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Five trends that will be hot (and not) in 2017

Going up are powerful women, political fashion and love droids. Going down are dating apps, celebrity feminists and the album.

At a new year’s party, I had a conversation with some of my mid-thirties friends about trends, specifically music. It consisted of us trying to ascertain if we were ready to succumb to our collective destiny and give up the fight to stay ahead of the cultural zeitgeist. The consensus among our group was that most of us, especially those with children, already had. The playlist at the party suggested this was the case  a mix of Nineties hits with the odd homage to Prince thrown in. It was decent, but deeply unsurprising.

This got me thinking about the concept and allure of newness  the excitement of making a new discovery. The rush of pleasure at feeling you are in on a secret before anyone else. So I decided to become a cultural magpie and unearth a few of the trends that will catch fire this year, as well as those likely to slide onto the scrap heap. 

Music

Hot: Virtual reality

Imagine if getting tickets to see your favourite band didn’t require you spending hours refreshing a frozen web page, shedding silent tears while smug friends share their success on social media. Virtual reality is here to help. While a handful of forward-thinking artists such as Bjork have experimented with the format over the past 12 months, this will be the year the technology moves into the mainstream with a wider range of headsets available at more affordable prices. In terms of music, this means less focus on high-concept videos that conjure artists – and, in Bjork’s case, 30 string players – before your eyes and more emphasis on live-streaming sold-out concerts in VR. While these streams will never beat the spine-tingling experience of a live gig, the format creates opportunities for people who can’t afford to see live music, those with disabilities who struggle with access and people who live miles away from the nearest concert hall. There are educational benefits too – artists can invite fans virtually into the recording studio and share their secrets. The headsets might still look like costumes from a sci-fi b-movie but soon everyone will be wearing them.

Not: The album 

In the age of streaming and sharing, it’s unsurprising that the full-length album risks being relegated to antiquity. Whether it’s due to shorter internet-era attention spans, an overload of choice, or artists preferring to release music as and when they choose, the classic album format seems increasingly archaic. A recent survey confirmed this trend, with playlists overtaking albums as the most popular way of listening to music, and album sales falling to their lowest level since 1991 in all formats except vinyl, which accounts for just 2 per cent of the UK’s recorded music market. While there will always be space for artists in the mould of David Bowie, who used each album as a dizzying act of creative reinvention, the majority inevitably end up as a random collection of tracks with a few standout singles. If fans are focused on streaming services, the question the music world needs to ask itself in 2017 is – are albums really necessary?


Photo: Getty

Food

Hot: Leftovers

Britain’s food waste problem will become a mainstream concern this year. With the UK currently the biggest waster of food in Europe – tossing out 10 million tonnes a year – the scale of the challenge is staggering. But a wave of creative initiatives, designed to raise awareness, tackle waste and combat austerity are springing up across the country – the first food waste supermarket has already opened in Leeds, food waste supper clubs are appearing, and there are plans for a crowdfunded food waste restaurant in Manchester that, like the supermarket, will be run by the Real Junk Food Project and will operate on a “pay what you feel” basis.  A parliamentary inquiry into the issue was launched last September after the government came under pressure to address the issue. Currently, the UK is lagging behind its European neighbours, such as France, where it is against the law for supermarkets to dump surplus food, and retailers redistribute 100,000 tonnes to charity.

Not: Avocado

Avocado porn might be all over Instagram but communities in Mexico are suffering because of our foodie obsession with “green gold”. The problem stems from the fact that Mexican farmers can make more money from growing avocados than from other crops and so are illegally thinning out pine forests to plant young avocado trees. These trees require high levels of chemical fertilisers and guzzle twice as much water as your average pine tree, which has put pressure on local water reserves. If that wasn’t bad enough, the production of this prized fruit is increasingly controlled by a Mexican drug cartel known as the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) who force farmers and landowners to hand over a share of their income, place a tax on fruit sold and launch violent attacks on those who resist. It’s time to find a new fashionable dip that won’t weigh on your conscience – “blood guacamole” will be off the menu in 2017.


Photo: Getty

Relationships

Hot: Sex robots

Could you fall in love and have a meaningful relationship with a robot? The ethics of intimacy with androids have been much debated, but this year the Silicon Valley-based company, Abyss Creations, will attempt to add AI to its range of realistic sex robots. These humanoid figures with moveable limbs, customisable skin tones, built-in heaters and vibrating genitalia could be on sale in 2017. At the Love and Sex with Robots conference, which took place in London in December, researchers from the company said these love droids would be part of their Real Dolls line and would cost around £12,000. It might sound like the plot of a dystopian porn movie, but the sex robot industry is thriving, with some academics predicting that humans will be having more sex with robots than with each other by 2050.

Not: Dating apps

The shine has gone off swiping right. Dating app fatigue has set in, with a new study revealing a significant decline in Tinder user satisfaction. They’ve been getting some pretty bad press too – an article in Vanity Fair in late 2015 identified Tinder et al as having fuelled a culture more suited to no-strings sex rather than lasting relationships. Sexism is also a problem – a recent study suggests Tinder is a breeding ground for misogynistic behaviour. And let’s not talk about dick pics. Ugh. While talk of a “dating apocalypse” is possibly overblown, I would expect the advent of more apps focusing on breeding lasting love, such as the relaunched Hinge, in 2017.


Photo: Getty

Feminism

Hot: Women ruling the world

This trend was one of the positives to emerge from the political shitshow of 2016. OK, we didn’t get the first female US president, and there’s a misogynist in the White House, but elsewhere there are positives, and simplifying Hillary Clinton’s defeat into a referendum on gender is reductive and wrong. Women are now running two of the world’s largest economies – the UK and Germany – as well as heading up the IMF and the Federal Reserve Board in the US. Angela Merkel looks primed to win a fourth term in Germany’s elections later this year, Nicola Sturgeon is fighting hard to carve out a unique position for Scotland in the Brexit negotiations and Michelle Obama blew us all away with her powerful rebuke of Donald Trump’s sexist rhetoric during the campaign. Closer to home, rising stars such as Ruth Davidson, Jess Phillips – who was notably dubbed a “heroine” by JK Rowling – and Sophie Walker of the Women’s Equality Party are just a few of the female talents lighting up British politics. Yes, Clinton’s defeat was a blow, but feminism is bigger than just one woman’s shattered dream. Michelle for 2020?

Not: Celebrity feminism

Some might say this particular creed has done more harm than good in the march for female empowerment. Celebrities such as Amy Schumer, Emma Watson and Taylor Swift have taken advantage of feminism’s new populist wave, helping redefine what was a much-maligned word. But celebrity culture is by its nature shallow and profit-driven, whereas feminism has always been an inclusive social and political movement. Rebranding and packaging it up with a famous, pretty face draws attention away from the less glamorous work that still needs to be done in terms of gender violence, childcare provision and the gender pay gap, which new research suggests will persist until 2069. Instead, energy is being wasted debating whether Watson, as a feminist, should be playing a Disney princess. This year, with the alt right on the rise and an anti-feminist backlash looming, these celebrities need to either jump on another bandwagon or replace words with meaningful action.

Fashion

Hot: Activist chic

Yes, really. Fashion gets a political twist in 2017, with a slew of supposedly empowering slogan tops hitting the catwalk. The pick of the bunch, if you can afford its $700 price tag, is Dior’s “We should all be feminists” t-shirts, which bears the title of the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Beyoncé-sampled TED talk. It has extra girl power significance, being the creation of the French fashion house’s first female director. For a more affordable option, look to the US where artists are giving away free downloadable anti-Trump designs to adorn your t-shirts, stickers and badges. If you’re going to protest you might as well do it in style.

Not: Fitness trackers

More geek than chic, these hideous rubber bracelets became annoyingly ubiquitous in 2016. Pub banter was replaced with dry chat about counting steps, pulse rate and sleep patterns. Yawn. Suddenly every month was dry January. Life is stressful enough without wasting money on an ugly accessory which induces guilt if you fail to walk up the tube escalator every morning. Recent studies have also indicated that they are failing to motivate people to move more and don’t necessarily help with weight loss. If you want to improve your lifestyle then do it the old-fashioned way – drink more water, eat less chocolate and join a gym.

Serena Kutchinsky is the digital editor of the New Statesman.

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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