I’m really looking forwards to this doc La Bare, about a male stripper club in Dallas, released later this month. This single clip is more sensual than anything in Magic Mike. Except the bit where he goes to take a piss after a hard night’s partying. And that’s just accidental buttock roll.
I have no idea how to body roll, and I suspect it would be medically inadvisable at my age — let alone aesthetically — but it certainly looks quite something when muscular men do it, as opposed to the teen girls on My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.
‘In a development which will probably have him running to the mirror yet again to search anxiously for lines, this year the metrosexual leaves his teens and turns 20.
How quickly your children grow up. Although it seems only yesterday, I first wrote about him in 1994 after attending an exhibition organised by GQ magazine called “It’s a Man’s World”. I’d seen the future of masculinity and it was moisturised.’
Maybe I suffer from what Freud described as man’s tendency to devalue what he desires, but I find anything touched by TV survivalist Bear Grylls’ calloused-but-manicured hands difficult to take too seriously.
But taken seriously he most certainly has been by the UK media with his currently airing C4 reality show The Island, in which thirteen ‘ordinary men’ are marooned on a tropical island for a month to find out whether today’s softies can cut it as ‘hunter gatherer’ butch Bear Grylls types. Nothing very much happens – the Gryllsettes grow beards, lose some pounds, drink a lot of boiled stagnant water, get bitten by sand-flies, and fall out with one another and then back in again. Like Big Brother but more boring.
Though given the column inches devoted to this show you’d think Grylls was some kind of sociologist, anthropologist and cultural seer. Rather than an outdoor cabaret artist with properly hydrated skin and really nice eyes.
So I hesitate to add to C4’s already bulging folder of press cuttings about Grylls’ sweaty island, but the Channel’s Chief Creative Officer Jay Hunt’s defence of the show’s decision not to include women last week was such a wonderfully serious and altogether inadvertent admission of where the actual ‘sexism’ of the show lies that it’s impossible to resist.
Hunt defended her reality show from the straw woman argument, aired widely in the media recently by female survival experts, that it was sexist because it excluded women from the island by reiterating the comically prejudiced premise of the reality show: that it was intended as a ‘real test of modern masculinity’. She went on:
‘Let’s be honest, what better way of finding out what British men were REALLY made of than leaving them to fend for themselves in a frighteningly tropical environment.’
Yes, let’s be honest. Real men don’t eat quiche, but creepy crawlies. Real masculinity is about being deprived of all culture and civilization and potable water. Real masculinity is all about tropical skid marks.
Women are excluded from the delights of the island not because Ms Hunt didn’t think women would be able to cope, but because doing so would have got in the way of the stereotype that men are ‘really’ savages. Or ‘hunter gatherers’ as she likes to describe them. The show is not about finding out what people are REALLY made of – but today’s men. Because we already know what men should be made of. It’s not sexist, in other words, because its sexism is directed towards chaps. Any sexism towards ladies is just unintended blowback.
In fact this kind of brutish reductiveness about men applied to women by C4 would have brought a much bigger backlash than the one prompted by disgruntled female survival experts. It would have cost Hunt her job. Can you imagine the outcry, for instance, over a reality TV show which announced that it aimed to find out what British women, as a sex, were REALLY made of – by locking them in the kitchen? Or Mothercare?
Any attempt to talk about REAL and ESSENTIAL femininity – let alone applying some contrived ‘test’ of it – is generally held up to fierce criticism these days, now that women are, rather wonderfully, encouraged to believe they can be anything they want to be. Including Chief Creative Officers at C4 – commissioning shows about REAL and ESSENTIAL masculinity. ‘Women are every bit as cut out for this survivalist stuff as men,’ says Ms Hunt. ‘Women are stronger, more independent and more self-reliant than they have ever been.’
Quite so. But while women can be much more than submissive Janes nowadays, men are apparently still supposed to be forever anxiously comparing themselves to some mythical Tarzan that never existed. And if you doubt it never really existed, take a look at Mr Grylls, who is the most absurd and unbelievable confection of a human being imaginable. A survival porn star.
In an introduction to the series, in which Bare Thrills has, very unusually, kept most of his clothes on, he opined: “I want to find out what happens if you strip man of all the luxuries and conveniences of modern living and then force him to fight for his existence.” By ‘man’ here Grylls means, as Ms Hunt has explained, not humans, but ‘men’.
The presentation of the series as some ‘real test of modern masculinity’ is, ‘naturally’, completely bogus even by the cranky standards of reality TV ‘experiments’. You could have taken any group of unprepared British men of the last hundred years or so and dropped them in a tropical mangrove swamp equipped with nothing but some garden string, Elastoplasts and hand-held TV cameras with much the same results. (Though it turns out that some of the contestants, and indeed the island itself, weren’t so unprepared after all. But hey, that’s show business.)
But the underlying premise that masculinity has to be ‘tested’, to be proved ‘real’, is what shows up the, ahem, rigid expectations we can still have of men compared to women, even on groovy C4. This is why Grylls, picking up on media chatter of the last year, has talked repeatedly about his show being about today’s ‘crisis of masculinity’.
That phrase is, like Grylls’ show, now much more of a problem than the one it purports to describe. As I’ve written elsewhere, when people talk about a ‘crisis of masculinity’ these days they’re usually talking about their own – in dealing with the fact that modern masculinity isn’t what they want or expect it to be. Particularly when working class chaps aren’t what middle class chaps like Chief Scout Grylls (educated at Eton ) want them to be.
And has anyone noticed how no one ever seems to talk about a ‘crisis of femininity’?
Older men may miss some of the masculine certainties of their youth, but most of today’s ‘soft’ young men seem very glad indeed that they’re not banished to the desert island of ascetic old skool masculinity their fathers and grandfathers were. Unless of course it gets them on telly.
Whatever people’s intentions in invoking it, and whatever value it may have had back in the 80s and 90s when male roles really began to change, post Thatcherite-Reaganite crash consumerism and de-industrialization, the concept of a ‘crisis of masculinity’ all these years of change later merely perpetuates the notion that masculinity is one phallic thing only, and that thing needs to be kept up, and ‘hard’. Otherwise we’ll all have a nervous breakdown. And not catch any fish.
In the end, for all the pretentious and possibly sexist claims made for it, everyone knows that The Island is really just entertainment and voyeurism. But it’s cheering to think that the use of the ‘crisis of masculinity’ to sell Bare Thrills’ latest instalment of survival porn may finally do for the phrase.
Let’s leave its meagre carcass on the island, picked clean of what little, stringy meat it ever had on it.
And I don’t just mean the reputation they have for being dirty and unappealing places to linger, let alone eat. I mean literally. A recent survey of 2000 motorists found that 65% only stop at service stations to use the toilet facilities.
But by the 1970s the British had fallen out of love with motorway service stations, their high prices, poor food and command economy aesthetics. Since then the call of nature has been the principle, often only lure.
At Wetherby services, opened in 2008, situated on junction 46 of the A1M and lying on the boundary between West and North Yorkshire, they have incorporated this toilet fact into the fabric of the building. A cheery if overly suggestive yellowbrick road takes you past all the different outlets hawking their wares before you finally arrive, bladder bursting, at the ‘facilities’ – almost right at the end of the long building (the Eat & Drink cafeteria is the only outlet beyond the piss & shit).
For the sake of hygiene and efficiency, the toilets dispense with doors – instead they have just a zig-zag open entrance. In architectural fact, Wetherby services is a toilet with shops. Outside the loo entrance are the inevitable kiddie magnets, machines full of stuffed toys waiting to be clawed – which one might be forgiven for thinking represents the attitude of motorway services towards their customers.
Today the toilets at Wetherby on a Sunday afternoon in March are very busy but appear to be coping with the endless ‘stream’ of people arriving constantly to relieve themselves of matter consumed many, possibly hundreds of miles away. They also look fairly clean – Moto, who operate this and 57 other motorway service stations across the UK, have won the prestigious ‘Loo of the Year’ award several times. Not something to be sniffed at when you consider service station toilets by law have to be kept open 24 hours a day every single day of the year.
To be fair, Wetherby services is trying very hard to be different. Wetherby services employed the latest ‘green technologies’ in its construction, making it the UK’s first carbon neutral service station. Another fun fact: the roof of the filling station is the largest single-span filling station roof in Europe. Unlike many of the older motorway services it has a light and airy design: a large seating/eating area is spread in front of sloping floor-to ceiling windows along one (south facing) side overlooking the car park. More airport departure lounge than motorway services, you can use the free Wi-Fi to Tweet a picture of your ‘succulent double chicken breast served with a sauce of your choice’ (£6.99)
Outlets available here for the motorist’s delectation include M&S Simply Food, Costa Coffee, WH Smiths, Burger King, Upper Crust, and Eat & Drink, Moto’s self-branded restaurant – and not one but two one-armed bandit arcades (with no one in them today).
M&S Simply Food and Costa are – aside from the toilets – the centrepiece of Wetherby services. The first thing you see when you walk in, they represent the quiet revolution in the motorway services experience that has been going on since M&S first opened a Simply Food outlet at Toddington Southbound a decade ago. There are now 36 M&S Simply Food outlets on the UK motorway network forever banishing the curse of curled sarnies.
At Wetherby, once you’ve unfilled your bladder, you can get your spicy chicken and sweet red pepper wood-fired M&S pizza (£5.25) for when you finally get home and put your feet up, and then pop over to Costa and grab a mozzarella tomato and basil sourdough Panini (£4.79) and a Cappuccino Medio (£3.35) for now – and fill your bladder again.
The Costa outlet at Wetherby dominates the space and is constructed like a chapel of caffeine – fenced off with decorative wrought iron, a two-tone tiled floor and inspirational skylights. How appropriate: caffeine and urine are the twin pillars of the modern, metropolitanised service area. There are now a whopping 53 Costas in motorway services in the UK. The UK’s new-found chain caffeine addiction is a habit that motorway services are happy to exploit.
As conclusive proof of the metropolitanisation of motorway services, lah-dee-dah Waitrose are hard on M&S’s quality heels with 22 outlets on the UK motorway network and another three opening this month alone. Even Bolton Services West, the dismal M61 disaster area immortalised by Peter Kay as manageress ‘Pearl Harbour’, and once held up as the epitome of how low motorway services had sunk, has had a multi-million pound makeover and been renamed ‘Rivington’. Fancy.
No Waitrose yet, but they do have a Starbucks, landscaped grounds offering ‘relaxing outdoor dining’ and, most impressively of all, according to one vox popper, ‘toilets like a hotel’s’
Motorway service stations are still toilets. But they’re dead classy ones now.
This essay originally appeared on the LeasePlan blog
These ‘jokey’ Veet ‘Don’t risk dudeness’ ads in which a ‘sexy lady’ turns into an ‘unsexy dude’ because she hasn’t used the smelly depilatory cream have provoked an e-flurry of outrage for their sexism and shaming of women who aren’t always smooth, so much so that Veet had to issue an apology and withdraw them.
But what’s truly ‘funny’ about these ads is that in some ways they strike me as actually being the advertising world’s version of those ‘gender flip’ click-bait posts that many of the people lambasting the Veet ads profess to love. You know, the ones that pretend that men are never objectified – despite male (self) objectification being hard to miss these days unless you’re trying really, really hard not to notice flagrant, flaming evidence like this. And this.
Instead of looking around us, we’re supposed to listen to blather like this:
“For some reason, as soon as you put a man in there … it’s an entirely different thing that we aren’t used to seeing.”
Only if you’ve been jamming your eyes shut for the last twenty years, dear.
So, having pretended that male objectification doesn’t exist, it’s now ‘really radical’ and ‘challenging’ to ‘flip’ the roles. But in an ironic and unconvincing way, usually making sure that the men adopting the faux ‘sexualised’ poses are unattractive. (And not wetting their vests.)
The ‘anti-sexism’ of many of those ‘gender flip’ memes strikes me as completely bogus, implicitly depending as it does on the entirely (hetero)sexist presumption that sexiness is a female quality. The ‘ludicrousness’ of the man adopting ‘sexy’ poses requires a worldview that insists men just aren’t meant to be objectified. That simply doesn’t see male objectification because it’s not suppose to happen.
So the ‘gender flip’ actually tends to reinforce the very thing it hypocritically pretends to undermine.
Worse, people pretend, over and over again, to be impressed by daggy male hipsters pretending to do sexy while pretending to subvert sexism – as a way of getting attention. Which is the only really sincere part of the whole charade.
Instead of ditching the dreary fucking irony and just doing this. Or this.
By contrast, these crass Veet ads are at least refreshingly honest and out of the closet in their horrendous heterosexist revulsion at ‘dudeness’, and the ludicrousness of male sexiness. And of course the thing that is always hovering behind that revulsion, particularly in the US: that dudes might get it on with other dudes.
In stubbly fact, this obsession ends up swallowing their whole campaign, no gag reflex, to the point where it has little or nothing to do with women at all – despite them being the target market.
The second generation of metrosexuals are cumming. And this time it’s hardcore
by Mark Simpson
What is it about male hipsters and their strange, pallid, highly ambivalent fascination with bodies beefier and sexier than their own? Which means, of course, pretty much everyone?
You may remember last year that last year the Guardian columnist and TV presenter Charlton Brooker had a very messy bowel-evacuating panic attack over the self-sexualisation of the male body exhibited in reality show Geordie Shore.
At least the Vice writer isn’t in total denial. Brooker was so threatened by the brazen male hussies on Geordie Shore and the confusion their pumped, shaved ‘sex doll’ bodies, plucked eyebrows and penises the size of a Sky remote provoked in him that the poor love had to pretend that they didn’t exist outside of reality TV. That they were some kind of science fiction invented to torment and bewilder him and his nerdy body. Perhaps because he’s rather younger than Brooker, Mr Vice on the other hand has actually noticed that these guys really do exist and are in fact pretty much everywhere today, dipped in fake tan and designer tatts and ‘wearing’ plunging ‘heavage’ condom-tight T-s.
In a media world which largely ignores what’s happened to young men Mr Vice is to be commended that he’s clearly spent a great deal of time studying them. Albeit with a mixture of envy and desire, fear and loathing – and a large side order of self-contradiction and sexual confusion.
He laments that these ‘pumped, primed, terrifyingly sexualised high-street gigolos’ have been imported from America, but uses the execrable imported Americanism ‘douchebag’ to describe them – over and over again. What’s a douchebag? Someone with bigger arms than you, who’s getting more sex than you – and probably earning more than you, despite being considerably less expensively educated than you.
But by far the most infuriating thing about ‘sad young douchebags’ is that they are so very obviously not sad at all. They and their shameless, slutty bodies are having a whale of a time, thank you very much. They’re far too happy being ‘sad young douchebags’ to sit down and write lengthy, angry rationalising essays about why someone else’s idea of a good time is WRONG. Or read one. Or read anything, in fact. Apart maybe from Men’s Health.
A strong smell of nostalgia emanates from this Vice jeremiad, like a pickled onion burp. The writer laments a lost Eden of masculine certainties and whinges that these young men with their sexualised ‘gym bunny wanker’ bodies have replaced older, more ‘authentic’ English masculine archetypes, ‘the charmer’, ‘the bit of rough’, ‘the sullen thinker’ (which, I wonder, applies to him?) and that as a result:
Nobody wants to be Sean Connery any more. With their buff, waxed bodies and stupid haircuts, the modern British douchebag looks more like a model from an Attitude chatline ad than a potential Bond.
Ah yes, Sean Connery – the former Mr Scotland gym bunny wanker ex chorus boy who wore a wig and fake tan in those glossy, slutty Bond films. Masculinity is never what it used to be. Even back in Ancient Greece everyone was whining that real men went out of fashion with the Trojan War. And what’s so wrong with wanting to look like an Attitude chat line ad, rather than a hired killer?
Oh, that’s right – coz it looks gay.
All this moaning, along with the writer’s complaints that these buff young men are disappointingly ‘soft’, crap in a fight and don’t have nearly enough scars, reminds me of those gays on Grindr who stipulate in their profile ‘I like my men to be MEN!!’. Or the camp queens who over the years who have solemnly informed me: ‘If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s camp queens!!’ Actually, it reminds me of myself when I was much more hopelessly romantic than I am today, and before I realised real men were really slutty.
There is nothing gayer than the longing for masculine certainties like this. Especially since they never really existed anyway. It’s like believing that the phallus is the real thing and the penis is just a symbol. It’s Quentin Crisp’s Great Dark Man syndrome, but sans the self-awareness, or the archness and the henna.
In fact Mr Vice is so nostalgic – and so young – that he seems to think metrosexuality is something prior to, distinct from and more tasteful than these sexed-up shamelessly slutty male bodies that insist on grabbing his attention, wistfully contrasting how the ‘natural confidence’ of metrosexuality ‘has been replaced by something far more flagrant’. Take it from metrodaddy, today’s flagrantly sexualised male body is merely more metrosexuality. More sexy, more tarty, more porny, more slapped in your face. So stop bitching and suck on it. Metrosexuality has gone hard-core –the ‘sexuality’ part has gone ‘hyper’.
The metrosexual was born twenty years ago and had to struggle to survive in an untucked ‘no-homo’ 1990s — but the second wave take the revolution he brought about in masculine aesthetics for granted. Steeped in images of male desirability from birth and masturbating furiously to hard-core online porn from puberty, they have totally sexed-up the male body and turbo-charged the male desire to be desired, which was always at the heart of metrosexuality rather than expensive fashion spreads and fastidious lists of ‘dos and don’ts’. Their own bodies rather than clobber and cosmetics have become the ultimate accessory, fashioning them at the gym into a hot commodity. Nakedly metrosexy.
If we need to give this new generation of hyper metrosexuals a name – other than total tarts – we should perhaps dub them spornosexuals. These mostly straight-identified young men are happy to advertise, like an Attitude chat line, their love of the pornolised, sporting-spurting male body – particularly their own. Along with their very generous availability to anyone’s gaze-graze. Especially at premium rates.
And everyone is calling their number. Though admittedly not many do it via the extremely kinky route of writing long essays denouncing them and explaining why they’re TOTALLYNOTINTERESTED. Hipsters, who of course think themselves above the vulgarity of sexiness, are simply the ironic, anti-sexual wing of metrosexuality – which is to say, absolutely fucking pointless.
It’s the obvious, if often oblivious, visual bi-curiosity of today’s totally tarty, hyper metrosexuality that alarms people even more than its ‘vulgarity’. Male bisexuality is still largely a taboo precisely because it threatens the final, fond, sacred, and highly phallic myth of masculinity: that it has an (heteronormative) ‘aim’ and ‘purpose’. The scattershot sluttiness of spornosexuals signals a very sticky end to that virile delusion.
Mr Vice argues repeatedly that these young men enjoying their bodies and their lack of inhibition compared to their fathers and grandfathers, are having a ‘crisis of masculinity’. This just smacks of more middle class resentment dressed up as ‘concern’ – a pissy, passive aggressive way of calling them ‘sad douchebags’ again. Or ‘gay’. When people talk about a ‘crisis of masculinity’ they’re usually talking about their own – in dealing with the fact that masculinity isn’t what they want it to be. And particularly when working class chaps aren’t what middle class chaps want them to be.
It’s true that our post-industrial landscape often doesn’t know what to do with the male body apart from shag it or sell it, but that’s not necessarily such a terrible contrast with the ‘glorious’ past. For a younger generation of young men no longer afraid of their own bodies there’s no crisis – but rather a liberation. From the dehumanising, sexist constraints of their forefathers. Men’s bodies are no longer simply instrumental things – for fighting wars, extracting coal, building ships, scoring goals, making babies and putting the rubbish out that must renounce pleasure, vanity, sensuality and a really good fingering and leave that to women and pooves.
Instead the male body has been radically redesigned, with the help of some blueprints from Tom of Finland, as a sensual sex toy designed to give and particularly to receive pleasure. Maybe it’s not terribly heroic, and admittedly some of the tatts are really grotty, but there are much worse things to be. Such as a slut-shaming writer for a hipster magazine.
Of course, I would say that. Because I find these spornosexual, totally tarty young men fuckable. But that’s kind of the point. They desperately want to be found fuckable. It would be extremely rude and ungrateful not to find them fuckable when they have gone to so much trouble doing all those bubble-butt building barbell lunges at the gym for me.
And in fuckable fact, it’s their fuckability which makes the unfuckables hate them so fucking much.
‘There was something in his face that made one trust him at once. All the candour of youth was there, as well as all youth’s passionate purity. One felt that he had kept himself unspotted from the world. No wonder Basil Hallward worshipped him.’
From the gender-bending antics of Eurythmics and Culture Club to the propulsive synthpop of Depeche Mode, New Order, and the Human League, was there ever, asks Mark Simpson, a more spectacular time for music?
IN 1983, THEYEAR that McDonald’s introduced the Chicken McNugget and the second Cold War was at its height, the world very nearly ended when large NATO exercises were mistaken by an extremely jittery USSR for preparations for a new Barbarossa.
More ominously, compact discs went on sale in the United States and Europe, the first commercial mobile telephone call was made, and the Internet as it’s known today came into existence. Oh, and Carrie Underwood was born. In other words, while the world itself didn’t end in 1983, all the necessary means were invented for bringing about something much worse: the end of pop music.
Which, rather like the best pop itself, is a bittersweet thought to savor, since 1983 was unquestionably the finest year for pop music ever.
1983 was also — perhaps not so coincidentally my final year at high school, and instead of studying for my exams and thinking about what I wanted to actually do with my life, I’d taken to hanging around hi-fi shops on my way home, hypnotized by the LED and LCD equalizer displays on the latest sound systems. I fell head over heels in love with a Technics SL-7 turntable. There were various reasons for its quasi-sexual appeal: The total surface area was no bigger than an LP sleeve, and the turntable had a really cool linear arm tracking inside the lid that was automatically operated with buttons at the front. It was very futuristic; like a giant, clunky, analog CD player, before anyone I knew had a CD player.
But the real reason for my infatuation with the turntable was the 12-inch of Eurythmics’s “Love Is a Stranger” that its cunning salesman slapped on at full volume. Not only did the otherworldly, drivingly sequenced synth sounds and Annie Lennox’s operatic range superbly showcase the sound dynamics of the product, the lyrics Lennox breathed, seemingly in the back of your mind, were the ultimate hard sell:
“And I want you / And I want you / And I want you so.”
Pop music in the early ’80s was a stranger in an open, gilt-edged, glamorous, sleekly designed car, tempting you in and driving you far away. And not only in Eurythmics songs; the Smiths’s second single, “This Charming Man,” also released in 1983, featured that same car-driving stranger offering Morrissey a ride. This year was a pre-Fall moment when everything and anything seemed possible — because it was. The neck-strainingly rapid developments in music-making technology meant that no one really knew what they were doing until they’d actually done it. Every record was a revelation. A miracle. There were no rules because there was no manual. Invention was king.
Eurythmics recorded their sophomore album, Sweet Dreams, for example, on a simple TEAC eight-track in an attic, without any of the fixtures of a professional studio. The title song was recorded in a single take, with Lennox improvising most of the lyrics on the spot and David Stewart tapping on half-filled milk bottles to produce that chiming sound as Lennox sings “Hold your head up / Keep your head up.” In this new landscape, record companies had little choice but to indulge their prodigies in their pixie boots with their pixie powers. (Although that didn’t stop “Love Is a Stranger” from being yanked off the air during an early transmission on MTV by executives who confused Lennox for a transvestite.)
This was also the era of the wizard producer: industry legends like Martin Rushent, who fashioned the sound of the Human League, and most famously Trevor Horn, former lead singer for the Buggles, who produced ABC’s stunningly beautiful 1982 album, The Lexicon of Love, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s pounding 1983 single “Relax,” a siren call to closeted young gay teens if ever there was one. Horn, who deftly deployed the dark magic of the famous Fairlight sampling synthesizer, was nothing less than a creator of brave new sonic worlds. (Appropriately, Horn’s 1979 Buggles single “Video Killed the Radio Star” was also the first to be aired on MTV when the channel launched in 1981.)
Early ’80s British synthpop — or “new wave,” as it was known in the United States — was madly ambitious and utopian, offering an analog dream of a digital future. And it sounded gorgeous. In fact, it sounded much better than the properly digital future did when it actually arrived, with greater processing power, a few years later. It was also much better than drugs or sex, which turned out to be piss-poor substitutes for pop music when they finally showed up at the end of the decade in jeans at an acid house rave somewhere in a field near Manchester. Synthpop — or “new pop” as the genre was more broadly dubbed by the music journalist Paul Morley at the time — was the glorious culmination of the 1970s’ aesthetic revolts of glam and punk rock. It was pop music at its most fun, its most danceable, its most pretentious, its most gender-bending, and its most fashionable.
The 12-inch single was a mainstay of synthpop, which in many ways carried on where disco (for which the 12-inch was invented) left off after America murdered it at the end of the ’70s. The greater treble and bass response afforded by 12-inch singles demonstrated the new recording, mixing, and lavish production techniques all the better — and made it hip-twitching. Today, if you listen to extended mixes from that era, especially the ones with the long intros with, say, a single sampled snare drum playing for several minutes, you often wonder where people got the time. But back then, before the Internet and mobile phones ruined everything, they were the height of indulgence. They were a way of making the blissful perfection of the pop single last forever, instead of just three minutes.
Our sixth-form common room didn’t have a Technics SL-7, but it did have a battered 1960s mono Dansette record player. Undoubtedly, the most played record on it in 1983 was New Order’s epoch-making, four-to-the-floor new wave disco track “Blue Monday,” which was, in a calculatedly haughty gesture, only available as a 12-inch single and infamously not included on the album Power, Corruption & Lies (though with a transporting track like “Your Silent Face,” whose final kiss-off lyric is “You’ve caught me at a bad time, so why don’t you piss off?” I wasn’t complaining about the album). It became the bestselling 12-inch single ever in the United Kingdom. It’s difficult, in a post-“Blue Monday” world, to understand the seismic impact of that New York hi-NRG sound recycled gloriously through Manchester melancholy. We played it so many times we had to weigh the ancient chisel of a needle down with putty to stop it from jumping.
Other 1983 synthpop singles that got played to death either in the common room or in my bedroom included the deliciously silly “Blind Vision,” by Blancmange; the surprisingly political “Bad Boys,” by Wham!; the sublimely whiney “Everything Counts,” by Depeche Mode; the cutesy-funky “Rip it Up,” by Orange Juice; the fantastically pretentious and pompous “Visions in Blue,” by Ultravox; the hair-prickling “Song to the Siren,” by This Mortal Coil; the tantrummy torch song “Soul Inside,” by Soft Cell (their last hurrah); the toe-tapping, fringe-flapping “Too Shy,” by Kajagoogoo; the plaintive but insistent “Come Back and Stay,” by Paul Young; the revving synth-reggae of “Electric Avenue,” by Eddy Grant; the beating beauty of “All of My Heart,” by ABC (released in 1982 but so big that it hogged much of 1983, too); the delightfully absurd synth-goth of “The Walk,” by the Cure; the stolen kisses of “Our Lips Are Sealed,” by Fun Boy Three; the bitter-sweet “Church of the Poison Mind,” by Culture Club; the exhilaratingly obscure “Burning Down the House,” by Talking Heads; the lipsticked charm of “(Keep Feeling) Fascination,” by the Human League; and, of course, David Bowie’s Nile Rodgers–produced smash “Let’s Dance,” a record that manages somehow to be both criminally danceable and strangely austere, like the White Witch of Narnia on roller skates.
With records like that as the soundtrack to our teenagerdom, is it any wonder that we thought ourselves the cat’s meow?
Bowie had, in many ways, made the glamour and swish of synthpop possible; he was certainly the stylistic inspiration for the romantic wing of new wave (many of whom, however, chose to sing like Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry), famously bestowing his benediction on Steve Strange and assorted Blitz Kids in the video for 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes,” dressed in a Pierrot costume, being followed by a bulldozer. By 1983, Bowie had finally achieved the stateside success he had longed for throughout the ’70s with his “Serious Moonlight” tour, becoming part of the “second British Invasion” of new wave acts.
The second British Invasion — which, by the way, was almost certainly the last — was more successful than the first, changing the American aesthetic as well as musical landscapes. Schooled by ’70s Bowie, British new wave acts like Duran Duran were masterful at drawing attention to themselves onscreen and got saturation exposure on the newly founded MTV. Although their hit single “Girls on Film” was released in 1981, it wasn’t until an MTV-friendly “day version” was reissued in March 1983 that the video became a staple on the channel, along with “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “The Reflex.”
The synthpop sound and kooky styles of those quirky Brits became the hallmark of ’80s MTV, and eventually made its way into the classic ’80s high school movies of John Hughes. British new wave was especially popular on the West Coast and with Los Angeles’s KROQ station — and continued to be long after new wave had been rolled back in the U.K. (When I visited Los Angeles for the first time in 1990, I couldn’t quite believe that all this British synthpop was still being played so much — and in such a sunny place.)
It didn’t hurt that many of the Brit synthpop bands were also very easy on the eyes. The women, like Lennox, could be very handsome, and the boys could be very pretty — Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet certainly were, with the possible exception of their lead singers. In the promo for “Everything Counts,” the seemingly sweet Essex boys of Depeche Mode look like they’re in a Bel Ami video, albeit with clothes.
For my part, I had a crush on the fresh-faced Edwyn Collins from Orange Juice and Bernard Sumner from New Order (it was a long time ago), who I always thought sang like a boy crying in his bedroom with the window left deliberately open. Also Curt Smith from Tears for Fears, who was preposterously pretty, even with those mini pigtails. There was something about the boyish vulnerability and sensuality of synthpop that went with their kind of looks — there was definitely a sexual ambiguity in the sequenced air.
Unfortunately for Smith, he also looked a bit like a lad at school I was hopelessly in love with. It was a requited but unconsummated affair — which meant, of course, that it was endlessly orgasmic. I listened to the Tears for Fears album The Hurting, particularly the heartfelt yearnings of “Pale Shelter” — “You don’t give me love / you give me cold hands” — much, much too much, and heard things that weren’t really there. I even wrote to them via their record label, thanking them for daring to write such openly homoerotic lyrics — and received a diplomatic letter of acknowledgement back from a PR agent informing me that Curt and Roland would be very pleased to hear their music “meant so much.”
But of all of the pretty early ’80s boys — or girls — Marilyn, a.k.a. Peter Robinson, was perhaps the prettiest. A star of new romantic stomping ground the Blitz club when his mate Boy George was working in the coat check there, he finally got a record deal in 1983 and had a hit with the catchy single “Calling Your Name.” Finally the pop charts had a male gender bender who was sexy instead of mimsy, famously describing himself as “Tarzan and Jane rolled into one.”
But a line had been crossed. Sadly, the story of Marilyn is also the story of the end of the high summer of synthpop/new wave. We had traveled too far and too fast in that stranger’s open car — the brakes were being applied. Margaret Thatcher, whose much vaunted “Victorian values” were to include a ban on gay propaganda, was reelected by a landslide in June 1983, thanks largely to the victory of the British armed forces over Argentina in a far-flung colonial outpost. Her bosom buddy Ronald Reagan had meanwhile essentially put the West on a war footing against the “Evil Empire,” as he dubbed the Soviet Union. And Dr. Robert Gallo had isolated a virus he named HTLV-III, which had snuffed out Klaus Nomi and Jobriath in that same year. We now know it as HIV.
The delicious “art fag” decadence of new wave — or “that queer English shit” as it was sometimes known — was clearly doomed in the militaristic, materialistic, AIDS-terror climate of the mid-1980s. Male vulnerability and sexual ambiguity were now fatal weaknesses.
Marilyn’s second single, “Cry and Be Free,” a ballad released in 1984, was doing well until he appeared, pouting, on Top of the Pops in a glittery off-the-shoulder number. There was a visceral reaction as a nation recoiled from its own arousal. His single plummeted. His third, the ironically prescient “You Don’t Love Me,” stalled at number 40 on the U.K. charts. The career of the most beautiful boy in British pop was over.
And so, essentially, was new wave, banished by a mid-’80s counterrevolution of guitar-led rock. Disco sucked again, and it gave you AIDS. And Bruce bloody Springsteen was the biggest thing on the U.K. charts in 1984. Yes, it’s true that Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s spunktacular dance track “Relax” finally hit number 1 in January 1984, but it had been released in 1983 and was banned by the BBC in 1984. Frankie went on to have more hits that year in the U.K., including, most famously, ‘Two Tribes,” which satirized the threat of the Cold War turning hot, and certainly sold a lot of T-shirts. But for my pocket money they definitely peaked with “Relax.”
My school days ended in the summer of 1983, and with them my exquisitely doomed love affair. Synthpop, as it turned out, was also doomed. So you see, contrary to what the history books tell you, the world really did end in 1983 — but at least I got the Technics SL-7 turntable for my 18th birthday.
I ended up playing the Smiths on it a lot — and their eponymous first album, released in January 1984, complete with young Joe Dallesandro’s naked torso on the sleeve, was very definitely the homoerotic bonanza I’d mistaken Tears for Fears’s The Hurting for, albeit a celibate one.
In a sense, the Smiths were the ultimate new wave/new pop band, one who eschewed synthesizers for guitars, which lead singer Morrissey, an über fan of glam and punk, professed to hate. This turned out to be a smart move that kept them in business until 1987 — and Morrissey, as a solo artist, to this day. But I suspect the Smiths were only allowed to happen at all because, despite their enormous fame today, they were a very well-kept secret in the ’80s, barely troubling the British top 10 and effectively banned from daytime radio airplay.
The Smiths were semi-underground new wave, otherwise known as indie.
I’ve snobbishly held out against the sun-damaged charms of ITV’s package holiday sitcom Benidorm, set in the ‘all inclusive’ Hotel Solana, for several series. But the sixth one — which sadly this week pours the sand out of its shoes and packs its bags for another year — had me surrendering to it more legs akimbo than the Solanas’ Mrs Slocombe-esque manageress Joyce Temple-Savage for Matthew Kelly.
Created and written by Derren Litten (co-writer for The Catherine Tate Show), Benidorm is Carry On meets St Trinians meets Are You Being Served? meets Lady Windermere’s Suntan — and gets an ‘all-inclusive’ hangover and runny tummy. A proper character actor ensemble, rather than a vehicle for some jumped-up stand-up’s overweening ego, and with some lines that glisten like an obese Brit’s back in the Costa Del Sol noon-day sun, it’s very old-fashioned comedy — which is to say, actually funny instead of just sneery-cringey.
No wonder the critics hate it. (See also that other recent ITV comedy triumph Vicious.) Benidorm is tacky and trashy and stuck in the past but doesn’t mind who knows it, thank you very much.
Everyone is a caricature but instantly recognisable. Well, everyone is a caricature except for Kenneth Du Beke (Tony Maudsley) the overweight chain-smoking gay manager of the Solana’s salubrious hairdressing salon Blow ‘n’ Go who with his rather ‘young’ and ‘cheery’ styling was mistaken by Philip Olivier (aka ‘Tinhead’ from Brookside) for a children’s entertainer. He’s just documentary.
Tacky and trashy and trapped in the past it may be, but Benidorm is also often well-written and sharply observed. The whole of episode three (below) is quite brilliant and takes on a very contemporary subject — judgey gay assumptions about the relationship between masculinity and sexuality — that most ‘serious’ dramas wouldn’t dare.
The scene at 21:38 between loveable Liam Conroy (Adam Gillen) , the swishy Tenko and Dynasty fan and hairdresser who has fallen in love with a girl, and his narrow-minded tight-clothed gay boss who knows better and insists Liam is ‘really gay’ and is going to end up ‘living a lie’ deserves an Oscar:
Liam: “You need to learn to accept people for who they are! Just because I don’t fit into YOUR stereotype of how a man should be doesn’t give you permission to call me names! I am what I am and what I am [swings arm and pirouettes, badly] needs no excuses!!”
Likewise Benidorm is what it is and needs no excuses either. And as Liam’s cross-dressing dad Les/Lesley from Wearside would say: “Thank fook for that!”
Oh, and in case you think that Liam’s dilemma could only exist in a silly sitcom and never in real life — have a read of this heartfelt post by the young ballet dancer Chehon Wespi-Tschopp about the way too many gay men treat him because he doesn’t fit into their stereotype of how a man should be.
Mark Simpson on the motorway drivers we all love to hate
Statistically the safest roads to drive on, there’s nevertheless something about motorways that seems to bring out the very worst in drivers. Other drivers, that is. Never you or me, of course.
Some would argue it’s because there’s no motorway driving required in the UK driving test. But I think it’s because M-ways aren’t really anywhere. They’re a limbo-land of anonymous boredom where people’s darkest personality defects come out to play – magnified frighteningly by the horsepower they’re barely in charge of. A motorway is a three lane, high speed Rorschach test.
Here’s a list of some of those that fail it. Badly.
Everyone’s favourite M-way psycho, the tailgater is the driver who insists you admire their shiny BMW badge in your mirrors. Before you both meet a sudden, mangled, sticky end.
Responsible for the very worst motorway accidents by ingeniously turning the two second rule for the minimum safe distance into a two inch maximum one, on-the-spot fines of £100 and three penalty points were recently introduced to deter the tailgater (and also the lane-hogger). Though no one really expects them to work. Tailgaters live – and die – to tailgate. You just can’t put a price on sadism.
Diagnosis: Fuel-injected sociopath. With a penis smaller than the gap between your bumpers.
Overtakes you and then cuts you up, forcing you to slow down so as to maintain a safe distance. Hilariously, the bonnetgater will often actually decelerate after they’ve plonked themselves two inches in front of you. They’ve achieved their objective – making you taste their exhaust – so why waste fuel while picking their nose?
The worst thing about the bonnetgater isn’t their thoughtlessness towards other road users, who no longer exist once they’re no longer in the way. No, it’s because they turn you into an unconsensual tailgater. You’re on their bumper and you haven’t even been introduced.
Diagnosis: No sense of personal space. Or sense.
Decides that the minimum safe distance you’ve left between you and the car in front as you overtake traffic on the left is in fact reserved for them and overtakes you at 100 MPH — on the inside lane — to occupy it, while on the phone and eating a burger and smoking.
To get you in the mood, this charming manœuvre is usually preceded by a spot of especially aggressive tailgating and light flashing.
Diagnosis: Probably a former chairman of an ethical Bank.
The Brake-Light Flasher
Hasn’t worked out that if you drive properly on a motorway, leaving a safe distance, and actually looking through the rather useful device called ‘a windscreen’, the accelerator is of much more use – and much less bloody annoying for everyone else – than the brake pedal.
Diagnosis: They’re using morse code to spell out: ‘I-NEED-A-RETEST’
The Outside Lane Kamikazi
Literally cannot leave a motorway from any lane other than the outside one – braking as they swoop across three lanes because they’ve left it far, far too late. Not because they forgot their exit but because they have to overtake as many cars as they can before they leave the motorway OTHERWISETHEIRLIFEIS A TOTALFAILURE.
Diagnosis: A total failure
The Slip-Road Kamikaze
This is in fact the Outside Lane Kamikaze when they join the motorway. Instead of ‘giving priority to traffic already on the motorway’ and matching their speed ‘to fit safely into the traffic flow in the left hand lane’ as dictated by the Highway Code, they treat the slip road as an overtaking lane – or a pit-stop exit ramp.
Once again, they have to overtake as many cars as possible before swerving in front of you just before they run out of slip – and then finishing the manœuvre with a masterful swerve across two lanes into the outside lane, sans indicator, natch.
Diagnosis: Still a total failure
The Dozy Racer
Accelerates while you’re overtaking. Can be a deliberate tactic of boy racers showing off their torque, but more usually a sneaky application of the throttle by someone waking up to the horrifying fact there are other people on their motorway.
An annoying dilemma. If you refuse to rise to the bait and don’t accelerate, pulling in behind them instead, they’re bound to slow down and you’ll find yourself in the same situation again. But if you give in to temptation and accelerate you may then have to keep up the same excessive speed as you find yourself both locked in a battle of pretending that you’re not racing.
Diagnosis: Passive-aggressive nightmare. Probably your ex.
The Lorry Driver from Duel
Pulls out their eighteen wheel rig faster than it takes their indicator to flash once – while you’re just beginning to overtake. Will also sometimes tailgate you to pass the time, especially when you’re alone together in an average speed check contraflow at night, in the rain, dazzling you with headlights the size of your rear window. (Lorry drivers seem to know something the rest of us don’t about average speed cameras).
Diagnosis: Misunderstood gentle giants (PLEASE don’t tailgate me again!)
Passes the time by complaining endlessly about other motorway drivers and compiling whingeing lists of their failings – while hypocritically practising some of the very same outrages himself from time to time.
(A version of this article originally appeared on LeasePlan)
This classic Gay Liberation poster from 1975 by Alan Wakeman mocking mid-century heterosexist platitudes remains very funny indeed. It’s also still perhaps the best response to those — straight and gay — still seeking to find the ’cause’ of homosexuality.
Though obviously the ‘Cultural Deprivation’ balloon at the bottom is no longer true:
‘Heterosexual men… think themselves “ugly”, beauty being ascribed only to women. Many psychic disorders stem from this self-rejection.’
Three decades on, male heterosexuality has been pretty much phased out and replaced by metrosexuality — spectacularly abolishing the sexual division of looking and loveliness. Men nowadays clearly think themselves irresistible, thank you very much.
In fact, if it was drawn today this chart would be titled: ‘What Exactly Was Heterosexuality?’
The revolutionary, universal promise of Gay Liberation has been realised — at least in the bathroom and bedroom. By non-gay men as much if not more than gay ones.
Metrodaddy Mark Simpson was recently email interviewed by Beverly Parungao for a Sydney Morning Heraldpiece titled ‘Are Men Becoming Too Metrosexual?’ . Below are his unapologetic, uncircumcised replies.
BP: What is driving the metrosexual movement?
MS: Self-love – and a certain amount of self-loathing – is certainly a powerful dynamo.
But ultimately what we’re seeing here is nothing less than a revolution in masculinity in particular and gender relationships in general.
Metrosexuality isn’t about flip flops, facials or manscara, or about men becoming ‘girly’ or ‘gay’ – it’s about men becoming everything. Everything that they want to be.
Why are men today more concerned with their appearance?
Because they’re worth it. As advertising has told women for decades. Men make up c. 50% of the marketplace and need to pull their weight in the shopping mall if consumerism is to survive. They certainly seem to have upped their game rather a lot in the last decade or so.…
We’re also living in a culture in which women have enthusiastically taken on previously ‘male’ preserves – from drinking pints to joining the world of work to actually having orgasms. Men, especially younger men who’ve grown up with all this as the norm, have worked out that they too can now appropriate products, practises and pleasures once deemed ‘gay’ or ‘girly’ and therefore out of bounds. The much greater acceptance of gay people has also reduced the stigma associated with men stepping out of their stereotype.
Most of all, we’re living in a visual, looking-glass culture of selfies, Facebook, Twitter, reality TV and Men’s Health covers. Metrosexuality represents men’s adaptation to this new world order – men can’t just ‘act’ any more they have ‘appear’ too, to be looked at. To be noticed. To be a brand. To be wanted. Male vanity isn’t empty and indulgent – it’s a survival strategy.
In our shiny, highly reflective 21st Century the sexual division of looking has thoroughly broken down, and men now ache to ‘objectify’ themselves.
Even and especially sportsmen who used to be the embodiment of ‘blokes’ and ‘regular guys’ who were supposed to be only concerned, ‘at the end of the day’, with ‘the team’ and ‘doing their job’, have become glossy, inked, pneumatic sporno stars.
You might be forgiven for thinking a lad only plays football or rugby these days as a way of starring in those saucy ads for Armani underwear and those tarty rugby and rowing calendars.
Manscaping is one the rise, but so too is male cosmetic surgery (in Australia and America). Do you view this as trend as part of the metrosexual movement?
Absolutely. The male body, once the last frontier of consumerism, has been totally commodified. Masculinity has been thoroughly aestheticized. I would add to the trend for cosmetic surgery and manscaping man-bits the way that men uses tattoos to shade and emphasise their worked-out muscles. The male body has become a living work of art.
Ironically the total ubiquity of beards at the moment is proof of that. No longer a secondary sexual characteristic or badge of blokedom they’re just another sweet male accessory. Another way today’s chaps ask you to adore them.
Should women be concerned that the metrosexual male is now mainstream?
They should certainly get used to it!
Many women I know welcome the fact that men nowadays are not only better turned out, more worked-out, sensual creatures who are rather better in bed as a result – but also the fact they’re more independent. Self-maintaining. They might spend forever in the bathroom but they are much more likely to be able to operate a cooker or washing machine and even buy their own underwear. Which is an advantage in a job market where women might be working while their partner is not – and where men might be staying at home looking after the kids.
Though for some women, perhaps with more traditional ideas about sex roles and the ‘complementarity’ of the sexes, adjusting to the new metrosexual order could be difficult. But then, a lot of chauvinistic men had trouble adjusting to the changes brought about by women’s lib.
In their quest to be desired have men become too sexy, too feminised and therefore less desirable to women?
You should probably ask women about that.… Though women aren’t always completely truthful in their answer to that question. Quite a few assert that they find a man who spends longer than them in the bathroom – which probably means just as long as them – a total turn off. But then they go completely bananas over a guy who clearly spends hours in the bathroom and every evening in the gym. Trust me, men have noticed this discrepancy!
The only hope for heterosexuality is double ensuite bathrooms.