, I had the privilege of attending playwright Charlie O’Grady’s latest production Kaleidoscope. In its second run, as a part of the Sydney Mardi Gras Festival, Kaleidoscope follows young trans man Gabriel (played in this production by the effervescent Oliver Ayres) as he attempts to get ready one morning.

Confronted with his own reflection, that becomes a lot harder than anticipated.

This play is a unique piece of art, something new and different in the Sydney theatre world, and perhaps theatre more broadly – it is a play that subverts the trope of the “tragic queers”, the queer people who are punished for their queerness through perpetual sadness and in many cases death on stage and screen. This play is reflective of a story that is often not heard in theatre, not just a gay man’s voice, but a trans gay man. His experiences are new on the stage space, but not necessarily new for the audience, or the people it represents.

The play itself is brilliantly staged, with the stage space situated between two sides of the audience. It is a small production, but a strikingly intimate one, and necessarily so. This is a play that feeds off reaction, feeds off emotion. More than once I found my eyes move to the members of the audience opposite me – lit almost as well as Oliver Ayres, who well and truly held his own on stage – whose own emotional responses only added to my own and vice versa. Caught in between both sides, Oliver Ayres’ Gabe stood, both looking at and through us, as Gabe does his own reflection. It was powerfully done, and Ayres’ performance was immensely real and true and striking.

But this play is more than just reflective (mirror pun not intended). It is funny and witty and brilliantly real. You don’t have to be trans to identify with Gabe, and that is the magic of Kaleidoscope. You smile at his small triumphs, laugh with his jokes and his delightful witticisms and truths. It makes you feel empathy for a character who may not necessarily look, sound or talk like you. You feel what he feels, you see your own struggles, and you see his. And then you look outward to see everyone else’s experiences. It reminds you that Gabe is more than a character, he is a person, and he is real.

As stressed by the writer of the show, Charlie O’Grady, in the show’s introduction, Kaleidoscope is not autobiographical nor does it seek to represent all trans experiences, because it couldn’t, nor should it. Such experiences are highly personalised and unique to every individual. For the audience who I sat with, it was an important reminder for those of us who were not necessarily familiar with these types of experiences. For many in that same audience, it was an acknowledgement that their own stories are important and different and valued, as much as everyone else’s.

That is invaluable, and it is important to remember.

Kaleidoscope represents something new and unique and otherwise under-represented, if represented at all, in theatre – Queer Theatre that is firmly and respectfully engaged with personal experiences, with the day to day life of a young trans person. Kaleidoscope teaches you something. It teaches you that queer people are more than background set pieces in your cis-centred drama. It teaches you to listen to people with different stories than your own.

And if ever a play needed listening to, it is this one.

So do yourself and everyone around you a favour and buy tickets to go see Kaleidoscope, before the show finishes on March 6th.

 

© Hayley New 2016

 

A big thank you to the writer of Kaleidoscope Charlie O’Grady, actor Oliver Ayres, and the entire production team for being so welcoming, friendly, and just generally awesome before, during and after the show. You guys are doing something amazing with this production, and I can’t wait to see it in its future runs.