Old-school grubbiness: the return of Sinéad O’Connor
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Sinead O’Connor’s lively, messy and contradictory version of feminism

A concept album of sorts, this claims to chart the emotional experiences of an imaginary woman – from romantic activities to pain, deception and more.

Sinéad O’Connor
I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss (Nettwerk Records)

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Hypnotic Eye (Reprise)

This time of year, I’m often asked what makes a good “summer song”. As far as I can see, this evocative, lucrative subdivision of pop can be divided into two categories: the “microclimate” song, which imports a sense of sunshine and revelry whatever the weather (those by Will Smith, Kid Rock, Mungo Jerry), and the “sunny with a chance of rain” song, summery music that still acknowledges the misery and anxiety of human experience. In this second genre, you will find everything by the Eagles and Lily Allen’s “LDN”, the Wordsworth-inspired celebration of the capital in the sunshine (and its hellish flip side).

As the Windermere bard noted, our memories often colour one period with feelings that were really attached to another time. There are many for whom the sound of summer 2014 will forever be Pharrell Williams’s “Happy”, which came out last November. One thing is certain: summer is all about singles. August, for album releases, is a graveyard slot. So let’s see who’s got one out.

First up is Sinéad O’Connor with her tenth album, I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss, named in honour of Lean In’s “Ban Bossy” campaign earlier this year. The opening number, “How About I Be Me”, in which she outlines her need to “make love like a real full woman every day”, feels like a reflection on her very public relationship with drugs counsellor Barry Herridge. The pair met on the internet, married in Las Vegas and for various reasons – one being a midnight mission by Sinéad to find marijuana – divorced after just 16 days (they have apparently reunited). She later wrote on her blog that he was too good a person to “trap” in matrimony – that she was sorry she wasn’t “a more regular woman”.

I enjoyed this album. Say what you like about O’Connor, but she’s lively. There’s an old-school, Tracey Emin-ish grubbiness in her images of female sexuality. Though she recently wrote frowning letters to Miley Cyrus (“I am extremely concerned for you that those around you have led you to believe that it is in any way ‘cool’ to be naked and licking sledgehammers in your videos . . .”), there is nothing censorious about the feminist messages of I’m Not Bossy, which are messy and contradictory.

A concept album of sorts, it claims to chart the emotional experiences of an imaginary woman – from romantic activities with a) her pillow (“Dense Water Deeper Down”) and b) the jacket of a longed-for man (“Your Green Jacket”) to pain, deception and more. In “The Vishnu Room”, a woman freezes in the presence of a man she adores, afraid to expose herself in case she is not “hot enough” for him (Sinéad’s words, in the press release). I know! It’s like Mills & Boon! In “Where Have You Been?” Sinéad watches a man’s eyes turn black during coitus and is frightened. People may discuss what brand of feminism this is – I pity these earthy 1980s trailblazers touching down in our uptight age. Above all, it’s musically vibrant, barrelling along on reverb-heavy blues-rock and Afrobeat, in the case of “James Brown”. Only “8 Good Reasons” seems like a mismatch, so bouncy it could be a Bruno Mars song, with Sinéad doing a weird London accent. Her voice has also been multitracked on many songs, which seems strange when neither the music nor the lyrics ask for a heavenly choir.

Scanning the wasteland for other releases, I spy Hypnotic Eye by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Now 63 and on his 16th studio album, Iconic Tom is unlikely to care if his album hits the summer release slump here. As his publicist put it, when I asked if he was doing any interviews, “He’s not coming to town.” (That is, Europe.) In Petty’s world, it is forever summer, a desert land of night-riding, shadows, red roads and Mustangs, both the car and animal kinds.

The Heartbreakers have been going for 38 years. The high point of their 2010 album, Mojo, was the seven-minute “First Flash of Freedom”, which sounded like a glorious mash-up of “Take Five” and America’s “A Horse with No Name”. Hypnotic Eye chooses as its raw material 1960s rock’n’roll – a sound so primal you can’t go wrong – shot through with Petty’s fluid, Kermitty voice.

August is quite a good time for “Americana” releases; who knows why? There’s also a vast box set out by the Georgia-based Lynyrd Skynyrd-a-likes Blackberry Smoke, whom I interviewed once on a country music cruise. I asked them that old question: what was the moment they realised they’d “made it”? They said it was when the clientele in their usual bar stopped fighting and turned around to listen. 

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

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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It’s been 25 years since the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive were released – what’s changed?

Gaming may be a lonelier pusuit now, but there have been positive changes you can console yourselves with too.

Let's not act as if neither of us knows anything about gaming, regardless of how old we are. Surely you'll remember the Super Nintendo console (SNES) and Sega's Mega Drive (or Genesis, if you're an American)? Well, it's now been 25 years since they were released. OK, fine, it's been 25 years since the SNES' debut in Japan, whereas the Mega Drive was released 25 years ago only in Europe, having arrived in Asia and North America a bit earlier, but you get the idea.

Sonic the Hedgehog by Sega

It's amazing to think a quarter of a century has passed since these digital delights were unveiled for purchase, and both corporate heavyweights were ready for battle. Sega jumped into the new era by bundling Sonic, their prized blue mascot and Nintendo retaliated by including a Mario title with their console.

Today's equivalent console battle involves (primarily) Sony and Microsoft, trying to entice customers with similar titles and features unique to either the PlayStation 4 (PS4) or Xbox One. However, Nintendo was trying to focus on younger gamers, or rather family-friendly audiences (and still does) thanks to the endless worlds provided by Super Mario World, while Sega marketed its device to older audiences with popular action titles such as Shinobi and Altered Beast.

Donkey Kong Country by Rare

But there was one thing the Mega Drive had going for it that made it my favourite console ever: speed. The original Sonic the Hedgehog was blazingly fast compared to anything I had ever seen before, and the sunny background music helped calm any nerves and the urge to speed through the game without care. The alternative offered by the SNES included better visuals. Just look at the 3D characters and scenery in Donkey Kong Country. No wonder it ended up becoming the second best-selling game for the console.

Street Fighter II by Capcom

The contest between Sega and Nintendo was rough, but Nintendo ultimately came out ahead thanks to significant titles released later, demonstrated no better than Capcom's classic fighting game Street Fighter II. Here was a game flooding arcade floors across the world, allowing friends to play together against each other.

The frantic sights and sounds of the 16-bit era of gaming completely changed many people's lives, including my own, and the industry as a whole. My siblings and I still fondly remember our parents buying different consoles (thankfully we were saved from owning a Dreamcast or Saturn). Whether it was the built-in version of Sonic on the Master System or the pain-in-the-ass difficult Black Belt, My Hero or Asterix titles, our eyes were glued to the screen more than the way Live & Kicking was able to manage every Saturday morning.

The Sims 4 by Maxis

Today's console games are hyper-realistic, either in serious ways such as the over-the-top fatalities in modern Mortal Kombat games or through comedy in having to monitor character urine levels in The Sims 4. This forgotten generation of 90s gaming provided enough visual cues to help players comprehend what was happening to allow a new world to be created in our minds, like a good graphic novel.

I'm not at all saying gaming has become better or worse, but it is different. While advantages have been gained over the years, such as the time I was asked if I was gay by a child during a Halo 3 battle online, there are very few chances to bond with someone over what's glaring from the same TV screen other than during "Netflix and chill".

Wipeout Pure by Sony

This is where the classics of previous eras win for emotional value over today's blockbuster games. Working with my brother to complete Streets of Rage, Two Crude Dudes or even the first Halo was a draining, adventurous journey, with all the ups and downs of a Hollywood epic. I was just as enthralled watching him navigate away from the baddies, pushing Mario to higher and higher platforms in Super Mario Land on the SNES just before breaking the fast.

It's no surprise YouTube's Let's Play culture is so popular. Solo experiences such as Ico and Wipeout Pure can be mind-bending journeys too, into environments that films could not even remotely compete with.

But here’s the thing: it was a big social occasion playing with friends in the same room. Now, even the latest Halo game assumes you no longer want physical contact with your chums, restricting you to playing the game with them without being in their company.

Halo: Combat Evolved by Bungie

This is odd, given I only ever played the original title, like many other, as part of an effective duo. Somehow these sorts of games have become simultaneously lonely and social. Unless one of you decides to carry out the logistical nightmare of hooking up a second TV and console next to the one already in your living room.

This is why handhelds such as the Gameboy and PSP were so popular, forcing you to move your backside to strengthen your friendship. That was the whole point of the end-of-year "games days" in primary school, after all.

Mario Kart 8 by Nintendo

The industry can learn one or two things by seeing what made certain titles successful. It's why the Wii U – despite its poor sales performance compared with the PS4 – is an excellent party console, allowing you to blame a friend for your pitfalls in the latest Donkey Kong game. Or you can taunt them no end in Mario Kart 8, the console's best-selling game, which is ironic given its crucial local multiplayer feature, making you suspect there would be fewer physical copies in the wild.

In the same way social media makes it seem like you have loads of friends until you try to recall the last time you saw them, gaming has undergone tremendous change through the advent of the internet. But the best games are always the ones you remember playing with someone by your side.