Wednesday 5 August 2015

Des Traynor, The Thin Air, and Trial by Twitter

Now that the dust has settled on The Thin Air/St. Vincent debacle of three weeks’ ago, and things have moved on with predictable rapidity to the next Twitter spat (the rather bigger story that was Nicki Minaj v Taylor Swift has even been and gone and resolved itself, and Cecil The Lion’s killer has been named and shamed), I feel the time is right, through the benefit of perspective, for some sane comment on the matter.

     To appropriate some of Panti Bliss’s introduction to her Facebook response to criticism of her for her views on the Glasgow Pride march drag queens v trans kerfuffle, ‘I don’t have the time or the energy to read every comment on this page, but I am aware from my various social media that I am being criticized by some for my stance on the Glasgow “Free Pride” debacle…I’m sure my reply won’t cover all the criticisms I’m getting from others, but it will hopefully cover some of them and clarify why I find the decision of (substitute The Thin Air here for “Free Pride”) so repugnant, so I’m posting it here…I’d need to write you a book before we can even begin to have a sensible discussion.”

  To begin with moral or, perhaps more accurately, ideological considerations (I’ll get to aesthetic and commercial ones later), the main objection to my review of St. Vincent at the Iveagh Gardens was that it was deemed sexist. This was seemingly evidenced by the facts that a) I referred to the artist’s image and appearance, and in a ‘sexualized’ way, and b) I made comparisons with other female artists, and listed their ages. The responses to these criticisms are so blindingly obvious and simple as to hardly require stating. But apparently, given the lunk-headed reaction, they need to be made clear. So here goes:

  a) As I’ve already written when I posted the review on my blog, after it was taken down from The Thin Air’s website, attire and presentation are part of any live concert – male or female – and so are fair game to be commented on. Furthermore, for artists as diverse as Presley to Jagger, Madonna to Britney (and certainly Nicki Minaj!), to willfully ignore the sexual content and appeal (or otherwise) of their performance is rather to miss an integral part of the package. If an artist – male or female – is manipulating their sexuality as part of their stage show, consciously or unconsciously, then a reviewer – male or female – is entitled to comment on how successful or not they judge that manipulation to be.  Some have opined that my review was not concerned with music, but was instead an ad feminam attack. But if St Vincent is, as some of the more perceptive commentaries have suggested, adopting a persona on stage, at what point does an attack on that persona morph into an attack on the ‘real’ person? Besides which, male rock stars have been enduring ad hominem attacks for years. It goes with the territory.

  b) The comparisons with other roughly contemporary artists under the rubrics of age, gender and (very broadly speaking) genre was done on the logically justifiable basis of comparing like with like. As for those who argue that musicians (or any arts practitioners) shouldn’t be divided along gender lines, if I’d included younger male musicians in the list (and given their ages) then it would have been interpreted as implying ‘these guys are better than that girl’, which would have opened an entirely other nest of vipers in the accusations of sexism. And while we’re at it, would anyone be willing to address the fact that from the Oscars to the MTV Music Awards (VMAs), awards categories for performers are divided according to gender?   

  Last word on my supposed sexism: having subsequently run the text past several of Ireland’s senior writers and feminists (who out of respect, and reluctance to drag publicly into this sordid episode, will remain anonymous), they couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. One Aosdana member even added her opinion that the piece was ‘beautifully written, sharp and witty.’ Interesting that it can at the same time be ‘badly written, uneducated, misogynistic crap’ to some others.

  What I suspect is partly at work behind the taunts of ‘sexism’ is a mechanism whereby partisan St. Vincent fans are lashing out, but couching their aesthetic objections in moral terms. It’s far easier to occupy the moral highground if you cry foul in moral terms (‘Sexist’) rather than aesthetic ones (which here amount to: ‘I love this artist and their work, and if you don’t then there is something not just aesthetically – that is taste-wise – but morally reprehensible about you too’).

  Now I’ll turn my attention to the behavior of The Thin Air, and its editor Brian Coney, in this grotesquely sad affair. It should be declared from the outset that, as with much journalism – and indeed many kinds of work – nowadays, and also as with my antagonists in this ‘That escalated quickly’ controversy, I have never met Brian Coney in person, and all of our dealings have been online. This is not an ad hominem attack. I’m sure his friends consider him a sound guy. I confine myself to his actions surrounding this review. 

  It is an unwritten rule of journalistic good practice that any editor should stand over the publication of any article s/he publishes. In the space of less than two hours e mails from Brian Coney went from ‘Great review’, to an absurd retraction and removal, to ‘I've also made the decision that this is your final review for The Thin Air. Judging by the reaction here, there can be no possible alternative.’ 

  At first sight, this is an incidence of the editor caving in to kneejerk moral panic and pressure, and deciding he was wrong, or as one magnanimously forgiving tweet put it, ‘editorial growing pains’. (Another Facebook post referred to ‘one slip up’, as though the ever-vigilant poster was sitting with a rule book in hand, checking opinions she was prepared to see expressed in publications she reads against those not to be countenanced.) The rather mealy-mouthed and vague retraction, which itself disappeared soon after it was posted, was again couched in moral rather than aesthetic terms, mentioning the ‘(altogether justifiably) aghast reaction'. (A Facebook post by Coney, asking if Hitler’s publisher should be held responsible for Mein Kampf, and thus by implication equating my review with the central tract of Nazism, is best regarded with the derision it deserves. Perspective, Proportion, Please!) 

  But could it be possible that other forces were at work in this decision to retract and muzzle? It certainly didn’t take into account tweets and FB posts supportive of my article (yes, there were some!), e.g.:

           are you sure it wasn't removed in case you don't get free tickets to the 
           next one? I enjoyed it, not every gig is great

           That's a shame, it's very rare that a journalist will go against 'trend' & 
           write honestly. I hope the writer isn't punished.

           the Twitter mafia got em

        Read the review, seemed the reviewer was unimpressed. So what's
        the problem, appreciation of music or any type of performance is 
        subjective. I think it's a shame you don't have courage to stand 
        behind the reviewer just because they delivered a negative opinion. 
        What should be taken from this "if you have nothing good to say,
        say nothing"? Hardly good journalism.

        I read the first paragraph earlier - if the review dealt with body 
        shape or other irrelevancies then could understand a trimming of 
        the article. However, if it was just a negative review, I don't see 
        the issue. Music reviews should sometimes be harsh and negative
        if the reviewer feels it warranted. It's the only way reviews can work.
        If it's always middling or positive, how can we trust a review site? 
        Could you clarify the reasons a little better in the retraction?

Perhaps, after all, the central motivation for retraction was not moral outrage which the editor suddenly finds he shares, or even aesthetic judgments (the once great review was, it is subsequently acknowledged, badly-written and uniformed), but more crassly commercial considerations. The above expressions of opinion certainly hint at this being the case.

  So how does the filthy lucre argument – that this is really all just about the money – go? In a nutshell, it requires that all music journalism be conducted to please both promoters and the audience. That way the magazine/website will continue on the one hand to get the free stuff it needs to do its business, and on the other to grow its readership. The bigger the readership, the more advertising revenue it makes. The bigger the concert audience, the more tickets the promoter sells. It’s a happy little circular arrangement, in which everyone’s a winner. Your average reviewer is, by the by, knowingly or unknowingly, a willing cog in this mechanism.

  Since journalism went digital, few reviewers are getting paid, unless they are fortunate enough to write for one of the broadsheets – and anyway ‘everyone’s a critic’ these days (and most people are DJs). All you get is your name on the guest list, and if you’re really lucky, a +1. So who is going to bother going to see an artist they don’t like, or even don’t know (unless it’s one they are simply curious about and want to check out)? This turns practically all reviewing into at best fanzine-writing, and at worst a mere extension of the PR/marketing machine. But at least fanzines sometimes contained negative criticism, unlike the sanitized, housebroken encomiums which currently pass for criticism.

  In this regard, it is instructive to look at the two The Thin Air reviews of St. Vincent shows, in Cork and Galway, which followed my own suppressed one. The first one contained the phrases ‘highly stylized, bombastic stage show’, ‘empowering’ (a word which strikes fear into the hearts of those of us more sensitive to cliché), ‘the coordinated dances, the over-dramatic actions’, and referred to ‘her somewhat corny chat’ (that ‘somewhat’ a canny qualifier). The second one, while shrewdly positing that St. Vincent’s show is ‘a commentary on authenticity’, then includes the phrases ‘a musical persona that allows for a greater sense of awe and grandiosity in performance’, ‘behemoth guitar lines’, ‘the cacophony of sounds’, and ‘it’s possible to say that maybe the spoken elements were a little forced and maybe a tad unconvincing’ (note the nervousness of that double ‘maybe’, supplemented by a ‘possible’ and a ‘tad’). So all that’s happened here in the two subsequent reviews is that the two reviewers have chosen to put a positive spin on a piece of theatre that didn’t do it for me (and adjectives like ‘bombastic’, ‘corny’ and ‘unconvincing’, and nouns like ‘grandiosity’, ‘behemoth’ and ‘cacophony’, are generally pejorative in anyone’s book). In short, they sounded like they were trying to like something they weren’t allowed not to like. Were they under orders? Or were they just making polite criticisms in the name of ‘balance’ – ‘she was really great, despite all that bombast and grandiosity and corniness.’ As I have written previously, and hopefully illustrated here, I regard Brian Coney’s and The Thin Air’s actions in publishing my review, and then retracting it, as craven, wimpish and entirely self-serving. I’ll now add ‘spineless’ to that list of epithets for good measure, as this retraction was not about naively undetected accusations of sexism, but about a threat to the financial survival of The Thin Air. Not only did Coney lack moral courage, and prove himself a moral zero, but he did a bad editing job as well.

  The above representation of the promoter>media>audience/readership cartel becomes even more convoluted and self-fulfilling, however, when one member of the triad takes on more than one of the roles, and refuses to occupy only one position. The tripartite division of the state may be a sine qua non of good government, but it gets a poor look-in in this business model. For one of the chief instigators of my trial by Twitter, while himself a former magazine editor, is now best known as a concert promoter. It is dubious in the extreme that any concert promoter should be commenting publicly on concert reviews, good, bad or indifferent. Are those working in the arts immune from the conflicts of interest and insider trading we so frequently accuse the political and banking classes of indulging in? When I tweeted my congratulations to this individual on getting the reviews he would have liked, he replied he would leave me to my ‘conspiracy theories’, thus neatly circumventing the fact that I never used the word ‘conspiracy’, since the process is far more subtle and amorphous than that, as he should well know. Nor is this the first time I’ve crossed paths with this guy in cyberspace, although we’ve never met in person. A couple of years ago, a perfectly polite e mail inquiry as to whether I would be on the guest list to review a fast approaching upcoming gig for another website I was writing for then, or if I would be better off buying a ticket for fear they would sell out, was deemed ‘rude’. Only afterwards did I realise in retrospect that this touchy response was probably the result of a less than enthusiastic review I’d written of a previous gig he’d been involved with. Funny how during my years with Magill I never had any similar trouble with Derek Nally, rest his sweet soul, in this regard. In fact, I spent hours in conversation with him, about our favourite acts, and new acts to check out. Of course, as an old style concert promoter, he didn’t see it as his role to review the reviewers – even when he took a hit on acts he brought in simply because he thought people should see them. ‘You might think you are beyond criticism. You are not,’ further tweeted this online antagonist during the recent spat. No, I don’t think I’m beyond criticism. In fact, I welcome it. I do, however, think I’m beyond 140 character character assassination and vilification by cretinous, semi-literate troglodytes (and even if the chief instigator of this hate campaign doesn’t quite fit that category, many of his acolytes would seem to, based on what I saw of their tweets). His own declaration could well be leveled against himself.

  Which brings me to the use of Twitter as a forum for online debate. It isn’t. How ironic that one of the purported themes of Ms. Clark’s work is internet alienation, in songs like ‘Digital Witness’, yet contrary opinions about that work provoke 140 character name calling, bordering on cyber bullying, from her rabid fanbase. The fact is that it is simply impossible to have a reasoned exchanged of views in 140 characters, even with multiple tweets. This is not intelligent debate, but the online equivalent of a drunken, telegrammatic shouting match. Besides which, those with a large Twitter following are always going to appear to be in the ascendency on that medium when taking on those who, because they have little use for the platform given its limitations, have few followers. Mr. Concert Promoter/Little Hitler has in excess of 5000 Twitter followers, presumably because he regularly uses it to dispense his largesse of free tickets among potential punters. I have about 50 followers, because I’m hardly ever on it. But there’s a whole world of opinion beyond Twitter, you know. Interesting, also, how quickly an online ‘debate’ (I use the word extremely broadly) can be buried and forgotten, as opposed to a skirmish in print. Somebody says something online considered vaguely offensive by someone somewhere else online, the vultures gather for a field day, then tomorrow move on to fresh carrion. Dropping this article after the fact can be seem as a modest attempt to counter this ‘trend’.

  Before I conclude, I’ll address a couple of other random criticisms which popped up in those 140 character posts. Someone castigated me for not researching the artist prior to attending the gig. Aside from the fact that I acknowledged my ignorance in the first paragraph, the idea that one must do research in order to review a live concert is preposterous (and if the fruits of such research result in declaring of St. Vincent that ‘the new Bowie has arrived’, then there is something seriously awry with the methodology. Just because she’s been anointed by Pitchfork doesn’t make her to everyone’s taste.) How many times have you gone along to a gig or a festival, caught a solo artist or band you’d never heard tell of before, and been so wowed by their performance that you became a fan and went on to seek out their work? When I attend the Reverberation Weekender in mid-August I’ll have seen and heard precisely two of the acts previously. I will leave having acquainted myself with a whole lot more (about whom I could then write about).

  Another tweeter adjudged that I couldn’t possibly know that St. Vincent was playing ‘vacuous ’80s synth pop’ if I hadn’t listened to the records. Not so. I’m perfectly capable of spotting vacuous ’80s synth pop when I hear it, even on a first listen, and even live! All I have to do is listen.

  Yet another tweeter displayed his silliness by scoffing at my cultural references, opining that it was like ‘listening to your old fella.’ What a dreadful example of ageism! Could we have a well-orchestrated viral outcry about this un-pc behavior, please? Listen buddy, I have cultural references from ancient history to this very morning, which might be just slightly broader than yours. The fact that some of them are from the 1960s and ’70s doesn’t mean I can’t range further back and further forward in time, should I choose. And, of course, you don’t have to be stuck with the cultural references which were current during your formative years. Aside from keeping up with what’s happening now, you can also reach back to what was going on before you were around. It’s actually possible to like things that were around before you were born. It’s called retro. Even The Clash abandoned their initial Year Zero policy pretty sharpish. You can experience this stuff that was around before your own first time around through repeats, reissues, reruns, etc., (to say nothing of readily available CDs, DVDs and internet downloads), making it a pan-generational cultural reference and resource. (Des Traynor (54) started watching The Avengers when he was four years old.)

  To sum up: 

  1) I don’t have to prove my ‘feminist’, or indeed musical, credentials to anyone. Over twenty years of arts journalism, across books, film, theatre and visual art, as well as music, speaks for itself. (Visit my website and blog, pop pickers; familiarise yourselves with the hundreds of essays, features and reviews you’ll find there. Do your research!) As does my prize-winning, if sporadic, fiction. 

  2) To be totally silenced because one is at odds with the critical consensus of a rabidly partisan fanbase, and a music scene which is compromised by inherent conflicts of vested interests and insider trading, is to be on the receiving end of a mentality which mirrors the worst excesses of fascistic thought-control.

  When it comes to music, I know what I’m talking about. Contrary to what you may have surmised from Twitter, I wasn’t the only seasoned gig-goer, or indeed neophyte, to leave The Iveagh Gardens before the end.

PS As may be obvious from the above, I don’t find Twitter a particularly congenial vehicle for (even online) debate. It is moronic and propagandistic. If anyone can be bothered to comment on what I’ve written, could they please do so on my blog itself, or my Facebook page. I won’t be responding to tweets.