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“Britain’s Next Top Model” is a cultural crash in slow-mo, says Laurie Penny

... which is precisely what makes it such shockingly good television.

The new series of Britain's Next Top Model, which airs tomorrow after months of breathless publicity, is set to be the most screechingly obnoxious cycle yet of this long-running, extraordinarily popular global pageant of beauty fascism.

The show, a high-fashion reality knockout that pits pretty young women against one another to compete for representation in a series of invasive and demeaning "challenges", is a repulsive montage of contemporary culture's hateful attitude towards young people in general, and young women in particular.

At the end of every episode, a weeping, underweight teenager is marched down the catwalk of shame and sent home to contemplate her deficiencies on the dole, after being informed that she does not "have what it takes". Public criticism of the series has focused on its supposed promotion of eating disorders, but Next Top Model is problematic for a whole host of reasons.

Last year, the UK version of the show faced press excoriation for allowing an anorexic contestant, Jade, through to the final round. Like every reiteration of the so-called "size-zero controversy" -- which has now been thoroughly incorporated into the mythology of the fashion industry -- this story simply cried out to be illustrated with ogle-worthy shots of stick-thin, half-naked teenagers. (Last week the new judge Julien Macdonald confided in Wales on Sunday that the notion of the industry giving space to models larger than a size eight is "a joke".)

Cultish obsession with the bodies of emaciated girls is only part of what makes Britain's Next Top Model so obnoxious and so fascinating.

This is not, at heart, a show about beauty, or even about fashion: it is a programme about social mobility. The reason America's Next Top Model and its 20 local variants have been so wildly successful is that they formalise the rules of late-capitalist femininity as experienced by young women in the west: life may be hard and jobs may be few, but if you are beautiful enough, if you are thin and pretty and perky and prepared to submit to any conceivable humiliation, you too might have a chance of "making it".

Cats in a sack

The show takes ordinary teenagers, for a version of "ordinary" whose baseline is remarkable slenderness and regularity of feature, plucks them out of regional obscurity and makes them fight like cats for a chance of a better future.

These girls will do almost anything for that chance. They will strip naked, they will cry and wail on camera, they will betray one another clumsily and, of course, they will scream. The orchestrated screaming is an essential part of the Next Top Model experience, though the British contestants have yet to muster the enthusiasm of the American hopefuls, who dutifully erupt into hysterical shrieks whenever anything happens on the show at all.

The fairy tale these girls are chasing was dreamt up in the neoliberal haze of the 1990s, when supermodels like Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell overtook actresses as the iconic female role models of the age, courted by rock stars and showered with money and attention merely for showing up and looking a certain way.

This sustaining mythology no longer has any basis in reality. In today's world of faceless, interchangeable, airbrushed femininity, the modelling industry is glutted with identikit beauties who earn very little and exist to be chewed up and tossed aside for younger, less traumatised models. Yet the dream persists.

Indeed, the new host of Britain’s Next Top Model is the 1990s supermodel Elle Macpherson, known in her day as "The Body". Macpherson quite literally embodies this cruel fantasy, precisely resembling a woman who has been pickled in a tank of flattery for 20 years.

The show is soaked in the language of corporate self-fashioning, with endless motivational sermons from the judges and hosts about "working it", "believing in yourself" and "being on top".

The atmosphere of naked desperation differs from that of talent contests such as The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent, which are all about showcasing the weird and wonderful. Britain's Next Top Model, by contrast, is about the art of ambitious self-effacement.

Car crash

For all the show’s platitudes about personality, individuality and the importance of "standing out", the girls who do best are always the most blankly identikit, the meek, spiritless women who excel at taking orders and "representing the brand". This quite possibly makes Next Top Model the ultimate capitalist psychodrama.

The servile posturing of Top Model hopefuls is as nothing, however, compared to the submission that's required of young women in modelling when the cameras stop rolling.

In 2007, Anand Jon Alexander, a top fashion photographer, was jailed for 59 years on several counts of rape and assault of young models in California. According to industry insiders, sexual and physical intimidation is standard practice in the world that the young contestants of Britain's Next Top Model compete to gain access to.

In 2009, the former model Sara Ziff's gonzo documentary Picture Me courageously exposed the epidemic of misogynist bullying and sexual assault in the fashion industry, with teenage girls routinely required to submit sexually to male agents, photographers and designers who hold every shred of power and who cover for each other's indiscretions if the girls wish to remain in work.

Britain’s Next Top Model is a rags-to-riches fairy tale updated for the 21st century. Like all fairy tales, it has a moral: if you're a girl, your success in life depends on your ability to brutalise your body into a stereotype of faceless corporate femininity, your capacity to compete coldly with other women for physical attention, and your willingness to submit tamely to industrial exploitation and sexual abuse.

This is what the dream of modelling means for young women today, and it is this contemporary parable about the rewards of self-discipline and submission that makes young women want to starve themselves.

The cruel, misogynist realism of Britain's Next Top Model is a cultural car crash in slow motion -- and this is precisely what makes it such shockingly good television.

The new series of "Britain's Next Top Model" begins on LIVING on Monday 5 July at 9pm.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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How the charts were won

For decades, white male critics have championed white male rock. Can a new school of writing re-evaluate the history of pop music?

Since the early 1970s and the first Best Albums Ever lists, most histories of popular music have followed the same course. A steady ascension via Elvis Presley reaches the birth of rock with the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, followed by a gradual decline, briefly interrupted by punk. For 40-odd years after that, white male music writers posited the superiority of white, male, writerly music and took it as read that pop or dance music “didn’t count”. Then, finally, a few began to rebel until, in 2013, Bob Stanley’s invigorating Yeah Yeah Yeah went for a full rewriting of the annals, declaring outright its intention “to argue that the separation of rock and pop is false, and that disco and large swaths of black and electronic music have been virtually ignored by traditional pop histories”. Others have joined in, embracing the relativism born of popular music’s long assimilation into the mainstream and the end of the old mods v Teds or punk v disco tribalism. Most of these writers have been British, but now it seems the Americans are on board.

Love for Sale is of this new school, though its author, David Hajdu, is a professor of journalism at Columbia University in New York and a former writer for the conservative US rock magazine Rolling Stone. His take begins by dividing the music into eras, either by technology (sheet music to digital) or movements (jazz to hip-hop), into which he folds his own experience: small-town childhood obsession, entry into punk music’s orbit in 1970s Manhattan, becoming a professional critic, watching his children develop their own tastes. He is pacy, conversational and unshowily perceptive, and his greatest virtue is his ability to see the wood for the trees. There’s something David Attenborough-like about the way he carries the reader along: for instance, tracing the journey of the song “Whispering” from composition in 1920, through instrumentals, crooners, country and bebop, to George Harrison’s rendition on an out-take from “Let It Be”.

Hajdu also has a good thesis or two, one of which he calls “the trope of the jungle”, running from the decor of the jazz-era nightspot the Cotton Club through the rock’n’roll breakout movie Blackboard Jungle and on to Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” and hip-hop’s African motifs. Listeners’ desire for the “primitive and savage”, he says, connects Duke Ellington to punk and rap. It’s certainly bold. From this, he extrapolates a social purpose for popular music: as “the sound of teen kinship” and “a for-profit laboratory of both social and aesthetic experimentation”, lightening the load along the way with the insights and discoveries vital to any history. Who knew that the “S curl” plastered to Bill Haley’s forehead was an effort to increase his resemblance to Superman? Who else has fully considered music video’s effect on live shows, with performers “costumed, choreographed and lit for the benefit of video cameras” fed to those giant screens?

Much of the rock snobbery of past histories has resided in an obsession with authenticity, but Hajdu echoes Hugh Barker’s and Yuval Taylor’s groundbreaking Faking It (2007) in dealing with commercialism head on. The US music trade magazine Billboard, he points out, began as a mouthpiece of the outdoor advertising industry; he claims that country music was invented by Tin Pan Alley to capitalise on the popularity of another fabrication, the cowboy – and reminds us that even folk’s bastions of purity, the Carter Family, were “unapologetic professionals”. He also pays proper respect to the influence of musical theatre, both through the theatricality of Ziggy Stardust and in the enduring concept of the Great American Songbook, evident in the huge success of Adele.

His efforts to distance himself from the established view may even go a little too far. He takes aim at 1970s writers and “their mission to elevate rock and perhaps, in the process, themselves”, before turning the gun on “music critics like me”. Really, his only fault seems to be that he hasn’t come to terms with his enduring passion for the music of his teens.

Marc Myers, by contrast, declares on page one of Anatomy of a Song that “at its heart, this book is a love story”, though mercifully it’s more level-headed and substantial than that suggests. Based on a column he began for the Wall Street Journal in 2011, it takes 45 songs, from Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” in 1952 to REM’s “Losing My Religion” in 1991 (25 years being the time needed to assess “iconic” status), puts each in context and then interviews its makers to form a history in snapshots. Stuart Maconie did something similar for British tastes with The People’s Songs, and in both books the chief value is in the focus being placed on song rather than singer.

Much of the music Myers writes about comes from pop, soul, or that strange place where Tin Pan Alley hack-songwriting crossed over with rock’n’roll – the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”, Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds” – which rock history can’t usually compute and so pretends didn’t exist. Here, facing off against the compact power of the Four Tops’ unashamedly populist “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, the rare rock figures who appear, such as Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page talking about leaving behind singles to “develop our songs emotionally”, just sound silly.

It isn’t quite a history, though. Myers wants to cover the “larger story of the music’s development”, so he uses each track to represent a stage or turning point; but you are always conscious that he is limited by whom he can interview. That said, the random element throws up interesting angles. He prefaces a Loretta Lynn tune, “Fist City”, with a summary of the evolution of country and western up to the rise of the tough female singer-songwriter, while the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day” inspires an essay on gospel’s infiltration, from Bridge Over Troubled Water to Godspell.

Another side effect is a reminder that popular music is always everything happening at once. That Loretta Lynn song, for example, was competing for attention in 1968 not only with Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” but also with the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” and Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride”. It’s the same impression given, rather less gracefully, by Ed Ward’s History of Rock’n’Roll, Volume 1, a comparatively traditional tome that trots along year by year. Ward, another Rolling Stone veteran, makes a strong start on 19th-century string bands and the arrival of the medicine shows and ragtime, but as the record industry picks up the pace so does he, relaying with tireless and eventually tiring enthusiasm the hits and misses of each month. Though he sets out in his introduction (worryingly titled “How to Use This Book”) his intention to steer away from “the Great Performer approach”, the barrage is so unrelenting that all that remains in the mind after 400 pages are his diversions from this rule, primarily into the story of Elvis or the Beatles.

If Ward has a theme, it’s the crossover of black and white music. Elijah Wald’s excellent How the Beatles Destroyed Rock’n’Roll did this in 2009 with more verve, but the subject does at least inspire Ward to step out of almanac mode into opinion. Hank Williams’s significance, he argues, came from having “internalised the blues”, allowing him to “change the rules” of country; Ray Charles “dropped a bombshell on the American popular music world” with his Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music album; and long before either, those string bands sounded much the same whether the musicians were black or white.

Many shifts in popular music he attributes to technology – the move into recording; to singles and then albums; the conversion to digital. It’s a view shared by David Hajdu, who attributes the appearance of more “ruminative” songs in the 1960s (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”) to the arrival of the transistor radio, which moved teenagers out of the family space and increased music’s role as a “symbol of the cult of teen alienation”. This is now a preoccupation of music writing, highlighted in Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever: the Story of Recorded Music (2009), but also in journalism. While it’s significant that, say, both Phil Spector and Motown’s Berry Gordy designed their productions to work on tinny radios, it is hard not to wonder if this retroactive emphasis is down to music writers’ current preoccupation with downloads and streaming and their knock-on effects.

While that obsession may well pass, what will surely be more lasting – and what binds all of these books – is nostalgia. Popular music is still thriving and even developing in 2016, but it is no longer at the centre of the culture, here or in America, even for young people. Unlike those Best Album Ever lists, compiled with the triumphalism of the now, these three books are written with that most valuable critical advantage: hindsight.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge