Tracey Thorn
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I started writing songs to block out the news – now I’m accidentally recording an album

There’s darkness all around, but music feels like light.

It was about this time last year that I started writing songs again. The flood of news that began last summer and hasn’t let up since had, at first, a demoralising effect, and then, quite suddenly, a galvanising one, reminding me that one way to counter negativity is to be creative.

Earlier this year I started recording demos; now here I am – three quarters of the way through what is turning out to be an actual album. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing when I started, but here it is.

And what a glorious counter it is to the continuing chaos and despair, and the news, news, news . . . inescapable. I keep thinking how lucky I am to have this option, an outlet for some of the feelings. There’s darkness all around, but music feels like light, and I’m loving singing again. In the five years since my last album, I think my voice has got deeper and faintly grittier, and I wonder whether that’s just age or something post-menopausal.

Best of all is singing the harmonies and backing vocals, double tracking with myself, answering the lead vocal. I think I would have liked to have been one of The Pips.

But it’s also the camaraderie of recording, the escape from the solitude of writing. Much of the time I’m at producer Ewan Pearson’s home studio in Walthamstow, and together we’re coming up with guitar lines and synth parts, stretching ourselves to the limits of our collective abilities. There’s a  DIY element to the process. Recording a vocal one day, we find we’re getting too much of the sound of the room, so we construct a little make-shift vocal booth by dragging two bookcases upstairs then draping a bedspread over them.

On election day we head to the studio that Ewan shares with Andrew Weatherall in Seven Sisters. Andrew is there, and what a lovely man he is, full of stories and jokes. He gets me to sign his vinyl copy of Baby, the Stars Shine Bright, and says he was only listening to it the other day and it still made him cry. We spend the day putting a vocoder part on a disco song and briefly forget all about the election and remember fun instead.

Other days we’re in the Strongroom in Shoreditch, surrounded by beards and coffee, and I’m recording a song called “Queen” when someone hands me a mug with “Queen of Shoreditch” written on it, like a good omen. And on yet another day we’re in the posh RAK studios, and you know it’s posh because there are plates of biscuits everywhere.

By now the record is taking shape and starting to develop a personality, which is quite synth-pop, and a mood, which is quite “up”. When I worked with Ewan a few years ago, we had a song that we described as “The Carpenters On Acid”; this time there is one we are calling “Shoegaze Phil Collins”, but those labels are for our own amusement more than anything else.

Pretty soon the logistics of actually releasing it will have to take over: coming to an agreement with the label and deciding on promotion; thinking of a title; having publicity photos taken and photos for the cover. I’m thinking about artwork, and about videos, and that sets me wondering – do people even make videos nowadays? I’ve been doing this thing so long, and yet it’s changed so much that I’m not sure it’s even the same thing any more.

But on the day Stella from Warpaint comes in to play drums, and then is joined for one particular song by Jenny Lee on bass and Jono from Jagwar Ma on guitar, the groove they get going is so hypnotic and euphoric that we record a full 11 minutes, even though the song is only four minutes long, and we’re all dancing in the control room, and I don’t want the song to end, or the day to end.

In fact, I realise, I don’t actually want to finish making this record. A quote from my student days comes back to me, from Troilus and Cressida: “Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.” That’s it entirely. I hope you like it, sure, but there’s nothing much I want to win or achieve or prove. It’s the making of it that I enjoy. I wish it could go on for ever.

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 06 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA