The Art of Listening: pop, propaganda and North Korea

On "Huh" by 4Minute.

First you hear the wail of a siren-like synth, which is quickly followed by a chorus of female voices yelping in syncopation to a strutting beat. In these initial moments, it could be Girls Aloud or the Pussycat Dolls, or any one of a host of less well-known Anglo-American girl bands -- but in fact the group is 4minute, one of the stars of South Korea's homegrown K-pop scene.

Singing in a mix of Korean and English, the polyglot 4Minute also bear the dubious distinction of having reopened the propaganda war between North and South Korea. Following the sinking of the Cheonan warship earlier this year, the South has resumed radio broadcasts and installed 11 loudspeaker points along the demilitarised zone that separates the two countries.

Radio and loudspeaker broadcasts to the North -- which largely attempt to convince subjects of Kim Jong-Il's authoritarian regime to defect by boasting about higher living standards -- form one element of the low-level conflict that has simmered between the two countries ever since the Korean War ended in stalemate in 1953.

As relations between the neighbours warmed, in 2003 the South suspended its "psychological warfare" campaign. It was resumed last month, however, launched by 4Minute's song "Huh" and provoking a threat from the North Korean regime to turn South Korea's capital, Seoul, into a "sea of flame".

But who are the ultimate targets of this propaganda? The number of North Koreans it will reach is unclear, given that in 2003 the broadcasts were described as "virtually ineffective" by South Korea's Hangyore newspaper, but the song has now been relayed around the world's media countless times. "Huh", in the words of Bloomberg News, is a "pop song extolling freedom of choice". And indeed it is, if by choice you mean a rigid adherence to the norms of consumer culture. (A typical lyric translates as: "When I say I want to appear on TV, when I say I want to become prettier, everybody says I can't do it. Baby, you're kidding me? I do as I please.")

The 4-hour radio broadcast that followed "Huh" also included a taunt about North Korea's devastating famine of the late 1990s and its ongoing food shortages. South Koreans, said the presenter, are more worried about getting fat than starving to death. "Huh" is a fitting accompaniment to this charming statement. Boasting a glut of flashy production techniques, the very song itself sounds obese: the lead melodies are swimming in reverb, vocal harmonies are layered one on top of another, cymbals, kick drum and distorted bass combine to give a pumped-up, aggressive thrust.

In keeping with much pop music, its underlying message is simple and perhaps even a little threatening. Much like when bankers meet with the chancellor of the Exchequer, the message is: keep the party going -- or else.

Crude enough, but as Walter Benjamin averred, there has never been a document of culture that is not simultaneously one of barbarism. Just ask Alex, the delinquent protagonist of Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange, who sneers at the idea that he will be reformed by listening to Beethoven:

Civilized my syphilised yarbles. Music always sort of sharpened me up, O my brothers, and made me feel like old Bog himself, ready to make with the old donner and blitzen and have vecks and ptitsas creeching away in my ha ha power.

Ha ha power indeed. Kim Jong-Il couldn't have put it better himself.

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Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Panayiotis Kyriakou / Eyeem
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The Evolution of Beauty reveals the true power of sexual attraction

Richard O Prum's book mimics the literary output of Charles Darwin.

In 1860, the year after Charles Darwin had published his On the Origin of Species, he privately confessed to a colleague: ‘‘The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, when­ever I gaze at it, makes me feel sick!’’ It doesn’t take a genius to work out the cause of Darwin’s nausea.

Natural selection, as he had defined it, was assumed to modify the physical structure and function of a species’ composite parts, so that they were all adjusted to their environmental conditions.

Overall, it was presumed to shape an animal to make it better adapted to its life circumstances.

But how on Earth could such a theory explain something as gloriously impractical as the five-foot-long, eye-spotted upper-tail coverts of a male peacock? Far from leaving the owner skilled at negotiating its environment or better at escaping predators, this ­ludicrous appendage appeared to make it less able to survive. The peacock’s tail seemed the most beautiful and elegant rebuttal of Darwin’s arguments.

At least it did until, according to the author of this remarkable book, Darwin came up with the answer. It was an insight every bit as world-defining as his original theory and he described it in a later book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Darwin argued that another evolutionary force was at play among life in the way that organisms select their prospective partners. Natural selection may lead to the survival of the fittest, but sexual selection, as we now call this other mechanism, does not necessarily make a species better adapted.

Mate choices based on aesthetic criteria, of which the peacock’s tail is a perfect example, can give rise to arbitrary, even maladaptive characteristics. And not only does ­sexual selection lead to the acquisition of such useless adornments, it also has a co-evolutionary impact on the desires expressed by the male peacock’s mate. In short, what helps shape life on Earth is the subjective feelings that operate largely within female organisms.

According to Prum, this is Darwin’s truly ‘‘dangerous idea’’, and one that patriarchal Western scientific culture has instinctively disliked. Prum explores in detail the antag­onisms that sexual selection has aroused over the 150 years since Darwin articulated the idea. While natural scientists from Alfred Russel Wallace to Richard Dawkins may have accepted its existence, they have also sought to collapse its significance and make it a subsidiary element within the general theory of natural selection.

They argue that mate choices may lead to beautiful and bizarre adornments but that these features are also ‘‘honest’’ indicators of the good genes and vigorous health possessed by their male owners.

Prum calls it the ‘‘beauty-as-utility argument’’ and characterises it as a majority view, one to which he has been a lifelong opponent. In The Evolution of Beauty he provides a detailed justification for his position, making his book both an objective description of how sexual selection operates and a form of scientific autobiography.

It also mimics Darwin’s literary output in two crucial senses. Like his great hero did, it has taken Prum decades to assemble the hoard of supportive evidence that underpins his views. He has also articulated his life’s work in prose that is as lucid as the arguments are sophisticated: Darwin couldn’t have put it better himself.

The author is a lifelong birdwatcher and many of his favourite organisms feature strongly in the array of case studies that make up a good deal of the book. But the bird family that launched Prum’s scientific journey is a group of tiny, intensely colourful Neotropical inhabitants called manakins. The males of the group perform a bizarre display that has evolved under a severe form of sexual selection that Prum ­describes as 54 ‘‘distinctive ‘ideals’ of beauty’’.

One of the better-known of these birds is the red-capped manakin, which performs a dance routine said to resemble Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. Another, the blue manakin, often functioning in collaborative teams of up to seven males, does a Catherine-wheel-like flutter past the dowdy female.

In their relatively long lives, as many as 90 per cent of male blue manakins may never get to mate. As Prum points out, these birds ‘‘engage in the most ruthless sexual competition known in nature’’, but it is not a violent transaction conducted with teeth and horns. Appropriately for one of ­Brazil’s best-known birds, it involves a song-and-dance number, of which the super-picky females are the ultimate arbiters.

What makes this book so absorbing is that Prum expands the range of his material to speculate on a panorama of intriguing questions. To give a small sense of this eclectic span, he proposes that sexual selection could have played a very important part in shaping feathers in dinosaurs and in the evolution of flight by their avian descendants, and that it may even have led to the Old Testament story of how God made Adam’s partner from a spare rib. According to Prum, the real bone used to fashion Eve may have been a baculum, a penis bone, which is found in all primates except two – spider monkeys and ourselves.

Prum devotes the last third of his book to considering how mate choices may have been decisive in shaping aspects of human physiology and behaviour. This is likely to provoke much of the attention that the book rightly deserves, because here he dwells on the size and shape of the human penis, the existence of the female orgasm and the evolution of same-sex sexual relationships, all of which are hard to explain through natural selection alone.

Prum’s thoughts on these matters are compelling stuff, but the book’s chief achievement is to challenge our relentlessly anthropocentric perspective. The Evolution of Beauty enables us to see that the most intimate emotions and subjective choices made by mere beasts are decisive subjects for science. And it is these aesthetic sens­ibilities, as owned and operated by other animals, that have fashioned the manifold beauties of our world.

Mark Cocker’s new book, “Our Place”, will be published in 2018 by Jonathan Cape

The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us
Richard O Prum
Doubleday, 448pp, $30​

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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