14 June 2003

In Defence of my People

As a white, bourgeois male, I’m seldom given the opportunity to really feel persecuted. Even the subject of this rant doesn’t really affect me directly. I weigh nine-and-a-half stone, am six feet tall and when I exhale, I resemble a rib-cage on stilts. Being a boy, this is not such a problem, I eat heartily and don’t exercise excessively. Were I a girl, this could, as of recently, be problematic, and I hope here to explain why. I shall come clean early on. I like thin women. Last year, I was in love with a particularly slim woman, I prefer Audrey Hepburn to Marilyn Monroe and I am no more ashamed of my tastes than I am of the early-90’s grunge bubble I inhabit.

Celebrity Body (if ever there was a superficial magazine…) was recently quoted as saying “skinny is out, curves are in”. I don’t know whether this means that thin women will no longer be available for purchase in High Street stores or not. Oddly though, male tastes appear to have remained the same, neither my preferences nor those of my friends have changed to accommodate this important style announcement. For some reason, the fashion/celebrity gossip/general bitchiness industry is desperately trying to push our tastes towards the larger lady. They make little attempt to conceal it. A recent survey concluded that 73% of men preferred women to be ‘curvy, the right weight for their height’ to ‘skinny, bordering on underweight’. Had the options been ‘Svelte, the right weight for their height’ and ‘chunky, bordering on overweight’, I can imagine the results may have tipped a different way. And despite this statistic, thin women still adorn the covers of FHM, GQ and all the other pseudo-misogynistic lad-mags.

But why such backlash against my fast-metabolism sisters? Why are the tabloid and fashion press trying to push the ‘curvy’ woman onto the cat-walk? (Incidentally, I have met thin women with unimaginably beautiful curves). Could it be the rapid increase of eating disorders? Does Vogue suddenly feel guilty for its portrayal of so much skinny beauty and the harm this is allegedly causing? Is the fashion press then making up for this by trying to reduce the anorexia it has caused. In fact, women’s general insecurity about weight is probably a reason for this obsession with skinny women – what better way to make a garment look slimming (and therefore a desirable purchase) that putting it on somebody slim?

De Beauvoir argued that women are marginalised because they are seen as ‘the Other’, a supplement to men, who are seen as the neutral as well as the masculine side of the scale, the feminine an add-on like the fashion pull-out of the Daily Telegraph. This seems an apt explanation of why women bitch about each other and develop eating disorders far more than men do. Instead of defining themselves as cricketers, poets or airline pilots, women far more frequently define themselves simply as women. Therefore, their competition is not over who has the best golf handicap or can play the most Megadeth solos, but who looks the prettiest and most feminine. Of course, with half the world as competitors, this competition can become harsh, hence vindictiveness and insecurity about weight.

Eating disorders I sympathise strongly with. It is often claimed (and ignored) that anorexia is a way in which people cope with extreme stress, insecurity or pressure – since they cannot control their lives, they control their diets. Having myself, due to emotional distress, gone for periods eating very little, I find there is something strangely comforting about running on empty, a feeling of mind over matter and independence. It is clear how, combined with continual stress and low self-esteem, this state could easily become addictive. However, many people also forget that compulsive eating can be as serious a problem as anorexia.

Taking this into account, the fashion and tabloid press’ backlash against slimmer concepts of beauty and sudden championing of sizes 16+ seems less admirable. A continually shifting concept of unattainable beauty can only be worse than a stable one, and I fear that this anti-thin backlash is attacking the symptoms, not the cause and will only make eating disorders worse. At best insecurity about weight will simply be replaced by insecurity about breast-size or lack of ‘curves’ and anorexia will be replaced by other disorders such as compulsive eating (making yourself sick is out, cutting your arms is all the rage this season). I can see no more obvious culprit for these problems than the judgmental attitudes associated with fashion. Yes, fashion is based on criticising appearances, and restricted to clothes and hairstyles there is no serious problem with that, but I find it perverse and fascistic that a human body as well as a style can go out of fashion. This is an industry and surrounding set of publications preoccupied with conformity to a narrow, unattainable ideal of physical appearance and pillorying those who fail to follow it. It seems grossly hypocritical for this industry to put blame for eating disorders onto any shoulders but its own, but to scapegoat thin women based solely on their shape is ridiculous.

04 May 2003

Linkin Park and Alternative Culture

One of the best-known stories in twenty-first century rock: After failing the N-Sync auditions, they tried out for another boy band. The cynical record label then pushed them into the ‘metal’, rather than the ‘pop’ market, fortunately allowing us to distinguish real from fake metaller with a single glance at the ‘L’ section of their record collection.

A more obscure story is that of the guitarist and MC who, after fiddling around with Pro-Tools together, collected singer, DJ and bass-player from those around them, before advertising for a drummer in a magazine. These people went on to record the album ‘Hybrid Theory’, featuring the single ‘In the End’, a slightly bizarre mixture of pretty singing and shouting, piano and distorted guitars. It was around this time that the former story arose.

Whether we believe Linkin Park or ‘Kerrang!’ on this is fairly arbitrary, but this generally depends on whether or not you like Linkin Park, and if not, whether you secretly own their album and even shamefully enjoy it.

Argument 1: Linkin Park are a boy-band – they don’t even swear on their album!
However, Boyzone famously said ‘fuck’ in praise of U2, and the Sex Pistols (manufactured by Malcolm McLaren) called their album ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’.
Argument 2: They’re a bunch of pretty-boys, they must be manufactured!
Something of a double standard – Jimmy Page and Kurt Cobain hardly meet the standards of ugliness set by the likes of Mötörhead.
Argument 3: They’ve sold so many records! And done ‘Top of the Pops’!
As did The Beatles. And what were you, a self-respecting metaller, doing watching Top of the Pops?

Guitarists are quick to level criticism; we happily bemoan the absence of solos and use of one-finger barre-chords, before laying our offerings at the feet of Johnny Marr and Keith Richards . Then, there is the matter of the remix album. A bold, artistic movement, a lazy way to make more material or a cynical (record label) cash-in? Probably all three, like live albums and acoustic versions and ‘Nirvana Unplugged in New York’. Bold it is, with a ‘target audience’ of (wannabe) metal-heads, releasing an album almost devoid of distorted guitar is far from prudent, and not as guaranteed to sell as a good boy-band should be.

What Linkin Park do show is the difficulties and dilemmas facing the followers of ‘Alternative Culture’. To join a group of non-conformists and together proclaim your individuality is a difficult concept. To join a counter-culture and find almost as many shops, clubs, records and fashion labels awaiting your purchase is a naturally confusing experience. How can you feel part of a disaffected youth when society is geared to your age group’s tastes and spending habits? And how do you rebel against ex-hippy parents who will understand you no matter what you do?

When Linkin Park came onto the recently imported (aided by that most underground of media, the blockbusting movie tie-in ) Nu-Metal scene, they were somewhat celebrated for the brief period of time before they hit the Top 40. Even then they were allowed the odd hit single because it ‘got real music into the charts’. Second and third hits proved problematic, especially when joined by the likes of Papa Roach and the Lost Prophets. Something was wrong – if this is Alternative Music, then why are people buying it? And if I am an Alternative Person, then why do I own the same record as a Trendy? Something had to be done, and the quiet ‘there’s only one thing you should know’ mid-section of ‘In the End’ proved perfect. Linkin Park were branded a boy-band, and Slipknot became the new band to adorn the true metal fan’s hoody.

But events were to take yet another worrying turn. The Mini-Moshers (those smaller Alternatives who continued to like Linkin Park after they had been discredited) soon fell for the joys of Slipknot, who are even now being mentioned on ‘CD:UK Hotshots’ and enjoying radio play. What will happen to ‘Alternative’ culture? If the metal fan goes more extreme, and finds a band that detune further, swear harder, shout louder, kick their double-bass pedal faster and still eat their own excrement onstage, what’s there to stop them going the same way? The Libertines put Retro-Garage-Punk into the charts, as did Hundred Reasons with Emo (although in true Emo tradition, denying being Emo), while Travis and Coldplay have long ruled out Indie.

For a possible answer, we must look to Kurt Cobain, who gave his life for the sake of musical credibility and allow the Rock fan true salvation. “Pop music is simple music.” Although ‘pop’ was something Cobain endorsed, we must somehow stop the Top 40 taking our Alternative bands and genres away from us completely. We need a complex group, not conforming to one genre that a Trendy or Mini-Mosher can wear on his or her hoody. A band creating polyrhythms with simultaneous electronic drums, real drums, guitar harmonics, rapping, singing and a Nine Inch Nails piano sample, that subvert and break the rules of the entire Heavy Metal genre, while continually (in true Nu-Metal style) denying being a part of it. But that’s Linkin Park doing ‘In the End’, so we’re pretty much screwed.