The world of music is straddled by female Goliaths. Why?

Young women are achieving every kind of musical success, while the idea of the "male pop star" seems to have ground to a halt with David Bowie. What's going on with the boys?

Long Way Down (Columbia); Overgrown (Polydor); Trilogy (Republic)
Tom Odell; James Blake; the Weeknd

When the singer Tom Odell got the Critics’ Choice Award at the Brits this year, he stood out from every previous winner because he was a man. I can’t be the only one who has wondered what’s happened to men in pop – or how funny this period will look in hindsight, the world of music straddled by female Goliaths while the boys sit in the shadows under huge headphones, singing in that peculiar R’n’B voice that sounds like the cry of a mountain goat caught on a distant wind.

Young women continue to realise every aspect of the pop ideal: they’re stadium rock stars, factory-forged divas and rappers, sexy, brutal and self-sufficient. They’re comedians, chameleons and drama queens, every vanity one more proof of their right to stardom. But while anyone can join the dots between Madonna, Britney, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, the story failed to develop into the 21st century as far as men were concerned and the concept of the “ultimate male pop star” stopped at David Bowie, as we have seen, ad nauseam, for weeks now. Ed Sheeran and Marcus Mumford are reviled for being smug and successful; Olly Murs, Bruno Mars and One Direction are considered irrelevant to anyone with a brain. The idea of “cool” has long been diametrically opposed to chart success but, somewhere down the line, this whole thing has got out of hand and young men in music can’t seem to do anything right.

Tom Odell is 22 and from Chichester, West Sussex; he moved to Brighton, formed the band Tom and the Tides and was eventually signed to Lily Allen’s label as a solo artist after a few months of open-mike nights. He differs from the species of songwriters referred to as “guys with guitars” because he has a piano, which he plays flamboyantly with one booted foot slapping the floor. Songs on his debut album, Long Way Down, have the air of indie cabaret. They’re unusual in their neediness: his big hit “Another Love” is a neat twist on the break-up song with an almost country-music sense of wit and resolution – every tentative ritual at the start of a new relationship is marred by the memory of the last girl he did it for.

Odell is a modern proposition in many ways, an emotionally demonstrative male singer mentored by girls – Lily, Emeli Sandé – happily mining his heartbreaks in the service of songs with a little less naming and shaming than Taylor Swift. Predictably, he is receiving message-board hate for being (I paraphrase) bland, cheesy, soft-bellied, posh and (wake me when this is over) from a private school.

We don’t want our male singers to “have it too easy” – a charge never levelled against the girls. Sheeran is loathed by a certain brand of “discerning” music consumer and critic because he gets nominated for urban awards when he’s white and from Suffolk – and because he’s made a ton of money and plays to thousands of girls. Young artists who aspire to real critical respect are under tremendous pressure to speak a bizarre, alternative musical language embodied by the Mercury-winners Alt-J or the xx: cerebral, bands struggling under the weight of their technical knowledge and completely unable to have fun, as their records suggest.

James Blake emerged around the same time as the xx, wore the same kind of hoodies, came from a similar London background and also wrote atmospheric indie infused with dubstep, effortlessly mixing black and white influences in a way that suggested the street (he went to a selective grammar, if we must talk about these things). His music has a distinct folk/pastoral appeal; his voice is as delicate as a butterfly wing flickering over fragile piano accompaniments. On his second album, Overgrown, the production tricks include voices reversed and tweaked to Disney-character squeakiness and “found sounds” that have you checking the electrical equipment in your house for a malfunction while the CD is playing.

Blake’s meticulous arrangements speak intelligence, creative autonomy and a sensitive character cowering from the lights; as a musical soul, he’s a bit like Frank Ocean or the Canadian rapper the Weeknd, whose three-part debut Trilogy features intense poetic reflections, drums replaced by a rec­orded heartbeat, minimalist guitar and an agile voice like a depressed Michael Jackson. In this strange, hybrid world, we are uncovering today’s romantics, the dubstep Arthur Rimbauds exploring the underside of love and excess or sketching the beauty in a grey morning. At the same time, this kind of music ticks so many boxes for the people most snobby and disdainful of mainstream artists that it’s hard not to hear something politically correct – and terribly safe – in all that sad, fashionable geek chic, too.

 

Nicki Minaj, along with Madonna, Britney, Lady Gaga and Rihanna are blazing a trail through pop music. Photograph: Getty Images

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

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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A powerful portrait of the Bangladeshi textiles industry

Jeremy Seabrook's The Song of the Shirt goes beyond hand-wringing to investigate the true cost of cheap labour.

On 24 April 2013, an eight-storey commercial building called Rana Plaza in the Bangladeshi capital city, Dhaka, collapsed. Hundreds of bodies were buried in the rubble. The search for the dead went on for weeks. More than 1,000 people lost their lives; 2,500 were injured. The deadliest ­accident at a garment factory in history, the incident shone a light on the dire conditions endured by those who produce cheap clothing for the west.

In a cramped and unstable building, the workers – many of whom were women – stitched clothes for international brands such as Benetton and Primark. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of what happened was the wanton disregard for human life shown by the bosses. The building was clearly structurally unsound. The day before the disaster, cracks had appeared in the walls. But many workers were ordered to return the next day. Some of those who died had yet to receive their first pay cheque.

While the international firms that sold clothes made at Rana Plaza have offered ­financial compensation to the survivors and to families of the victims, not much has happened to improve working conditions in Bangladesh. This is not surprising. Numerous factory fires in recent years, cumulatively resulting in the deaths of hundreds of workers, have also failed to trigger any systemic change.

In his book The Song of the Shirt, Jeremy Seabrook goes beyond the all-too-transient hand-wringing about sweatshops that has typified much of the media coverage of the Rana Plaza collapse and other disasters. Seabrook is nothing if not prolific. He has written about forty books over the course of five decades, many of them focusing on poverty and development, both in the UK and on the Indian subcontinent. For several years he was a columnist for the New Statesman in Kolkata.

The richness of that experience is evident in this book. Researched over the course of many years, it stitches together history, folklore and hundreds of encounters with individual Bangladeshis to give a thorough picture of the structural injustices that have led to the present situation.

“The position of Bangladesh in the division of labour of globalism today is not to clothe the nakedness of the world but to provide it with limitless, cheap garments,” he writes. “The workers are disposable, rags of humanity, as it were, used up like any other raw material in the cause of production for export.”

In lyrical prose, Seabrook places the personal stories of garment workers and their families in a broader context, showing them as dots in a bigger picture of the destructive effects of British colonisation and the injustices of modern globalisation, but also as the inheritors of their history: a people who have long been associated with weaving, in a country at the mercy of the ­elements, where riverbanks break and ­water consumes whatever scant resources the poor have.

The stories of the people Seabrook meets often extend to just a few paragraphs and the chapters, too, are short, sometimes just a couple of pages. Yet this fragmentary approach never feels disjointed. Rather, each small section layers on the last, gradually building up a complex and textured whole that illustrates the ways in which big ideas – colonisation, industrialisation and deindustrialisation – play out on the smallest of levels.

What distinguishes this book is its deep historical consciousness. Quietly outraged, Seabrook sets out in detail how in the 18th century the East India Company deliberately destroyed the long-established weaving industry in Bengal in order to promote British textiles. At times, he makes specific comparisons, noting that the workers of Bengal were forced to produce opium, which was then used for sedatives and medicines that made things “less harsh for the disaffected and sometimes mutinous workers of industrial Britain”.

He also applies these contrasts, which illustrate relative privilege, to the present day, describing children at a factory in Dhaka who stitch clothes together for the lower end of the European and North American markets. “The children of the poor in Bangladesh are making clothes for the children of the poor in the west,” he writes. Elsewhere, he makes a cross-historical comparison between workers in the north of England in the 19th century and today’s Bangladeshi garment workers. Both groups are casualties of unjust capitalism.

Seabrook travels outside Dhaka, notably to Barisal, a city where poverty is so deep that families – many of which have lost what scant land they had to flooding – have no option but to send their daughters to work in the capital’s garment factories. These brief stories are woven into a fabric that displays the relentlessness of poverty in places hardly touched by modernity and the claustrophobic pressing-inwards of structural inequality.

Seabrook is at his best outlining the living conditions of the poor. He tells their stories dispassionately but vividly, always according his subjects dignity. These are people with the odds stacked against them. Lima, a garment worker who has migrated from Barisal to Dhaka, dreams of earning enough money to purchase land in her village and become self-sufficient. Seabrook explains to readers that it would take her 13 years to earn enough to buy a tenth of the land required for self-sufficiency. “Still, she goes about her daily work meekly obedient; her trust is absolute, both in the future and the grace of a God who will not fail her.”

There is not much hope in The Song of the Shirt but, sadly, that is a realistic representation of the situation. At present, for all the moments of collective outrage, there remains a huge demand in the west for cheap clothing, which is met by the supply of cheap labour in southern Asia. And if cheaper labour appears elsewhere, this industry that has sprung up so quickly that its buildings are hardly fit for purpose will instantly relocate.

Fittingly for what begins as a study of mutability, Seabrook ends with a question: “Will the resourcefulness of humanity demand a new and more ample relationship with material resources, one that does not continuously deplete the reservoirs of human energy, nor exhaust the limited treasures of a wasting planet?” We do not yet have an answer.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism