Earlier this year, New Zealand’s Aldous Harding sparked what seemed like a national debate when she appeared on Later…With Jools Holland to perform the song, Horizon, from this, her second studio album.
The resulting YouTube clip needs to be seen to be believed – it’s a great song, but Harding peppers her performance with (frankly quite disturbing) pained facial expressions. The resulting fall-out seemed to pit a New Zealand music critic, Simon Sweetman, against every misguided miltant-feminist troll in the land.
In May, Sweetman reviewed Party by comparing the record to the sound of goats screaming like humans. A very dismissive review, for sure, but when Harding’s Jools Holland performance posted online five days later, a fire-storm ensued when Sweetman repeated a similar comment on his personal Facebook page.
We seem to be living in exciting times. In recent weeks, Wonder Woman effortlessly became the highest-grossing live-action film directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins (with the film obviously centred on the strength and possibilities of womankind), and we were introduced to a female Doctor Who in Jodie Whittaker. As a father of three young daughters, I couldn’t be happier with what seems like a snowballing of strong female role models for them. My wife’s heartbreak over the death of Carrie Fisher late last year really brought home the fact that thirty years ago, strong female role models were very few and far between.
So, we arrive at the release of Aldous Harding’s Party. However flippant Sweetman’s comments were – and they were flippant – nothing of what he said was based on Harding’s gender. ‘But it’s implicit in what he said,’ the misguided militant-feminist trolls would argue. That kind of parochial attitude would suggest that all female artists are beyond criticism – but surely women should be open to the same level of criticism as men? Sweetman’s role as a critic is to prompt discussion, and in this one instance he has been very successful.
But would he say something just as rude about a male artist? Yes, I firmly believe he would – and has! One of my only dislikes about Sweetman’s approach is that he’ll completely write off an artist, and then no matter what that artist produces, their output will seemingly be forever harshly judged – case in point: Jack White can do no right, whereas a mediocre musician like world-famous-in-New-Zealand Dave Dobbyn can do no wrong. So I worry that Aldous will never be allowed back through the door.
A friend suggested that Sweetman probably thinks of himself as the Lester Bangs of New Zealand cultural critique. I’m not sure if that’s true – and maybe he has been critical of Dave Dobbyn or praised Jack White in the past, I just haven’t seen it if he has – but nevertheless I’m convinced he isn’t sexist or misogynist: everybody’s fair game. In fact, I find these claims of misogyny to be more damaging to feminism than they are helpful.
It’s similar situation to a BBC radio interview I once heard where Halle Berry was promoting her latest film. A comment from Hugh Jackman, one of Berry’s co-stars, led the oafish presenter Chris Moyles to impersonate what an African American body-double of Jackman might sound like. “Are we having a racist moment here?” Berry asked instantly.
I find that sort of accusation deplorable, and ultimately more damaging to the cause which is being fought. I regard myself as a feminist, and I’m similarly disappointed with some of the accusations raised at Sweetman – an early champion of Harding’s career, and a strong advocate of female artists, both local and international. “Iggy Pop can get away with those sorts of affectations on stage,” the misguided militant-feminists would say, “So why can’t Aldous Harding?” My only concern would be whether those facial expressions were evidence of anything more worrying bubbling underneath.
Still, like I said, Sweetman’s role is to prompt discourse. If he hadn’t highlighted the absurdity of Harding’s Jools Holland performance, then perhaps she wouldn’t have landed so squarely on my radar. It led me to watch Harding’s music video for Blend – a clip in which most people might not be able to see past the attraction of a young woman dancing provocatively in hot-pants. I enjoyed the subversive elements of the video greatly, and the allusion to the dancing Playmates in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now wasn’t lost on me, but it was the strength of the song that hooked into me. From Blend, I moved to the video for Imagining My Man, and I was sold.
I bought the record a few weeks ago. I’m close to loving it, and will seek out her first record as soon as I can. There are still some things about Party I don’t appreciate – I don’t think I’ll ever be able to hear Horizon without imaging the Jools Holland performance, and her vocal style on Imagining My Man sounds very strange, like she’s sucking on a boiled sweet – but the album’s growing on me with every listen.
The future looks bright for my daughters, in a world that is seemingly more accepting of female role-models. The last record I bought by a New Zealand artist (before Harding’s Party) was by a woman (who has gone on to massive global success – no surprises who that might have been) and the next two I buy will undoubtedly be both by women (Harding’s 2014 debut and Lorde’s sophomore Melodrama). As a feminist, I just wish that my more militant comrades on social media would pick their battles with a little more intelligence.
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