As is my tradition on the last night of the year I am typing away in the night, listening to music in the blue light of my studio, surrounded by the synthesizers who, like myself, had another challenged year of Corona. While it seems, at least here in Denmark, the pandemic has turned slightly more on/off it is still not easy to navigate as a musician or club organiser. And really I shouldn't complain - we managed to do a number of concerts during the year, all of them well-attended, and though I now know quite a few people who have had Corona I didn't lose anyone I know to the disease. But I know people who did.
The internet is full of people telling you, me and everybody else on a daily basis just how to handle the pandemic (or not) so I will gently refrain from doing that; after all I'm no doctor, virologist or oracle. In this respect I'm simple enough to just hope things will look a little better next year, like pretty much everybody else, I guess. I will also refrain from dishing out sentimental nonsense about how the pandemic is bringing people together, uniting us in the face of a common enemy, the great challenge to make all our petty differences fade and vanish. I still have a hard time relating to most of humanity, pandemic or not, I still, even if hard pressed, couldn't really bring my passions from a common spring, I still think there's a party somewhere and I'm never invited. And yes, I wouldn't accept the invitation anyway - honestly, would you?
I've been spending most of December working on a new song and during the past months I've been finishing some videos. I hope to have an excerpt of our Concert For Ghosts up on YouTube in not too long, a slightly crazy performance we did back in May when Denmark experienced lockdown and concerts were not possible. Well, thought I, perhaps it is possible to stage a concert, safe from Corona, after all, as long as the audience is already dead. And so we performed a midnight concert open only to ghosts picking songs thematically dealing with different aspects of death, the undead, suicide, the afterlife. Cheerful stuff. We filmed and recorded the show so you can all have a closer look, see if you can spot any apparitional appearances - perhaps the ghost in the machine? I did, I must admit, feel briefly tempted afterwards to go all eccentric and only perform to the dead from now on, however, summer and autumn saw us perform to the living again - and thanks for attending. So I think I'm deciding on playing to the living once I'm dead - in other words, if you ever attended a concert of mine and I die before you do, I'll be haunting you. And with that I wish you a happy new year!
Not too long ago I was reading a couple of Robert Louis Stevenson's lesser known short stories and wanted to check a few facts on dear old Robert so I dropped by Wikipedia. Where, to my mild surprise, I found a quote from Roger Ebert concerning Mr. Stevenson's literary qualities. Now, Roger Ebert was a film critic first and foremost and while I do not have a problem with, say, well-known film critics having an opinion on literature I found it rather curious that his quote - of all people - was chosen for a section on Robert Louis Stevenson. I'm sure most people will know or at least have heard of Treasure Island or The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde so why not share the opinion of other random people, former sumo wrestler Takenohana, television personality Oprah Winfrey, the entire Spice Girls? The strange case of Roger Ebert gave way to a strain of thoughts because the thing, really, is this: if you look up movies on Wikipedia ever so often you will find a few lines on what said Ebert had to say about this or that movie, just like you will find a few lines from what some or other NME or Rolling Stone critic had to say about this or that rock or pop album back in the day plus retrospective thoughts from AllMusic. So what, you might say, even, perhaps, followed by: is that a problem? Yes, I would say, it is.
I remember an interview with cyberpunk author William Gibson on Danish television years ago, mostly concerning brand psychology, the power of advertisement in a digital world and so on, and at one point Gibson was asked why he was drinking Coca Cola, Coca Cola, after all, being one of the best known brands there is. He replied very honestly that he too was a victim of heavy advertisement, just like everyone else, and was asked then why that was a problem. With a wry smile he answered: I could be drinking Pepsi instead. The point being, stripped to the core, there are winners and losers. If your brand is widely recognised it is most often because so many other brands are not. If your film or rock critic is constantly quoted on Wikipedia, other critics are not so much. See? In this day and age of representation perhaps it was time to have a look at the role of the critic.
Apart from being a musician I also worked as a music journalist for a number of years with major Danish music mag Gaffa - I have seen, so to speak, both sides of the fence, including, oh yes, all the hypocrisy, the double standards and what not. In recent years we have seen increasing debate concerning representation within various aspects of culture, certainly also music, one of the big issues being sexism and general lack of representation of female and also trans musicians. Various initiatives are being introduced these years, from affirmative action strategies to court cases concerning actual sexual abuse. Something is happening, we might say, and finally, we might add. Perhaps so, though, black-clad as I am, I might whisper, don't hold your breath. In the early eighties David Bowie famously spoke out against MTV's lack of representation regarding black artists and lo and behold, it seemed to pay off. But let's not forget it did perhaps primarily because of the massive commercial success of artists of the time such as Michael Jackson, Prince, Lionel Richie. That is what I mean. It paid off, financially as well, for MTV to change their ways. But would they have changed if playing black artists had lost them money? Indeed, in the famous Bowie interview MTV VJ Mark Goodman argued that MTV's target audience was mainly white middle-class youth, that the lack of video airplay of black artists had nothing to do with an actual racist agenda and I believe he was speaking the truth. I honestly do not think MTV had an outspoken or even hidden agenda rooted in racist ideology. Like so many other companies their agenda was of course rooted in capitalist thinking, commercial enterprise, and the station did what it thought best to further such interests - after all, it was still at the time a new project, not the powerful giant it would become just a few years later. In this case the station of course proved to be wrong - once Billie Jean hit the screens it was clear to everybody that white middle-class youth was more than ready for Jackson who, of course, became a spearhead of the MTV and indeed music video generation. We like this story because it comes with some sort of happy end but truth is ever so often these stories don't feature anything like happy ends but mostly business as usual. This also being the case when addressing the role of the critic.
The debate on sexism and representation in the music industry has so far mostly concerned the actual industry or musicians themselves, venues, festivals but, to be honest, not music journalism a whole lot. Despite the fact that, by far, most of the rock journalists, here using rock in the broadest sense of that word, you find quoted all over Wikipedia today are/were most probably guys aged somewhere between around thirty to around fifty. And yes, most of them probably white, middle-class and Anglo-American. That's how it goes. Everybody knows. We have seen rock journalism address sexism in heavy metal, homophobia in hip hop, stories of sexual abuse but what we haven't seen too much is rock journalism taking a closer look in the mirror to address its own representation problems. And let me put it like this: As a musician I have certainly met both more female and trans musicians than I have met ditto music journalists. Why is that? Good question. However, I think we need to at least consider the fact that the situation might be not entirely unlike Bowie and MTV back in the day in that I don't think most of the mostly white male middle-class rock journalists support sexist agendas or ideologies, though of course I could drop a few names I met along the way where I am seriously in doubt. I think we are here faced with a problem rooted more in what we might call the prolonged status quo of so-called accepted truth. A rock journalist is a bloke because he always was. We're so used to this being the case we don't think about it. Add to this most rock journalists by far, despite what some of them might believe, are not famous stars. They appear just in name and in most cases only relatively few people know the least bit about them. Obviously representation problems in rock journalism are not going to be as visible as representation problems among musicians themselves, even if I have a feeling the problem is actually more widespread in rock journalism. Why, then, is this a problem? If most musicians are guys anyway why not also the music critics? It's a man's, man's, man's world. Well, I could be drinking Pepsi instead. Things could be different if only we could make a deal with God and get him to swap our places.
Every now and then various magazines dedicated to the world of rock and pop music and the like make moronic lists of the best albums ever made, now and then also updating these lists lest anyone should mistake these people for actual real, serious journalists. Taking a look at the latest edition of the 500 best albums of all time according to Rolling Stone we see the list was put together by about fifty people, a little more of a fifth of them female. Taking a look at the actual list and jumping to the top hundred titles right away - skipping loads of good albums, I'm sure, but we're not going to let ourselves get fooled by token strategies, all those magnificent and super important albums by female artists which just weren't magnificent or super important enough to rub shoulders with the so-called greatest - we find that less than twenty female artists made it to the top hundred. And yes, the list is most certainly as Anglo-American as one would expect. But, we might add, wasn't Rolling Stone always an American magazine? If there is an American bias is that so strange? Certainly not. I understand this. As a European I know endlessly more about European music than African or Asian music. Or American music for that matter. But I do know they have women in God's own country too. However, let us take a look at the top 500 according to NME then, again skipping to the top 100. It seems this list was put together by a single person (as the heavy Smiths-bias would certainly indicate), and judging by the name, a woman. Yet, only around ten titles in this top 100 are female artists, a couple more if we count women in otherwise male bands such as Nico or Debbie Harry. And just as expected a more Eurocentric approach than Rolling Stone. We might shrug, go read a book instead or such, which, to be honest, is what I usually do myself. However, visit Wikipedia and ever so often you will find that a number of articles there actually refer to lists such as these or reviews written by the kind of people who make those lists and, I am afraid, actually believe in such nonsense. Sure, it's nonsense, some might say. It's just rock'n'roll - who cares? If it doesn't anyway I'll buy that the day I see a top hundred with only female acts among the first ten or twenty spots, at the expense of Dylan, Beatles and Beach Boys. But seriously, would I really prefer Laurie Anderson and Kate Bush? Surely they are fine artists but, really? Am I not just trying to make a point? My point is: I might indeed drink Pepsi instead. And speaking of which, I think I might know a couple of successful artists who might prefer the entire Spice Girls to Bob Dylan, Neil Young et. al.
I am not trying to start or rather carry on an endless argument over who's best. In fact, if anything, I'd love to all out nuke the bloody notion once and for all. Nor am I trying to have a go at every rock journalist in the world - I've met a few along the way I really respect. Though, I have to say, I also came upon a whole lot who knew endless biographical details concerning who played bass in what bands and what albums were released when but very little about actual music, music production or, dare I say, music theory. Rock journalism, however, despite whatever good things we may (or may not) feel compelled to say about it is historically rooted in a lack of representation which is definitely still an issue today and which in itself is problematic but even more so in that, it can certainly be argued, the very foundation of rock journalism and its many accepted so-called truths have grown out of this situation. We may argue in favour of rock journalism's defense and point to the fact that there is simply far more male-dominated rock and pop music (and electronica, and jazz, and folk and...in case we want to make further distinctions) than female ditto, however, this is of course part of the problem. And, I would argue, why this dicussion is important. What we may need is a thorough and radical deconstruction of the myths of rock journalism, we must, to speak in good old rock terms, tear down the wall. There really is no denying it; that wall was built primarily on values relating first and foremost to a segment rooted in primarily male, white, middle-class, Anglo-American identity. In that order. Easy now; there is nothing wrong with Bob Dylan just because he is a bloke, white and American, nor with those white American blokes who, still to this day, write about him. Just as you don't necessarily become musically interesting just because you're a black trans queer with one eye and a whole lot of mental issues. Don't panic - this is just another letter from Desolation Row. We desperately need, however, to stop believing in the neon god we made, we need to stop pretending if one rock journalist wrote so and so about this or that band or artist, Rolling Stone, NME, Pitchfork or AllMusic did when really, it was just one journalist. Who, in most cases, probably wasn't a journalist by trade anyway. We need to remind ourselves that disecting lyrics, speaking buckets of their timeless relevance (to your generation, situated in time and space) doesn't necessarily say a thing about the music nor consider those bits where clearly some or other word was mostly chosen to fit the melody - and we so need to expose all those prophet wankers who use rock journalism to teach us all how their personal taste is The Only Truth, that somehow when their personal heroes use those same old three chords it's all of a sudden, in some intangible, inexpressible way raw, poignant and authentic. Yeah, right, go wank somewhere else, tosser. We know you wanted to be up there on stage and somehow it didn't work. Get over it, better yet, get over yourself. I still very much prefer reading a positive review from a well-informed and well-written fan or blog over a lecturing from someone who don't really know much about the artist in question, the type of music or cultural background involved, thank you. In fact, I would like to take it a few radical steps further and ask why music reviews anyway? In this day and age of the internet with free music everywhere, from YouTube through Facebook to BandCamp and beyond why would you and I need any third party telling us what they think of this or that album, dishing out so and so many stars? It always seemed silly to me, now it just seems silly and outdated when everybody can listen to mostly everything and mostly for free anyway and simply make their own opinion. Roger Ebert has left the building.
Yesterday, having finished rehearsing a couple of pieces of mine, I went for a long walk since the sun was up, something which doesn't happen each and every day when you live in Denmark. The sky indeed was Caribbean blue, as the song goes, the birds were singing as is their habit and I was trying to keep my goth up, black knee boots, dark mirror shades - one must think of one's appearance, stiff lipsticked upper lip and all that, music in my ears. I passed some local kids who asked me about my next concerts and then gave me a piece of candy, reminding me it was the last day of school for ninth graders and it is the tradition here they dress up in all kinds of costumes and give candy to the younger pupils. A bit later I passed through one of the parks and met with some of the ninth graders in their various outfits, some of them believing me to be one too since, let's face it, the way I look I might as well be in costume. I felt, I must admit, rather flattered they thought me a fellow sixteen-year-old and received plenty of compliments on hair and make-up from pretty girls in hijabs as well as pretty girls in cheerleader outfits. Later on I passed some of their classmates also in cheerleader outfits, guys this time, and I thought there is some hope for the future.
Listening to various music, a line from one of the songs I grew up on seemed to fit the mood of the day with its clear blue summer sky, hot sun and a late afternoon filled with hopeful, dancing youth: Det er n�sten som en sommerdag, hvor stranden br�nder og alting er ild - meaning something like: It is almost like a summer day where the beach is burning and all is on fire, a line in the original context of that particular song meant as a metaphor for SM sex, that's poetry for you. Somwhow it made me think back to my own last day of school, and this, ladies and gentlemen plus everything in between, above and certainly below, is, more or less, what happened.
I went to a school where most of the pupils were of a lower middle or working class background, we were, in so many words, brats, I think it's fair to say. I myself was gifted with a misguided and somewhat rebellious sense of humour which occasionally was funny - thank you everybody back then for bearing with me. Now, the school had a headmaster and he was, excuse my French, a bit of an authoritarian bastard. Those of you who remember Mr. Vernon out of The Breakfast Club and always thought he was a caricature, well, we had him, in the flesh, as our school headmaster. So, at our school it was part of the last day of school tradition to gather as many young pupils as possible, a hundred or more was considered a good score, and have them yell, in unison of sorts, the headmaster is a pig. Political correctness to pigs was, I'm afraid, not much of a thing back in those days. A beautiful tradition which our generation saw no reason to not uphold. After having flooded a toilet as warm-up act we went to the large stage hall where we were surrounded by a big crowd of younger pupils out for candy - and totally prepared to yell out loud, over and over, the headmaster is a pig, with true and heartfelt conviction. So there we were, throwing candy to the chanting crowd, feeling like rock stars, rather pleased with ourselves. When suddenly the headmaster turned up - and turned out to be not pleased at all. After a serious warning next stage was the stage. Part of the tradition was to have the graduating pupils on stage to sing some of the good old traditional Danish songs by long-dead composers and poets while the rest of the school would be watching and expected to sing along though mostly and dishonestly trying to eat candy instead. I don't recall us having actually planned anything as such but what happened was we started singing out of tune, as in all punk out of tune, all over the place, singing the wrong words and having a bit of a ball. And the headmaster wasn't having it. Not any of it. He went on stage and stopped the whole thing, told us last day of school was canceled and we were not to set foot on school ground until exams.
What happened next was, I believe, our real life math exam, as the single headmaster strolled down the hall and it dawned on everybody he's one prick and we're hundreds and hundreds of pupils. So we went after him and he ran across the schoolyard, pursued by a mob of angry pupils. We're not gonna take it, indeed - remember we were all wearing silly outfits so we even looked the part of Twisted Sisters. The headmaster made it to safety and locked himself in his office, hiding for the rest of the day while we kids ran around school throwing candy everywhere, breaking a few things, doing some graffiti, kind of like that scene out of The Wall although, I'm sad to say, we didn't set everything on fire.
Nowadays I don't bear a grudge, of course. If anything I'm grateful, grateful to have attended a school where the biggest bully was the headmaster and even some of the teachers, the good ones, were on our side. I did pretty good with my exams as I recall but I believe the most important thing I learned in school was a healthy distrust of authorities and that's as good as it gets. So here's to all of you from back then, hopefully not all too grown up. Have a nice summer - and you young people partying in the parks now and playing loud music; crank it up an extra notch, even when you listen to music far from my personal taste, have a party and enjoy the days and long nights of summer. Life awaits you and from here it's just downhill. The friends you're drinking and dancing with now will fade as you move on in different directions, believe it or not, some will be dead before thirty and you will learn, unfortunately, it is indeed true that slowly but surely you go from wanting to save the world to just trying to hang on to yourself. But while you still want to save the world, for what it's worth, you have my full and honest sympathy.