Pop in 2013 - Under the influence

What to listen out for this year.

These days, pop music appears to exist in three distinct worlds: young people’s, older people’s and the soul revival – a genre remarkable because a) it won’t go away and b) people download it for free and buy the CDs in just about equal measure. The ways in which we measure “big” in music today – and what that even means – are only just emerging. Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” was Spotify’s most-played song in 2012 (he’d have got about $0.009 each time) but the music press hardly touched him. Last January, the retro-soul singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka was named BBC’s Sound of 2012 by a group of industry heads but no one was talking about him by the end of the month. And we were all fed up with the concept of Lana Del Rey by the time the “physical” came out.

So grim are the results of showing too much too soon that new bands hide on the internet, generating heat by their lack of presence, racking up hundreds of thousands of hits before they’ve even got a press shot to supply. Savages and Palma Violets, two post-punk internet buzz bands yet to release their debut albums, courted anonymity in the early stages by ensuring that they hardly had anything on YouTube. The Glaswegian electro-pop trio Chvrches (one of an increasing number of young bands namechecking Prince as an influence) wrote one of the best songs of last year – “The Mother We Share” – and they’ll have an album out at some point but it remains to be seen whether people will be still excited when they’re signed.

Elton John has already been seen at a gig by the Strypes, a capable child band from Ireland who do a kind of rollicking, Cavern-era Beatles and early Stones show with two mouth organs – a redefinition of “R’n’B” for 14-year-olds.

As far as teens are concerned, there’s also Haim, three sisters from the San Fernando Valley in California who grew up in their parents’ rock band. They sing like more light-hearted versions of Florence Welch, look like Joan Jett and sound not a million miles from Eighties Fleetwood Mac. It’s kids’ music but there’s something really heartening about watching them attack old sounds as though no one’s ever been there before.

Last year, Emeli Sandé was a reasonably interesting proposition because she came from behind the scenes – she’d been part of the X Factor songwriting team. This year, A*M*E (aged 19, real name Aminata Kabba) is another antidote to the production-line methods of modern R’n’B. Her song “Beautiful Stranger” was a number-one hit for the South Korean girl group f(x); she’s signed to Gary Barlow’s label; she’s also co-written with Sandé – and while this is all just another way of saying she’s been hanging around the industry for a few years, it doesn’t matter because her music is tremendous fun: south London post-Gaga pop permeated with Pokémon aesthetics, like a Game Boy version of Rihanna or Azealia Banks, Gangnam-style.

In this postmodern age, the musicians who stand out are those manipulating multiple influences, not just pastiching one or two. The Toronto rapper the Weeknd is a well-finished concept, with his Jackson-airy voice and raw psychodramas – the critics’ll probably try to call him the new Frank Ocean.

And one of the most distinctive sounds comes from Laura Mvula, a “classically trained” singer-songwriter from a gospel background who laughs in the face of structure and draws from the well of Amy Winehouse, Jill Scott and Rodgers and Hammerstein. She did all her string arrangements on GarageBand, and then her producer dropped a real orchestra in. Young people today, and so on.

Last year was dominated by the rock veteran and it’s hard to imagine what more they can do now that Keith, Neil and Pete have done their autobiographies, the Stones have marked their half-century and Paul McCartney has done Kurt Cobain for a night. Aerosmith – the American Stones, who’ve been together for 40 years, with Steven Tyler, like Keith, still baffling people with his ability to perform despite years of well-documented self-pickling – will tour Europe in 2013 (a very rare event) and Bruce Springsteen will take his Wrecking Ball tour all over the world, minus sax solos.

Then there’s Björk, who will be performing her ingenious Biophilia album in a circus tent in Paris for six dates in February and March. It’s a show so magical and meaningful, its value will only increase over time.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman’s pop critic

Björk will be performing her Biophilia album in a circus tent in Paris for six dates in February and March. Photograph: Getty Images

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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