We Are The Best! (2013)

We Are The Best (2013)

L-R: Liv LeMoyne, Mira Barkhammar and Mira Grosin in “We Are the Best!” Credit Magnolia Pictures

Director: Lukas Moodysson

Writers: Lukas Moodysson, Coco Moodysson (comic book)

Stars: Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, Liv LeMoyne

It is a truth universally acknowledged that being a grown up sucks – especially when compared to the adolescent joie de vivre and sheer silliness depicted in We Are The Best. Lukas Moodysson’s accomplished take on his wife Coco’s comic book, Never Goodnight, is bittersweet, hilarious, and life affirming by turns.

Set in Stockholm, 1982, We Are The Best follows the misadventures of Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin), 13-year-old BFFs, as they attempt to recreate the spirit of 1976 in their local youth club music room. They embark on a classic rock ‘n’ roll hero’s journey, from learning to play, past the obstacles thrown up by allies, including their third musketeer, Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), and enemies, through heartbreak and major artistic differences before ending in a triumphant performance in front of the biggest crowd they’ve ever seen. The only crowd, in fact.

We Are The Best hits many resonant notes. Bobo and Klara are outsiders from the get-go, painfully aware of the differences between them and their pink-clad bubble blonde classmates. Like so much in the history of popular music, it’s all about the hair. Klara owns her difference, sporting a perky Mohawk as an outward signifier of her self-proclaimed rebel status. Bobo is less committed. Her coarse crop (as her mother points out to party guests in the opening scene) is self-inflicted, and, like so many experiments carried out at that age, regretted. Bobo angsts about whether or not her short hair makes her look ugly, and visibly winces when teased about her lack of beauty by some passing older boys. Klara flings insults in response, and attacks the bullies where it hurts – via the schedule for the practice room.

This is Sweden, so even a youth club is run on principles of absolute fairness. If a band wants to practice, they need to fill in the booking sheet, a protocol conveniently forgotten by the bullies, known collectively as drudge rockers Iron Fist. Kenneth and Roger, the mild-mannered youth workers in charge of proceedings, have to admit that if Klara has penciled her name on the form, she’s entitled to the slot. So Klara and Bobo find themselves in temporary possession of a bass guitar and a drum kit. Neither of them have any clue what they want to do with the opportunity other than make noise and annoy people. They’re the spirit of punk incarnate.

And so a legend is born. While suffering the indignities of a PE class, Klara comes up with a song called “Hate The Sport”. Aware that their complete lack of musicianship can only get them so far, they recruit fellow outsider, Christian music nerd Hedvig. Bobo and Klara start out in awe of Hedvig’s classical guitar skills, but soon they embrace her entirety. The duo becomes a trio and, naturally, Klara gives the newcomer an appropriately shocking haircut to demonstrate her fealty (and cut off her exit point) to the gang.

Like many other rock ‘n’ roll stories, We Are The Best is at heart a coming-of-age story; music provides a reliable and raucous vehicle for self-discovery. The narrative comes mainly from introspective, doubt-ridden Bobo’s point of view: the band is her bridge between childhood and adolescence, between watching and doing. Once she picks up the drumsticks, nothing will ever be the same. Her adventures in punk rock stretch her always-tempestuous relationship with Klara to breaking point, propel her towards her first kiss (and first romantic betrayal), and push her from the shy sidelines to the central spotlight.

Barkhammer, Grosin and LeMoyne are never short of adorable. Moodysson coaxes honest and enthusiastic performances from his young cast, who commit to every scene con gusto. Barkhammer and Grosin play thoughtful Bobo and brash Klara as a study in contrast, yet they’re also able to capture the switch that occurs when Bobo asserts herself in pursuit of (what else?) a boy, and Klara, uncharacteristically, reveals her hurt.

WeAreTheBest2

As might be expected from Moodysson (Lilya 4 Ever, Mammoth), there are darker tones in here: Bobo’s relationship with her unhappy, lonely mother and absentee father leaves a lot to be desired and will only get worse. Klara’s rule-breaking nature is all too likely to get her into trouble in the wider world once she loses her cherubic cuteness. Hedvig is too willing to follow Klara, swapping her strict Christian upbringing for a cult of a different sort. All three girls – as they beg for change from subway riders, or veer too close to the edge of a snow-covered roof – take risks, gladly putting themselves in harm’s way, unaware that the magic circle of childhood might not protect them for much longer. The general air of exuberance is undercut with fragility. The girls behave – as all adolescents do – as if they are invincible. The older, sadder, wiser audience knows they are not.

We Are The Best is unashamedly nostalgic, for punk activism of the early 80s, for the verve of early adolescence, for the binary simplicity of Cold War politics (as voiced in Sabotage’s Brezjnev Reagan Fuck Off) for a time when identity came purely from affiliations and actions, rather than hazy affirmations posted on social media. If not quite invincible, Bobo, Klara and Hedvig are certainly irrepressible. No one, not Iron Fist, not the two-timing Elis, not Kenneth and Roger, can keep them down. They are very definitely The Best.

YouTube Infographic – The ‘Where Are They Now’ File?

Here’s a convenient round-up of some of the biggest successes on YouTube so far (and their current whereabouts…):

youtube downloader mp3

2012 – The Lists

2012leavingAs 2012 draws to a close, here’s a round-up of the round-ups, the ‘Best Of’ lists of the media that rocked the world over the past 12 months.

1. YouTube Videos

From South Korea to the outer edges of the planet’s atmosphere, the most-watched YouTube videos of 2012 are a truly global collection. Psy’s Gangnam Style became the most viewed YouTube video of all time, and spawned countless parodies. Felix Baumgartner became the man who fell to earth and garnered the most simultaneous views, from everyone watching his record breaking jump live.  And there was KONY 2012, but we’ve forgotten that now.

 

2. Pirated TV Shows

Game of Thrones topped the list of shows that fans, mostly outside the US, couldn’t wait to see. If the US TV networks could figure out a global subscription model, it seems there’s a lot of money to be made.

 

3. TV Commercials

Advertising spots around the world continued to straddle the boundary of entertainment and annoyance.

 

4. Tweets

Barack Obama’s “Four more years” got more than 810,000 RTs, making it the most retweeted comment of the year.  Not even Justin Bieber’s farewell to a dying fan came close.

5. World-wide Box Office

It was the same-old same-old Hollywood doldrums at the global box office this year, with the Top Ten dominated by superheroes, franchises, and superhero franchises. Audiences across the planet responded enthusiastically to big explosions, car chases, sparkling vampires, archers and talking cartoon animals – just as they always do. Only Brave (at no.11) is an original movie, everything higher up the list is based on pre-existing intellectual property.

 

6. Documentaries

Documentary movies provide a fascinating measure of cultural temperature: what subjects resonated with both filmmakers and audiences in 2012? From the riches-to-rags down/up comparison afforded by The Queen of Versailles to the injustices exposed by Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God to the unique experiences explored in Jiro Dreams of Sushi or The Imposter, 2012 gave us a range of insights into the human condition.  I’d also add The Ambassador and Paradise Lost 3 to this list — although they were officially released in 2011 they didn’t reach a wider audience until this year.

 

7. Valuable Movie Stars

Every year, Forbes compiles two lists.  One is of the movie stars who deliver the most return per dollar of their asking price, the other details those who return the least.  The young stars who dominate the MVP list owe their position to the blockbuster franchises they appear in (for a relatively low payday) rather than their audience-pulling clout.  However, with the notion of star power, and the resultant massive paydays, fading into the 1990s in Hollywood, this metric is becoming more and more meaningful.

 

8. Blogs

Despite the rise of other forms of social media, blogging refuses to die.  It’s still the best way for individuals to bypass traditional media – in all its hegemonic glory – and communicate their viewpoint with the world.  Whether you’re a Scottish schoolgirl complaining about the quality of your school dinners, a political pundit, an interior designer or a comic book expert, a blog is as vital as it has ever been.

 

9. Tumblrs

Sometimes, a blog is TL:DR and a picture is worth a thousand words.  That’s where Tumblr rules.  Whether the images are of Hillary Clinton, texts from a dog, face math or cats (LOTS of cats) Tumblr is best way of bringing memes to the masses.

 

10. Music Videos

The migration of the music video from TV to the internet is now complete.  Their short length and instant brand identity makes them an ideal media form for viewing on smartphones or tablets.  This year, Psy dominated YouTube but Carly Rae Jepsen’s lawnboy lust topped the views on VEVO. This is crazy…

 

 

Happy Record Store Day!

Record Store Day 2012Record Store Day is the sixth annual international celebration of independent record retailers. All over the world, record stores will be organising barbecues and face-painting, hosting bands, and selling unique music unavailable anywhere else.

The independent record store is one of the only places you’ll get to hear local, new music, talk to an expert in a particular musical genre, hang out with like-minded fans, get details of gigs and exclusive tracks, find rare and vintage records. In the face of high street chains (who then all went bust, RIP Our Price, Tower Records and HMV), and the transition to downloading digital music, rather than buying physical records, a lot of these small stores, run by enthusiasts, have managed to keep going, even through economic recession. They represent community and culture, and the music industry would be much the poorer without them.

They deserve to be celebrated!

Find the independent record store nearest to you via Record Store Day, and a list of the exclusive tracks that will be available via these small retailers. And don’t forget that the official brew is Revolver Beer. Customers are expected to start lining up for the bonanza at 7am, and there will be long queues all day, so plan accordingly.

If you’re in Leeds, my friends at Jumbo Records (5/6 St. John’s Centre) have a number of offers and in-store events throughout the day.

Mediaknowall favourites, Man Without Country, are releasing a very limited edition white 7″ vinyl tomorrow to celebrate Record Store Day. It includes ‘King Complex’ and their remix of M83’s ‘Midnight City’

In addition, Lanterns On The Lake are releasing ‘Low Tide’ on 12″ white vinyl which includes a MWC remix and Laurel Halo, Dauwd, Sun Glitters, Young Montana and Damu.

Have fun out there!

Ephebiphobia and the West Memphis Three

Mugshots of the West Memphis Three

After 18 years in jail, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley have been released. While they were forced to submit guilty pleas, and accept a sentence of time already served, they are no longer moldering in prison (with Echols on Death Row) for a crime it has become clear (thanks to DNA evidence) they did not commit. They owe their freedom in no small part to documentary makers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, whose trio of Paradise Lost films argued long and hard for the boys’ innocence, and attracted moral and financial support for their cause from the likes of Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp and Natalie Maines.

The film-makers’ persistent questions (their first film came out in 1996) about the validity of the trial, the lack of physical evidence, and the insistence that the murders were part of ‘satanic cult’ activity kept Echols clear of a lethal injection, and also kept media interest in the case alive. Alongside social media efforts (such as Free The West Memphis Three and Facebook pages supporting the trio), the exposure provided by the documentaries meant that this case didn’t go away.

The Paradise Lost films are worth examining, not just for the light they shed on one particular miscarriage of justice, but for how they show young men being demonized for their choices in music, clothing, hairstyles and reading matter, and made into scapegoats for society’s ills.

‘Fear of youth’ is well documented (in institutional rules and government edicts), and is known as ephebiphobia. It has been part of our cultures for centuries. Young people (especially young men), thanks to their strength, energy and willingness to try new ideas, are seen as a destabilising force by those who are invested in the old order. As the oldsters are the ones with all the power, they often take brutal pre-emptive and/or retributive action against perceived threats from youth (see: the Lost Boys of the FLDS). Most moral panics revolve around an aspect of youth or street culture, as authorities are persuaded by public outcry to crack down on aberrant behavior primarily from young males.

The discovery of the bodies of three eight year old boys in Robin Hood Hills, West Memphis, in May 1993, led to a moral panic that was to set the ephebiphobic aesthetic of the decade. The horrific murders were immediately attributed to a ‘satanic cult’ believed to be operating in the area, and the name of a local teenager, Damien Echols, was mentioned as a possible perpetrator.

Damien attracted suspicion, not because he had a track record of violent criminal behavior (although local police had been trying to pin all manner of crimes on him) but because he was different. In this staunchly Baptist community he had sought spiritual answers elsewhere, through Buddhism, Catholicism and Wicca. He grew his hair long, listened to Metallica, read Stephen King novels. He had also been treated for depression, and habitually wore black, including a long black coat. The local community believed that these circumstances made the unhappy and isolated young man ‘sinister’, and so the witch hunt began.

Instead of reviewing evidence dispassionately (which might have led them to one of the stepfathers of the murdered boys), the local police decided that Damien was to blame, and set about gathering gossip and hearsay that, in their eyes, could prove their case in a court of law. When solid proof of Damien’s guilt was not forthcoming, they hauled in “witnesses” who, tempted by the $30,000 reward money on offer, were happy to make up any amount of lies about what they had seen and heard. They also corralled Jessie Misskelley, an acquaintance of Damien’s. Jessie was mentally disabled, with an IQ of 72, and eventually, after much prodding from police, came up with a confession that implicated himself, Damien, and another boy, Jason Baldwin, in the murders.

Despite the gaping holes in Jessie’s confession (which he later recanted), and the lack of any substantial evidence, the local media, police and community were insistent that the boys were guilty, that they were Satanists, and that the victims had been sacrificed as part of some crazed blood ritual. Christianity is a force to be reckoned with in West Memphis, and the locals found it easier to believe that Satan was working among them (via Damien) than to confront uncomfortable questions about child abuse within the victims’ families. The crime was firmly pinned on the ‘Others’, the young, disenfranchised outsiders. The kid who had dared to be different was sentenced to death.

Throwing three innocent kids in jail didn’t solve the wider issues. The alienation felt by young American males was still there, and became an increasing part of the cultural zeitgeist, their inarticulate anger explored in movies like The Basketball Diaries, and songs like Pearl Jam’s Jeremy.

Did the songs, movies and video games of the era create monsters, or just call them out of the dark?

Luke Woodham, Kip Kinkel, Michael Carneal, Jamie Rouse, Barry Loukaitis, Colt Todd, Andrew Wurst and Evan Ramsey were all aged between 14-16 when they opened fire on parents, teachers and classmates in small towns across America during a period of just over two years (February 1996-May 1998). However, before any of these boys brought a gun to school, or wrote a note, or built a bomb, or posted on an internet bulletin board, society was already afraid of them, thanks to the specters of the West Memphis Three. The school shooters simply bought into the idea that because they were different, they were doomed. Give a dog a bad name, and he might shoot himself.

The media jumped on their perceived common traits, depicting them as a homogenous group of depressive, bedroom-dwelling, video game obsessed, grunge or metalhead, friendless losers – younger brothers to Damien Echols – and, with a national Satanic panic out of the question desperately tried to link these disaffected killers to specific media texts, rather than say, the medication many of them were taking. These boys wore black, especially in the form of long coats, as a way of expressing their otherness amongst the colorful plaid and sweats of their peers. They came to signify a national malaise, an army of Others who could pop up, guns blazing, in any high school corridor near you.

By the end of the decade, thanks to the Internet, and to the murderous actions of Klebold and Harris in Columbine, this tribe of misfits acquired a label: the Trenchcoat Mafia. The stereotyping begun with Damien Echols was set in stone, and outsider equalled killer, to be isolated and ignored, despite the fact that many of the teens who adopted the attitude and uniform of the subculture had never even handled a gun.

It’s 2011. Now Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley are free men, perhaps we should look again at the prejudices that falsely convicted them? Is it possible for us to learn from the mistakes of the past? Now, instead of demons in dusters, we have hoodie horrors; the outer layer has changed but the inner bogeyman remains the same. Adolescent males are still being ostracized and criminalized by adult society. They are forced to the fringes, denied status, affection, hope for the future, paraded as straw dogs in movies like Eden Lake, Harry Brown, even The InBetweeners. Should we be surprised when they bite back, as in London and Philadelphia recently? Will we continue to substitute stereotyping for genuine understanding?

The West Memphis Three – Comprehensive case history from TruTV Crime Library
Who Are The Trenchcoat Mafia– BBC archive from April 21st, 1999, which shows how quickly the media jumped on the term.

Rihanna: moral panic poster child?

RihannaRihanna’s new music video release, Man Down, coincides with calls in the UK for a music video rating system to protect younger viewers from adult content. In the opening sequence of the video she shoots a man – who is later revealed to be her attacker – in the street. Given that this comes hot-on-the-heels of the controversy surrounding the sexual content of her last video, S&M, the cumulative outcome is that Rihanna becomes the poster child for this latest moral panic about media effects, whether she likes it or not.

We can see all three formal stages of a moral panic illustrated nicely here.

1. Occurrence and signification

Rihanna is a female pop star who goes on the record as saying she suffered abuse as a child. In 2009, she was also involved in a domestic violence situation with then-boyfriend Chris Brown, for which he was sentenced to five years probation; the drama of the assault, arrest and sentencing are all played out in the public eye. Therefore, when she releases a series of videos that speak to the topics of sex and violence (Love The Way You Lie, S&M, Man Down), the media exploit the personal angle, and devote many column inches to exploring the connection between Rihanna’s life and her songs. Rihanna’s raunchy performance on The X Factor in December 2010 is the subject of several complaints to OfCom, garnering further headlines. Rihanna’s star persona is therefore a combination of elements, from the sexy projections in her performances, to the vulnerability she displays in her very public personal life. She is both victim and temptress: news outlets can use her any way they want.

2. Wider Social Implications (fanning the flames)

Rihanna’s videos coincide with growing fears about the over-sexualisation of children. This fear derives from advertising, clothing, books, TV, movies and music aimed at pre-teens. In April 2011, Reg Bailey, head of the Mothers Union (a Christian group) in the UK claims that parents are

“struggling against the slow creep of an increasingly commercial and sexualised culture and behaviour, which they say prevents them from parenting the way they want…[They have] little faith in regulators or businesses taking their concerns seriously”

BBC News (among other outlets) reports:

A survey carried out for the review suggested that almost nine out of 10 UK parents thought children were having to grow up too early.

About half of the 1,000 parents questioned were unhappy with what was shown on television before the current “watershed” of 2100.

A majority of parents of five to 16-year-olds said music videos and a “celebrity culture” were encouraging children to act older than they were.

Rihanna’s image and videos are used to illustrate news stories about the moral dangers of overly sexualised pop music (which has been perceived as a problem since the jazz age), although there is no evidence that her output has a particular impact upon young minds.

3. Social Controls

Thanks to the work and recommendations of Reg Bailey and the Mothers Union, an official government policy is to give music video broadcasters eighteen months to come up with a voluntary code that will rate music videos on a content basis and restrict broadcast times accordingly. This coincides with record label boss Richard Russell’s proclamation that Adele’s success is based on her specifically non-outrageous, non-sexual image, which suggests that public opinion is no longer in favor of sexy female popstars like Rihanna.

Music videos are only a small component of the “wallpaper” of supposedly dangerous images surrounding children, but they are one of the few areas of the media that remain unregulated – therefore they make an appropriate target for social control. News stories imply the tide is turning against explicitly sexual and violent music videos, and vulnerable 5-16 year olds will no longer be able to watch them on TV before 9pm. Phew! Problem solved, moral panic over.

However, BBC News duly notes :

Campaigners will scrutinise the full recommendations when they are published to see how effective they might be in the digital age, when most young people view music videos online and on their telephones.

And, on June 2, a bemused Rihanna, who is only making pop music to entertain people the best way she knows how, tweets:

I’m a 23 year old rockstar with NO KIDS! What’s up with everybody wantin me to be a parent? I’m just a girl, I can only be your/our voice!

Rihanna Defends ‘Man Down – ABC News
Music Videos Need Age Rating – BBC
Music Videos Face Crackdown Over Sexualised Content– The Guardian
Watchdog sniffs Rihanna’s ‘gently thrusting buttocks’ – The Register
Rihanna’s Twitter Feed

Angels & Whores

AdeleAfter Adele topped the Guardian‘s Music Power 100, her label boss, Richard Russell, attributed her success to the focus on her voice rather than her looks, which, he believes, puts her in stark contrast to other female pop artistes.

“At the level it is at now, it is radical,” he said. “It is clearly about the music and the talent and the things it is meant to be about. I think there has been a certain amount of confusion, and it’s resulting in garbage being sold and marketing with little real value to it. I think Adele is a good thing to be happening.”

That a strong female performer is gaining success without bowing to pressure to conform to a certain body type or being over-sexualised, is “unbelievable”, he said.

“It’s just so boring, crass and unoriginal,” he said, adding that the problem goes “way beyond” the music industry.

While it is good to see diversity, and to think that a talent like Adele’s can find an audience without being dressed up in a sequinned corset, Russell’s remarks reek of old-school patriarchy. He describes watching female popstars on MTV as “faux-porn” and says it made him feel “a bit queasy”. This suggests he is unnerved by the idea that women might feel empowered by and even enjoy raw sex, the kind that has had the ties to love, romance, marriage or reproduction stripped away. The kind of random, no-strings-attached sex that men have been allowed to enjoy (and discuss) for centuries.

Flamboyant sexuality has been part of pop music from the very beginning; lyrics have always contained innuendo and slang references to the sex act (rock ‘n’ roll being just one). From Elvis Presley’s hips to Mick Jagger’s lips, the defining moments of male pop artistry have always been about celebrating sex appeal. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, whether you’re a glam rocker stripping down onstage to reveal a chiselled torso circa 1976 or hip-hopper humping air in a 2011 music video. However, these displays of male sexuality don’t tend to be critiqued as “faux-porn” or make anyone feel sick.

Russell’s righteous indignation suggests that he has missed the point. Pop music is pretty much the only area where a female performer can take control of her sexuality and use it to communicate a message, or spark a discussion. Against a backdrop of abstinence-only sex education, and generally repressive attitudes towards reproductive rights, pop music might offer the only open forum in which to debate the anomalies of the human sexual spectrum. Rihanna’s recent embrace of S&M allowed her to discuss her past experiences of abuse, and explain how playing a specific role in the bedroom allowed her to overcome that. Lady Gaga has used her Little Monsters tour as a platform for discussing the problems faced by LGBT individuals.

By positioning Adele as a Good Girl, one who is more talented and more deserving of acclaim because she diminishes her sexuality, Russell is tarring Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Katy Perry et al with the Bad Girl brush, making the judgment that because they rock’n’ roll as part of their act, they are of less value as performers. The suggestion is that because Adele conforms to Russell’s idea of propriety (she sings, nicely, and doesn’t do anything that would scare a man or make him throw up), she should be rewarded more than the out-of-control Bad Girls. This is a division old as time, when Lilith (so ancient Jewish legend goes) was cast out of Paradise (and wiped from the orthodox version of the creation myth) for insisting on being on top during sex. It seems the Angel/Whore dialectic, that tired Victorian trope, is being perpetuated in today’s pop music.

Adele Can Change How Music Industry Markets Female Acts – Guardian
Female Sexuality Is Not A Pandora’s Box – Stephanie Vega

Judas

Lady Gaga has released the music video for Judas with her usual fanfare, especially as we build up to the May 23 release of Born This Way. Like Madonna before her (a sentence which seems to apply to many of Gaga’s exploits), she seems to be aiming for the blasphemy dollar, representing Jesus as the leader of a gang of LA bikers, and herself as Mary Magdalene – decked in some fantastic costumes. Like Born This Way, it’s full of luxuriant symbolism (a gun that shoots lipstick!), and rewards repeat viewings.

Gaga has done a lot of careful explaining for this video. To E! she said:

“I don’t view the video as a religious statement. I view it as social statement. I view it as a cultural statement. It’s a metaphor. It’s not meant to be a biblical lesson.”

To MSNBC she said:

“The theme of the video and the way that I wanted to aesthetically portray the story was as a motorcycle Fellini movie where the apostles are revolutionaries in a modern-day Jerusalem… And I play Mary Magdalene leading them into the town where we meet Jesus and I will leave the rest for you to see. But it’s meant more to celebrate faith than it is to challenge it.”

The video and the lyrics are very respectful of Christian mythology, although there is some sly commentary about the importance of Mary Magdalene to the original Christians. From her first purple-clad appearance (purple is traditionally the color of kings and bishops) she’s shown as the center of the group, the one making all the decisions. Then she gets washed away – much as Mary Magdalene was rinsed out of Christian re-constructions of events.

We’re seeing an evolution in Lady Gaga’s star persona here, thanks in part to the fact that she directed this clip herself. The studded leather bikini is now the bottom, instead of the only layer to costumes, and make up, hair and lighting enhance her visage as weeping, yearning, human, rather than the ancient goddess of Born This Way. She’s asking for acceptance, not forgiveness, however (“In the most Biblical sense/I am beyond repentance/Fame hooker, prostitute wench, vomits her mind”). The narrative suggested by both the song and the images is of a woman who wants to do the right thing, but is drawn towards dark thoughts (‘Jesus is my virtue/And Judas is the demon I cling to’) – a basic binary opposition.

While Born This Way was compared to both the images and music of Madonna’s Express Yourself, Gaga seems to have resorted to musical cannibalism (Judas seems eerily derivative of her own Paparazzi). But, inevitably, the video invites comparison with Madonna’s seminal take on Catholic myths, Like A Prayer(which can be found here). Did Gaga have to do a religious-themed video that follows Madonna’s lead? Probably not but – a) she’s riffing on the same preoccupations about love and the way religion allows women to do so that Madonna did and b) the column inches expended on comparisons aren’t doing the advance publicity for the Born This Way album any harm.

Madonna’s music video, directed by horror movie doyenne Mary Lambert, has a much more complex narrative involving racism and an averted lynching. Although the video espouses similar messages of acceptance, it seems much less about self-indulgent angst and more about championing the underdog. While Gaga courts controversy by cavorting in a large gilt crucifix and hot tubbing with Judas and Jesus, nothing she can do matches the shock value of Madonna dancing on a lawn full of burning crosses, small crucifix round her neck, kissing a man many identified as a Jesus figure, and displaying stigmata on her hands. In 1989, these were outrageous things for a female pop singer to represent herself as doing, and it seems that not even Gaga will go that far now.

When it comes down to it, I still prefer this version of Gaga’s song, stripped of all the pomp and posturing. Perhaps she does herself, as she tweeted the link to all her fans?

A Songwriter Speaks

Britney Spears Femme FataleBritney Spears’ seventh album, Femme Fatale, debuted at No. 1 on the charts this week. Viewed as more of a successor to the 2007 stomper, Blackout, that the rather insipid Circus, Femme Fatale has garnered some pretty good reviews. Britney and her people make cheesy pop records, for people to sing and dance along to, and utilize as part of their 2011 soundtrack when driving/partying/studying/jogging or whatever else they do to music. Britney has worked hard as a performer since her Mickey Mouse Club days, and absolutely nails the whole song-and-dance routine. She knows what her job is, and she’s good at it. She’s not pretending to be a great musical diva – unlike some of her peers, who have pretensions to the title “artiste” – and has never ever claimed to be a songwriter. So it comes as a surprise to see some reviewers sniping about the fact that Britney doesn’t “even” have any co-writing credits on Femme Fatale. Why should she?

Heather Bright, who did write one of the songs on the album, explains all in a recent blog post.

here’s my thing… and I feel VERY passionate about this issue. Britney could have come to me, like all these other A-list artists, and said…

“Hey, you wanna be on my album? I’m gonna need writing credit for that song AND part of your publishing even though I didn’t write anything! And then I’m gonna go on tour and gross $150 million in ticket sales and not give you any of that, even though I’m performing your song!”

I could rattle off a laundry list of artists who I’ve had that conversation with! And I’m on the other end like… “Oh okay… so you wanna rape me, but just with the tip?!” *Prince side eye* Britney’s one of the few artists I’ve worked with who didn’t try to take something that wasn’t hers. In my experience, from a business standpoint, her entire team is nothing less than a bonafide class act! If I ever have another song that she wants and another artist happens to want the same song… Britney will get it EVERYTIME! Why? Because she’s honest! And she treats her writers and producers with respect and dignity. An artist is nothing without a hit song… and a hit song is nothing without the right artist. It looks like the question I posed earlier just found its answer… maybe this is why 12 years later she’s STILL at the top!

Despite Heather setting the record straight, could carping about Britney’s lack of credits be part of a trend, along with the Natalie Portman/Sarah Lane palaver? It seems, thanks to the reduced royalties and different consumption models for entertainment, that we are looking at a future where even top entertainers will only earn a comfortable, rather than superstar-grade, income. With less money coming in, such entertainers will be asked to do more for themselves (write material as well as perform and publicize it), instead of relying on teams of songwriters, dance-doubles, script doctors, editors and publicists in order to project a composite star persona. Will performers like Britney, able to call on the extensive talents of others, soon become a rarity on the pop culture landscape? Will this even be a bad thing?

Oh Britney Britney – Heather Bright’s blog

Want to be the next Rebecca Black? It’ll cost ya $20K

As the dust subsides from Rebecca Black’s meme-making You Tube debut, attention is being focused on the maestros behind the music. Just who are the Ark Music Factory?

On their website, founders Patrice Wilson and Clarence Jey describe themselves as “a Community, Music/Entertainment Channel and Independent Record Label based in Los Angeles, California”. Their current roster of artists is all young and female, all purveying identikit vocoded, throwaway pop music and boilerplate videos. However, in addition to the limited number of artistes featured on the website, various bloggers have dug around this week and uncovered many more Ark Music Factory prodigies online.

Wilson and Jey’s business model seems to be fairly simple – and entrepreneurial. Fond parents of fame-obsessed tween and teen girls can buy a song and video package for their beloved daughter to perform. If they’ve already spent years forking out for ballet, tap and singing lessons, this kind of video showcase seems like a natural step, putting their little princess front and center, with as many of her BFFs as she wants performing as backing singers and dancers. In itself, this is nothing new: young girls have been working on dance routines in bedroom mirrors, fantasizing about being the next Marvelettes, the next Bananarama, or the next Spice Girls, for decades. Ark Music Factory are simply adding in digital technology, making the fantasy seem more real by auto-tuning vocals, adding a random rap break, and indulging uninspired pop video scenarios about driving in cars and dancing round fountains with some fancy edits thrown in for good measure. As Rebecca Black has mentioned in interviews, she knew someone else who’d “had it done” so she thought she would – anyone who’s ever seen an episode of My Super Sweet Sixteen knows that girls with rich parents always get what they want, and they want at least as much as their rival queen bees are getting. Ark Music Factory are simply supplying a service, and a quick scan of the internet suggests they aren’t the only production company feeding this demand.

Is there anything wrong with propagating these kind of tween dreams? It seems to be a fun experience for the girls involved, and if they keep the videos private, only to be shared between friends, surely it’s only a glossy, stylized version of the DVD of the school play that parents can use to embarrass future husbands in years to come? However, if these videos go viral online, it’s a completely different story. Audience theory suggests that the original intent behind a media text becomes irrelevant once it’s exposed to mass consumption. Different audiences will read the text in their own way. And, thanks to the internet, music videos like Friday are instantly subjected to a range of negative, even vicious readings. Once a video is out there, it can be re-interpreted and reused in any way a consumer of the text sees fit. Something made in all seriousness can rapidly become a joke, something meant for niche (friends and family) consumption can suddenly become a global conversation. The teenager trying to impress her friends can, overnight, become the target of international cyberbullying. An innocent performance can become the focus of a whole culture’s neuroses and hatred towards young women who are perceived to be less than physically perfect. Even Red Riding Hood didn’t encounter such horrors when she took a journey into the woods.

Wilson and Jey could never have conceived of the millions of hits on YouTube, the iTunes downloads, the radio and TV interviews, the near-instant global fame when they were selling Rebecca Black’s parents the package. It’s not clear exactly who is making what money from the unexpected hit recording. Inevitably, however, the Ark Music Factory phone will have been ringing off the hook with queries from eager wannabes demanding their turn in the limelight. They won’t care that they’re not talented, that the end product will be awful, that once it gets on the internet people will see it and laugh at them for years to come. They just want what Rebecca’s having. And the Ark Music Factory (plus all the copycats who are bound to spring up) will be laughing all the way to the bank.

Rebecca Black has wiped away her tears from earlier in the week (when critics drubbed her recording as “Worst Song Ever”) and is now demanding to do a duet with Justin Bieber. After all, he also became a massive star after his YouTube video went viral. This is one girl who won’t let anything stand between her and her dreams – just like Verucca Salt and that squirrel in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.

Ark Music Factory – The Official Site
Who The Hell Made Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ Video? – City Sound Inertia
Rebecca Black, teen singer, admits she cried when her hit song was deemed worst song ever – LA Times