"Rock Me a Little While" by Kim Weston, a northern soul classic. Photo: Michael Sveikutis/Flickr
Show Hide image

Tracey Thorn: With music, we often only hear the side of the story told by men

When it comes to music such as northern soul, there is a tendency to regard men as the experts, relegating women’s stories of what it felt like to be there to the status of anecdote.

I settled down the other night to watch a TV documentary on northern soul. It was interesting in many ways, if a little predictable in its format, which mostly consisted of a series of talking heads. But as it went by I couldn’t help noticing that all the talking heads were men. I looked at my watch. Twenty minutes had passed and not a single woman had spoken.

Meanwhile, in the photos and footage of the era that rolled by on the screen, I spied lots of them. There they were, throughout the Sixties and Seventies, dressed up to the nines, heading out for the night or on some dance floor, living for the weekend. And on the soundtrack there they were again, singing at me, the voices to much of the music. The story unfolded, the girls danced and sang, and they looked and sounded glorious. And still the guys did all the talking.

Eventually three women were interviewed in the hour-long programme, for about five minutes in total. I took to Twitter and complained – not furiously, more wearily – and met with a barrage of agreement, a lot of it from women confirming that they, or their older sister, their mum or their aunt, had loved going out dancing at the Twisted Wheel and Wigan Casino, had been part of the northern soul scene while it was happening.

All those girls in the photos and the films, they were real, and I wished that someone had taken the trouble to find them. I wanted to know why they went, what they wore, which records they loved, but no one had thought to ask them.

Admittedly, there’s a lot about the northern soul phenomenon that embodies what we regard as a “male” way of perceiving and interpreting culture. As a music scene, it is as much about rareties, and collecting, and obsessiveness, and the acquiring of esoteric knowledge, as it is about dancing. It seems to represent a particular mindset: that unless you own all the correct records and have them arranged in alphabetical order, your opinion doesn’t count. And as it is often men who catalogue the history of musical genres in such painstaking detail, there is a tendency to regard them as the experts, relegating women’s stories of what it felt like to be there, what it meant, to the status of anecdote. Men have expertise, while women have experiences.

It’s easy to feel intimidated by that. When I was writing my book, Bedsit Disco Queen, I had moments of worrying that I wasn’t sufficiently well informed; that I might get a fact wrong, muddle up a release date or a B-side of some obscure single I claimed to have bought. I feared that my own direct, lived experience of the period and music I was documenting might not be enough.

When most of the voices you hear talking about music are those of men, you can start to doubt your own authority. I had to keep reminding myself that I was trying to write the kind of book that I wanted to read, and that if I was going to complain about there not being enough female versions of pop history, then I couldn’t very well shy away from writing one myself. Too often, women get the message that they are not the experts on any of these things, and that’s a pain.

So it matters, partly because balance and representation always matter, but also because it means that as things stand we often hear only half the story, and miss a wealth of detail, of difference, of variety. If Elaine Constantine, who has just directed a feature film called Northern Soul, had been given more screen time than, say, Peter Stringfellow, or if Kiki Dee had been asked what it felt like to hear your vocals become the soundtrack to a generation’s experience of clubland, the programme would have been enriched.

Most of all, if we had seen Levanna Mclean, whom you may know as the northern soul girl dancer whose videos have gone viral in the past year or so, we would have got an insight into the enduring power of a genre of music and its style. Check her out now on YouTube, as over a million people have done, dancing down the street to a mash-up of Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” and Velvet Hammer’s obscure late-Seventies song, also titled “Happy”, and feel the joy – and you’ll know what I mean about what is so often missing. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

Getty
Show Hide image

Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times